The Magistocrats

Chapter Thirteen

Excerpt from 100 Inventions That Changed The World by Hestia Audebert

For the invention of the dream-generator, We have Archmage Magnus Gunnarsson and his long suffering wife Sofia to thank.

Events began when Gunnarsson, a keen naturalist, adopted a troop of rhesus macaques for study. Wishing to observe their behaviour as closely as possible, he allowed them the run of the household, much to Sofia's consternation.

Day and night the macaques made chaos about the premises, swinging from the chandoliers, making grotesque faces at the neighbours and even chasing the scullery-maid about with their genitals exposed.

Finally, having been put off her smørrebrød one too many times, Sofia prevailed upon her husband to find a means of study that did not permit his subjects' frotting at the dinnertable.

Taking these complaints to heart with a sigh, Gunnarsson took hold of his subjects and dragged them off to the laboratory. Here, the unfortunate creatures had their heads struck off and their brains placed in jars. Stimulated by a mild electrical current, the macaques were kept in a perpetual dream-state, their sensoriums observable by means of apparatus connected to the various regions of the brain.

Well-pleased by this innovation and the domestic harmony that resulted, Gunnarsson's studies nevertheless continued to affect his personal life.

Every night the archmage would wake from vivid dreams in which he had found himself a macaque, swinging through the trees, gulping bananas by the bunch and giving rude attentions to the females of the troop. Worse, he frequently awoke to find himself acting out these dreams, on one occasion badly frightening the maid.

The next morning, traipsing tired-eyed and shamefaced to his laboratory, Gunnarsson would invariably find his dreams of the previous night being repeated within the minds of the macaques.

Quite by accident, then, Gunnarsson discovered that the frequency at which the brains were being maintained matched exactly that of his own sleeping mind: night by night, he and the macaques were inhabiting the same dream-space.

By means of a psychoactive brew Gunnarsson found this mental state could be induced in Sofia, who likewise reported unusual dreams. Even more amazingly, the Gunnarssons found they could both inhabit the dream-space simultaneously and interact within it- athough this initially took the form of hurling faeces at each other.

Nonetheless, the Gunnarssons had made an important discovery. From here the macaque sensorium was refined: simian antics gave way to polite conversations by firelight, and thus, the proper basis for dream generation and induction was founded.

Dreams And Schemes

Zheng Wu and the ordinator stood in silence on the bridge, bathed in the light of a strange sun. Before them the planet hung moody and silent, its thick clouds given a purplish hue by the polarised shielding membrane. Behind them, the confident thrum of a main sequence star. Beyond, the endless vale of eternity, empty but for the feeble specks that twinkled there.

“There are no words. Nothing.” Wu murmured. “No conceivable metric or poetry which could encapsulate it... It defies us. What is human endeavor, what is human thought in comparison to this? Dust. Mere dust.”

“Well, quite.” The ordinator said politely. “Nevertheless, I would appreciate your opinion on the matter.”

Wu sighed as if waking from a dream. Shaking his head slightly, he consulted the planet’s readout.

“Interesting.” He said after a moment. “Very similar to Old Venera if I recall. Earth-like in size and composition. Proximity to the star and an ultra-dense atmosphere result in a hellish surface temperature and immense pressure. Almost zero hydrogen retention. Still.” He blinked. “An excellent candidate for conversion.”

The ordinator merely stared at him.

“Wonderful. Great.” She said. “And if one wished to complete such a conversion? What course of action might be followed?”

Wu thought back to the months he had spent writing the Survey Corps handbook, a copy of which no doubt lay unopened in the ordinator’s quarters. Thus far his requests that each ordinator undergo planetary assessment and conversion training before being put into service had gone utterly unheeded by the Colonial Office.

“First, a solar shade must be installed to reduce the intensity of heat and radiation that the planet recieves. The handbook will inform you as to the correct procedure.” He said in measured tones. “After that, the planet will be capable of hydrogen retention; you are, of course, aiming for liquid water. I believe I saw that one of the bodies further out has a decently sized ice moon. I would suggest you use a portion of that- a chunk approximately one fifth of the planet’s mass should suffice. The planet will then be ready for organic seeding within a few short months. With appropriate use of Verbena’s Verdant Growth, I estimate that this world will be ready for colonisation in no more than a year.”

