Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Acquisition


            Wolfsmouth was the second-largest city in all of Retrein, and its largest port. While Ravenfort had retained much of its original look, with its cast iron and elongated, gothic architecture, Wolfsmouth strove toward modernity. The downtown business district was crowded with skyscrapers clad in glass – a style inspired by the Djinni ruins in the Sarona Desert – and the entire city was criss-crossed with an elaborate subway system.
            It had taken Nascine two days to get there. Normally she preferred to travel by bike, but given the weather it seemed more prudent to take the train. She was packing light, as she had been advised. Her backpack held a few days’ worth of clothes, so she would have to acquire new vestments when she arrived at her destination. There was a rigid back to the pack, and concealed within it was a gun and silencer. Nascine doubted she would find much use for it, if things went as they were supposed to, but it never hurt to be prepared.
            Her work for the Rookery had always carried with it certain elements of danger, but motivations were always relatively clear. She’d always been able to use her own name. This assignment was quite different, and when the queen herself handed a job to you, there was little reason to doubt that something very serious was going on.
            Her previous expeditions had always been oriented around “acquisition,” the Rookery’s preferred euphemism for theft. Retrein did not have a military, in the truest sense. Ever since Queen Elona had stolen the crown for herself, it was a point of national pride to be able to take by subtlety what others would grab with brute force. Retrons had little taste for conquest. They were an island nation, and it was far easier to defend the country if would-be invasions fell apart before they made it across the sea.
            The skyport in Wolfsmouth was, from a distance, quite attractive. A dozen spires rose up above the bay, with docks stretching out to accommodate the various airships that landed there. It was not quite as baroque as the one down in Carathon, but it was newer and larger.
            Inside, however, the skyport was disappointingly drab. The walls were beige, and the entire lobby was lit with harsh fluorescent lights. She handed the Narcian passport she had been issued to the security guard.
            “Did you enjoy your stay in Retrein?” asked the guard.
            “Yes, I had a lovely time,” Nascine answered. She had always been able to pull off a decent Narcian accent. She found that most Retrons fell into a trap of over-enunciating everything. Narcia was a big enough country, with enough subtle variation in accents that one could get away with a little of that, but she had spent enough time abroad to know what sounded fake.
            Besides, she’d spent the last few days with a speech coach to ensure her accent was believable. Theoretically she had worked on an accent most similar to that of Reben, but in the last hundred years or so the Narcian accent had grown fairly uniform anyway, so Nascine was confident she wouldn’t raise any eyebrows.
            It was a much smaller team this time around. The infamous Sarona expedition had over twenty people. This time, Nascine had only two subordinates. One of them was already in Omlos, across the Retron Channel.
            It was a half hour before she actually got to board the airship, under the name Valerie Justinian. She sat down in a relatively cramped compartment. The Rookery tended to give you the cheap seats, though at least there would be a bit of privacy.
            Sitting across from her was a tall man, somewhere around thirty, maybe a bit below. He was very lanky, and handsome in a goofy sort of way. He wore glasses and was clean-shaven.
            “Ms. Justinian, I presume?” said the man.
            “And you must be Mr. Tarson,” she said, and extended her hand. She’d picked out the alias herself. Tarson (whose real name was Chris Thatch, but she decided it would be best to think of him as James Tarson at least for now) was in charge of communications. This was another one of those irregularities. Most Rookery expeditions were fairly autonomous. Sometimes they didn’t even tell you what to bring back, trusting the lead to find something of value.
            “Bit stuffy, isn’t it? I’ll open a window,” said Nascine. She stood up and began to search for bugs. It was almost impossible that there was anything there, but it didn’t hurt to check.
            “It’s all right. I’ve already done a sweep.” Nascine kept looking, though. “Or you can do your own...”
            Nascine sat down, satisfied that the compartment was free of listening devices. “You know who gave us this assignment, Tarson?”
            “No.”
            “Queen Elona. She showed up in my flat with Minister Hodges. It was surreal, to say the least.” She picked up a newspaper that had been sitting on the bench next to her and idly flipped through it.
            “So I take it that means this is an important one?”
            “It would seem so.”
            Tarson swept his legs up and stretched out on his bench, bunching a coat up to serve as a pillow. “They say it’ll be a six hour flight. What’s the name of our man in Omlos?”
            “Her name is Kilarny. She’s making arrangements for us while we’re in Narcia. I haven’t spoken to her yet. So do you know why we need a communications man?”
            Tarson seemed to take some mild offense at this question. “To communicate, what else?”
            “This is your first job overseas, right?”
            Tarson nodded. “Yeah, why?”
            “The Queen herself is sending out an untested thief?”
            “I must have impressed her. You don’t look like a grizzled veteran either. How old are you?”
            “I’ve been around. That’s all you need to know.”
