Whom Emperors Have Served, Chapter 6: Interrupting an Insurrection

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“Ladies and gentlemen, as entertainment this afternoon, six of us will be competing in a battle of wits and chance.  The game is Five Card Draw, and the rules are as follows…”

Carol listened idly as Hawberk’s announcer moved through his explanation.  The guy had a showman’s voice, offset by a surprisingly honest manner.  She wondered where Hawberk had found him–she didn’t recall seeing him at any functions prior–but wherever it was, he seemed like a good hire.  Mind, she wasn’t terribly preoccupied with the speech’s content.  She knew the rules of the game better than he did–though the caveat that the audience members were able to place their own bets on the players’ fortunes was a surprise twist.  Instead, she took, the time to consider her opponents.

As usual, William Hawberk seemed distracted.  He was at the announcer’s side, considering the crowd carefully.  Carol didn’t know what he was looking for, but it might have been anything.  This was his party, after all, and he was probably evaluating it continuously, by all manner of measures.

The other four sat at the table with her, and they were certainly motley.  Beside Hawberk’s empty chair, General Rick Barner might have been the least conspicuous.  He was a tall, well-fed man who looked only slightly uncomfortable in his tuxedo.  For men of his station–retired generals and old politicians, broadly–he seemed fairly typical: slightly drunk, happy to be there, and so used to being in control that he had fallen out of the habit of actually checking who held the power in a room.  By contrast, Sterling, to the general’s left, had shown up both out of character and strangely contradictory.  Perhaps it was less apparent to the audience, who were fortunate to have never found themselves trapped by one of the man’s egotistical monologues, but he seemed very off today.  He looked drunker than usual, for one.  His tuxedo was rumpled, he was slouching in his chair, and a vaguely unsettling smile seemed to creep onto his lips every few minutes, disappearing each time he adjusted his posture.  But despite his visible inebriation, he seemed more alert than she had ever seen him  Moving his neck only slightly, his eyes swiveled across the room, drinking in both the table and the crowd with an uncanny hunger.  He had certainly noticed her attention, and she did not care for the look he gave her in return.

Next around the table was Louis’ replacement, Bennett Fontaine.  He was, most assuredly, not from around here, whether she was judging by his American frontiersman’s idea of formalwear, his aloof affability in the catty swarm, or his reasonable, though much-maligned pride in his penniless origins.  She saw why Louis liked him.  Despite Louis’ success and Hildred’s faux-dandy lifestyle, the Castaignes were not a wealthy family, and though Louis claimed half-jokingly that he could trace his ancestry to French royalty if he went back a few centuries, his parents had run a middlingly successful polo ranch upstate until their deaths, and Louis’ inclusion into New York’s de facto aristocracy was by virtue of his courtship with Constance alone.  Louis no doubt saw some of himself in Fontaine, and Carol had to respect that, even if it meant her favored opponent would be absent from this game.

And then there was Beau Pierre.  The man had arrived to the table at the very last minute, delayed, she supposed, following their meeting in the pantry.  He looked simultaneously giddy and ill, a reaction of which she approved, given the content of their discussion, though she very much did not trust it–or him.  She had been steeling herself against the possibility of being found out ever since arriving in America, and it was only because of that preparation that she was not rattled now.  She was glad to have confronted him, even if she was irritated with what he told her.  Perhaps he would be an asset, a window into whatever the bloody hell was going on in Felix Wilde’s ledger, but the more timely question, the one Pierre had not answered in any satisfactory way, was what on earth he was doing at this poker table.  Was he truly some unbelievable card shark Wilde had dredged from an underground Jersey cardhall to fix this silly game?  Or was that some sort of inscrutable headfake?  Pierre had thought it the latter, but this only served to reiterate the question: Who was he?

