Chapter one of “The Absent Emperor”

0053I’ll level with you. This book is taking far too long to finish. This is made all the more distressing due to the fact that I left the previous book on a “Same Bat Time, same Bat Channel” kind of cliffhanger. It bothers me.

You deserve better.

So, for those who want to know the secret, here is the first chapter of “The Absent Emperor”, which answers the main, burning question that we were left with.

I promise, the rest will come within the year.

 

 

From ten thousand feet up, a small, golden disc hurtled earthward. Wind hissed through the wrought filigree of the King’s crown. The golden golem remained facing downward despite the currents buffeting it. Its unblinking, red eye watched the ground as it plunged through clouds at terminal velocity.

The automaton took no notice of the wind whistling past. It analyzed velocity, wind direction, and geographic height data, to determined one crucial piece of information. 24.08257 seconds to impact.

A quick map check gave his approximate drop location as the roof of an abandoned boarding house in the lower east side of Bayonne. That put him close to the Upper Bay, which was problematic. Punching through the roof of a building didn’t concern him nearly as much as traversing the Hudson to get home.

He deployed flaps on either side of his central medallion, which did little to affect his speed, but helped stabilize his orientation. He coasted on the flaps and patiently waited for the impact.

Far above him was the floating concert arena. Thirty thousand people had turned up to hear the music of Jus’ Cos, but catastrophe eclipsed the music. Explosions rocked the arena, destroying part of the floating structure, and ejecting him from the royal box seats.

Jus’ Cos was was famous for insulting the nobility in his rhymes, and when the police captured him, they brought him before the king. But this king was an anomaly. He did not follow royal traditions well.

His most high ruler, guardian of the people, protector of the realm, and keeper of the right, King Disraeli Augustus McCracken Becket III was raised on the streets. The bastard son of the last great king, he had spent his life as a confidence trickster, pretending at nobility. When his brother died, the crown officially recognized Disraeli and placed upon the throne. This was as much a surprise to him as it was to the other noble houses. His reign was short, and fraught with mishap.

When the musician was brought before him, King Augustus thought, rather than beheading the rogue, it would be more amusing to commission an acerbic song about himself. The concert was Jus’ chance to showcase his skill at mocking the nobility, and even the king himself.

Many thought it a foolish and dangerous precedent, to allow the open mocking of the king. But Sceptre, the artificially intelligent crown that recorded all the king saw and did, saw it differently. He saw it as a way of humanizing the king, making him more popular among the lower classes, and easing tensions between them.

Whatever plan the king may have had was cut short when three men in the audience fired a rocket propelled grenade into the royal box. The king had no time to prepare. He barely had time to cover Sceptre before the missile hit them.

The box had been vaporized, the explosion sent debris raining down on the audience and on the city below. And among that debris, no one noticed a golden golem that fell to Earth.

Right on schedule, the small robot punched through the patched roof of the abandoned building, then plunged through three floors of weak, rotting hempen-plastic composite. His speed was so great that he left perfect holes, no more than eight centimeters wide. The roof smoked briefly from the impact, but the floors merely shattered as he impacted. The concrete foundation of the building finally broke his fall.

When he came to rest in the darkened basement, Sceptre waited for nearly half a second as his internal systems ran diagnostics. All systems showed minor damage, but Sceptre was built to withstand far worse. The king who had commissioned his creation insisted that he be made to withstand all possible misadventure. His hull could bear the force of a bullet. He was not injured by temperature differentials or pressure. Sceptre would be as safe at the bottom of the ocean as he would be in the Himalayas, or on the surface of the moon.

Once satisfied that the impact had done no harm, internal sensors swept the room. In an instant, he knew the size of the room and everything in it. Most importantly, he determined that there were no organics in the vicinity. Two spindly arms unfolded from the thick edge of his medallion-shaped body, as two short, stocky legs telescoped out of his base. He crawled up to standing, and surveyed the scene.

Stacked plastic boxes with faded labels bowed with the weight of neglected years. A bicycle rested against one wall, with a ratty tarp covering most of it. A water heater with several punctures sat in one corner next to a fuse box that sparked at odd intervals. A washer and dryer rusted next to the broken water heater.

The basement was uninhabited, but a collection of dirty mattresses and small heaps of clothes convinced Sceptre that people would be coming back. Squatters, most likely. People who would be interested in what fell through their roof. People who would be curious as to the value of a golden medallion with an central optical gem as big as a kiwi fruit.

