A young waitress brought Jon a cherrywood serving board with his breakfast. She wore a neat shirt with rolled-up sleeves and a striped apron in a multitude of colors. She gave him a silent smile. There was more allure and suggestion in this than in any conversation. She said nothing but her quiet courtesy spoke to Jon of potential. He smiled and watched her go before turning his eyes to the steam wisping past his face.
There was challah French toast still flecked with egg served with porcelain cups of earthy maple syrup, butter that was the thickness of custard and lingonberry jam, a little tray of pork belly bacon fried in duck fat, and a sterling silver coffee carafe with a tiny decanter of fresh cream.
Jon got after it with relief. His mind had been burdened that last night, and what sleep he’d gotten had been on the concrete floor of a Diadem Gendarmes solitary confinement cell.
A great many things had weighed on him as he walked to the restaurant. First came the murder of the receptionist at the lodging house where Daniel Stanton, the rogue Starling & Shrike agent who had Jon killed the day before, had been lodging. This was a cover-up, and to Jon it heralded the presence of absolute evil in Diadem. He knew this was the first place he’d go after refreshing himself in the diner. He was no use to anyone living or dead if he was half-crazed with hunger and fatigue.
The second thing which had been on his mind was the silicasilk scarf given to him by George Baysinger, the venerable Starling & Shrike Contracting Officer which their home city and mutual employer had posted in Diadem. Jon called for a steak knife from a passing busboy and glanced around the diner. Jon was no strange sight here, and nobody was paying him any mind. He put the knife on the table by its base and balanced it upright with his scarf, pressing the tip into the shimmering metallic fabric. The knife poked into the scarf but Jon saw no metal cutting through the threads. He pushed harder and the knife shot off the table with a slam, bouncing against the chair of the man across the aisle from him with a thwap. Jon’s heart skipped a beat.
“Holy shit! Watch it, jerkoff!” the man snarled, eyes wide and livid.
“Sorry! I’ll stop fucking around,” Jon said, alarmed. He reached down and picked up the steak knife where it was spinning by the heel of his Oxford shoe. The tip of the knife was bent like a hitchhiker’s thumb.
The man was glowering at Jon from the corner of his eye. Jon had a heightened sense of self-consciousness as the other patrons glanced at him, but he wasn’t nearly as sheepish as he would have been a couple days ago. Something about the gunfight had put things in perspective in a way that seemed to be permanent. Jon knew he needed to avoid doing things like he’d just done, but he couldn’t feel like it was that big of a deal, all things considered.
The final thing which had been occupying his mind was Dan Stanton, the boy he’d killed the day before. Jon was making his peace with this. The world had been dead to Daniel. He’d cut himself off from mankind and seemed to be on a path to violence. Jon’s regret remained that he'd never met Daniel before the day he died. Jon knew something about their upbringing; it had been an impossibly long affair of rigor and conformity. A fourteen year apprenticeship instead of a childhood and adolescence. There had been comfort, there had even been travel and love for some students, but Daniel had experienced none of these bracing things. Perhaps Jon could have brought Daniel towards them.
Jon knew what he had to do in lieu of this. He’d sworn an oath to himself while he stood by the Shrine of Saint Nina that he would murder no rogue agents the way his benefactor, the Council Inspector Joshua Currant, had asked him to do. Jon would bring them back to Starling & Shrike to be questioned. To be examined. So they could be learned from.
This was settled. The darkening mystery that consumed Jon’s thoughts was the murdered receptionist and everything that her death could imply. Jon paid, wiped his mouth with a soft, ample napkin, stood up quietly, and made for the door.
Jon approached a sandstone brick wall surrounding the lodging house where Daniel Stanton had been staying. It was engraved all across its surface with architectural diagrams that seemed to alternate and flow together like an extended bolt of harlequin cloth patterned in hexgrid and crisscross.
The boarding house was built into a foundation of this tower’s outer wall which ran up into the story above like a monumental stela. Jon circled around in the shade of the wall until he saw a pair of blue-suited gendarmerie cuirassiers with bolt-action rifles idling by an archway. He felt a sense of foreboding at their vividly pale faces. One of them glanced at Jon, paunchy beneath the eyes. Jon spoke first, hoping to put the men at ease.
“Jon Dart, Starling & Shrike.”
“Hey. Been expecting you. You eat breakfast?” one of the gendarmes rasped as they shook hands.
“Yeah,” said Jon.
“Too bad. Go head,” said the gendarme.
Jon glanced through the archway. The building was a presidio-style longhouse with a low front deck covered by a cloister. There were a few wooden rocking chairs on the deck, which faced the tower’s terminus so as to bathe it in the sunrise and sunset.
The wooden front door was slightly ajar, and it gave Jon a tremendous sense of foreboding. Space seemed to stretch as he looked at it, and visions of hidden hammermen and walls painted with blood and bone began to possess him. He recalled the slaughterhouse that Daniel Stanton had made of the room where he’d fallen and died after Jon had mortally wounded him. Jon shook his head.
The gendarmes were looking at him, but they were neither prodding nor condemning his hesitation.
Jon had to know what was beyond the door in the room where the woman had died. If it was hammermen, so be it. Jon decided that he would find vent in that. He began walking towards the door. Everything seemed like a vision in a dream.
He reached the deck and traversed it silently. He reached beneath the back of his coat and laid a hand on his .45 semiautomatic pistol. He put his back to the door and peered through the crack. There was no blood.
Jon moved the door an iota with his heel. No creak. He opened it smoothly and silently from where he stood against the wall, glancing in once it was all the way open. Nothing but a reception area and a dark hallway with doors on either side. He entered.
There was a counter with a brass lamp and a white mug filled with fountain pens. Across the room from the counter there were a pair of plump armchairs covered in off-white fabric. Jon made his way to a little swinging door which led behind the counter, but he paused, and then just stuck his head over the top of the counter like he was popping up during a gunfight. There was the woman’s corpse. He set his hands on the countertops and looked down at her with mounting horror and grief.
It was worse than Jon had imagined. He had pictured a totally shattered head like a broken eggshell. Blood, brains, not much face left. It was nothing like that.
Whoever had walloped her had continued long past cracking visible indentations into her skull, where hair had been beaten into little tracts of visible brain between broken-in triangular concaves of bone. The thing that really transfixed Jon was that her face had come unmoored from its proper place after the destruction of her scalp and the blows which had been rained directly onto her face. It seemed to be twisted slightly around the side of her head like a limp mask, distorted and twisting up on itself, hanging a little away from the paint-red gore of her skull laying skinless.
Jon tore his eyes away, leaned his head between his arms and gazed at the floor, eyes wide, trying to cleanse his mind with the normality of the carpet, which was green with a golden diamond pattern across it. He stood up straight suddenly like a fish coming out of the water, gazing at the ceiling as he turned towards the door.
He walked away from the countertop but the scene seemed to grow in horror and numinous antimagnetism as he walked away from it. Like he could never go back and see it again if he kept walking. Like the corpse would turn into a source of evil, that the murder scene would become a cipher that Jon could never face. A thing that was too powerful for him to match. Jon stopped in his tracks, wavering slightly.
He thought to himself,
The Saints of our history must have had to face this kind of thing all the time. I never really realized what that meant.
Jon turned and faced the counter. There was an evil radiance that seemed to be pushing him towards the door, and he felt slightly sick, but he walked towards the little turnstile and went around the counter. The woman was laid at his feet in a manner that felt perverse to him. He looked at the flesh-wrapped skull again and felt the same twinge he’d felt at seeing Dan Stanton’s butchered corpse. This time it was colored more by existential dread and darkness than by physical upset.
He felt horror and hatred at the thought of a human being doing this. What kind of monstrous… demonic ape would a person have to become before they could take a hammer and do this to an innocent woman? For a moment Jon thought, Maybe Daniel was right. Maybe I’m sheltered and we are just demons waiting for a chance to break free and commit the worst crime we can conceive of. If this was within human capacity, maybe it’s inside of every human’s capacity.
Jon shook his head. No. Think of counterexamples. George Baysinger would never do anything like this. He would want me to think deeper about the context. Think about all the places people end up in life, the different things that a life path might enable you to do. Might compel you to do.
Jon shook his head. Nothing had compelled this, and Jon wasn’t even that sure anything had ‘allowed’ the killer his indulgence, either, except for his total alienation from the human race. If all that is given you turns sour in your mouth, and you will not seek your own path to meaning, why not experience the predatory thrill of the most brutal murder possible? It wasn’t like Jon had felt no satisfaction at killing Daniel Stanton.
Jon understood that this crime had some kind of sick attractiveness; the call of ultimate freedom, the freedom to rob, rape and murder. Crocodile freedom. That was the source of the feeling of ineffable evil that Jon had encountered when beholding the corpse for the first time; whoever had done this had enjoyed it. It wasn’t a wild animal or a stark raving lunatic who had bludgeoned this woman. It was a man who’d fallen far away from his faculties of conscience, who’d twisted them into evil, or had never given ear to them in the first place.
Jon took a knee next to the body.
He thought, There aren’t many people like that. Now, there are plenty of people who will kill in war. There are people who will kill thieves. There are people who kill over insults. There are people who kill policemen. But almost none of them would do this.
