Letter from the late Lord Crisp, printed in the opinons section of the Beijing Chronicle, January 31st, Year of The Jade Dragon, 7th Era of Grand Catai
Though I may be dead, I have never let this prevent me from voicing my opinions. Indeed, I feel that my condition rather uniquely qualifies me for the task.
Take for instance the state of the North American territories: in particular, the series of margravates that band the continent from the North Atlantic to the North Pacific.
Your readers in Beijing may not appreciate quite how bad things are out here.
Long winters. Dry summers. Grinding poverty and frequent famines. No schools. No recourse to magic.
And then there are the things that want to kill you.
Where once wolves and caribou paced the hills and valleys, now there are only the beastmen. Fires and drums in the woods. Bestial packs descending upon the lonely farmstead. Ritual human sacrifice.
In Beijing, this is the stuff of fireside tales. Out here, it is a deadly and ever-present reality.
As the Margrave of Montgomery, I held the rather dubious honour of protecting His Majesty's subjects in the Mohawk Valley from the predations of the natives. I say 'dubious' because the margravates do little to protect the people within their borders. It would be more accurate to say that they provide a shield to the prosperous Free Cities of the South. Year after year my neighbours and I organised our militias of malnourished wretches, our men dying like flies to restrain the beastmen threat. And all so the fat Lords of Amarillo, Miami and New Orleans could enjoy their freedom in comfort and security.
Now that I am deceased, my son continues the work. Poorly.
Is it right that the margravates should live in unending misery? Is it right that my son – soft and indolent though he may be – should sacrifice his life and ambitions while the Free Cities enjoy their wealth, contributing nothing to the welfare of those who suffer on their behalf?
This, I contend from my sepulchral vantage, is entirely and patently unfair.
I therefore urge the Imperial Government: ignore our plight no longer!
Put an end to the Free Cities. Incorporate them, levy taxes and use the profits to rebuild the forts that once lined the Hudson, Ohio, Missouri and Columbia rivers. The blood of Grand Catai's poorest citizens can no longer be spent in protecting the interests of criminals, smugglers and foul apostates!
A. Crisp (Deceased), Maqui Lodge, Montgomery
Down And Out In New Orleans
At precisely the same moment that Zheng Wu had stood before the Supreme State Council describing the characteristics of the Osirians, a meeting of the Navy's Solar Defense Command had taken place.
Not suspecting that a traitor was in their midst, the twelve admirals now stood and bowed to each other with perfect cordiality before stepping one by one onto the teleport pad.
Stepping forth, the traitor, one Admiral Reeves, found herself alone in the study of her Vienna mansion, her heart hammering with dread. In her left hand was the dossier detailing the operation the command has just agreed upon. Her right hand, clammy with pespiration, clutched her service revolver. She stood quietly for a moment, considering the options that now lay before her.
The door to her office stood ajar and the sounds of her daughter playing downstairs reached her ears, the girl's laughter mingling with the yaps of the family dog. From the mantelpiece her husband's portrait confronted her, its eyes somehow accusing.
Reeves set her jaw. Avoiding her husband's image, avoiding her daughter, and above all, avoiding the figure she glimpsed in the mirror, she holstered her pistol and slipped from the house with the dossier in hand.
Rising high above the the city in her whirligig, she set off towards the ocean, careful to avoid the attentions of the aviation authorities. She reached the grey slab of the Atlantic, skirted the misty ruins of Avalon and blasted away towards the western horizon.
Time passed. First one hour and then another.
Finally the coast of North America rolled into view and Reeves brought the craft down to skim over the stilt-legged houses that peppered Chesapeake bay. Peeling to the South-West, she skimmed across a landscape of mountains and primordial forest until, passing between two cloud-tipped peaks, the gray ooze of the Mississipi appeared below. She followed the river south, passing a succession of rich and picturesque settlements until finally the spires of New Orleans came into view, the leisure hives and pleasure palaces showing pale and elegant beneath a monochrome sky.
