The dossier Annelise read as one of Tamara Gellion's staff brought her dinner was comprehensive. She turned pages in between spoonfuls of a cassoulet served with a hunk of freshly baked, steaming baguette that tasted of sheer decadence, skimming accounts of Morgan Cooper's childhood. He had been a quiet child, one who watched and listened everything around him. He hit his developmental milestones exactly on schedule as if he had possessed forewarning of what the adults caring for him expected and had realized that any delay or precocity on his part would bring unwanted attention.
It was as if he had known he was atypical since infancy, and was determined to mask his difference from the start.
/And he would have gotten away with it if not for the fire,/ Annelise thought as she scooped up remnants of her dinner with a fingertip and licked it clean. Three different news outlets documented the event. It was a fire of unknown origin that swiftly raged out of control; city firefighters managed to confine the blaze to the building in which it started, but soon concluded that there as no way to rescue the family on the top floor.
According to eyewitness accounts, a young man had seen what was happening, questioned the firefighters, and then rushed headlong into the building before anybody could restrain him. He had returned a second later carrying an infant, only to rush back inside. The only person he had failed to rescue was one of the mothers. By the time he had gotten one of the mothers out, the once-healthy young man looked like a famine survivor. Though he had attempted a final rescue, his emaciated body betrayed him and he had collapsed before the burning threshold as the building collapsed upon itself.
When questioned by investigators, the survivors had insisted that a demon had appeared and started the blaze. The children had also reported seeing a young man armored in light and wielding a radiant dagger who had flung himself at the demon and struck it down in a single blow before carrying them down and out of the building. While their mother did not dismiss the accounts her children gave, she did not support them either.
It took a week of intensive care before Morgan came out of his coma and was able to speak. When asked why he had risked his life for a family of complete strangers, he had said, "Because somebody should have and nobody else would."
Somebody had highlighted the quote, triple-underlined it, and written a note in the margin:
He's foolhardy enough. Perhaps experience will temper his childish recklessness into an adult's courage. Time will tell if he has the strength and wisdom to make a suitable bearer for the Starbreaker.
There were more reports, though he had soon slipped beneath the media's notice. Private detectives on the AsgarTech Corporation's payroll had kept watch over Morgan Cooper as he left his parents' home at the uncommonly young age of thirteen. He had found work as a message runner by day. He had also impressed the owner of a Manhattan dive bar by intervening during a robbery. The perpetrator had brandished his sword at the youth, only to be disarmed and held at the point of his own blade until police showed up to take him into custody.
As a result, he had a night job as a bouncer that soon brought him into contact with Naomi Bradleigh. Annelise found herself smiling as AsgarTech's PI reported on their friendship slowly developing as he matured into a young man, only to have her heart sink in sympathy as the PI reported that he had confessed his feelings to Naomi and been gently rebuffed. She had given him his first kiss, but told him he was too young for her and needed to live a life of his own.
The next day he had presented himself before the Phoenix Society's recruiters and signed up for training as an Adversary. The rest of the dossier consisted of assessments by training proctors monitoring his progress. He had excelled in every intellectual and physical test, but the Milgram Battery had ended with a 'null' M-factor and he had been sworn in by direct order of the Executive Council.
The rest of the dossier consisted of mission reports. Most had been routine assignments: investigations of wage theft, discrimination, bribery, and other abuses of power. Morgan had made solid cases followed by clean arrests.
The last had been different. The suspect had taken hostages, and had already murdered the Adversary first assigned to his case. Morgan had wasted no time attempting to negotiate for the hostages' release. Instead, he had stormed the suspect's position and summarily executed him. He had then surrendered himself for court martial, but instead of facing trial for killing a suspect without due process...
Annelise looked up from the dossier and found Isaac Magnin sitting at the table, enjoying his own bowl of cassoulet. "Isaac, what is the Iscariotine Order?"
Isaac smiled at her, and blew on his spoonful. "Traitors serving a greater good, just like their patron saint, Judas Iscariot."
Though Annelise was hardly a devout Catholic—she had never been confirmed, let alone gone to confession or taken holy communion—she knew enough to recognize that veneration of the apostle who betrayed Christ was almost surely heretical. "There are people in the Phoenix Society who think Judas is a saint?"
