Darren managed to wait out the rest of the opera, hiding the bottle in his locker and remaining tight-lipped about his encounter with Savoy. He was usually circumspect in that regard, so it was nothing new, despite his co-workers’ best efforts to get details from him. Since Verona was still with the invictus, there’d been several jokes about his performance, endurance and/or stamina, but he had ignored them all. His mind was racing and he ran through the rest of his duties on automatic. He’d been elsewhere in the theater when Savoy left, which was probably for the best. Lucas, one of Verona’s male counterparts, told him that she’d been ‘delighted’ with the show. Lord Halkein had been so pleased, he’d given the theater staff a two-day weekend.
Hawke bundled his coat tighter as he approached his apartment building; it was in the serf quarters of Garamond – what had been Washington, DC. The Hegemony had re-named the city in honour of one of their damned primogenitors. It was late, almost 2 in the morning and a light drizzle had started to come down. Darren ignored the other people out on the street; hookers and their pimps, hustlers and drug dealers. A few blocks away he heard a brief whoop-whoop of a city security vehicle’s siren. Darren didn’t cringe like the rest; their fear was understandable. A hundred years ago, the criminal elements in many cities hadn’t had any fear of the police. Maybe that was because the police of that era weren’t gene-bred freaks of nature backed up by combat drones, or the simple, casual brutality they doled out.
While the invictus by and large ignored the squalor of their serfs, they weren’t above random, unprovoked sweeps through the streets, if only to keep the sapiens in their place. It was rare that anyone they gathered up came back. There was no such thing as an appeals process in the Hegemony – not if you were born with the wrong genes.
There was no elevator in Darren’s building and the stairs creaked with every step. He waited outside the door, taking the bottle of wine out of his coat and holding it as a makeshift club as he strained to hear if anyone was in his apartment. Visions of a Hegemony Security Service agent – or two, or ten – filled his imagination, but heard nothing from inside and after a moment, he opened the door and switched on the lights. Empty.
It was a small apartment – bedroom, bathroom and living room/kitchen, but it was clean and the building wasn’t that bad, not compared to some of the other homes in the serf quarters. It was quiet, unassuming and perfectly within the price range of what he was paid. In short, there was nothing about it or him that would stand out.
Darren removed his small cache of gear from the sensor-shielded compartment he’d installed and ran a very thorough sweep for bugs before he dared let himself relax, stowing the wine in the fridge and pouring himself a glass of what passed for scotch.
Something had slipped. Darren had been wracking his brain, trying to figure out what that might be. He had no idea. He’d been turning every possible implication over in his head for the entire evening and he only had three possibilities. The first was the simplest: that Savoy had made a joke. She didn’t know or suspect anything. The scrutiny she’d given him was because ninety years ago, most sapiens were enemies. That… explanation didn’t fit everything else, but it was possible. So if he did anything out of the ordinary, if he ran… he was as good as dead. Yes, Savoy had been drinking heavily – more than he’d seen from any invictus – but there was no way she’d forget their conversation. If he disappeared, that would be as good as announcing his true allegiance.
Second option: she didn’t know, she (or someone who had put her up to it) suspected him. In that case, running was also contraindicated. An innocent sapiens, confused about a strange conversation he’d had with an invictus, certainly wouldn’t run. Despite his precautions, they might be watching his apartment right now and anything out of the ordinary would betray him. In this situation, running would also doom him.
The third possibility was also the most unsettling. She did know, but for some reason hadn’t dragged him off to the nearest HSS agent. In that situation. Maybe she was hoping that if he ran, he’d lead HSS to the others in his resistance cell? Darren felt flush of offence at the thought he’d be so unprofessional. No, the best option would be to run, but not to his cell. Instead, he’d shake pursuit, then make contact and assume a new identity.
He tapped a finger on the worn arm of his recliner, trying to think of what to do. Three options – and in two out of three, staying was the best bet. To appear innocent and harmless until such time the invictus believed that’s what he was. That still left the question of Alexandra Irine Savoy. What was her game?
Darren was still musing over the answer as he fell asleep.
