The room was more a cave; a poorly lit cave under a large glass palace, with roughly plastered walls painted a dull yellow and an uneven floor paved with natural stone. It’s depth below solid rock offered some protection from wormholes thrown from the outside, but not a lot—it was more of a navigational hazard.
Jairo Mercedes; mass murderer, drug lord, boot-legged neural augmentation distributor and Judas Soul, was feeling less than confident in the presence of his Soul Master, the Honour, Erna Brigat. Maybe he should not have returned from Trevon. Perhaps he should have just moved onto the next victim. He was meant to be destabilising things in Go Down City; scaring the beJeezes out of the local population; sending a message to the authorities there that they should still be talking to his master. But he had to let his master know what he had discovered. Not to do so would incur his greater wrath.
‘I just felt another presence,’ he said.
As Mercedes waited for the inevitable tongue lashing, he looked around the cave-like room. In the background, he saw two domestic wormholes at work, probably launched from the kitchens upstairs. A humanoid-looking hand appeared from one, nudging fruit around a wooden bowl. It picked up a bruised apple, withdrew, and the opening disappeared. From the other hole, water poured into an ancient, grey ceramic water jug, decorated with Haraan sportsmen throwing spears at fleeing bipeds.
Brigat looked up from his partially completed model of an LM-V freighter. He frowned. This was his hobby room; his family’s collection room; his quiet room.
‘Did you, really?’ Brigat asked in a series of clicks and tuts, checking the display of the wormhole monitor hanging around his neck before returning to his model.
Brigat was an avid collector of human technology, especially of military hardware, despite most of it being obsolete in his own society dominated by wormholes. He especially enjoyed making models of the larger specimens; the items he couldn’t realistically worm across to M31 without bringing too much attention to himself. An LM-V wasn’t too bulky to worm, it was just too large to steal without the humans noticing, and way too big to park in the glass mansion upstairs. On occasions such as this, he would settle for a little inter-galactic shop-lifting. In this case, an Airfix 1/72nd scale replica from a speciality store in Manhattan.
Mercedes watched him fiddle with a particularly small piece and scratch his slender, reptilian snout. He couldn’t sense Brigat’s mood, but knew he would have to respond right away. His master didn’t like to waste his time.
‘Yes. It was quite strong. Passionate. Most insistent.’
‘Another ghost soul, perhaps?’ Brigat asked, pulling a lamp across his hobby table and peering through a magnifying glass at another, similar piece of plastic. He twiddled it and then put it back down. The harsh lamp light penetrated his almost translucent skin, exposing blue veins and thin, fat-free muscles.
‘Possibly,’ Mercedes conceded, wondering if Brigat’s skin ever dried out. ‘But he tried talking to me … none of the others did.
‘Then what are you worried about? There are millions of them wandering around.’
There were more than millions, Mercedes thought. Ghosts, whose souls partially escaped their bodies only moments before full death, to be disconnected from the rest of itself, forever.
But this was different.
‘Not like this one,’ Mercedes insisted. ‘He seemed focused. He knew about us.’
‘What did you tell him? What did you say?’ Brigat asked, checking his wormhole monitor again.
Mercedes could see his master was expecting another intrusion. It was probably why he had found him down here, rather than in one of the more luxuriously appointed rooms upstairs. Brigat would be a little jumpy.
‘Nothing, of course. I backed off; tried to fade away as fast as I could.’
Mercedes had enjoyed his teatime outing with Trooper Davies until the ghost soul turned up. He hadn’t expected the interruption, and with Davies already opened up to suggestion, the ghost soul found it easy to get onto Davies’ wavelength. Not wanting to expose himself to the unexpected intruder, Mercedes had abandoned ship immediately, leaving Davies to deal with his temporal insanity—alone and without further encouragement. Alas, it had ended badly for the man. Instead of exiting his temporal life in a blaze of glory, Davies was shackled and led away, no doubt to be worked on by a team of white coats and a bag full of pharmaceuticals.
Brigat sifted through the model pieces with a couple of ancient and bony fingers, his soft finger pads carefully assessing their shapes. Eventually, he found what he was looking for. It seemed like an age before he replied.
‘But not quickly enough, perhaps, or you wouldn’t be so worried by it.’
Mercedes needed to sound confident; absolutely sure.