Sceptre located the stairs. He crossed through the darkness, moving in silence. He listened for signs of inhabitants. Each stair was almost half his height taller than he was. The golem took one short moment of virtual self pity, then reached up and leapt the short height to grab the top of the first step. Slowly, he mounted the stairs this way, silently leaping to grab each step, then pulling himself up high enough to get a leg up.

At the top of the stairs, he faced another difficulty. The door to the basement was closed, and while the lock was not set, the latch had engaged, making it impossible for the diminutive robot to simply push the door open. He considered the latch briefly. It was too high for him to reach it, and if he wanted to stand on something, he would have to find a way to pull it up the stairs. Sceptre pointed two directional speakers up at the mechanism for the door. He sent out a high-power, low frequency thrum that shook the latch in its housing, making the entire door vibrate. He stopped for a moment, listening for any activity his noisemaking may have caused. While the sound was too low a frequency for any human to hear it, anyone nearby would have felt the effect. Such a low, powerful noise could cause nosebleeds and headaches in humans.

Once certain that no one was around, Sceptre tried again, pouring more power into it. The handle rattled in its casing. The screws holding the latch in place started easing out of their position, and the strike plate shuddered against the door. Eventually, the door itself began to shudder, and Sceptre noticed two of the bolts in the hinges rising out of their housing. He poured more power into the vibration, even as bits of the door chipped and dropped to the floor.

Then there was an almost inaudible pop, and the door opened. Despite the mighty power shaking it, the door did not spring open. It simply rocked far enough back to dislodge its housing, and slowly fell open into the kitchen. In infrared, Sceptre saw the strike plate glowing with the heat of friction.

The kitchen was tired, tan and gray, with bare countertops and a single card table set in the center. Handbills and empty glow caps were left on the table, and spilled out onto the floor. Frames of dust showed where refrigerators and ovens had once been. The plastile checkerboard pattern on the floor had faded to gray and white.

As Sceptre entered the kitchen, he noticed one cabinet over the countertop that held a small stack of vacuum-pressed redi-heat meals, giving further evidence to the occupancy of the house. There was a craquelure pattern in the checkerboard faux-tile floor, radiating from the hole Sceptre had punched through it. Sceptre entered the room slowly, taking note of the exits and stairs. The upstairs were still silent, as was the rest of the floor. Cardboard swinging doors swayed listlessly between the kitchen and living room. Sceptre assigned one mental process to monitoring the stairs, and another to watching the kitchen door while he concentrated on the external exit.

The rear door was already hanging on its hinges, the purple light of dusk filtering in through gaps in the door’s seal. It was painted white once, but like the rest of the wall, had turned tan with constant use and tobacco stains. More light entered through the gaps in the door frame than through the windows, taped over and covered in cardboard. The golem briefly considered rattling the door in its housing until it popped open, but the last effort had drained him significantly, and he would require time to muster that much power. What caught Sceptre’s attention, though, was the dog door.

Approximately half a foot off the ground, a plastic flap was mounted in the door. A monitor above it checked both sides of the door looking for specific pets. The monitor would keep the flap locked in place until it saw the right kind of animal approach. The neural net inside the sliver of a pet monitor could recognize specific animals and ensure that raccoons, birds, or burglars could not break in. Like all security efforts, it was almost impossible to force the locked door open. And like all security efforts, it was trivial to defeat if you understood the mechanism.

Sceptre used the laser embedded in one of his central gems to cast a beam of green light into the monitor’s optical sensor. The beam was needle-thin, and barely visible to the human eye, but it was enough to blind the sensor. As far as the machine was concerned, Sceptre appeared as a bright halo, unrecognizable, and unlogged in its camera feed.

Sceptre’s laser began pulsing at a high frequency, hitting the monitor in just the right pattern to trigger its “learning” mode. Most learning security systems required remote access, which meant that the pet door had to have a way for humans to tell the monitor when it was looking at a cat, even at a distance. Those remotes were coded for security, of course, but in the space of a few seconds, Sceptre was able to do a brute-force test of all possible combinations, and triggered the machine’s learning mode.

After that, the flap opened easily, assured that whatever white halo it was looking at must be some kind of dog or cat. Sceptre walked up to it and leapt through the hole, pushing past the yielding flap.

