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Chapter LIX

“Do not worry,” said Necropolis. He was sitting at one of the pews, his legs kicked up on the headrest in front of him. There was a hymn book flopped over one knee and Nikolas was smiling. “What we need to do is not complicated.”

“Are we talking about the ten-hour long ceremony with an entire freight car of exotic compounds and rare animal parts, and enough priests for a baseball game? That ceremony? The Gemini program seems somewhat less complicated.”

“Reasonably complicated, is how I’d describe it.”

“Then what are you talking about?”

“The ceremony is window-dressing. I need the priests and their descendants to keep this place sacred and unmolested, and they need something to believe in. We both get something.

“No, Spaceman, what I was referring to was your part in all of this. All you have to do is survive. After that your life will become as complicated or as simple as your will dictates.”

“I don’t buy that either.”

It was late in the day, and the change had begun for Necropolis. His face was drawn and tight, like his skull was pressing up through his flesh. His hair grayed and thinned and when he moved he did so by hobbling around on a cane. A few dozen minutes and he would be reduced to his wheel chair. This waning lingered longer each day and each day was a bit more dramatic.

“Are you not the master of your own fate?” Necropolis asked. “Have you given any thought to your plans for the future?”

“I don’t even plan out what pants I’ll wear.”

“Trust me when I say that nothing will change after tonight except the resources available to you.”

“So, if I scoot back to my grubby little room in Casablanca, that’s going to be just hunky dory with the Master?”

“That is not a choice, only a refusal. Much will be clear to you after the ceremony.”

Necropolis’s tone suggested finality, but Spaceman wasn’t quite ready to let the question go.

“And somewhere in your life as a Greek fisherman’s son, you got this over-riding need to start a revolutionary terrorist organization, set up a training base in the Antarctic, and generally do your best to take over the world? This was what, your plan all along?”

“It’s complicated.”

Spaceman laughed and returned to watching the street of Santa Rosa. If he had choice he wouldn’t be here. That’s what he thought. If he truly had a choice in this, he would have convinced the crew in the airplane to leave the Delta Omega Base the second he boarded it and left Necropolis and his inherited ambition to freeze to death on the ice. But the great truth of his life was that he never had a choice.

Spaceman took out his snuff box, long empty, and tossed it back in forth between his hands. “What are you going to do about Shield and the rest?”

“Entering Santa Rosa will be difficult tonight. If they do manage to get past our protection they will find it even more difficult to leave,” then, even more firmly, “Their part in these events was at best a side show. They are about to become irrelevant.”

Once the worst of the heat had tamped down, work around the church proceeded quickly. The entire able bodied population of the town and several others besides were mustered to the task of stripping the church of its siding and roof. Within two hours all that remained was the frame, constructed of ancient carved mahogany, and an improvised roof of thatched, dried straw. The pews were carted away and the floorboards removed plank by plank. What remained below was the Pit. The only element that remained of the erstwhile sanctuary was the altar, which proved to be merely the tip of a colossal fist of rock thrusting upwards from the basement. The intricate carvings extended downwards, some of these bas-reliefs taking on the appearance of chronologies, histories worked into the stone. One reoccurring figure was a man with a long, narrow rod and an exaggerated pair of fangs.

“The Staff God,” said Necropolis, although with the sun down, perhaps that name was no longer appropriate. The change was nearly complete. He had resumed ownership of the frail, half-paralyzed body of the Master. No wonder it had been so difficult for Section Starfire to find out any information about the man, he was literally a person with two bodies.

“Looks friendly,” Spaceman said, pointing to the carvings of ritual slaughter laid at the deity’s feet.

“Times were not always easy for me,” said the withered creature. “But there were always rewards for those with the patience to look for them.” He gestured to other carvings of bacchanal parades, and legions of limber odalisques.

A few of the Master’s retainers came forward to ease him into a balsa palanquin. He now was so enfeebled that Spaceman feared for him actually being able to complete the elaborate rites.

“What happens once the transfer happens?”

“To me?”

“Well, yes, but also Necropolis? Does he die?”

The Master shifted in his seat as a servant struggled to place a heavy-looking golden head-dress on his crown. He sighed. “He will not die. His fate will be yours to decide.”

“How do you mean?”

“His will be a difficult adjustment, especially given the time that we have been joined. I would not expect Nichalaus to survive much beyond this week.”

“But, as you say, that’s for me to decide.”

The old man’s lips twitched in amusement. “That’s right.”

Around them light from dozens of torches blazed. The servants had almost completed their preparations. From the shadows strode men wearing strange pale robes. Some bore poles with long pendants, others carried wood scepters and strange bejeweled instruments. One of the robed men carried a wreath of pungent herbs and flowers which he draped around the tip of the altar rock. A hush fell upon the priests and servants. The four strong men carrying the Master brought him close enough to the rock that he could easily reach out and touch it. There was one more moment of tension filled silence before the Master raised his voice:

“There have been words for this moment for as long as there have been throats to carry them. These words have changed, altered themselves or been obliterated altogether. I speak now in English for the benefit of the next in a line of unbroken succession. The words that cloak this moment are ephemeral and all but meaningless. What is significant is the act itself. The moment that marks the end of one era and the beginning of the next. Do you have the courage to confront that moment, Spaceman?”

Now that was a weird question, thought Spaceman, only someone who didn’t know him would even bother asking it. He took a step backwards from the gathered priests and The Master’s outstretched hand. The Master’s face registered surprise.

“I-,” and Spaceman paused. What was he trying to say? Who was the person about to unmake himself? He shook his head and the priest reached for him.

In this slender interruption came a loud and unfamiliar noise. The crack of a whip and the roar of an inferno. Two priests dropped their instruments and rushed into the dark to confront an intruder. Spaceman smelled sulphur and ozone. The air hissed and the pair dissolved into vigorous green flames. A woman walked around the two human pyres and into the light.

“This rite is abominable and shall be cast down,” intoned D, her hands already busy snatching another flammenstod from the ether.

Spaceman sighed. So much for uncomplicated.

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It was immediately apparent they were traveling downwards, not up. Marcus wondered aloud what sort of transportation they were going to find at the bottom of the station.

“A submarine,” Simplex answered matter-of-factually.

“A submarine encased in ice?”

“No,” Hugo said. “Open water.”

“This whole station floats?”

“Of course! That is what it is designed to do. No section of ice, however deep, could be guaranteed to support a structure this massive. What would happen if a freak warming spell intruded into the deep Antarctic? The builders of this place designed it to melt a hole through the ice into the cavern and float there like a rubber duck in a bathtub. This underside is a convenient place to store submarines, no?”

“Very convenient,” D said sunnily.

“Ah, we are coming to the first challenge of our escape from the Delta Omega.”

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