- Part Three of Starbreaker
- The lies we tell ourselves are the lies that define us. Morgan faces a trial for which no Adversary can prepare, and his friends won’t be able to save him this time. He must confront the lies that define him if he hopes to protect everything he values.
Table of Contents
For Catherine, purr usual. It certainly took me long enough to get this one going, didn’t it?
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 or criminal liability, personal injury, and premature death.
If you find any allegory or applicability in the following novel, please consult a qualified professional for psychiatric evaluation and treatment.
In which a swashbuckling soprano in mourning is offered a new hope, and a revenant turns his face from the truth…
Naomi had tuned out the cab driver’s chatter soon after settling into the plush leather seat and specifying her destination. It was a habit she normally tried to avoid; once a driver recognized her they tended to ask the same questions in the same order. It would have been easy to only half-listen and give canned responses to starstruck strangers, but she had decided to accept fame as a gift rather than a burden, and treat the people whose interest in her and her work as a musician made her life possible with actual courtesy.
It was hard to live up to that ideal tonight, she admitted to herself. She had put off this visit for months, but Claire had finally prevailed upon her to come to New York, order two bouquets of black-tipped scarlet roses and visit the Adversaries’ graveyard. “Even if Morgan is too dead to give a shit,” their friend Claire had said, “This isn’t about him. It’s about you. You need to acknowledge his death, pay your respects, mourn your loss, and move the hell on.”
The cab’s lights were all that held back the night as it slowed, leaning into a turn, and Naomi caught a glimpse of faded granite stones. Each marked the grave of one of Nationfall’s dead, the disposable heroes whose vain struggles only prolonged the collapse.
The hiss of tires on wet asphalt ceased. The mechanical back-and-forth of the windshield wipers halted. “We’re here, Ms. Bradleigh,” said the cabbie, who remained in his seat. “Are you sure it’s safe to be here alone, in the dark?”
“Thanks for caring, but I brought a light and my sword. I should be fine,” said Naomi as she counted out money for the fare, and included a generous tip. “Will you await my return?”
“Sure. Let me help you out.” The driver muttered what was most likely a curse in Yoruba as his head struck the doorframe. He was still rubbing it as he opened the door closest to Naomi and offered her his hand. Taking his leather-gloved hand in hers, she stepped out of the cab. She stretched, looked skyward, and wished the sky were clear.
Selene would have been full tonight, and her light combined with that of the stars would have been enough to guide Naomi now that New York had gone dark until the morning. Instead, the flashlight she had purchased for this visit would have to suffice.
Remembering the roses, Naomi turned back to the cab and found the driver waiting with a bouquet cradled in each arm. Taking one, she allowed him to place the other in her grasp. “Thanks again. I shan’t be long.”
The driver shrugged and pulled a cigarette case from his pocket. Naomi caught a whiff of cannabis as he selected a joint and fired it up. He wouldn’t be able to drive for at least an hour; the daemon monitoring him and the cab would refuse to so much as let the motor start. “Take as long as you like.”
I’d rather not be here at all. Naomi kept that to herself as she squared her shoulders and approached the entrance. Massive wrought iron gates three meters tall barred her way, the arch inscribed with a motto that her implant automatically translated from Latin to overlay in English: “You who prosper in peace and plenty, disturb not our well-earned rest.”
Unsure of how to request entry, Naomi thrust her flashlight into one of the pockets of her burgundy wool overcoat and reached for the latch.
A text message from the daemon overseeing the cemetery appeared in Naomi’s overlay. «Cemetery visiting hours are 08:00 to 20:00. Return tomorrow morning.»
Naomi bared her teeth, even though the daemon was not there to see her display of wrath. «I am Naomi Bradleigh, Adversary Emeritus and still sworn to the Phoenix Society’s service. Who are you to order me about?»
«You may call me Cerberus, Adversary Emeritus.»
That figured. It seemed to Naomi that every daemon set to manage a cemetery took the name of a god or monster associated with the various underworlds. «I came to pay my respects to fallen comrades. Must I disturb Malkuth to tell him you’re being a bad dog?»
«But I’m a good dog. A good dog.»
«Prove it, please. Let me in, so that I can visit my dead discreetly and not have paparazzi baying at my heels.»