“All excellent suggestions, Sir.” The ordinator tipped her cap with the barest trace of irony. “I’ll begin right away.”

Wu glanced at the planet’s designation table once more.

“’Alfred’s Rest’. You've named it for someone?”

“My uncle, Major Alfred Bronsky. He died in action on Qixi.” The ordinator sighed, seeming suddenly more human to Wu. “‘An Eden amongst the stars’, he called it in his letters- the very place that killed him.” She shook her head with a rueful smle. “Still. I like to think he’d have been pleased by what we won from the war.”

Wu gave an uncomfortable smile.

“Alfred’s Rest. It’ll be a fine world once it’s converted, Bronsky. Your uncle would be proud.” The words sounded stilted even to his own ears.

He glanced back towards the view screen and the orb that hung before them. There it remained, unmoved by the empire’s plans, indifferent to the sentiment for which it was now named, to the ape from Earth who had died in far off Qixi.

Beneath thick purple-white clouds of sulphur that flashed and convulsed with storms lay a choking atmosphere hotter than the seven hells. On the surface, volcanoes reared from parched brown plains to belch deadly gases. Beautiful, wild and precious. But soon the plains would give way to wide blue oceans and fertile soils; soon the colonists would arrive, step out from their craft, blinking uncertainly in the light of a strange sun, tools in their hands and hope in their hearts. Far from the reach of Grand Catai.

Out here, there would be freedom.

He turned away, the barest trace of a smile on his lips.

“Remember: a solar shade and ice equal to one fifth the planet's mass.” He called over his shoulder as he headed towards the ship's teleport chamber. “Oh, and Bronsky? Next time you need conversion advice, do me the courtesy of consulting your handbook first. I wrote it for that purpose.”

The teleport pad crackled ominiously.

Back on earth, his apartments were seemingly as he had left them: neat, still and quiet, the only movement the dance of dust motes in the light that streamed through the bay windows. Outside, the streets were quiet, the patina of afternoon rain upon the pavements gleaming clean and golden in the late afternoon sun.

A typical spring evening in Beijing.

Drawing the blinds, he moved away to check each of the sensors he had secreted throughout his rooms. The magical eyes appeared in succession as he passed his hand across them, each showing grey and filmy.

Satisfied, he went to his workrooms. In the corner, the holodeck flashed: more messages from his father, no doubt. He stilled its protests and turned to the alembic. Gingko, mugwort, psilocybin, DMT and a few cannabinoids. His hands moved quickly and precisely. The centrifuge whirred, water boiled, distillation occurred. Moving to the couch, he quaffed the bitter draft and laid himself out comfortably.

Presently he found himself sat with his four confidants. The dream took the form of an open parlour over which distant nebulae turned. Five chairs were arranged around a long glass table, one at the head of the table and two on each side. At the far side of the room an open fire roared, its flames casting flickering shadows across the table-top.

Lord Tremere, the first to reach lucidity, was the first to speak.

“We are all here then.” He said, turning a knowing glance upon each of them. “We must state our codewords to be sure there are no imposters among us.”

Glancing warily at the others, they each spoke in turn.

“Apricity.”

“Fontanelle.”

“Halcyon.”

“Camisado.”

“And mine is ‘Sfumato’,” The pale archmage smiled. “Very good. Assuming Sassani’s witch hasn’t discovered the frequency of the dream-generator, we are all as we represent ourselves.”

“I'm sure none of us would betray his fellows, Tremere.” Lord Ishak growled from the head of the table. “We are all honourable magistocrats, sworn to protect His Majesty's interests unto death. Besides- since only you know of the generator’s location-”

“The generator remains under lock and key in my personal keep at ISS headquarters- no need to fear on that score.” Tremere said, meeting Ishak’s glare with a polite smile. “Forgive me my little joke, Lord Chancellor. I did not mean to cast doubts on anyone’s loyalty.”

