“You don’t have to do this.”
The plea came as a shock. Not because he hadn’t heard it before, but because he never considered it before. It was like something loosened between his ear and his brain, and this sudden clarity triggered his introspective nature. He did not have to do this. Looking at this man, he saw nothing special. But the sensation was new. A quandary, requiring investigation. Barnabie loosened his grip on the man’s skull.
“How do you reckon?”
“I-I’m nobody. I won’t be missed. I could just disappear. You would never hear from me again.”
Barnabie let him drop to the floor, then took a seat near the squirming, injured man. Small and malnourished, even for a peasant. Pity? No. Barnabie had slaughtered more pathetic creatures than these.
“The Earl does not take well to loose ends. They have a habit of turning up again.” Barnabie motioned towards the man’s dead colleagues, broken and twisted on the workshop floor. “Perhaps one day you decide these are worthy of your vengeance. You need to convince me you are no threat.”
This was all new to him. He never considered what it would be like to have choices. His life until now had been a straight path. From gutter to gang to right hand of the most feared crime boss in the district. A logical progression. His purpose was given by others. This insect insinuated these ties meant nothing; they could be cast aside. Barnabie had weighed the odds before. Essential in his profession. He considered the consequences of letting this one go. Earl Northcott was unlikely to find out or care whether this chemist lived or died. Such a little mouse could not threaten a man like the Earl. Not in Schulz.
“I didn’t even like these people. They bullied me. I just fetched stuff for ‘em, see. Bits and baubles. I couldn’t set up one of these again if I wanted to.” The little man relaxed, as if he believed he may survive this. “We don’t need to be at odds, sir. I know Jackie-”
Barnabie slammed the peasant’s head into the wall. Not too roughly. Barnabie had crushed thicker heads.
“Calling the Earl by a common name is disrespect. I will not brook it.”
The peasant crawled farther away toward the corner and sat there cradling his knees. Afraid again. Boring. There was no pleasure in deriving fear from a worm. Hm. Perhaps this was what restrained him. He wasn’t worth killing. That was as much of an answer as he was likely to get now. The question still niggled at him. Like a loose tooth. What is different about this one?
“What is your name, little mouse?”
Barnabie committed the man’s face to his memory. Fumes from the lab had damaged the nerves on the right side of his face, giving him the appearance of wearing half a mask. They hadn’t even bothered to waste a gas mask on him.
“Alfred. It will not be difficult to find you again. Do not give me reason to.”
It took Alfred a minute to realize he was being let go. “Thank you, sir. I promise. You won’t never hear from me again.”
He scurried off, leaving Barnabie to survey the damage he had caused to this little drug den. The Earl hated competition as much as he hated unsanctioned violence, and these men and women had been guilty of both. Small time, but all tumors start small. Even Earl Northcott got his start somewhere.
This setup was an embarrassment, and a danger to everyone within a half kilometer radius. The numbskulls had at least been halfway competent at filtering the fumes before they dissipated out into the neighborhood. Still, the room was toxic and if he stayed too long his face would be a match for Alfred’s. He set the thermite charges. None of these chemicals were combustible, merely an inhalation hazard. Burning should do nicely. As a bonus, Northcott could extort fire protection fees from the tenement bosses. That would please him.
Barnabie set the timers for five minutes and signaled the firefighters from his viewscreen. Should give them a head start on the competition.
He did not stay to watch the flames but could see its effect on the faces of every person he passed on the street. He enjoyed not being the focus of the common folk’s fascination for a few minutes. At over two meters tall and nearly as broad, he was exceptionally large for a common born. It was a rare day when he could go about his morning without enduring the bewildered stares of vermin.
The Earl sat drinking on his balcony atop his casino penthouse. It was too far to see the expression on his face, but Barnabie knew him well enough to assume high spirits. The Earl enjoyed a public reckoning. Barnabie had no illusions about the man he served. He had known many like Northcott, but absent the power and ambition. They could mostly be found beating up schoolchildren and stomping on insects for pleasure.
