Lighting Candles in the Dark Part I: Flint and Steel
Matthew Wilcox brooded in the back of his limousine, seeming to stare at the star-illuminated landscape of Providence passing by. But in reality he was unconscious of the city, for he pondered his hostile takeover that had just become public knowledge today. It was of Yensida Entertainment this time, one of the larger entertainment corporations still around. Not many still existed. Starbright Electronics Corporation had devoured many of them, those that had survived the transition to VR technology. Not that the normal consumer would know it, as addicted to that very entertainment as they were. The sims did physically dull their brains. Wilcox sniffed. Perfect. The Confederation at this point could only perfunctorily check corporate takeovers now. Its power was definitely waning, as was the power of just about every country on the planet. The multinationals were where the power was. And soon Starbright would be the most powerful.
The car swerved, and stopped with a nerve-racking squealing of brakes. Wilcox drew himself back up to the sitting position and demanded, "What the hell do you think you're doing?" It was only then that his eyes widened slightly at the nearness of the brick wall illuminated by the headlights.
"Boss, dere was dis guy in da road, he looked real strange limping across it. Ya know that the paint job would have been scratched."
"A paint job is a lot cheaper than a new limo... or a new CEO. And it's a damn bulletproof limo. Now get moving."
"Right, boss." The car shuddered slightly as the driver shifted into reverse, backed off the curb, and continued his journey.
Neither noticed the much-abused figure in dark robes follow their progress with his hood, nor could they have possibly noticed the thread he spun onto the rear bumper of the vehicle.
"Here ya go, safe and sound." The driver's voice brought Wilcox out of his reverie. They were back at the estate, such as there could be one inside the metropolis of Providence.
"Not many thanks to you."
"I do my job, boss. I can't make ya a personal guarantee that no loonies will jump out in front of my wheels."
"Uh, yeah. I'm really sorry about that back there, but ya know, it's hard to predict where you'll be at night when ya get up in da mornin', if ya know what I mean."
"Yes, it is. Keep that in mind. Now, be here at the front door at seven tomorrow."
"I get a day off?"
"Later today, dammit."
"Gotcha boss, I was just yankin' yer chain."
No sooner had the limousine pealed off on its way back to the garage when something grabbed Wilcox from behind. He struggled vainly for a moment, then reached with his mind to nudge a foreign object placed inside his head years before. There was a reassuring rush as he felt the artificial dose of adrenalin wash through his system. The rush gave him the strength to break away from his assailant and pull his ever-present Lynx from its underarm holster.
There, crouching in the glare of the security lights, was a ragged specimen of a man. How neither he nor his driver had noticed such an odd person in the lighted area, and how the figure had made it past the security fences, puzzled Wilcox. This man, reduced to a pathetic state in the harsh glare, was clad in dark blue robes, which was odd enough, as that was centuries out of style. And then there were the scorch marks, and the bloodstains soaking the large jagged rents in the robe. Obviously, this man had been on the losing end of a fight, which made it all the less likely that he could jump someone in the sanctuary of his own home.
Wilcox rolled the idea of calling security around in his head for a moment, then decided against it. Undoubtedly, they would be here soon anyway, as soon as the security AI would finally detect the breach in security so far behind the perimeter. Let me have a few moments with this wretch, he thought. "You! Who are you?" he called, never letting the Lynx waver from the man's head.
The blue-clad man slowly raised his head, groaning slightly as he pushed up from the ground with his blood-soaked hands. Well, hand, Wilcox corrected himself. The right one seemed to be gone, along with half of the forearm. The hood fell back almost of its own accord, revealing a blood- and soot-covered nordic face with clear blue eyes staring directly into Wilcox's. He showed no fear of the gun in the executive's hand. "No one of much consequence, unless you are willing to consider a trade..." he said in a strange accent that Wilcox couldn't quite place. His speech was strangely steady for a man whose lifeblood still seeped from numerous wounds.
"What sort of trade?" Wilcox asked querulously.
"You are a man of no small power here, and I have need of such. I can give you much knowledge in return."