“Amusing as always, Conrad.” Ishak muttered. “Well, let's make a start, shall we? There have been a great many developments since last we met. First thing's first- Tristen, any luck recovering our stolen documents?”

The headmaster roused himself with an morose expression.

“No, Lord Chancellor.” He said bitterly. “All my efforts to identify the intruders have failed. The thaumic signatures match none on record and nobody in New Orleans seems to have known anything about the job. I suspect Sassani's witch was behind it.” He added, glancing about with a shamefaced expression. “In short, the documents are gone, and with them our chance of implicating the viceroy in Kastor's murder. I'm rather afraid I've let the side down.”

They all looked pointedly away.

In spite of his status as a newcomer to the group, Wu was as disappointed as any of them. The documents had represented all the evidence the cabal had had of Sassani's involvement in the Emperor Kastor's assassination, meticuously collected over months. And though it had shocked him to learn of the theft at his first meeting, after two months spent with the cabal he was now inured to the hard realities of the struggle they and Sassani were engaged in.

“We had no idea Sassani knew of the evidence.” Ishak said quietly. “Don't punish yourself, Tristen- it could've happened to any of us.”

Tremere gave a disgusted snort at this and the chancellor shot him a warning glance.

“Although if anyone should have known what Sassani was going to do, it should've been you, Tremere. Now tell us: What of events at Raj Niwas? What does your mole report?”

Tremere straightened himself, gave a condescending wave.

“It seems our friend Valentine is being prepared for some role in Sassani's plans. The Valkyrie trains him in magical combat, he drills with Sassani's guards and performs dangerous favours for the local constabulary. My source is following his progress closely, and will report back once Valentine has recieved definite orders. Otherwise the viceroy has been busy, meeting privately with Lord Atatürk, Lady Bonavia and several other acquaintences- most notably, Lord Eyenga, the Governor of the Congo. It seems our friend is preparing something rather large.”

Ishak nodded soberly.

“I'm inclined to agree.” He replied. “While you've all been busy with your work, I've been attending the council meetings. Guess who's been stirring up trouble?”

The other four had not been able to attend the most recent meetings of the Council and so they listened intently while Ishak spoke. He described in detail how Sassani had spent the last month tantalizing the emperor with hints of the Osirian's great wealth and technological secrets while Lord Admiral Flint gave regular diatribes on the threat to the Pleiades they posed. These performances had been neatly counterpointed by Lady Bonavia, who laughingly dismissed the possibility of Osirian aggression- the result, as the Osirians must surely know, would be wholesale slaughter.

“Now, this posturing on its own would be alarming, but there's more to it than that.” Ishak added with a glance at the marshal. “Tell us what you've found, Amin.”

The marshal roused himself with a dour expression.

“As some of you are aware, my team and I have been targetting Sassani's network of informants. Recently we acquired a man known as 'Ortega', a Vespeen smuggler based out of New Orleans who's been running agents for the viceroy. Here's what he had to say for himself.”

They all sat up a little straighter at this.

Screwing his eyes shut, the marshal conjured forth his memories of Ortega’s interrogation. A ghostly image of the man hung before them, sobbing secrets through broken teeth in response to the marshal's questions. It was soon over. Ortega faded from view with a final moan, leaving only the ghostly after-image of two terrified eyes.

Von Bek fixed the marshal with a look of quiet reproach.

“Was it really necessary to resort to such measures, Amin?” He asked quietly.

Ishak interrupted swiftly:

“So: this Ortega character obtained several reports for Sassani outlining details of an Osirian ship, apparently engaged on religious purposes, for which a port stop here on earth has been requested. The vessel is slated to arrive towards the end of May, in two months time And while not an official state visit, it will nonetheless be the first Osirian visit to earth- an event of some significance. Sassani was evidently interested enough that he had this Ortega dedicated exclusively to gathering information on it.” He paused significantly, glaring about at the others. “With what we've just heard from the smuggler, and what the viceroy and his allies have been feeding the emperor, I'd say it's fairly obvious which direction they're going with this.”

The others sat in silence, each privately contemplating this information in light of their own knowledge.

Ishak examined them carefully.