Except for the once.
The sharp sensation in his spine from earlier had become a voice. And it was correct. The Earl had spared him all those years ago. Perhaps the old gambler had seen something in him, weighed the odds and bet he was worth the risk. Barnabie had never seen that mercy from him a second time, so perhaps it was just a moment. His voice would fade in time just the same.
The exterior of the casino was all glitter and gaudiness. Giant bright lights and raucous music, beckoning the desperate and statistics deficient to come inside for a roaring good time. By contrast, inside was all business. When a person wants to give you all their money, the last thing you want is to distract them.
Among the working class and newly rich of the Schulz and Kaufmann districts, were typically a handful of noblemen from the upper city. Their dress and bearing were not terribly different from the people of the district, but they were obvious all the same. Wealth was a new concept to the inner districts. The newly rich in the districts may have ostentatious clothes and newly gained fat and muscle, but the scars of malnourishment and deformity still marked them as New Town. The nobles had never known want or hardship. They carried on as if nothing bad could possibly happen to them.
It was a slow morning. Only the most determined of degenerates were still awake and gambling at this early hour.
Barnabie walked past the tables toward the penthouse elevator.
“Sir. Sir, might I have a moment of your time.”
Donovan Burton. Pit boss. The rank structure in this organization was fluid and depended on Northcott’s wild mood swings. Still, Barnabie could not imagine he had been surpassed by a waged casino employee. This one may require a lesson.
Barnabie got close to him. It was easy enough for him to judge the optimal distance. When Donovan’s eyes got wide as dinner plates, he was close enough. “I do not recall any issue between us, so I will not act on this blatant disrespect. I am not tasked by such as you, little one.”
Donovan’s knees literally shook with his fear. “I am so deeply sorry sir, but I am desperate. This goes beyond the authority of our bouncers. If I had other options, I would not ask. Please.”
Barnabie mulled the insect’s words around in his head. This one could be setting him up for a loss of face. Reputation was everything in New Town, and if it became known that Barnabie Braxton was an errand boy for a feeble casino employee, he would fall far indeed. He did not relish the idea of living on the street again.
He looks sincere. Give him a chance.
“Fine. What is it?”
Donovan’s face lit up. “Its one of the fops, sir. The nobles from the upper city. He’s cheating.”
Barnabie gritted his teeth. “Of course they are cheating. They win at the tables and we take them at the brothels and bar. You will regret wasting my time.”
“I-It’s such a large sum though, sir. We can’t turn a blind eye. If I kick him out, the Earl will have me killed. If I don’t get rid of him and he cleans us out, the Earl will have me killed. I have two children, Barnabie.”
“Point me to him.”
He need not have bothered. A cursory glance at the tables, and Barnabie knew his man. His scam was so flagrant it had to be an insult. The nobles had tiny machines in their blood. Slows the effects of aging and fights disease and repairs minor injuries. These machines also give access to advanced technologies rarely seen in New Town. This noble was using just such a device to read the dealer’s cards before placing a bet.
Barnabie approached the dealer. “I will take it from here.” The dealer’s relief was palpable, and he scampered off as quick as he could manage.
Barnabie stared down the fop as he shuffled the cards. Handsome. Young, though it was difficult to tell age with nobles. His cruel smirk never left his face for a moment. Either he was too stupid to understand how much danger he was in, or the instinct to determine a threat had been selectively bred out of his caste.
“Place your bet.”
That got the smile from his face. “That is not how the game is played. I bet after the cards are dealt. Those are the house rules.”
“I am the house, and I determine the rules. Place your bet.”
The noblemen’s smile returned, along with a dangerous glint in his eye. Barnabie had seen that same glint from Earl Northcott. Typically, right before he had Barnabie cave someone’s skull in.