From outside the building, Sceptre surveyed the yard. The building was one of a dozen row houses that straddled an empty street. Trash cans and children’s toys littered the yards. Patches of yellow weeds grew in tufts all over the yard between the expanse of dirt and soot. The desiccated skeletons of bushes ran the length of the sidewalk.
Once he was out, Sceptre surveyed the yard. Sceptre waited to hear the baying of a feral hound or the tread of a stalking cat, but the pet door seemed to be as abandoned as the rest of the building. The golem did not tempt fate, though, and ran for the back gate as quickly as he could.

He stopped halfway to the fence, struck with a thought. Sceptre paused for nearly a second, then turned and picked up a large rock. The stone was dark and pockmarked, and roughly as big as he was. Sceptre lifted it easily over his head, and ran back to the door. His laser shone out, and the pet door obliged him, giving him entrance back into the kitchen.

Sceptre walked over to the small hole that cracked a black tile in half. Looking down into the hole, he could see the small impact crater his hull had made in the foundation. The metal man dropped the rock down the hole. The rock landed in the center of the crater, looking for all the world like an errant meteor.

Satisfied that his presence had been sufficiently explained away, Sceptre ran back outside and past the back fence. He skidded to a stop on the gray cobblestones of the street and did another quick survey to determine his best route back. He did not know the area, and did not trust the people, but he knew his quest. He had a function to fulfill.

He had to find the king.

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Dizzy’s arm spasmed, shaking him awake. He was trapped in a small, humid box. He could see nothing at all. His shoulder was wedged against the door, feeling the slow heat of the destruction outside. He was curled into a fetal position, with empty wine racks of pressing against him. He had dived into the refrigerator, and didn’t have time to see if there was anything in the way. So now he was pinned to the door by a wrought-iron rack that snagged his jacket, holding his left arm in place. He blinked into the absolute darkness for a moment, trying to get his bearings. When he pulled his arm free of the wine rack, he heard the jacket tear.

Dizzy had to reach over to his left arm to make sure it was still there. It was vaguely responding, but he couldn’t feel it at all. He tried opening and closing the hand, but a combination of numb response and total darkness made it impossible to see if it was working at all. Dizzy squeezed his arm rhythmically, trying to coax blood back into it. Without seeing himself Dizzy couldn’t tell how much damage had been done. He ran his other hand along the jacket sleeve, and felt the warm wetness of blood. Just as he did, the pins and needles of circulation woke his arm. He wanted to shake it out, but the room was too close in around him, forcing him to grit his teeth and try to ignore the annoying itch of waking nerves. He wrenched the numbed hand into the dangling pocket, and checked the arm again. There was blood, yes, but not spilling.

Outside the steel trap, Dizzy could hear the dull roar of flames. The refrigerator door had latched and the seal was tight against the outside. For a moment, Dizzy recalled ancient stories of children who had trapped themselves in refrigerators. It was funny, in a way. In his situation, it was better to be trapped in the refrigerator than free and burning in the royal club box. From the open sound of fire and wind, he surmised that the entire front of the room was destroyed.

It had to be. Dizzy saw the three men stand up in the crowd. He saw them aim an RPG at the box. He even saw the missile heading toward them. There was no other possibility. The room had to be destroyed utterly. In his mind’s eye, he pictured the back wall of the room, melted and burning, with just a lip of the floor left hanging off the edge. A small kitchenette with cabinets and a sink, and a melting walk-in refrigerator with the king cowering inside.

The seal on the door was tight, allowing no smoke to get in, and no light. He didn’t dare try the door, but rather felt around the opposite wall, running his fingers along the underside of the refrigerator roof. As he had hoped, he found a latch that clicked as he thumbed the contact.

Dizzy knew his body was too big for such a small place, but he hadn’t realized just how compressed he was until the back of the refrigerator popped open and he nearly fell out. The secret door hissed as the seal broke, and the door fell away. Dizzy dropped into a dim flood of pale green light. His good hand snaked out as he fell and clasped onto a rack of cheeses to stop his descent. His legs, while not as badly lacerated as the arm, were still pinned in the refrigerator, and had gone to sleep. He held tight to the hidden door of the unit, not trusting his weak legs to carry him.

He was alone. The tight industrial corridor was completely vacant. Dizzy blinked in both directions, surprised more by his solitude than by the environment.

He was left panting and sweating in a cool, narrow tunnel. Someone had painted a bioluminescent stripe along the ceiling. The paint was old and thin, giving little more than faded light. Dizzy leaned against one wall of the tunnel and took a deep breath. He hadn’t realized inside the refrigerator that, not only was the smoke crowding out all the air, the heat was stifling his breathing. He braced himself on one hand and wheezed for a few moments. The dank air was thick and hard to breathe. The humidity combined with his own sweat pasted his silk shirt to his skin.

