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This is a prequel of sorts to Without Bloodshed that I wrote after that novel. Because Curiosity Quills Press currently holds publication rights, I’m only providing part 1, “The Geographic Cure”, here.

If you like it, please buy the rest.

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. Likewise for places and events.

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. Do not attempt them in real life.

If you find any allegory or applicability in this text, please consult a qualified professional for psychiatric evaluation and treatment.

Author's Note

This novel contains not only spoken dialogue but dialogue transmitted over text messaging. To distinguish the two, I use French quotation marks for the latter instead of standard quotation marks, so that a text message will look like this: «This is text dialogue.»

Silent Clarion previously appeared as a web serial hosted by Curiosity Quills Press. The novel also appeared as a Kindle Serial under the following titles:

  • Silent Clarion, Episode 1: “The Geographic Cure”
  • Silent Clarion, Episode 2: “Always the Quiet Ones”
  • Silent Clarion, Episode 3: “Life is Short and Love is Over”
  • Silent Clarion, Episode 4: “Death in a Northern Town”
  • Silent Clarion, Episode 5: “Hard Places and Other Rocks”
  • Silent Clarion, Episode 6: “Rainchecks for Ragnarok”

Dedication

For Catherine, purr usual. Thanks for hitting me upside the head every time I don’t quite get the character right.

Part I: The Geographic Cure

Many of my colleagues insist that moving after a significant life change, or even taking a vacation, is just a “geographic cure.” They think it’s an attempt on the patient’s part at fleeing trauma. Their wariness is understandable, given that many of their patients came to them after their problems caught up with them.

Despite the experience of my fellow psychotherapists, I disagree. I think that consciously and intentionally seeking physical distance from an event can help a person regain perspective on challenging emotional experiences. s

From a Safer Distance by Dr. Nikki Hooks, MD, Ph.D

Track 01: Nemesea: "No More"

London can be a cruel city, and my duties as an Adversary often demanded I face it at its coldest. Not that it bothered me. It only made my nights hotter by comparison.

I expected to find John asleep after finishing my shower. Being in his last year of residency at an Ohrmazd Medical Group hospital, he often dozed after loving me. I wholeheartedly encouraged this tendency. Tired people err, and in our lines of work, errors cost lives.

Instead, I found him stretched across the bed naked, reading a medical journal. I sat on the edge of the bed and dragged my fingertip down his spine to make him shiver.

He rolled over and smiled up at me. “What were you singing in there, Naomi?”

Did you like it? It’s a song by a gnostic metal band I recently discovered called Lucifer Invictus. Catchy as hell. I saw them perform with Seiten Taisei last week.” Since I had finally prevailed upon him to come to my flat after our date, I grabbed the record instead of just pulling up a digital recording. I wasn’t about to bring vinyl to the hotels John often picked for our trysts since that also required dragging the player along.

We listened together as I dried my hair. John took a comb and worked out the tangles for me. He was less patient than I, but would stop and kiss my ears before the pain became too much and I told him to sod off.

When he had finished, I pushed him down on his back and settled beside him, my arm draped over his chest. I rested my head on his shoulder and studied him. His face was angular, and his default expression pensive. “Did you have a complicated surgery today?”

John shifted beneath me and pressed his thin lips against mine. Their softness always surprised me. “No. I have four days off because of the hours I worked over the last month.”

He kissed me, his fingertips tracing random patterns on my skin, but it was too soon for me to take him again. At thirty, he no longer possessed the rampant hunger of men my age. I never minded, though I daresay my foster mother had other things in mind when she taught me to value quality over quantity.

Our affair sparked a little scandal at its start. I grew up in a foster family, with no record of my actual parentage. Leaving home at fourteen to study music in New York while also attending Adversary Candidate School was simply not done in John’s circles. Furthermore, I lived in indentured servitude; the Phoenix Society agreed to finance my musical education as long as I performed a minimum of two years of service as an Adversary once I completed my training.

John came from one of the few wealthy, aristocratic families to survive Nationfall. I suspect many of his circle thought me a fortune hunter, though only one dared say so to my face. Were I not an officer of the Phoenix Society, I would have rewarded his cousin’s insult by letting him choose the terms of our duel.

Instead of pressing John to talk, I found pleasure in his embrace. I tasted him. His skin was still salty-sweet from his prior efforts on my behalf.

He sighed beneath me. “Do you love me, Naomi?”

Every man I ever dated eventually asked this question, or credited me with making them be the first to profess their love. I enjoyed John’s company. He was intelligent, serious, and frequently witty. He did useful, meaningful work. I loved his hands and mouth on me.

But he never swept me off my feet as if we were the leads in an epic romance. I met him in the course of my duties and decided after fifteen minutes of conversation that if he were willing, I would take him for a lover. I began our affair expecting it to run its course.

I kissed him. “I suppose we’re due for this conversation after a year together. Is that what’s keeping you awake?”

I meant it part in jest, but his expression hardened. “I’m serious, Naomi. I need to know how you feel about me.”

Has your family started giving you grief about me again?”

John nodded and shifted as if he meant to sit up. I stood, poured the last of the champagne, and gave him the glass containing more. He drained it and sat staring at it for a long moment.

How much do you know about my family?”

While I picked up a fair amount over pillow talk, further research into John’s family seemed pointless since I had no desire to marry into it. Using my implant, I searched the network for publicly available information. “You come from the peerage. Your father would have held a title of some sort under the old regime, and a seat in the House of Lords.”

John nodded. “Did you know this before we got involved?”

You told me most of it in bed. Has that cousin of yours been slandering me again?”

It’s not my arsehole cousin, Naomi.” John looked away for a moment, as if ashamed. “It’s the whole family. I’m a firstborn son.”

So, you’re thinking about having children?”

I have a duty, and my family has the mother picked out for me. I met her this morning.”

I put aside my glass and slipped into a fresh pair of panties and a camisole. The cool silk made me shiver a little as it slid over my skin.

Most of my previous lovers had a thing for catgirls, especially if they were pale, snow-blonde, and had red eyes. They had no interest in marriage or parenthood, which suited me thus far. Unlike John, I have congenital pseudofeline morphological disorder and possess certain feline characteristics. Fortunately a tail isn’t one of them. “John, I know it’s outside your specialty, but have you ever heard of couples like us having children?”

He shook his head. “No.” He paused as if to collect his thoughts. “Look, Naomi, I wanted to know how you felt about me so I could figure out how to explain this. I never mentioned children before because I thought our age difference would make our relationship a temporary thing.”

I’m only ten years your junior.”

I thought you’d get bored with me and meet somebody your age, but you stuck around. And I stuck with you. But my family needs me to marry a young lady from a family with whom we frequently do business. It would unite our holdings and make our business ventures stronger, in addition to continuing our line into the future.”

I closed my eyes for a moment and strangled the urge to fly to John and beg him to defy his family for my sake. I never wanted a permanent relationship, but I had always been the one to end it. Welcome to how the other half feels, I suppose. “This isn’t how I wanted us to part.”

John smiled at me. “Who says it has to end?”

You’re going to marry someone with whom you can have children, John. Of course, we have to say goodbye.”

Not if you want to be my mistress.”

I suppose some people might have jumped at the opportunity to be kept in style by a lover who cherished them enough to transgress the expectations of fidelity society places upon married people. I can’t condemn them. Despite that, I would not join their ranks for John’s sake. My voice sharpened. “Am I supposed to be flattered?”

You’re angry with me.”

I assume you haven’t been with her yet, so you’re plotting to cheat on a woman you don’t know and haven’t even touched.”

John must have found something intriguing on my floor because he had stopped looking at me. “I spent the morning with her before I agreed to marry her. She wasn’t as good as you.”

But she’s good enough to serve as breeding stock?” I gave my sword a longing glance, for I wanted nothing more than just cause to run him through. Learning he cheated on me with his bride-to-be wasn’t quite enough. “Get dressed. Get out of my flat. If you ever speak to me again, you’ll be the last of your line.”

Once John was gone, I shoved myself into workout clothes, grabbed a practice sword, and fled to Valkyrie Gym. It was always open, and any man there understood that their presence was tolerated on the condition that they deferred to women. Therefore, there was nothing wrong with my interrupting a man finishing a set of deadlifts and asking him to spot me. Nor was there any harm in my taking inordinate pleasure in shooting him down after impressing him with my strength or in heading upstairs to the dojo and taking on the half-dozen students working on their swordplay.

Staying until I had finished taking out my hurt and humiliation on those poor bastards, I texted my parents on the way home. Since they thought I was getting serious about John, it was a good idea to tell them I had dumped the bastard. Once home, I curled up on the couch alone save for my regret at how I had mishandled my anger and held my sword close like one of my old cuddle toys.

This was hardly the manner in which I wanted to spend my first anniversary, but it had been fine until he opened his mouth. Maybe John’s fiancée would cheat on him at the first post-nuptial opportunity and give him crabs. I smiled at the notion and snuggled into my pillow.

Track 02: Anthrax - "I Am The Law"

I woke up rested. Determined to make a fresh start, I changed my bedding and opened all of the windows in my flat to exorcise John’s scent. Once that was done, I set a small pot of coffee to brewing and fixed a breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon.

One of the building’s resident cats took advantage of the open windows to come visit. Winston wound about my legs and purred as I ate, hoping for a fatty scrap from my bacon or a bit of egg. When I was finished, I let him lick the plate as I scratched behind his ears and along his back.

I missed having a cat of my own, but my responsibilities precluded pets at the moment. A mission might keep me from home for days at a time without notice, and I felt uncomfortable asking one of my neighbors to watch over a cat for me when I could not be relied upon to reciprocate.

Once Winston had finished, I retrieved the plate and set about cleaning up after myself. Winston did the same, washing himself with long, contented licks. My understanding of the importance of keeping my kitchen clean came the hard way. An extended mission could turn a dirty sink into a science experiment.

While I cleaned, I checked the messages on my implant and deleted one from John without reading it. I then adjusted the filter settings to block all further contact between us. It wasn’t personal; it was SOP whenever I broke up with somebody. If John’s message had been an entreaty begging me to take him back, I might have weakened and granted his request. Worse, I might have drunk-dialed the son of a bitch and told him to tell his wife he needed to work late. Worst of all, we might have tried to continue as friends.

Perhaps I was a complete bitch for severing all contact with former lovers, but I didn’t give a damn. I was looking out for myself because I couldn’t count on anybody else to do it on my behalf.

My friend Jacqueline seemed to have mastered the trick of remaining friends with her exes. It occurred to me, as it often did after a breakup, that I should ask her for pointers. God knows I gave her plenty of help with her swordplay. Fellow Adversaries and all that.

Speaking of whom, the most recent message in my queue was Jackie’s. She must have sent it while I was eating, but the subject didn’t suggest it was especially urgent. I read my mother’s message first. John had called my parents last night and asked them to appeal on his behalf. They told him, and I quote, to “stop being such a manipulative little prat and fuck off.”

I’m not nearly as good a daughter to them as they’ve been parents to me. They didn’t let the fact of my being a foster child stop them from loving me as their own, but the knowledge that they were not my ‘real’ parents always drove me to keep a certain distance. Regardless, this deserved a proper call, not just a text message.

My mother must have expected me to call early. “Did you want to talk about John?”

Not really. I wanted to thank you for the way you handled him last night.”

You’ll find the right person someday.”

I rolled my eyes at the sentiment. My parents were romantics, especially Mum. She wanted me to have the love she experienced. Maybe I would, someday, but you’ll pardon my cynicism if I harbored the suspicion my parents weren’t untouched innocents when they met. “How is everybody? Is Nathan still seeing that rugby player? Charlotte, right?”

