On deck it was far below freezing. Propellers thrummed, struts creaked. A black wind flayed the skin between Bart Pillar's goggles and his mask. One last time, he checked the straps that secured his chute and longsword to his back. He braced himself on the safety handholds above the drop-door and
watched the darkened lightbulb in its cage overhead.
Bleak columns of searchlight punched the night around the high-altitude airship Esperance. They'd broken through the frontier. They were above the city of Finn-against-Oben, between the armies of the civil war.
The lightbulb lit. Bart drew a breath. He held his arms in, sarcophagus-style, and stepped onto the drop-door.
It squealed open, birthing him into free-fall.
Dark air slammed him like an uppercut. The vast, eccentrically quilted gasbag of the airship loomed into his vision, then was lost. A flipped horizon followed it, a jumble of indistinguishable mountains, raw night. Then Esperance again, much higher, her running lights off, her lines of modernist beauty vanishing in cloud. Pale limbs of searchlight sweeping out from beyond the river...
The city, its unlit streetscape, a magician's circle graven on the earth...
And the sky. And the city again.
Bart tumbled like a flipped coin.
He relaxed his limbs and threw his hands back over his shoulders, forming the classic "arch". Air ushered his limbs into place, canceled his spin. The black wind screamed murder, stabbed through his oiled jump-jacket and the commando sweater beneath. But his pack was stable and his longsword was
A searchlight cut the air below, but slid aside in time. Bart fell through the space. He was only a mile up, but even dyed night-blue, a chute was far more visible than a falling man. He'd have to wait to pull the ripcord.
He could see the infohub now, off-center in a ring of metro tracks. Spokelike, avenues sprouted out from that pyramidal fortress. Snowy streets grew wider. Telegraph lines grew distinct. The city widened like a smothering glove.
Bart crossed his ankles and linked his hands.
The icy flood of Oben to the south. The snowy Cundall range on the city's northern side. River and mountain: these were the frontlines of the two armies contending for the ruins of the Empire. With winter at hand, supply lines were frayed, the peasant conscripts mutinous. Neither faction had the
manpower, the armor, or the stupidity to try to "liberate" the industrial city.
They'd simply ordered it to empty, and the people had obeyed. For once, the burghers and the underclass were of one mind. They had no wish to sample the chemical bombs and nerve gasses with which the Empire, back in its glory days, had put down many a colonial rebellion.
And so Finn-against-Oben became a ghost city. One year from now, it would belong to whoever had won the civil war, republican or revolutionary...
Not that Bart Pillar cared who won.
He just wanted it all over with. He wanted the good old days again. He wanted a capitalist class that could afford to dress him in livery, feed him five-course meals, and let him settle their rivalries and intrigues with his sword.
That was what Bart did. He was an Ogrant Well boy, born and raised. And Ogrant Well Defense Contracts, LLC, didn't sell your average cannon-fodder mook, they sold the premium product. Like the crew of the Esperance sold transportation, Ogrant Well sold solver-optimized swordsmanship, perfect
discretion, and the lowest failure rate in the business.
Ogrant Well sold heroes.
Unfortunately, in today's milieu of long-range artillery, steam-powered armor, and trench warfare, Ogrant Well heroes were needed like fine china in a two-penny slophouse.
And what was worse: if Bart didn't do his job properly, couldn't get to the telegraph solvers inside the infohub and erase certain records before the city was captured, Ogrant Well might not have a future at all. And then where would Bart be?
I will not imagine that world, he told himself.
He pulled the ripcord on his chute.
An allegorical statue in green copper presided over the square of untouched snow where he touched down. Five minutes later Bart had gathered up the chute and stowed it in an alley. The city air was absolutely silent. No boilers, no sirens, no hooves, only the stinging wind blowing down from
the mountains, a wind that would soon erode his tracks. Not that it mattered. The city was guaranteed to be deserted.
Bart checked his gear. The longsword was still on his back. His watch read 5:50 AM. He'd landed in a petty-bourgeois quarter of steep-roofed houses, pharmacies, and perfume shops. Few windows were broken. Apparently, the local government had maintained some kind of order during its suicide.
The infohub, a tombstone heap between a pair of dead smokestacks, was still several miles away. Bart re-laced his boots and started walking toward it through the snow.
Two hours later the sun had risen and Bart was there. In the shadowed doorway of a credit office, he smoked a battle-med cigarette.
The street was littered with sodden papers. The sky overhead excreted dawn like some biological oil. Its color recalled nights in the capital, the circuit of mansion balconies Bart had prowled on his old bodyguard contract for the Marchioness of Holle. Before the war he'd had taken more than one
cut defending the interests of that shrewd businesswoman. Now the house of Holle had fallen and the Marchioness was probably dead or in hiding.
And Bart sighed, for this reversal recalled penmanship class back on the farm, fifty Pillar boys at their desks dutifully copying out old mantras:
Fortunes change like waves in the sea, every phase breeds its own contradiction.
Life is short, fame is long, action troublesome, will alone an absolute.
All men are brothers, but war will never cease. All men die, but fame lives on...
The cigarette was already dead in the puddle where he'd thrown it, but as Bart left the doorway he tread on it anyway. At that instant, weight forward, he saw the red flag flying above the entrance of the infohub.
It was exactly the same as the red armband he wore on his bicep. The Ogrant Well flag. His flag.
For ten seconds Bart froze, as if stepping on a minefield. He stared across the square. He blinked.
He made an about-face and walked away, keeping to the shadowed side of the avenue. Now and then he looked back at the flag and shivered.
So someone was trying to make him think Ogrant Well heroes were already at the infohub...