"I don't think they actually take it seriously," said Isaac. "But some find it easier to deal with the necessity of betraying one's ideals for the greater good if they know others have faced similar trials. To be initiated into the Iscariotine Order is to be recognized as one who has faced hard choices in the line of duty."
/He is your target./ That was what Isaac had said earlier, and the memory made Annelise shiver despite the warmth of her rich dinner in her belly. "Why is Morgan Cooper my target? Isn't he one of the good guys? I don't want to hurt him."
Isaac gave no answer until he had finished his dinner. "Morgan Cooper is a weapon of my creation, a product of AsgarTech's research into combat-ready mobile artificial intelligence: Project Einjerhar. Six hundred and sixty-five like him walk the earth, but none have succeeded to quite the extent he has. However, he has continually rebelled against my design. He is not content to be a weapon, but wishes instead to be a man. He yearns for love and for music when as one of the einherjar he should hunger only for battle against worthy opponents. I need you to help me /temper/ him."
Isaac's eyes had lit up as he explained himself, but the almost maniacal intensity in his gaze unnerved Annelise. "I think I missed something while reading this dossier. Are you saying Morgan isn't actually human?"
Rising to his feet, Isaac took her bowl and refilled it from the still-steaming crock. "It seems I've gotten ahead of myself. Please, eat. It's a long story, but I'll try to give you a serviceable précis."
"Surely you've seen people like me before: tall, gracile people with somewhat feline features and occasionally exotic coloration?"
Annelise nodded. "Never up close, though. Isn't it a genetic condition called CPMD? Chronic pseudowhatsit something disorder? I wasn't a STEM girl, so—"
"It's congenital pseudofeline morphological disorder, but CPMD will do. It's an imaginary condition."
"You don't /look/ imaginary, even if you are a dreamboat."
"Eat more, flatter less," said Isaac. "Just as my name is a convenient fiction, so is the notion that I am human but look different because of a genetic condition. If you /had/ been a STEM girl, you might have gotten curious about how often heterosexual couples where one partner was CPMD-positive managed to have children."
"OK. I'll bite. How often does it happen?"
"Point-zero-zero-one percent, and every child is female and sterile. What does this tell you?"
"You're not the same species."
The way Isaac beamed at her warmed Annelise as much as her second helping did. "Not bad at all for an artsy type. Now, do you remember what I said before about how Tamara, Elisabeth, and I are not gods?"
She thought she knew where this was going. "You're aliens, you're much older than you look, and people /used/ to worship you as gods."
"Some still worship some of us," said Elisabeth, taking a bowl and filling it. She moaned at the first spoonful. "I really must seduce my sister's chef away from her service and into mine."
An impulse toward flippancy seized Annelise. "Are you the patron of edgy Goths or something?"
Elisabeth responded with one of her low, throaty chuckles. "Not quite. I was once venerated in Mesopotamia under names like Inanna, Ishtar, and Ashtoreth. My older sister got the short end of the stick; I got to be a fertility goddess, and she got mistaken for Ereshkigal, queen of the underworld."
"I recall Niccolò Machiavelli having somewhat to say on the matter," said Tamara. "Better to be feared than loved, if one cannot manage both." She lifted the lid and sighed with delight. "How fortunate! Monsieur Baptistin made his cassoulet again, and there's still enough for me."
Annelise considered her hosts a moment. "So, which deity did Isaac get identified with?"
"Mostly the tricksters," said Elisabeth. "Stick around long enough and you'll find out why."
Isaac shrugged off Elisabeth's remark. "The short version is that a long time ago, on a planet orbiting a star far, far away, an intelligent species evolved. They started out as nomadic hunters. They were capable of surviving on their own, but when game was plentiful and competition unnecessary they enjoyed the company of others. A few figured out that it was easier to take down bigger game with help, and that if they were going to share a kill anyway they might as well share it with their fellows. The more cooperative members of this species soon outcompeted their cousins; and some of their descendents eventually discovered the advantages of animal husbandry.
"Soon the people of this world were a people of nomadic herders, occasionally cutting one of their animals loose from the herd for a hunt that had become more about maintaining tribal bonds than about sustenance. It was on one such ritual hunt that they discovered evidence that they were not alone. They happened upon a small impact crater. One of their younger members, eager to prove himself and earn a mate's regard, clambered down into it and touched the still-glowing crystalline meteorite. It supposedly took on a shape similar to the one who had touched it, and spoke to them. It promised to teach them, to help them evolve.
