Outworld/The Silver Cross
Making A Call
Author: 'Ten Count' Markowitz
No, dad, I know. Nobody’s ever crossed divisions like this before, I get it. That doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable, do-”
“Yes, dad, it’s unprecedented, I heard you the first time. Can I just get a wo-”
“I know I’m good in Accounts, dad, thank you but for crying out loud, will you at least listen to WHY?”
“No, mum, I know I haven’t been around in a while, I’ve been busy!”
“Trying to shape a new fucking world! Gift of the Shapers, geomantic engines, Shapers of the Nexus bearing witness! Is any of this ringing any fucking be-”
“Yes, I’m sorry, you were right. Be polite, be efficient, plan to kill everybody you meet, I remember, I remember, but can I expl-”
“Because I’m the most famous Margin Driver on the bloody planet right now! Everybody who watches the bloody broadcasts knows my face and my name and therefore knows your bloody name as well! You wanted a bloody Markowitz dynasty, here you go, silver platter and everything! Point is, I’m well aware I’m the best Accounts Exec around, I want to diversify. It’s a brave new bloody world out there, if we don’t evolve we’re going to get left behind.”
“Yes, that means building relationships with Joy Effect, yes with Protean Dynamics as well. It’s for the good of Opportunity as a whole, we have to struggle together for o-”
“No, dad, Scarlet and I are not ‘an item’. Mum, tell him nobody talks like that any more.”
“I don’t care what the gossip rags say! We’re business partners, that’s why you see us together! Mergers, acquisitions, board meetings, strategy, all of that!”
“Mum, we are NOT having the grandchildren conversation again! Shit is going WRONG with the Nexus, I’m still dealing with the Ziggy fallout, the Combine are a law unto themselves and I can’t get hold of half the fucking Penitents! I have bigger things to care about right now! Put dad back on the phone!”
“I wouldn’t have to be rude if you two could focus for more than a minute at a go! I’m trying t-”
“I know, dad, I know, I know, I...”
“...I swear, orphans don’t know how good they’ve got it.”
Authors: 'Ten Count' Markowitz & Soar Ever Upwards
The benefit of being a Margin Driver was that there was a wealth of history and tradition behind you. There were rules and regulations and, when you ran into a situation where the rules got in your way, you asked around. Somebody else always had a technicality or a loophole they were willing to share and if that still didn’t do the trick, you just ignored the rules entirely. If you were smart about it, nobody was ever going to find out. Even if they did, the odds were good that you’d get away with it.
The drawback of being a Shaper was that absolutely none of that was the case.
Oh, it was undeniably enjoyable being able to warp the world as you saw fit – if power really was an aphrodisiac, being a Shaper could have teased arousal out of a statue – but there were so many irritants Ten Count had had no idea he even needed to consider. For instance, before he’d left for his grand tour, he’d tried to alter the fifth floor at the Cross to cool it off and make it more fit for purpose as a place to come down, get your energy back and generally recuperate.
He’d come back the next morning and it was louder than ever, like a petulant child having a tantrum and refusing to give up their security blanket. He’d asked around and apparently, the territories existed partly as manifestations of the Shaper’s own personality; what that said about Ten Count himself was best left unconsidered.
Something else he’d learned recently was that jaunting all over the Outworld was absolutely knackering and, as Ten Count shambled into the foyer of the Harmony Complex, it would have been charitable to say he only felt like death. “Alistair,” he yawned, greeting the smart young gentleman manning the reception desk, “what’s been going on?”
“Not a lot, Mr. Markowitz, sir. Good to have you back.” Alistair was one of his brighter prospects from the Ten-Step School and at fifteen, he was probably overdue his nickname by now. “Did Valtaria meet your expectations?”
The groan that Ten Count made in reply defied spelling. “It was fine. Send somebody down to my office in a bit, I need...pfh, I need many things, and I want the world’s longest massage. Make it happen.” It was the thought of impending physical comfort that kept him walking down the endless stairs, his legs and knees complaining every aching step of the way.
Besides the pair of thugs standing guard at the door, the Tenth Floor was unsurprisingly deserted. With the master of the house not in attendance, there was no reason to keep his inner sanctum locked down especially tightly, particularly since the spectacular failure of the neuronetwork in the Sub-Chamber that the effervescent Scarlet Crave had been kind enough to set up down here. “Battersby, Beaufort.”
Judging by the look one gave the other, Ten Count would have bet most of his arsenal that if he’d come down the stairs in quieter boots, he’d have caught one of them asleep on the job. Probably the boy, if he’d been pushed into a decision: he looked less alert than she did. “Sir! Welcome back, welcome back,” stuttered the boy, trying to stand straighter without it being obvious. “It’s an honour to see you here!” “It’s an honour to see me here, Beaufort?” replied Ten Count, in as long-suffering a tone as he could muster. “Outside my offices, at my establishment, where you’ve been standing guard, it’s an honour. How’s the sister, Battersby?”