Bones shattered under the impact of her fist, the blow pulverising the target’s brain and reducing its skull to paste. Savoy spun, a high kick catching the next target in the head as well, sending it flying, its brain ruined as surely as the first. She drove her fist up into the torso of her next victim, landing half a dozen punches in less time than it took to blink, turning a complicated system of organs and blood vessels to mush. The target sagged to its knees, dying if not already dead. Before it could even finish its fall, she grabbed the head of the fourth and final target, driving its face into her knee with shattering force. Her bones were armoured; the target’s weren’t and its face collapsed in on itself. With a snap, she twisted its neck until its spine popped, letting the limp form drop from her hands.
“Time,” she called.
Jorge Cardoza, one of House Garuda’s familiars, stepped forward. “One point three seconds, Lady Vipress.”
“Hrrn,” Alexandra growled. “Still too slow.”
Cardoza raised an immaculately-groomed eyebrow. “That is better than the current record time. Sammael Halkein’s best time is one-point-seven seconds.”
The invictus didn’t comment on that. “It should be less than a second,” she said instead. “I’ve done point six seven seconds with five opponents.”
The familiar said nothing in response and Alexandra sighed. Garuda’s gymnasium was as fine a training ground as she could have imagined, with every piece of equipment she could have asked for and in his generosity, Geoffery Halkein had allowed her the use of it and virtually everything else on his estate’s grounds. Though she’d been granted a demense of her own, she’d wanted to see more of the Hegemony before she shuffled off to her own lands. Accepting some of the invitations the noble houses had thrown at her had seemed a decent way to do that.
So far, the technology she had seen was very impressive. Savoy looked down at her opponents; they were robots, programmed with every fighting style known, with polymorphic forms that could mimic the body structure of any opponent, from as fragile as a sapiens to as hard as battle armour. The technology… was one thing. Savoy raised her head, looking around the gym. A handful of Homo familiarus waited patiently for any need, request or whim she might have, perfectly still, moving only when a severed limb or spurt of gel from the machines she’d disassembled threatened to hit them. They disturbed her. Her own reaction to them disturbed her almost as much.
Sensing her attention, Cardoza stepped forward again. “Do you need something, Lady Vipress?”
Savoy’s lips quirked in a wry smile. “I have a question.”
“Of course, lady. I shall do my best to answer it for you.”
“What does God need with a starship?”
The familiar’s eyebrows creased as he frowned, briefly looking at his fellows, but none of them had any advice to offer. “My lady?”
“What does God need with a starship?”
“I…” the familiar floundered. “I don’t know, my lady. I don’t understand.”
Savoy turned away. “Forget it.” She liked old movies; she always had. In one of them, several characters had come face to face with an entity purporting to be God. It had begged of them to bring their ship closer, so that it could be used to ‘carry its wisdom’. One of the men had asked that question. What does God need with a starship? Why does something so powerful, so magnificent, so grand need something so mundane? If you are God, what use do you have for material things?
That question came to mind every time she looked at a Homo familiarus. Why do we need you? If we are unquestioned masters of this world, if we have seized our destiny and brought humanity into a new golden age… why did we need to create a new race to tell us this?
She had no answer for that. None, at least, that she wanted to consider in too much depth.
“How many drones are left?” she asked.
Cardoza gestured to the trails of lubricant and organ-simulating gel that marked where the damaged units had been carried away. “Your workout has been intense, my lady. We only have two functional training automatons. Rest assured, that these will be repaired by tomorrow morning.”
“Two will do,” Alexandra replied. She cracked her knuckles. “I want them set to invictus levels. Unarmed combat, no armour.”
The familiar hesitated an instant. “That setting is restricted, my lady.”
Savoy glared at him. “As the leader of a house, do I not have sufficient authority?”
“Of course,” Cardoza stammered apologetically. “It… this setting is not often used.” He gestured for one of the other familiars – a short Asian woman with the drone’s control set into a vambrace – to make the necessary adjustments.