Guilt and worry showed clearly in the lines of Von Bek's face whilst Maputo's eyes burned with predatory zeal and a wry smile played about Tremere's lips. Wu looked down at his hands, his expression held blank in spite of the dread that coiled in his guts.

It had been he who had brought the Osirians to Philemon's attention; he who had stood before the Supreme State Council and pointed out all the weaknesses of that unwarlike people.

“We cannot allow this.” He murmured.

“Aye.” Ishak nodded. “Traditionally, it is the emperor himself who commands the legions in war-time. And Philemon will not shy away from fighting the Osirians once Sassani has offered up the necessary pretext. With His Majesty away on campaign, Sassani and the others will surely seize control of the council, possibly even the throne itself. Such a thing cannot be allowed to happen. So what are we going to do about it?”

They all looked slowly about the room, each trying to guess the the thoughts of the others. Wu was the first to speak.

“Sassani's alliance with Lord Atatürk and Lady Bonavia could be dissolved. All three are schemers, temporarily united by a common purpose. And schemers are as paranoid as they are treacherous. No doubt each plans to stab the others in the back when the right moment arrives; no doubt each expects that their allies are planning the same thing. If we sow the seeds of distrust among them now, they will tear themselves apart.”

“You evidently know much about the minds of schemers, young mage.” Tremere replied with a knowing smile. “And I believe that you are right. If the others are in agreement, I could arrange a certain scenario which would set our three friends at each other's throats.”

“What kind of a scenario did you have in mind?” Ishak asked.

Tremere's smile widened.

“As cousin to the emperor, Lady Giana stands stands closest to the throne. Sassani and Atatürk know this and no doubt they expect her to be the first to betray their alliance. If supporters of Lady Giana were discovered in an assassination plot against His Majesty, Sassani would have no choice but to take the matter seriously. After all, the vicereine has proven ambitious in the past.”

“Mmm. A real viperous cunt, that one.” The chancellor reflected. “Tried to get herself declared regent when Kastor died. Tristen and I had a hell of a time convincing the council not to allow it. Sassani might've bitten off more than he can chew with her; its certainly believable that she'd make a grab for the throne if an opportunity presented itself.”

The Lord Marshal, who had been silent for the past few minutes now leaned forwards, his expression deadpan.

“You're a cunning schemer yourself, Tremere. Surely you know how Sassani would react to the 'discovery' of an assassination plot? He'd uncover the ISS' involvement in a matter of days. That would lead him back to you. And from you back to us. And once our involvement was discovered, it'd be quick work for him to have us executed as traitors.” The marshal glared at Tremere with undisguised malice. “I would have thought that a spymaster as experienced as yourself would not make such a simple mistake.”

Wu gripped the arms of his chair, suddenly alert to danger.

For a moment Maputo and Tremere glared at each other, invisible sparks of hatred flying between them. Then Tremere sank back into his seat with an easy laugh.

“You must forgive me, My Lord. In my eagerness to advance our cause, I occasionally make suggestions without properly thinking them through. If you feel that I am hindering your efforts, then I must take my services elsewhere.”

“That won't be necessary, Conrad.” Ishak interjected sharply. “We all appreciate what you've done for the cause. Amin, don't forget that without Tremere we'd have never obtained the evidence proving Sassani's involvement in Kastor's murder or gotten a source inside the viceroy's household. Let's not be ungrateful now.”

The marshal said nothing to this. He gave the slightest of bows, his eyes never leaving Tremere's face.

Tremere smiled coldly in response.

Some of the tension eased from the room. After a moment, the marshal rose and began pacing the length of the table.

“Let us consider the facts.” He began impatiently. “Sassani wants a war with the Osirians, and he knows that the council will not allow him one without a proper provocation. However, the Osirians are a peaceful people and won't easily be needled into an attack. So how is Lord Sassani going to get the pretext he needs for a full-scale invasion?”

“The Osirian ship.” Von Bek said thoughtfully.

“Right.” Maputo nodded. “Whatever scheme the viceroy is working on, whatever plan he has to gain control of the council, this Osirian ship seems to be the key. He can't get his war without it.”

