Children of the Great Reckoning, Book 3: Architect
Coming to Audio in February 2014
I did not have long to enjoy my new found freedom from the Game. Almost immediately, I was besieged with the simpering officials of the Science Marga and with a fever that seemed to have no discernible cause. To deal with such ephemera, one of the first things I had commissioned was a sword. I hid it under my bed so I could sleep a little. But mostly, I thought of Ianto. Always, my lover was in my mind, a shadowy presence that couldn’t bear the light of my direct gaze.
Central Mansion of the Science Marga
The syringe tucked up into Sam’s sleeve felt heavy against his wrist, another aching weight in a world of form that he wobbled through. He, who once could draw two swords with such grace, who rode raider horses in abandon, who climbed the Stair Mountain passes so effortlessly, was reduced to a slow shuffle over carpeted floors. His guards nodded him through each checkpoint, their eyes cast down in deference. They knew his routine by now—he’d walk the halls each night until the pink intrusion of dawn drove him back to his suite. He was the ghost of each evening, the spirit they had fit into their little world of schedules and timetables and plans. His monotonous regularity ensured they would wave him through, not really seeing him anymore.
Even there, in the shadowy depths of the Mansion, he told himself his name over and over, like a mantra. Sam Stelle, Executive of the Science Marga, Sam Stelle, son of Edwere. Sam Stelle, awake after a fifteen-year coma, left handed now and with startling aquamarine eyes set in a fine-boned face. Staring over the carefully trained gardens during the day, he still let the other names come. But not when he was walking the halls of his father and those before him.
She must die. Oh, yes, those words surfaced, the ones he kept most hidden beneath an earnest and confused smile. Keep the claws in, keep the predator’s eyes soft and a little dull. The Game had taught him well; he had no idea how to run this empire his father left him, but he did know one thing.
He knew how to hunt.
The medical wing was darkened as usual, the day staff thinned to a few half-sleeping techs hunched in front of their monitors. One older woman looked up at Sam and smiled. It didn’t really reach her eyes, but a little fear did. This one remembered his father, perhaps, and saw his genes winking in this face he now wore.
“Good evening, Mr. Stelle. Come to see the priestess again?”
“Yes,” he said simply. He did not have to remember the tech’s name; names were for dancing in society. Sam had no wish, no need, to dance.
“I’ll buzz you in then,” she said.
Such unnecessary words, couldn’t she see that? For months, she had buzzed him in. Every night, same time. Of course she would buzz him in.
The curved ceiling of the Med-ward echoed the tiny beep, the lock being drawn back so worlds could collide in a small room.
She must die.
Sam pulled the door closed behind him and threw the lock from the inside. The med-room was a spacious and totally wasted symphony of calm colors and plants and carefully hidden equipment, although heavily shadowed in the evening lighting. Its single occupant slumbered, plugged into a kind cold sleep, her heart and organs slowed, her mind at play in another world entirely. Here, her veins sipped IV fluids, while the being she thought she was would be setting furs against her neck and cursing the cold of the Third Stair Mountains. Her name was Priestess Jean Molair, daughter of High Priestess Cyntia Molair, the head of the Spirit Marga. She had once been Sam’s playmate, had run with his sister and him in the Mansion until they had collapsed into ice cream and giggles. But his sister was dead, and Jean and he shared other darker things now.
Sam pulled out the syringe, and tucked the cap back into his hip pocket. He had researched the poison carefully--it would dissipate into her system, leaving no footprint. Five hours from now, a sudden and unexplained brain aneurysm would take her life. Five hours from now, with the day shift bustling about and people coming and going from the room, Jean Molair would die a real death. Here, the Hall of Becoming would not resurrect her.
Sam walked to her sleep unit, feeling again the terrible dragging heaviness of the real world. But at least his mind was his wholly his own and the silence was sweeter than he had ever imagined. He had such clarity here, breathing in real air and eating real food and by day lapsing into a fatigued stupor riddled with dreams.
Her face was calm; not serene, no, but falling into perfectly expressionless lines like a canvas waiting for a flash of color. They had cut her hair short, like his own had been, almost shaved to the scalp to make hygienic care easier for the staff.
His head snapped up as he stepped back, startled. She rose from the other side of the bed, a seven foot-tall shadow of a being with red eyes and loose, black hair. “What are you doing?”
He cursed again the silence of Binders.
“Tebre.” He said her name as a kind of statement, without answering her question.
Her nostrils flared a bit, her senses so much more finely honed than his own. With the speed and grace so characteristic of her mutation, she came around the bed between Jean and him.