A purplish miasma appeared before her, seeming to rise from the city's outer levee. Passing through the miasma, she felt a wave of gentle euphoria wash over her and a masculine voice filled her mind:
'Welcome, friend. We hope you enjoy the effects of the complimentary valium field. You are now approaching the Free City of New Orleans, where exotic bazaars and tavernas sprawl in the shadow of the great pleasure palaces. Here, almost anything can be had for the right price. Try your luck at the Golden Imperium Casino, where your first spin of the wheel is always free! Witness thrilling struggles at New Orlean's Grand Arena, the the world's largest fighting pit. Take in the vibrant nightlife of the Old French Quarter or stroll along one of our lake-front boardwalks and relax with a bourbon or two: whoever you are, whatever you desire, New Orleans has the perfect experience for you. So enjoy your stay and please obey our code of conduct: transgressors may be fined, imprisoned and/or executed. On behalf of Lord Tyler, I thank you for your attention and bid you welcome to New Orleans!'
A confusing array of images now jolted across Reeve's mind: a bustling marketplace filled with brisk shoppers and heavily armed guards; the sun setting over a fiery lake whilst two icy glasses chinked together with eskimo-kiss yearning; a nightclub haze in which men and women gyrated while illicit acts were hinted at in dark corners.
She shook her head with a rueful smile.
Sleazy and seductive New Orleans. The last great city of that mouldering continent, in which its most tawdry dreams were finally realised. A place of wild and exotic excesses. The valium effect alone was worth the trip.
A shame this was to be her last visit.
Putting her 'gig down in a darkened parking lot, Reeves stepped out into the Old French Quarter and proceeded through cobbled streets to Le Château Rose, Lord Tyler's towering pleasure palace. It was here that her meetings with the man she knew only as 'Ortega' took place.
Stepping into an entry-hall festooned with fountains and marble colonnades, she passed first through an anti-magic field before arriving at a security cordon manned by two men-at-arms. She emptied her pockets and submitted to a full-body scan.
Detecting the revolver holstered beneath her cape, the scan-disk gave a shrill whistle. She handed over a thick wad of rupees and the guards turned aside with expressions of bland politeness. With the revolver pressed reassuringly against her hip, Reeves proceeded to the saloon bar where Ortega awaited her.
She found the smuggler at a table booth in the company of two opiate-addled courtesans.
Ortega was a man of predatory appearance. His unblinking eyes glared out over a hawklike nose, and his dark skin – beaten to a ruddy hue by the harsh barnum-light of his native Vespa – perfectly offset the pearly whites of his wicked grin. On either side of him, the two girls – each barely beyond the blushes of girlhood – slouched in the cushions, giggling insensibly in response to Ortega's caresses. The smuggler looked up with a smirk as Reeves approached.
“Ah, Admiral! You honour us with your presence! Come, be seated! Would you care for a drink? No? How about a little drop of this then?” He raised a hand from a breast to gesture towards a small phial. “Las Lagrimas del Diablo they call it; a sweet and subtle high, redolent of hard candies and soft caresses. These two beauties seem to enjoy it.” He made a playful snap at one of the girls, who dodged aside with a squeal.
“I think not.” Reeves replied stiffly. “If your companions wouldn't mind stepping away for a few moments, we have business to discuss.”
She tried not to watch as the girls sashayed away; there was something both horrible and fascinating in the swaying of their hips.
“A soft pair of kittens.” Ortega purred approvingly as the admiral seated herself. “Perhaps you would like to take a drink with them after we have finished here, no?”
Reeves shook her head mutely, much to the smuggler's amusement.
“How stiff and proper you have become, Admiral!” He laughed. “You were not so prudish when first we met, I think. Surely you do not blush at the company I keep?”
“Hardly. I merely find it ironic that you would blackmail me over a vice you indulge in so openly yourself.” She replied curtly. “Your humour is as twisted as your morals.”
“And I find it both ironic and telling that you look down on me for living out your fantasies, Admiral. You hide your criminal tastes behind a facade of respectibility while I wear mine openly. Tell me then- which of us is worse than the other?”
Reeves said nothing to this, but merely pushed the dossier across the table. Ortega stared at it for a few moments before turning his smirk upon the admiral once more.
“I'm afraid I'm not much of a reader.” He remarked drily. “Kindly explain.”
“It's an espionage operation currently under discussion. An Osirian vessel has contacted the SDC requesting permission to make a port stop here on Earth, some five months hence from now. Not even the emperor himself has yet been informed. Now, our OSS sources out in the Pleiades report that the Osirians are in possession of a faster-than-light technology. What this dossier contains then, are details of a proposed operation to steal the technical details of this faster-than-light drive from this Osirian ship. As you can see,” she added, stabbing a finger at the red-inked markings that headlined the dossier, “this is extremely sensitive material. I'm risking everything in bringing it to you, and as this is the third such set of documents I've provided-”
“What is the purpose of this vessel then?” Ortega interrupted.