She had her thoughts organized, answers and confusions notwithstanding, by the time Hawberk sat down and play began.  But the game, she discovered, brought its own share of new information.  Somewhere along the line, she had absorbed that saying that at every poker table, there was a sucker, and at the afterparty games with Louis and Constance, that sucker usually easy to spot.  Generally, it was Sterling, as much for his breezy apathy as for any ineptitude, but here, Sterling included, it was different.  The suckers at the table appeared to number three, each for different reasons.

General Barner was, by all accounts, the conventional case.  The man was careless, probably knew little about probability, and had a tendency to go too deep on too-shallow hands.  As went the stereotype, he was having fun gambling instead of winning.  Carol found it distasteful, but she supposed it was for charity.  To which end, Hawberk himself also seemed to be making a point of losing this game.  His mistakes were not a newbie’s mistakes, though.  They were flashy, the type of blunders one could practically only make knowing they were blunders.  He would bet heavily against anyone displaying even the slightest hint of uncertainty, which would have been good play if he did it with anything other than garbage hands.  He was playing up the crowd, Carol realized, feeding the announcer-turned-dealer opportunities for shock and awe.  The strategy, combined with the band’s swingy background music, appeared to be working, and the crew members working the crowd seemed all but overwhelmed managing the audience’s requests for bets on the meta-odds of the players’ successes. 

Meanwhile, Lamont was still playing the role of the sucker, but this time, he knew he was playing a role.  And he played it with distractingly little interest.  Neither his bets nor his draws made an ounce of sense, and it threw Carol at first.  But maybe ten hands in, she realized: He was playing randomly.  At that point, beating his incomprehensible strategy turned from tricky to trivial, but he didn’t seem to care.  He kept up his reservedly acerbic table talk, kept drinking martini after martini, and continued scanning the table, the room, the situation.  Carol wondered what he was preoccupied with.  She chanced a look into the audience a few times during folded hands but found nothing worth that much edge.  Wilde was there, of course, though Carol avoided eye contact with him.  Her own knowledge that he was aware of her deception was a tepid advantage, but it was one she was going to guard as long as she could.  The only other oddity she could spot was that some of Hawberk’s business connections, including the standoffish bunch of Austrians, were absent from the crowd, but she knew there were some meetings planned for later this evening, so it was hard to think too much of it.  She needed to keep an eye on whatever Sterling was concerned with, but the majority of her attention remained on the half of the table that was actually winning.

Fontaine and Pierre, it seemed, were anything but suckers.  Fontaine in particular was clearly a good card player, and more frustratingly, he seemed to be on an improbably long tear of good draws.  Pierre, meanwhile, was no card shark–he barely knew the rules of the game.  What he was was a cheater.  Carol couldn’t tell how he was doing it, but the man was taking inordinate amounts of time with each bet, draw, and any other decision he made.  He would squint at the deck, at his chips, mouthing words Carol couldn’t quite discern, as if talking to himself.  And then he would make the perfect decision, every time, as if he could see the way the hand would go before it did.  Carol wasn’t the only one who noticed–she saw annoyed glances flash across Fontaine’s, Sterling’s, even Hawberk’s face after a number of Pierre’s highly improbable predictions paid off, but for a time, none of them seemed willing to call attention to it.  This wasn’t a game for winning, as much as Carol wanted it to be–it was a spectacle for charity.  But then, after a particularly long time considering the state of the game, Pierre bet a third of his chips and asked for five cards, prompting a scoff from Sterling.

“Oh-kay,” he said loudly, fully audible to the crowd.  “Tell you what.  If you win this one, I’m walking away from the table.”  A hush spread, and Pierre looked back at him, complexion paled, wearing the expression of a schoolboy caught kissing the wrong businessman’s daughter.  Even the band cut off as the quiet spread.  Before Pierre could respond, though, a series of angry shouts rang through the ballroom, punctuated by three gunshots.  Carol whirled to see the crowd part hastily, panicked, around the group of Austrians running into the ballroom in Prussian military uniforms, each carrying a rifle.  Their shouts were in German, but she could follow their meaning easily enough.  On the ground, hands visible, don’t move–predictable set of demands, though some in the crowd found reason to go into hysterics, prompting the Austrians to enforce their instructions with the butts of their rifles.  She didn’t move, though.  No one at the table did, all watching warily as the soldiers approached, leaving a contingent to wave their guns at the crowd.