A whir of machinery broke the silence, followed by the clicks of locks disengaging. Naomi reached for one of the gates, sure she would have to put her back into opening. She was sure the gate would creak and scream for lack of oil. Instead, the gate receded at her touch, silently opening inward as if the hinges had been oiled before the caretakers went home for the night.
Granite stones in rank and file shaded by trees on the verge of bursting into leaf stood sentry on either side of the brick-paved path Naomi followed. Lesser, narrower paths branched off at intervals, but Naomi ignored those. A map appeared in her overlay, showing her current position and providing guidance to the inner necropolis where Adversaries who had served honorably were buried regardless of how they died.
Even if she had lacked the technology to follow a map drawn by a tiny computer implanted in her head, Naomi would have had no trouble finding her destination. A lone flame flickered in the distance, visible through the tree branches. Passing a breach in a stone wall that separated Nationfall’s dead from the much smaller plot dedicated to the repose of the Phoenix Society’s sworn swords, Naomi stood before another gate.
This one bore a shorter but more ominous Latin motto: Mors Omnibus Tyrannis. As before, Naomi’s implant provided a translation in the overlay, but she didn’t need it. Despite the emphasis on due process, “death to all tyrants” was the Adversaries’ purpose.
Naomi passed the gate as it opened before her and checked her surroundings. She was definitely in the Adversaries’ graveyard now; the headstones were all basalt rather than granite, and devoid of any hint of religious symbolism. Whatever faith they had held in life was irrelevant; whether they had fallen in the line of duty or not they had dedicated themselves not to their chosen gods, but to the ideals of liberty, equity, and justice for all. As such, every stone bore the sword, serpent, and scales emblematic of the Civil Liberties Defense Corps. In place of an epitaph, every grave bore the same Latin motto Naomi had seen over the gate.
Naomi turned off the miniature map in her overlay. The flame was closer now, her path to it direct. Within minutes she stood before a massive granite pedestal. A heroically proportioned male figure hewn from basalt reclined against a mountain crag, nude save for broken manacles and leg irons. He crushed a dead eagle underfoot, and in the palm of his upraised left hand an eternal flame burned. Naomi had not needed to read the inscription or translate it from Latin to recognize the figure or the allegory in marble before her. Here stood Prometheus, the unconquered lightbringer, watching over those who had given at least a part of their lives to the liberation of their fellows.
Approaching the pedestal, Naomi placed one of the bouquets before the massive foot Prometheus was not using to trample symbolic raptors, retreated, and kneeled as if to pray. “For my fallen comrades,” she whispered. She remained kneeling for several minutes, but held the humanist titan’s stony, unseeing gaze.
It was one thing to kneel out of respect for her fellow Adversaries, but Naomi would not do so with eyes downcast as if the sculpture erected in their honor represented a god. What would Morgan think if he saw me cowering before a mere statue of a god?
The statue winked at Naomi. Before she could dismiss it as her imagination or a trick of the light, its igneus jaw opened to speak. “Such a brave little demifiend to glare at me with such defiance in your eyes.”
Half sure she had finally gone round the bend, Naomi left her roses on the ground as she rose to her feet. “I was just thinking that if you really were Prometheus and not a figment of my imagination you’d appreciate a bit of sass.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m as real as the stone over your toyboy’s grave. He died for nothing, you know.”
Maybe he did, but I’ll be damned if I’ll forgive this arsehole for saying so. A distorted bass hum set Naomi’s teeth on edge as she drew her sword. A crystalline gray blade whose black veins pulsed with tenebrous light caught the firelight and drank it in. She raised the blade so that its tip pointed toward the statue’s face despite her sudden and urgent longing to drop the loathsome weapon and flee. “Why don’t you come down here so I can kill you?”
“What’s this? Another false Starbreaker?” The blade itself snarled as if insulted, but the statue continued. “No, not a false one this time. You know, little demifiend, Morgan might actually have killed me if you had trusted him with your little secret.”
Naomi’s vision blurred as the realization struck home, and despite herself she struggled to find the words to explain what had really happened. Before she could, the statue added, “Perhaps you never truly loved him. Ah! Could that be the truth, that rather than loving him you loved the idea of him loving you?”