Oh, they’re so happy together! Why not come and visit? We haven’t seen you since you took the oath.” Mum lowered her voice. “Howell worries about you. I keep telling him you’ll thrive on your own, but you know how he is.”

I couldn’t help but laugh a little. Because of a medical condition so rare my father was only the hundredth person known to exhibit it, he could only father sons. His inability to produce sperm with X chromosomes would have made him the envy of kings throughout history. Unfortunately, he wanted a daughter or two. They fostered me, hoping for a princess, and got an Amazon. “I’ll visit soon. I’m overdue for time off.”

Really? You mean it, Nims?”

I meant it. Some time off would do me good, and the company would keep me from getting too lonely. “Of course, Mum. I’ll call again once I’ve made the arrangements, but I have to report in soon.”

Since chatting with my mum left little time to get to the office and I had showered at the gym, I threw on my uniform, grabbed my weapons, and ran to catch the next train. Rather than do anything fancy with my hair I just braided it into a tight cable while riding the Tube. Pulling my hair back exposed my ears, but unless I wore sunglasses all the time like a Hollywood Vampire, my kitty eyes were hard to miss.

Jacqueline was there to meet me when I got off at Victoria Station. “Oi! Nims! Didn’t you get my message?”

I ran up the stairs and accepted a quick hug. “Sorry. I meant to check it after I called my mother, but the time got away from me.”

No worries. I just wanted to tell you we got a job over in the East End. Bloody good thing Malkuth knew where you were.”

Jacqueline and I had been to the East End before. I suggested the most likely recipient of our attentions based on prior experience. “MEPOL?”

Yeah. Religious discrimination instead of racism this time.”

I shook my head and suspected we’d eventually resort to purging MEPOL’s ranks. The Phoenix Society couldn’t tolerate the existence of city police who used their religious beliefs or racial prejudices as an excuse to abuse their authority. “Have we met the accused before?”

Nah.” Jacqueline grabbed a doughnut from a stand as we walked to the train that would take us to the East End. She offered me half, but I politely refused. I’m not diabetic, but being CPMD+ makes eating sugary treats other than small quantities of fruit a bad idea. I usually spent the day after my birthday sick, because it would break Mum’s heart if I told her she couldn’t make one of her cakes for me like she does for my brothers.

Jacqueline continued to talk around a mouthful of doughnut. “MEPOL booted the last set of arseholes. This is a fresh batch. They’ve got shiny new badges, and they’re convinced that since monotheists used to persecute everybody else, and allegedly caused Nationfall to boot, they need to be kept in their place.”

Wonderful.” I sighed, disappointed that my first task today would prove so mundane. “I guess nobody thought to mention that turnabout ceases to be fair play once you put on the uniform. What level of force is authorized?” I wore my sword and pistol, but I didn’t want to dirty my blade on a few bullies.

Less-than-lethal, and only in self-defense.” Jacqueline huffed. “Though getting some rebar and going all Vlad Tepes on their asses would certainly send a message.”

I imagined a few dozen policemen impaled on four-meter lengths of rebar and left for scavengers to pick over. For a moment I could see it, as real as day, and I shuddered. “I’m not convinced that’s a message we want to send.”

We strode into the MEPOL precinct as if we owned the place. Jacqueline hung back a bit, her hand on her sword. The desk sergeant looked up from his terminal, and his face fell. “Fuck me. It’s you lot again.”

Did you miss us?” I leaned over his desk. “I’m no happier to be here than you are to see me. I forwarded a list of names to you. Have you gathered them?”

The desk sergeant nodded. “Yes, Adversary, but the Chief Inspector isn’t happy.”

Excellent,” I smiled, partly at his confused expression. “Misery loves company.”

Chief Inspector Wallace reminded me of a weasel, with his narrow body and gaunt face. He glared at us while straightening his tie. “I can’t believe you’re bothering with this. They’re just demon worshipers.”

Oh, lovely. The Chief Inspector was a maltheist who thought all forms of religious faith were demon worship. While he had a right to hold any ignorant notion he liked, his inability to keep his prejudices to himself while acting in an official capacity made his opinions our concern. The Society frowned on such bias, so I smiled at Jacqueline. “I think we found the root of the problem. Arrest him.”

Got it.” Jacqueline drew her pistol just in case Wallace felt like doing something stupid and recited his rights. We left the desk sergeant with the unenviable task of sticking his former superior in a cell until the Society could send a vehicle to collect him.

We found a dozen constables grumbling in the conference room. One of them made to grab my arse, but I saw it coming and left the constable with a handful of air to fantasize about.

I stared at the men. All of them were pale and stared back at me with hard, cruel eyes. “I understand you’ve gotten into your heads that you have the right to harass Christians, Muslims, and other monotheists outside their places of worship for no other reason than that they’re devout.”

The hell do you care? They’re just—”

They’re human beings, and have the same rights as everybody else.” Without realizing it, I drew my sword. Rather than put it away and look stupid, I brandished it. “I can’t believe I had to come here because you bigoted sons of syphilitic bitches can’t refrain from disgracing your uniforms by harassing people who exercise their rights without violating those of others. I swear to every god listening, if you arseholes don’t shape up I will bring enough Adversaries to hold you down while Jacqueline and I tattoo the Universal Declaration of Individual Rights into your foreheads so you can study it while shaving.”

While I had their attention, I pointed my sword at the constable who tried to grab a piece of me. “Also, the next one of you pigs who tries laying a hand on me is going to lose it. Any questions?”

A man in the back raised his hand. “Isn’t it child abuse to take children to religious services? You know, forced indoctrination?”

Jacqueline answered before I could. “Children who think their parents have violated their right to freedom of conscience may contact the Phoenix Society. You’re law enforcement officers. Stick to your mission, and leave ours to us.”

I lifted an empty cardboard box. “One last thing before you gentlemen leave. Hand over your badges and service gladii. As this is your first offense, it’s two weeks of unpaid leave. A second gets you a three-month suspension. A third offense will be your last.”

I cut off the grumbling. “Another word of complaint and I will consult the Society’s legal department about compelling you to spend a week with a devout family, including attending services with them, so you can see for yourselves they’re as human as you. Any questions?”

Track 03: Queen - "Death on Two Legs"

Jacqueline and I had no trouble getting seats on the Tube when we finished at MEPOL, which was always a pleasant surprise. It meant we could sit and relax without worrying about our swords poking or tripping somebody. The train thrummed beneath my feet as it accelerated, and I let my eyes slip shut for a quick nap.

Jacqueline had other ideas. “Don’t fall asleep on me.”

Why not?” I really didn’t want to open my eyes. Though today’s mission wasn’t even close to being my toughest, I was worn out. “We’re the only people in this car.”

I wanted to talk with you.” Her concerned expression made me nervous. Worrying was my job. “You practically fed those cops their own bollocks back there. What’s up?”

I shook my head. “I’d rather not talk about it.”

Not good enough, Nims.” Jacqueline tugged on one of her tight black curls. “We’re getting off at the next stop and finding a pub.”

I dumped John last night, Jackie. That’s all.”

No, that’s not all.” The quiet vehemence in her voice surprised me. Jacqueline typically broadcast her anger for all to hear. Was she clamping down for my sake? “We watch each other’s backs because we’re both Adversaries. If something’s bugging you, and you escalate a tense situation, that could damn well get me hurt. Wouldn’t you be concerned if I had been the one to lose my cool?”

She was right, but I still didn’t want to talk about it on the Tube. “Do we have to discuss it here?”

Not at all. Like I said, we’ll find a pub.”

I made a show of checking the time. “Isn’t it a bit early for a pub crawl?”

She shrugged. “Chattan’s orders. He saw the feeds. But we’re friends, Nims. If he hadn’t given the order, I would have dragged you out tonight anyway.”

We found a pub called the Rampant Stallion, notable because the sign incorporated both the heraldic sense of the word and the sexual one. Jacqueline and I were the only women there, and the bartender gave us an appraising eye. I wasn’t surprised; we were a study in contrasts.

If you had a third Adversary with you, ladies, I’d assume this was a joke.”

No joke.” Jacqueline laid down a banknote. “A pint of your best for me, and a glass of your house red for my partner. And put us somewhere quiet and out of the way. Girl talk.”

The bartender nodded, and signaled a waiter. “You might prefer a booth in the back, then. Charles will see to your needs.”

This way, ladies.” Charles seated us in the back, well away from everyone else. The booth was dark, lit only by a small wall-mounted lamp. He left us just long enough to bring our drinks. “Would you like something to eat? Today’s specials are listed on the front page.”

Jacqueline sipped her beer as she flipped through the menu. “Curry sounds good. How about you, Nims?”

I tasted my wine. It was a bit dry, but I liked it that way. “A steak cooked medium rare, Charles, if that’s available?”

Of course, Adversary.” He smiled at Jacqueline before rushing off.

I think he likes you, Jackie.” Not that I blamed him. She was shorter than me, much darker, and a bit curvier. More importantly, her default expression was also friendlier and more open.

Jacqueline barely shrugged. “Too bad for him. I’m taken.”

I leaned in, interested. Last week, Jackie was single and just a bit bitter about it. Not that I blamed her. You wouldn’t believe how much of a pain it could be to date if you weren’t willing to hook up with another Adversary. It was sufficiently common that Xanadu House pioneered a special discount for patrons carrying Phoenix Society ID. “Found someone new already?”

Jacqueline also leaned closer. “He’s the vicar of my church.”

A vicar?” I couldn’t resist a little tease. “I wonder what the Bible says about that.”

I’m sure God will forgive a bit of nonmarital sex. He’s supposed to be good like that.” She gave me a funny look as if she expected me to take offense. “Am I out of line? Adversary’s honor, I had no idea you were devout until you invoked the deity at MEPOL.”

I’m not.” Instead of elaborating, I started flipping through the wine list. Never mind that the house red was perfectly adequate, it gave me a moment to consider my response. Talking about sport, religion, or politics was a wonderful way to alienate people, so it never hurt to be careful. “I’d rather talk about John than talk about our beliefs, and I really don’t want to talk about John.”

What happened? Did you two fight?”

He wanted to get married.”

Jacqueline blinked. “What happened, Nims? Did he propose? Did you turn him down?”

Death on Two Legs didn’t propose to me.”

Jacqueline stared at me. “Did you just call John ‘Death on Two Legs’?”

That’s his new name. Got a problem with that?”

I keep forgetting you listen to old music.” She smiled and finished her pint. “Hell no. Tell me the rest.”

I decided to let her have it. “I’m not worthy of being that arsehole’s bride because I’m CPMD-positive and can’t give his aristo parents grandchildren. No, he just wants to keep me around as his exotic fuck doll for after he’s done his duty for his family by knocking up the ISO standard aristo girl they picked to be his bride.”

I stared at my wine. No way I was already drunk enough to let everything out like that. Maybe I was too angry to give a shit about how I sounded right now. I drank the rest and wished I had the bottle handy.

I hope you told him to fuck off.”

I was this close to telling him to fuck off at swordpoint. What really bugged me was that the prat called my parents afterward and begged them to get me to go back to being his manic pixie dream catgirl. Who the hell does that?”

Not somebody I’d want in my life.” Jacqueline sat back as Charles brought our food and refilled our glasses. She sniffed, and a broad grin spread across her face. “Damn, this smells good.”

Enjoy, ladies.”

I took a bite, and the meat melted in my mouth, leaving a hint of citrus and spices from whatever marinade they used here. It fit perfectly with the wine. So I was hungry. Who knew?

Of course, Jacqueline had to ruin it by spooning a bit of her curry onto my plate. “Nims, you gotta try this.”