One of them, whom she recognized from dinner the previous evening–his name was Adolf, she recalled–gestured at Hawberk, and two of the other soldiers approached and lifted him from his chair, walking him swiftly back toward the door.  As those three exited, the remaining fifteen or so soldiers covered their retreat, keeping their rifles aimed into the crowd as they backed up to the door.  Carol felt the weight of her pistol in her pocket as she desperately calculated the best way to pursue them.  The risks were too great while there were so many in the room, though: Even though she was safe from death, the rest of the crowd certainly wasn’t, and the Austrians had a lot of guns.  With each one that filed out, though, her odds got better and better.

Five left now.  She reached for her gun, but apparently, she wasn’t the only one with the same idea.


At-fucking-last.  An opportunity for release, if he could only hold his temper, keep his patience long enough to open a strategic angle.  He didn’t mention it to his fellow guests, his uncle, Hawberk, but Lamont took some care not to go anywhere unarmed.  It was one of the few things in his life he spent the attention on.  Keeping the pistol in his jacket out of sight, keeping it maintained and ready to be used, keeping his unnerving willingness to kill hidden from those close to him–it was concession paid both to the fear that he should ever be taken unaware again and to the knife-edge of his psychology, an ultimatum to himself to not let things get bad.  Because if they did, they would get really bad.

He wasn’t out of practice.  He wasn’t actually sure whether the practice could leave him anymore, not with what Zongchang had drilled into him.  His arm knew exactly the motion he would need to draw the weapon, to flip off the safety, to aim a killing shot at the nearest Austrian.  The range was familiar to him.  He would not need to waste time adjusting for it.  All in all, he was sure he could drop three of them before they registered that he–the disheveled idiot at the central table–had a weapon, had dared to fire.  He just needed to wait until the number remaining after those three was a suitably unfair fight.

The vector was improving.  He could see that those who made it out the door were breaking into a run down the hallway.  Gunshots wouldn’t be drawing them back in–they had somewhere to be.  Lamont figured he would find out where that was very soon.

There were seven now.  He’d done better than that before, back when he didn’t care about anything, about any of the collateral damage he might cause, about what might have happened to him when he was half-hoping he would die.  But he didn’t really want to get the crowd hurt–too much of a headache.  And he did actually want to pry Bill out of whatever trap he’d apparently sprung, which meant he didn’t yet have the luxury of devil-may-care.

Six.  An appropriate handicap for his training and the nature of the ambush.  Despite their uniforms and equipment, these militants were clearly amateurs.  Lamont had seen their mistakes frequently enough before, back in Manchuria.  The militia had pulled in all kinds, and it always became apparent which ones had been trained and which ones had been told about training.  These guys were the latter.  Still, the fight was too close.  Just another few seconds.


Yeah, fuck’em.

With the motion his mind had rehearsed in the tense moments preceding, nearly the same as the one he’d performed hundreds of times before in hundreds of situations infinitely more horrific, modified only for the particulars of his black-tie fashion, Lamont drew his pistol, aimed, and fired.  The closest militant, the one with his eyes on the main table, took the bullet to his forehead and collapsed.  By the time his knees buckled, Lamont had already found his next target: the soft-faced man in the back, taking one last look at the room, mouth open, shouting his alarm at the sudden assault.  The shot went through his neck, cutting his scream short.  The remaining three were turning now, away from their posts monitoring the ballroom’s cowed socialities, toward the resolving threat.  Lamont had one more shot left before he needed to take cover.  It went to the next closest militant, catching him in the ribs.  Then Lamont hit the floor, alongside his fellow poker players, he noticed, as gunfire filled the air above the table.