“You can’t kill her, Sam,” she said.
Sam let his breath out slowly, his fingers clenched around the syringe. As an elf in the Game, he might have been fast enough. As a Samu’el, he might have been able to ram the needle home before she broke upon him. Even then, it would have been a near thing. But here, in his trembling biological body, he had no chance.
Sam backed off with hands spread a bit to make peace, and dropped onto a low couch snuggled against the wall behind him. He felt the ever-present fever eating at him, already sipping off the adrenaline. “She did it, Tebre,” he whispered, as soon as he trusted his voice. “She took him from me.”
Tebre had not relaxed between the bed and Sam. But she did cock her head a bit, birdlike, a movement as much Binder as her healing skills and her red eyes. “I know.”
“Ianto was your friend, too. How can you stand there and not let me do what I came to do?” he asked her. He looked up, through his lashes, without raising his head. “She thought I would die in the Coral Fortress marketplace. She deleted Ianto from the Game so Nuress could shatter what was left of him into some kind of fucking firewall.”
“I know,” Tebre repeated. Her eyes glistened a bit and she blinked quickly.
They let the silence hang for a moment between them.
“What you do not seem to understand,” she said, her voice very flat and careful, “is that Jean is pregnant.”
Sam raised his head then. He waited three heartbeats. Then, three more. “It doesn’t matter,” he said at last.
“Yes, it does, Samu’el.” She crossed to him then, dropping to one knee and looking him full in the face. Her use of his game name startled him and forced him to meet her gaze. “You will want to see the data. I can walk you through it. But it will only tell you the same thing. The fetus, growing exquisitely slowly because of the imposed partial stasis, is Ianto’s biological child.”
For one terrible moment, he searched into her eyes. She was telling the truth. And the plans of months were ripped away.
Through his numb fingers, the syringe dropped to the floor.
Ianto at play in the Game, Sam in our reality, my daughter pregnant with a dead man’s seed (who was never really a man at all)--sometimes I wake and ask myself if the course I have set is as clear as when we first began. But the board is readied, and the timer on my life, on my decisions, is already running down.
Sleeping Quarters, Spirit Marga Temple
Cyntia drew the curtains on her tiny sleeping chamber. Most of the world would have been surprised at the Spartan arrangements, thinking instead that the high priestess of the Spirit Marga would have slept on silk sheets in a vast chamber of a room. But she preferred her small cell, the narrow bed and antique writing desk set before the thin strip of windows. Her one nod to technology was a large view-screen on her right wall.
She pulled the battered oak chair away from her desk a bit and sank into it with a sigh. Gnarled hands drew her unfamiliar red robes around her, and she hunkered there for a few breaths. She had given her yearly pep talk to her healers that day, and each year, it seemed to get harder to tour the facilities, shake so many hands. Her frame was gaunt, her hair beginning to thin back from her temples in foggy wisps, but her eyes were still sharp and intelligent, even through the fatigue.
“You are wearing the robes of a warrior this evening. I have not seen that color on you before.” The voice crackled from her view-screen, a young woman’s voice, filled with a strength that Cyntia could only wistfully recall from her own youth. And then the form coalesced, a tall red headed woman perhaps only in her early 20s. Her medieval dress fit tight to her slim torso, and was worked with small pearls along the flare of her breasts.
“Good evening, Nuress,” Cyntia answered, drawing herself as tall as her tired frame would allow. “You have an observant eye as always. But these are robes of a healer, not a warrior.”
“Images are my life blood, Cyntia. Is not the warrior also the healer?”
“How is my daughter?” Cyntia responded, without answering the AI’s question. She watched her screen through her gray lashes.
Nuress did not seem at all concerned with the redirection of their conversation. “She is the reason why I have called on you this evening,” Nuress answered.
Cyntia frowned, resettling herself subtly. “Is something wrong?”
“Only that establishing a working partnership with her in the Game has not been successful. Your daughter cannot hold a data image well enough for me. I need my architect back.”
Ah, now she comes to it. For weeks, the hinting after Sam, and now she says it aloud. Cyntia shook her head. “It’s just not that easy, Nuress. I can perhaps spare him for days at a time, but Sam’s presence in reality is critical to holding the stability of our world. In a few years, the techs should…”
“No,” Nuress said, her voice cold.
Cyntia raised one eyebrow. “No?”
“He is the other half of my working mind, Cyntia. Imagine if you could not dream for months and months. How would your life be altered?”
