Thursday, March 25, 2010
It did nothing to cheer him up. This was a fool's errand they were on. The least of the Recluse-Caliphs were no joking matter and Galhandro bin Ludri was by no means the least of their number, despite being an apostate, an idolator and worse. The stories that the elder-beetles recounted around their dim sputtering fires that he recalled from his childhood days spent scavenging amongst the docks of Omece made his skin crawl, what was left of it. Noris circled himself and spat to his left to ward off the ill-luck he could feel boiling up towards them from the ruby-paned walls of the tesseract estate looming at them on the horizon.
All about the once sleek but still servicable airship the crew of grim-faced jaikonts, spindly-limbed sloor and freethinking homunculi clambered and clumb, seeing to all the myriad preparations, on-going repairs and what-not that went along with moving the ship through one world's skies after another. Bartolomeo employed few humans amongst his crew, choosing instead the ferocious loyalty of idealistic urfolk drawn from the ranks of the downtrodden or liberated from bondage. It appealed to his romantic sensibilities. He was so enamoured with his personal image, of playing the role of liberator, that he even went so far as to install a small shrine to Liberty in his quarters. He felt it lent a certain panache to his public persona and the study groups he'd contracted with back at Corazune had counselled him to pursue such things as part of his personal branding effort. Corazune, oh wicked Corazune, shameless and unrepentent, the ruin of many a young boy and the nemesis of all things honest and true. Bartolomeo had flourished in the fetid depths of its incense-choked alley-tunnels and the rickety networks of stairs, ladders and landings cobbled together from bamboo, scrap-iron and pieces of defunct airships whose crews had gone native, fallen into intoxicated-degeneracy, or been absorbed into one of the all too savory cults which served the appetites of amorphous things that shuddered and blubbered nonsense syllables in the multi-phasic shadows cast by fractured lamps lit with unfixed flames. Of all the ports and places he'd been, it was Corazune that Bartolomeo most wished to return to; there was something about the place that invigorated him. He missed the constant attention of the swarms of fish-like papparazzi that fluttered about the place recording everything that they could get their eyes on. It made him feel more alive, it excited him, goaded him on to greater excesses, more ambitious efforts, bolder lies. It had gotten him roped into this latest enterprise.
Ah, Ambition and Her sister Fame, the true twin-goddesses that Bartolomeo worshipped so fervently, so obliviously, so completely. But it was Fortuna he most needed to placate instead of ignoring Her as he did in his self-aggrandizing hubris.
The warning bell rung out. Three quick notes vibrating outwards from an abused shell of bronze, each note beaten from it by a crude sculptor's hammer stolen from a blind anchorite. It was the sort of thing that Bartolomeo often mistook as poetic. It was part of his overall image. The consultants in Corazune had been most enthusiastic in their support of his adopting a poetic facade.
He leaned back in his captain's chair. All about him half a hundred little creatures of various sizes, types and configurations scurried about doing all those unpleasant, unromantic, unmentionably boring and pedantic tasks that suited their petty and trivial natures. They served something greater than themselves. They found meaning in their sordid and cramped little lives, a sense of fulfillment that they never would have experienced had Bartolomeo not delivered them from their former low-stations and ceaseless toil. Now, instead of serving cruel masters who were at best indifferent to their fates, they served with great loyalty and vigor the man who had liberated them into his service. Their efforts went towards supporting Bartolomeo, their hero, their leader, their savior from obscurity. They gloried in their tiny roles as supporting actors in the magnificent drama that was Bartolomeo Grell's very life.
Bartolomeo smiled with his customary smugness as he rose from his exquisitely padded and richly upholstered chair and prepared himself for the impending adventure. It would no doubt be his greatest, most legendary exploit yet. No doubt. The prognostimancers had given him his narrowest margin of potential success yet and he had mortgaged everything to bet on his success. This one would free him from all outstanding debts and even give him the means, once and for all, to buy reinstatement. He could reclaim the ancestral estates, again use his noble titles and rejoin Polite Society. It meant everything to him, so he gambled everything on the chance, the one mad chance at doing something so outrageous, so unprecedented that he would be assured of fame ever-lasting. And that made it all the more irrestible.
Calmly, thoroughly, professionally, Bartolomeo donned his harness and armor, each piece custom-tailored to his exact specifications and requirements. He slid his various kits, tools, weapons and assorted devices into their places. He armed the wards, keyed the talismans, awakened the charms and went through his pre-deployment ritual of preparation with meticulous punctillio. His rapier and his handgun, coil-whip and lux-wand quickly found their places in their holsters, loops and customary sheaths. The second warning, now two notes upon the bell, rang out as he admired himself in his full-length mirror -- a baroquely-framed original J'romin no less. He was the epitome of dashing, the very acme of handsome and virility incarnate. With a slight nudge on his wrist pad his magnificence faded into an obscure dull haze of no determinable color and he stalked out of his quarters to the drop-bay. It was time for him to do what he and only he could do.