“That is quite enough,” said Naomi. Springing onto the pedestal, she thrust her sword into the basaltic breast of the idol through which the presence taunting her spoke. Cracks radiated through the stone from the point of impact as the weapon’s bass hum intensified.
“Go and pay your respects,” said the statue, though it had lost its lower jaw. “I will reunite you with your lover soon.”
“Wait. What do you mean?” Naomi suspected the statue’s last words were a threat, but craved confirmation. Before she could withdraw the weapon, the statue crumbled into glittering dust. Covering her nose and mouth to avoid inhaling the dust that had once been a statue hewn from volcanic rock, Naomi sprang back while remaining on guard. The voice that had spoke through the statue spoke no more.
Instead, Cerberus cut in on a restored connection whose interruption Naomi had not noticed. «I didn’t let you in here so you could wreck priceless statuary and pick fights! Bad human!»
Life had been easy for Annelise Copeland since giving up her stage name and her career in music. While Isaac no longer came to her and played her body with greater virtuosity than she ever brought to the violin — or gave her that drug by the name of World Without End that heightened her sensitivity until the slightest breath upon her skin threatened to set her off — he had delivered on everything he had promised Annelise when he first asked her to leave her life behind and become an actor in history.
She had never had to worry about money. People bought the clothes she designed and wore them in public. Her little boutique in Brooklyn enjoyed exactly the sort of discreet prosperity Annelise had come to crave, and she no longer missed being a wizard’s lover and spy. She had been glad to leave all of the weirdness behind.
Naturally, thought Annelise as she woke from a nightmare of flames and voices in the sky that still occasionally recurred months after that futbol match in Tikal, the weirdness just had to come and find me again.
Giving up on sleep, Annelise wrapped herself in a cotton robe. Navigating mostly by feel, she padded into the kitchen before turning on a light to make coffee.
The screen mounted by the stove flashed an “incoming call” message, and Annelise considered telling the building’s daemon to dismiss it. Instead, she asked, “Who would dare call me at one in the morning?”
The daemon replied over the speaker in a soft, masculine voice because Annelise had gotten her implant removed as soon as she had left Isaac Magnin’s service. “Ms. Copeland, it’s Isaac Magnin from the AsgarTech Corp—”
“I know who Isaac Magnin is. Put him on.”
“I would wish bid you a good evening, Annelise, but I suspect it has not been for you. Did I wake you, my dear?”
He ignores me for months, but now it’s ‘my dear’? Not likely. A glance at the screen showed Magnin in his usual double-breasted white suit, wearing a pair of sapphire cufflinks she had given him as a Winter Solstice gift. “You didn’t wake me, but I’m not in the mood for diamonds and rust right now.”
Magnin shook his head, and a small, sad smile Annelise could not recall ever having seen before curved his lips. “You resent my absence, then? I’m sorry; I had thought that you’d want some time on your own to remember how to be yourself again and happy.”
“I needed the time,” said Annelise, and her voice slipped the leash, “But I missed you too.”
“We can’t be what we were before.”
“But I have nobody else with whom I can talk about the last decade of my life.”
Now Magnin’s smile took a wry turn. “I might be able to fix that, but you should be careful what you wish for. I need you to accompany me on a late night graveyard visit. I suspect Naomi will be there soon, finally paying her respects at Morgan’s grave, and I need to speak with her. Having you there with me might keep her from drawing her sword long enough to actually listen to me.”
“What if I’d prefer not to?”
“Then I can bring your understudy,” Annelise shuddered at the mention of the artificial being who had taken on her identity so she could escape the life she built in Magnin’s service, “but it might be better for everybody involved if you came.”
After a long moment, Annelise made her decision. “Can you pick me up?”
“A limousine awaits. Come down when you’re ready.”
An hour later, Annelise followed Isaac down the paths of a cemetary to which she had once been denied entry on account of her civilian status. The ordinary soldiers’ headstones had unsettled her because of their sheer number, but it was the Adversaries’ stones that sent dread worming through her guts. Though she lacked any notion of what the mottos enscribed on the basaltic grave markers meant, she doubted it was anything uplifting about awaiting one’s friends and families in a better world than this one.