“You don’t want to trifle with me, peasant. I am Lord Darius Volk, son of the Supreme Justice in Eden 17.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Barnabie saw a thin man get in position behind him. “Your titles are very impressive, I’m sure. Are you going to place a bet or not?”
“Have it your way.” Darius nodded and raised his glass. Barnabie sidestepped and brought his fist down where he had been standing a half second prior, sending the assassin’s head into the table. His legs jerked once and then he was still.
Before the nobleman could react, Barnabie grabbed him by the arm and started leading him out to the back rooms. The little nobleman was quivering in a way that led Barnabie to believe he had no other protection with him. Good.
In one motion, he opened the door and threw Darius into the cell. He followed behind sideways and crouching through the narrow doorway.
Darius’s face was a mixture of fear and incredulity. “W-what?”
“Strip. I will not have you sticking a shank in me while I am beating on you.”
Darius complied, taking off his clothes and whimpering. “Please, sir.” Oh, it was sir now.
“These walls are thick, but my ears are sensitive. Please keep your screaming to a minimum.”
Darius found some bravery in his little fop soul and threw his shirt on the ground petulantly. “You won’t hurt me. As soon as I am out of here, I will have this place burned to the ground. I can have this entire district razed and nobody up top would care in the least. You are all parasites, and there is more than one gambling house in New Town.”
“That is why you are not leaving.”
Barnabie could see the realization spread across his face. “But. All the people outside. They saw you bring me back here. You can’t get away with this.”
Barnabie shrugged. “A lot of New Towners saw you at the tables. They all saw you leave with your winnings. Maybe you took them to some other gambling house. In Koenig perhaps? Was not wise to come alone, little mouse.”
Darius quickly shed the rest of his clothes and began pleading, his hands clasped in front of him. Barnabie sensed the Earl would find this sight very amusing.
“I can pay you. Please let me go. I can make you rich. I-I can get you into the upper city even. My father is very powerful. All you have to do is let me go.”
What do you gain from this?
Darius started on a new round of pleading.
“Wasn’t talking to you. Shut up and let me think.”
You don’t enjoy violence. You don’t have to do this.
Of course I do. This is my duty. I am obligated to the Earl and carry out his will.
The Earl is a monster. You have power now. Your influence could help people and ensure none go through what you did.
This worm will bring tragedy upon us. I cannot let him go.
The Earl has influence in Eden. Darius cannot move against him. You don’t have to do this.
“Get your clothes back on. You have forfeited your winnings tonight. I don’t want to see you back here.”
He had to put his arm out to stop Darius from hugging him. “I have another appointment. Don’t be in this building when I return.”
Finally. Time to see the big man.
Several policemen exited the penthouse elevators where Barnabie waited. Curious. They served as enforcers for the mayor of Schulz. The mayor was not on good terms with the Earl. It was rumored their private love affair had gone sour and was evolving into a public war between the two most powerful factions in the district. This visit portended ill for Barnabie’s chances of surviving his meeting with the notoriously mercurial Earl Northcott. He chewed his lip. Best to get on with it.
The elevator gave a familiar buzz as he got on board, letting him know the weight limit was near capacity. Puny elevators for tiny vermin, manufactured incompetently using salvaged tech from the upper city. He could not possibly weigh more than 200 kilograms. The slow and strained rise of the elevator mocked him. Barnabie gritted his teeth.
There was shouting and the sounds of broken glass behind the ornate and extravagantly expensive door to the Earl’s private suite. Could be a struggle. Barnabie rushed forward, shattering the door into splinters.
“Great. Now the fucking door is broken too.”
Earl Northcott stood amidst broken crystal from his handcrafted artisanal decanter. Every line on his dark face was etched in anger. He stared directly at Barnabie, his frown transforming into a mischievous smile.
“Yes. Perfect. You. You will pay back this insult. This room could do with some redecorating.” The Earl threw another crystal glass into the wall to accentuate his point.
“I am afraid I do not understand, sir.”