The bell sounded one single note. Bartolomeo was ready. More than ready. The drop-bay doors opened like a flower unfurling itself into daylight. The wine-dark waters of the Zamnallix Sea flashed past below. He jauntily nodded once to Noris who stood glumly looking down at him from the observation mezzanine, his knuckles white with fear or excitement. Then the bottom fell out of the world and Bartolomeo dropped like a cannon-ball heaved over the rail of a tower. The ultralight wings snickered into place like panes of insectile veined-glass and he restrained an unseemly whoop as the fragile wings took over from gravity's crude embrace and he swooped at ever increasing speed into a zig-zag pattern of loops and rolls that allowed the micro-craft to shift seamlessly back and forth across a dozen phase-states so as to completely foil any possible sensors or detectors that might be arrayed against it.
A non-flash registered by its intensely brief absence more than any impression he could describe marked the detonation of a probability mine that had been dropped by the mothership. That would muddy things up for any cognitives or karmacists who might be on the Recluse-Caliph's staff. It would also help the Smiling Gaijin to continue on towards the tiny, disreputable port of Kadriz which would appear to all intents and purposes to have been their destination all along. It was more of a standard precaution than anything, a simple matter of maintaining a professional level of deniability.
Bartolomeo thrilled to the wild acrobatics the microcraft peformed completely at the whim and instigation of a disposable pseudo-mind which would be completely burned-out and unrecoverable upon his arrival. Another precaution.
His goggles signalled readiness and he allowed them to take over all passive perception and linked them into the suicidal micro-craft's doomed pilot-mind. The micro-craft navigated the various streams and fields of detection, the shields and static defenses, slipping past every form of observation and sensation using dozens of obscure and esoteric techniques that were the best that money could buy and that Bartolomeo could not comprehend. Then the brave little micro-craft reached the limits of its capabilities and deposited him as deeply within the outer compound of the tesseract estate as it could take him. Then it died. The molecule-thin winglets evaporated and dissolved soundlessly, leaving only the faintest of traces that would quickly be obscured just by the simple movement of the night air.
He switched his goggles setting and ran the schematics of the place through his tactical processors. The route to the harem was wide open before him and he stealthily penetrated the inner regions of the tesseract-estate quickly, quietly, utterly invisible and devoid of detection. He wished there was some way to record his progress, except that anything that could observe his efforts would betray them as well. He would just have to content himself with a skillful, and suitably edited and revised, recreation later.
Slipping past dormant robot-guards, bored metacephalic baboons tethered to jewelled leashes, and other more exotic protectors and defenders while locating the harem of Galhandro bin Ludri was simplicity itself for a seasoned adventurer such as himself. Childsplay. He was nearly insulted at the ease of his infiltration. But gaining discrete access, actually entering those hallowed precincts without being detected, that was the true challenge to his mastery of the arts of espionage and deception. There was no way to accurately or meaningfully plan any effective course of action until he was directly before the harem's perimeter, immediately scanning its defenses and analyzing its every fluctuation, flaw and eccentricity no matter how trivial. To do so prior to this point would only have tangled the probabilities into garish snarls and dangerous knots that would have fore-doomed anyone attempting so audacious an escapade as he was attempting. He watched, waited and let his tactical processors suss out the most providential courses of possible action and mapped out their chances of success one after another until finally he found a way. There was always a way, if one were but bold enough, dedicated enough, persistent enough to sieze upon it.
In moments, with a few deft maneuvers, some skilled application of various aspects of the roguish arts and a momentary sleight-of-hand distraction, Bartolomeo gained access to the harem itself. It was beautiful, serene, tastefully decorated in a style that reminded him of the waterfall gardens popular on Rinotto. An impressive array of statuary collected from across the Known Worlds lined various niches, supported elegant fountains, loomed gracefully over every courtyard or square spaced along the hallways and vaulted paths of the place. Carpets of the rarest sort, some carefully preserved artifacts claimed to have been liberated from Persia and other long ago empires of the mostly forgotten and discredited past, obscured and softened the luxurious marble floors. Jade screens carved into delicate triptychs of artistically rendered mathematical abstractions served to form intimate boundaries while wisps of coldlight flittered playfully about like fireflies and the treasures of a thousand looted worlds were displayed as though installed in a museum.