Even Joshua Currant would not have done this. Under any circumstances. That thought gave Jon comfort.
His thoughts had run to the perpetrator. Of breaking him on the wheel. Flaying him alive. Boiling him to death. There was no punishment great enough.
But now he was overcome with compassion for the woman as he gazed down at her body.
Your trial is over. Perhaps forgotten. The score is wiped clean, sweet one. You cannot be hurt anymore. God willing you’ve lived with love and discovered what you hoped to discover in this world. God willing you’ve walked in the sun with your friends and family. God willing you lived with peace and left just a little undone. It’s alright now. Rest in peace.
Jon besought the powers that be with these last three words. He bent his head with tears in his eyes.
Gods and Saints, Ancestors All, I pray to you from this woman’s side. I beseech you, give her peace and absolution, balm the wounds in her soul so she can look back and smile at the time when she walked in the House of Light with her friends and family. Prepare a place, let them meet again when the turmoil of this life has become like the rain outside your home. And give her a halo for her head.
Gods, Saints, Ancestors All, give me strength and guide me, if you will, while I become her arbiter, executor and, if need be, executioner on this earth. It is mine to take up her cause. I will carry it out. I swear it.
Jon opened his eyes and looked upon her with deep compassion for a moment. Then he stood up and gazed towards the door. He blinked his eyes dry and sniffed back a little moisture.
Well. Time to begin.
Jon turned to the reception counter and spun his way through the rolodex which held guest records. No mention of Daniel Stanton or his pseudonym, Jonas Pinkerton. Somebody might have lifted the relevant card. Jon went through it and found what room there was no recent mention of, given that the Aviation Summit would have this place packed to the gills. Room 3.
Jon went to the door which had a brass 3 riveted into the knocker. Jon tried it and it was locked. He knelt and drew his white flame lighter and magnifying glass, holding them up and looking into the lock. There was a lockpick pattern in the dust. Well, that was that.
He stood, put away his tools and took a step back. He hadn’t brought any picks, so it was a choice between breaking the door and breaking the window. He chose the door.
Jon leapt forward and kicked with full force just to the left of the handle. He’d learned that just because a kick felt laborious to unload didn’t mean it was weak. The cheap wood door blasted inwards, the lock ripped and dangling from the wood around it, the door waving with reverberations as it swung inwards.
The room was totally strewn with clothes and greasy newspapers from fry shops. You couldn’t walk anywhere except the bed without stepping on something. Jon’s sense of unease deepened.
Had someone ransacked this place? No, there were walkways between the clothes and trash. This was just how Daniel had been living. Jon gave a grim little smile at the thought of a Starling & Shrike residence prefect seeing this place.
He thought, Time to find out where our murderer went first.
Jon knelt by the door and drew a level. He laid it here and there around the entryway carpet until it registered a slight unevenness. Jon ran it around the presumed edges of the footprint until he’d determined its outline and facing.
That’s about six hours, Jon thought. He laid his ear to the carpet behind the footprint. He could just about make it out, and the next one. He repeated this process until he had reached the sea of clothes. Extrapolating the distance between strides, he spotted divots in the clothes that were probably footprints. They led to a low dresser next to the grandfather clock which sat in the corner. The killer had gone straight there. Simple enough.
Jon gritted his teeth. It was time for something he hated doing due to the painstaking process involved: dusting for prints.
He took out his chalk and brush and began gently coating the handles, blowing it away like an archaeologist as he finished. The first set revealed a number of half-pressed prints and palm patterns. That wouldn’t be much to go on, he wouldn’t have given it a high rating on his homework, but it was a start.
He blew the chalk off of the second set of handles and stopped dead. They looked like some kind of lizard had rubbed itself all over them. Jon took his magnifying glass and gave it a deep inspection. Calfskin gloves. Jon smiled. Bingo. He dusted the other handles for good measure, but they had prints resembling the top handles.
Stanton didn’t have gloves when the gendarmes searched him. Jon rifled the room for a pair. Nothing. Wasn’t the type to buy calfskin anyways.
This cocksucker knew just where to look. He must have been in cahoots with Stanton. They’d made a stiff-plan.
Jon opened the drawers. A customs book tied shut with twine, and travel stubs for Periapt, Passwall, Mandrake and Miscellania. Crusty socks, castor oil and pornographic photographs. A paper-covered box of .45 cartridges, which Jon pocketed.
But the glove-marked drawer was empty. The dust inside had been swept around. This one had been looted.
Alright then, Jon thought. It’s a conspiracy. He swept his way through the room for awhile, lifting up the ill-favored and miasma-prone clothing piece by piece, feeling all over the mattress for stitch-seams and tapping the pipes in the bathroom for caches. Nothing of the sort.
A Forensic-Criminological Detective would have had a few more tricks up his sleeve, but Jon was an Undercover Detective. HUMINT gatherer. So it was time to shake a different kind of tree.
He’d find that girl, Sarah Seravies, and she’d tell him just who Daniel’s associates were. If he’d opened up to anybody, it would have been her.
Jon went out of the room and gazed at the countertop. He didn’t look over the top of it this time; he didn’t feel the need to anymore. He no longer feared it the way he had.
Jon thought, The cocksucker must have murdered the receptionist on the way out. Must have thought she was suspicious about his visit.
Jon spat on the rug. Or maybe he thought he could justify killing her to his buddies, so he decided to get it while the getting was good.
He walked out of the house and passed between the gendarmes.
“The city can clean up in there. I’ve gotten what I can.”
“Everything points to a conspiracy but I can’t-”
Jon noticed somebody on a staircase that spiraled like a lemon peel in a cocktail. A man in black with a broad-brimmed black hat just barely visible over the staircase’s stone banister. There was a double flashing- the man had binoculars.
Jon put his hands in his pockets and said as casually as possible to gendarmes,
“Don’t look around. There’s a picket on the stairwell. We aren’t going to be able to catch him or cut him off so we want to act like we haven’t seen him. That’ll make him and any friends he’s got easier to deal with in the future.’
The gendarmes tightened their grips on their guns and grew very excited. One of them leaned in, saying,
“Let’s nail him. We’ve got our 30.06s.”
“No, don’t try. If you raise that, he’s gone. Just tell your boys on the force, if someone’s carrying binoculars far away from where they could see the airshow, that’s cause for a little extra curiosity. I’m gonna make a full report to the city government tonight so if I find anything else out, you’ll know about it soon.”
“Ok,” said one of the gendarmes. He clearly comprehended the situation but was very divided inside. He wanted to do something about the murdered woman just as badly as Jon did.
Jon nodded, clasped the gendarme on the shoulder and made his way back the way he’d came.
Jon arrived at the workshop where he’d met his first Syndicalist in the early afternoon. The streets had felt fraught with menace all along the way. Everyone who paid him a glance aroused suspicion in Jon’s heart. This was an exhausting way to live. The lightness and gaiety of the city had disappeared. The prosperous revelers celebrating the airshow seemed like targets; incautious, unsuspecting, unprepared.
Jon looked around the humming, clanging workshop. An enormous boiler had been separated from its control components and was hanging in space like this was the nerve center of an esoteric machine. Jon saw a man wearing a familiar beat-up welding mask. That was the Syndicalist who Jon had spoken to once or twice, and was as good a lead as any. Jon took a seat on a toolbox that looked pretty disused and waited for the man to take a smoke break.
It didn’t take long. The man took a few wobbling steps back from the steam control apparatus he was breaking down, raised his visor, swept the sweat from his face and walked to a tall, drafty corridor leading to a statue garden whose follies had become working-class residences. He put his back to the wall but didn’t lean, and lit up a cigarette. Jon approached him.
“Hey skip, good to see ya,” said Jon.
“Hey buck, what’s got you coming round?” asked the whiskered welder, giving Jon a meaty handshake.
Jon paused for a moment, then said,
“Something’s going on and I don’t like it. That kid, Dan Stanton, got shot by a Starling last night. He’s dead.”
“Son of a bitch!” the man exclaimed, “That little dingus? I can’t believe it! And by one of those damned labor spies! Just goes to show, they’ll cut down anybody if they can get away with it.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m worried about,” said Jon, “that Seravies girl, I figure she’s about the most politically active of any of the Syndicalists here. Trained in Leagues. She was also Stanton’s closest associate. My guess is she’s the one that pigeon’s looking for.”
“I follow you,” said the welder, “you wanna warn her. But there’s no meeting til next Friday.”
“Right,” said Jon, “I wanna get this off my chest before then but I don’t know where to find her. I dropped by right now cause you knew about her and Dan before, so maybe you’ve got an idea about where she hangs out.”
“Hmm… only place I’ve seen her outside of meetings is at the Tin Hat. They’ve got all kinds of booths, I’ve seen her reading there with books and papers spread out all over her table like a draughtsman. Anyways, that’s probably your best bet.” The welder gave him a keen look. “You’re not thinking of horning in now that Danny boy’s gone, are you?”
“Nah, she’ll probably be grieving since they were friends. But I feel obliged to tell her. I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I could have told her but the Starling got to her first.”
“You’re all right kid. Old fashioned. Well, I hope you find her and I hope that goddamn pigeon who shot Dan Stanton gets hit by an airplane.”
“I’ll drink to that. Catch you later, skip.”