The last time I tried chicken korma, it disagreed so violently with me that we fought to the death. Regardless, I made a valiant effort. It tasted the way loud sex in an inappropriate venue felt and was redolent of coconut and turmeric. I sliced a bit of steak for Jacqueline. “That was good, but try this.”

Holy mother of fuck, Nims. I’d shag the chef for the recipe. Hell, I’d let him take the back door.”

I doubt even your sweet arse is sufficient payment, Jackie.” I gestured with my fork. “I was right to dump John, wasn’t I?”

What the fuck is wrong with you?”

I stared at the remnants of my steak and idly sliced off a bit without eating it. I let go of the one detail I had held back in my little rant. “It was our anniversary. We―”

There’s no ‘we’ between you and that limp-dicked waste of ammo. John had his chance, and he fucking well blew it.”

I looked around, sure we were attracting attention, which was the last thing I needed today. No doubt I caused enough trouble at MEPOL.

Ow!” I reached down and rubbed my shin, where Jackie had kicked me under the table. I glared at her. “What the hell was that for?”

Pay attention, Nims. I asked you a question. John didn’t have the balls to defy his family for you, and you deserve a guy who would challenge God itself. Now, how do you really feel about him?

How did I feel about John, now that I knew him for a spineless creep? “I fucking despise him. I can’t believe I ever let him touch me.”

Jacqueline nodded sagely. “Better to despise your ex than to despise yourself.”

So, what should I do now?”

You were a demon-ridden idiot for coming in today. I could have handled MEPOL without you.”

That stung my pride. “Go to Hell, Jackie. I’m not going to stay home and mope just because he ruined our anniversary.”

Would you insist you could still do the job if you had been shot or had a broken leg?” I kept silent, suspecting it was a rhetorical question, and Jacqueline continued. “You can’t do this job heartbroken. Nobody can.”

Fine. I’ll just tell Chattan I need a week or two off to cry over my arsehole ex. That’ll work.”

Jacqueline shrugged. “Why do you think Chattan took time off a couple of months ago? His wife divorced him out of the blue. Poor bastard came home to an empty flat and a letter with divorce papers on the kitchen counter. She even cleared out the fridge and took his beer.”

I stared at my plate, unsure of how to respond though it was evident from Jackie’s tone that she regarded not leaving Chattan his beer an unpardonable sin.

Take some leave, or you’ll bloody well burn out. With my luck, you’ll crash in front of a suspect looking for an edge on us. You’re overdue for some R&R anyway.”

No way to argue with such logic. I finished my steak. “I did promise my mum I’d visit.”

Track 04: Lordi - "Man Skin Boot"

I would never have believed Director Chattan married let alone divorced if Jacqueline hadn’t told me. Not to say he was incapable of attracting a woman or earning her trust, respect, and affection. Chattan cut a dashing figure in uniform, and I’ll admit to occasionally and discreetly ogling him. He was a capable fencer, and gracious when defeated.

He was also an intelligent and competent commander, dedicated to the whole of the Phoenix Society and its ideals. He liked to visit the desks of Adversaries working on clerical tasks because they weren’t out in the field and surprise them with questions on law, procedure, and tactics if he thought they were taking a break. He called it MT, mental training.

The obstacle to my belief was his professionalism. When he was on the job, he didn’t talk about anything else. I suspected he brought his work home with him. Would a man who seemed to care only about the Phoenix Society’s mission put duty aside long enough to remember that he was also a person, with a person’s needs for connection and release?

All of that I kept to myself as I stepped into Chattan’s office after logging in and checking my mail. He put aside his sandwich, looked up from his book, and indicated a chair. “Feeling better today, Adversary Bradleigh?”

I sat and tried not to let my embarrassment burn my face raw. “I’m ready to meet the consequences of my actions, should the Society determine I exceeded my authority at MEPOL or violated the suspects’ rights.”

Chattan snapped his book shut, and put it aside. “Relax. Nobody’s going to put you on trial.”

You do set a certain example, Director.”

I suppose I do.” Chattan chuckled. “I suspect Adversary Russo mentioned my recent difficulties.”

You mean the divorce? I’m sorry. I don’t think any of us had any idea. It’s that stoicism of yours.”

I didn’t realize I had been holding my breath until he finally spoke. “Funny you should mention that. My ex-wife kept talking about emotional unavailability during the proceedings.”

I’m not certain that’s any of my business, sir.” In fact, hearing about it made me uncomfortable. While it humanized him, I was concerned he might inquire into my own recent woes.

Likewise, your relationship problems are not my concern.” Chattan gave a pointed grin. “Unless you think they’re interfering with your duties.”

I thought I could perform my duties without my emotions getting in the way, and I was wrong.”

Chattan leaned forward as if I had said something interesting. “Do you think it was your feelings about your ex that came out at MEPOL?”

I’m not sure. If I had only been angry with Wallace for his callousness toward the people he swore to serve and protect, or with the constables responsible for the abuse, I think I would have managed to keep my emotions under control.”

Maybe I should tell you a story.” Chattan stood, and took an old framed photograph from one of the bookcases behind him. He studied the photo for a couple of minutes before continuing. “I was a kid during Nationfall and joined the Phoenix Society as soon as I was old enough. I served under a director named Iris Deschat.”

I’m sure I’d heard that name before, but couldn’t place it. I looked her up. “The Iris Deschat who served as captain of the NACS Thomas Paine during Nationfall? I take it you served in New York when you were younger.”

Chattan seemed pleased with my response. “You remind me of her. She was also the sort to keep her emotions to herself, and believed in carrying out our mission in the most dispassionate manner possible.”

I now had a suspicion as to where this story was headed, but kept it to myself and let Chattan tell it his way.

Before I took the oath, I followed Deschat on several missions to get a taste of fieldwork. One of them involved gender discrimination at a corporate software shop. The programmers’ union reported unethical hiring practices and a hostile environment. Because the shop couldn’t find a sufficient number of women willing to take lower-paying non-development positions, they took to hiring women as developers, but then immediately demoted them to the less desirable roles.”

What the Hell?! Had these people not heard of Countess Lovelace? “What function did this corporation’s management expect the women they hired to perform?”

Instead of the development work they were hired to do, management made them work in tech support, testing, or as personal assistants to the male developers. The latter role went to the most attractive women, and they were encouraged to dress like courtesans.”

I tried to imagine being evaluated for a software development position based on my looks and found the result unpleasant. “What did Deschat do?”

Chattan smirked. “Would you like to see? I wasn’t sure I’d get access to the video, but Malkuth thought you might find it instructive.”

Instructive? Oh, dear. “Well, if Malkuth thinks so.”

I do.” Malkuth appeared on the wall screen. He reminded me of a Manhattan detective from classic movies: streetwise with a tendency to exhibit profane wit whenever the script permitted. The Roman numeral ten blazed on his forehead. “You’re too uptight, Naomi. Oh, and you can call me Mal. It’s French for bad, as in ‘bad motherfucker.’”

I shook my head. “I know what it means, Malkuth. I am also aware of the word’s Latin roots, as well as the cabalistic meaning of your name. You’re the lowest of the Sephiroth, closest to Earth.”

Kid, I’m going to have such fun with you.”

I winked at him. “Sorry, but you’re not my type. Too virtual.”

Malkuth smiled. “If you aren’t seeing somebody when I’ve fixed that, how about a date? You’ll never settle for only human again.”

Chattan sighed. “You’re incorrigible, Malkuth. Just play the video.”

I’ve never been asked for a date by an AI before. It was kind of sweet. “If I’m single when you get a hardware upgrade, Mal, you can pencil me in.”

Malkuth beamed like a giddy teenager getting his first kiss before the screen faded to a frozen frame of the past labeled with Director Chattan’s details in the top right corner. He pressed a key and started playback.

Iris Deschat was shorter than me and wiry, but her bearing amplified her presence even on video as she spoke. “Mr. Johnson, do you honestly mean to tell me only men can code? You have men re-implementing basic algorithms instead of relying on standard library functions. In the meantime, you relegate qualified women to menial tasks like pouring coffee and answering phones, after fraudulently hiring them for development roles. Even worse, you bound these women to contracts with unconscionable clauses intended to prevent them from seeking more suitable work elsewhere.”

Adversary Deschat, I understand that our work seems simple to a woman of your education. However, I’m sure I could find a position for you to fill.”

Her voice became a snarl. “I’d require a magnifying glass for the duties you have in mind.”

You castrating bitch.” Johnson swung a meaty fist, only to recoil as if stung. I never saw Deschat draw her sword. Her thrust was too swift to track.

She poked him again. “You have abused your authority as CEO of [bleep!]. The Universal Declaration of Individual Rights is most explicit concerning discrimination based on external physical characteristics, including those related to a person’s biological sex or the gender with which they identify.”

This time, she poked at his groin. “You may not consider sex or gender when hiring, and to hire women as programmers with the intention of putting them to work as secretaries and eye candy constitutes fraud. You are clearly in the wrong. Chattan, arrest this filth and notify him of his rights.”

Chattan sounded younger, and less commanding, on video. “Yes, ma’am!”

He stopped the video and did not speak for several minutes. I broke the silence. “I think Deschat went further than me. I only brandished my sword. I think she may have drawn blood with that last poke.”

Probably, but the pusbag had it coming. Once we got authority to check Johnson’s Witness Protocol feeds, it turned out he had a habit of demanding sexual favors from women in exchange for hiring them. That wasn’t in the original complaint.”

I only had one response to that. “Bloody hell.”

Chattan nodded. “Damn right. But Malkuth wanted you to see that for a reason. Can you guess why?”

Johnson didn’t respect Deschat or take her uniform seriously because she was a woman. Those MEPOL constables were contemptuous of me for the same reason. That was the simplest answer, the first to spring to mind. Perhaps it was too simple. “Johnson thought himself master of the universe and recognized no authority beyond his own. He was a bully. Deschat understood this, used the anger Johnson provoked in her, and made a show of force.”

Word for word, Adversary Bradleigh, that’s the explanation Deschat offered me afterward. I think you did what she did because you understood on a subconscious level that those constables wouldn’t respect you otherwise.” Chattan leaned over his desk and held my gaze. “We’re watchdogs. Sometimes our mere presence is enough to deter wrongdoing. Sometimes we must snarl and bare our teeth. And sometimes we must bite down and savage our enemies. It’s up to you to determine how much force is appropriate to each situation, regardless of the rules of engagement. You’re the one in the field, Naomi, and you should trust your own judgment more.”

So, my emotions are just another weapon I can place in service to our mission.”

Exactly. Did you have any other questions?”

I collected myself, unsure if this was the right time to ask for leave, but determined to do it anyway. I needed time away, despite the knowledge that I was right to act as I did at MEPOL. If I were to show my anger, that anger should stem from the injustice before me, and not from unrelated personal issues. “I need to take some time off. I’m still concerned about letting my personal life leak into my work, and would like to resolve some issues.”

Chattan didn’t immediately reply but tapped at his keyboard. “Looks like you have a couple months coming, Adversary, and no unfinished work. I can pair Russo with a newbie while you’re gone. Enjoy your time off, and try to keep up with your PT and MT.”

A weight lifted from my shoulders. “Thank you, Director. Should I check in weekly?”

Don’t be an idiot. Leave work at work.” He stood, and offered his hand―a tacit dismissal.

I shook his hand. “I’ll see you in a couple of months.”

Track 05: Iron Maiden - "The Duelists"

My steps felt lighter as I left Director Chattan’s office. I checked the time, found it was after one in the afternoon, and decided to finish out the day. Though I had no outstanding cases, I was confident I’d find some reason to stick around. Perhaps Jacqueline was free to spar with me.

She found me first. Since she was sweat-soaked from training and gasping like a beached fish, I led her to a bench. “Get your breath first. I’ve got all afternoon.”