"There is little I don't know, or can't find out. It's that power thing."
"Not this. There is only one on this world other than myself that knows of the arcane arts."
"Arcane! Bah! Starbright deals with the most arcane stuff on the planet. Or are you claiming to be an alien?"
"I am human as you, perhaps more so."
"Being human doesn't get you power. Now tell me something that I want to hear."
"Perhaps a demonstration of what I mean will assist..." The stranger closed his eyes for a moment, his face taking on a look of intense concentration, and then the Lynx wrenched itself out of Wilcox's hand. It ended its short flight on the small patch of grass to Wilcox's right.
"All right, I don't care about your parlor tricks. I don't know how you did that, but mind games certainly don't count for much around me." He called out, "Emergency! Intruder alert!", and the grounds became lit with harsher, brighter light as the AI finally understood the situation. The extra light made the stranger seem to shrink even more, and he collapsed as the first of the security guards appeared beside Wilcox. He pointed at the stranger. "Take him to the infirmary and patch him up, but don't let him out of your sight, sergeant. I want him watched at all times. No implants, just keep him alive. And then get him over to the holding cells over at the Tower. I don't want his blood all over my house." There's something about him, thought the executive as he bent to retrieve his pistol. Something strange.
The short, dark-haired technician explained again, "No, Mr, Wilcox, the recorders didn't pick up anything from the intruder. Nothing that's intelligible, at least. We're working on a translation, but it's certainly not related to anything that I'm familiar with."
"But I understood him..." said Wilcox, a sinking feeling in his stomach. Suddenly, his office seemed to get very stuffy.
"I understand that, sir. But I don't know how it happened. You aren't familiar with any unusual languages?"
"Dammit, he was speaking English."
The technician cringed. "Not on the recordings, he wasn't, sir. Would you like to hear them again?"
"No thanks, Driscoll. Leave them here and go back to your duties."
Driscoll gave a deferential nod and strode out of the room.
Wilcox swiveled his chair so that he could look out of his 38th story window over the early-morning city. Damn, he thought. What is it with this man? Hasn't regained consciousness yet, his language caught on the security cameras didn't match Wilcox's recollection of the scene, his clothing was like none that his people could find, and most of all, the fingerprints off his remaining hand didn't match up with anyone in the global database. (Which of course, was strictly off limits to non- governmentals; but Starbright cared little about any law but its own.) Oh well, continued Wilcox, they were pretty charred from whatever almost killed him. The DNA testing and another trip to a secret database should clear that up.
But somehow, Wilcox felt that it wouldn't.
Wilcox was reviewing the stock reports for Yensida and Starbright when his door burst open. Driscoll and his companion shied back from the Lynx that had leapt into Wilcox's hand. "Don't you ever try that again, Driscoll, if you value your job and head." Driscoll blinked nervously. "What is it? And who is this?"
"Well, sir," gulped Driscoll, "the good news is that the prisoner is awake, which is why Doctor Marquardt is here. The less than stellar news is that the DNA test came back negative. He's definitely human, but he's not in the database. He could be a runner."
"I don't think so. Marquardt?" Wilcox said, turning his attention to the other figure, a tall blonde woman wearing medical garb.
"It is as Driscoll has said. The prisoner is awake and recovering remarkably well, considering the fact he looked like he was run over by a tank and dropped in a blast furnace afterwards. But he has said nothing. He is looking around expectantly, ignoring us. Judging by what I know of his discovery, I would guess that he is looking for you."
"Show me." Wilcox placed the handgun down on his desk and rested his chin on his interlaced hands.
"Yes, sir. Aster, show isolation ward 2 from the medical department." The Tower's AI complied, and the viewscreen opposite the windows came to life. It showed a single bed in a small room, containing the intruder from the previous night. He looked much healthier, though he was obviously strapped down with IVs in his arms. His eyes snapped open a few seconds later, and swiveled to meet the camera. Moments later, the screen went dark.
"Substandard parts in the infirmary, Marquardt?"
"I.. I am not sure what happened, Mr. Wilcox. Aster, why is there no picture?"
