"Come ride with me
Through the veins of history
I'll show you a god who
Falls asleep on the job"
–Knights of Cydonia, Muse
The city central plaza was far too nice for Alise's taste.
A city of fine things and people in fine wears bespoke a latent corruption she could hardly tolerate. Men in tailored business apparel with expensive shoes marched about with women in sharp dresses that reflected expensive taste. And, more often than not, they conformed to glorified body types that exalted the strength of the men while prominently displaying sensuous curves of the women.
The styles were far too familiar to the world she had traveled from. The callous display of wealth was aggravating in its own right. But the blatant attempt at following trends these people had never known…
Alise exhaled, shaking her head. Where to start with this mess?
It was more than the attitude this city projected. In a lot of ways, it came down to the simple fact that people like Alise didn't belong here. Her old pair of stolen combat boots; her baggy cargo pants. The ratty brown jacket over a black tank top did not fit the itinerary this city had set. Oh sure, no one would come outright and say that there was a standard fashion. But everyone here with power set it when they paraded around in public.
Alise knew subtle ways to blend in with her surrounding environment, but this was one venue where camouflage would not aid her. Besides, the thought of waltzing around in one of those skimpy, low-cut black dresses with split skirts made her want to gag. No, she wouldn't debase herself by playing dress up for their little social games. She could work and accomplish her purposes just fine from the shadows.
Or, in this case, a lovely subterranean utility tunnel running through the city promenade. Keeping back in the shadows, Alise moved quietly through the dirty passageway, watching her mark above. Even down here, it would be all too easy for a city guard to catch her prowling. This was Alise's first time out in the relative open of the city, so she had to tread lightly.
Tread lightly today, slip in again tomorrow.
Her mark, a middle-aged man in a blue sports jacket and matching pleated pants strode through the middle of the plaza, parallel to Alise's underground vantage point. He carried an exquisite leather briefcase in one hand, the other laced through the arm of a gal wearing a trashy red dress. The kind that was nice enough to pronounce her wealth status, but indicate her place as a woman of pleasure. Marius' mistress, if Alise had to guess. She wondered if the lady would end up in the meeting, too.
Following from the tunnel beneath the plaza was an extra precaution at this point. Alise had a pretty good idea where this fancy pants was going. If she had felt particularly brash, she would have waited at the meeting spot. But if there was one thing Alise knew about fancy pants like Marius, it was that a healthy paranoia kept them in power for many long years. And that meant meeting places could change arbitrarily.
Alise didn't have time to miss this meeting.
Marius and his arm candy ended up following the course Alise anticipated. Once out of the main plaza, she had to get a little creative, sneaking through the underground labyrinth to match Marius' course on the street above. When he entered the black-glassed high rise Alise had targeted, she pulled out her Time Remote.
Teleporting around this city carried some degree of risk, but Alise knew for a fact she was off the empire's grid. Furthermore, there weren't any military assets in the region. Another reason Marius had probably chosen this meeting spot. Somewhere quiet and away from watching eyes. Well, all except for Alise's.
She teleported inside to the pre-programmed coordinates she had gathered the night before. That had been an adventure and a half. She was certaint security had cased her there at the end, but no one sounded any alarms. And Marius was still meeting here today. Chalk one up for Alise's ninja score card. It was a pitiful record these days, particularly when she preferred direct confrontation.
But that wouldn't work in this situation; a fact she was loath to admit. Knives, swords, and guns always made her job easier.
In a brief haze of soft green light, Alise found herself in a janitor's closet of sorts. She reached up to the cable vent in the ceiling, using her toned upper body strength to hoist herself inside. Despite her lacking height, she was getting better at climbing into these places.
Alise crawled delicately along the ceiling corridor of cables, finally finding her sweet spot at an intersection with an air duct. The duct opened into a conference room below her on the left. She waited less than two minutes before Marius strode in.
Oh yeah, Alise was on fire today.
"I see you brought Sasha along." The voice came from a woman Alise couldn't quite see. She sounded about Marius' age, though. "Planning on lingering a little after this? I'm sure I could get you two a room."
Marius laughed dryly. "Yes, no one pays attention to a Head of State waltzing in here with a call girl on his arm. Come now, Kersten. Give me some credit. At least I try to be discrete."
"Your discretion is admirable," the woman named Kersten said. "But it's going to matter very little in the coming days. Hugo and Jelani both have the private guard watching their every move; bugging their every interaction."
Alise noted the two names. Jelani she had already scouted as a possible target—now she could confirm the woman as a State Head. She would have to follow up with this Hugo fella.
"He really distrusts us?" said Marius. "After everything we built? After sixty years of tending this world? My mother was one of Hakim's trusted few. The two practically grew up together."
Bingo. Alise had been waiting three weeks for the name drop. Now all of her theories were coming to fruition. Hakim was here. And he was consolidating power; cleaning house, as it were.
"Yes, and my mother knew the Mistress herself," said Kersten. "Served in her guard, as I was told repeatedly growing up. But do you think those old alliances matter anymore? For God's sake, Marius…we're stewards. And unless we roll over and demonstrate that the High Emperor now reigns supreme, do you think we'll last long? I already have my summons to meet at the Palace next week."
Marius sighed. He sounded far too desperate for a man with such power and money.
Cheer up, you rich bastard. You've lived like a king all these years; raised on the silver spoon from infancy.
"Kersten…what the hell are we going to do?"