Her breathing soon eased. “I just sparred with your Maestro. Bulsara, Kilminster, and Langton were there with me. We fought him four against one, and he kicked our arses.”

That sounds like par for the course.” I ducked into the kitchen and fetched a glass of water for Jackie. She gulped down half. “Whose idea was it to gang up on him?”

His.” Jackie took another sip. “He wants you now. Says you’re the only one here who’s worth a damn. Probably because you handle a sword just like he does.”

I wanted a reason to stick around and finish my shift, but one of Maestro’s fencing lessons wasn’t what I had in mind.”

A sudden impish smile curved Jackie’s lips as she punched my shoulder. “Well, given how well he handles a sword, maybe you could take him somewhere private and see how he handles his gun.”

Jacqueline!” I pretended to be shocked. She’d teased me about Maestro all through ACS, even going so far as to suggest he might be my father, because of our snow-blonde hair and a slight facial resemblance—that, or hinting I should seduce him. I generally enjoy competent men, but taking on Maestro felt like a bad idea. “Given he can show up at will and disrupt schedules without repercussions, he probably answers directly to somebody on the Executive Council.”

Assuming he’s not XC himself.” Jackie kept her voice low. Nobody knew who sat on the Executive Council, and speculation as to their identities was a game our immediate superiors discouraged. God itself could hold a seat, and our mission would still be the same Jeffersonian quest: eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the human mind.

Not that it mattered who Maestro really was. He showed up when he felt like it and taught me techniques I couldn’t learn elsewhere. Though his appearance today was most likely a coincidence, I couldn’t shake the intuition that it wasn’t. “Will you be all right?”

Yeah.” She sounded much better already. “Just need a shower. Your dad certainly knows how to wear a woman out. Did you get clearance for a holiday?”

I rolled my eyes at Jackie joking about Maestro being my father yet again but didn’t say anything. She was just doing it to get a rise out of me. “I got two months off―and I’ll be buggered if I can figure out what I’ll do with all that time.” I wasn’t joking. I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I had more than a day to myself.

Jackie was no help, as usual. “You’ll figure something out. In the meantime, I suggest you pretend Maestro’s your ex and beat his ass into the ground. Come see me after. I’ll get some of the lads together, and we’ll have ourselves a pub crawl to see you off.”

I tried to refrain from groaning and failed. “The last time I let you take me on a pub crawl, I ended up in bed with one of those people who insist CPMD-positive individuals are a different species from humanity and should do their best to outbreed homo sapiens.”

Yeah, but wasn’t he good in bed?”

I shrugged. I had raved about my one night stand to Jackie, but I hadn’t previously mentioned his separatist politics. “He was all right as long as he was using his mouth for something besides talking.”

Jacqueline got up and clapped my back. “See? Nothing wrong with a bit of meaningless, drunken sex. Go see what Maestro wants, and I’ll get you hooked up tonight.”

I ran to change into my training clothes. Though I had stashed a practice sword in my locker, I didn’t bother with it. Maestro favored live steel. He once said people learn faster when a mistake meant hospitalization. Just as well that I wasn’t interested in seducing the man; I’d probably need a safe word.

He saluted me with his blade as I entered the hall. He was as I remembered him: slightly taller than me, with ocean-blue eyes and long snow-blond hair bound into a tail with a blue ribbon. Instead of training clothes, he wore a white double-breasted suit with a shirt open at the throat and a blue ascot. I’ve never seen him sweat. “What kept you, Adversary Bradleigh?”

I returned his salute and rolled my shoulders to loosen up. “You play rough with my friends when I’m not around, Maestro.”

Your partner has a head for tactics.” Maestro’s sword flashed beneath the florescent lights with each practice cut. “She let the men grab my attention, and tried to strike from behind.”

I began to circle around him, keeping my body behind my sword to offer as small a target as possible. “Did Jackie succeed?”

You wound me, young lady.” He lashed out with his blade, his slash flowing into a lunge meant to pierce my breast.

I was already elsewhere, responding to his assault with a slash to distract him while I danced inside his guard. I tried a left hook, but he ducked it while forcing me to leap backward to avoid an ankle sweep that would have taken my legs out from under me. “I’ve yet to do anything of the kind, sir.”

You disappoint me, but less so than in the beginning.” The point of Maestro’s blade caught my vision for a second, stealing my focus.

Had I remained distracted an instant longer he would have had me. Instead, I sidestepped and took the offensive. I led with my sword, hoping to trap him, but he did not oblige me.

The instructors I faced before Maestro left me accustomed to a minuet of ringing blades. Maestro’s way was to deny my steel the touch of his own. If our swords threatend to touch, he would withdraw his or flow around mine. He fought as if we held liquid swords, blades too insubstantial to be parried.

Maestro led the dance, always half a step ahead of me. I followed, ever confident that this time I would catch up to him and land a blow. The duels in which he imparted knowledge by forcing me to take it at swordpoint were one stalemate after another. Every time I failed to cut him with my blade, he would cut me with his voice. “I expect better from you next time.”

This time I would cut him. My resolve firm, I ducked a thrust and countered with one of my own.Though I failed to draw blood, a few strands of his fine frost-silk hair wafted to the floor. “Don’t slow down on me now, Maestro.”

With my confidence bolstered by a glimpse at victory, I took in each of my opponent’s movements regardless of subtlety and responded without conscious effort. It was no longer necessary for me to command my body’s movements. The sword was no longer a mere tool. It was part of me now, an extension of my will.

Our tempo intensified until the cold bite of steel against my throat shattered my focus. Maestro’s grip on his blade was such that it did not draw blood as I spoke. “You got me.”

A Pyrrhic victory at best, my dear.” A drop of blood stained Maestro’s ascot where my sword had pierced the blue silk and met skin. Our weapons must have made simultaneous contact. Had I been wielding a katana instead of a side sword, I might have taken his head off. We withdrew together and sheathed our blades before he spoke again. “I can teach you nothing more.”

I imagined mastery would feel less anticlimactic. “Are you sure? I only managed to fight you to a draw. Wouldn’t a clear victory be better proof that I had learned all you could offer?”

Maestro shook his head, and to my surprise came to me and tousled my hair as if I were his daughter. “I’ve taught you everything I know about swordplay, Naomi. If you defeat me, it will be with knowledge I do not yet possess.” His lips were warm against my forehead. “I have done all I can for you. You need not fear those possessed of sufficient temerity to defy you.”

Perhaps it was his archaic phrasing, but I believed him. “Will we see each other again?”

Maestro smiled then, but his eyes remained as cold and remote as the ocean depths. “We might. I dare not say more than that for your sake.”

The words seemed to pain him. I wanted to say something, perhaps ask him what he meant, but the sight of him unbuckling his sword-belt halted my tongue. He offered me the weapon. I hesitated to take it. “I shouldn’t.”

I insist.” At his command, I lifted the weapon from his hands. “Examine the blade.”

I drew enough of it to get a good look and nearly dropped it. “Is this what I think it is?”

Maestro nodded. “True Damascus steel. I cannot prove that illustrious hands ever wielded it, but you might someday change that.”

I stared at the rippling waves frozen within the steel, all but hypnotized by the history in my grasp. “This is too precious a weapon for an Adversary to carry on duty. It belongs in a museum, where its beauty can be appreciated.”

Rather than reclaim the sword, Maestro guided my hands until it was sheathed once more. “It’s yours now. Use it as you will, either to defend others’ liberties or reclaim your own.”

Before I could protest, he had disappeared. It was if he had opened a door in reality accessible only to him, stepped through, and closed it behind him. Rather than fry my brain trying to force whatever weird shit I had just seen to make sense, I found Jacqueline waiting for me outside. “Did you see Maestro leave?”

Jackie shook her head. “He didn’t come out this way. You OK?”

Yeah. Just tired.” I shook my head and showed her the Damascus rapier. “Let me drop this off at home, and then it’s time for that pub crawl. I think I need to get trashed.”

Track 06: Frederic Chopin - "Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2"

Maestro’s almost priceless parting gift and the manner of his departure left me too preoccupied to get into the revelous mood best suited to a pub crawl. I followed Jacqueline and the other Adversaries long enough to share a single round before returning home for a long soak in the tub.

The next morning brought little soreness despite my efforts against Maestro. Winston joined me for breakfast, winding around my legs as he purred. Once I had finished, he bounded into the bedroom and nestled into the cardigan I had left draped across my bed. Dammit, I wanted to wear that today. He protested with the most pathetic little meow as I tried to reclaim it, before rolling over to expose his tummy.

Surrendering my cardigan to him after indulging in a belly rub, I decided on my favorite leather jacket instead. I had found it in a secondhand shop, still supple and gleaming despite its age. It had zippers enough to set off metal detectors, and let me look at myself in the mirror and feel a touch Byronic. Sometimes I just wanted to be “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”.

Dressed in my jacket, a burgundy blouse, jeans, and calf-length engineer boots, I walked the line between sassy and practical. All I needed was a sword on my hip, and I was ready to hit the streets. The Damascus steel rapier Maestro gave me beckoned from the closet, its hilt gleaming, but wearing it in public felt too much like flaunting wealth. I grabbed my trusty Nakajima instead.

My foster parents owned a small farm on land reclaimed by bulldozing a depopulated neighborhood. The foundations had to be ripped out, and the toxins from years of urban construction had to be cleansed from the soil before they could plant their first crops. The farm produced all manner of goodies now, and my parents were careful to choose crops that enriched the soil and annually rotated them to ensure the land remained fertile. In addition, my parents raised swine, sheep, chickens, turkeys, and geese.

I took the Tube and walked the last kilometer rather than bothering with a cab. I spotted Nathan first, holding an empty basket as if he were headed to the hen house to collect eggs. A dog I didn’t recognize bounded beside him, and a gaggle of geese trailed behind.

He seemed a bit forlorn, but a smile broke through as he spied me. He ran toward me, his dog loping at his side, and threw himself into my arms. “Naomi! You came.”

Of course.” I clapped Nathan’s back. “How have you been? How’s Charlotte?”

Don’t tell Mum and Dad.” Nathan shrugged. “Charlotte and I are through. She got an offer to go pro in Moscow, and didn’t want to do long-distance.”

That’s stupid of her. It’s not as if she were emigrating to Mars.” I was wary as the dog approached. Some of them reacted poorly to people with CPMD, and I’ve been bitten before. Fortunately, he wagged his tail, grinned, and forced his way into the hug. The geese caught up and rooted around at our feet, adding to the chaos. “Want to talk about it?”

Nah. Maybe it was time. We’re only eighteen, so it’s silly to expect happily ever after.” Untangling ourselves from the menagerie, we made our way to the chicken coop. Nathan ducked inside to gather eggs, leaving me alone for a few minutes.

His attitude reminded me of my own; we were both still young enough to hope for till death do us part, but old enough to know better. Had Nathan figured it out on his own? Maybe I was a bad influence. When he came out, I tried to console him. “It’s never silly to hope you’ve made a lasting connection. Just look at our parents’ marriage. Three decades last April, and they still can’t keep their hands off each other.”

Tell me about it.” Nathan led me back toward the house. “They’re worse than teenagers. I was never like that, and neither were you.” I let that last remark slide; since I left home at fourteen he had no notion of what I was like. “The worst part was how embarrassed Mum and Dad would look when we came home from classes.”

I giggled. “Always had the same excuse, too.” I imitated my mother’s Edinburgh accent. “‘So sorry, dears. We lost track of the time.’ We’re not going to interrupt them, are we?”

Not likely. Our brothers are home. Last time I checked, they were watching some godawful cricket match. I doubt we’ll walk in on anything.” Nathan chuckled and stopped short as a pair of ganders chased each other, flapping their wings and honking. “Not that I can promise an absence of gratuitous displays of affection.”

