Eddie Cohen and Desdinova had escorted Naomi back to the pub where the former had found her, the Armored Saint, in single file with Desdinova behind her at his own insistence. She supposed they made quite the trio, the grizzled biker, the grey dandy, and her in between, towering over them both in a red turtleneck sweater and a calf-length black skirt over opaque black tights with red-laced black leather combat boots.
None of the other patrons seemed to care as Eddie rented a private room and led them to it, which was why Naomi had taken to drinking at the Armored Saint when she needed a few hours at a pub and she was in the vicinity. People minded their own business here.
The private room was cramped, but once the door was closed the low hum of the other patrons' conversations were inaudible. Naomi suspected that nobody would hear them, either, unless somebody raised their voice. The only relief from all of the polished wood was the painted white ceiling and the wall-mounted screen. "So, gentlemen, is this your idea of room service? And what makes you think I wanted a mission in the first place?"
"You keep going from one band to another, one gig after another," said Desdinova as a barmaid brought them drinks. He absently thanked her as she placed a White Lady before him. "You're looking for a place to belong, something resembling a sense of purpose."
Naomi shrugged. "Who isn't?"
"You had both as an Adversary."
"I thought I did," said Naomi. "But out of all the Adversaries I worked with, I only stayed in touch with Jackie, and she quit just like I did. Not that I didn't try."
"Not quite like you did," said Eddie. "You've got to admit she did a better job of returning to civilian life than you."
Naomi refrained from using the first retort to spring to mind; though she doubted she was Eddie's type she suspected he might mistake her words for a serious offer just to mock her. "Jackie didn't go to Clarion."
"You were rather explicitly told that Clarion wasn't your problem," said Desdinova.
"And yet nobody stopped me," said Naomi. "You both know as well as I do that Clarion was an open wound left to fester for decades. /Somebody/ had to do something, but nobody else would."
The screen on the wall flickered to life, and displayed a still image of a young man in a recruit's uniform with unruly shoulder-length black hair and slit-pupilled green eyes. The still became video as a voice off-screen spoke. "Mr. Cooper, we have concerns about your tendency toward recklessness. For example, you rushed into a fire without training or protective equipment to rescue a family on the top floor that professional firefighters had written off as impossible to save. Can you explain why, in your own words?"
"This again?" Cooper's tone was that of a man tired of explaining himself to people who refused to understand. "I did it because I could. I did it because somebody should have and nobody else would."
Desdinova stopped the video. "Do you recognize any of the voices in this video?"
"That was Saul Rosenbaum," said Naomi, not wanting to admit her recognition of the younger man. If she was right, she had been that boy's first kiss before telling him that he should go live a life, make something of himself, and love somebody closer to his own age. If she was right, it was partially her fault that he was well on his way to becoming an Adversary.
"Your reasons for intervening in Clarion were the same reason Morgan Cooper gave for rushing into a fire experienced professionals were content to contain," said Eddie as he sipped his whisky on the rocks. "And frankly, you look like you know the kid."
"We've met," said Naomi, reluctant to admit more until Eddie and Desdinova got to something that at least resembled a point. "Were you planning to tell me what this is all about before the pub closes and I am forced to finish my drinking at home?"
The men shared a glance. "Morgan Cooper recently faced the Milgram Battery," said Desdinova. "I trust you remember what that entails."
Naomi shuddered as she recalled her own trial by nightmare. "You mined his dreams and turned them against him, just like you used mine against me."
"Indeed," said Desdinova. "What I'm about to tell you must remain confidential—"
"Morgan still dreams of you," said Eddie. "Every once in a while."
"That seems romantic."
"Romance is as good a euphemism as any," said Eddie with a sneer. "Though I suspect you know I ain't talking about love."
"I figured you for one of those misogynistic types for whom 'love' is just another four letter word."
"I think of it as a plot device, but you're close enough to the mark."
Desdinova slowly shook his head. "Can we please get on with this?" Locking his gaze on Naomi, he added. "Ms. Bradleigh, I suspect you know more about why Morgan Cooper holds you in particular regard than you've thus far seen fit to divulge. I should caution you that the Society gets Witness Protocol telemetry from /all/ einherjar, but I would rather you admitted—"
"Admitted what," said Naomi. "That I was his first kiss? I barely brushed his lips with mine because I didn't want him looking back later on and thinking that I took advantage of him, but I had caught him leaving roses in my dressing room."
"Roses, huh?" Eddie shook his head. "Well, now we know the kid's got a type."