The crowd shrieked and surged away from the table, determined, it seemed, to give him as little time as possible before the militants realized they could just fill the entire damned piece of furniture with holes.  Lamont waited only for the slightest break in their barrage and lunged out from the side of the table.  He found one of the gunmen and dropped him.  Then he heard another bang beside him and watched the other collapse.  He turned, expecting to see General Barner.  Instead it was Carol Jones, teeth grit, with her own smoking revolver gripped in clenched but steady hands.  She was an unlikely ally in this effort–at least he would have thought so–but the unpacking would have to come later.

He stood, gun still raised, confirming the room was clear.  The crowd was screaming, all but stampeding to the doors opposite those where the Austrians had exited.  Amidst the din, he could hear Louis’ voice, desperately urging calm, and, confusingly, the warbling of a clarinet, as some contingent of Ira’s band played through the panic.  They could worry about evacuation–his interests lay at the other end of the room.

He jogged to one of the Austrian corpses and knelt beside it, beginning to dig through the dead man’s pockets.  Visa papers.  A knife.  Some dollar bills.  Ammo for the rifle.  But no communication, notes, anything that might tell him what he could expect from pursuing them.  Whatever–it was a long shot anyway.  He glanced up.  Carol had followed him and was waiting over his shoulder, gazed fixed on the roiling crowd.

“I’m going after Bill,” he said, grabbing her attention.  “You with me?”  She nodded, taking one last look at the crowd before following him into the hallway.  They only barely reached the exit, though, before the entire ship lurched, tipping the floor nearly thirty degrees and almost sending both of them sprawling back into the ballroom.

“What was that?” Carol shouted.  Lamont looked down the empty hallway, heaving himself back to his feet.

“Seas were calm,” he replied.  “So we hit something, or something hit us.  By the direction, I’m thinking the second one.”  He stalked down the hallway toward the stairs the Austrians must have taken, as Carol scrambled upright and followed.  “How big of a boat did they bring to this, anyway?”

Furtively, he leaned into the staircase, only to reel back at the sound of shots.  He made eye contact with Carol.  She shook her head, surprisingly calm.  He intuited her meaning and agreed: Whomever they were shooting at, it wasn’t them.  Carefully, aiming his pistol down the stairs, he proceeded into the stairwell and descended toward the echoing gunfire.

They made it one floor down.  Nothing was there, and the gunshots were still lower.  Lamont continued downward, catching sight at last of one Austrian leaning into the exit below, breathing heavily, aiming his rifle away from them.  Lamont shot him in the head, but the shout of surprise from directly below them took him off guard.  Another militant, previously hidden beneath the staircase, stepped into view, firing a mostly indiscriminate spray of bullets in their direction.

Lamont reeled back, grabbing Carol by the shoulder as several shots burst through the floor of the staircase, missing them by inches.  The shots were searching.  The soldier had lost sight of them, and he didn’t seem to be deducing their position very well in his panic.  But his random guesses were pinning them unfortunately well on the mid-flight landing.  As it was, they were trapped against the wall, and this one was staggering his shots well enough that Lamont couldn’t tell when or if he was taking time to reload.  And then, almost in slow motion, Lamont saw something shimmering fall through the gap in the stairwell above them.  He heard the sound of glass shattering, and the shots stopped.

“You okay down there?” called a voice from above.  Lamont took a moment to place it.

“Fontaine?” he called back.  “Is that you?”

“Yep!  Lucky I was in time.  Even if that probably means you had ‘em.”

“Not so sure I did,” Lamont muttered as Fontaine rounded the landing above them.  He was toting a rifle, presumably lifted from one of the corpses they had left in the ballroom.

“He definitely didn’t,” Carol added.

“Oh, well, good.  Have you found out where they’re taking Mr. Hawberk?”