“Afraid? What reason do you have to be afraid? Its Damien who should be afraid. He sends his thugs to deliver ultimatums. To me! To. Me.” The Earl got right up next to Barnabie, grabbing his shirt collar. Barnabie wiped the spittle from his throat. The Earl was tall for common-born, but his face still barely rose above Barnabie’s chest.
“This demands a response. What would you have me do?”
The Earl clapped his hands manically in mock cheer. “Yes. That is why I keep you around Barnabie. Perspective. You have it. You understand me in a way nobody else does.” That was possibly true. It had been twenty years since Jack Brown had recruited him from that street gang, before he became the Earl. His condition had gotten worse since that time. An insane mind was even more dangerous when combined with intelligence and ruthlessness.
“I can’t have a bloody street war, Barnabie. This isn’t the old days. We are respectable people now. Respectable people are conduct polite and discrete assassinations. See to it. I want him dead before tomorrow. Then I will be mayor, and his mutilated corpse will decorate my new door.”
This is not wise.
No. It isn’t. But neither is it wise to contradict him when he is in a state.
You don’t have to do this.
“Hello. Barnabie.” The Earl snapped his fingers continuously in Barnabie’s face. “Why are you still here? Get it done.”
Barnabie took a deep breath. “Sir, it may not be wise to murder the mayor so openly. His supporters in other districts could take issue with so brazen a power grab.”
A range of emotions ran across the Earl’s youthful face. Perplexed, amused, despondent. The nanomachines had slowed his aging, as it did for the nobles, but the effects of introducing them so late in his life had played hell with his immune system. The resultant brain swelling had caused irreparable damage. How long could he continue to follow such a man? How much did he still owe to balance the ledgers?
The Earl closed his eyes and placed a finger on his lips. “Fine. You’re right.”
Barnabie sighed with relief. His rational mind had won out.
He is worse every day. This can’t continue.
He could get better. The doctors claim the nano treatments will restore him eventually.
You don’t have to do this.
“It will have to be secret. An accident. Let me think.” The Earl snapped his fingers in exultation. “I’ve got it. There is a machine he keeps in his bedroom. No, not that kind of machine before you ask. It’s protection. Based off the GUARDIAN technology the fops use. Not as good of course, but damn intimidating. Take Emile with you. He can help reprogram it. Killed by his own bodyguard. Ha.”
The Earl gave him a hearty slap on the back, his black mood forgotten. “I feel better already. You are the best man I’ve got. A dear friend. Talk to my receptionist about the door on your way out. I have a grand idea for the new motif.”
Barnabie did as bid, then went to find Emile. Built the elevator. Rigs technology based off designs stolen from the upper city and sells it to the rich in New Town.
Emile’s office was on the way to the mayor’s residence. Convenient. Barnabie did not enjoy walking. It made him tired. He knocked once before entering.
The interior was immaculate. Emile had been exiled from the upper city and kept his spaces to specifications apparently derived from the Engineer’s Guild in Eden 17. There was no sign of the engineer, so he wandered the unlit corridors prodding at the various baubles on the shelves.
Something out of the corner of his eye drew his attention. He turned and knelt to get a better look. At first, he thought it must be a child, crawled inside the shop for warmth. He touched its face gently, the skin giving off only the illusion of warmth. Its eyes shot open, red and mechanical.
“Daddy! I’m glad you’re home. I missed you.”
The miniature automaton hugged tight to his leg. He tried to pry it off, when the lights came on and a screeching voice came over the speakers.
“Don’t touch that, you maniac. It’s a custom order and cost me an absolute fortune to build. Wait. Is that Barnabie Braxton? For the last time, I can’t fit a big enough motor in that small elevator shaft. I can disable the buzzing if you like, but that could be a danger to the other passengers.”
Finally extricating himself from the child robot, he placed it gently back in its berth. “I am here for something different, Emile. The Earl has called upon you to do him a service.”
The pitch of his voice was nearly beyond human hearing at mention of the Earl. “O-of course. I will be right down.”