Jon slipped into the bar and glanced around quickly. The Tin Hat had booths alright. There was a bar with a long natural wooden countertop and a few stools, but the place reminded Jon of a bunch of cedar mineshafts with walled booths all along the walls. There were a few guys sitting at the bar but there didn’t seem to be anybody in the booths.
“Wow, cool place,” Jon called to the barmaid, “mind if I look around?”
“Knock yourself out,” said the barmaid with a thumbs-up.
Jon took a stroll around the long, U-shaped corridor of booths and hanging gas lamps but the place was empty except for a tramp sleeping on a bench in the back. Jon came back to the bar and took a seat. It was still too early to write the place off. Jon decided he’d wait til primetime before changing his plan.
He ordered a beer and got talking to the man next to him. He was named Jordan Gillespie, a copper wiring expert who occasionally worked as a porter on mountaineering expeditions. Jon had spent a fair amount of time on the slopes of Starling & Shrike growing up, so they swapped stories of near-misses and hardship on the mountainside. Jon was careful to attribute his stories to a variety of distant locales.
The place gradually began to fill. After about an hour, Jon heard loud female laughter from the door and glanced over. His heart began to pound: it was Sarah Seravies and a portly girlfriend. Sarah was in higher spirits than Jon had seen her and the twosome sashayed over to the bar arm-in-arm.
“Two kelpies, puh-lease, and no vermouth!” Sarah cried to the bartender, “And don’t let anybody send your drinks back tonight, honey! That’s not Syndicalist!”
Gillespie gave Jon a weary-looking glance.
The girls leaned on the bar and began rifling their bags for coins. Jon started doing the equations, too. He needed to have a serious conversation with Seravies about Dan Stanton, but her friend was a complicating factor and she clearly wasn’t in the mood for it anyways.
The situation was moving fast. There weren’t any stools open at the bar; Seravies and her friend would probably depart for a booth soon and that would create very unfavorable energy for Jon just walking up and starting a conversation. Then the two would eventually leave the bar. Jon knew he had to bust a move or lose the advantage.
“Goddamn you two are loud!” Jon called over, “My and my buddy are trying to talk about mountaineering over here and I can’t hear shit he’s saying!”
Sarah’s eyes flashed and she looked at him intently. Her friend gaped like a deer in headlights.
“You can hear him!” Sarah said.
“Well now I can, but I’ve got a feeling you’re about to try butting in on our conversation.”
Sarah’s eyes blazed with curiosity. Not about the conversation.
“Why would I care about something as bourgeoise as mountain climbing?”
“Don’t fuck with me,” Jon said, “I can smell the designer luggage on you two.”
Sarah threw her head back and gave a genuine cackle.
“Well I have to admit I have been mountain climbing,” she said, moving closer to Jon and Gillespie. Gillespie looked between her and Jon with confusion.
“Is that your sherpa?” Jon pointed to Sarah’s friend.
Sarah bent her head over the bar to stifle her laughter.
“I’m her friend!” the girl protested, “Sarah, I think these guys are capitalists.”
“Well how bout it then? You with the Union?”
“Yep! Union of International Strikebreakers out in Mandrake,” said Jon.
“You are too much,” said Sarah, shaking her head in wonder.
“I knew it,” said her friend, pouting slightly, “I can’t believe how exploitative this society is…”
“So what are you two drinking, hmm?” said Sarah challengingly, “Beer? Isn’t that a bit proletariat for the likes of you?”
Jon figured it was time to cool the conversation down just a little bit so that it would have somewhere to go.
He smiled a little. “Hey, you like climbing mountains, I like drinking beer. Guess we both like breaking class barriers.”
“We do have that in common,” said Sarah. A couple seats had opened up, and the girls took them. Sarah looked into her kelpie and stirred it,
“Though I have to admit I wasn’t born into the working class…”
“Another thing in common.” Jon gave a slight smile.
“So what brings you to Diadem?” she asked.
“Oh, you know. The airshow sounded fun. No regrets. Fun town.”
“Is that all you care about?” asked Sarah’s friend, feeling ignored. Jon ignored her.
“And you?” Jon asked.
“Oh, doing some social work, helping out with some organizing.” She got a little bit more serious. “Listen, do you have a problem with the Union? What do you think about Syndicalism?”
“I’m all for unions but I’ve never seen Anarcho-Syndicalism work,” he said carefully.
“Hm. Alright,” said Sarah. She seemed to have made peace with his position. He silently let out a breath.
“Well,” she said, “Here’s to breaking down class barriers.” She raised her glass for Jon to clink and he clinked it. They both took a sip.
“We can start by finding out whose carpet you stole,” said Jon pointing to Sarah’s tartan-fabric messenger bag.
Her eyes went wide. She gazed at him for a moment, then said, “Meet me outside in two minutes.” She got up and went to the bathroom.
Sarah’s friend had taken a pamphlet out of her bag and was hunched over rereading it. Gillespie leaned in to Jon, shaking his head.
“Man. That was something else. What do you think she wants?”
“Maybe she wants to fight,” Jon grinned.
Sarah swept by them and out the door. Jon got up and followed.
She was standing outside with her hands on her hips?
“So what do you want?” Jon smiled.
“I want to make out with you, that’s what,” said Sarah.
“Alright.” Jon took her by the hand and led her into a brick alleyway. He turned her to face him, picked her up by her thighs and pinned her against the wall so that their faces were level.
“Oh! You’re fun!” she said. Jon met her with a kiss and they made out against the wall, maintaining the playful aggression of their conversation, turning it into passion.
After awhile, Jon set her down with a smile. “We’d better get back in there. Your friend’ll get lost without you.”
“Oh, she can take care of herself,” said Sarah, but Jon took her hand and led her back into the bar. That loose end had to be tied up before they could get down to business.
Jon took a seat with Gillespie at his right and Sarah sat to Jon’s left and started whispering to her friend.
Gillespie gave Jon a meaningful glance. Jon just winked. He knew Gillespie would smell Sarah on him.
Sarah put a hand on Jon’s forearm and leaned in to his ear.
“Just give me a little time to put my friend to bed and we can meet up.”
Jon nodded. “Meet me at the Skyfountain in an hour and fifteen minutes.”
“Done,” said Sarah. She leaned back and continued to talk to her friend. Eventually they got up and left.
“Well shit,” said Gillespie, “Well played.”
“I’ve had training in the occult,” said Jon, giving Gillespie a clap on the shoulder, “Good looking out, brother. Gotta go powder my nose.”
Jon went to the Virago, which was the finest hotel within walking distance of the Skyfountain, and booked a room with a view. The foyer was like a black marble bank vault. Jon looked past it into an underlit bar with a freestanding white marble counter where a tattooed woman (an extreme novelty) was mixing drinks with spectacular deftness. It served as a lounge and there were black velvet-covered couches here and there. Jon thought, That would make a great place for a conversation depending on how she feels.
He took a lift to his floor, walking down the dark, silent corridor to the vast oak door of his room. He opened it and was met with windows that looked into the blood orange sunset. It had a vast bed with fluffed goosedown sheets, a big mahogany desk, a long painting of Ascension by an actual artist, and there was a freestanding bath that looked like it could seat four. Jon mused than in another world he could have got Sarah and… a different friend back here together.
Jon washed his face and then stood looking out the window for a long time. He could see the farmers bringing bales of wheat into little granary castles in the fields below. He checked his watch.
Time to get in position.
John moseyed up to the fountain after an hour and twenty minutes. Sarah was sitting at the edge of the fountain as white water cascaded behind her.
“Finally! There you are! I was starting to think you might have changed your mind on me.”
“No no,” said Jon, “We’re of the same mind. Come on, let’s go get a drink.”
He took her hand and led her towards the Virago.
“So what do you do?” she asked.
“I’m a New Projects researcher at Ascension Aeromarine,” said Jon, “so you’re actually in my heaven right now.”
She winced. “Do you have any family here?”
“Nah, they’re all over,” Jon said, “I was mostly raised in boarding schools, one of those kids.”
Sarah looked up at him with surprise.
“You’re kidding. So was I.”
Jon smiled. “Sorry I can’t tell you stories about having a family, then.”
“Ha, well I’d rather not hear about that. I think you find your family wherever you go.”
“Guess I’m in agreement… it’s good to have people who understand that about your life.”
“Yeah. It is,” Sarah smiled, then she said,
“Oooh, you’re staying at the Virago?” She looked up at the tower of light and shadow.
“Yup,” said Jon.
They walked into the hotel and the receptionist gave Jon a polite wave. She knew the score. Jon, holding Sarah’s hand, drifted gently towards the bar, but she pulled him towards the lift with certainty.
Jon winked at the lift attendant, then slipped him a silver once they reached the thirtieth floor.
They walked down the hallway in sultry silence. Jon opened the door and let Sarah into the hotel room.
“Oh, wow, my God, the view,” she said, setting her bag down by the door and kicking off her shoes. Jon hung up his coat.
“Need to use the pottie?” he asked
She shook her head.
He picked her up the way he had before but this time holding her high enough that he was kissing her with her face above his. She clasped the back of his neck and ran her hands over his ears and through his hair. He squeezed her around her thighs and bottom more liberally now. She ran her hands across his neck and shoulders and drew her fingertips across the breadth of his back. He pulled his lips free of hers and bit as much of the skin of her neck as he could, holding her. She moaned and he felt her shudder in his arms.