"Really well, thanks sir. Being a total savage because I told her she’s not allowed to start at the school until next year.“
“Glad to hear it. If I catch you sleeping on the job, you’ll need a plastic surgeon, my lad.” Patting Beaufort’s cheek gently, Ten Count slid open the door and stepped through into the cool darkness of the Tenth Floor. He didn’t like to go in for open threats against graduates from his school. But it had to be done sometimes to remind them who was boss. There were reputations to uphold.
The casual viewer, perusing holovid security footage of “Ten Count” Markowitz’s office, would have taken a moment to admire the décor. They’d have appreciated the extensive yet tasteful collection of projectile weaponry hanging from the walls, the well-polished oak desk, and the poise and quirky dress sense of the young man who rifled at speed through the desk drawers. They might, on the other hand, have winced at the sound of the desk drawers slamming shut, or at the man in question’s cheerful but entirely tuneless humming. And if, by then, they weren’t beginning to feel a modicum of sympathy for the office’s proper owner, the sight of his wayward guest adjusting the height of his desk chair would surely have moved them to it.
But at that point, this entirely theoretical viewer would have found themselves slammed bodily to the floor. Groaning in confusion, they would have felt helpless as a pinned butterfly, held in place by steely and inhuman strength. Still, not having had the time to pause the holovid, they would have heard the unmistakable sound of someone climbing on top of the desk. The following sound – being somewhat more ambiguous – they would have been unlikely to have placed correctly as that of a seasoned acolyte of a monastic order bouncing up and down while stood on one foot, humming Karli’s “I don’t hate your beautiful soul (except when I do, baby)”.
And, as cold steel plunged into that luckless viewer’s throat – as they felt their lifeblood drain out onto the stained, metaphorical linoleum – they might have glimpsed movement in the far corner of the holovid. They might even have noted (their vision blurring all the while; thoughts of their charming partner and three small children flashing desperately through their mind) that the movement was accompanied by the creak of an opening door.
Then all would have faded into the cold listlessness of death.
For the past seventy two and a half minutes, Soar Ever Upward’s grin had become increasingly fixed. At the sound of his quarry’s approach, it lost that quality. He drummed his feet on the desk and clapped his hands together. “You said there’d be gelato, Mister Markowitz! Only I couldn’t find any!”
The only way to properly render Ten Count’s lack of speech would have been through a series of unchained single letters. The sight of Soar, the Penitent he classed as a teenager and knew had to be at least four times his own elder, sitting on his desk wiped all of the complete words from his mental dictionary for a few moments. “Battersby? Would you mind joining me in my office, please?” he shouted over his shoulder.
"Here, s-” The young woman cut herself off, obviously seeing Soar for the first time.
“I feel I should make some introductions. This,” Ten Count started, slipping straight into his teaching tone, “is Soar Ever Upward.” Sitting on the desk, Soar’s grin widened and he waved frantically. “I know the Penitent look is extremely in fashion these days, but Soar here is a real-life Penitent. One of the...Hellions, is that it?”
“A Hellion?!” Soar sounded almost convincingly wounded at the implication. “Markowitz, how could you? After all the letters! The promises! The declarations of undying love!” He recovered himself in time to add, “I am of course an Adjutant, ma’am. Behind every great person, we stand.”
“Of course you do,” said Ten Count indulgently, clapping a hand on Battersby’s shoulder. “This, Soar, is Alison ‘Assault and’ Battersby. Graduated with colours from my Ten-Step School of Margin Driving, with a distinction in- remind me of the course, child.”
“Brute Force Trauma, sir.”
“That’s the one. I was quite impressed by her general lack of scruples and willingness to go for the eyes, so I kept her on retainer.” Ten Count patted the young woman on the back. “I am, however, questioning why I decided to do that when she seems to have let an intruder from another nation altogether into MY PRIVATE QUARTERS.”
Ten Count put his hand up to silence her. “Don’t want to hear it. Now get out before I forget myself and treat you as hostile.” As Battersby scurried to the safety of outside, the grumpy and tired Shaper rounded the desk and slumped down into his chair. “Right. So, what the fuck are you doing here?”
Few people could mime being stabbed in the heart with quite such realism. Especially while rotating themselves through one hundred and eighty degrees. “Didn’t you miss me at all?” Soar asked, in some consternation. He continued without waiting for a response. “Man, maybe I’ll just hang out with your kids, instead. They’re way cooler than you are, when they’re awake – probably – and I bet they keep more interesting stuff in their desks.” As was usual for Soar, this was spoken as a monologue that was more or less impossible to interrupt. As if to punctuate, he dug the heel of his right shoe into the surface of the desk. It made a noise suggestive of scuff marks.