"I'll tell you what I'm not going to do. I'm not going to let that spoiled Emperor Child ruin sixty years of power I've maintained over Cadence. I created the Great Houses; I practically built the aristocracy from the ground up. While my mother was busy putting out fires from the Conquest Wars, I was shaping Cadence—making it into the paradise we enjoy today."
Alise rolled her eyes. Yes, and what a fine paradise it was. As long as you were in the aristocracy. If she got the chance, Alise was going to drag that old hag out to the slums to give her a better taste of paradise.
"Hakim sees this place as a glorified staging ground," said Kersten. "He'll burn through us just like his brother did in Stormfall."
"I'm well aware of the reports coming through the Slip-Gate. But what can we actually do? If Hugo and Jelani are under leash and chain, what's to say the others aren't down for the count as well?"
"Because I got to them early. And we've been planning for this day for a long time now…"
Alise grunted, a spacetime thread suddenly fighting for attention in her mind's eye. Damn it. Her chronometrics tended to pick the most inopportune times to pester her. The conversation below was getting to the good stuff, and Alise didn't want to miss this…
But there was no fighting it. Eventually she was lost entirely to the chronometric vision, images and understanding washing into her mind. Among the jumble, she caught sight of the armed guards firing into the ceiling below her. The transport shielding going up around the perimeter.
Shit. They were on to her.
"—we take the initiative," Kersten prattled on. "We assemble our assets covertly and maneuver for a coup."
Alise reached carefully into her coat pocket, fishing out her Remote. If she hurried, she could make a quick jump out of here, landing in her fallback. But as she got a good look at the screen, she stifled a silent curse. The building's transport shield was already up.
Alise was going to have to revoke her ninja point today. She had gotten sloppy somewhere, and now she was going to pay for it.
Abandoning all pretenses for stealth, Alise rolled to the side quickly, pounding with elbows on the metal grate that separated her from the conference room. Her body weight finished the small vent, dropping her down into the private meeting below. Years of reflex helped her get her legs under her, landing on her feet in a crouch. Marius jumped to the side in a panic. The woman named Kersten looked annoyed at the ratty girl dropping out of the ceiling. After making sure to get a good look at her, Alise bolted for the door. The State Head had short blonde hair and bright blue eyes that looked pretty despite their age.
Alise headed in the opposite direction of the exterior hall, listening as painfully loud gunfire peppered the shaft where she had hidden moments before. Shit, that was sloppy Foresight on her part; barely seconds from the moment she glimpsed the thread. She was usually a little timelier about such things.
As if bidden by that thought, a new spacetime thread smacked into her brain. As it slipped out in a flash, Alise dove down the first immediate corridor. She heard gunfire on her tail, barely missing her. She was off her game today.
Running full out, Alise reached over her shoulder for the curved wakizashi blade on her back. She hated having to resort to the sword in hectic fights like this. But things were about to get fairly close combat. And she didn't want to waste ammo if she could help it.
Cut through the immediate guards, get outside, and recall to the fallback.
The spacetime threads started flowing more freely now. Thank God temporal reality decided to get its shit together. Pressing on the chronometric ability, her body and mind became aware not only of the guards waiting at the auxiliary staircase ahead, but of their attack pattern.
Alise slowed her pace just enough. Five feet from her target, the door burst open, two armed men appearing in the corridor. They were barely out the door by the time Alise had decapitated them both.
Then, ducking from the gunfire through the door, she thrust up with her blade, taking out the marksman hiding inside. A few more guards waited on the stairs, but Alise fell into the rhythmic dance routine of future-tense awareness. Her body didn't need to move faster than the bullets; just out of the way before they left their guns. Her wakizashi moved with similar grace in the dance, slicing and cutting through her foes as she pressed up the stairs.
She had a fair amount of blood on her person by the time she was in the lobby.
Alise paused in the doorway, keeping her profile back to avoid making herself a target. Coaxing another thread into her mind, she cursed loudly. The lobby had a large three story atrium that held exits on the east and west faces of the building. And both rows of doors were guarded by an army of well armed men and women.
So close to freedom, but blocked by shielding and guns. Could she make a try for one of the offices on the first floor? Smash through an exterior window?
Then something happened that Alise could not have foreseen: some idiot in combat gear materialized in a flash of blinding white light in the middle of the lobby. The guards reacted as expected.
Bullets cut through the open space, the guy in the middle taking a fair few. But his gear was good—really good. He dove forward, nearly crushing Alise against the back wall of the stairwell. Through his thick helmet, she spied a pair of smiling green eyes.
White light enveloped Alise. Slipping out into the frothing quantum foam, she felt the buffeting waves as they flitted between the fabric of time and space. It was over in a second, and Alise stumbled backwards, falling against the roof. The roof of the same building they had teleported from, now thirty floors up.
Grunting, Alise reached for her Remote. Well, the transport shield seemed limited to the interior, because she had a signal out here.
The idiot in combat gear tore off his helmet. He had short auburn hair and a crooked nose. "Now, do you mind—?"
Yes. Alise minded. Very much. Before he could get another word out, she pressed her pre-set recall, winking out again in a spark of green light. She landed on her feet in an alley three hundred miles away, in a city where she was unlikely to run into more of those guards.
And hopefully away from the combat gear idiot.
Focusing on the spacetime threads, Alise waited long enough to determine that she wasn't being followed or traced. None of her visions showed danger. To be safe, she followed another set of back up recalls, distributing her half way around the planet.
Her exit wasn't as quiet as she would have liked, but she had the information she wanted. Now it was time to go to work with it.