“Fuck me,” she breathed.
“All in good time,” he murmured.
He set her down and pulled her dress off her in one swoop. Her eyes went wide. If she had been wearing any underwear at the bar, it was gone now. She was totally naked. He tossed her dress onto the bed and bundled her up into the air again, kissing her lips and neck, biting her breasts. She ran her nails across his back and gasped, her head hanging back, eyes half open, gazing at the last light of sunset.
Jon swept her to the floor with a single motion, undid his belt and made love to her right there on the carpet.
They lay in bed.
“…so I’ve never read Karendin but Star Index is on my list.”
“Yeah, me too… Sarah, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about, and I oughta stop putting it off. I realized that I’ve actually seen you once before, out and about with Dan Stanton. I knew Dan a little bit, and... I thought that maybe you hadn’t heard. That I should be the one to tell you. Dan Stanton was shot to death last night.”
“Oh? Too bad, he was kind of nice,” she said, twirling a lock absentmindedly, then shrugged. “Oh well, he was basically a piggie, anyways.”
Jon looked at her with a flash of anger.
“You’ve been talking to me like you were a human being since the fountain, what gives now? You act like you have sympathy for the whole global working class but then a guy who you actually know and who adores you gets shot to death and you call him a piggie.”
She was taken aback and seemed to wake up somehow.
“I’m sorry… I said that because of how I was raised. Because of how Dan and I were raised. We sort of came from similar backgrounds, that’s why I called him that.”
Jon’s heart began to beat rapidly.
“How well did you know Daniel?” she asked
“I knew his character,” said Jon.
“Well, that’s what it was,” she said, “we had similar upbringings, but I went one way, he went the other. I started to think about the people who didn’t have our educations, who didn’t have our advantages, and he…” she shook her head, “He was nice to me, but I know how he talks when I’m not around. I want to help people and cut the powerful down to size, but he…” she trailed off, then said, “I don’t think he ever cared about anyone.”
“And what about you?” Jon asked, his voice becoming gentler, “You told me it was because of how you were raised, that you called him that. What do you mean?”
“Oh, that’s a big one,” she said with a pause, “I was raised to worship money, really, and be all nationalistic. Not to worry about people who were suffering if I couldn’t profit from them. Isn’t that horrible? So when I grew up and became more independent, I started to travel around and I saw what the world’s really like. It broke my heart. The poverty. The ignorance. All the sick monarchies and aristocracies just grinding people into dust. It broke my heart. And I was supposed to go out and... participate in all that. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t.” Her face and voice got firmer.
“Then I found Anarcho-Syndicalism. A movement by the people, for the people, to make sure nobody ever starves or goes illiterate again. So I went to the City of Leagues and they taught me how to organize people. We have a vision of a better world, without hunger, without war, where men and women are equal, as radical as that may sound.”
John didn’t want to go down this rabbit hole, but if she had been raised a Starling & Shrike agent as he suspected, then he had to make a good faith argument to win her back. The City of Leagues was a blacklisted client because it funded Anarcho-Syndicalist movements in many city-states. A lot of these movements were intent on overthrowing their governments. Joining their project was prosecutable in Starling & Shrike. This made her a rogue agent. Another rogue agent. Two in two days. What the hell was going on?
Jon did not want to hurt her. He had to reach her.
“I understand. It’s terrible to see people suffering when there’s no need for it. There’s nothing worse. But you said you had a great education before you even went to Leagues. Why not use your own specialty to find new ways to help people?”
“Well, I do, in a way, but a single person can only do so much. I’m pretty small. I might be able to help people out here or there, but it takes a movement to undo the structures of oppression that keep people locked up in chains. Anything I could do alone would just be a bandage. It wouldn’t do anything about the cause of the problem.”
“Well, the system... ever since global trade really took off two hundred years ago, it’s brought the world off its knees. I’m no friend of feudalism, but remember that there’s been a lot of good done for the working class by free trade. It’s not all exploitation.”
“But there’s still a lot of exploitation, Jon. Maybe life’s better for some people than it used to be, but we don’t have to let people suffer like they do now if we could change the system. The unions would trade, too; that’s the point of having different unions for different types of labor.”
“I know, but don’t you think that given the progress we’re making right now it might not be better to just stay the course? People suffer in this world, and believe me, I’m in favor of a regime change in a lot of city-states, but I think most people would rather try to keep on in the direction that we’re going than turn everything upside down. Plenty of working people even feel that way.”
“People get attached to things that are used to control them. Religions, city-state identity, feudal overlords, I don’t really think they can help it. It deadens them to the pain they’d need to feel to wake up, and that’s a form of security. But that’s no reason we shouldn’t aim for the best world possible. Once we get union rule up and running in a few places, people will have something to refer to. They’ll see how good it is to be part of a real community of their peers.”
“But wouldn’t union rule generally require overthrowing governments by force? That would ruin a lot of working people’s lives. It’s not easy to set up an economy, let alone a whole new one in the midst of chaos.”
“Name one government that’s been overthrown by Anarcho-Syndicalists.”
“Well, there haven’t been any yet, but it’s not like nobody in the movement claims to want to do that. What I’m trying to point out is that An-Syn is most likely going to be subject to the same pathologies as almost any government, almost any human endeavor. It doesn’t change human nature, which you surely have an idea about given that you were highly educated. Look at Parousia. They had that purge where dozens of union people got killed by other unioners. That kind of thing can happen under any government unless people are incentivized not to do it. The profit motive can do that. It makes people worth more to each other alive than dead.”
“A slave’s worth more alive than dead to a capitalist. That doesn’t mean that way of life is worth anything to the slave. And Parousia was an anomaly. That happened after they were infiltrated by labor spies. They were the ones agitating and creating disunity, and they were probably the ones who pulled the triggers. Anyways, the ringleaders willingly went to Leagues for an investigation, and that’ll make sure that won’t happen again.”
“But what if it wasn’t infiltrated? Why take the risk of associating yourself with that kind of horror? You can never be sure if a new policy is going to help people or end up running roughshod on them, but you can be sure that if you set out to help someone in particular, you’ll be able to do it.”
“So what? Just like, poke around, give people a hand here and there? Bring a few people water while the multitudes suffer in the drought?”
“At least you can be sure you’re helping someone! Sarah, you might end up frittering your whole life away with Syndicalism and then what? What if it goes out of fashion? You’ve lost your chance to make a difference! The suffering continues!”
“If I spend my time on a few people, the suffering of unfree across the globe will continue. If I dedicate myself to a total reform of city-state society, maybe it won’t work, but at least there’s a chance to bring all people out of poverty, oppression and aloneness in my lifetime. So that’s what I have to do.”
She could parry. Jon had to try a different tack
“Sarah, all I want to do is help people. Don’t get me wrong, I want to find the good things in life and experience them fully, but I think the best thing I can do in the long run is to improve the lot of the whole human race. But I have to know. I have to be sure it’s working. The only way that I know how to do that is to start with the individual. Maybe I’ve got ideas about what everybody needs. About how we could run our governments and societies differently. But all I can be sure of is that when I look into a tear stained face or a funeral, I’m the one who can set things right if I try. I can help those people. So that’s what I do. Maybe the unions are the solution, I don’t know. But I know that I have a solution, and I know it helps. There’s no theory. I can make sure.”
“I know Jon,” she said, her voice softening, and her eyes tearing up just a little. “But what is there without hope for the world? What is there when you look out and all you can see is how every person who’s living and is going to be born is going to suffer? It’s too much… it’s too much. I need hope or I can’t go on.”
“I honor your sympathy and your perspective,” said Jon. “You and I want the same thing for people, we’ve just chosen different paths to the same destination. That’s what separates us from Dan Stanton and people like him. We’ve never given up.”
“That’s what I want. To never give up hope. Never to give up that spark. Because without it… there’s nothing but darkness.”
Jon thought, It’s time I laid my cards on the table. If she’s some kind of associate of Daniel Stanton outside of Syndicalism, which I suspect she is given that they’re both Starling & Shrike agents, she’s not gonna divulge information about their mutual associates without a lot of trust. So we’re gonna get on the ultimate common ground here.
Dan put his arm over her and pulled her back into his chest under the sheets.
“I don’t wanna block your path, Sarah. I don’t plan to. I think what you’re doing is fine; it’s not my way, but at least you’re moving towards the good. I’m not gonna try to stop you, I’m not gonna hinder you unless I think something terrible’s gonna happen. I’m not gonna inform on you. So don’t be scared by what I’m about to tell you. You can trust me.”
He felt her body tense up, but she didn’t push away.
“You killed him,” she said quietly.
“Yeah. But I’m not gonna hurt you.”
She rolled over under his arm and looked straight into his eyes with urgency.
“I’m not with him, Jon. The Union’s not with them.”
“Not with who? Sarah, this is what I’ve been wanting to ask you. Was Daniel involved with anybody else? Anybody with ideas which are more like his than yours?
She closed her eyes and clasped the skin of his sides tight with her fingers.
“Jon, there’s nothing simple about this.”