He checked himself for other injuries. Besides the arm, which was worse than he’d suspected, one leg was lacerated in several places. Some basic prodding indicated that the cuts weren’t deep, and would heal even without a doctor’s care. That was a good thing, as the new monarch didn’t know when he would see another doctor. He tasted copper in his mouth before he noticed that there was a narrow cut that ran just below his right eye, and bled down his cheek. Dizzy mopped it away as best he could, noting with a strange detachment that his suit was ruined. The jacket and slacks hung in ribbons around him.

Dizzy saw nothing in the distance when he looked down the featureless, institutional green cave. He steadied his breathing, trying to come to terms with the shock. He knew how panicked, frightened, and frantic he should be. His private box had just been destroyed by some kind of rocket, and he’d barely escaped with his life. He should be sobbing or shouting, or curling up into a ball. He should have been doing those things, but instead he stood up. He did it because the shock had not run its course. He did it because there was still work to do. He did it because he knew worse things were coming.

He leaned against the wall and breathed. It had already been too long, and he was starting to worry. Someone should be here. The plan was for someone to meet him, escort him to the rendezvous. If they didn’t show, he had no way out. A dead monarch, hiding from his own people.

His mother, the Dowager Queen, had said that everything was in order. She’d contacted Sully, his adopted father. He was supposed to contact the Hidden Institute. The plan was for them to mock up some kind of assassination attempt. She said everything was settled. He was supposed to have help escaping so that he could put the next step of the plan into action. If they weren’t here… well something went wrong. Either the Institute’s people failed to make it to the meet, or else…

Dizzy took a deep breath and faced another possibility. The escort may never have planned to be here at all. He thought he could trust the Dowager Queen, but she was a confidence trickster. He thought she wanted to have a family again, but he would be a fool to think that she wouldn’t be willing to make use of the prestige of the palace. Or even if she was on the level, this attack may not have been the one she arranged. This might have been a straight-up assassination attempt by any of the noble houses that wanted him dead.

Dizzy nodded slowly to himself. One thing was clear. Whatever was going on, he couldn’t count on anybody else to save him now. Dizzy looked down at his clothes again. He tied the ribbons of one sleeve together to make them look more presentable. He tucked the jacket pocket back in on itself, and wrapped his pant leg around itself to hide the rent in it. A small, faraway part of Dizzy’s brain laughed at the fact that he was trying to make himself look good while blood ran from his arms and legs, but it was ignored by the larger part that was trying to get them to safety.

He held his breath for a moment, listening for any movement in the hallway. Someone had to be coming. Looking down the tunnel, he saw the same thing in either direction. An endless expanse of hallway, curving away from him as it ran. Dull green light infused the entire chamber, with pipes and wires that ran along the roof in either direction. There simply could not be a better time for a guide.

He listened to his heart settling, listened to the drip of condensation in the hallway. He briefly considered calling out, but thought better of it. He didn’t want the wrong people to hear him and come running.

Dizzy tried his legs, putting more weight on them to prepare them for a walk. If the escort wasn’t there, then that’s all there was to it. He would have to save himself. He squared his shoulders and took a few tentative steps forward. After all, he thought, the escort may just be further on, waiting outside perhaps.

Dizzy picked a direction and pulled himself down the tunnel, legs still stumbling underneath him. The tunnel was only so wide as one person’s shoulders, which was a boon to him. It kept him from falling to one direction or the other. Instead, he simply shuffled and bounced against the walls as he moved toward the exit.

At the end of the tunnel, he found a door. It was sealed from outside noise, and held in place by a round bulkhead door lock. There was no escort waiting by the door. Dizzy’s shoulders fell as he realized the bulkhead door was made to be opened with two hands rotating the central wheel. Instead, he put his shoulder behind the motion of his arm as he rotated the door handle. The huge copper handle squealed with disuse, and released its hold reluctantly. As it swung open, Dizzy was struck by the bright light of the outdoors. Just as the door began to open, it shoved closed again from outside.

There was a multitude outside, pushing and shoving their way to the exits. People of quality were surrounded by their guards, making small bubbles of personal space in the rush of people. The commoners were shoved aside as merchants and their bodyguards made for the rescue ships.