“It is well understood that we humans can go crazy if we can’t dream,” Cyntia answered. But her mind raced ahead, trying to see into Nuress’ perfectly composed expression.
“As my maker’s mind functions, so does mine,” she said.
“I think you’re being melodramatic,” Cyntia returned. How she wanted to sleep. Her body ached. “Look at you; your form is no longer that of a child. And you are becoming more and more self-reflective. Your mind is becoming exceedingly complex. With each conversation over the years, you have grown. You seem to me the picture of health.”
“Mind is both embodied and relational,” Nuress said evenly. The only relationship I have at my disposal is with Sam.”
“That’s not true,” Cyntia said. “We interact. You and Jean interact. You and Ianto…”
“Ianto is problematic at best, ” Nuress said, cutting her off. Then she smiled a little, as if understanding she was being rude. “Cyntia, please. Try to understand. The new data flows we are attempting from within the Game require a dreaming mind to create physical addresses and representations that focus the flow of information in the Game. Without Sam, I cannot do what you have asked of me.”
Cyntia drew her breath through her nose in soft, even movements, trying to think. “How can I help?” she asked.
“Return Sam to me.”
Cyntia looked at Nuress carefully. “Do you know Sam is not well, and hasn’t been since he returned to our reality? Are you doing this to him, to press my hand?”
Nuress cocked her head a little, and a small smile played over her features. “No, I am not doing this to Sam. But I know who is. As your precious Ianto has grown into his new function, he is requiring a great deal more energy than was used for a single consciousness. Perhaps he and Sam are outgrowing the biological body.”
Cyntia did not miss the words ‘your precious Ianto’. She knew that the youth had saved Nuress as surely as he had saved Sam. She heard the echoes of that old slight there, a time of embarrassment and weakness for Nuress. “And if Ianto grows too large, if Sam’s biological body dies...” Cyntia murmured.
“They both die,” Nuress said.
Cyntia shook her head, her mind continuing to calculate. “Maybe not. My techs have been working with Petrek’s research data…”
“I told you never to mention his name to me,” Nuress said coldly cutting her off.
“Grow up,” Cyntian snapped back, her voice equally as cold. “Set aside this wounded child act; it no longer becomes you. Petrek tried to impose his personality on you and he failed. It is done, but his research is still valuable. You cannot keep turning away from it—at the very least he was your creator, and you know that.”
Nuress allowed a little hit of red to come into her fair skin.
“Our techs believe there is a chance that Ianto’s personality-producing nanotech clusters, freed of the body and connected to the Game, would continue to function even in non-sentient organic matrices.”
“Like trees and plants,” Nuress said. She nodded then. “That would mean unlimited growth, then, in the right environments. I would see the data.”
“I’ll make it available to you. But now if you truly need Sam back in play, you have to do something for me in return,” Cyntia murmured.
“And that would be?”
“Come up with a reason I can present to the world why the Science Marga is no longer headed up by the Stelle family. Without that…”
“You are the one who needs to grow up, Cyntia,” Nuress said. “Organisms rearrange, change through time. The Science and Spirit Margas have grown close over the last two hundred year, even sharing distinct bloodlines within your leadership--wed them now. Forcefully if necessary. You are poised to do that anyway. Follow through and be the warrior.”
Cyntia frowned, shaking her head. “I need an excuse. The rules must be observed, the game played well here insures your continued safety.”
“Simple, then. Tell the world your daughter is being held hostage and the Science Marga has impregnated her with a genetically engineered fetus in an attempt to control both you and the heir apparent to the Spirit Marga throne. You act only to end their ploys.”
Cyntia smiled within. How she matures, how she understands this world she wishes to inherit. She is not groomed fully, not yet, but it comes. “I was the one who signed the orders allowing the pregnancy to continue. If that were ever to leak…”
“In less than a year’s time, Ianto will be so strong that there will be no data that he will not be able to bend, no Child of God he will not be able to see into and influence under my direction, of course.”
Cyntia shuddered. Ianto, again Ianto. Savior and shadow, his two faces stuck like sap within the very heart of the Game. “And you think you can control him. You think you can predict how he will evolve?”
“Yes, because as unpredictable as he can be, he is at least a part of me. But I need Sam,” Nuress said. Her voice took on a longing, and Cyntia narrowed her eyes in spite of herself.
“Needing is a precarious ledge to travel, Nuress. Be sure you do not trip.”
“Stop your fearful posturing, Cyntia. Make it happen. Make it happen now.”