Bart knew he had to figure out the situation before he committed to another move. Nothing could be left to chance in this operation. Ogrant Well heroes never cut corners. They'd been raised better than that.
Slush lay patchy on the streets of this quarter. The rock-salt scattered earlier in the year had stayed around. That was both good and bad: Bart didn't want to be tracked, but that also meant he couldn't track the bandits. Still, in these conditions, if their training resembled his (would it? he worried), they'd probably circle the infohub at half a mile or so.
And that, Bart, thought, would mean walking in a ring that just fell short of the elevated metro tracks.
He found a station, vaulted over the shabby turnstile, stalked up unlit stairs. On the platform he glanced at a map of the system. It was an ordinary provincial metro: a loop line, three spurs to the suburbs, a transfer point to the long-distance passenger rail.
Bart lay flat on his stomach. Through bars, the platform commanded a clear view of a boulevard leading straight up to the infohub. A sniper's perch. Except Bart had no rifle. The mission orders had led him to expect close combat only, on the off-chance that the city government had left a team behind to guard the data in the memory racks of the central solvers...
Definitely not this.
It didn't make any sense! Bart knew this had to be a false-flag operation run by another company. But what reason would they have to make themselves look like an Ogrant Well team? To cover up their own identity, obviously. Unless they knew Bart was coming. Unless they'd cracked the solvers already.
Unless something completely different was going on...
So many questions.
Time passed. Pigeons buzzed the platform. The sun burned through its shroud of haze. Puddles thinned under its glare. The Ogrant Well flag flapped by the entrance of the infohub. Bart smoked another cigarette.
He was three-quarters done with it when the other hero appeared out of an alley.
All city-dwellers are familiar with a certain feeling. It happens like this. At point X, you notice an omnibus stop that will take you to point Y, your destination. But who knows when the bus will come, so you decide to hoof it. Just as you arrive at Y, the omnibus rolls in... and you feel you've run into the ghost of yourself, the shadow of you that chose the other path.
This was what Bart Pillar felt like as he sized up the other man.
His stride was identical to Bart's. The weapon on his shoulder was the same make, a Polyandre-brand slim-line sword with a red tassel and a mother-of-pearl grip that winked in the sun. His way of glancing backward was the same. The red Ogrant Well armband adorned his bicep. His hair, like Bart's, was black and buzzed; his skin, too, was dark brown, glossy as leather. The face was too distant to discern.
Bart looked down through cover at the other hero.
The other hero glanced up toward Bart and the sunlight.
He kept walking.
For several minutes Bart lay still, breathing, heart pounding hard. He'd have to evade their patrols. He crawled out of cover and scrambled down the blind stairway.
As his momentum carried him through the turnstile and into the lobby, he was staggered by the sunlight. His eyes teared, skimming the scene like rocks on a pond: floorboards shining blond, mobile sparks of dust in crossbeams, the street like a flaming oven behind a grease-smeared door...
Bart had already sensed someone to his left. Automatically, his hand reached back for his swordgrip. He drew, half-blind. He heard the distinctive sha-ang of his Polyandre longsword as it separated the air into planes...
And he heard it strike another sword.
Like all high-level duels in the world of martial arts, the fight in the station was short, but extremely complicated.
It didn't come down to initiative, because the men had noticed each other at the same moment.
It didn't come down to tactics, because neither man found himself with any time to plan.
And it didn't come down to the superiority of one style to another... because the two styles were identical.
Venture capital had bought the Ogrant Well fight labs enough motion-capture equipment and clockwork solver time to analyze thousands of mock duels… Which, during previous decades, the mercenary heroes of the martial world had been happy to record on reasonable terms.
The result of their work was a statistically optimal sword style. When taught from an early age--and it had to be--the style was precise, ruthless, and incomparably fast.
A duel between two users of the Ogrant Well style might be understood as an extraordinary exercise in unit analysis. The arguments of the function were these: the X-, Y-, Z-values of certain points on the body. The distribution of mass in relation to each body's center. The inertial properties of each sword. Twitch muscular reaction time. The lactic acid level in critical muscles. The quantity of light striking the retina. The dilation of the iris admitting that light...
Even a top-of-the-line solver would take minutes to solve such a problem. But for the last thirty years, the Ogrant Well farm had been taking newborn orphans and turning them into heroes capable of solving it in real-time.
In this case, the time was three seconds.
Three seconds for Bart Pillar to parry, disarm his opponent, flip him body-over-wrist, and break his back on the bar of the turnstile. From there it was just a matter of strangling the man.
The enemy was dead before the glare had faded from the hero's eyes. Only then did Bart begin to feel fear. He bit his lip as he looked at the other man's face and waited for the blindness to fade. He half-expected to recognize himself.
Instead Bart recognized a Pillar boy named Gene who had been his bunkmate between the ages of eight and nine. They had shared a blanket on cold nights.
Bart stumbled backwards, one step, two...
And his vision collapsed in on itself.
When he came back to consciousness he was hunched beneath the metro tracks, vomiting half-digested jerky into a patch of muddy snow.
I must have run, he thought, but where?
His sword was sheathed behind his shoulder. That, at least, had been automatic. He flicked open his watch. The time was 4:45 PM. For the moment, Bart accepted this and started walking.
Only to stop short and seize the watch again a block later and flip it open.
The time was now 3:18 AM.
Bart frowned and shut the watch and listened. It was ticking at the normal rate. The sun shone down through the metro pylons. Shadows interlaced. Bart opened the watch again.
The radium-painted hands overlapped. Midnight on the dot.
Why me, Bart thought.
He unclipped the watch from its chain and dropped it into the mud like a rotted fruit.