“Do you believe that I don’t wanna interfere with your cause?”
“Yes. Yes, I do. I can sense that. But this, I wasn’t expecting. It changes…” she shook her head, “so much.”
“I understand,” said Jon, “Take your time. I’m not in a rush, but it’s like what I told you. If there’s anyone like Dan in town, they might be planning to hurt someone. Neither of us wants that. I don’t know what the situation is, but maybe I could do something that you couldn’t under the circumstances.”
She closed her eyes and was silent for a time. She pressed her head against his chest. He nuzzled her hair with his nose.
“I need to think. Spend the night with me?”
“Of course,” he said, “we’ll talk about it whenever we’re ready.”
Jon awoke alone. He glanced around in the morning brightness and sprang up out of the sheets. He darted to the bathroom and looked inside. Empty. Shit.
He glanced over to the mahogany desk by the window. Yep. There it was. There was the note.
“I think you’re a good man, Jon, even though I think you’re part of an evil business. But I too have made a pact with a dark power. That’s why I’m writing this to you.
There are multiple conspiracies here in Diadem. Dan and I are part of different groups, but we have been working under the same handler because of our backgrounds. Daniel and I were both raised to do what you do.
This man we’ve been working with is a spymaster of some kind. He wears a black shawl and we only meet at night in a different place every time. He gives us resources and helps us plan the things that we wanted to do anyways. But I don’t want what Daniel wanted- what Daniel and his group wanted.
Let me make a prediction Jon. Let me be your oracle. I don’t know who Dan’s group are but I have an idea of what they’re going to do. It’s going to happen today at the Navel of the Mount tower. They were going to meet there and Daniel spoke of it like he might not be able to see me afterwards, and I could tell that it was eating him up. I think it’s going to be violent. There’s an airbase there. I don’t care if they interfere with that, but the rest of that tower is filled with innocent people and they might get caught in the crossfire.
Maybe you can do something with that, Jon. I don’t know.
I’m leaving Diadem. Don’t follow me. Don’t go after my people. Don’t go after the Syndicalists. Leave Starling & Shrike. It’s a source of great suffering and fear for the people of the world.
If the man in the black shawl finds this note, I will die.
Thanks for the memories.
Jon set down the note and looked out the window, seeing nothing.
Several different conspiracies. Each associated with a rogue Starling & Shrike agent. Each agent working for the same shadowy figure.
And a plot that was reaching fruition today at the Navel of the Mount tower.
“Thank you, Sarah,” he said to himself. He donned his coat, tore the note into shreds and placed them in his breast pocket. He’d burn them later. First things first, he had to get the gendarmes set up to give special attention to the Navel of the Mount tower.
He took the lift down, walked past the receptionist who gave him a demure smile, and walked out into the refreshing breeze of the streets. He looked up and around to the nearby apartments built into the great foundational columns of Diadem like mail slots and saw a glint in the morning light. Set deep into the darkness of an apartment on top of a bed stacked up on a table was a sniper.
Jon lurched backwards, falling on his rear end and spraining his wrist. There was a distant bang and a bullet skipped off the cobblestones behind him, flying through the front doors of the Virago, knocking a hole in an expensive black marble wall inside.
People glanced at Jon.
“Shooter! Shooter!” he yelled, pointing at the window as he scrambled into the foyer, slamming hard into the wall, nearly knocking over a potted fern with his knees.
People began to yell and clear out of the square.
Jon looked out and saw a gendarme rushing towards the Virago with a 30.06 rifle. People were pointing up to the window Jon had indicated. The gendarme turned towards it and began to stalk sideways with his rifle at the low ready, gazing up intently at the apartments.
“Get out of the open! Get out of the open!” Jon yelled at the man. There was a bang and the gendarme fell onto his rear with his hands spread behind him, his rifle clattering to his side on the cobblestones.
“Fuck,” Jon breathed. 99-to-1 a full metal jacket rifle bullet had just pierced the steel cuirass that the gendarme wore over his blue fatigues.
There was a second bang.
The gendarme’s head blew apart vertically; bits of bone and brain blasted in every direction and he fell back with what brains remained in his head steaming in the morning air. His skull was totally shattered and his head splattered in two different directions like an unzipped fly as he fell back on the cobblestones. His eyes had been displaced and Jon could see them laying in the mess.
Jon pressed his back into the wall and bit his knuckle, glaring at the stony ceiling.
More gendarmes would show up and more would die.
I have to show this guy I’m a lost cause.
Jon moved to the doorway, took off his hat and poked the top out just a bit, brim down. There was a bang and a bullet blew the hat out of his hand, sending it spinning through the air in a cloud of little fibers. Jon felt like he’d had his knuckles rapped with a metal ruler.
This guy was a good shot but he was still bound by physics. A powerful bolt-action rifle would take several seconds to rack and get back on target. More, if he was handloading. Jon hesitated to call him a sniper. A sniper wouldn’t have taken that shot.
Jon sprinted into the open.
“One, two…” he counted, then he threw himself flat onto the cobblestones and then immediately leapt to his feet again, continuing at a dead run. A shot rang out and Jon heard it crack through the air behind him like the bullwhip of a demon. All around the square people were cowering behind whatever they could find or watching with great interest from the adjoining streets.
Jon ran past the glass door of a bakery with bay windows. A doughy baker stood between a floury countertop and numerous racks of bread across the wall behind him. He had a thin goatee, ruddy cheeks, and was peering intently through the door as Jon flew in.
“What’s going out there?” he asked worriedly.
“Assassination attempt,” said Jon breathlessly, “Do you have a back door?”
“Yeah, go head,” said the baker, gesturing to a doorway behind the counter.
“Thanks,” Jon said and ran through into a room with thick wooden tables, a gas-fired brick oven and many sacks of flour and yeast. Jon saw a back door and ran through it into one of Diadem’s ubiquitous covered corridors. He wanted to bend over at the knees in relief but he turned right and jogged down the corridor towards where the apartment column would be.
Jon knew the chances of catching the sniper were slim to none. The shooter would know that Jon wasn’t coming back out, so he’d bug out as fast as possible. That was the reason Jon had shown himself. To bring this to a close.
Jon ran until he found the base of the foundation where the shooter’s apartment was, ran up the stairs, found the apartment door unlocked, and searched it.
It was vacant. No residents. The cartridge brass had been cleaned up and taken with the sniper. Jon looked for calfskin on the door handle but found only a smattering of fingerprints.
He didn’t go near the window. The gendarmes might have a bead on it and they’d be hungry for revenge.
Jon left to tell them where the action was going to be.
The Diadem Children’s Hospital in the Navel of the Mount Tower. This was the biggest target besides the Air Force hangar and the coal-fired electrical plant at the bottom of the tower. The gendarmes thought it unlikely that the conspirators would act against the airbase given that the airmen went armed with pistols, and they thought the Children’s Hospital was an unlikely target as it was non-strategic, and so they had concentrated their forces around the coal plant.
Jon didn’t think the Children’s Hospital was an unlikely target at all. He remembered Dan’s words: They’ve had enough time with the things they love. I haven’t had any time like that.
Jon prowled the Children’s Hospital with a troubled mind.
All around him nurses were tending to sick and hurt little children in their beds. Tapestries of better places hung on the walls and the crazy, esoteric architectural blueprints that characterized Diadem’s walls had been left out of this place.
Jon looked down hallways and into surgical wards. Nothing seemed amiss. There were no unexpected guests.
“Are you looking for somebody, sir?” asked a wan little boy who sat upright, swaddled in sheets in a shining steel bed.
Jon looked at him and smiled. “Not anyone in particular. I’m here to make sure that you’re safe. I’m just checking around to make sure that everything’s normal.”
“Is something wrong?”
Jon stood for a moment.
“Yes. There might be something wrong. But I’m here to make sure that you’re as safe as you can be. So are the nurses and doctors.” Jon walked over to the bed and put a hand on the guardrail. “You can help me. Keep your wits about you. Look around and if you see anyone who gives you a bad feeling, just tell somebody right away. Don’t feel like you’re judging them. Just tell someone. If it turns out it’s nothing, no harm, no foul. What’s your name?”
“I’m Jon Dart. I’m a… policeman. Put her there, partner.” Jon extended his hand and the boy clasped it as best he could.
There was a tremor in the floor and the lights went out. Immediately, a shocked and worried murmur ran through the nearby rooms and hallways. Jon couldn’t make out his own nose.
“Sir?” the boy whispered?
Jon cast about, grimacing, but couldn’t see any light sources.
“It’s all right, kiddo, I’m here,” he said. He could hear the doctors and nurses comforting children down halls and through doorways.
Jon cast his gaze skywards. What next?
His world was torn apart and turned upside down with an apocalyptic scream that seemed to emerge from the fabric of reality itself. Jon was still holding the guardrail and even though he couldn’t feel the ground he yanked himself forward and threw himself over the boy. Jon’s ears were ringing with a full heaven’s chorus of machine angels; a high constant eeeeee that dominated his whole existence. He began to feel the ground beneath his feet again; his knees shook like he’d been standing for hours. He felt sick to his stomach and the whole left side of his body was numb like he’d been slapped full-force by a giant.
Thick dust began to swirl all around him. It began to infiltrate his breath, mouth and eyes.