Lost in such thoughts, she walked into Isaac’s left arm as she raised it to bar her way. “What’s wrong?”
Without waiting for an answer, Annelise looked ahead to find a basalt statue of a Greek god holding an eternal flame, and a tall, snow-blonde woman standing before it with a naked sword in her hand. “Look. Naomi’s just up ahead.”
At least, Annelise thought it was Naomi. She knew few other women as tall as the soprano with whom she had worked in a former life, and she recognized the cut of the other woman’s burgundy wool overcoat as being her own design. However, she did not recognize the sword she held. “That is Naomi, isn’t it?”
Isaac nodded. “Yes, but somebody else is there with her. Somebody inhuman. Stand back, please.”
As Annelise complied, Naomi sprang upon the pedestal and thrust her strange gray sword into the statue’s breast. Its jawbone unhinged and fell before the rest of the statue crumbled into dust. Naomi sprang backward, and Isaac chuckled.
“What’s so funny?”
Isaac glanced at Annelise. “I never cared for that sculpture. I always thought the artist was pussyfooting, trying for an inoffensive compromise, but the unconquered lightbringer is not Prometheus. Prometheus submitted to Zeus and accepted his punishment.”
Not knowing what Isaac Magnin was going on about was nothing new for Annelise, so she accepted that this was one of those conversations and tried to go along with it. “Then who is the unconquered lightbringer?”
Rather than answer, Isaac waited for Naomi to leave before snapping his fingers. The dust whirled as if lifted by a breeze, but did not disperse. Instead, the dust coalesced into a statue of an angel with broken wings staring silent defiance at the heavens with eyes of fire. Annelise gazed upon the statue, and thought she recognized it. “Is that Morgan?”
“No, but close enough. Come along. Naomi won’t be far off.”
After enduring a lecture on the respect due the dead from Cerberus, Naomi followed the daemon’s guidance deeper into the Adversaries’ graveyard to find a plot set apart from the others by a circle of carpet roses. Two newly planted saplings flanked a hunk of basalt thrice the size of other Adversaries’ grave markers, and bore the following inscription.
Below this, the memorialist responsible for this stone had carved the majority of the Crowley’s Thoth discography. It began with the first album Morgan and Naomi had written together, Prometheus Unbound, and ended with their most recent rock opera The Stars My Destination.
The grass in front of the grave was littered with bouquets of flowers whose scent fought a desperate rearguard action against the reek of cheap whiskey somebody had poured out on the ground. Somebody had left an autographed copy of the long out-of-print Prometheus Hits the Road double live album, as if Morgan might have needed it.
“You bastard. You just had to play the hero.” Salt burned Naomi’s eyes in a flash flood of tears, and she dropped the roses she had meant to place before Morgan’s grave. “I kept saying it would get you killed someday.”
“That might have been what he wanted,” said a once-familiar voice Naomi had never expected to hear again. She turned to face a slim brunette in an open midnight blue wool overcoat over a navy suit. Poised on spike heels, she was almost as tall as Naomi, and though she taken on the drawn, haggard aspect Naomi recognized in herself after too many sleepless nights and too little to eat, there was no mistaking her gray-eyed arrogance or the band of orange streaking one of her eyes. “No doubt that was partially my fault.”
Rage set Naomi ablaze, and her hand was on the hilt of her sword before reason could assert itself and remind Naomi that the other woman was unarmed. “Christabel? Is that you, or another hallucination?”
The other woman took a step forward. “Of course it’s me, Naomi, but please call me Annelise. When did you take up the sword?”
“At least a decade too late. Would that I had had a blade handy when I first saw you sniffing around Morgan.”
“I suppose you’re right to detest me,” said Annelise, “How much did he learn?”
“He learned enough,” said Naomi, her eyes narrowing as a snow-blond man in a white double-breasted suit approached. Naomi recognized him, and knew him for what he was. Though as tall and gracile as a European fashion model, a cruel and calculating power lay behind the dandy’s mask, a power born of a bitter heart that bides its time and bites.
The dandy glanced at Annelise, “Unfortunately, ladies, I must ask that you continue your reunion in my limousine.”