The sun was just a little higher in the sky. It had to be morning still...
Bart decided to verify his position. This would give him time to figure out what happened, time to evaluate options… time, in short, not to proceed. This was a mistake, a lapse; Bart knew it. On the farm they'd punished you for stalling and such stuff had never been in Bart's playbook. He owed his
excellent combat record to his discipline, his knack for following his training to the letter.
But then, fighting other Pillar boys was not part of his training either.
(He had to focus, had to breathe very regular, had to try to get past it: Gene's lifeless face, as betrayed and lost as Bart's own...)
Bart glowered suspiciously at the street, at the sky. He spat. A less disciplined man would have smashed a window.
What the hell was going on in Finn-against-Oben?
Training be damned: until Bart found out, he didn't dare proceed.
Further along the tracks he found another metro station. Bart picked the lock and went up to the platform. The tracks were empty. Blocky avant-garde apartment buildings and dripping balconies blocked the view beyond. For no reason, Bart glanced at the metro map.
It had changed. It resembled an elaborate and predatory plant. The loop line was no circle, but a sideways figure-eight. Long arms, each its own gay color, spooled out into suburban waste, each labeled in an eminently reasonable sans-serif:
Motley Line, Star Line, Rend Line, Slimmer Line, Straight Line, Thricegreat Line, Red Lion Line, Irredentist Line…
Bart blinked, and all the names changed. The map shifted like a flipbook opened to a random page. Now the lines had grown, mated with each other, their forked paths rejoining....
Medicamenthos, Physiocratic University, Workers' Opera, Vsevolosk, Gibbonbon, Prestigkd, Evangelical Gospel of Good News, Bibliotheatriskadelikatesseract…
Bart steadied his trembling nose against the sheet of glass that protected the map and stared hard at Gibbonbon.
You are here, the legend said. An orange arrow pointed to a dot.
Deliberately now, Bart blinked.
The little fields of breath on the cold glass stayed the same. But Gibbonbon had already transformed into Thirtain Ashleaves.
You are here, mocked the map.
No, thought Bart, not now.
Frost crunches underfoot at dawn, the skies are bloody pink, as you shiver your way along the gravel path to the shed that holds the room.
Curiously, the name is not inexact. Boys sleep in barracks. Classes are taught in halls. The instructors live in chambers and work in offices. Like on a ship, a toilet is called a head; you bathe and snap towels in the showers. There are also workshops and utility closets and gymnasiums and dojos and cafeterias and kitchens and a library and a lookout tower. Within the bounds of the barbed-wire fence that encloses the old chateau and its outbuildings, every single chamber on the farm has a name and a number and a legend on the door... every room except the room.
Calling the room anything but the room means you get sent there.
As do so many other mistakes.
"Are you lost?"
If she'd been wearing rags or even a seamstress's dress, he would have cut her apart on reflex. Instead he dropped his sword six inches, back into its scabbard. Ogrant Well heroes didn't attack women in furs. It was a liability thing.
"Are you lost?" the lady said again. "What's wrong?"
"The city," said Bart. "I thought it was empty."
"Well," said she, with an amiable shrug, "It looks like it isn't."
She appeared perhaps thirty-five. She wore her brown hair in a conservative chignon. The hood of her coyote fur coat was down. Sun glittered off a string of pearls. Her skin was light, moist, and flawless.
"You aren't supposed to be here," Bart said.
"Neither are you," said the lady, with a smile. "You're not a looter, are you?"
"I saw you from the street. You looked confused, so I came up. I'm Tarsilla."
Bart nodded, although in fact he had somehow failed to remember his own name.
"Where are you going?"
She waited patiently for him to answer.
"How... many lines on this train?" he stammered.
"Not too many. I mean, the map's right there. But it isn't running now. Where do you want to go?"
He was so frightened he would've answered honestly. But the words didn't come. He licked his lips. The roof of his mouth still hurt from where he'd burned it drinking bittertea in the lounge on that airship. With that engineer. What was his name again? And the airship's name?
"Do you have a cigarette?" the lady asked. "I ran out, and I don't like to break into places." She smiled ironically. "I'm a good girl, I guess."
Maybe she can help me. Absurdly, hope was still present for Bart. Maybe I can win after all...
He produced his cigarette case. They each took one. He lit hers first, then his own, and dragged. Some blockage seemed to have cleared somewhere. He looked around. The sun was bright. His name was Bart Pillar.
Bart turned back to the map and blinked rapidly. It didn't shift. It was simple again. The station he was at was called 7th Street.
You are here.
Punishment room or discipline room or gas room wouldn't be inaccurate. Not technically. But in the end you begin to believe the grownups are right to insist; words like that, mere function-words, could never be enough. By the proportions it's assumed for you--the fear it holds--the room will burn through any label, like a tin can heated up to red. There is only an outline, a category; as if the room were the secret archetype of every room in the world...
They don't touch your body inside, except to strap you to the chair. All the man does is make you watch things on a screen while you breathe the gas. You know there's a gas because he wears a funny mask. The stuff on the screen is just words and pictures, like an eye test. Sometimes the pictures are scary or make no sense or even funny; queer funny though, not ha-ha. Sometimes the word is an embarrassing secret word you thought grownups didn't know. Or a nonsense word. Sometimes the word turns into something else.
Like Gibbonbon into Thirtain Ashleaves.
Because the letters shift when you blink. Because the pictures morph. An egg becomes a rose. A hammer becomes a strip of bacon. An addition problem bubbles into a blot, a maw that swallows you, as you black out.
You never remember anything after that.