"Please tell me he didn't latch onto another tall, snow-blonde asura."
A photograph of a human woman appeared on the screen. She was pale and fashionably dressed, with wavy chestnut hair cut in a bob that barely brushed her shoulders. One of her grey eyes had an orange streak that reminded Naomi of a stray spark from a bonfire on a clear winter day. She carried a violin case in her right hand, but wore no weapon. "This is Christabel Crowley," said Desdinova.
"At least, that's what she calls herself," said Eddie. "Prior to her makeover her name was Annelise Copeland, and she was a theater student working a shit job to make ends meet."
"Isaac Magnin recruited her and gave her the means to reinvent herself. As Christabel, she's become a minor sensation in the classical/rock crossover scene. She's got an album called /Shattered Harmonies/."
"That sounds familiar." Naomi searched her memories, trying to place it. Had one of the musicians she had worked with recently played it, or mentioned it? "I don't have a copy, though. I suppose I should listen for myself to find out of it's any good."
"That would be a good idea, given what we mean to ask of you."
"Yeah," said Eddie. "This is a real choice mission."
"Quiet," said Desdinova, before turning back to Naomi. "Isaac Magnin has placed Christabel Crowley in Morgan Cooper's orbit, most likely as a means of exerting emotional control over him and possibly influencing him toward Magnin's ends."
"Doesn't he have friends who see this woman for the tragedy waiting for happen that she seems to be?" Naomi certainly hoped that Morgan had sensible friends, and that he was sensible enough to listen to them.
Eddie shook his head. "They're not involved yet. I can't warn him against her without revealing what I know and explaining how I got my intel. Furthermore, he doesn't have that many friends his own age; the two he has would advise him to use her for his own pleasure and then leave her behind once he gets bored with her."
"That seems rather sensible to me," said Naomi, since it was how she had treated her own partners.
"He's sensitive, not sensible," said Eddie. "He met /you/ at precisely the wrong moment. He had just discovered girls, and discovered—thanks to you—that he likes 'em tall, pale, and gothalicious. Add that voice of yours to the mix and you've got a recipe for obsession. You did a credible job of heading that off, giving him a taste and then telling him to fall in love with somebody his own age was smart. The problem is that he's likely to take your advice."
"With somebody you think is wrong with him."
"Oh, she'd be perfect for him. Two young musicians from working-class backgrounds, both desperate to make something of themselves and make better lives?" Desdinova's smile turned cynical and jagged. "It's a classic setup, pure Hollywood."
"That's the problem," said Eddie. "Christabel would be perfect for Morgan, but she doesn't have his well-being in mind. Getting close to him, getting into his head and his heart, is just a job for her. She's going to break his heart."
"Most men survive getting their hearts broken," said Naomi. "I would know, since I've broken a few myself. What's the worst that could happen? Will he play emo Achilles, hiding in his room crying himself to sleep while drinking to excess and cycling through a playlist of vaguely misogynistic power ballads when you need him to do your dirty work?"
As bitchy as the remark was, especially since she recalled Morgan being polite, earnest, and often sweet during the brief interlude in which they both worked at the same Manhattan dive bar, Naomi could not quite bring herself to regret it. She had had an utterly crap day, and all she had wanted was a few quiet drinks before going home, taking a bath, and finally crawling into bed so she could get a few hours of most likely restless sleep before picking herself up and jumping back on the horse the next day.
"That would be a best-case scenario," said Eddie, all jocularity gone. "The thing is, Morgan Cooper is one of the einherjar. We have no idea /how/ he'd take having his heart broken by some actress playing Mata Hari, and Desdinova here is scared shitless that he'd run amok and kill a metric fuckton of innocent people."
"You're the reason anybody knows anything about the einherjar," said Desdinova. "Your adventures in Clarion had the side effect of burning my brother's identity at the time. You exposed Ian Malkin as the civilian consultant behind Project Harker. He couldn't take responsibility for that without also admitting the involvement of the AsgarTech Corporation and exposing the existence of Project Einherjar."
Naomi sighed, accepting that this was most likely to prove a long, sleepless night. "Fine. What the bloody hell is Project Einherjar. Did AsgarTech find a way to resurrect dead soldiers to serve as Adversaries or something?"
"In this case," said Desdinova, "Einherjar means 'army of one' or 'one who fights alone'. Project Harker was ostensibly about using asuras to create artificial vampires, but its true aim was to forcibly awaken latent physical and psychokinetic abilities within asuras. Project Einherjar was about creating artificial asuras and making them stronger, faster, and tougher."