“A religious vessel of some kind, on a pilgrimage to the black hole of Monocerotis.”
“And the cargo?”
“Religious artifacts only.”
Ortega nodded absently and tucked the dossier into an inside pocket of his jacket.
“So you don't know for sure it will have this technology you want to steal? And if it doesn't – which it probably won't – then the information is of little value, regardless of its classification. You're sure you won't take a drink? I'll leave the rest of the bottle for you.”
The smuggler tossed off his bourbon at a gulp and began to rise. He found himself checked by Reeve's hand at his elbow.
“The recordings, Ortega.” She said quietly.
Ortega's eyes moved slowly to the hand at his elbow, his expression unreadable.
“You cannot buy your freedom with any old scrap of information, Reeves. I will tell you when you have earned the recordings. Now take your hand-”
“Three pieces of information, Ortega!” She hissed. “Three pieces of information in exchange for the recordings! Those were the terms your employer set! You have your third piece to take back to him. It's over. You will hand over the recordings this instant!”
The barest flicker passed across the smuggler's features. He leaned forwards, his voice a condescending sneer.
“Three pieces of valuable information, Admiral. And I decide what qualifies as valuable to my patron, not you. It's over when I say it's over.”
Their eyes locked. Reeve's jaw clenched and unclenched, her face flushing with anger and shame. Beneath the table the revolver trembled in her hand.
“Who exactly are you working for, Ortega?” She hissed. “Is it Atatürk? Or Bonavia? No. Sassani-? You're working for Sassani.”
Ortega only smiled.
“You tell that bastard from me-”
“You like the games that we play here, don't you, Admiral?” Ortega interrupted, easing back into his seat with a grin. “You like to slip in amongst the dirt and danger and have your fun. But that's all this place has ever been for you. A game. Something you played at for you own amusement, and then discarded when you got bored. But have you ever considered that the game might have designs on you?”
The smuggler gestured about the room. As she followed Ortega's hand, Reeves seemed to see it all as though for the first time: the booths where pale, trembling figures wheedled with smirking meth dealers; the sullen toughs sat at dark corner tables, their eyes darting about the room as they discussed their business; the haze of light that played about the scarred and unsavoury faces that lined the bar. At a high bar-stool was a Beijing grandee, counting out his rupees as he stared boldly at the two courtesans where they sat at their booth, pale and vulnerable beneath the neon lights.
And all around the room, each pair of eyes gleamed hungrily as they watched the money dance within the grandee's pudgy fingers.
Reeves turned back to the smuggler, her face pale, finger loose on the trigger.
“Now listen, Ortega-”
“You thought fear and violence were for those less fortunate than you, that the money and prestige with which you cloak yourself would somehow protect you.” Ortega went on, his voice a vibrant purr. “How does the old saying go? 'The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must'. But you misunderstood the rules of this place, Admiral. Here, it is I who am strong and you who are weak. And if you refuse to do what I say, if you refuse to play by the rules, then there are certain things I can do to you...”
The admiral trembled. The revolver trembled. She opened her mouth as though to speak. Ortega nodded slowly, his eyes gleaming with a terrible light.
There was deafening roar, followed by the clatter of a revolver falling to the floor.
They stared across the table at each other.
Reeves slumped backwards, a red flower blossoming across her shirt-front. A low, wordless moan escaped her lips.
“Bad luck, old girl.” Ortega said, laying his smoking pistol on the table. “But since you insisted on playing stupid games...”
Gurgling horribly, Reeves collapsed face-first onto the table. The whisky bottle hit the floor and exploded.
A colourless light filled her head, voices she had not heard for decades echoing within it. Her mother's voice rang high and clear above Ortega's indistinct drawl; her sweet mother calling her home.
“I am a man of my word, after all, and I suppose you have earned it...” Ortega was saying.
A red corona obscured the edges of Reeve's vision; mist seemed to be falling over everything. A clouded prism appeared on the table before her eyes. She groaned as she saw the figures writhing within.
“I've no use for it now anyway.”
Ortega holstered his pistol and strode from the bar.
As Reeves lay dying on a bar-room table, unable to close her eyes to the images that played within the prism, she thought of her daughter and realised how alike she was to the pale, frightened girl reflected in the prism's depths. It was to be the last thing she ever saw. As an endless rushing filled her ears, as her heart stilled, she felt with absolute clarity the weight of her sins.