He paused before the fire and turned towards them, his hands behind his back. Against the burning halo of the flames, the marshal was a black silhouette, his eyes gleaming in the dream-light.

“So here's what I propose: we focus all our efforts on discovering what Sassani plans for this Osirian ship and we place the evidence before the council. The emperor will then have no choice but to see him executed for treason. What do you think?”

For a moment, the room was silent. Von Bek nodded slowly, his expression thoughtful while Ishak glared down at his hands; Wu stared wordlessly at each of the others, trying to gauge their reactions before offering his judgement.

On the other side of the table, Tremere gave a deep sigh.

“And what of this Ortega then?” He asked quietly. “How long until Sassani becomes aware that you captured his man?”

The marshal glared at him from the fireplace.

“I put the corpse in his whirligig and left it at the bottom of the Mississipi. Smugglers die all the time- a risk of the job. I doubt Sassani will suspect foul play.”

“Oh, you 'doubt it', do you? Well, the plan is foolproof then! No- wait!” Tremere added hastily as Maputo took a threatening step towards him. “I am – as you yourself pointed out – the expert on schemes and schemers. And I'm telling you now that Sassani will not overlook the death of this man. It will be investigated. And if the viceroy so much as suspects that we know of his plans, he will not follow through on them.”

Von Bek cleared his throat. All eyes riveted on him and he gave a shrewd smile.

“I think I may be able to help there.” He said. “Or rather, these may be able to.”

With a slight effort, he caused several objects to wink into existence: six brass beetles, each about the size of a pebble. With a gesture, the beetles whirled away, taking up a slow orbit above the heads of the cabalists. Wu reached up and grasped one where it buzzed above him. Opening his hand cautiously, he saw a brass automaton, exquisitely formed in the likeness of a scarab beetle. Its eyes were two glittering rubies, and as he gazed at them, he was suddenly struck by the impression that they were examining him in turn.

“In the course of my investigations into the robbery, I spent a considerable amount of time slumming about in low places. And it was in one of those low places – a bazaar of New Orleans – that I obtained these creatures. They are surveillance devices, employed by the nobility of Qixi in their games of intrigue. They are mechanical rather than magical and therefore untraceable by the usual means. Introduced to an environment, they seek out the best hiding places and covertly observe everything that occurs. They can see and hear considerably better than we can and they broadcast their impressions back to a control node.” He gazed around the room, evidently pleased by the expressions that greeted him. “It will be a simple matter to have our mole slip these into Lord Sassani's office. From there, we shall have the inside track on all that he plans.”

After a few moments, the Lord Chancellor looked up from the beetle that was struggling between his fingers, his expression thoughtful.

“They aren't susceptible to anti-magic fields, then? What about counter-monitor wards?”

The headmaster shook his head. “No. I've been testing them out at the Akademia these last few days. They are reliable and quite untraceable, I assure you.”

“Tristen, you dark horse!” Ishak laughed, glaring around at the others with his one good eye. “Untraceable spies. I like it.” He made a gesture. “Give them to Tremere. Tremere- have your agent plant them. Whatever Sassani's got planned for this Osirian ship – or anything else for that matter – we'll be one step ahead from now on. We'll have that treasonous snake up before a firing squad in no time!”

It appeared that matters were decided. Ishak and Maputo had grown animated at the thought of this new advantage, while even Tremere appeared begrudgingly impressed. Smiling, Von Bek waved a hand; the scarabs rose as one and winked from existence.

At the head of the table, the chancellor rose to his feet, suddenly businesslike.

“All right then. Here's the scheme of manouevre: Tremere, I want the viceroy's study under 24 hour surveillance. Do that, and get eyes inside the Solar Defence Command too. I want you monitoring the situation from both ends. When Sassani makes his move, we'll catch him like a rat in a trap. Amin- keep working on Sassani's network. We need all the information we can get. Von Bek-” He laughed as he glanced towards the headmaster. “Keep up the good work. Redeem yourself for the loss of the documents.”

He paused for minute, to recieve with glaring expression the small nods and bows he considered his due. Then he turned his gaze on Wu.