"There was a prototype that fortunately doesn't matter right now because the team found out the hard way that they couldn't control a newborn einherjar in a fully-grown body. The production models, the 100 series, were distributed to couples seeking to adopt babies under a strict NDA."
"Sleeping with the fishes strict," said Eddie.
"So the einjerhar were already teenagers when you exposed their existence," said Desdinova. "This allowed us to identify them, track them, and pay particular attention to those who had either already expressed their capabilities or appeared to be well on their way to doing so."
"Most of the einherjar turned out to be wastes of space," said Eddie. "Maybe if life kicked 'em in the bollocks a few times they'd wake up and make something of themselves, but don't count on it. Of the minority that turned out to be worth a damn, most are mercs or gangsters. Then again, Morgan and Tetsuo are gangsters, too. They just work for biggest syndicate on the bloody planet."
A sigh escaped Desdinova, and he sipped his cocktail. "Edmund, have I not asked you to refrain from comparing the Phoenix Society with organized crime? Manufacturing consent without resorting to blatant propaganda is hard enough without you being as free with your cynicism as you are with your libido."
A wicked notion occurred to Naomi. "Do you two have something personal going? You certainly bicker like an old couple."
As Desdinova reddened and almost choked on his drink, Eddie took advantage of his incapacity. "I wouldn't fuck him with Zeus' dick."
"Can we /please/ get back to business?"
"Must we? I'd rather just go home. I already told you once I wasn't interested in working for you."
"You wouldn't just be working for Desdinova or even for me," said Eddie. "Let's just say that the entire executive council has concerns about Isaac Magnin and his methods. We know he's trying to guide Morgan Cooper. We want to surround Morgan with people he can trust, people who will inspire him to be a better man than he might otherwise be. I think you can be one of those people."
"So, you want me to be his friend?"
"There's more," said Desdinova. He placed a familiar-looking sword on the table and slid it across to Naomi. "Take this. You may need it."
Naomi refused to lift so much as a finger toward the weapon. "I sold that demon-ridden thing /twice/ to be rid of it. First Imaginos gave it to me as some kind of gift when I thought he was just my fencing maestro. After I sold it, it came back to me. I had to sell it to somebody on bloody Mars to be rid of it."
"I was rather put out by the necessity of having to fly all the way out to Barsoom City to retrieve this," said Desdinova. "It was not the sort of thing I could delegate, given the weapon's nature. Now, please take the damned thing."
There was something in Desdinova's voice that pierced her resistance and compelled her. As soon as her fingertips brushed the hilt, the sword was in her head again. «Hello again. I missed you.»
"Why do I need this?"
Only Eddie had the nerve to look her in the eye. "We need you to get close to Morgan and befriend him. If he proves a danger to himself and others, we need you to use that sword to shut him down."
"Shut him down? Like he's a machine?"
"Shut him down with extreme prejudice," said Desdinova. "I've retrieved the Starbreaker for you because it is the one weapon against which he has no defense. As long as you can land a blow, it will prove his bane."
She wanted to refuse, to thrust the demon sword back across the table and tell both men that this was not /her/ problem, that she had done enough, had /suffered/ enough, and that if this was their idea of a choice mission they could shove it up their arses. A single cold certainty stopped her. "If I refuse, you'll find somebody else to do it. Somebody who doesn't see Morgan as a human being and won't hesitate to murder him out of hand."
Desdinova nodded, and evidently had the decency to say nothing.
They were going to use him, Naomi realized. They would use him until he had nothing left to give, until he was too broken to be of any further use, and then they would throw him under a maglev. Just like they tried to do to her for no better reason than that she had tried to live up to her ideals and uphold her oath. "I'll take the mission on one condition. Nobody tries to overrule my judgment. I won't draw this blade until I'm convinced there's no other way."
"You'll be the Inquisitor in the field," said Desdinova. "It would be sheer idiocy to try to overrule you."
Naomi stared at him. "Inquisitor?"
Eddie nodded. "We'll transfer you to the Accountability Division, effective immediately. It will allow you to operate without the interference you might face if you remained part of Human Rights."
"Inquisitors are not bound by due process restrictions," added Desdinova. "If you find yourself without any option but summary execution, you need not fear reprisal."
"Fine," said Naomi. "It won't be for your sake that I do this. I'll do it because he deserves better than what the Phoenix Society will do to him."