“Up until a minute ago, I thought they were taking him to whatever boat just crashed into us,” Lamont replied softly, moving down again toward the men they’d just taken out.  The one Lamont shot was facedown in the hallway outside the stairwell, his blood staining the gold carpet an ugly brown.  The other was flat on his back, still breathing in spit of a serious-looking gash on his forehead.  Shards of glass peppered the floor around him.

“What did you hit him with?” Carol asked, eyeing the rifle on Fontaine’s shoulder.

“Vase from the table in the ballroom,” he said.  At Carol’s incredulous frown, he added: “I don’t know what to tell you–it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“You’ll have to explain that one to me later,” Lamont said, stuffing his pistol back in his jacket and picking up the fallen soldiers’ rifles.  He handed one to Carol.  “I don’t know how much time we have or whether whatever schism these guys are having buys us any, but best this guy isn’t armed when he wakes up.  We gotta keep moving.

Carol and Fontaine nodded their agreement as Lamont proceeded into the hallway, freezing at what he saw.

Protruding through the hallway, presumably through the entire breadth of the unoccupied guest cabins on the outer perimeter of the lower deck, was something that Lamont felt forced to describe as a bulwark.  Though he could only see one side, he assumed the variegated surface, the amalgamated combination of so many sheets of welded and riveted scrap metal, made up a portion of a makeshift ramming prow.  But between its ersatz construction and its unscrewed design–hanging on one hinge from a hole in the bulwark were the splintered remains of a door, a fucking wooden door, complete with a knocker and a “Welcome!” sign–Lamont didn’t know whether he was more surprised that this monstrosity of un-engineering had been successful or that someone had tried it at all.

“That’s not good…” Fontaine said, rounding the corner behind him.  Lamont felt that a point was being missed, but the man wasn’t wrong.  Beyond an additional dead Austrian in the hallway, sprawled before the bulwark with what looked to be most of his neck missing, the way forward was clear.  Reading his rifle, Lamont advanced toward the broken door.

He opened it carefully, balancing it against the ragged metal frame along its distended hinge.  As he did, Carol hissed in shock, for good reason.  The interior of the bulwark–it was, as Lamont had suspected, a ramming prow–was a mess of deformed scaffolding, shadows cast in the cavity by the late afternoon sun, and gore.  There were bodies and body parts, all Austrian by the look of it, hanging from rebar, slumped over the tin gangway protruding through the structure, floating in the seawater that sloshed into the unused crew quarters the prow had also penetrated below them.  Lamont could count six bodies among them, but they were all very dead.  Whoever or whatever might have killed them was nowhere to be seen, and what was to be seen prompted many more questions.

Before them, on the opposite end of the gangway, was a pile of trash given form so bewilderingly anomalous that Lamont–otherwise unbothered, even comforted to some unhinged extent by the carnage in the passage–could do little else but stare.  About half of the surface seemed to be black rubber sewn into itself with veritable miles of steel cable, partially entombing all manner of nautical detritus.  There were hulls of small fishing boats, kayaks and canoes, boards, bars, iron rods, and aluminum sheets.  Numerous boat engines of as many shapes, sizes, and purposes protruded from the mass at every angle.  But none of those details threw him so completely as the fact that what waited for them on the other end of the gangway, adhered to the trash heap by untold compromise to structural integrity, was a concrete porch, adorned by another wooden door, two metal buckets–from which drooped two great garlands of seaweed off the sides the concrete–and, above the door, a neon sign on which glared the words, a name, unasked for and without context: “The Nicholas”.

“Is that…a submarine?” Fontaine asked.

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Lamont spat, taking a shuddering step onto the gangway.  “Way I see it, Bill’s either on that thing or he’s still on the ship, and this one’s way more important to rule out.”

