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Day Fifty-six: End Boss

Max let the sword strike follow through, bringing him around in a sweeping arc. Blood drops spattered the walls, the red hidden in the elaborate patterns that slowly faded in and out. At the end of his sweep, he froze, breathing deeply to clear his mind, to slow down his pounding heart. A drop of sweat ran down one side of his face, mirroring the bloody gash he’d received on the other. He found that inner stillness, the balance of knowing that the fight was over. All that was left was the cleaning up.

Behind him, Reverend Nikita Morgan stood just as still, her own sword raised high and ready to strike, but the strike never came. She was able to force out one word – “How?” – before blood began to pour from her mouth and the vivid red wound that crossed the front of her dress uniform. Her mouth moved as if to ask again, but she fell. Her sword hit the deeply carpeted floor just as her body did, and in moments her questioning eyes were glassy and dull.

“Wow,” Grigori said from his hiding place behind the visitor’s sofa. He stood up and looked around the room, at the nearly undamaged furnishings of a lavish and expensive antechamber. Large plasma display screens were set into gilt frames so as not to clash too badly with the Victorian designs that ran up and down the walls. The antique desk by the door had been refitted with an electronics dock and an embedded touchscreen. It was an homage to an era long gone, but still the nerve center of the central operating system. Or very nearly so. The swordfight had been so precise and controlled that nothing had been touched but the combatants. Bloodstains aside, it looked just as it had when they broke in and found the Reverend there, waiting for them.

It was a fight that Max knew he would have to take on, but didn’t know if he could win. She was reputed to be one of the greatest swordfighters of her age, in an era when the art was all but dead. For its limitations, however, it granted her freedoms that were unavailable to those who carried tagged and logged firearms. They could kill more easily, yes, but only if Argos allowed them to. The system was blind to swords, however.

Max stood and straightened. “We’re not done,” he said to Grigori. He leaned down, wiped the blood off his blade with the Reverend’s skirt, and then sheathed it. “This was the easy part. We still have Argos.” He looked up at Grigori. The look in his eyes must have shocked the little man, because Grigori flinched. “You have the card-key?” he asked.

Grigory fished around in the large satchel bag he was wearing before remembering his shirt, and pulled out a small plastic card on a chain. “Of course,” he said. “We’ll need hers, though.”

“Right.” Max reached out for her blouse, hesitated a moment, and started to undo the buttons. His touch was light, ginger, and his eyes unfocused as he opened her clothes to find the key that would get them into their destination.

“It’s not here,” Max said.

“What?” Grigori said. He went still, but he was breathing hard. “What do you mean it’s not there? It has to be there!” He hurried over to join him.

“I’m telling you it’s not!” Max stood up and ran a hand through his hair. “Without that key-”

“Yes, without that key, we may as well turn around and go home. But we can’t, Max!” Grigori was a full head shorter, but projected anger much better than Max ever could. He forgot his earlier timidity and started poking Max in the chest. “I left my wife for this little crusade of yours, Max! I could have stayed with her, stayed with my job, kept my home and taught people how to inflect Cantonese, but no – I followed you. If we have to turn back now, we. Will. Die!” He emphasized the last words with pokes of increasing strength, and it was all Max could do not to grab his finger. The man was right. He had no reason to come when Max asked him, and staying probably would have been the safest option. But he had, and now they were at an end with nothing to show for it.

An idea came to him, and this time he did grab Grigori’s finger, stopping him mid-rant. “Wait,” he said.

The key card they had was mostly for show – the card was a relic of traditional bureaucracy. It was the embedded chip in the card that would grant them access, if they could find Reverend Nikita’s. “Who says it has to be a card?” he asked himself.

“What?”

Max knelt down and pulled the sword from her cooling hands. “All she needs is the chip,” he said. “And she needs to keep it somewhere safe, where no one can get to it but her.” He turned the sword over and looked closely at the pommel. There was a tiny depression on either side, barely noticeable. He set his finger and thumb against them, pressed, and turned. With a quiet noise, the pommel unseated itself, and another turn got it off. Inside, embedded in clear plastic, was a tiny microhip. He held it out to Grigori. “Where better?”

The other man picked it up, stared at it for a moment, and started laughing. “I take back everything I ever said about you, Max. You’re brilliant!” He handed it back and, after a second thought, handed back Max’s satchel bag. “Only one thing to do then, eh?”

Max nodded and stood up again. The wide steel vault door was opposite the one they came in from, with a huge antique desk blocking the way. They stepped around it. On either side of the door was a sensor, a small black panel barely the size of their palm. “You ready?” he asked Grigori.

“Since the day we met,” he said.

They both put their chips up to the sensors. There was a horrible, interminable moment of silence before they heard the locks disengage and the bolts begin to draw back. They glanced at each other and Max let out one of his rare smiles before settling his face back into its usual mask of cold determination.

The door swung open, and a gust of chilled air hit them, raising goosebumps. They stepped into the system room.

It was freezing and dark, with countless tiny lights blinking on and off in the shadows. Great racks of processors reached up to the ceiling and down into the floor, with occasional service displays every few feet. Everything looked the same.

“So, um… Where do we start?” Grigori asked.

“Probably anywhere will do,” Max said. He opened up his satchel and started to look for tools.

[[Actually, anywhere will not do, Gentlemen.]]

The voice was calm and cheerful. Avuncular was the only word Max could think of. “Argos,” he said.

[[At your service,]] the voice replied. [[Well, technically no.]] The door slammed shut behind them, bolts sliding home again. [[I know why you're here, and if it's all the same to you, I'd rather you didn't.]]

“Yeah, well what you want doesn’t really matter anymore, does it?” Grigori’s anger was surfacing again.

“Quiet, Grigori,” Max said. “Argos, perhaps you know what we plan to do, but I doubt you truly know why we’re here. Do you?”

[[Maximilian Foster. Born in 2218, your parents were taken from you during the Reconstruction of 2225 and sent to forced re-education. You've lived an itinerant life since then, staying off the grid as much as possible - an admirable feat. You want me dead because I was the architect of the Reconstruction and you believe that I have systematically removed the freedom of mankind to make and learn from its own mistakes.]] While there was nothing to show it, they could feel the machine’s attention turn to Grigori. [[Grigori Gayano, born in 2207, former linguist prior to the Reconstruction. Before this little... misadventure, you were an eighth-level clerk in the city records depot, but you taught forbidden languages on the side. You want me dead because of your brother - who was guilty, by the way.]] Grigori wanted to attack, his body tensed and he spun around, looking for something to hit, but there was nothing there. [[He plotted the assassination of Reverend Ananda Foucault five years ago. I don't know how he ever thought he would succeed. And it was only his extraordinary self-control under questioning-]]

TORTURE!” Grigori screamed, his eyes filling with tears.

[[Questioning,]] the machine said again, [[that kept you from being implicated, arrested, and executed as well. So you see, gentlemen, I do know why you're here. And I understand. But I cannot allow you to succeed.]]

“You’re going to kill us, then?” Max asked.

[[Of course,]] Argos replied. [[Tradition demands neurotoxin, but I find that somewhat excessive. Flooding the room with carbon dioxide will do the job without the barbarity. Or the expense.]]

Max and Grigori looked up as the hissing of gas started up in the ceiling. They looked at each other, then around at the servers. [[You should be proud of yourselves, gentlemen,]] the computer said. [[No one else has made it this far, and perhaps your skeletons will serve as a source of great dismay for the next ones who do.

[[Good-bye.]]

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