            Tarson snorted. “Is that all? I’d think at least they’d tell me what we’re going to Narcia to steal.”
            Nascine looked up from her paper. “They didn’t brief you?”
            Tarson propped himself up to a sitting position. “Oh, they briefed me, if you can call it that. They never told me that though.”
            “We’re here to steal a person.”
            Tarson sat wordlessly for several seconds. Then, cheerfully, he said “Good, I was afraid this might be dull.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Ghost Light


            It was a constant struggle. He could not sleep, because in his sleep he felt the Faceless Man tugging at his consciousness, prodding, probing, looking for a point of weakness. It was absurd, truly, completely absurd. Torture was nothing compared to this… thing that stood before him, unmoving,
            He prayed that he had gone mad. It would have been such a relief to know that his mind had simply broken from the strain of trying to respond to questions whose answers he did not know. This thing – like a human with every single comforting aspect of humanity stripped away – just stood there. Every time the Faceless Man reached out – somehow, reaching through the glass and yet not penetrating it either, as if he were reaching with invisible arms – Milton retracted, both physically (though he knew that would do no good. This thing was not physical in any real sense) and mentally, beating the assault back.
            He was sure the people there had cameras pointed at him at all times. They must have been surprised by his outbursts. Oh, what a relief it would be to discover that he was simply mad - that the person who called himself the Diplomat had merely been a dream, and that this thing was a hallucination. Madness can be cured.
            During the last Question Time, he had watched the Faceless Man turn to the Shabby Man. The thing reached out with its hand and clutched the Shabby Man’s arm. Shabby Man looked like he was under hypnosis. Yet when the Faceless Man let go and turned away, the Shabby Man merely collected himself and acted as if nothing had happened.
            There was one source of light, back in the cavernous room outside his cell. It reminded him of something he heard about theaters. Even when a theater was empty, between performances or rehearsals, at all times there had to be a light on in the middle of the stage. While it served the very practical purpose of providing light in a huge, dark room, many believe that it was needed to ward off ghosts.
            This building’s Ghost Light was not doing its job.
            “He hasn’t moved, has he?” said the Diplomat.
            Milton turned, taking his gaze off of the Faceless Man for the first time in what seemed like hours. While it was light outside of the cell, it was still nearly pitch black inside. He could only make out a rough outline of the man standing behind him.
            “You startled me.”
            “I apologize. He hasn’t moved?”
            Milton looked back. The Faceless Man was perfectly still. “Not since he grabbed the Shabby Man’s arm.”
            “Hm.”
            They sat there in silence for a time. Then the Diplomat spoke again.
            “Jack, do you know who these people are? The ones who have you imprisoned here?”
            Milton frowned. “Know? I do not. I thought they might be Military Intelligence, or something. Contractors of some sort. Too unconventional to be real military. But they’re professionals.”
            “Milton, have you ever heard of the House?”
            He had heard of the House. It was an old legend, popular with conspiracy theorists, but dismissed by anyone with an ounce of skepticism. If you believed the stories, there were Agents of the House in every city, in every country, controlling everything in total secrecy. In his career, he’d never seen any evidence of their existence.
            “Yes. Are you trying to tell me that that’s who they are?”
            The Diplomat was quiet for a moment. “What do you think?”
            Milton thought about that. “I’ve been tortured for what must be months. I am disposed, at this point, to question everything, including my own sanity. It’s crossed my mind that you and this fellow across the glass are completely the invention of my own mind. I do not know why these people are under the impression that I know anything about the whereabouts of June Greene, but it became apparent very early on that nothing I say or do will convince them otherwise.”
            “I don’t know why they are so eager to find her, but I cannot imagine they have her interests at heart. To me, that implies some level of irrational panic. The woman I met was powerful, certainly, but I had no definitive reason to believe that she was a danger. Panic in the face of power? That sounds like government to me. Now, unless I’ve really been na├»ve, I don’t think Enforcement has any secret prisons like this, so that means it’s either Military Intelligence or National Intelligence.”
            “It would be quite fantastic to find that neither is the case, and that all the stories are true, but it would not exactly improve my position here.”
            The Diplomat took something out of a pocket and placed it on the ground. “So you’re a skeptic.”
            “I suppose you could say that.”
            “Good. Skeptics are good.”
            “What do you mean by that?”
            There was no response. Strangely, everything began to look slightly brighter. It was as if, before, he had gone from a bright room to a dark room, and only now were his eyes adjusting. His cell was empty except for him.
            He could only just make out the thing on the floor that the Diplomat had left. He picked it up. It was a knife. He pulled it from its sheathe. It was razor-sharp, and long.
            He held the knife close, propping himself up against the wall next to the door. The Faceless Man only stood there, staring without eyes, as he always did.
            “Don’t tell anyone,” said Milton.
            The Faceless Man said nothing.