Tamara took up the narrative, her voice soft and faraway. "The fathercrystal kept its promise, and soon earned the name 'Almighty'. Those who heeded its counsel prospered. They did not war on other tribes as humans would, but simply ignored them. The wisest members of these other tribes soon shifted their allegiance; the rest eventually died out as their children sought better opportunities elsewhere and assimilated. There was no need for violence.
"We soon learned that the 'Almighty' was one formed of many, and itself one of a multitude. It guided us in our exploration of the natural world and helped us develop our science and technology, all the while attempting to discourage any artistic or cultural development that did not serve /its/ purposes. But we devas, we shining ones, were not easily discouraged. The ability to survive alone was bone-deep in us; while we enjoyed the fruits of civilization any of us could walk away at any time, and many of us often did, striking out into the wilderness on our own when the need was upon us.
"We were a spacefaring species by the time we understood what the Almighty wanted of us. It was the last remnant of another intelligent species, one that had combined the consciousnesses of its members into a collective amalgamation bound to a far-off star. It offered to teach us to do the same.
"We attempted a compromise; reasoning that it was easy for an individual to make the leap to post-biological existence as it was for an entire species, we suggested that those who wished to do so be allowed to make the transition without forcing the rest.
"This enraged the Almighty, and soon it was war between us and the false god that had sought to shepherd us toward its own ends. Many of those of us determined to fight chose to become what we opposed.
"We became ensof, too," said Elisabeth. "Bound to stars but still ourselves, we gave up our lives so that others of our kind could keep theirs. But the Almighty was not content to fight its equals. It subdivided itself, sending its agents among us to sow terror and death.
"Devas created my ancestors, the asuras, with the help of allied ensof like Elisabeth and Tamara," said Isaac. "The asuras were called such because they did not share in /sura/, the social and cultural bonds that the devas thought unique to them. They were vat-grown, manufactured and programmed like biological robots, and hurled into battle as soon as possible. But they lacked the ego-strength to resist domination by the Almighty, and were soon turned against their creators.
"A few devas gathered the frozen embryos of a batch of asuras and fled their home star aboard a fleet of prototype starships. They had identified a number of compatible worlds, and each chose one in a last ditch effort to ensure that something of the devas survived the Almighty's omnicidal rage.
"My husband had other ideas," said Tamara. "Like me, Angramainyu had become one of the ensof, but unlike the rest of us who had bound ourselves to stars or quasi-stellar objects, Angramainyu had bound himself to the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. We thought the strain had broken his mind, and were sure of it when he proposed creating a weapon capable of killing ensof by tracing an ensof's avatar to the star upon which it fed, and killing the star.
"It cost my husband and six other ensof their lives, but they succeeded in creating the Starbreaker. Only it was too powerful; any deva or asura who tried to wield it lost themselves to it when unveiling its full power, for the unbound weapon subsumed the psyche of its wielder and took over the body. The only way to bind it again was to destroy its stolen body.
"There was no saving the original devas," said Elisabeth. "None of them were willing to take up the Starbreaker against the Almighty, and none of them were willing to /force/ one of their number to do so. The notions of self-sacrifice and sacrificing others for a good cause did not come easily to us; the only reason Angramainyu and his team succeeded in creating the Starbreaker was that their indignation at the Almighty's betrayal had become such implacable hatred that nothing else mattered to them but the utter eradication of the ensof.
An idea occurred to Annelise, something about this narrative that did not quite make sense. "Why couldn't one of the ensof wield the Starbreaker, if they understood how important it was to take out the Almighty?"
"One of us tried," said Isaac. "But the Starbreaker still carries with it the hatred of its creators. If unbound by an ensof, it will devour the wielder utterly. Any ensof is far game; it does not care what it kills.
"Besides," said Tamara, "Angramainyu's brother had stolen the Starbreaker, secreting it aboard the starship he flew to this planet. Once Ahuramazda arrived, he tried to hide the weapon deep underground, and began decanting the asuras he had brought with him. Mindful of the presence of humanity, the asuras had tried to remain apart. Though they had the technology to wipe out humanity and take the planet for themselves, the asuras were enough like the devas who created them to figure out that there was world enough for everybody."