Any other thief would have been hard-pressed to resist the temptation to simply grab whatever looked most precious and costly and get out of there quickly. The smallest bauble lifted from such a horde would have ensured notoriety and celebrity for decades. But it would not do for Bartolomeo. He had not come here for gold, nor jewels, nor rare works of art no matter how pricelss or wondrous thay might be. He stalked past the gaudy displays and the heaped urns overflowing with vulgar treasures of rare minerals and pearls until he found what he had come for above all else.
Like many of his former contemporaries, the Recluse-Caliph Galhandro bin Ludri was partial to virgins, some suspected it was a stunted cultural preoccupation left-over from their predecessors the Khans of Pashkeb and Mardool whose gene-caste empires had fallen to the usurpation by Matriarchs and humanistic ideologues from whom the Recluse-Caliphs had barely been able to escape. In their luxurious exile the Recluse-Caliphs had adopted a tragic if aesthetic sort of conservatism, and in this nostalgic malaise that they cultivated in all their holdings and all their possessions, they adored and prized one thing above all others as the pinnacle of their forebear's accomplishment in the genetic arts. The Elure. Beings so pure and virginal that they were not born of women, nor so crude as to be the product of chance couplings or the crass minglings of incomplete strands or strains. They were complete unto themselves, immaculate, delicate, more beautiful than any other work of art accomplished by mankind and completely neutral canvasses both physically and mentally who were so malleable and imprintable that the merest presence of another non-elure forever changed them, degraded them into some lesser exalted state which would be inextricably and totally bound-up with whomever they imprinted upon. To many of the Recluse-Caliph's rivals, elure-virgins were a prize beyond all thoughts of avarice or cost. To steal one of these creatures would be the greatest achievement possible to a dedicated and masterful professional such as Bartolomeo. It would make him a legend in his own time and not only in his own mind.
Calmly, carefully, exactingly, he withdrew the stasis mechanism that he had acquired on the black market back at Corazune just for this purpose. It was primed and ready to serve his command. He intended to use it to capture one of the elure-virgins unspoiled, in a pristine state. No one would pay for a despoiled virgin, nor would he gain or attain the heights of notoriety he desired by simply, crudely ravishing the Recluse-Caliph's elure-virgins. Any fool could have done so little after so much and cheated themselves of true immortality. He was no such fool. As always he had both a well-documented plan and a wealth of improvisational resources with which to accomplish his designs.
"Good evening." came a smooth, silky voice that shocked him to his marrow. Impossibly, someone had spotted him. Noticed him. Addressed him directly and unmistakeably.
He turned as he crouched to see who --or what-- was there with him. That they had spoken and not sounded an alarm might mean that there was still a chance to extricate himself from disaster. He reassured himself that the chaosbomb was still within quick reach of his left hand.
It was a woman.
A woman in white.
Her skin was as creamy smooth as an albino in moonlight. Hair the shimmering shades of milk cascaded down across her slim shoulders and past her slender waist. The robes that she occupied flowed about her like the shells carved to house the icons of the thirty seven madonnas of record, both demurely covering her sensual curves and revealing a wantonness that he found profoundly disturbing. But it was her eyes that seized upon his soul and enflamed his nerves with a deadly, irresistible passion. He could not look away. He did not want to look away. Not now, not ever. Her eyes emanated a seductive transpersonal rhythm that drew him to her. She was beauty incarnate. A transcendent principle made flesh. He moved closer, each step towards her embrace only causing him more and more pain in reaction to how far away they still remained and with a cry of ecstatic torment he relinquished his various wards, eschewed his personal defenses, abandoned his stealth and silenced the warning chatter of his tactical processors. She was all that mattered to him now. A consummate narcissist and ego nonpareil, Bartolomeo blinked back tears as he surrendered himself up to something so far beyond his paltry self that he was at an utter loss for words, his thoughts were only of her. Only of Her.
Tears blinded him to anything but the radiant beauty of the woman in white and her eyes, oh those eyes, those glorious eyes that drank in his soul and filled his mind with an intoxicating effulgence he could not bear to even consider losing. All his previous life now weighed heavily, hatefully upon him as time lost, as time he never got to offer up unto her, to share in this almost religious-ecstasy.
He never saw her jaw smoothly, unobtrusively extend itself, nor the many rows of needle-sharp teeth that flowed into place as she smiled sweetly. A single, short, sharp snap and he died in the midst of a paroxysm of beauty and terror comingled as one. A final orgasmic exit from the stage of life that would doom him to obscurity and at best a footnote in the annals of the ambitious and the foolhardy.
Later, beneath the mingled moonlight, two women in white sat on heavy, brocade cushions placidly observing the glittery stars of a particularly clear night. There was no sign of the Smiling Gaijin to be seen by any means as it quietly, surreptitiously made its way to port.
"How was it Mitreel?" the one asked of the other.
"Interesting. I'd never had a man before."