“Agreed,” Carol said.  “Let’s go, we have your back.”  Lamont looked over his shoulder, again taken aback by Carol’s lack of apprehension.  He hadn’t floated the possibility of her waiting behind, though given the likelihood of encountering whichever violent maniacs had kill the Austrians, he had expected her to push for it anyway.  Still, he couldn’t say he was upset to have the backup.  Among them, it was actually Fontaine who seemed the most rattled, but he made no attempt to stay behind either.  Slowly, Lamont traversed the gangway, ducked under a hanging, dismembered arm, stepped onto the porch, put his hand on the doorknob, and pushed.  With only slight resistance, the door opened.

Inside was a darkened hallway, lit only by strips of orange light running along the ceiling.  He could see very little as he entered, but as his eyes adjusted, Lamont made out the details of the vessel’s architecture, strangely more practical inside than out.  The floor, clanking against the leather of his shoes, was a grate, and beneath him he could see the wavering surface of water, apparently still, contained purposefully in this hallway presumably as part of some makeshift ballast.  The walls, judging by a cursory prod, were the same black rubber that made up most of the outer hull, though this interior surface–which, Lamont noticed, encompassed the backside of the door they had entered–was mostly covered by a layer of sopping wet algae.  Down the hallway on either end were a number of pipes, tanks, and devices, with apparent purposes ranging from readily intuitive to utterly incomprehensible, and a single similarly rubber-sealed door.  Sweeping the hallway once more with his rifle, Lamont made for it.

At the entryway, he noticed Hawberk immediately.  The man was lying still in his white dinner jacket on the solid floor beyond the second door, but Lamont resisted the inclination to rush in.  He scanned the room beyond carefully: Glowing dials and digital readouts littered the walls before a number of empty chairs.  The room smelled of coffee and mildew but not blood.  And he listened: Beyond a faint digitone and the muted crash of the sea, there was nothing.  Fontaine, either fearless or stupid, pushed past and knelt beside Hawberk.  Lamont and Carol entered after him, guns raised, eyes everywhere else.

“He’s breathing,” Fontaine confirmed.  “Can’t find a wound or anything.  Not even a bruise.  Maybe they drugged him?”

Maybe they did!

The gravelly giggle echoed through the tight, metal chamber, its origin obscured by the resonance as Lamont wheeled, trying to find a target.  Then the door to the room slammed shut, accompanied by the solid thunk of a large deadbolt sliding into place.  He ran to the door, but he knew, even without examining it, that the four of them weren’t breaking out of there any time soon.


Beau’s head buzzed.  That was certainly interesting.  And timely!  The Austrians’ interjection had, if not saved his reputation, at least postponed the trouble he was in.  And the suspense after they burst in had been something to behold: The crowds thrummed while the Austrians, Hawberk, most of the center table all followed a defined, low-variance track.  In nearly every world, the stupid mustache-man was going to walk up and grab Hawberk, and everyone else was going to stay still about it.  Except as soon as those two left, Lamont Sterling and Carol–Charlotte?  Charolette?–lit up like violent carnival rides.  The images and scenarios were so complex, Beau actually couldn’t tell when they were going to fire, though it seemed pretty clear that they would.  And when their retaliation resolved, and the room exploded in brilliant chaos, he found his eyes drawn to a particular constancy across the table.  Lamont and Carol–and Fontaine, he supposed–were all about to make their erratically-defined circuit, chasing after the retreating danger, but Hawberk’s friend, this General Barner, was very determined to bolt in the opposite direction.  It wasn’t like the crowds shrinking away from the scary soldiers, either–the path of his possibilities would fray in that case, drawn toward the numerous hiding spots he might seek.  No, he was going somewhere with a plan.

There were lots of bodies going in the same direction, but their eyes were still on Lamont’s pursuit.  Beau figured he was likely the only one to have noticed Barner’s odd behavior, so as the others made off, he made his own chase, eager to find what the general was up to and how it played into Wilde’s web of plans and worries.