‘No. I was fast,’ he said, quickly. Now that sounded confident enough, he thought, feeling relieved. ‘I’m just letting you know about it. It seemed to know about us.’
Again, Brigat took his time before answering. He adjusted the aperture of a wormhole bringing fresher, cooler air into the cave from one of the planet’s largest glaciers. It was getting a little too cold.
‘You worry too much. Tell me about this last victim. Was it easier this time?’
‘Yes it was. It was quite satisfying.’
It had been a long time since Mercedes’ last days of sustained blood-letting. Love Brigat or hate him, respect him or fear him, as Mercedes often did in varying measures, he was at least grateful to his master for the occasional opportunity to slake his blood lust.
Brigat clicked more harshly.
‘Then why aren’t you still at it? I want everyone to be panicking. I want them to see just how it’ll be if I don’t get my Harvester back.’
‘I only came back to warn you.’
Brigat looked up.
Mercedes could see Brigat’s over-large, round and black eyes narrow a little and his pale, vein-ridden face harden. The soft opening in his bony, conch-like ears fluted a little. Brigat wasn’t staring at anything in particular as he couldn’t see a soul. No one could do that. Not human nor Haraan. But Brigat could sense them, and like all Haraan with the right equipment, he had complete dominion over them.
‘What part of, “Don’t worry about it” don’t you get?’ Brigat asked, waving a small piece of the model above his head.
‘But won’t Central disapprove?’
‘I don’t give a cast-out what Central thinks! I want my Harvester. I want the damn thing back. I want it back—now!’
‘But nothing!’ Brigat said, adding a screech to the clicks. He pulled his thin lips back over a mouth filled with small, but sharp teeth. ‘I don’t care what Central wants, what it thinks or what happens to it afterwards. I want my Harvester back.’
Brigat cut in again.
‘But fark! You’re not listening.’ The clicks had slowed, and he was vibrating his lungs to add a rich, deep background tone to show Mercedes he was more than just frustrated. His single nostril flared as the leathery air sac below his receding chin inflated slightly. ‘Get me my farking harvester. Or do I need to send some other soul? Yates, Dahmer and Christie are all chaffing at the bit. Even Hansen is interested, and it takes a lot to inspire him these days.’
All of them serial killers. Older ones. Keen to get back out there.
‘OK. I’ll get back to it. But, please, don’t piss Central off too much. They’ll pull your license. We’ll be confiscated.’
Brigat and Mercedes’ relationship had endured for decades, and Brigat had let Mercedes run errands for him, unshackled but not free, across the full width of M31. Souls didn’t get that kind of leeway unless they had earned their master’s confidence, and, having earned it, sometimes Mercedes felt he could offer advice—within reason. Brigat would listen, though more often than not it was just to humour him. But there were boundaries, and often times Mercedes crossed them. More importantly, Brigat knew when Mercedes was offering advice to suit his own needs.
‘You wisp!’ Brigat replied. ‘Scared you’ll be expelled? Sent on your way? Released? They would not dare.’
Mercedes reflected on that. Brigat was probably right. Central probably wouldn’t dare. But then again, there was always a chance that they might, which disturbed him. Even odds of five to one against weren’t good odds when a bad result meant being tipped into Hell—should there be one. Mercedes was certain there was. And if there was no Heaven or Hell then there was nothing. He preferred what he had.
‘It’s what you did,’ Mercedes reminded him, ‘to all of them. It was heartless.’
Mercedes was there on Runnymede when Brigate decided to close the human wormholes down. That meant releasing all of the souls to find their place in the natural order of things. At first they had clung to the nearest available positive Graviton, and several had escaped that way through the membrane. But most were eventually repelled, forced to latch onto the more numerous negative Gravitons. They then headed in a different direction. To Hell. He was sure of it.
‘And you think Central has a mind to do the same to you?’ Brigat asked.
‘I was just extrapolating, thinking.’
‘Then don’t! You’re not particularly good at it, Mercedes, you never have been.’ Brigat snapped. He turned in his seat, ignoring his model entirely for the first time since Mercedes had unwittingly interrupted his downtime. He modulated his lung vibrations to a more soothing sound and then lay out some home-truths: ‘And you don’t understand Haraan culture; you never will. Remember, you’re only here because I want you to be. I like you. You’re handy. And you humour me.’ He then turned back to his model, his voice returning to a deeper, harsher tone. ‘But if you piss me off you’ll be back to working wormholes. And if you truly piss me off, I’ll release you myself.’