Jon could hear yelling and screaming from the nearby wards. Children and adults. The voices quickly receded.
“Charlie,” said Jon thickly. He pressed his palms around the boy’s body in the sheets. The boy was soaked and Jon smelled blood. He felt it, viscous, on his palms and chest.
“Oh no, no, oh God,” he said in disbelief, taking hold of the guardrail slickly and falling to one knee beside the bed.
They’d been bombed. The boy had been cut up by shrapnel. Perhaps that shrapnel would have hit Jon had Charlie not been sitting up in bed.
Why? Why, why, why, a thousand times, why? He looked around into the darkness but he winced as the dust coated his eyes. Who was behind this? These horrific crimes?
He reached up and shook Charlie a little. The boy was limp. Tears were stinging Jon’s eyes and his mouth and nose were filling with liquid.
Fuck, he thought in dismay. How many little lives had just been snuffed out?
He started hacking and spitting as the dust fully engulfed him. He realized that this would be the deadliest weapon of all; very soon he would suffocate.
Jon put his coat over his mouth but he could barely breathe through it. It was no good. Then he raised his silicasilk scarf over his nose and lips. He could breathe through it like he was on a hillside in the still summer air. Thank God, and George Baysinger. The dust wouldn’t be the death of him.
He tore a strip from the bedsheets using his teeth, soaked it with lighter fluid and then set it on fire on the floor. It cast a little light through the oppressive motes of swirling dust, and by squinting Jon could see a mop that was leaned in a corner. He grabbed this and made a torch with another strip of bedsheet, heart in his throat as he worked, trying to breathe steadily through his mouth.
He held the torch over Charlie. The boy was laying under bloodstained sheets with his head turned sideways and his mouth slightly ajar. He was not breathing. Jon seized the side of the hospital bed but fought back the urge to flip it in sick, helpless rage.
What can I do? he asked himself. What can I do?
He became still.
You know what you can do. You can find any other children who might still be alive.
Jon struggled through the hot dust, shouting, “Is anyone there? Anyone there?” He heard a little hacking cough from the next room, like someone was holding their breath but had drawn in dust trying to answer him. Jon rushed in and there was a girl on both knees holding her face. Jon rushed to her and wrapped the free-running end of his silicasilk scarf around her mouth beneath her hands.
“Breathe, baby!” he said. She began to take long, deep breaths through the scarf.
“Hold onto that scarf and keep it to your mouth no matter what. We’ve gotta go find the other boys and girls. Let me know if you can see or hear anyone move.”
He took her thin, dewy wrist and led her from the room, stumbling on rubble and across knocked-over racks and equipment.
Keep a lid on it, he thought. There will be time to break down 100% and roll around screaming once you’re out of here.
He found no living adults. He hoped they hadn’t just fled. Maybe they’d been trained to do the same thing Jon was doing in case of a power outage?
The girl tugged on the scarf. He knelt in front of her.
“It’s ok, speak through the scarf,” he said.
“They might be in a room I know. There are tunnels where boys like to play.”
“Ok. Can you lead me there, baby?” she nodded, and Jon did too, stepping back. The girl moved through the darkness, picking her way step by step. They came to a metal door which was painted white, like the walls, though it was clouded with the same grim dust that plagued the air.
Jon opened the door and there was a whoosh as the dust billowed into the room. This place had been spared the bombing; it had been filling with dust slowly under the door, but now it would quickly be deprived of breathable air. It was a supply room for big, foil air ventilation pipes, and several boys were gazing in fear from the mouths of the pipes.
“Guys! Come out here and breathe through this scarf! There’s been a disaster and we have to get out right now! Come on! Don’t leave behind anyone in the pipes!”
There was a scurrying around inside the pipes and boys began to emerge, rushing towards the scarf. There were a full seven of them.
There wasn’t enough room on the scarf for everyone. In fact, there was only room for six if they stacked up on either side of it. The room was darkening with dust.
Jon picked out the biggest boy.
“Listen,” he said, “I can tell that you’re very brave. That’s why I need you to be up front with me. Try to breathe through your smock. We’re gonna let the others have the scarf.”
“Ok,” he croaked.
“Do you know the way up from of here?”
“Ok. Hold onto my coat and lead me forward. The others are gonna follow me.”
The boy led Jon down a rubble-studded hallway and the children followed them, holding aloft the silicasilk scarf. Jon was choking on the dust through his undershirt and he knew that the lead boy was too. He was losing oxygen and they had to find their way out quickly.
The boy led them to a stairwell which curled back over on itself over and over. They crept up the stairs. Jon’s head was pounding. He wanted to tell the boy to hurry up but he didn’t want to lose anyone from the rear. Finally they reached a landing on the top. There was a thickset metal utility door. Its handle gleamed goldenly in the torchlight. Jon opened it and there was a vortex of dust pouring past them and out into the hallway outside.
“Go,” he rasped and ushered the children past him like he was counting cattle.
There were seven. One less than he’d departed with.
Jon looked back into the soot-black darkness swelling past him like the ashen essence of a plane of death. It was inimical to life. He was unwelcome there. He paused and then plunged back into it, lightheaded, feeling his head tightening around his eyes with the lack of breath. He pounded down the stairs until he found a little form that had fallen flat on the steps; a boy with a cast on his leg. The boy was laying on his chest, and looked up at Jon with half-aware eyes. Jon took him by the collar like a cat and dragged him roughly up over the stairs to the doorway.
Sorry, kid. I’m as weak as you are right now.
Jon dragged the child into the hallway and collapsed. He looked left and there was a darkening corridor leading who-knows-where; to the right he could see sunlight from a doorway in the wall. One of the boys walked out into the open, and then ran back to where Jon was kneeling. He grasped one of the lapels of Jon’s shirt. Jon looked at him with bloodshot eyes and black phlegm dangling from his lips.
“Sir! There’s a man coming with a gun!”
Jon closed his eyes with a wince, spat as much of the phlegm out as he could and drew his .45 semiautomatic. The children gawked at him and fell back against the walls. Jon stumbled to the doorway and took a quick glance around the corner.
It was the airbase’s hangar. There were numerous steel blue biplanes sporting a variety of modern weaponry, as well as fuel tanks and crates for parts and ammo.
A pale, thin young man with lank, greasy locks of black hair was advancing on the hallway. He carried a steel-barreled, wood-furnitured submachine gun with a lacquered black typewriter magazine. He had it trained on the doorway.
“Come out, kiddie kiddie kiddies! Come- Jon Dart!”
The gunman opened fire in a thundering staccato. Bullets cracked into the stone wall behind Jon, crumbling it in lines as they went. The children screamed and retreated into the darkness.
The planes began to take off from the hangar.
“Shoot! Hey, shoot me, pigeon! I wanna die! Kill me already!” the young gunman screamed in an uneven, high-pitched voice, spraying fire as he walked. The bullets cracked through the air like the jungle sounds of strange, supersonic insects, or the tectonic cracking of an earth to the ethereal Gaia inside of it.
Jon waited for a long burst, then bladed his eye and pistol a half-inch out beyond the corner and began shooting the limpid gunman.
The boy’s submachine gun exploded into pieces as Jon fired through it into his body, rippling his shirt. The boy winced deeply and took one step to the side before Jon sent a final .45 hollow-point through his spine, folding him across himself like a Jacob’s ladder. He lay in a heap upon the hangar’s stone floor.
Jon put his hands on the ground with one of them resting on his hot, smoking pistol. He allowed himself several deep breaths like he’d just won a race. This was careless; only afterwards did Jon look up to make sure that the young man wasn’t moving. He was still. Jon thought as much.
“Kids, come back out of the smoke,” he called, “You’re safe now.” He’d only seen the one gunman on foot.
The children emerged haltingly, like goblins peering from a warren.
“You got the bad guy?” asked one of the boys.
“Oh yeah,” said Jon, cocking the boy a smile, “I got him.” Then he turned to the corner again and glanced out into the hangar.
There was only one plane left. Jon recognized it. It was a beautiful steel-blue Ascension Aeromarine Pegasus II with white Diadem Air Force livery bands.
She had the most powerful machine gun that had ever been mounted on an airplane swivel sponson, though no forward guns; she was meant to fly low and dispatch enemy planes coming down on her. She stood between the troops on the ground and the dive bombers. A guardian angel.
Jon glanced around the hangar. He saw numerous airmen and ground crew laying in their lavender Diadem Air Force fatigues near one of the walls. They had been tied up; three of them were pilots and had been shot in their heads. The ground crew still lived. Jon raised his pistol and advanced carefully into the hangar.
“Help, help!” yelled one of the crewmen. Jon moved to the boy he’d shot and pulled his upper body from where it lay atop his legs. The boy’s eyelids fluttered; if he wasn’t technically dead he would be in moments. The boy was dressed in a white shirt, now flecked with blood, and corduroy pants; he’d intended to blend in until the fatal moment, though now he had a pair of spare magazines and a Bowie knife tucked into his waistband. A golden pendant was resting on his chest from a twine loop around his neck. It was a strange ouroboric symbol; it was clearly eating its tail, but it wasn’t a dragon. Jon tugged this malign sigil free and tucked it into his coat pocket.
“Help! We’re gonna lose our hands here!” yelled the crewmen with consternation.