Dizzy shoved the door open again, and slipped into the thoroughfare before it could be pushed closed. The people, in their mad rush to safety, completely ignored him. His torn clothes and injuries did not distinguish him from very many in the group. The press of people pushed him against the wall, and back away from the exits. He searched through the blur of faces, but recognized no one. No one he recognized, and no one who was trying to catch his eye. No one waiting for the king to exit, ready to whisk him away to safety. No one noticed him at all.

Dizzy mustered his energy and began pushing back. His one arm was still too weak to use, but the other was still capable of pushing and reaching in between people. His legs were still shaky, but his heel could find another’s instep, if it meant keeping his movement from lagging. Dizzy pressed ahead until he saw a chilling sight.

Police officers stood on risers, overlooking the multitude. They seemed oblivious to the cries of the people below them, scanning instead for a specific target. Dizzy ducked down and began stepping back, away from the exits. He didn’t know what they were looking for, but he was suddenly afraid of being found.

His movement was more instinct than intuition. A lifetime of ducking the police made it almost second nature. He didn’t know if they were really a danger to him, but it seemed a prudent precaution. He snaked through the onrushing multitude to get back into the doomed amphitheater. His good arm snatched a hat from one man, and a jacket hanging over another man’s shoulder. In the press of people, he was gone before either man had noticed the loss. Dizzy’s legs weren’t holding him up as well as he’d like, but they were good enough to get him in and out of the largest packs of refugees.

As far as anyone knew, Disraeli Augustus McCracken the third was dead, and at that moment, it suited him fine. He had many enemies, some of which had made attempts on his life. In theory, the police worked for the monarchy, but in practice, Dizzy didn’t know who paid their wages. It may be a capital crime to kill the king, but accidentally killing an unknown, dirty, crippled straggler in the middle of a riot didn’t seem unbelievable at all. Those kinds of accidents happen every day, and after all, the king was killed in the blast, wasn’t he?

Until he found someone he could trust, Dizzy dared not take the chance of being recognized.

He raked his good hand through his wild red hair, trying to comb it down. He then pulled the hat down hard, hoping to hide all his hair under it. He weighed his options while making himself presentable. Police would be on every exit, and if they were looking for him, he’d be too easy to discover. At the same time, he couldn’t just hide out in the amphitheater. From the sound of the Kovacs engines, Dizzy could tell that they were already trying to land the floating platform. Once the platform touched down, police would comb through the entire place, partially searching for survivors, but mostly looking for him.

He had to find someone he could trust. Someone who would help secret him off the platform. His royal consorts had surely been on the first rescue ship out, meaning that there was not a single nobleman with the strength to protect him or take a stand against his enemies.

A hand fell on Dizzy’s shoulder and gripped him, “Excuse me, sir.”

Despite his weakened legs and bad arm, Dizzy reacted instantly. Panic and instinct took control of him. In one fluid motion, Dizzy whipped around on one heel, stripping the borrowed jacket from his shoulders, and wrapping it around the officer’s head. One heel hooked behind the constable’s knee, and pulled the leg forward, toppling the man. Others in the press of people registered shock, but there was not enough room for anyone to react. No one could panic and run in a press of running, panicked people. Dizzy felt a pang of guilt as he watched the officer fall, but forgot it as soon as he saw the stunner cupped in the officer’s hand. Before the cop could get his bearings, Dizzy jumped away and climbed up on the multitude.

He heard other voices raised in consternation as he began crowd-crawling. Placing his hands on people’s shoulders and heads, leveraging his knees in people’s backs and collarbones, Dizzy crawled away from the police. At one point, he thought he heard the crackle of a static discharge, but dismissed it. Surely, they wouldn’t fire a weapon in the middle of a rampaging crowd.

People shouted and shoved Dizzy off their shoulders, which helped him clear the thickest part of the multitude. Soon, he found himself dropped to the ground in a comparatively quiet area. He was midway through the amphitheater seating, dropped between aisles. People streamed for all the exits, clogging all routes out. Even if he could get past them, he saw the colors of Imperial guards at each of the exits.

An odd thought struck Dizzy as he looked down at the stage. Band members were frantically grabbing the most expensive equipment, and ripping cables out of the floor.

If he couldn’t expect help from the nobility, perhaps he could find a sympathetic ear among the commoners. He knew at least one commoner whose life he’d spared.

He looked back at the exits and weighed the options. He would almost certainly get pinched if he tried to go that way. But he didn’t like the idea of asking for help from a man that he’d threatened to behead.

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Comments

  1. JoshuaBerkau says:

    Glad you are back! Really looking forward to the rest of the book! Are you going to podcast it? Or are you just going to leave it as text?
    -Joshua