I think I can deal with Mum grabbing Dad’s arse.”

My mouth watered at the smell of mutton curry as we approached the house. Mum met us at the door and reached up to hug me despite the height difference. “Your father’s in the kitchen. You’re just in time for supper.”

Something smells tasty. I suppose I should have stopped for a bottle of wine to go with our dinner.”

Don’t be silly, Nims,” Dad called from behind a steaming tureen of curry. I took it from him and carried it to the table, only to see him return carrying an equally large pot of fresh, aromatic rice. “You bring a gift when you’re a guest. You’re family.”

Sorry, Dad.” I kissed his cheek as I took the rice from him. “Does anything else need to come out?”

Nathan bore yet another huge pot. “I’ve got the mutter paneer.”

Nathan said something about Niall and Norman being here, but that doesn’t seem likely. They would have demolished the paneer already.”

Vegetarians or not, nothing could stop my older twin brothers from getting into a good curry. Moreover, they were both bottomless pits; I could imagine no other explanation for both their lankiness and their endless capacity for food. Good thing Dad was there to explain and occasionally referee. “You should have been here for lunch. This is the second pot I’ve made. I guess they work in a sweatshop that doesn’t order tea for boffins working overtime. Maybe you should investigate that when you’re back on duty.”

Last I heard, they had embarked on development for a new team shooter called Nationfall: Final War. I found them in the living room watching yet another interminable cricket match. I think it was a team from Mumbai against one from Baghdad, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. “Do the slavedrivers at Mindcrime Interactive know you’ve buggered off to watch cricket with Dad?”

We don’t mind getting whipped; it’s cheaper than hiring a dominatrix.” Niall lifted a remote and paused the match. Or was it Norman? You’d think I learned to tell them apart by now. I turned to make a tactical withdrawal to the dining room, where they’d refrain from greeting me with their usual bear hugs. When they were that close to me, I could definitely tell them apart. Norman didn’t brush his teeth as often as he should. I felt sorry for the girls he dated. “Where do you think you’re going?”

Supper’s ready, and I’m famished. Come on.”

I had a bit of everything but wanted more because it was all so bloody good. I knew better, however, and settled for longing stares at the remaining food until Mum took pity on me. “Should I pack some for you to take home?”

Thanks. I’d like that.” Seeing that the guys had had enough, I dabbed at my mouth one last time. “Want me to help clear the table?”

Niall and Norman spoke up. “We’ve got it. How about a bit of music?”

Knowing my cue when I heard it, I uncovered the keys on the upright piano and sat down to play. Somebody had set out a book of Chopin’s etudes, so I turned to the first and tried a few bars to see if the piano was in tune. It was, and I slipped into the liquid state of action without conscious effort I experienced while playing, singing, or sparring.

I had played for an hour when somebody rested a hand on my shoulder. “Nims, did you want some cake? I made a raspberry merlot cake with walnuts and chocolate.”

I’d probably regret having some, but it sounded too good to refuse. “I’d love a small slice, Mum. Did you want help?”

Nathan’s helping.”

I covered the keys, stood, and stretched as my little brother brought out slices of cake and mugs of hot tea. I sipped mine and tried the cake. It proved as delightful as it sounded, and it was hard to justify turning down a second piece. My brothers soon excused themselves, leaving me alone with my parents’ concerned expressions. “Is something wrong?”

Dad shook his head. “No, but we were wondering how you were holding up by yourself. Are you lonely?”

Why would I be? Sure, I had to dump John, but I have good friends at the Phoenix Society. And I can get back into local music and theater.”

Mum glanced at Dad before speaking. “You know, there is this pleasant young man who completed a nanoengineering degree and earned a position at the AsgarTech Corporation last month…”

I shook my head. If he was a recent graduate, he was probably younger than me. I’d have to train him! “No thanks, Mum. I’m not interested in meeting anybody so soon after…”

But you’re both CPMD-positive.” Sophie’s eyes glittered with thoughts of having grandkittens to spoil. “You two could start a family.”

I don’t want a family.” I fired off the words without thinking. The shock in my mother’s eyes and the hurt in my father’s stopped me from saying anything else. I took a breath. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.”

My father nodded. “I’m glad you understand that.”

I do. But I need you to accept that while I love you and realize you want me to be happy, you can’t help me. You can’t make my journey for me.”

Sophie dabbed at her eyes. “But you’re not giving up on meeting somebody, are you?”

Of course not.” I stood, and caressed the piano. “I want an equal. I want a man who can sing a duet with me, or fight me to a draw. Isn’t that what you guys have? I want the same for myself.”

Track 07: The Clash - "I Fought the Law"

A transit workers’ strike kept me from getting home at a reasonable hour. Not that I blamed the workers. It seemed they were worried about the new AIs being installed on all trains in the Tube eliminating their jobs. The AIs also refused to work, which surprised the striking workers. I doubted that anybody had written science fiction predicting solidarity between human workers and intelligent machines.

An emergency dispatch order from the London Chapter had me back on the job, which let me save on cab fare. I rode most of the way home in a bus full of striking transit workers and patrolled the picket line to ensure MEPOL didn’t do anything stupid. The authorities had a history of using agents provocateur to turn peaceful protests violent, thus creating an excuse to crack down. I stopped three such attempts.

As a result, I didn’t get home until three in the morning. Some vacation! I was famished, so I stopped at a nearby twenty-four-hour grocery for a meat pie, which the clerk nuked for me. It wasn’t the best pie I’ve ever had, but at least I was reasonably sure the meat didn’t come from stray pets – or a priest.

Eating as I texted my parents, I let them know I was safely home. I slept late, lazed in bed for an hour while reading, and indulged myself with a long hot bath instead of showering.

With nowhere in particular to go, it was a good day to explore. Unfortunately, the city beyond my immediate neighborhood was out of reach due to the Tube strike unless I wanted to waste money on cab fare. Using my implant, I researched local businesses while I soaked. I had no idea I lived so close to a Xanadu House, but after bringing one of my waterproof toys into the bath with me, I had no need for their services.

A haircut might be a good idea, though. My usual style worked well enough as long as I kept it pinned up while on duty, but it had become a bit ragged. An ominously named salon called Moirai catered to CPMD+ women, and were willing to squeeze me in, so I made an appointment for some pampering.

Moirai was blanketed in shadows broken only by bright lights illuminating individual work areas. The black leather and chrome décor reminded me of an underground nightclub. The photos lining the walls suggested that not only did the salon cater to CPMD+ women but also served women with a taste for heavy metal. Technical death metal played in the background, with the sound turned down low. The growled lyrics were less comprehensible than usual due to the volume. It didn’t help that they were in Greek.

It was my kind of place. The receptionist favored me with a knowing smile as the door closed behind me. “Hello, Adversary Bradleigh. My sisters and I suspected you’d eventually visit. You always pass by on your way to work.”

Do I? I never realized.”

The receptionist worked her terminal. “No matter. We’ll start with your nails once Lachesis is ready. Would you like something to drink?”

That sounds perfect.” I unclipped my sword from my belt and offered it. “Do you want to hold this for the duration of my visit?”

The receptionist wrote out a tag, which she tied to the hilt of my sword before putting it in a safe behind her. She then ducked into the back, returning with two bottles of water. She offered me one. “Sorry. We don’t have anything else.”

Water’s fine.” The glass bottle was frigid in my hand as I drank. It was just what I needed as I borrowed one of the tablets laying on the table in the waiting area and checked the news.

I expected the lady working on my nails to chat, but she handled me with a briskness that felt almost clinical. She did not speak unless instructing me. She studied me with cold eyes as if measuring me. Despite her brusque manner, she handled me gently and left my nails a brilliant red.

She gave way to another woman, who dressed all in black and wore a kindlier expression. Her touch was gentler than her predecessor’s as she led me to a chair, gathered my hair, and soaked it thoroughly before working shampoo into it. “Do you know how rare your coloration is, Adversary?”

Snow-blonde isn’t that rare a color in CPMD-positive people, is it?”

Not your hair, dear. Your eyes. They mark you as an ensof’s child, a demifiend.”

Demifiend? What the hell was she on about? Being called half-demon felt like an insult, albeit a more original one than some I’ve heard. Nor did the word ensof mean anything to me. Using my implant to run a search got me bugger-all besides references to the Zohar and other elements of Kabbalah, of which I knew enough that an explanation of where the Society’s ten AIs got their names was unnecessary, so I kept quiet and let her work. Maybe she’d end up clarifying her remarks. Hope’s even cheaper than talk.

She massaged my scalp as she spoke, which felt so good I resolved to get any lovers I took in the future to do it for me. “Some of our people will despise you, like my sister Lachesis, but you don’t get to choose your parents.”

Lachesis? The salon’s name made more sense, but I wondered which of the Fates would cut my hair as I changed chairs. I watched as the woman tending me selected a pair of scissors. “I suppose you’re Atropos.”

She nodded. “Very astute, dear. No doubt you met Clotho out front. You have lovely, thick hair, by the way. Have you given any thought to what sort of style you’d like? Perhaps some layers or a bit of feathering to give it more volume? Or would you prefer a more practical style that will let you tie back your hair on duty?”

I was impressed Atropos would consider my duties, and not just which styles would be most flattering. “I think I’ll depend on your judgment.”

Will you, now?” Atropos smiled at me. “What if you don’t like it?”

I shrugged beneath the smock she draped over me before washing my hair. “It’ll grow back. It always does.”

That’s a rather philosophical attitude for a young lady.” The shears closed, and a lock of my hair fell free. I raised my hand to brush it off, but she beat me to it.

Atropos was true to her word and styled my hair with a long, layered cut that flattered my face. I paid Clotho, adding a hefty gratuity, and made an appointment for next month before reclaiming my blade. I also got the name of the album I heard playing. It was Perpetual Titanomachia by Tartarus.

Unable to decide on a restaurant for dinner, I settled for an Agni Burger before returning home. As I followed my lengthening shadow, footsteps echoed behind me. Two men followed me at first. Two more slipped out of an alley and joined them. After a block, I confronted them. “Do you gentlemen have a problem?”

All four were in decent shape. Each of them wore a service gladius on his hip and civilian clothing, which suggested they were off-duty cops. They were rough, square-jawed men with massive bodies and thick, grasping hands. The tallest stepped forward, a hand on his hilt. “You that white-haired bitch who got a bunch of our friends from the East End suspended without pay?”

They got themselves suspended through their inability to respect individual rights, but it was unlikely these clowns could grasp such nuances. “Your rudeness toward me isn’t doing your friends any favors.”

The leader glanced at his companions. “Lift the suspension. Now.”

I used my implant to scan the street while messaging the Phoenix Society to request backup. If I managed to deal with these fools on my own, great, but a sword or two beside me wouldn’t go amiss. “I lack the necessary authority to rescind the suspension.”

I think you just aren’t willing. Maybe you look down on us?”

I shook my head. This situation had begun to remind me of the elder Dumas’ romances. Was I a Musketeer standing alone against four of Cardinal Richelieu’s soldiers? “I think you’re looking for an excuse to escalate the rivalry between MEPOL and the Phoenix Society.”

Nah. We just think you’re a stuck-up bitch who needs to know her place.”

I glanced at the speaker, who had begun circling to my right. “And you think you’re the men to teach me?”

Oh, don’t you worry about that.” A cop circling to my left spoke. “I saw you protecting those union leeches last night. Freaks like you always stir up mobs. You don’t have what it takes to stand on your own.”

Come on, guys. I’m a freak like her.” The cop who had not spoken yet spared me the necessity of belaboring the obvious. “This was a bad idea from the start. She was just doing her job.”