A flat, emotionless voice said, "Camera failure. Attempting to fix." There was a pause.
"Things better work when I want them to. I haven't built this com-"
"Immediate fix not possible. Rerouting." The screen lit back up from another angle. The man had closed his eyes again.
"Aster," said Wilcox, "let me hear the room, too." The faint hum of equipment came through the hidden speakers.
"So he hasn't spoken, Marquardt?"
"That is correct."
"And absolutely no ID, Driscoll?" The technician jumped, having become the center of attention unexpectedly.
"Um, yes, sir. I mean, no ID."
"No," said said the doctor. "Nothing unnatural. Haven't found any drugs in him, either."
"OK, we are going to visit him. Driscoll, go back to whatever translating you were doing." The technician almost bolted out of the room.
Wilcox appeared in the infirmary ten minutes later, Marquardt and a muscular bodyguard in a business suit in tow. "Marquardt, I want sleeping gas ready to flood the room upon my mental command. No sense in risking too much, though I doubt he can break his bonds without 'ware to help him."
"That is correct. The bonds are designed to be strong enough to hold all but the most advanced military cyberware."
"Only that much? Doctor Marquardt, you really must run a higher-quality medical division."
"I apologize, sir, but the budget has certain limits..."
"I don't want to hear it." Wilcox stood at the door to isolation ward 2. "Are you ready?"
"That contingency is a standard feature of the wards."
"Thank goodness that we have that much," muttered Wilcox as the outer door opened and he passed through. The door swished shut after the bodyguard, and the sounds of the hospital vanished. "If he gets out of hand, shoot him, but don't kill him. Only shoot if he manages to break free. Got that?" The bodyguard nodded, and Wilcox opened the inner door to the plain white-walled chamber.
"I've been expecting you," said the intruder from his prone position. He was much less unsettling without the covering of blood, and wearing a hospital gown. Except for his gaze, the executive thought.
"How is that?" asked Wilcox, approaching the bed.
"I knew that you could not stay away. My offer is much too... tempting for one with your drives."
"And what the hell is that supposed to mean? That I'll lose my sense of reality to pursue the smallest, most outlandish advantage that a random lunatic offers me for some unnamed price? I don't think so. I've not become a CEO by being naive."
"Yet my abilities disturb you."
Wilcox paused a moment, then said, "No."
"I believe that they do. Ask your follower what we have been talking about."
Wilcox surreptitiously glanced over to his bodyguard, standing attentively in the back of the room. He then decided to go along with the stranger. "Well?"
"Well, what, sir?" said the bodyguard in a deep voice.
"He was wondering if you were listening to what we were saying."
"That I am, sir, but he hasn't been speaking anything but gibberish. To me, at least."
"You see, Matthew?"
Wilcox's left eye twitched in confusion. "I won't bother saying something about 'Oh, but I can hear you in English.' You're beaming thoughts directly into my brain. No matter you have no implants, you're somehow transmitting to me."
"Not anything as crass as these bits of metal you have in your body, Matthew. There is more variety in the universe than you realize. Your grasp is still pathetically small, compared with what you could have. Smaller than you know."
Wilcox fumed. "You have some sort of death wish, don't you? Don't you know that I have you in my power?"
"There are many sorts of power. Watch." The man raised his head slightly to get a good look at the bodyguard, who eyed him back warily. The bodyguard flickered and vanished from existence.
"Now you have control over holograms? I'm impressed." But Wilcox was shaking inside, because there were no hologram generators inside the ward. Still, he flicked his eye implant over to the infrared spectrum, and even then could not find any trace of the bodyguard.
"It is not a hologram. It is an illusion. Similar effects, I gather, but more effective."
"You gather? You =gather=?" Wilcox asked, letting a little of his apprehension show in his voice.
"As you may have guessed, I am not of this world. I have skills that may be of use to you... in return for a favor."
"Just a small one. But that is not for today. I still see doubt in your eyes. Think about it some more. Here, I return your follower to you, and visit me tomorrow, when I am stronger." The bodyguard flickered back into existence, in the same position.