“Feet off the desk,” said Ten Count.
Soar rocked delightedly backwards. “Man, this place is awesome! You have, like, guards, and everything! Kids these days, am I right?” Without any warning, he launched himself from the desk, landing just behind Ten Count’s left shoulder. Then he draped himself over him like a very enthusiastic monochrome shawl. “Got their aethernet, designer drugs, cultural identities…“ He checked off these properties on his fingers. “And they reckon the spiritual’s just some kind of a fad.” The grin softened into something that displayed fewer teeth, and he poked Ten Count in the chest. “Makes you wonder why we keep ‘em around.”
About the only thing Ten Count bothered to dignify this with was a grunt, which Soar was free to read as he liked. He yanked open the drawer of his desk, and found the contents only lightly rearranged. “Reminds me,” he said, by way of explanation, locating a packet of brightly coloured powder and emptying it into his mouth.
“You think that stuff’ll rot your brain first, or your soul?” Soar asked, curiously.
“With a bit of luck, I'll be dead before I start noticing either.” Ten Count felt a muscle in his neck flex involuntarily - in about a minute, Vitamin Glee would kick in and help soften the world's hard edges down. “So I know, how did you get in here? Do I have to replace anybody you've killed?”
As though his disapproval would make any difference, Soar grimaced exaggeratedly as Ten Count turned back to him. Not a second later, his smile returned, and he rocked back on his heels. “You know me.” He removed his arms from Ten Count’s shoulders, holding his palms up flat in the universal sign: no weapons. He wiggled his fingers. “Total pacifist. Redemption doesn’t come cheap, you know?” He folded his hands behind his head. “I was probably getting too reliant on that stuff, anyway. It’s kind of a big deal, taking a life, even if it does save you twenty minutes of sneaking.” The question duly dodged, he added, “It’s all free range sneaking, now. I’m an ethical sneaker.”
“I don’t... you’re not- you’re not making any sense. Ethical sneaking, what does that even mean?” Ten Count sighed, lacking the energy to even attempt to keep up. “Soar, dearest, I’m too tired to threaten you properly. Can we just...” He made the universal gesture for ‘get to the point’. “Why the stealth? Why the intrusion? Why th- hold on, did you adjust my chair?!” Soar’s innocent expression was answer enough. “You cheeky little shit!”
“Maybe,” said Soar, smoothly interrupting the noises of anguish that followed, “I just wanted to say ‘hi’.” His tone was equal parts amusement and condescension. He leaned in again to rest his arms on Ten Count’s shoulders, and his chin on the top of his head, and sighed dramatically. “Didn’t you wanna see me? …Dearest?”
Flailing to shake Soar off him, Ten Count ducked down to put his chair back the way he damn well liked it. “’I just wanted to say hi’, he says”, muttered the narked Margin Driver, “after he sneaks into my private establishment and pokes his nose in my bloody business. I didn’t do that when I went to chat to Crooked, I didn’t do that in the Wyrdwood and I didn’t do that in Combine space, no matter how tempting it was, because I bloody respect personal property!” It probably wasn’t intentional that his voice got quite as high as it did.
Seemingly unperturbed, Soar perched back on the edge of the desk. "Huh," he said, as though a great deal had just been revealed to him. "Dawnie did say you'd get mad if I showed up."
"Dawn talks about me, then. I bloody hope so, the amount of work I did for her last time ou- WHY IS THERE A SCREW MISSING?" Ten Count ground his teeth and tried to tamp down his desire to headbutt the edge of the desk. Soar was bloody irrepressible, like the younger brother he'd never had and didn't especially want to begin with. "To the hells with it. Come on, we're leaving," he said, standing up and grabbing Soar by the shoulder. "You wanted gelato, let's find some bloody gelato."
"Really?!" For an instant, it was entirely possible to believe that Soar was both as young as he looked, and as carefree as he acted. “Like, really-really?” Ice cream, it seemed, had quite the transformative effect.
"Look, I'm sure I said this in the last letter, I don't understand the point of Extreme Celebrity Postal Delivery Worker. Why do celebrities have to be jammed into everything that's fun or new on the networks?" The promise of gelato had almost made Soar behave himself on the journey up to the Harmony Complex - there had only been three delays where Ten Count had had to grab the Penitent away from some interesting sight or fascinating person or piece of shiny metal – and, as Scarlet's narcotic masterpiece had taken hold, Ten Count began to feel almost… cheerful. "Take something like... like, Hazard Court! I could watch really talented players play full-contact badminton and dodge swinging buzzsaw blades really well, or I could watch celebrities do it and be terrible at it. I don't understand why people want celebrities in everything, I just don't."