Though he wore no sword, Naomi drew hers. Motioning for Annelise to get behind her, she placed herself squarely in the pale man’s path. “Leave her alone, Imaginos.”
“I have done her no harm, nor do I intend any. This I would swear by the Styx, if such oaths carry any weight with you. All I ask is that you come with me, Naomi. Morgan needs you.”
He’s finally awake. Though it meant that Josefine Malmgren’s efforts had proved successful, the thought brought no flush of pride. Instead of the triumphant sense of accomplishment that Isaac Magnin and John Desdinova had promised her, there was only the fear of having made a terrible mistake churning in the pit of her stomach and the taste of acid creeping up the back of her throat. Though the man beyond the door looming before Josefine had been friendly to her, she could not help but suspect that he would be less kindly toward her once he learned that her work had been instrumental in returning him from the dead.
The door swung open at Josefine’s touch as if it weighed nothing, revealing a dark man with a lithe build and long black hair lying in a hospital bed. “Excuse me, Adversary,” said Josefine after clearing her throat.
He opened his eyes, and appraised her at a glance that reminded Josefine of a cat sizing up possible prey. “Good evening, doctor—”
“Malmgren, Josefine Malmgren.” She cringed at how easily the formulaic introduction slipped off her tongue. “We’ve met before, though you might not remember.”
Morgan nodded. “Are you my attending physician?”
“I’m not that kind of doctor,” said Josefine, her tone as firm as she could manage. “Do you know where you are?”
Rather than answer immediately, Morgan got out of bed. Before she could protest, he turned his back on her and indulged in a spine-crackling stretch that rendered every muscle in his back, bottom, and legs in sharp relief. “Would you mind telling me where I am, and what sort of doctor you are if not a physician? When was I injured, and how long was I out?”
Josefine braced herself as if she expected to have to take a punch, and drew in a deep breath. “You’re in the AsgarTech Spire, in the Asura Emulator Project’s R&D Lab. My doctorate is in biomechanical engineering, though I’ve considerable background in artificial psychology.”
Morgan glanced at Josefine over his shoulder. “It seems you know what I am.”
Here’s a delicate situation if ever there was one. If Josefine’s friend Claire had been here, she would have warned Josefine to phrase her response with exacting care lest she upset Morgan and risk permanently alienating him. Instead, Magnin and Desdinova had made a point of advising her to handle Morgan’s ego gently. However, Morgan had not been the first asura emulator for whom Josefine had had to play Whisperer. But Polaris had been more volatile. At least I know what Morgan wants to hear.
Forcing herself to wear just the right sort of smile, Josefine answered Morgan. “I know exactly what you are. You’re a man, though human by choice rather than by origin.”
Morgan remained silent for a moment before speaking. “Are you afraid of me, doctor?”
“No,” she lied. “All right, just a little. Maybe I watched too many bad horror movies with Claire, but I keep worrying that you may have come back wrong.”
“I think you had better explain exactly what has happened to me,” said Morgan. “But first, some clothes. After that, perhaps we could get something to eat? Unless your professional ethics forbid it, of course.”
An hour later, Josefine found herself wishing Claire was here to see Morgan wearing jeans and a polo shirt emblazoned with the AsgarTech Corporation’s rainbow bridge logo and slogan—”Building Bridges to Our Future”—as he sauntered over to their table carrying a tray laden with food in each hand. For Josefine, it just seemed strange to see Morgan dressed as if he worked here, though she suspected Claire would capitalize on the unfortunate fact that Morgan’s shirt was a size too small and thus clung to him as if airbrushed onto his skin.
The scent of spices preceded Morgan, making Josefine’s stomach rumble as if reminding her that it had been entirely too long since she last ate. “They still had some jambalaya left?”
Morgan placed a tray with two heaping dishes and an oversized mug of coffee before her. “The staff seem to know you. The cook made a point of putting together a fresh batch as soon as I told them I was with you.”
Her eyes watered, and Josefine found herself glad she could blame the spices. “I’m lucky they look out for me. I get so wrapped up in my work sometimes that I forget to eat. Is it ever like that for you in the studio?”
Morgan speared a chunk of sausage and thoughtfully chewed for a long moment before answering. “Sometimes, but I think it’s fair to say I was built to withstand a fast better than you can. That was part of the work your predecessors here did, was it not?”