Mercedes checked his optimism when he heard the ‘but’: Brigat’s ‘buts’ were the stuff of legends. He was incredibly unstable and insincere, even for a Haraan, and his mood could swing from pleasant to nasty inside of a single sentence.
‘I’m sorry, Honour Brigat,’ he said. ‘I’m not sure what came over me. In truth, I haven’t felt this way since just before my execution. Maybe it’s my post-arrest remorse kicking in again. I’ll deal with it.’
‘You’d better. I want that farking harvester back, and I want it back now, so get back to work.’
‘Yes,’ Brigat said, as though he was only beginning to give it some thought. ‘Apparently, it’s on Prebos being prodded by their scientists, so have a go at the research crew. Fark them over. Screw them up.’
He’ll change his mind in a day or so, Mercedes thought, but a few days on Prebos kicking butt sounded like fun. But he still didn’t get it.
‘Why don’t you just throw a hole and scoop it up?’ he asked. ‘Now you know where it is, I mean.’
Once again, Brigat looked up from the model and smiled. Mercedes could see it was a condescending smile, the kind he gave his servants when they thought they had done well, and he couldn’t be bothered to point out how incompetent they actually were.
‘I’d love to,’ Brigat began, ‘but didn’t you just spend the last ten farking minutes telling me not to piss Central off?’
‘Yes … I did.’
‘Well doing that would seriously piss them off, I can assure you.’
Mercedes didn’t reply. If he had a body, he would be frowning. Although Brigat hadn’t found his harvester until Central had jumped in and taken over, he had plenty of other wormhole constructs with which to worm it back.
Brigat sensed his confusion. He explained.
‘They’ve made it abundantly plain I’m not to. They even had the gall to mention my privileges, licenses and my honours. Apparently—and I’ll paraphrase Troggan here—it’s meant to remind them that we have dominion over souls.’
Brigat’s wormhole license and honours went back 4000 sol years; the rights his family had exploited and built upon for hundreds of generations. Fark! His family was one of the first collector families. Haraan culture depended on wormholes: it had been built on them.
‘Like an Ark or a couple of tablets,’ Mercedes asked.
‘Because!’ Brigat snapped.
‘Because …?’ Mercedes dared to ask.
‘Because humans need physical proof of things, that’s why.’ Brigat scratched the folds of skin over his throat. The creases were itching; he was getting agitated. ‘And because of those limp-wristed Revelationists.’
‘What’s it got to do with them?’ Mercedes asked, hesitantly.
‘It’s simple: Central doesn’t want the humans taking sides, becoming their allies.’
‘Well that’s a leap. How would the humans ever get to know about them?’
‘Because the Revelationists are desperate,’ Brigat explained, ‘and they are looking for help wherever they can get it. It’s now only a matter of time before they venture out and make contact. Word has it they’ve increased their own harvests, and they’re building more wormhole constructs. So we need the humans to dislike the Revelationists as much as they’re beginning to fear us. We need them to see just how powerful we are, so there’s no question of them getting involved in this civil strife of ours. For some reason, Troggan wants the humans to submit to us of their own free will. My harvester is supposed to provide them with encouragement.’
Shit! Mercedes thought. The Revelationists were building more wormhole constructs. That was new.Or maybe not new, just the first he had heard of it.
‘You’re not meant to know,’ Brigat added. ‘Mention it, and you’re out of here.’
‘Of course. But if we’re not to annoy them, just how far can I go when you say, “Fark them over”?’
‘As far as you like. A few dead humans won’t be a problem. As long as I to stick to the letter of my agreement with Troggan, he can’t get prissy. But I’d like them encouraged. So, chivvy them on. Make them want to give it back.’
Brigat picked up a tube of glue, ran its end over the length of the LM’s semi-completed flux-drive and tried to fix it into place. It snapped. He looked at the piece for a few seconds, and then let it fall from his hand. Using his arm he swept the whole thing, model and pieces, onto the floor.
A wormhole dropped from the ceiling, and the pieces started to rise and disappear. From inside the wormhole, Mercedes could hear a vacuum sucking away. The tip of a tube then touched the half-completed shell of the model and snatched it from view.
Brigat put his elbows on the table, and then slapped his fists down.
‘Why are you still here?’