Alexandra turned away. She had trained almost exclusively against other invictus. Occasionally against some of the forerunners – ordinary humans who had been biologically or genetically modified. The Hegemony hadn’t had these wonderful training systems, so any sapiens who fought an invictus was unlikely to come off well. Prisoners of war and traitors had been offered the choice to do so. If they declined, they stayed in their cells until their freedom was arranged or the war ended. If they said yes and survived, they went free. Despite this incentive, few had ever accepted the offer. Not without reason.
Savoy wondered if the prisoners she’d been offered this morning had had the same choice…
…and wasn’t that an ugly thing to think about your own people? She didn’t like having these thoughts. She was a soldier; she was used to taking orders. To fighting and bleeding. Not having to sit through conversations where she was fawned over, like she’d done something any other of her brothers and sisters wouldn’t have done. Where these noble houses used her attendance to stick a finger in the eye of their fellows as she was some trophy to trot out to prove which among them was so much more worthy of the ‘Hero of Johannesburg’s’ attention.
She was grateful when the first attack came, a roundhouse aimed at her head, so fast that no Homo sapiens on the planet would have seen it coming, let alone been able to block it. The invictus swatted the drone’s attack aside, slamming her own fist up into its guts before it could rabbit-punch her with its other hand as it had planned. It staggered back and she swept its legs out from under it, spinning around to confront her second attacker. It had charged in and she grappled with it, using its own momentum to hurl it across the gym. It crashed into the wall hard, its system simulating a dazed state.
The first machine was back on its feet and Savoy blocked its first attack, using her upper arm to absorb the second punch. She slammed her hand up into its jaw. Her skin cut open, but her armoured bones resisted further damage and she heard the crack as the drone’s metal structure shattered, fractures running through its jaw and several ‘teeth’ breaking in its mouth. Now it was on the defensive and Savoy waded in, a hurricane of blows sending it crashing to the floor, down for the fight.
She sensed the attack coming as the second machine charged again, hoping to take advantage of her distraction. She grabbed it and threw it over her shoulder, slamming it to ground so hard that the floor shook. Before it could right itself, she stamped her heel down on its throat. In an organic opponent, she would have crushed its windpipe, burst the blood vessels inside and shattered the vertebrae. The machine went limp.
Savoy reached up and wiped the thin layer of sweat from her brow. “Too slow,” she remarked.
“Too…slow?” Cardoza spoke, completely agog. “Was…” he paused, aware that he was speaking out of turn and closed his mouth instead.
“Yes,” Alexandra replied, ignoring whatever breach of etiquette the man thought he’d committed. “Too slow,” she strode away from the downed machines, towards the showers. “All of us.”
Darren found Verona the next morning; a rehearsal of The Rains of Madrid was taking place in the main hall. Clarkson was the director, so that meant the theater’s staff and comfort men and women went unharried and unharassed. Albert Clarkson was a control freak, even for an invictus. Every moment not spent honing ‘the craft’ was a moment wasted to him. If he thought he could keep his actors on literal leashes, he’d do it.
The familiar was on the upper levels, on her way to her usual lounge when Hawke caught up with her. “Verona!” he called after her, but she ignored him. He hurried after her and grabbed her shoulder. The familiar spun, throwing off his grasp as she raised her arms in a defensive posture. She relaxed slightly when she recognized him.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” she hissed under her breath as she pushed Darren into a nearby alcove. Invictus might be allowed to take their pleasure from the comfort men and women, but sapiens had no such rights. The familiars were allowed to kill any sapiens who tried.
Hawke raised his hands. “I know, I know. I just wanted to talk to you.”
Verona’s eyes darted up and down the hall, but there was no one else around. She grabbed Darren by the arm and started dragging him towards the stairs. “You can’t be here,” she snapped, though she kept her voice down. “If Mr. Volker catches you… Peter only just got out of the hospital. Mr. Volker promised to do worse to the next one of you he catches sniffing around us up here.”
“I just wanted to talk,” Hawke repeated.
The familiar halted in her tracks and gave Darren a look that seemed to fluctuate between uncertainty over what he meant and disgusted certitude that he was looking for lascivious details. “You should go,” she told him.