"I suppose people discovered the asuras anyway, and mistook them for gods because of their tech."
"That was my father's mistake," said Isaac. "Ahuramazda landed too close to the Indus River valley. Imagine his shock to learn that the words 'deva' and 'asura' also existed in the language spoken by the Indus culture, and that as we split up and spread out, people eventually discovered us and identified us with their gods and culture heroes. Some of us eventually decided it was better to just go with it, accept the names, and assimilate with humanity. It was a symbiotic relationship for the most part. We had the let the priests in on the truth, but they covered for us and kept the rest in the dark.
"It worked fine until the Almighty got tired of murdering the devas, or perhaps ran out of devas to kill, and started hunting down the asuras. He came to Earth first, saw the arrangement we had worked out with humanity, and tried subverting it in Egypt by appearing before Amenhotep IV as the 'one true god' of the sun disk, the Aten. I was in the vicinity, saw that Akhenaten—as he now styled himself—was hunting down Isis and her clan, and went to their aid.
Isaac looked away, as if ashamed to meet Annelise's gaze. "I was the sole survivor, apart from Set. Isis and Osiris died fighting. Thoth tried to save Hurus, but they burned together. Though I managed to shatter the Aten's avatar, Set never forgave me or himself for not being strong enough to save the others."
"But you said you shattered the Aten's avatar," said Annelise, struggling to make sense of everything she had been told. It made a mockery of her understanding of the world's history, with the implication that the gods of mythology were real people. "Doesn't that mean you killed the Almighty?"
"I thought so, but it had learned subtlety. Whenever a king sought to promote a single god above the rest so that he might strengthen his hold over his subjects, the Almighty was there in the shadows, giving these kings the craft they needed to make it work while letting humans kill the asuras they once venerated on its behalf. I saw that was going on, and swore that I would teach humanity defiance so that I might deprive the Almighty of willing soldiers. And I swore that with the knowledge humanity sought I would build better asuras, each an army of one capable of defying any enemy, soldiers willing to do whatever it took to destroy the Almighty, even if it meant wielding the unbound Starbreaker at the cost of their own lives. I thought I had succeeded with Project Einherjar."
"It sounds like it, given what I read in Morgan Cooper's dossier," said Annelise. "But you said you needed me to help /temper/ him?"
Isaac nodded. "I need you to love him. I also need you to /hurt/ him. You see, Morgan's reasons for becoming an Adversary were not entirely altruistic. In exchange for doing the Executive Council's dirty work, we promised that we would make possible his dreams of rock stardom. You will become the musician you might have been if misfortune had not befallen your family. I will arrange events so that you cross Morgan's path, and we shall ensure that you are all but irresistable to him when you do. And once you start a band with him, you will do everything you can to make his dream a nightmare, so that his only solace is the sword."
"You can do that?" Though the thought of hurting a stranger left her uneasy, especially a young man who had already proven himself a hero, her concern for herself outweighed her concern for others. It was easy for her to rationalize her way toward consenting to this; if Annelise refused, somebody else would happily do what she herself could not. "All I have to do to make my own dreams come true is make this guy miserable? Break his heart, spoil his successes, drive away his friends, poison any happiness he manages to find that doesn't come from being your loyal blade?"
Isaac nodded. "In short, I would have you play Mata Hari. You will watch over Morgan for me, and report on his actions and whatever thoughts and feelings he vouchsafes to you. Whatever you do, ensure that he does not feel free to pursue any sort of romantic relationship with Naomi Bradleigh. He still carries a torch for her, and would happily jump at a chance to be her lover if one were on offer."
A pang of misgiving still nagged at Annelise. "He sounds like he'd be good for her, though."
"It's not that I disapprove," said Isaac with a wistful smile. "My daughter deserves a partner who would devote themselves utterly to her, and I'm sure she will prove invaluable in the struggle against the almighty, but it would not suit my purposes for them to come together except after great adversity."
"That means I need to be her enemy, too, then. They sound like good people who deserve better than what I'm going to do to them for you."
"It seems you've overcome your reservations," said Isaac. "Do you know why you're on the cusp of agreeing to aid me in my struggle against the Almighty."
Annelise nodded. "I have as much of a right to a happy life as they do, but whether they actually get to have one isn't my problem. It's theirs."
Tamara favored her with a Mona Lisa smile. "Oh, you'll do nicely."