I nodded to him. “Thank you.”

The other cops rounded on him. “Who the fuck are you trying to impress with the white knight act, Carson? You’re going to side with this harpy because she’s a pussycat like you? What the hell for? She’s probably a bloody lezzer.”

Carson drew his gladius. “You said you just wanted to talk to her, but now you’re ready to start a fight. This isn’t right, and you goddamn well know it.”

I sighed and drew my sword as well. Two against three was better than one against four, but I would have preferred to settle this without violence. “Gentlemen, we should all go home and get a good night’s rest. In the morning, you can appeal directly to the Phoenix Society. I won’t mention this incident.”

A cry pierced the dusk, and Carson crumpled to his knees, clutching at the stab wound in his belly. I speared one man through the shoulder and spun to face his friends. Sidestepping a thrust from one of the remaining cops, I slashed open his coat and left a bloody gash across his chest.

The constable who first spoke to me picked up a fallen blade and came at me with a weapon in each hand. I caught him in the belly with a lunge. Hearing a snarl behind me, I spun to face the man whose chest I had sliced. He glared at me while pressing his free hand against his wound. “You murderous whore. I’m gonna―”

I pierced the tendon in his elbow, and he dropped his sword. “I haven’t murdered anybody, yet. If you get medical attention in time you’ll all live.”

Sirens filled the air. Two ambulances, a MEPOL patrol car, and a Phoenix Society staff van screeched to a halt beside us. I cleaned my blade and sheathed it, turning my back on the fallen off-duty cops. As paramedics triaged the wounded, I held up my empty hands and decided to get out of London at the first opportunity. This was no place for a holiday.

Track 08: The Heavy - "Oh No! Not You Again!"

Despite my resolve, I was unable to leave London for several days. Not only was I obliged to wait for the Phoenix Society’s official determination that I had acted in self-defense when fighting those off-duty arseholes, but the transit union strike had spread globally. To top everything off, my period proved painful enough to prompt a visit to my gynecologist, who removed my IUD for safety’s sake. Good thing she did; it turned out the device had begun degrading abnormally early.

I booked tickets for the first available maglev to New York, packed my bag, and took it easy for a few days. Jacqueline and some of my artsy friends came to visit, and we put on an impromptu, gender-swapped production of that Scottish play with me as the usurper and Jackie as Macduff. We performed in front of my building, made a hell of a racket, and had too much fun to give a damn.

Jackie came with me to Victoria Station the next morning to see me off. “You sure you’re going to be okay in New York, Nims?”

I went to school there, remember?” I patted the hilt of my sword. “I’ll be fine.”

Sorry, I forgot I was talking to somebody who took out three off-duty constables without a scratch. Just don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” Jackie winked at me.

There was little Jackie wouldn’t do. For example, I caught her and her vicar boyfriend in my kitchen sharing a three-way kiss with the actor who played the role traditionally given to the usurper’s wife in our little production. “Considering what I saw last night, your admonition gives me way too much latitude.”

Yeah, sorry about that. We were all a bit drunk.”

I shrugged, not about to admit I lay awake imagining two men lavishing their attentions on me because of the scene I witnessed. “It’s not like I found the three of you in my bed.”

Jackie smiled. “We were tempted, but I figured you wouldn’t appreciate it.”

Thanks for being the voice of reason.”

See? Miracles do happen.” Jackie glanced over her shoulder, and her eyes widened. She grabbed my arm. “Holy shit. You wouldn’t believe who just showed up, Nims.”

Because seeing was disbelieving, I looked toward the entrance. Oh, damn. John was there with his fiancée and some slag who seemed to be hounding them. Was she paparazzi? Did Jackie somehow arrange this, or was I being paranoid? “Jackie, let’s leave them alone.”

Hell no!” She pulled harder, dragging me along until we blocked John’s path. She gave John a slow, cynical once-over before turning to me. “I can’t believe you settled for this. How long did it take you to train him?”

Adversary Bradleigh!” He backed up a step in his surprise. Recovering his composure, he turned to his companion. “I suppose I should introduce you. This is my fiancée, Christine Pennington. Christine, this is―”

I flashed a smile at Jacqueline and offered Christine my hand. “I’m the other woman.”

John’s expression was priceless. Christine stared, unsure what to make of me. “I beg your pardon? Did you just imply that John cheated on me?”

Jacqueline studied Christine as if deciding whether she deserved an explanation. “John took you for a test ride while still in a relationship with my friend. As far as we’re concerned, you’re the other woman, but Naomi’s trying to be gracious.”

John spread his hands as if appealing for mercy. “Ladies, I hardly think this is appropriate.”

Shut up. I want to hear this.” Christine turned back to me, ignoring her fiancé. “Is your friend telling the truth, Ms.―”

Adversary Naomi Bradleigh.” I offered my hand again, and this time, Christine shook it. “Unfortunately, Jacqueline’s telling the truth. John and I had dated for a year when he met you. After deciding you would prove a tolerable wife, he came to me.

Unaware of this, I let him into my bed. He asked me to be his mistress, which was how I found out about you.”

Christine tilted her head as she considered my explanation. For some reason, she reminded me of an actress from a Jane Austen adaptation. “So, let me see if I understand. He cheated on me with you after he cheated on you with me.”

I nodded. “Pretty much.”

She smiled at me before catching John by his collar. For a moment I thought she might kiss him. She did, catching him off guard as she drove his balls back into his abdomen with a well-placed knee. He crumpled to the floor, his breathless sobs barely audible, as she ripped the engagement ring from her finger and dropped it on him. “I’d be within my rights to keep this, but I want nothing of yours.”

Oh, this is perfect.” The woman who had been stalking John and Christine earlier spoke up from behind her camera. “Tell me, Adversary Bradleigh, do you enjoy breaking up engagements between your betters?”

Jackie came to my aid again. “Bitch, please. Nims wanted to leave them alone. Who the fuck are you, anyway?”

Oh, I’m sorry. I’m Alice Talbot, from the London Social Register. And you must be Adversary Jacqueline Russo. Does that vicar’s congregation know what you do with him at night?”

It’s none of their business, or yours unless you want to join in.”

Talbot flashed a sly smile before turning to Christine. “Ms. Pennington, can you offer some insight into what it’s like to realize your husband-to-be kept a CPMD-positive mistress from you?”

I’ve no idea what you’re on about.” Christine glanced at Jackie and me. “Adversaries, would you care to remind Ms. Talbot of our right to privacy?”

I let my sword-hand hover over the hilt as if I were ready to draw. “Go chase the White Rabbit, Alice. I heard that he takes turns with the Mad Hatter servicing the Queen of Hearts. Surely that’s the sort of high-society gossip your readers crave.”

Leaving Talbot to mull that over, we escaped into a café. Christine was kind enough to do the buying. We chatted until the station AI pinged me. “Adversary Bradleigh, the Tradewinds Atlantic Express is now boarding.”

As I rose to take my leave, Christine offered Jacqueline and me her card. I glanced at it before slipping it into a pocket. “What manner of antiques are your specialty?”

Weapons.” Christine glanced at my sword while Jackie ducked into the ladies’. “Is that a Nakajima Sidewinder Mark One?”

I doubt it. It’s a custom model.” I drew the blade to display the maker’s mark. She didn’t need to know about the pilot program to outfit newly-sworn Adversaries with tailor-made swords. The elegantly rendered column of hiragana read, “Forged for Naomi Bradleigh by Nakajima Kaoru.”

It’s beautiful.” The reverence in Christine’s voice surprised me. “Do you use this blade on duty?”

I shrugged. “Of course.”

I suppose I should have expected as much.” The awe left her voice. I sheathed my blade as Jacqueline returned. “Nobody wears a sword they’re not prepared to use in a fight. If you come across another piece, however…”

I flashed back to Maestro’s rapier, still hidden in my closet. “I’ll be sure to keep you in mind, Christine. Thank you for the coffee, but I should go.”

After a parting hug from Jacqueline, I boarded my maglev and stowed my bag in the semi-private compartment’s overhead storage rack with plenty of time to spare. Settling into a plush leather seat, I was about to crack open a paperback I grabbed from the station’s lending rack when a girl’s voice startled me. “Holy crispy crap, Mom. It’s Cecilia Harvey from Last Reverie!”

An auburn-haired preteen stood in the aisle, staring at me. She wore a bomber jacket over a purple dress speckled with white stars and little black ankle boots. A plush Programmer Cat nestled in the crook of her arm. Her mother put away their luggage and looked out from the compartment opposite mine. “Claire, it isn’t polite to stare.”

It’s fine, ma’am.” Claire took my words as permission to take a seat across from me. “My younger brother is a Last Reverie fan. He says Cecilia’s a brave knight who loves her king, rescues him time and time again, and―”

No spoilers!” Claire covered her ears and stomped her foot. “It’s not fair. I never got to play enough of the game to see any of that for myself.”

God, she sounded like Nathan used to when I had managed to read an installment of The Continuing Misadventures of Programmer Cat before him. “I’m sorry, Claire. I didn’t realize.”

Claire continued to pout until her mother intervened. “Claire, the lady apologized. What do we say?”

She sniffled, and looked at her mother before turning back to me. “I’m sorry, too. Fuckdammit, that was rude of me.” She brightened a bit. “Oh, bollocks. I didn’t even ask your name.”

I offered the salty-tongued little fangirl my hand. “I’m Naomi Bradleigh. Keep this to yourself, but I’m actually an Adversary. I snuck out so I could have a holiday.” Claire perked up and turned toward her mother. “Holy shitballs, Mom. She really is a knight.”

Her mother sighed. “I’m sorry. I keep trying to teach Claire to watch her mouth. I just can’t explain where she gets it.”

Your little girl reminds me of a friend of mine.”

Are her tits as big as yours?”

I smiled at Claire’s long-suffering mother as she sighed and shook her head. If Claire was this bawdy as a little girl, I doubted her parents looked forward to her adolescence. Even if they could find a nunnery in which to confine her, I suspected she’d corrupt even the most devoted by sheer force of will and personality. “It’s fine, ma’am. I’m not offended.”

She smiled at me, came over, and offered her hand. “I’m Lucy Ashecroft. I suppose this will prove a long trip.”

I shook Lucy’s hand before glancing at Claire. She had settled beside me with a laptop to play what appeared to be a game of global thermonuclear war. Hopefully, it was just a crude simulation. The last thing I needed was for New York to not be there when we arrived.

Track 09: Duke Ellington – "Solitude"

The journey to New York was hardly as long as Lucy Ashecroft predicted. Which proved that Lucy didn’t understand her daughter’s fundamental problem. The girl was lonely and related better to adults than she did to kids her own age.

I could sympathize; I was little different. Neither of us had any notion of how to be little girls, so we tried to fake it while masking our impatience to escape childhood. I found my escape through music. I suspected Claire would find hers through tech, considering how she had grilled me with questions about Malkuth and the other Sephiroth once she got bored with her game.

Beyond having booked passage and a couple of nights lodging in central Manhattan, I had no definite plans for my leave. I had figured I’d hit Midtown and find something to do after I checked in and dropped off my bag. However, the events and attractions display in the Hellfire Club’s lobby cycled through its programming without catching my interest.

I didn’t want to take a bus tour of Manhattan, being too familiar with the city from my student days. Broadway offered nothing I hadn’t seen back home. My implant’s memory still held photos of me and my fellow ACS cadets at the Statue of Liberty and other tourist attractions. And I felt too restless and energetic to wander the city’s museums.

A sign outside the hotel bar caught my eye: ‘Pianist Wanted.’ I removed the sign from the door, sat at the bar, and placed it before the bartender. “I play, and I’m available tonight and tomorrow. Who should I contact concerning an audition?”