"I am not your lackey to follow your orders!" raged Wilcox. But the intruder had closed his eyes, and was fast asleep.
Frustrated, Wilcox said, "Let's get out of here," and stormed out of the ward.
Tell me that you got a recording of that conversation, Driscoll," said Wilcox, seated comfortably back in the safety of his office.
Well, sir, we did, except..."
"Except that he was speaking gibberish again."
"Damn." Wilcox swiveled his chair to look out of the window at the darkening city. "Leave me." He vaguely heard Driscoll leave the office through his ponderings. "Aster, lights off."
Wilcox sat in the dark office, watching the sun go down, pondering why he felt so helpless in the company of this stranger, who claimed to be from another planet, but was definitely human. Where had all his power gone? He had become as a child again with the stranger, such was his demeanor. Wilcox gripped the armrests on his chair tightly, rankling at the recent memory.
"You needn't worry yourself needlessly, Matthew." Wilcox was crouched on the floor behind his desk, Lynx in hand, before the speaker had finished the sentence.
"Aster, who is it?" Wilcox whispered.
"You know who it is," said the voice again, as the AI was professing ignorance.
Wilcox rose slowly from behind his desk, Lynx leading the way. Faintly lit in the moonlight sat the stranger, still wearing the hospital gown. "I decided that we might discuss this deal a little early. I have realized that there is much to do, and little time to do it in."
"How did you escape? And why the hell can't anyone but me understand you?" Wilcox sputtered, drawing himself to a standing position.
"Walking from one place to another is simple for a mage." Wilcox's eyebrow raised. "And for your other concern, we simply do not speak the same language. It is easier to just concentrate on having the one most important person to my cause understand my words."
"So you claim to be a mage?" said Wilcox, slumping back in his chair, holding his pistol loosely, but warily.
"That I have been for many years, but that is not the concern here. There is another near this city who is somewhat like me, but has committed certain... crimes that I am here to remedy."
"So, you need my help to grab someone else who knows some of your parlor tricks? What did he do? Reveal one of your secrets to the public?"
"The correct term is not 'parlor tricks.' No, he did not reveal one of our secrets, he stole some things of great value to the Caelixi. Which shall finally be returned."
"And what sort of things might these be? And who the hell are these Caelixi?"
"That is not important to you. I only need some assistance in capturing him."
"So your magic is not all-powerful?"
The stranger looked pained. "That is not your concern. But, yes, I was ambushed by one of lesser talent. It will not happen a second time."
"Are you so certain? You still are pretty weak..."
The stranger looked at Wilcox intently, suddenly realizing something. He made a quick gesture with his remaining hand, and a bird appeared between the two men, diving at Wilcox. He threw himself to the side as he mentally tripped the defenses of his office. The bird (some sort of raptor, he now saw) turned, almost slamming into the wall behind his desk, and dove for him. His first shot missed, but the second spun the bird around and it landed with a thump on his desk.
Hearing nothing more, Wilcox poked his head above the desk. The bird was nowhere to be seen, though there was blood on the desktop. And the stranger lay back in the chair, unconscious. Two feathered tranquilizer darts protruded from his chest.
"Not ambushed a second time, indeed," said Wilcox, standing and adjusting his suit. "Aster, get some medics up here to collect their charge. Tell Marquardt to keep a better watch on him next time, or it's her head. And inform them to go ahead with the implant we discussed." The AI responded in the affirmative.
"I don't know the entire story, mage," said Wilcox to the sleeping man, "but I know that you can be beaten. You will not rule this business relationship through scare tactics." He adjusted his tie as he walked out of the room and past the newly-arrived medics. "Keep him sedated, boys."
There was definitely something about this magic thing, Wilcox thought. Even if it was smoke and mirrors, it had some sort of power. Personal power, not just political. He would find this other mentioned by the intruder and pull their secrets out of them. Starbright would have this power.
To be continued....
"Lighting Candles in the Dark Part I: Flint and Steel" is Copyright © 1996 by Timothy Bailey. All rights reserved. This story may not be distributed for profit, with the exception of the normal charges for online time.