As he pursued the general through the crowd, he had to push his way past a number of bodies overwhelmed by stay-or-go confusion as Louis Castaigne attempted to rally them all to a calm and coordinated evacuation.  It was going middlingly, and by the time he reached the hallway, there were not zero hysterical passengers running alongside him and Barner.  It all had an upside, though: In the diminished crush outside the ballroom–and the sparser chaos that emerged as the ship suddenly heaved sideways, throwing Beau, the general, and at least fifteen other passengers forcefully into the opposite wall–Beau’s intentions were thoroughly disguised.  If the general had reservations about being followed, which, judging by his visible agitation, he might have, it was still unlikely he would be able to identify Beau tailing him amidst the masses.

Increasing his following distance as Barner found the stairs, Beau followed him down to the uppermost passenger deck.  Waiting just around the corner of the stairwell, he heard a door slam shut.  Taking the cue, he entered the empty hallway and attempted to discern which door the general had disappeared behind.  It wasn’t especially difficult, considering his abilities.  He simply concentrated on the doors themselves.  The majority remained dull, inert, illuminated only by the most remote possibility that someone–Beau himself, most likely–would try to force them open in the near future.  One fluttered far more than the rest.  Parsing the outcomes that fanned before him, Beau recognized a bell curve spanning seven to fifteen minutes out.  He leaned against the wall, pulled out his notepad, and waited, jotting his impressions of the rapid development of events as the general settled whatever affairs remained in his quarters.

It was a tense wait, his volume of thoughts notwithstanding.  The general was taking longer than the mean outcome, it seemed, and his emergence was now looking closer to–Beau checked his watch–the fourteen-minute mark.  This would not have been especially concerning if not for the gunfire that he was beginning to hear.  It seemed that whatever altercation Lamont and Carol were chasing was not going to be contained to the other side of the ship.  More distressingly, the sounds were getting closer.  Finally, the general’s door opened, and he emerged into the hallway with a satchel slung over one shoulder and a revolver in his free hand, both of them appearing somewhat disjointed in contrast to the tuxedo he had not changed from.  He paused, noticing Beau.

“Son, what are you doing here?”

Beau lowered his notepad, but before he could respond, a pair of Austrians ran into view at the end of the hallway behind the general.  One of them turned, aiming his rifle the way he came, only to collapse backward, blood spattering from his face as a deep blast rang through the corridor.  General Barner whirled, aiming his gun at the remaining Austrian.  The Austrian–Beau realized belatedly it was their mustached ringleader–seemed much more preoccupied with whatever was chasing them.  He raised his own pistol at the unseen assailant, only to be struck by a whirling projectile, pinning him by the shoulder to the wall behind him and knocking the pistol from his grasp.

General Barner lowered his own gun, confused at this development, and Beau took a step forward to view the situation beside him.  The object that had fastened the struggling soldier to the wall appeared to be…a fire axe.  Certainly an unusual throwing weapon.  He wondered which of the combatants from the ballroom might have thrown it, but his wonder was interrupted by a sharp inhalation from Barner.  He turned inquisitively to face the general.

It is a strange thing to watch realization–to which one has no access of his own–dawn on another man’s face.  Beau had seen it once before, at a field hospital just off the Front, but that man had taken his realization to the grave.  Beau had not been sure at the time what emotion had accompanied it, but now, as he saw the color drain from Barner’s face, he recognized it as terror.

The next few seconds were distressingly eventful.  General Barner shakily raised his revolver, moving his thumb to cock the hammer.  At this same moment, a figure in a tan trenchcoat–not Lamont, not Fontaine, and certainly not Carol–rounded the corner, scooping up the dead Austrian’s rifle in a smooth, improbably fast motion.  Before Barner had finished cocking his gun, the newcomer had swept the rifle under his arm one-handed, aimed down the hallway, and fired.  Beau froze as Barner staggered to the floor, clutching his stomach.

