Copyright © 2002 by Derek Paterson
Published by QUANTUM MUSE October 2002
Once each year the Sacred Procession takes place in the great city of Zabadak, capital of the Virdin Empire. The streets are packed with priests and pilgrims who gather from all over the Rim Sectors to kneel before the Empress-Oracle as she is paraded through the city. The streets are also a haunt for thieves such as myself, though I am no ordinary criminal. My name is Dario. You may know me better as the Shadow. That's right, the Shadow! The Prince of Thieves! They seek him here, they seek him there; the Mek-Police seek him everywhere. But they will never find him, because the Shadow is too clever for them, too clever by half.
There I stood among the peasants, watching as the Empress came into view on her platform, escorted by four huge Castrati, who had willingly given their all to serve their Empress. They stared straight ahead, ignoring the chanting crowd and the wails from the priests who lost control and fell, twitching and convulsing, to the ground. It's said that the Empress-Oracle emits an unseen energy that affects those who can see the future or possess other Esper gifts, sending them to unimaginable heights of ecstasy. I suppose it's a kind of compensation for the priests, who otherwise lead dull and eventless lives. The Sacred Procession gives them their annual reward.
Let's come back to that platform. Solid iridium, it is, floating on an AG field. Its sides are encrusted with jewels, large and small. I had my eye on a couple of the larger ones. They'd fetch a pretty price in the Outer Sectors, I knew, where such baubles are still valued above all else.
The Oracle came closer and I carefully made my way to the front of the crowd. Pilgrims and citizens parted to allow me to pass because of the orange robe and hood I wore. The priest I'd taken them from lay asleep in a nearby alleyway. A pity for him that he hadn't glimpsed his own future before I bashed him over the head and stripped him naked.
Priests all along the path cried out as they touched the platform and then collapsed, their bodies shaking, their half-glimpsed faces distorted into grinning masks. Their eyes rolled in their sockets until only the whites showed. I envied them a little and wished I could bottle what they were experiencingI'd make a fortune selling the stuff to impotent husbands and frustrated wives. After I'd tested it myself to ensure primo quality, of course.
My chance was coming, and I readied myselfbut I made the mistake of glancing up at the half-naked woman who sat upon the platform, which was nearly my undoing. Her beauty radiated through her veil and I half-saw, half-imagined her visage, her sky-blue eyes, her sweet red lips. I closed my eyes but the memory of her full, ripe body remained, straining to escape the semitransparent silks that adorned her. My hands trembled and my knees grew weak. Perhaps I should have been a priest after all, as my mother had wished.
Sweeping these distracting thoughts aside, I made ready to execute my cunning plan. Other priests who'd been waiting their turn stepped forward between the Castrati escort so they could touch the platform, and in so doing reach their nirvana. I moved forward with them and emulated their wails and screams and groans. My hands touched the platform, felt their way along the smooth metal, encountered an obstaclethere! The displacer tool popped the jewel from its setting and teleported it into the scanproof container I wore beneath my robe. I pretended to stumble, while keeping hold of the platform. Laughter came from the crowd. That priest's having his money's worth! they cried, and I smiled beneath my hood, glad to be providing them with such grand entertainment. Another jewel, another touch of the displacer tool, and it, too, went to a better place.
Was there time for a third? Yes, though it must be swift! My hand drifted further, seeking, probing
And encountered something soft and warm. The Empress-Oracle's sandaled foot! She looked down at me, smiling beneath her veil. Those eyes! That smile! This time I stumbled for real and fell headlong, but managed to roll away before the Castrati trampled me with their huge feet. But part of me wished I'd had more time with the Empress. In that moment when our eyes had met, she'd reached out and touched my very soul. Had she known who and what I was? Possibly, but my profession and my intentions did not trouble her in the slightest. She desired me, that much was obvious.
Marveling at these thoughts, I feigned nirvana for a while, maintaining the shaking and moaning act until the Empress had passed by. When the priests around me began to recover, I also rose and dusted myself down.
The Sacred Procession continued, and against my better judgement I followed at a distance, the jewels in their container all but forgotten. This drew a few curious glances, as it is deemed impolite for any priest to drink from the Empress's cup more than once during any Procession. I quickly found an alleyway and divested myself of the stolen hood and robe, then rejoined the crowd, resuming my clandestine pursuit.
The Procession continued around the city until the sun began to fall and shadows lengthened. Finally, her duty done, the Empress headed back to the Palace of Light, where she dwelled with her retinue of female acolytes and her Castrati servants. While the crowds offered her their worship, I examined the Palace closely. Its great doors were made of gleaming plasteel and its high walls and towers reared above the rest of the city, mocking anyone foolish enough to even consider attempting an illegal entry. But there was not a wall in the entire city which the Shadow could not climb, a window through which the Shadow could not pass.
She retreated back into her Palace and the great doors ground shut behind her. The happy crowd, thrice blessed by their Empress-Oracle, began to disperse. Groups of street entertainers and musicians came forth to ply their trade, while the exhausted priests limped and shuffled away, some still weeping from the joy imparted by their brief contact with the platform. Learned scientists have speculated whether the platform somehow conducts the Empress-Oracle's power to those who seek her grace. Perhaps it is true; I cannot say. Since such speculation is usually followed by a visit from the Mek-Police, it is best not to share one's views with strangers.
The capital world's twin suns continued to drop until night embraced Zabadak. I gathered my equipment and made ready for my assault upon the Palace. I approached the place via a side alley that few were likely to frequent, and removed the ring from the index finger of my left hand, deactivating its mass compression field. The ring grew and quickly transformed into a shoulder-mounted bazooka, pre-loaded and ready to fire. I took aim and thumbed the trigger. An electrical current mutated short molecules into long chain molecules in the space of a nanosecond. The grappling hook arcing high into the air, trailing a long, thin line behind it.