“I was there, too!” he whispered harshly. “I’m not asking for you to betray your oath of service, Verona. I just wanted to get your opinion. You were with her longer than I was.”
“Yes, I was,” the familiar asserted, having come to a decision. She hauled Darren back towards the stairs. He didn’t struggle; that would only cause the scene he was trying to avoid. “And we do not talk about what happens between us and the masters. Unlike sapiens, we can be trusted.” Verona stopped at the top of the stairwell and pointed down towards the common areas. “I will throw you if you don’t go,” she told him honestly. “Don’t make me do that, Darren.”
“All right, I’m sorry,” Darren replied, finding to his surprise that he meant it. “I didn’t want to put in you a bad spot. I just… I’ve never been with an invictus like her. It was… confusing. I just wanted to talk. That was all. Okay?”
Verona’s expression softened slightly. “You should go,” she said again.
As Hawke headed back down the stairs, Verona paused, chewing the inside of her lip. “Darren…” she began.
The sapiens paused and looked back up her. “Don’t come up here again,” Verona warned him. Just before he turned away, the familiar spoke again. “…I like D’Onfrio’s.”
Hawke nodded slowly. “I know the place.”
“It’s nice,” Verona said. She turned to go. “I like to treat myself there to close out the week. You should go sometime.”
“I may,” Darren nodded. He tilted his head back downstairs. “I should get going.”
“Yes,” Verona agreed. “You should.”
That was Alexandra’s first impression of the city and nothing she’d seen had improved her opinion. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched a pair of sapiens make a trade, swapping money for packets of something. She could smell the acrid taint of narcotics clinging to the dealer and her fingers twitched. She could be across the street in less time than it would take a heart to beat, knifing her hand through his ribcage or crushing his throat in her grip.
You are the future, she remembered the primogenitor’s words. You will show the world what it means to be human. You will elevate us from the ham-fisted mere competence of nature to the pinnacle of evolution. You will be the exemplar, the ideal, perfection made flesh. This is why we created you, and why you fight. To protect this dream from those would see it trampled into the dirt.
The dealer looked up and blanched as he saw Savoy, quickly looking away from her gaze. She could hear the sudden panicked hammering in his chest, could smell the flush of sweat on his skin and the adrenalin in his veins, could see the shift in his posture as he tried to decide whether to run and risk her chasing him, or stay where he was and hope she ignored him.
She did the latter and continued on her way.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather return to the Heights?” Andrew Spence asked. Savoy ignored him. Her tour guide/minder/bodyguard had tried to steer her towards the more respectable sights of the city, but Savoy refused to be led by the nose. Every minute of every day since she’d been awoken she’d had everyone touting the wonders of the world she’d helped create. They’d shown her only what they wanted her to see. She wanted to know about the rest.
So far, she had yet to quell those unpleasant voices whispering in the back of her head.
Doors and windows slammed shut as she and Spence passed, men, women and children hurrying off the streets. A few of the braver souls merely slunk off to one side to let her pass. The bravest still dared whisper insults under their breath, either unaware or uncaring that the invictus could hear them. Spence bristled and only the fact that Alexandra herself ignored the comments kept him in check. She would have laughed. Her brothers and sisters had trod through cities they’d all but destroyed. The muttered curses of street trash were a pale shadow to the hateful screams and curses of men and women who’d seen their countries burn. None of her siblings had even so much as broken stride. The defeated were entitled to their rage. Only when it transgressed from words to actions was a response merited.
They will see you, the primogenitor had said, as a beacon. You will bring this light to them upon a branch of olive or upon the point of a spear, but they will bask in your radiance and be grateful for it.
Alexandra looked at her surroundings, at the cracked facades on the buildings, the holes in the roads, at the frightened, accusatory stares of the people. The last time she had seen faces like that, she had been in full armour, marching down the streets of Paris. Half the city had burned to the ground in one night. She felt just as much as an invader, as an occupier here.
She didn’t like that feeling.
“Yes,” she said at last, turning to face her guide. “Let’s return to the Heights. I’ve seen enough.”