"Strong," said Tarsilla, thumping politely at her chest. She stared at the cigarette, pinched between two fingers of her lambskin glove. "What is that stuff?"
"Special blend," Bart told her.
Tarsilla tried once more and pulled a face and politely abandoned her cigarette in a snowy birdbath. Bart felt slightly amused. The stuff was a proprietary mix, keyed up for melee combat: shag tobacco, skullcap, combat ganja, a spritz of epiphanogenic battle-meds. On the farm they'd let kids smoke it as a treat.
They were walking through a park, well away from the metro tracks and the Ogrant Well patrol circle. Down a thawing avenue Bart glimpsed the infohub again.
"What are you doing here?" he asked her.
"Walking," said Tarsilla. "What are you doing here?"
"Well," Bart said, "There's this message I have to deliver, you see."
It wasn't a lie. Except the message was intended for a machine, not a human. The laminated solver punchcard that was zipped into the right breast pocket of his jump-jacket: this was the "crash-card" that would search for and wipe clean all data relating to Ogrant Well.
"Oh," said Tarsilla. "Me, I'm going home, but I'm not in a hurry."
"They evacuated the place two weeks ago. Why didn't you leave with the rest of them?"
"I just didn't care to," said Tarsilla. "Haven't you always wanted a whole city to yourself? Isn't that why you stayed?"
"I guess so," said Bart.
"You see? I told my husband I'd take my chances here... the dotard was too busy rescuing his mistress to care... when the soldiers swept the house I hid in the armoire. They didn't even check. I've got a cellar full of food. I could make you a meal if you like."
"No thank you," said Bart. "Aren't you worried about gas bombs?"
"From outside? Not particularly," said Tarsilla. "Our biggest industries are weaveries, mills, and the uranium glass-works, and both armies want to keep the city whole for when the war's over. They will only attack if they spot saboteurs. But that's not going to happen yet because things are still
undecided down south in the old capital. Or at least they were the last I heard."
"Things haven't really changed."
"Right," Tarsilla went on. "At this point, either side might win, so they'll commit their partisans to the war in the capital. Planting them here would just mean betting on their own defeat..."
Bart nodded. "You're saying Finn-against-Oben is like a trophy both sides agree to set on the shelf while they duke it out."
"That's right. They might destroy the rest of the house, but they won't touch the shiny treasure." Tarsilla smiled primly, regarding the empty street with the poise of an absolute monarch. "Who would have thought a besieged city would actually be one of the safest places in the Empire."
"It's not an Empire anymore," said Bart.
The older woman only shrugged. After a while she asked, "Where are you going?"
"To the infohub."
"But I can't let those men see me."
"They'd try to stop you?"
"But you're wearing their colors," said Tarsilla.
"I know," said Bart. "There's been some kind of mistake."
"How long have they been here? Do you remember?"
Tarsilla shrugged. "Three days? Four? I started noticing them then. I suppose they could've been here before. I only lately started going out."
This made no sense. The Esperance had been in radio contact with the Ogrant Well base almost until the frontier, more than enough time to receive an abort code. That meant the crew on the ground had to be impostors!
And yet, Gene Pillar's face, life draining from the eyes...
I could have imagined it, Bart thought. Like those fake train stations... like the times on that watch...
"You should take the train line," Tarsilla said. "It's underground, and the station's not too far."
"The metro goes to the infohub?"
"Not the metro," said Tarsilla. "The intercity train. It stops twice, at the infohub and at the depot. Or it did when they were running it."
Bart thought hard. Intercity tracks would lead away from the infohub as well. A way out of this mess. An option. It was an option.
He said, "Please take me there."
You wind up outside the room. Dizzy. But the cold wakes you up, or sometimes the hot piss you've let go in your britches. You go back inside and clean up. You've got the time, no one rushes you. Later you go back to whatever your class had been doing when you broke the rule. You apologize to everyone. Everyone accepts your apology. You're a family, after all.
Usually you feel you've gotten off rather light.
But it's funny. You almost never break that rule again. You don't want to slack off. You don't want to oversleep or shirk your task or steal food or surrender before a game is done. Fight outside the ring. Score goals on your own team.
The room has changed you. Changed the part of you that did bad things, thought bad things...
And you grow up. You're twenty-three now. You've completed more than thirty contracts without disappointing the Ogrant Well board or the shareholders or your brother heroes. People look on the name Bart Pillar with respect. As well they should. You've won dozens of duels, killed dozens of men. If people don't look out, you might kill them too. You could. It would be easy. Killing had been easy.
You just never thought you'd be back in the room again. Feel that confusion again.
The train depot. Forty stone columns fronted a coffin-shaped edifice built in the fake-classical style. The lobby echoed. Sunbeams pierced a grimy skylight...
"It's through the concourse," said Tarsilla.
She pushed open a heavy door in brass. The pair came onto a landing overlooking a vast basin in white marble.
It was full of people. Imperial bourgeois in tweed, in Meernesse wool, in fur. They jogged up out of stairwells, glanced at watches on gold chains. Their canes and umbrellas swung like pendulums above the mural-branded floor. It could have been rush-hour but for the silence. No voices spoke, no
footsteps rang... except Bart's, and Tarsilla's, as they descended a stair.
The faces of the men and women in the crowd were unclear, elusive: dream-faces, only taking form when you examined them. Everyone looked wealthy; another thing, all appeared to be between the ages of twenty and fifty.
"Busy today," whispered Bart.
"How many do you think there are?"
Tarsilla looked strangely at the young man.
"Inside here," he insisted. "How many?"
"I see you," said Tarsilla. She glanced at the arm of her fur. "Now I see me."
Bart was silent.