“You don’t think I did it?”
“Dr. Malmgren, I am at least thirty years old. You would have had to have been an infant prodigy, or far better at looking after yourself than you would have me believe.”
“It seems your reasoning capabilities are undiminished,” said Josefine as Morgan pulled at his collar. “I’m sorry they didn’t have your size. I suppose you’d prefer a Crowley’s Thoth t-shirt in any event.”
“Wear my own band’s t-shirt?” To Josefine’s surprise, Morgan actually seemed appalled by the notion. He leaned forward, gesturing with his spoon. “It’s obvious you’re not a metalhead, doctor. No musician wears their own band’s t-shirt, especially if they’re headlining. Instead, you wear another band’s—preferably the warm-up act, to support ‘em.”
Now it was Josefine’s turn to blush. “I only began listening to metal because I had started reading Eddie Van Helsing, and didn’t get any of the references.”
“Seriously?” Morgan shook his head. “That damned manga has been a pain in my ass ever since its first issue.”
“It’s fun. I love the way Charlotte and Natalie keep Eddie in his place. And the shows seem so awesome—as long as there aren’t any vampires in the crowd.”
That got a smile from him. “Yeah, there’s nothing like a good concert. Ever been to one?”
“Not yet. I was saving my Crowley’s Thoth t-shirt for your next tour, but—” Josefine caught herself. “Shit. I’m sorry.”
Morgan shook his head, and busied himself with his meal for a while. When his plate was half empty he said, “Only the really hardcore fans wear t-shirts for the band they’re going to see.”
“Is that another one of those things I don’t know because I’m not a real metalhead?”
“I shouldn’t have said that, and I apologize. Everybody starts somewhere.”
“Where did you start?”
Morgan shifted in his seat. “This is a little embarrassing. The first band I ever got into was Alcatrazz. I had this worn-out copy of No Parole from Rock ‘n Roll —”
“That sounds like something the author of Eddie Van Helsing would have made up.”
“I know, but it’s the devil’s honest truth. I played that album constantly. It was the only one I had, and I didn’t know any better. What was your first album as a little girl?”
“Do you really want to know?” said Josefine, hoping Morgan would admit that he had only asked for politeness’ sake, saving her the embarrassment of admitting that she had never cared enough about music to buy albums. Though I should be glad he’s capable of having a friendly conversation. It might make it easier for me to explain his condition if we’ve got rapport.
Morgan leaned forward. “I would not have asked unless I was curious.”
Just make something up. He’s obviously a hipster, so come up with something old and obscure. Using her implant, Josefine skimmed through the last hundred of so songs she had streamed while working until she found something that dated more than a decade before Nationfall? “Ever hear of an album called Purple Rain?
Morgan’s eyes widened, “You mean the Prince and the Revolution album from 1984?”
Josefine nodded. “Yes. You’ve heard of it, right?”
Morgan flashed a smile that lit up his face. “I’ve got a copy on vinyl at home,” he said before leaning forward and lowering his voice, “I had not figured you as the album-collecting type. Did you go looking for an album to name-drop just to impress me?”
“Yeah.” Josefine looked at her plate and pushed around the remnants of her jambalaya. “Was it so obvious that I was lying?”
Morgan sat back. “It isn’t something I like to talk about because it’s just another quality that sets me apart, but as soon as you used your implant I could see it. I must concentrate or my vision extends from the resonance of electrons into the near ultraviolet. If my concentration had not lapsed, I might not have seen you reach out to the network with your implant. If not for that, I might not have realized you were trying to bullshit me to keep the conversation going.”
“If I were trying to bullshit you,” said Josefine, “It was not to keep the conversation going. As for your explanation of your capabilities: try telling me something I didn’t already know.”
Morgan held her gaze. “You first. Where’s Naomi Bradleigh? How badly is she hurt? She was driving the car when whatever happened to me happened.”
He really is deluding himself. “I’ll get that informaton for you, but I need you to understand something first. You weren’t in an auto crash. You were not in a coma. You were dead, and your psyche had to be restored from backup into a new body.”
“Prove it,” said Morgan, his voice
Last updated: 30 May 2018