Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Walking Death, Chapter 2.5

The most powerful men in New York City waited for the meeting to start. They stood about the long mahogany table set with coffee cups, water glasses, pens and dossier folders. None of them had yet moved to look into the folders, instead preferring to conduct what business they could with the underlings that had come with them to the Cloisters.

The largest such group stood behind the man seated at the end of the table. That man was Jasper Addney, the meeting’s host and Count of the City of New York and Long Island. He spoke quietly to each of the functionaries that came to him for instruction or authorization for the many issues that demanded his attention. The County of New York was far from a quiet sinecure from which to plot future political advances, but Addney relished the potential that the largest city in the re-established colonies offered.

The Count’s ambition was well matched by his youth. It was rare for someone to rise to the rule of a county before the age of forty, but it was also rare that someone would actually want the rule of the New York City powder keg.

He forswore the affectations common to the newly minted nobility of the reconquered Americas. Rather than wear medals, ceremonial swords, or sashes of office, Addney preferred precisely tailored Saville Row suits and ties. The only concession to noble accoutrement was his coat of arms executed in a silver pin attached through his lapel. He felt, in this modern age, that people should recognize him more from frequent newspaper photographs than from trappings of office.

One person in his retinue kept to the back of the crush. Her name was Babette de Loring, and the others always kept clear of her space. She was the Imperial Court Sorceress, a position from where she wielded almost as much political influence as she did magical power. She wore a long skirt, tailored jacket, and a white ruffled blouse. She kept her chestnut hair in a bob cut. The faint smile on her lips added to the sense of youth about her, maybe a decade shy of her true age of thirty-five. She held her arms crossed in front of her, and lightly drummed the fingers of her right hand on her left elbow. The silver ring she wore on her third finger seemed to reflect more light than fell upon it.

Uniformed men, and one woman, were the balance of the other groups in the room. The right hand side of the table was dominated by Lord General Einhard Ubell, commander of all Imperial military units for the county. He was a tall man in his fifties. His hair was two shades of silver separated from his rock grey imperial uniform. He stood ramrod straight, and the monocle he wore was the only indication of decline with age.

With Ubell was Major Helmutt Stein, head of the Anti-Resistance Forces in New York City. His silver-fringed uniform was similarly immaculate. The wound badge on his jacket was superfluous measured next to the long scar on his cheek. His dark brown goatee was the only hair on his head.

The far side of the table hosted an odd assortment of people, all in black uniforms trimmed in red. Two men, one slight and the other gigantic, and a beautiful blonde woman waited in attendance to a dashing figure of an apparent fifty years. No one in the room mistook them for human, the red on black marked them as members of the Imperial Demonic Division. The center of the group was Colonel Aldrick Meinrad, a name that was no more true than the face he showed.

“Gentlemen,” said the Count, his voice cutting through the conversations taking place around the table, “we all have a great deal to occupy our time. Let us get to business.”

“That would be greatly appreciated, Your Excellency,” said General Ubell. His tone was cool. A lifetime military man, he knew precisely were the line of insubordination rested. His willingness to dance that line with respect to Count Addney was something that did not go unnoticed in the city’s court.

Once again, Addney chose to allow the unspoken slight to pass by. Strictly speaking, Addney was the one in command, but he knew that the military was fiercely loyal to Ubell. If anything, Ubell’s ruthlessness was a useful threat against those who proved less than cooperative. It was Ubell’s command that brought death, complete and merciless, to the population of Scranton. It played to Addney’s advantage to appear to be the one preventing a similar fate from befalling New York.

All of the attendants took the cue to leave the room save for de Loring. She remained next to one of the guards flanking the double doors behind the head of the table.

The Count remained standing, and rested his hands on the table.

“I have been given leave to discuss a new weapon developed on the Continent that shall be produced here within the County for deployment along the Mississippi front.” The count reached over to a small console and pressed down a toggle.

“Edna, would you please show in the gentlemen?”

“Right away, your Excellency,” replied the tinny voice from the speaker.