"You heroes!" The lady smirked. "Always think you've got the sharpest eyes. Is there someone I can't see?"
Bart felt cold and hungry. "Which way's the platform?"
Tarsilla indicated an arch that said Passingjar Crevice Two Points West. (Blink, focus: Passenger Service to Points West...)
Bart knew he couldn't delay this much longer. It was wrong to involve the lady, too; she had nothing to do with any of it. That much chivalry at least he could claim to remember.
"Well," he began.
"I'd like to thank you somehow."
"Don't worry. It was no trouble. This place is peaceful, but it's a little lonely too. You'll be all right?"
"If my luck holds."
"I'm sorry to pry. It's just, you look like you've got a lot on your mind."
Bart snapped his fingers. "Wait here for me. One second. If you would."
Knees together, Tarsilla primly seated herself on a wooden bench.
Bart dodged through through the eerily silent crowd and to the station's shuttered ticket office. There was no one behind it. He got out his ultratool and picked the simple latch on the shutter. He ratcheted it up and climbed inside through the ticket window. He touched a match to a lamp-wick and got on his knees. If this provincial train station operated like those in the capital, there ought to be...
...A weapons locker. There it was, wedged between a mesh waste-bin and the bulkier safe that held the day's take. This was where railway officials held confiscated weapons.
Bart busted it open and found exactly what he'd hoped to find. He blew out the lamp and left the office.
"Take this." Grip-forward, he held the little silver pistol out to Tarsilla.
The woman blinked. "But why? Shouldn't you take it? You might need it. Wherever you're going, I mean."
"You'll need it more. It'll be a long winter."
"I have plenty of food."
"But the others don't," said Bart. "You aren't the only one who stayed. You need to protect yourself. I insist."
The brown-haired lady looked hesitant. Then, slowly, she took the pistol. It vanished into a fold of her fur coat.
"What's your name?" she said. "You can tell it to me."
And Bart did.
"I won't forget this, Bart Pillar," said Tarsilla.
And she walked straight into the silent press of crowd. She never paused or turned aside. Too fast, people started to disperse. They slipped into doorways and behind benches, impossibly fast, a metropolis of ghosts surprised by a cock's crow...
As Tarsilla vanished into a doorway, the last remaining figure--a man in a tuxedo - turned and grinned at Bart. It passed a hand over itself and was gone.
Bart pressed his eyes with his fingers.
He walked through the completely empty room, toward the arch Tarsilla had shown him, down marble-hard stairs...
He didn't need to strike a match to size up the underground platform. The tunnels' safety lights were still on, vertical cylinders of bioluminescent moss spaced three meters apart along the opposite side of the train tracks.
Left would take Bart to the infohub. Right would take him out of the city, toward the cordon that had been set up around it. Into the refugee system. Into disgrace, exile, a future that could include only brute labor and suffering. A future without Ogrant Well. A future of illusions and ghosts...
By now he thought he understood it. The watch he'd dropped was a piece of precision engineering from the Duchy of Brest, a timepiece with a 999-year warranty. It had almost certainly shown the correct time all along. Bart had misread it somehow. Just like he'd hallucinated extra lines, extra names on
that simple metro map...
Because the rigorous conditioning of the Ogrant Well hero-farm had kicked in. Once again, he had experienced the hallucinatory chaos of the room. Bart couldn't explain it exactly, but one thing was indisputable: every time he thought about abandoning his mission, reality had deformed... no, his brain
had deformed reality. Tarsilla hadn't noticed anyone else in that train station. That meant Bart had populated that room himself. His idea of leaving the city had multiplied a single gentlewoman into a hundred of her kind.
Could Tarsilla have been an illusion too? Could Bart have been talking to himself? Guided himself from the metro to the train depot?
No, he didn't think so. The effect seemed to be associated with distorting information that was already present. You might misread a clock, confuse the text on a sign, multiply entities. But the basic contours of reality would persist.
That was what gave Bart the courage to tear the Ogrant Well armband off his bicep and drop it in the dust. To hop down off the platform. To turn right. To walk along the train tunnel out of the city.
I did it, he thought.
It was better than killing anyone else. If that had been Gene back in the metro lobby, he'd killed a man who was, in every sense but the literal, his own brother. Bart had loved him: in this tunnel, this gulf of darkness, he could certainly admit that. All men are brothers, he'd copied years ago, but war will never cease.
But it's about to cease for me.
The young man sighed and lit a cigarette--bitter, he reflected; ill-suited to civilian lungs. It pepped him up, sharpened his vision, but gave little solace. Dimly, he wondered what he'd done to deserve this fate. His professional career had been characterized by excellence in every respect. Now it was over.
But that was the way of the martial world. According to a common cliche, extreme situations brought out a man's true character. Kind people would become even kinder, while wicked people would become more and more despicable.
And if that was the case, Bart thought he had the right to be proud of what he'd chosen. Even if he was headed toward a future in which nothing could be certain, at least he had chosen this for himself.
And he knew that this was the first time in his life he had managed to make that happen.
He threw the cigarette away half-smoked and stalked on, hands in his pockets.
Presently the tunnel began to curve leftward. When Bart stopped walking and held his breath he could hear voices. Daylight couldn't be far.
He used the left, inner side of the curve as cover and walked in practiced silence. It was a happy accident that the moss-tubes were on his right, rather than the left wall...
It now occurred to Bart that if he had gone right from the platform, the safety lights should have been on the opposite side.
I went the wrong way, I'm at the fucking infohub, but how?
Silly question. To confuse midnight with 8:15 AM... after that, it wasn't tough to imagine walking left instead of right...