“You, Young Mage, must relay warning to the Osirians. I understand you're already under orders to make a diplomatic visit to Osiris? Make them aware of the situation- urge them to change the vessel's course. You all hear me? Well. If there's no questions-?”

The meeting was over.

They reached forward, each grasping the wrist of another, their arms forming the traditional wheel of trust. By some freak of the dream, the reflection of their interlocked arms remained frozen on the glass table-top long after they had relinquished their grip.

Lord Ishak and Zheng Wu were the first to leave. Tremere then offered his respects to the other two before departing, sparing them each a cryptic glance before fading from the surface of the dream.

Finally Von Bek and Maputo remained alone at the table. Nothing was said for a moment, and they both gazed at the dark glass between them, each seeing his own hopes and fears reflected dimly there.

“You did not answer my question, Amin.” Von Bek said after a time.

“The chancellor interrupted me.” The marshal replied. “In any case, you already know my answer: it was necessary to torture and kill Ortega. I would not have done it otherwise.” He glared at the headmaster, the twitch of an eyelid his only concession to sentiment. “If it is of any consolation to you, Ortega was a very bad man.”

“It is no consolation to me what Ortega was, since he is now dead and his blood is on my conscience.” Von Bek replied bitterly. “My only consolation will be in ensuring that his torture and death were not in vain. Although,” he added with a twisted smile, “it is interesting to know what fate you consider appropriate for evil men.”

The marshal blinked.

“It's obvious you're not really bothered by my actions, but your own conscience. Speak to the point, Tristen.”

“Very perceptive, Amin.” Von Bek laughed bitterly. “All right then- I feel guilty. Guilty for losing the evidence we worked so hard to gather. Guilty for trying to kill Rudolf Valentine- and guilty for failing to do so.”

The marshal shrugged.

“The theft of the evidence could have happened to any of us, Tristen.” He said, his tone matter-of-fact. “As to to our methods- peace and freedom are always won at a cost. It would have been better for everyone if you'd strung Valentine up properly. But there are plenty of other people we can kill to win security for the empire.”

Von Bek whitened. “Plenty of other...? Xristos! No! The ends do not always justify the means, Amin! What is the point of saving the empire from destruction when torture and murder are the tools we must use? If the empire cannot be saved without resorting to such means, why should it be saved at all? Can you answer that?”

He sat up, quivering with outrage and their eyes locked.

“Would you prefer that I take it all upon myself, Tristen?” The marshal asked quietly, his gaze unblinking. “Would you prefer not to know how so-and-so was accomplished, or by what means a fact was discovered? How else can Sassani be countered but by using his own methods against him?”

Von Bek sighed deeply and said nothing.

“You know what Sassani will do if we don't stop him.” Maputo continued. “You know what will happen if a usurper ascends the throne.” He brought a hand up to gesture at the dark formlessness around them. “Survival or the void, Tristen. Those are the stakes we're playing for.”

Von Bek stared back at the marshal for a few moments, conflicting emotions battling across his face. Finally he cast his eyes down.

“Forgive me, Amin. It was unfair of me.”

They slumped back into their seats, two tired old men once more.

“You’re a teacher, Tristen, not a butcher. A good and wise man.” The marshal noted gently. “But there is a time for wisdom and a time for butchery. Clean hands are a luxury we cannot afford right now. I spared Ortega as long as I could. I admired his strength greatly. But time is short and the stakes are high. The sacrifice was a necessary one. It will be remembered.”

He sighed and sat back once more to gaze into nothing, seeing only the procession of dead faces that passed mutely before him. Old enemies and fallen comrades. They all seemed alike in death.

“How can this be remembered, Amin?” Von Bek asked after a moment’s difficulty. “How can we ever tell the truth about what we've done? What we're doing? The people we've murdered? The people we'll murder, simply to preserve the status quo?” He shook his head. “No. The truth is too strong. Liberty must remain untainted, its cost unknown to those for whom we purchase it.”

The marshal gave a final shrug, his moody eyes staring into nothing.

“So long as we agree that the price is worth it. That's all that matters.”

Christopher Moiser