A matronly woman opened the double doors behind the foot of the table. She stood aside so that three men could enter. The first, a tall, reed thin, man in a wool overcoat and gloves, stopped and handed the coffee cup in his hand to the taken-aback secretary.

“Might I trouble you for a refill, madam?” he asked.

Edna regained her composure and said, “Of course, Doctor.”

“Thank you, my dear.”

He proceeded to the table and took a position behind the chair at the foot of the table. Two other men entered close on his heels. The first was a man of fifty-odd years. He had an intellectual’s high forehead and a pair of pince-nez glasses. The other man stood no more than four foot six inches tall and nearly that abroad. He was of indeterminate age and sported a beard that nearly obliterated any evidence of the necktie that he wore. The man went to the left side of the table and the dwarf took the right.

“I am certain that you gentlemen are familiar with Doctors Hobbard and Tabbert of Research Division 9,” said the Count. The second man and the dwarf inclined their heads in response to their names and took their seats. “Well, allow me to introduce Dr. Everet Felson of the Imperial Bureau of Advanced Sciences. He shall be the one to brief you on the new weapon that shall be manufactured in the County of use along the Mississippi front. Dr. Felson, the floor is yours.”

“Thank you, your Excellency. It is my pleasure to present to you the latest in advanced technological achievements for use on the battlefield. In the folders before each of you is the technical data on what has been named Ambulamort. While delivered as a gas…,” the doctor was interrupted by a knock at the secretary’s door. The guard looked to the Count who gestured his leave to open the door. Outside was Edna with a fresh cup of coffee on a coaster. She stepped into the room, although the confident stride she showed previously was now gone. Instead, she seemed unsteady on her feet. She was concentrating fiercely on delivering the cup of coffee to Dr. Felson.

“Shut the door please, guard,” said the Doctor. The guard looked up again to the Count who again gestured his consent.

“As is was about to say…,”

“I believe,” interrupted Major Stein, “that I must point out that she does not have the clearance for this briefing.”

“Her clearance,” rejoined Dr. Felson, “is of little concern at this point. If I may continue without further interruption, I was saying that while Ambulamort is dispersed as a gas, its action is actually through skin contact. It can be spread via, say, a glove or a coffee cup. The compound remains active in the environment for fifteen minutes before oxidizing to an inert state. The subject experiences an intense headache and dizziness before all neurological activity shuts down, causing death.”

Edna tried to walk back to the doors, oblivious that they had been shut behind her. She was two steps away from them when she fell boneless to the floor.

“This seems to be nothing more than another generation of nerve gas,” said Gen. Ubell. “While the forces of the Rebel States may not have an antidote for this one, what is so special about this compound?”

“The difference, my Lord, is in the secondary effects.”

One of the guards from the secretary’s door had been checking the woman for signs of life. He screamed in pain and pulled back, his sleeve tattered and bloody. Edna rose to her feet, her face the color of dirty chalk and contorted in rage. She leapt at the soldier, slashing with grossly extended claws in place of fingers. Her victim brought his bayoneted rifle up, but Edna ran upon the blade with no concern. The damage to her gut was extensive, and blood clung to the bayonet, and yet she charged down on the hapless soldier and tore out his throat.

The other soldier opened fire, striking the creature that had been Edna full in the back of the chest. All that it accomplished was get her attention. She turned quickly, sending the embedded rife flying.

“Lamnas!” came the cry from the sorceress. A barely visible ripple of air leapt from her hand as she made a cutting gesture. The spell struck the zombie precisely in the neck, severing the head in the blink of an eye. The headless corpse fell to the ground.

De Loring turned on Felson.

“Necromancy,” she hissed.

“I prefer necrotic revitalization.”

“What is there to prevent our forces from coming under attack from these, creatures?” asked Ubell.

“If you will note, neither I, Doctor Hobbard, nor Doctor Tabbert were attacked. That is because prior to our coming in here, we applied a repellant pheromone compound. My research indicates that a person might as well be invisible while protected. Additionally, our forces can be inoculated to prevent casualties during the brief interval of chemical activity.”

“Thank you very much, Doctor,” said Count Addney. “Are there any questions from the table? No? Then I adjourn this meeting.”

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