The bottom fell out of Bart's stomach.
Get in there. Complete the mission. Crash the solvers and you'll be free.
You fucking coward!
"Who's the sneak?" said a voice down the tunnel. "Free hero?"
"Someone caught a glimpse a' him. Uniform's copied off ours..."
The sound of spitting.
Bart swallowed miserably. On this gravel surface, footfalls would carry. No way to run. Automatically, he put his hand on his sword.
The chatter continued. "Fucking false flag shit makes me sick. There really is no honor left in the martial world."
"You can say that again."
"We gotta ID a face but the other guy it's simple, he can just open up... the fuck's he want with the solvers anyway, no one could know what we..."
"Alv, fucking keep it down man. You're spillin' your guts to all and sundry."
Alvin, Bart thought, Chas. Thanks to alphabetical order, he'd stood between their whispers a hundred times on the farm. They'd know his voice too, if he could only speak.
But he couldn't.
Gravel crunched, closer and closer. Blood pounded in Bart's brain. He searched the dim tunnel for cover, a place to bury his head, a place to forget. Nothing. His heart was beating at combat-pace. He was breathing in through the nose, out through the mouth. His glove gripped the mother-of-pearl handle of his sword.
Retreat, surrender, attack: a triple bind. All three moves constituted total guilt. All three moves would shatter the world, reenact that realm of gas and projections and void...
The walls of the tunnel squeezed closer, closer still, until the shapes of Alvin and Chas appeared in the yellow moss-light, until three sets of shoulders dropped into battle stances, until three Polyandre longswords simultaneously exited their sheaths.
Then things played out according to training, muscles, and mathematics.
And they kept going.
Long after the conscious part of Bart Pillar had completely given up.
He opened his eyes... and shut them quickly. He moaned with the sting of sunlight.
A square of blissful cold glided down his cheek. Something blocked the sun--Tarsilla, haloed by coyote fur, tongue poised atop her lips. She was sponging off his face.
"He's awake," she announced.
Bart blinked. He was lying on his back, staring up at a sky of unrelieved blue. He couldn't move. Then the woman moved her head and sunlight blinded him again.
"Mnoh," said Bart.
"Hey!" said a deep, genial voice. "Hey now!"
"Mnuh," said Bart.
"You're on the roof of the infohub," said Tarsilla. "And this is Mr. Galadan next to me. But then, I'm sure you can't be strangers..."
The man stepped into Bart's vision, a tall man in bifocals and a graying ponytail. He was wearing a dark blue riding coat and jodhpurs, toting a top-of-the-line ceramic spear. Like most ex-heroes, Galadan was fit, but somewhat overweight.
Of all the people Bart had never expected to meet in Finn-against-Oben, the very last of them was Max Galadan, the CEO of Ogrant Well Defense Contracts, LLC.
"Bart Pillar," said Galadan. "It's been, uh, what, five years? Since the graduation? Six?"
"Four," Bart whispered.
"Good. You remember." A pause. "That was a test, Bart. What else do you remember?"
"I was in the train tunnel. I heard Alvin and Chas coming closer. We. I. I guess I drew. And..."
"Well?" prompted the CEO.
"I don't remember anything."
It was true. After that the world had gone blank.
But Galadan sounded unconcerned. "It may come back," he said. "In any case, it's immaterial. In the critical moment you performed. We can accept a period of convalescence afterwards. Even the best military hardware needs downtime..."
"Er, well," said Galadan. "I don't know exactly how to say this..."
Failure. Fuck-up. Murderer.
"You won, Bart. Your mission was a lock. We've already radioed it into base. Congratulations."
The feeling that hit Bart Pillar was not relief.
"Sir," said Bart. "But I never... I mean... I never made it to the solvers."
"Oh but you did, Bart. You loaded up the crash-card good and proper. We found you there. Unconscious, sure. But your hand was on the lever, the gears were spinning up."
"How did I get there?"
"And, your, ah, fight in the billiard room? Deep down in the infohub?"
"Seven on one?"
"Running up the wall? Kill one with a shard of the chandelier? Bump off another, boot-tip to the trachea? You don't remember those moves?"
Bart breathed harder and harder.
"Well," said Mr. Galadan, "I'm proud, anyway. I have never in my life--in my life, Bart--seen such swordplay. Seven Pillar boys on one and you didn't hold back. That part's not a prompt, Bart. Not a test. Take my word for it, you performed quite admirably..."
"I didn't," Bart heaved, "do anything..."
Wind blew. Birds cried out. The blue sky stretched out above Bart. A cloud drifted into view.
"Well, Bart," said the CEO, "I can, uh, show you the bodies if you like."
"Who were they?"
Lightly, Max Galadan rattled off seven names belonging to Bart's brother heroes.
"And how many are dead?"
"Alvin, Peiyu, Owen, and Lyle. Chas nearly bled out, but we buffed him in time. He and the others will survive. Except Gene, of course. We didn't make it to Gene."
Bart breathed, stared into a blue sky that had somehow turned blood-red. He tried to move. But he'd been strapped down.
"Let me go!" he screamed.
Bart was shaking like an epileptic, trying to vibrate his way out of the straps. "Let me go!"
"Bart," soothed Tarsilla. "Relax, it's over, you're safe now..."
"You lied to me!"
The woman blinked and tilted her head. She appeared completely at home in her world; as if what she saw was just a little bit of pique and Bart would really do much better to relax.
"Well," she said, "Maybe I did, but so did you to me. And can you really blame me, Bart? A woman must look out for herself. And Mr. Galadan made escorting you quite worth my while."
Bart strained against the straps.
"I think you're making him mad," said the CEO.