I waited for a count of ten and then pulled on the line. It tightened, confirming that the hook had caught and held somewhere above. Placing my foot against the bottom of the Palace's forbidding wall I began climbing, driven by motives that were unclear even to me. I told myself it was the promise of liberating the other jewels set into the platform that made me take such risks. I'd always intended to retire young and rich. I'd buy my own planet and surround myself with nubile slave girls who'd willingly slake my every passion. Every man must have a goal in life; this was mine, so I climbed until my arms and shoulders and legs ached, climbed until the city below me grew small and insignificant. Until, at last, I reached a narrow window and squeezed inside.
I found myself in a chamber decorated with silks and tapestries. Large cushions lay scattered across the floor, suggesting that the room might serve as a bed chamber for several persons. Stepping to the only door, I pressed my ear against the plasteel and listened. Not a sound. I opened the door a crack and looked out upon a wide, deserted landing. Floating light globes illuminated doorways, sunken alcoves containing statuettes, a wide stairway, and balconies overlooking a central space that might well pass down all the way to ground level. I moved out onto the landing. Usually I rely upon my wits and my agility, but sometimes I rely upon weapons, too. I let my wireframe pistol take shape lest unseen guards leapt to attack me, and followed my nose. It took me further along the landing and past closed doors, until I found a passageway that beckoned to me.
At its end was a single door, lying partly open. Looking over my shoulder one last time, I pushed the door wide and stepped through.
The Empress-Oracle lay upon the bed in that pose which women instinctively know how to adopt when they wish to tantalize and excite. It emphasized her titanic breasts and the curve of her equally titanic buttocks. She'd removed her veil. Her face was as breathtakingly beautiful as I'd imagined it must be. She smiled and beckoned for me to join her. I collapsed my wireframe pistol, unbuckled my belt, pulled off my boots and took her, as she wished to be taken. Or did she take me? My memory is foggy on the matter, but I still recall the lovemaking, which went on forever. I expertly stoked her furnace until she trembled and shuddered with pleasure, and then did it again, while she smothered me with her plentiful flesh. No bed was ever as warm or as soft as the deep canyons and thrusting mountains of the Empress-Oracle herself.
Afterward she lay unconscious, snoring gently. Somehow I found the strength to stagger to the window and gasp for air, having expended myself in a frenzy of sweet passion never equaled, before or since.
Wall panels abruptly slid open and more than a dozen of her acolytes skipped into the room, laughing and giggling and naked. They were upon me before I could regenerate my pistol. Numerous hands pulled me toward the door. They were like a tidal wave; I could not fight their gentle insistence. One of the acolytes gathered up my clothes, another my boots, another my belt. I tried to look back, to catch a parting glimpse of the Empress-Oracle upon her bed, but the acolytes blocked my view.
The company of women escorted me along a narrow hall toward twin doors that opened as we approached. I dug my heels in at the sight of the open shaft, but the acolytes remained calm, convincing me that stepping into the shaft was not tantamount to suicide. We stepped into space and fell, much slower than expected, supported by an AG field within the shaft. The acolytes pressed around me, their naked bodies against mine. They were beautiful girls, each and every one of them, but their loveliness and their inviting smiles did not excite me, not after I had just made love to their wonderful mistress. After the Empress-Oracle, what interest could I possibly have in other women?
An age later our feet touched the ground. Looking up, I saw I'd passed down through nearly the entire height of the Palace. Hundreds of faces peered over balcony rails above, watching me. Before I could make comment or ask any questions, the acolytes escorted me through another doorway and into a wide hall lined with statues of the Muses. The far wall seemed familiar to me, and it was. I realized I was looking at the inside of the great plasteel doors that guarded the Palace entrance against intruders.
The acolytes left me there, vanishing into shadowed nooks and crannies. As their tinkling laughter faded, the doors groaned, cranked open by unseen mechanisms. Cold light flooded the hall. It was morning outside. Had I been with the Empress for days, or for only a single night? Why was she now ejecting me from the Palace? If she knew but one fraction of my love for her, she would keep me by her side forever. I would be her willing slave until the day I expired. No, I could not leave her. I resolved to go back inside and find her, tell her, plead with her
The same four Castrati who'd escorted the Oracle's platform appeared behind me, armed with the largest scimitars I'd ever seen, weapons as tall and as formidable as the genofixed eunuchs themselves. I took the hint and dressed quickly, pulling on my boots, fastening my belt and straightening my rumpled leggings. Taking a deep breath, I went out into the chill morning. The great doors clanged shut behind me, shutting me off from my love.
I instinctively knew that the window I'd used to enter the Palace was now sealed against further incursions, as were all the windows above. I'd been allowed to enter the Palace, allowed to share the Empress-Oracle's bed. But once, and once only. Now her love was denied me. She'd used me for her own selfish pleasure and now wished me gone from her life. Words do not exist to describe my sadness.
No, friend, I have not seen the Empress-Oracle since then. And I never will. She only ventures outside her Palace once a year for the Sacred Procession, and I will be fodder for the recycling vats long before she does so again.
How old do you think I am? No, I am the same age in years as I was when I entered the Palace and made love to the most beautiful woman the Galaxy has ever seen. Do not let my white hair and my appearance fool youonly six Standard months have passed since then. She took something from me that night, something that perhaps enhanced her oracular powers but left me aged and withering. Feel no pity for me, friend. I would not change a single thing.
Buy me another drink, and I'll tell you about the time the Shadow stole a space tyrant's battleship out from under his nose, and then sold it back to him the very next day.