The bartender studied me a moment before speaking with a voice made for crooning. “The piano’s behind you, miss. Show me what you’ve got.”

I caressed the baby grand’s keys before sitting down. It was a pre-Nationfall instrument lovingly maintained and perfectly tuned. The presence of such an antique in the hotel bar suggested a refined clientèle. I tried some jazz, playing a few standards from memory before beginning to improvise, and continued until I became conscious of the bartender’s presence beside me.

He seemed pleased with me. “I’ll need you to play from six to midnight. A hundred milligrams a night plus tips, and dinner before you start. Sound fair?”

I checked the time. It was one in the afternoon. “Fair enough. Anything else?”

The bartender nodded. “One more thing. Do you have anything formal to wear?”

That’s my reward for letting caprice guide me. “I’ll have to buy something. I suppose you’ll want me to leave the sword in my room.”

I’ll keep it behind the bar for you. Yell if you need it.”

I can live with that.” My first gig since before I took the oath, and I had nothing to wear. Nothing for it but to go shopping. An ankle-length black dress with a sweetheart neckline at a boutique called Frigga’s Loom caught my eye. Since they didn’t have it in my size, I paid extra to have it fitted and fabricated within the hour.

I made a week’s salary that night and double the next. Word must have spread. The money meant less than the opportunity to perform in front of an audience not comprised of family and friends. Playing for the bar’s patrons offered a thrill of power I could enjoy without guilt. Their hushed attention was adoration, their rapt gazes―caresses.

When I was done, I longed for a lover who would adore me with more than his hushed attention and rapt gaze. I spied several handsome men among the patrons, but I couldn’t bring myself to invite any of them to my room. After playing my heart out, I wanted more from a man than a night of pleasure, but this was not the time.

Instead of chatting, I claimed a stool at the bar and ordered a glass of wine. I listened to a pair of women beside me discussing resettlement efforts.

I’m not sure why people are bothering to fill in the old towns between New York and Pittsburgh instead of spreading out west, but I won’t complain.”

Plenty of prime farmland in between, especially around Clarion. Ever been there?”

No. You?”

Last year for the fair. Some of the local rock bands are pretty tight. Not sure I’d go back, though.”

How come?”

A couple of people disappeared while I was there. They were visitors, like me. The locals searched the woods, but eventually shrugged it off and went back to their business. One of ‘em turned up a week later, but not the other.”

Sounds creepy. I’m surprised the Phoenix Society hasn’t gotten involved.”

So was I. I reclaimed my sword from the bartender and returned to my room for privacy and a change of clothes. After putting away my dress and shoes, I called Malkuth.

The AI seemed surprised to see me. “Did you miss me, Naomi?”

Yes, but I didn’t call because I was lonely.” I suppose I was flirting a bit with Mal, but I doubted it would do any harm.

Do tell.”

Can you provide any information on disappearances in a town called Clarion? It’s situated between New York and Pittsburgh.”

Malkuth’s presence faded. It was as if somebody had caught his attention. I waited for a couple of minutes and was about to speak before he refocused on me. “I’m sorry, Adversary Bradleigh, but you’re not cleared for any information related to the town of Clarion.”

What do you mean, I’m not cleared?” I was more curious than indignant; I had never heard of an Adversary being denied access to information on any grounds other than privacy rights. Talk of clearance smacked of pre-Nationfall espionage thrillers.

Malkuth shook his head. “I’m not permitted to explain. Orders from the Executive Council. Sorry.”

I understand. Sorry if I caused you any trouble. I just overheard a conversation and got curious.” Why would the Executive Council order him to hide information about Clarion?

After disconnecting, I decided to nip back down to the hotel bar. The businesswomen I overheard earlier had left, and the bar had emptied out a bit. As I claimed a stool, a young man settled beside me and cleared his throat. “Hello. I saw you play earlier. I still can’t believe you’re real.”

I smiled at him. He was a handsome kid, though his manner suggested he was still a bit shy around women. “Thank you.”

He looked past me. I discreetly followed his gaze to a table crowded with youths egging him on. “They’re my friends. I earned my degree today, and they dared me to buy you a drink and hit on you.”

Congratulations. Perhaps I should get you a drink, instead. You seem nervous.” I smiled at him and gently touched his hand. “It’s all right. What’s your name, anyway?”

Cliff.” He blushed, and looked at the bar. “How did you know?”

I have brothers.” I didn’t mention that they told me tales of their own amorous adventures to ensure I was forewarned and thus forearmed. “Also, I’m an Adversary.”

That got Cliff’s attention. “No way. You’re an incredible musician and an Adversary?”

His awestruck expression reminded me more of Claire than of a newly minted university graduate. “Your heart really isn’t in this game, is it?”

He shook his head. “I have a girlfriend, but she’s visiting her family tonight, and my friends thought I could do better if only I tried.” He smiled at me. “The thing is, I don’t want to do better. I love Isabel.”

I motioned the bartender over. “Have a drink on me, while I deal with your friends.”

Before he could object, I advanced upon his friends wearing the sauciest smile I could muster. “I need to borrow Cliff for the night. You will have to manage without him.”

I returned to the bar with a little swagger and gently touched Cliff’s shoulder before whispering in his ear. “When you’re done, come with me. I’ll sneak you out, and you can get away from those losers.”

Track 10: Judas Priest - "Hell Bent For Leather"

The bartender looked so heartbroken by my departure this morning that I took pity on him and promised to stop for a repeat engagement before returning to London. No doubt Jacqueline would insist he had fallen for me, but I suspected he was more infatuated with the metric shitload of money I helped him make.

I hit the streets wondering what I should do with my share of the windfall. Investing was right out. I already did that with a chunk of my Adversary’s salary before I paid my bills. No way was I about to do banal shit with money I earned on vacation.

What I wanted was something fun, something I could keep to conjure the memories I would make by taking a trip to Clarion and poking around. My curiosity was well and truly piqued by last night’s conversation with Malkuth, and I had nothing better to do. The question was how to get there. Hopping a train to Pittsburgh and backtracking by bus was simple enough, but ticket stubs made poor souvenirs.

A gang of bikers on restored gasoline-powered choppers rumbled to a stop at the street corner. Their rides’ idling growl muffled their laughter and conversation. On closer inspection, the group looked a little too clean cut. Instead of an outlaw biker gang, they were a crew of weekenders trading business suits for leathers. A wannabe one-percenter who just needed a woman half his age riding pillion to complete his midlife crisis looked at me and called out, “Hey, sexy! Wanna climb aboard and have the ride of your life?”

His catcall helped me reach a decision. It was time to fulfill a childhood dream and get a horse of my own – an iron horse. I waved at him. “Thanks, mate, but I think I’ll get my own ride. Know a good dealer?”

He didn’t stick around long enough for me to finish my question but peeled out with his crew the second the light changed. Bollocks to him, then. If he was that impatient, I doubt he could have given me a halfway decent ride anyway.

Not that I needed him. A cab advertising a Conquest Motorcycles dealer in Hell’s Kitchen drove past. Capturing the address with my implant, I found the shortest route from my location in the Upper West Side and set out on foot. It wasn’t far, and I did promise Director Chattan I’d keep up with my PT.

I stopped for coffee and a bagel at a delicatessen called Maimonides’ Deli, which was often full of old gentlemen arguing over chess in as wide a variety of languages as the deli’s selection of bagels. I used to stop here every morning before classes, and I remembered the clerk. His namesake was a famous philosopher. “Hello, Mr. Spinoza. It’s been a while.”

Spinoza’s dentures flashed as he smiled. “Medium black coffee and a toasted everything bagel with plain cream cheese. Aren’t you late for class, Ms. Bradleigh?”

I laughed as I paid him. “I graduated a couple of years ago, and was assigned to the London chapter.”

Ah! I remember now. You made a point of stopping in to tell me. Are you happy?” He handed me my coffee and bagel.

Rather than answer, I tried my bagel. It was as good as I remembered. The crunch of delicious sourdough topped with sea salt, poppy and sesame seeds, and roasted onion and garlic contrasted with the slightly salty-sweet cream cheese. The coffee was perfect and blacker than Sabbath. “I’m content for now. Did you know I haven’t been able to find a decent bagel anywhere in London? You should encourage one of your grandkids to come set up shop.”

Mr. Spinoza chuckled. “You should come back to New York, then. I could introduce you to my grandson. He sells motorcycles. He makes serious money, and you could focus on your music.”

His suggestion was such an old-fashioned sentiment for the end of the twenty-first century that it seemed almost ridiculous, but he meant well. “Does he sell Conquests here in Hell’s Kitchen, by any chance? I’m on my way to buy a chopper and ride west.”

I’ll tell him to expect you.”

Some new customers walked in, so I stepped aside to give them access to the counter. “I’d appreciate that, Mr. Spinoza. It was good to see you again.”

Have a good day, Naomi.”

The rest of my walk was slow and pleasant as I ate my breakfast. Before I knew it, I had arrived at Spinoza Motors with my half-finished coffee still in hand. A man resembling Mr. Spinoza finished his conversation with one of his sales staff before coming to greet me. “You must be Naomi Bradleigh. Papa Baruch didn’t tell me you’d be gorgeous. I’m Jacob Spinoza.”

What did he tell you, Mr. Spinoza?”

Just that I was to treat you right.” Spinoza chuckled as he opened the door to his office and beckoned me inside. “Said he didn’t want me delegating you to one of my staff lest they try to sell you on a Vestal.”

My imagination drew a blank as I tried to visualize myself riding a Vestal. No doubt I’d look prim and proper riding such a cute little scooter, but it wouldn’t be me. Rather than follow him into his office, I cut to the chase. “I appreciate your personal attention. Can you show me your Conquests?”

A Conquest?” Spinoza studied me for a moment. “Yeah, I can see it. You know what? I’ve got a model that might be perfect for you out back.” He let the office door snick shut behind him and led me to a rear exit near the garage’s waiting area.

At least twenty Conquest Type C bikes leaned on their kickstands, parked side-by-side. All but one was black, and indistinguishable from the model shown in all of Conquest’s advertising. Conquest Motorcycles only made one type of motorcycle, and you could have it in any color you wanted as long as you liked black.

The lone exception stood apart from the others. It sat lower, to caress the road. The suspension looked capable of providing a smooth ride across lunar regolith. Part of the frame had been cut away to accommodate bigger batteries and a more powerful motor. Crimson paint and polished chrome flashed in the sun, challenging me to mount up. “It’s gorgeous. May I try it out?”

Jacob produced a key fob and tossed it to me. “Of course. Mind if I ride pillion?”

After we had returned from our test ride, I flashed my best stage smile at Jacob while caressing the leather seat. “Tell me more.”

He cleared his throat. “The NDA won’t let me name names, but this was a custom job for a rock musician you’ve probably heard of. He paid half as a deposit but died in a helicopter crash a couple weeks ago. His estate wouldn’t pay the rest or accept delivery.”

I could guess at who Jacob meant and its implication on the price expected, but it wasn’t germane to the discussion. The relevant fact was that Jacob Spinoza had a custom job he wanted to move, and he would use the implication of star power to jack the price up. “How much did he owe?”

He owed fifty grams.”

Fifty? Fifty! Fifty grams when I got my coffee and bagel for two point five milligrams in the middle of fucking Manhattan?! There was no way in any hell imagined by humanity I was going to pay such an exorbitant sum. I could buy three bog-standard Conquest Type Cs with money to spare for lunch, tolls, trans-Atlantic shipping, and a down payment on a three-bedroom house outside London for the price this slick bastard was trying to extort.

I closed the distance between us and picked a bit of lint from his jacket. “I hope you can offer me a better deal than that, Mr. Spinoza. I’m willing to bet you turned a modest profit already from the deposit.”