Tarsilla just shrugged.
And her heels clicked their way out of Bart's hearing.
"Don't resent her, Bart," said Galadan. "She's being well rewarded. Nice package of stock options, a vote on the board of directors. Maybe now she can finally get that divorce. It's just business, Bart."
The hero was silent for a long time.
"Nothing was in the solvers," he said. "All the stuff that could hurt Ogrant Well, all the data I had to erase, it was all a lie."
"Yes," said Galadan.
"You set me up."
"Yes again. We set everybody up, everyone involved. Two teams in one city, with contradictory mission objectives. We did it in here, in Finn-against-Oben, because it allowed us to control every aspect of the
scenario, while being large enough to provide a realistic level of challenge."
"To know what would happen," Galadan returned.
"But it's the room, isn't it? It's exactly the same as... how could you not know?"
"Here's the story," said Galadan. "We bought that gas from a medical lab. An anti-aphasia drug. Supposed to be for stroke victims. We flipped an ion and made it do the opposite, bind to a neurotransmitter in the brain's language structures. The place where symbols live. Systems. In adults it
would seize everything right up, cause confusion and pain... we thought we'd use it to discipline you kids scientifically...
"Except you didn't react like adults. You weren't in pain. And we thought it was better that way. I mean, a room of seven-year-olds following orders without lip, and no nasty corporal punishment either? Too good to be true, right?
"We just didn't understand it. Until we ran some tests and found you'd learned your punishment too well. You began to anticipate it. When you kids thought up a forbidden move, your brains would actually duplicate the drug's effect. The gas wasn't even necessary. Surrender, betrayal, attacking a
teammate, transmitting the style to outsiders... in some biochemical way they became literally unthinkable for you.
"Which left just one problem... what about contradiction? Three unbreakable rules, what happens when they collide?"
Bart breathed in through his nose, out through his mouth.
"We had to know."
"Let me up."
Galadan looked curiously down at him.
"The sun," Bart said. "It's in my eyes."
The CEO leaned on his spear.
"You'll be good," he said. "You're a good boy. All of you Pillars were always very good."
He crouched down to release the straps from the field stretcher.
Bart somehow got to his feet. Finn-Against-Oben's melting streetscape exploded outward from the edges of the roof. On one side, the mountains; on the other, the river. The positions of the armies hadn't changed. Tarsilla was standing by the door to a stairwell, smoking a cigarette and watching
Bart realized that his longsword was still strapped to his back.
"You made us fight each other," he growled, looking away from the CEO, "Just to know what would happen?"
"Yes," said Galadan. "This civil war, it's changed things. We have to adapt... get sustainable..."
"Okay. Okay." Galadan took a huff of the winter air. "It's like this. Let's say I make guns. I can sell you a gun. I can sell your neighbor a gun. But the optimal business strategy is to sell the gun to both of you. And to sell guns that will never misfire, guns that can be relied on in every situation. Even if they are pointed at guns of... shall we say... an identical make."
"But that could never happen," said Bart. "You wouldn't..."
"Mercenaries aren't trustworthy," Galadan interrupted. "That's a byword of the martial world. But if we can guarantee a superior product... a hero that'll never give up, even when he fights his own best friend... no one would hesitate to hire Ogrant Well. Whether they're republican or revolutionary."
Bart looked at the army across the river.
Then he turned completely around, and looked up at the mountains, toward the other side of the civil war. His head spun. Turn us against each other. Ogrant Well heroes, sold to both sides if necessary... whatever it takes to keep the company afloat...
"So you can manipulate the war?" he muttered.
Tarsilla, still smoking, gave a distant laugh.
"Not that fancy, I'm afraid," said Galadan, hands in pockets. "Just to survive it. We need to wait until a winner emerges. Until then we'll have to deal with both of them, both factions."
"Sell to both of them."
Bart bowed his head. Now both the revolutionaries and the republicans would tap Ogrant Well men for their elite forces, without worrying that they'd choke if they ran into their brothers working for the opposite faction. Immunity guarantees would have to be involved, to prevent reprisals after the war was decided. But that was just a detail...
Even if Pillars end up fighting Pillars!
But that wasn't impossible. The opposite, in fact. Pushed past the extreme, Bart had proven it. And for his identically conditioned brother heroes, it would be exactly the same...
He knew just one thing: he had to stop Galadan somehow, had to prevent anyone else from being put in his shoes.
But how? The results had already been radioed in. Galadan had said that much... said too much, in fact, about the reasoning behind this operation. And Bart also wondered about his surviving opponents. They were Ogrant Well heroes too, so why weren't they here right now? Why wasn't this being
explained to them?
Bart looked around. The city. The sky. Galadan. Tarsilla, chain-smoking now, ever the detached observer. It was her presence here that made the least sense...
I'm still being tested, he realized.
Galadan and the Ogrant Well board might have planned this operation down to a "T", but one factor still remained in play. It was him, Bart Pillar. It was his own reaction. Whether he could take the truth. Whether he'd remain usable as a weapon, or would go out of control. He'd probably even been permitted his sword because the potential to attack was a crucial part of the equation...
Bart stared at the CEO.
The CEO watched Bart cautiously, spear in hand, ponytail flapping in the wind.
Whether it was killing Galadan, offing himself, or feigning a complete mental breakdown, it was absolutely critical that Bart draw his sword and act this instant!
The problem was... he couldn't.
His hand trembled and bucked, fighting compulsion. It would not reach up to draw his sword.
Life is short, fame is long, action troublesome, will alone an absolute. But the writer of the old martial mantra had gotten it wrong. Not will: conditioning. Without pressure, water doesn't rise. Without the triple bind, without every other option closed off, without the walls closing in on him and the pressure on, Bart couldn't do a thing.