Jon rushed over to the crewmen and found that they had been bound with parachute cord so tightly that their hands were growing purple. Some of them were bleeding from bindings that had been wrenched into place with a foot placed on their body as a fulcrum.
“You!” Jon yelled at one of the boys, “Get that guy’s knife and bring it here right now!”
The boy came out and approached the body carefully, gulped, grabbed the knife and scampered to Jon. Suddenly he noticed something out of the corner of his eye: through the hangar’s takeoff door he saw a blooming of light between two of Diadem’s white towers. He took a step forward and saw one of the bridges bathed in fire.
“Ah- kid, cut these guys free! Right now!”
“Ok,” the boy said, nodding and turning to the nearest crewman.
“What, are you kidding me?” asked the crewman, “This kid’s gonna cut the hell out of us!”
“Are there any more pilots around here?” Jon asked.
“No…” the crewman said, remembering his own tragedy.
Jon ran over to the edge of the hangar. The blue Diadem Air Force planes were glinting in the sunlight. He saw smoky explosions as they dropped bombs on the bridges. They were firing their machine guns at those beneath, and Jon saw one big, hulking plane fly low and slow over a Diadem Air Force landing strip, burning everything into the tarmac with a flamethrower that was mounted on the rim of the rear seat.
Jon saw people run, but they were caught in the lightning conflagration, their clothes turned into monochrome candlewicks, their hair consumed in flames.
Some of them sprinted with all their might as people leapt out of their way, others walked aimlessly with a curious detachment and seeming lethargy as people surrounded them, some attempting to beat out the flames with their coats. A few of the burning people leapt off the side of the bridge.
Why don’t they roll? Jon screamed inside, welling up with consternation and grief. You’re supposed to roll! Don’t they know that?
Jon couldn’t bear it. He turned away, back towards the ground crew, his face a mask of agony.
He stabbed a finger at the Pegasus II and growled, “Get that thing fueled up and loaded for bear!”
Without waiting for a response he sprinted away into the corridors of Diadem, searching for a stairway.
Jon ran up the stairs into the hangar where he had first arrived in Diadem, his mouth filled with the taste of bloody copper and ash. Slaughtered planes sat around the hangar, shot to pieces by flyby strafings, while every military and civilian plane on the great bridge’s tarmac had been cooked or bombed in the air raid. Civilian mechanics were picking through the wreckages or standing as near the hangar’s grand opening as they dared, gazing at the ruin outside.
Jon spotted Langston Donahue in the middle of the hangar. He was watching the smoke rise with his hands resting on the top of his head, his fingers interlaced in his hair. Jon ran over to him.
“Donahue,” he wheezed.
Langston turned and dropped his arms.
“God, Jon, you get hit by a bomb?”
“Yeah. Come on.” He grabbed Langston’s wrist.
“Wha-where?” said Don as he stumbled after Jon.
“There’s still one plane,” Jon spat, “c’mon!”
“What! What do you want to do!”
Jon wheeled on Donahue with his eyes blazing.
“We’re gonna do something!”
“Fuck! Ok, alright! Yeah, let’s go!” said Don, swept along for the moment.
They arrived at the Navel of the Mount airbase. The ground crew were watching the carnage with the children, rubbing at their sore wrists.
One of them turned to Jon as he entered.
“Look, she was already green on everything. I did a systems check, all-ok. I don’t know what you think you’re gonna do, though.”
“Jon, wait, he’s right,” said Don, “If we go out there against twelve of em we’re gonna get slaughtered. I can fly but I’m no fighter pilot.”
Jon dashed to the hangar door and looked up keenly.
“They’re done,” he says, “They’re gone. We aren’t gonna fight em, we’re gonna fucking find out where they’re going.”
“Shit, said Donahue, “Ok, that makes more sense. But what if they see us?”
“I’m a Starling & Shrike agent!” Jon yelled, “I know how to fucking shoot! Get in the plane!”
Don was taken aback.
“Yeah! Saddle up!” Jon rushed to the Pegasus and climbed in the gunner’s seat.
“Fuck, well, alright then,” said Don, climbing into the pilot’s seat.
“Let’s go,” Jon said. He was feeling no little fear himself, but he was absolutely determined to avenge the abyssal Tartarus that had been made of the Children’s Hospital. This was his chance at absolution. He couldn’t live if these people got away with it, and so he had to go.
A ground crewman rushed over with a pair of parachutes and handed them to Jon and Langston, who donned them quickly.
“Now you can take some real risks,” said the crewman with a dark grin.
“Yeah, well, if my goose gets cooked at least I got to fly this baby,” Donahue muttered as he started the engine. Jon began to familiarize himself with the machine gun mount, wheeling it left and right, swiveling the gun around. It was smooth and seemed to drift to a halt in an intuitive way.
The plane sped forward and dropped into space. Jon was flung backwards and he was momentarily afraid that he would fall out the back of the aircraft, but this was just part of the launch, and Donahue quickly straightened the plane out and began to ascend. Even the air out here was tinged with soot; they flew past pillar after pillar of greasy black smoke from the manifold infernos below. Jon gazed down.
Whoever these motherfuckers were, they’d been thorough. They knew exactly what they were going to do.
“What now?” yelled Donahue, his amber hair whipping in the wind as he turned.
“Let’s get up high! We’ve gotta find em!”
They ascended, both scanning the horizon, Don to port and Jon to starboard.
“There!” Donahue yelled, “There they are!” Jon peered after his gaze and saw a dark flock of steel-blue flecks flying away up the coastline.
“Alright! Let’s get after them!”
Don looked at him uncertainly.
“We have to find out where they’re going!”
Don was tight-lipped but he gave the OK sign and turned back to the controls. They picked up speed and followed the planes down the coastline, wind whipping at Jon’s grimy, soot-stained face and neck.
The flock began to descend, then disappeared. They hadn’t gone over the horizon; Jon could still make out details about them until the last moment
“Shit!” Don yelled, “You think they ditched?”
“Maybe!” Jon called back, “Buzz em and let's see if they’ve got a camp or something!”
“Alright,” Don yelled, then hesitated and asked, “Is that machine gun ready?”
“Seems like it,” Jon called, “I can move her just fine!”
Don gave the OK sign again. They flew low over the rocky coast and Jon was practically leaning over the side of the plane trying to see where the hijacked squadron had landed.
“There!” Jon roared, “That’s where they went!”
There was a sea cave right around where the planes seemed to have disappeared. It was low-profile and Jon didn’t think he’d have noticed it if he hadn’t been peering right at the coast.
“Alright!” Donahue called, “What now?”
Jon sat back in satisfaction and ran a hand through his hair. Thank God they’d found their secret roost. That was enough to go on for the time being.
“Take her home!” Jon called, “We’ve found their base! Let’s go back and tell Diadem!”
“Right!” Don gave the thumbs-up and pulled the plane around in a tight roller-coaster arc.
Jon cast his eye across the land and sea, which were thrown into strong primary colors by the midday sun. The prairies were like a great soft green blanket and the ocean was blue and webbed with whitecaps.
Jon pushed the explosion, Charlie Gray, the dead pilots, and the burning people from his mind. This wasn’t the time. It was time to take in the beauty of the coast and the peace of the air. He would need it as counterevidence for his own mind soon.
Jon gazed back at the stretch of coast where the sea cave had been.
What could that place be? How long had they been planning this?
Suddenly he noticed a tiny bolt of color rising through the sky above the green-gray coastline by the sea cave. It was steel blue. A plane had re-emerged from the cave. Jon’s heart sank, then began to pound.
“Don, we’ve got company!” he yelled
“What?!” Don yelled, dismayed.
“Don’t worry!” Jon yelled, grabbing hold of the machine gun, “This won’t be the first of these motherfuckers I kill!”
Don gave a firm thumbs up but didn’t change course. Jon silently concurred. If the plane didn’t follow them, they wouldn’t pick a fight.
It followed them. The hostile plane billowed black smoke. Was it having engine trouble? Jon looked at it intently until it was close enough to identify. It was the flamethrower plane.
“Don! It’s that goddamn firebat!”
“What?! That’s a Blackforge Vitriol! It’s got a forward twin-link!”
“Right,” yelled Jon, “Fly low and I’ll catch her before she can dive on us.”
“You got it!” called back Don. His voice was tremulous but he tightened his grip on the controls.
They dived. Jon steadied the black, segmented machine gun and peered through the steel reticle at the advancing Vitriol.
He’d never used a machine gun before. That wasn’t part of the Starling & Shrike upbringing.
He didn’t know when to start firing but he figured the gun must be fully loaded.
Fuck it. He squeezed the trigger.
Nada. The trigger didn’t budge.
“God dammit!” Jon roared.
“What?!” yelled Donahue.
“Don’t worry!” Jon yelled back. The warplane was growing larger in his sights. Jon began to frantically hunt all over the weapon for some kind of latch or button. He found a little nub poking out of one side and pressed it. It slid through the weapon and a nub appeared on the other side. Jon took aim again and pulled the trigger. This time the trigger moved, but the gun didn’t fire.
“Son of a bitch!” Jon screamed.