A door slid open at the end of the corridor, releasing a swiftly flying white drone. A screen at the center of the drone’s face lit up, projecting a hologram of Emile wringing his hands obsessively. His clothes were scrubbed white, though the patches of grey at the fringe showed they were not always that color.
“Apologies for not being here in person. My instruments are running and are exceptionally sensitive to outside contamination. What business?”
“You built an automaton for Damien Maravilla. I need to sabotage it or turn it against him. Earl Northcott has decided his time is at an end.”
“Oh no. Oh no no no. I will not get in the way of a lover’s spat. If you fail, Mayor Maravilla will know precisely who to blame. My handprints would be seen all over it. No, no, absolutely not.”
Barnabie snatched the drone in one hand before it could fly away.
“I will succeed with or without your help. The only question is whether you want the only remaining power in this district to have a grudge against you.”
Silence from the drone.
“If that is not enough incentive, I can also destroy your shop for defying me. There are many treasures here. Such a waste.”
He gripped the robot child with his other hand and began to squeeze.
For the span of several seconds, he was unable to move. A shock had originated from within his head and spread outward to his extremities. A trick of the drone? He crushed it in his grip, letting the shattered pieces fall to the ground. No change. Something else was keeping him from destroying the child.
“Alright, you win.” The voice crackled from the remnants of the drone. “I will give you a device to disable the bodyguard. It will reset automatically and accept new orders.”
“That is acceptable.” Barnabie placed the child on the shelf. “Have it ready by tonight. I will wait here, with all your expensive and easily broken merchandise.”
It wasn’t long before the door opened again, and a new drone identical to its predecessor flew out. It released a small device from its talons and flew away without further instruction. If this device did not do what it was supposed to, he would return.
The sun had set by the time he reached Damien’s mansion. A prudent man, he had the surrounding tenements razed to prevent any second story men easy access to his residence. No matter. Stealth was never his strength. He approached the first visible guard.
“I demand an audience.”
No more needed to be said. He was easily recognizable as Earl Northcott’s man. A half dozen armed guards escorted him to the mansion’s visitation room, one man shaking so badly he dropped his weapon on the floor.
Mayor Maravilla was a vain and proud man. He made Barnabie wait in his study for several hours before deigning to present himself. Barnabie did not mind. The table spread was exquisite, and it was rare he could be alone with his thoughts.
Finally, the man himself appeared dressed in a fashion the emperor’s courtesan would find extravagant, leading two burly men nearly Barnabie’s own size. “You can tell that psychopath I will only accept apologies in person. With him kneeling before me. Groveling. I have been walking in these hideously uncomfortable shoes all day and it would please me if he scraped the corns off my feet.”
Damien was familiar with Barnabie’s reputation as well, and apparently wanted to bait the Earl’s top enforcer into an unwinnable fight. “My most heartfelt apologies that the Earl could not make it in person. He is mad with grief and did not want you to see him so. He brings an offer of his desire. Something to repair the rift between you.”
Barnabie pulled the small box from his front pocket, and presented it to the mayor, one hand clasped over its top lid. Intrigued but cautious, Damien approached with his guards. Barnabie flipped open the top, revealing two exquisitely crafted, sapphire encrusted cuff links. Damien brought one hand to his mouth, overcome by the gesture. Barnabie was hoping for this reaction. He was a poor judge of the value of such things but reckoned they must be valuable if that fop Darius had been wearing them.
“Stunning. Absolutely breathtaking.” He waved his guards off and came closer to Barnabie, taking the case with one hand and placing his other on Barnabie’s arm.
“I was just about to sit down to dinner. I would be honored if you would join us.”
“It would be my pleasure, your Majesty, but I am afraid I still have other tasks to see to this night.”
“Nonsense. Its dangerous out this late. You will stay here tonight and be a guest to my hospitality. Then you may return to the Earl and tell him all is forgiven.” He opened the box again, enraptured by the contents. “Simply marvelous. They match my eyes as well. I never knew he had such a sensitive soul.”