It really was true. Attacking Galadan was literally unthinkable. Sure, in the abstract, he could conceive of it... the same way you could conceive of fighting a god. You could put it into a sentence like that, form the words with your mouth, even picture some cartoon version of it, like a little man with a sword battling a great hand that reached down from the sky. But when Bart thought of fighting Galadan in terms of actual moves, as a discrete sequence of steps and cuts, his will simply evaporated. He couldn't draw on an Ogrant Well man.
And then something clicked into place for Bart Pillar.
"You're watching me," he said. "To see what I'll do now."
"That's right," said Galadan.
"I wasn't talking to you, Galadan." Bart looked over to the stairway entrance. "I was talking to Tarsilla."
Across the windswept rooftop, Tarsilla's dark eyes locked onto Bart's own.
He began to walk towards her.
"You're watching me," he said again. "I know you are. But you don't live in this city. You're not an Ogrant Well board candidate and you're not in this to get a divorce. You helped me, but not with anything I couldn't have done myself. You weren't necessary to Galadan's scheme... but you were there
in the city because you insisted on it, isn't that right? You had to watch me up close..."
He had closed most of the distance to Tarsilla. The lady stood, hands on hips, her chignon tight, undisturbed by the bitter wind.
"Excellent analysis," she said. "Was it terribly obvious?"
"Not at first," said Bart. "But every transaction has three parts--buyer, seller, product. Right now I'm the product and Galadan is the seller, which means that the buyer has to be you." He frowned. "I'm just not sure which faction you represent."
"There is no way you could know," Tarsilla said. "But you're right. I'm a military observer for the republican army. My revolutionary counterpart is downstairs, debriefing the other team."
"So both sides knew what was going on?"
"Yes, about everything in Finn-against-Oben."
"An audition," Bart said. "And how did I do?"
The pair were standing only five or six feet apart.
"So far, so good," said Tarsilla.
Her voice revealed no hesitation, no hedging, no weakness at all. But despite the cold, a drop of sweat rolled down her elegant face, chording her cheekbone.
I'm close, Bart thought. His mind began to race. Galadan had lied. That line about the Ogrant Well board membership, about the divorce... why?
To give Tarsilla a plausible cover story. To make Bart think she was actually on the Ogrant Well staff... and make him think he couldn't touch her. If she was a military observer, then she was an outsider... not yet a client...
And, therefore, fair game.
"Then I'm sorry," Bart said.
"For doing so well?"
"No. For this."
He drew. In an instant, the gleaming Polyandre swordblade was poised an inch from Tarsilla's throat.
"Drop it, Bart," said Galadan. "That's an order!"
And with those words, a vice-grip seemed to tighten around Bart's head.
He stared straight forward, where Tarsilla had split into ten slightly different copies of herself: one face showed a gleaming smile and not a gasp; one Tarsilla's hair was dyed cerulean blue; another held a rose in her teeth; the farthest wore an enormous turquoise stone above bare breasts...
A Polyandre longsword trembled at the throat of each Tarsilla.
He closed his eyes. He forgot his name. He forgot his past. He forgot everything except the need to keep still, grip his weapon tight...
Boots pounded the rooftop as the man whose name Bart had also forgotten charged...
And the footsteps stopped.
"How interesting," said a female voice.
Then a gunshot, and silence.
The pair stood at the rail, smoking cigarettes.
They weren't talking. They were waiting for Bart's hearing to come back. When Tarsilla had fired, the little silver pistol he had given her had been no more than a foot from his head.
Galadan lay face-down on the rooftop, exactly where he'd fallen a quarter of an hour ago. Blood mixed with snowmelt on the rooftop. Bart didn't care to look at that. He preferred the streetscape. Trees, greenhouse roofs, spires, telegraph lines. In this silent winter wind, this lucid, snow-bright sun, there was nothing but the present moment: everything seemed to expand and clarify.
The Polyandre longsword weighed on Bart's back, suddenly unfamiliar, like a tooth added or removed.
My martial arts are gone.
"Because Ogrant Well is finished," said Tarsilla, her voice barely audible, and Bart realized he must have said his words aloud.
"Do you prefer it this way?"
"I don't know," Bart said. He shook his head. "I can't believe you picked up my cue."
Tarsilla stared at Bart like a general sizes up a buck private... (she might really be a general, Bart realized, face suddenly hot.) "You're surprised I could game it out as fast as you?"
"Surprised you took my side."
Tarsilla hunched over the rail. "Even if I'd let Galadan kill you, something similar would probably have happened with the other team. The farm's conditioning is amazing, I'll grant... if you've got an exclusive. As it stands, the risk is too great. You'll never fight for either side."
"I'm glad," said Bart.
He'd thought she'd like to hear that, but Tarsilla's bronze eyes flashed with scorn, like a lake opening to reveal a sword.
"I wanted to use you," she snarled. "Can't you see that? You were unstoppable back there. With men like you behind us we could win this war before the year is up. I wanted to make that deal with Galadan." She drew hard on her cigarette, ashed it. "I saved you because I had no idea if you'd
kill me or not, but if you hadn't rebelled, like Galadan thought you wouldn't, if you could've just kept fighting..."
"I couldn't do that," said Bart. "Those men are my brothers."
Tarsilla flicked her cigarette over the rail.
"All men are brothers, Bart," she said, almost too soft to hear. "You've been killing them all your life."
She turned and walked away. The rooftop door slammed shut.
For a long time, the man who had been a hero remained still, looking out at the besieged and desolate city.