There was a long, rumbling buzz as the Vitriol opened up its forward guns on the Pegasus. Fat machine gun rounds spilled through the air over their plane’s starboard wing. Jon could feel the air rippling with lead from where he sat.
“Holy shit!” Don yelled, “I think they’re in range! Open up, man!”
“I’m trying!” cried Jon.
“What!?” roared Don incredulously.
What the fuck was wrong with this gun? Jon thought. The cartridge belt’s in place!
“Jon, the Vitriol’s got an afterburner,” yelled Don, “they can put their propeller into overdrive! They’re gonna overtake us!”
There was another long burst of machine gun fire and Don banked so hard that Jon almost fell sidelong from the plane, hugging the machine gun while it lolled around in his arms like a playful dog. When Don straightened the plane, Jon looked up. The broad-bodied Vitriol was diving right at them. Jon could make out the pilot, a bald, obese and pasty man with beady eyes. The Vitriol fell in a dive past them and Jon saw the gunner, as well, a lean and lantern-jawed boy with a pair of narrow goggles over his eyes. He held the flamethrower steady with reedy arms and there was a horrific burbling rushing noise as the weapon billowed a deadly cloud of red flame across the length of the Pegasus.
Jon ducked down into the compartment and threw his arms over his head as the air turned to cosmic heat around him. As soon as he was sure he wasn’t on fire he stuck his head up and looked at Don, who was hunched over flying and seemed uncharred. The air around the plane was shimming thickly; the Pegasus had been set on fire! Jon pulled himself straight by the stinging hot rail of the gunner’s compartment and was met with a sword of heat down the throat as he inhaled. He coughed and sputtered, seeing nothing through the tears.
“Shoot goddammit! Shoot! We ain’t jumping if that thing gets a bullseye!”
Jon took a raw, blood-tinged breath as he sat deep in his compartment and then got up again. The flames had abated slightly but he could feel them eating through the skin of the plane. He took hold of the machine gun, which was blazing hot but grippable. Jon’s eyes went wide when he saw his left hand; it had been burned severely in the Vitriol’s blast, and his skin was blistering massively and coming loose from the muscle.
Fuck it, Jon laughed with manic darkness, I can’t feel anything yet!
He looked at the gun. You can’t fire a .45 without racking it. There was a handle on the side of the machine gun near the end of the receiver. Jon leaned forward, gripped it with his rapidly-numbing left hand, pulled it back along the weapon until it clicked, and then rode it all the way forward. The Vitriol had activated its afterburner, climbed, turned, and was about to make another pass on them. This time it was leading the Pegasus and would be in position to give them a full dose of fire no matter where they turned.
“Jon, this is it,” Don called hoarsely, glancing up.
“Yeah, it is,” Jon said, “Hold her steady. Don’t turn.”
Don was like a statue. He held her steady.
The Vitriol grew in Jon’s sights. He saw it angling slightly in on them to get its machine guns on the Pegasus. Jon saw a dark, gaping maw in the pilot’s bullet-shaped head. He was cackling with glee.
“Eat this,” Jon whispered and pulled the trigger.
The machine gun emitted a wild blast of burning rounds, lacing the sky with streaks of light. Jon filled the fuel-laden beast with lead and it exploded into a fulminating inferno that was so hot Jon could feel it baking his face, and so bright that he could barely turn his eyes upon it.
Don looked up.
“Aaaaaaaaaguh! You got it! You got it!”
Bits of charred hull fell away like spiderlegs from the smoking fireball where the Vitriol had flown. The flame was cascading through the air as its massive fuel reserve burnt up. Jon knew the burgeoning pillar of charcoal smoke would be seen from Diadem.
He relinquished the firearm and fell back in his seat, hugging himself. His heart was singing despite the horror of the day. He gazed at the horizon. It seemed to reflect the way he felt about his place in this world right then, in this house of light and fire: he was sitting on a blade’s-edge line between the vivid bliss of divine victory and the infinite darkness of an all-consuming underworld. He closed his eyes and let the wind cool his brow as it quenched the flames of the Pegasus.
Jon breathed the sea air deep and gathered his strength. Once he was alone, the divine and the darkness would wrestle for possession of his heart.
The ground crew had removed their caps when Jon and Donahue landed. Many telescopes and binoculars had been on the air combat of the Vitriol and the Pegasus II.
The children had thronged them. They been given commentary as the fight played out. They needed the glory of the victory at the end of such a day.
Medics had gauzed Jon’s hand. He’d grabbed a flashlight from a toolbox, wrapped his mouth in his silicasilk scarf and joined the excavation of the children's hospital. He carried a few limp bodies onto the tarmac.
The children’s hospital was not the only hospital in Diadem. Jon spent the night there in a state of fever as ointment and fresh gauze was rotated throughout the night. The next evening he dragged himself out of bed and went to Diadem City Hall. Every moment he lingered, the killers became less and less likely to be brought to justice. Jon intended to make a case for an expedition being launched that very night, which Jon proposed to accompany to its conclusion.
The City Council had their own ideas about how Jon would spend the night
Jon ended up standing before the Lord Mayor in the Sun Gardens atop Diadem’s highest tower. George Currant was at his left side, and Langston Donahue by his right. The Security Commissioner, the Wing Admiral of the Diadem Air Force and every minister of the Diadem government stood in circle around them.
The Lord Mayor had declared that the Navel of the Mount Children’s Hospital would be renamed the Jon Dart Children’s Hospital.
George Baysinger had presented Jon Dart with the crimson and gold Order of Saint Suchara, protector of children.
The Wing Admiral had granted Langston Donahue a roving commission as a Captain in the Diadem Air Force Fighter Command. Donahue had almost fallen over, but managed to salute.
The Ministers had promised that a bill would be passed extending the security pact between the City of Diadem and Starling & Shrike for an additional decade in honor of what had been done that day.
They had declared that an expedition would be launched posthaste to the sea cave up the coast.
Jon had politely extended his right hand to everyone present. He had promised to continue prosecuting his search for those responsible for the crimes of the day, and the rulers of Diadem had promised to put unlimited support behind his enterprise.
He had felt joy in his heart, but fatigue and grief had slowly overtook him like a storm rolling in from the horizon.
Now Jon sat deep in the davenport in George Baysinger’s office, shielded from the reporters that lingered on the great commercial ziggurat outside. George sat behind his desk, smoking mild tobacco through his pipe.
“This was a very auspicious start for you, Jon, all things considered” said George Baysinger with a twinkle in his eye.
Jon gave a smile, and then it fell away.
“George, my heart’s heavy. I’m glad I helped the people here, but the things I’ve seen since the night before last…”
“Leave it be for now, Jon. I want you to give your mind to the present. Give what you have seen time to heal. Don’t lock it away forever, but put it inside a box that you’ll open when you have space and freedom. Your wounds are fresh. Let them shut. Then, you may begin to give them therapy. Walk for a long time, alone in a peaceful place. Whatever gives you agony… give it the attention it deserves. Look at it until it no longer overwhelms you. Look at it until the terror is gone, until you can see it clinically, or even with compassion. Think of it like a prophet with a hideous visage who yet has something to tell you. There is something that you can learn from everything you have seen; something about the true nature of the universe, that will yet allow you to go on and set it right. Your heart has been broken, and it will heal darker, and scarred, but stronger. Believe me. I have had thirty years of this. You will learn it far earlier than I did.”
Jon was nodding slowly. “Thank you, sir. I’ll remember that.” He reached into his pocket and drew out the golden icon he’d taken off of the gunman he’d slain in the hangar. He held it up and it dangled in the smoky light.
“I took this off the guy I shot in the hangar. Another psychologically damaged, decrepit boy of about my age, just like Daniel Stanton.”
George Baysinger set down his pipe and gazed at the symbol.
“We now have our culprits because of you, Jon. The Ringwyrm antinatalists.”
“A new movement. The darkest I have ever seen. Darker than Social Darwinism. Darker than the Crag of Songs Killers.”
“Darker than the Crag? How is that possible?”
Baysinger picked up his pipe and puffed it slowly. The orange flame glowed and then relented as he let out his smoke.
“The men and women of the Crag of Songs have some limit on their actions. They believe in each other and in their conception of the divine. They raise children, they give wealth to their community, however blood-soaked it is. For the boys of Ringwyrm and their ilk, there’s nothing but what was witnessed today. Life is an abomination, community is an enemy, and children are a target.”
Baysinger was tapping at his pipe.
“What they did today was instrumental, by their standards. The theft of military aircraft and the decimation of the Diadem Air Force fleet. Was this only a means of escape? Antinatalists are usually not very concerned with escaping the scenes of their crimes. This is something of a mystery.”
“I think I can answer that,” said Jon. “A source of mine, who’s departed the city now, knew Dan Stanton and told me that his gang had been answering to some kind of spymaster. Whatever this Ringwyrm group is doing, I don’t think they’re acting totally of their own volition. I think somebody’s handling them. Somebody who’s got his fingers in Anarcho-Syndicalism, too. Those two movements are totally antithetical, so whoever this spymaster is, I don’t think he’s Antinatalist.”
George Baysinger leaned back in his chair, holding his pipe up by his temple.
“What sort of man is capable of leading Anarcho-Syndicalists and Antinatalists with the same hand?”
Jon gave a fierce smile.
“I’m gonna find out.”