“Ricky!” the newcomer called.  “Foundya!  Good to see ye one last time!”  Beau took a step back as Barner groaned but froze again as the man hefted the shotgun in his other hand in Beau’s direction.  “Tsk!  No movin’ now, laddie.  We’ve got business ‘n a moment, we do.”  His accent was thick, a bizarre mix of Irish and Caribbean, perhaps?  Beau couldn’t quite place it.

And now that he had a moment to study the man, he wasn’t sure what to make of him.  His coat was bedazzled with such a multitude of medals, pins, and other miscellaneous adornments that he practically jingled as he approached.  His face, visible, wild-eyed beneath the brim of his fishing cap, was unkempt, dirty, his beard untrimmed and uneven, and his clothes beneath the coat appeared to be a patchwork combination of numerous nations’ military uniforms, right down to the apparently mismatched boots.

“Aug…” the general groaned.

“Y’don’t got much breath left, Ricky.  ‘Sides, I be goin’ by Kneecap now.  Captain Kneecap.”  Barner looked up in pained bewilderment.  Despite his attempts to hold it in, blood was pouring from his wound, running over his hands and spreading across the white of his shirt.  “So…” Kneecap continued, yawning.  He gestured to Barner’s satchel.  “Ye bring the good stuff?”

“Not…for…” Barner wheezed.

“Not for me?  But ye see, it’s all for me, and for all the rest besides!”  Kneecap smiled.  “It’ll do, Ricky.  Bye, now!”  So suddenly that Beau’s sixth sense didn’t even predict it, Kneecap flicked the barrel of his shotgun up at Barner’s head and fired.  Between the sound of the blast and the hot, wet spray of blood, Beau found himself staggering backward.

He took a deep, panicked breath–the air tasted like salt and iron and powder–and refocused his dizzied gaze on Captain Kneecap, who just stared at him quizzically.

“Ye alright there, laddie?”

“You, uh, mentioned business?” Beau stuttered.  The world was pulsing as blood pounded through his temples.

“Aye, we–waitta minute, let me guess…”  Kneecap froze, locking his off-tempo swagger into complete and uncanny motionlessness.  From it, Beau perceived a clear line of consecution emanating from him: In exactly ten seconds, Kneecap would slowly angle his shotgun at Beau and fire.  95% chance.

“Wait, no, please,” Beau objected.  “Let’s t–”  Kneecap laughed as the specters of possibility vanished around him.

“Ye can see somethin’ from that, then?” he asked, either mirthful or mocking–Beau couldn’t tell which.  “Yer one of us, all right.  Come on, then!”  He tossed the Austrian rifle in his left hand to the ground, grabbed Barner’s satchel, and turned back down the hallway.

After a few paces, he looked over his shoulder.  Beau tepidly met his gaze, having not yet mustered the courage to move.

“Ye comin’?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Are ye comin’?  We got places to be!”

Dazed, Beau wandered after him.  Was this a dream?  Had he gotten shot at some point in this process?  Was this “Captain Kneecap” some sort of psychological manifestation of his disturbed subconscious?  He halted abruptly, not realizing Kneecap had stopped to consider the Austrian ringleader.  The man had managed to pry the fire axe from his shoulder and had collapsed, heaving, against the wall, his pistol inches out of reach.  Kneecap did not seem especially concerned about the firearm, however.  Instead, he seemed vexed, peering into the man’s enraged glare.

“I started wondering, since it happened, I don’t know why,” he said.  For a moment, his mercurial, affected accent was gone, and he sounded like an American Midwesterner.  “If I had the opportunity to go back and kill Hitler, would I do it?”

“What…?” Beau asked, looking between the two men.  The Austrian’s rage was now tinged with confusion and some shade of fear.

“I think yes,” Kneecap said.  He pointed his shotgun at the man’s head and pulled the trigger.

Beau winced again as the red and black mist pelted him.  Kneecap looked back, a deranged twinkle in his eye.

“Alright now, laddie–back to the ship!”

“The…ship?” Beau asked.

Top Image: Danger 5

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