The ornate chair they brought him strained against his bulk, so they replaced it with a bench. The mayor ignored Barnabie for most of the night, electing instead to have his men fetch shirt and jackets from his wardrobe so he could match them to the new cufflinks. Barnabie did not mind. It was rare to get real meat in New Town. The lab grown stuff was just no substitute.
He is not a bad person. He helped build this district out of a slum. His only mistake was loving the wrong man. You don’t have to do this.
Barnabie drowned out the voice by breaking a bone in his teeth and loudly sucking out the marrow. Good and bad had nothing to do with this.
Damien was not paying him much attention, so Barnabie made his way upstairs to the sleeping quarters. He turned a few random corners to make sure no one was following before starting his hunt for the mayor’s bedroom. It was not difficult to find. The door was a match to the one he had broken that morning at the penthouse.
The Earl loved him once. He may again.
The door was unlocked. The mayor trusted his security system to stop intruders. Barnabie readied Emile’s device, and threw the door open. He took a few steps inside but could not make out anything that resembled a guard robot.
Something cold and metallic gripped his throat from the side. Barnabie reached his hand up around his neck before the grip closed, preventing it from cutting off his breath completely. He pressed the button on the device. The grip continued to tighten. He pressed it again. And again. No reaction from the massive automaton.
Barnabie judged where the robot’s chest to be and threw a punch. He felt a crunch and then intense pain as the bones in his hands snapped. But the grip released. Barnabie took a deep breath and stepped back to stay out of its reach.
The machine resembled a man, but with a large torso and thin flexible limbs. Part of its chest had caved in, wires beneath the casing throwing sparks.
The robot rushed forward with one clawed limb in front, intent on impaling Barnabie. He sidestepped too slow; the claw dragged a painful red line down Barnabie’s arm. Its torso spun around on the lower chassis, flinging another claw at his throat. Barnabie ducked, grabbing the machine by its legs and slamming it against the ground. The robot was stunned momentarily, so Barnabie got astride it and began bashing against the connection between the torso and limbs with his meaty hands. His broken left hand went numb with pain, but he continued until the robot stopped flailing. It attempted to buck him off. Unwilling to let it stand again, Barnabie grabbed its head and pulled with all the force he could muster. The head gave all at once, a trail of mechanical viscera trailing.
“What the hell is going on here? Guards!” He looked up to see the two large men that greeted from the study were moving swiftly toward him, violence in their eyes.
Barnabie gripped the automaton’s head, giving it a final pull to tear through the wires still connecting it to the torso, then threw it as hard as he could at the first man’s skull. He was strong but slow, his attempt to dodge was only half successful and the machine head left an enormous gash above his left eye. It slowed him down enough that Barnabie had a few seconds to deal with the other guard alone.
Barnabie feinted with his injured hand, then brought his other fist into the guard’s side in a right hook. He grabbed the man’s head as he doubled over in pain, and brought his knee swiftly upward, smashing his jaw.
Damien turned to run away, the other guard blocking Barnabie’s path to follow. The mayor had a small army downstairs. Barnabie could not let him reach it. He summoned all the strength and rage he could muster and ran at full speed toward the guard, grabbing him by the midsection then throwing him forward. By some fortune, the guard clipped Damien as he flew into the wall, knocking him over.
Exhausted and legs shaking, Barnabie stumbled over to where Damien struggled to get up.
“Please. This is just a tiff. A-a squabble. You and your master both know this isn’t right. This is just his madness. He is not well.”
“I know. But what choice do I have?”
Barnabie straddled the prone man. Damien did not even bother to struggle. “You have every choice. This is your doing as much as it is his. Please. You don’t have to do this.”
“I don’t have to.” Barnabie agreed, nodding. He waited for the voice.
Nothing. Barnabie turned back toward Damien’s expectant face. “Seems the moment has passed. Unlucky for you.”