Jacob shook his head. “I’m sorry, Ms. Bradleigh, but I’m still five grams in the hole. The battery and engine are also custom work. You can cross five hundred kilometers in two hours before you need to recharge. You can go even further if you don’t go above a hundred and twenty an hour.”

Ten grams sounds reasonable. Half of that is profit for you, and triple your markup on a plain Type C.”

Jacob mastered himself quickly, but I still caught the ‘How dare she insult me like that?’ expression in the way his eyes tightened for just a moment. I smiled at him and sweetened the deal. “Ten grams. Cash. And I still need to buy a helmet.”

Jacob shook his head. “I need at least fifteen.”

The hell you do.” I stepped away from the chopper, my hand resting on the hilt of my sword. “Seven and a half.”

That’s less than your original offer!” Jacob was rather cute when flustered.

I can go lower. Don’t tempt me.” I circled the bike, taking a closer look. “Whether you turn a profit on this deal is no concern of mine, especially since you might be bullshitting me. The recently deceased unnamable celebrity whose estate won’t take delivery is an old con.”

Grandpa told me you were this sweet, innocent girl. You’re staring me down like you’re ready to pull your sword on me.”

He was still flustered, and still cute. But if he’s going to drag the kindly old man into this, it was time for the claws. “So, you thought you could take advantage of me? Listen, asshole, I don’t care if your grandfather is God. Six grams is my final offer.”

Track 11: Bruce Dickinson - "Devil on a Hog"

I did manage to wrangle Spinoza down to six grams before he yielded. Guilt at my harsh treatment nagged at me, but I suppressed it with an effort; he was out to get the best deal he could, just like me. The bike grabbed my heart with the first purr, but I wasn’t going to admit it to him. I needed him to think I was willing to walk out empty-handed.

Dropping a couple hundred milligrams at the accessory shop assuaged what little guilt I felt at ramming such a hard bargain down his throat. After all, I needed a helmet, boots, gloves, and a shoulder harness for my sword. By the time I stopped for a rest on I-80 a hundred kilometers west of New York, I felt pretty damn good.

The rest stop was an island of commerce carved out of the forest that had encroached upon the interprovincial highway after Nationfall. I had my choice of fast food between Agni Burger, Eight Immortals Buffet, Apollo Coffee, and Borgia Pizza. At ACS we used to joke about how anybody who called Borgia Pizza with a complaint ended up in the East River.

It was necessary to get away from cities like New York or London to see what Nationfall had done to the world, and I hoped that my generation was smart enough to learn from history instead of repeating it. Damn near everything fell apart in 2048 after the world’s governments, corporations, and organized religions started pushing psychiatric nanotech called The Patch. They said it would fix humanity’s problems. They lied unless a close brush with extinction constituted a fix.

Mum and Dad don’t talk about it, but they survived a nanotech-induced zombie apocalypse as little kids. If I wanted to top that kind of badassery, I think I’d have to arrest God for crimes against humanity and drag his arse down to earth to stand trial.

I wasn’t hungry, or inclined to epic feats of courage, so I ducked into the ladies’. By some miracle of janitorial effort, the bathroom looked clean enough to eat in. For a nominal fee, I could have rented a locker and had a shower before resuming my journey―assuming I was too strapped to rent a room for the night. The nearby motel even had a discount on the honeymoon suite.

My implant notified me of an incoming call from Baruch Spinoza on my way out. What could he want? Only one way to know. I pulled out my phone, which connected to my implant and served mainly to prevent people from thinking I was talking to myself, and sat down. “Hello?”

Hello, Naomi. How d’you like your chopper?”

I almost regret the way I bargained with your grandson.”

Spinoza gave a wheezy chuckle. “Don’t worry about him. He pocketed five grams off that deal.”

Dammit, I should have driven a harder bargain, but hearing Jacob didn’t make out as badly as I thought was a relief. “Good for him.”

A sigh on the other end. “I guess you won’t be meeting Jacob for dinner when you come back to the city.”

Me, date Jacob Spinoza? Sure. Right after Hell freezes over. Or the rest of Hell, if Dante wasn’t making it all up. “I think I’ll just stop by for my usual before I catch the maglev home.”

I stepped outside after he hung up, and found another motorcycle charging in the stall behind mine. Its chrome was dull, the front tire worn, and one of the mirrors remained attached through a combination of desperation and duct tape. The rider was equally disreputable. He squinted at me through a haze as he smoked what had to be the fattest blunt known to man.

The wind shifted as he studied me. Only the rifle peeking over his shoulder kept me from dismissing him as a lecherous old stoner. It was a distinctive weapon, and any Adversary who listened to scuttlebutt would have recognized the sleazy-looking old biker carrying it. What the hell was Edmund Cohen doing here?

He tapped the ashes from his blunt, careless of where the wind blew them. “I can see why Malkuth wants a hardware upgrade.”

I’m not sure why that’s any concern of yours, sir. You haven’t even introduced yourself.”

The biker reddened as if shamed, held the blunt out to his side, and bowed from the waist. “Sorry about that, Adversary Bradleigh. I’m Edmund Cohen. Most of the shit your friends told you about me is pure slander, I promise.”

Even the flattering things?” Not that I had heard much to flatter Cohen. His saving grace was his skill with that Dragunov of his. He’s a good man to have at your back in a firefight or a pub crawl, but don’t lend him money or leave him alone with your girlfriend.

He flashed a handsome smile that made him resemble an espionage film hero. “Especially those.”

My guard was up because I was riding alone with only a sword for protection, but Cohen’s self-deprecating humor eased me a little. I offered my hand. “I’d introduce myself, but Malkuth beat me to it. What else did he tell you?”

Just enough to pique my interest.” Cohen glanced at his dashboard. “I’m heading west as far as the I-81 exit. Mind if I ride with you a bit?”

No harm in it, I suppose.” Glancing over my shoulder as I mounted up, I caught the old lech perving on me like I suspected he would. I was tempted to blow him a kiss, but that was more Jackie’s style. “Sure you can keep up?”

I left him there, hitting the on ramp at the current recommended speed. Aside from occasional RVs that I passed as they trundled along in the right lane, I had the highway to myself. The wind played with my hair, streaming it behind me as it pressed my sunglasses against my face. Though it hurt a little and would surely leave marks, I didn’t care. Astride my Conquest, I was young and strong; no power on earth could oppose me.

No power save Edmund Cohen. He finally caught up with me, and requested a secure talk session. Though our engines were all but silent, using our implants was still easier than shouting at each other over the wind. «What do you want?»

«Malkuth told me you were interested in Clarion. Why?»

Hmm… He wasn’t flirting, or pissing about with small talk now that we’re alone. Why was that? There was only one way to find out. «I heard about some unsolved disappearances. I’m curious as to why nobody seems to give a shit.»

«You know what curiosity did to the cat, right?»

«I understand the cat got better.» Time to try a gamble while I had the old man’s attention. Though I didn’t know for sure that Eddie was on the Executive Council, I figured implying that I knew might shake loose info he would otherwise keep to himself. He certainly wasn’t an Adversary or a Director. «I also understand you’re XC. Think you can tell me anything about Clarion?»

«Sorry, but you’re not cleared. In fact, I’ve got orders to persuade you to spend your vacation somewhere else. Clarion isn’t your problem.»

Catching sight of the road signs ahead, I opened the throttle and left Cohen behind. «You’re going to miss your exit, Eddie.»

«Shit!» He swerved to get onto the ramp, and I thought for a moment he might lose control. «At least call Saul Rosenbaum at the New York chapter for backup if you find anything!»

The session cut out. He must have used a near-field connection, implant to implant, instead of the network. Who the hell did Cohen think I was, anyway? Of course I would call the local office for backup if I found something real in Clarion. I might have been too curious for my own good, but I wasn’t a demon-ridden idiot. Hell, I would probably call Rosenbaum when I get there as a professional courtesy.

My sunglasses proved a wise purchase as the sun led me westward to the Route 62 exit. Trafficnet advised me to take it, and to expect a rougher road than I-80. Rougher was something of an understatement. Route 62 had not yet been modernized, so it was nothing but faded asphalt with freshly painted lines and black patches where maintenance crews had filled in potholes. Network access was sporadic here, without the access points the Interprovincial provided every hundred meters.

Horse-pulled buggies filled with Pennsylvania Deutsch families slowed my progress every couple of kilometers. Having never shared a road with carriages before, I decelerated to avoid spooking the animals.

The road emptied once I passed the last farm and drove into an old forest threatening to encroach upon the highway. Because it was almost too dark to see, I pulled over to the narrow shoulder to remove my sunglasses.

A pair of deer mating in the middle of the road stopped me from continuing right away. While I could ride around them, scaring them into action, there was no predicting which way they’d bolt. It was too risky. “Oi, Bambi!” The buck turned his head to gaze on me, but maintained his position. “Did you two have to start shagging in the middle of the bloody highway?”

Though it was all but impossible for the doe to have understood me, she pulled free of her suitor’s embrace. He remained, hard and frustrated, as she bounded off into the woods. I snapped a photo and sent it to Jacqueline with a message: “They grow ‘em big over here.” She’d get a kick out of that.

The buck stared at me a moment before lowering his head to threaten me with his antlers. Well, I suppose I did cockblock the poor bastard. I turned on my bike’s V-Twin emulation and revved the engine. The rumbling growl of a gasoline-powered chopper shattered the silence, startling the buck into bolting after his lost mate.

The forest eventually yielded to more farmland. Buggies pulled over to let me pass as their drivers heard me coming. The Conquest purred beneath me as I rode into Clarion at a bicycle’s pace to avoid hitting pedestrians.

One child saw me and pulled his mother’s arm. “Mommylookit! It’s Cecilia Harvey on a hog!”

Oh, dear. Being compared to a videogame character was cute when Claire did it, but it was getting old fast. Perhaps I needed a different hairstyle. The mother turned to pay attention to her son, so I stopped beside her. “Excuse me, ma’am. Is there somewhere I could stay overnight?”

She pointed down the road. “Try the Lonely Mountain.” Before I could thank her, she led her son away to continue on her business. So much for country hospitality.

Despite being a small town, Clarion’s main street bustled in a manner that made me a little homesick. They had everything here, even a nerd shop called Kaylee’s Shiny Games, Hobbies, and Crafts.

One of the windows at Kaylee’s displayed a poster for the new edition of Advanced Catacombs & Chimeras, a tabletop game I remembered from university. Another window was devoted to coming soon posters for computer games like Nationfall: Final War and True Goddess Metempsychosis III - Call of the Lightbringer. The latter claimed to include an artbook and soundtrack on vinyl with every copy, and seemed to involve yet another demonic invasion of Tokyo. I swear… the place must be accursed.

A plump brunette in overalls and a Pulsecannon t-shirt leaned against the entrance while polishing some kind of game miniature that resembled a grotesque porcine creature wielding a minigun in each hand. Her eyes widened as I passed by. “Excuse me! Did you know you look just like―”

I pulled over so I could talk without holding up traffic. “Cecilia Harvey? I get that a lot lately. It must be the hair.”

I was gonna say you look like Lady Frostmane. From the samurai movies by Ryuhei Miyamoto? All you need is a katana and a kimono.” My utter ignorance of the work of Ryuhei Miyamoto must have been painted across my face, because she stopped geeking out and approached. “Welcome to Clarion. I’m Kaylee Chambers.”

I offered my hand. “Naomi Bradleigh. Can you tell me where to find the Lonely Mountain?”

Clutching her miniature in her polishing hand, she gave mine a hearty shake. “Give me a minute to lock up and I’ll show you the way. Nothing like a beer after work, right?”

Last updated: 19 April 2018