Soar nodded sagely. "I probably shouldn't say this, but I do prefer Extreme Professional Postal Delivery Worker. Amateur is pretty good, too, but they never do the hardest routes." He stopped in his tracks. "Hey- hey, Mister Markowitz! Do you think I'd look good in this?"
It was a question uttered by very few people when presented with a row of souvenir baseball caps. The stall featured designs in a variety of flattering shades, from neon green to bright magenta. Many were encrusted with glitter; each one sported a slogan. Soar was eyeing a tie-dye piece emblazoned with 'I <3 SILVER CROSS'.
Ten Count pinched the bridge of his nose. "You try to embrace the Joy Effect style, you bring some colour into your look and this is what happens. Put it down, it looks hideous. You wouldn't even get Chain Dog to endorse these."
"It's great!" Soar insisted. "Oh, man. You're right, though. I'm not allowed colours anymore, am I?" He retracted his hand quickly, like touching the fabric might have violated some sacred Order tenet, and instead fiddled awkwardly with the buckles on one very white fingerless glove.
"That, and it looks repulsive." No Margin Driver was a stranger to using their body as a billboard - hell, Ten Count had been the public face of Torgue Armaments for years - but there were limits. He read one of them out loud. "'My Best Mate Got Mugged At The Silver Cross And All I Got Was This T-Shirt'. I am going to find whoever produces this and make a suit out of what's left of their skin. This is grotesque! I run a high-class establishment – this is the tackiest thing I've seen in forever!"
At that, Soar's expression switched straight back to 'irritatingly chipper' - like flicking a switch. "Let 'em be," he said, indulgently. "You don't know how much I missed this kind of stuff." More earnestly – resting a hand on Ten Count's arm – he added, "It's important, okay?"
"Fine." The sudden change in tone was jarring, but Ten Count knew full well there was more to Soar than the 'hyperactive madman' persona and assumed this was merely his hidden depths breaking the surface for once. Pointing at the man behind the stall, he growled, "Find somewhere else to sell this stuff or I'll drop you off Harmony's roof, clear?" Without waiting for a reply, he strode back into the foyer of the Harmony Complex for the second time in less than an hour.
This time, Alistair at the reception desk was a lot less calm. "Mr. Markowitz, sir, you have a visitor. Back office, back office. Demanded your time rather urgently, sir."
"Alistair, I'm busy," Ten Count said, gesturing at Soar, who was looking around the foyer, face unreadable. "Entertaining a member of another nation has to take precedent over... who is it, anyway?"
"One of us, sir. "Blue Eyes" Zielinski, he came needing you directly."
Why Alistair was so concerned about it he had no idea. Ten Count's little slice of Opportunity Knoxx was full of Margin Drivers he'd worked with or against on the other side of the Breach. It made sense that they'd been reconstituted into his creation. Admittedly, "Blue Eyes" Zielinski he'd have happily left behind: the man was a maniac that somebody had made the mistake of giving power – and, worse, he was a smart maniac. If there was a chance the people he terrorised had the money to put a contract on him, it wasn't happening. Old Opportunity was full of poor people to brutalise.
"Raincheck?" Soar asked, sounding like a man in mourning for whatever sugary monstrosity he had been planning on ordering.
Ten Count waved his hand dismissively. "This won't take long, come on. Thanks, Alistair." The Driver they called Blue Eyes had made himself at home in the back office, picking dirt from under his nails with an unnecessarily-large flensing knife and making a show of ignoring them both as Ten Count and Soar came in. "Zielinski. This is a sentence I'm saying rather a lot today. What do you want?"
"Well, Mark-" Zielinski began, accent from the gutters, before looking up.
"Hey there!" said Soar. "I'm Soar Ever Upward!"
"Answers my question. What the fuck is a Penitent doing in Opportunity, Markowitz?" the Driver said, not even attempting to hide his growing sneer. "Fraternising with the enemy?"
"None of your business, Blue Eyes, it's Shaper matters." Somebody paying better attention would have spotted how Zielinski's distinctly un-blue eyes widened just a fraction at that. "What do you want that's important enough to bug me?"
Zielinski dropped his knife on the desk. "Nothing I need from you, apparently..." he replied, drawing an equally-oversized pistol out of his shoulder holster and leveling it at Soar. "You brought me a spare."
That same somebody, still watching very closely, might have noticed Soar's expression falter, his smile replaced by something else entirely. But it was gone in a moment, transformed into the kind of grin most often seen in ads for dental biomancy.
"This guy is great!" he exclaimed, in obvious delight. "Can I keep him, Mister Markowitz? Please?"
Ten Count allowed himself a laugh. "Only if you promise to feed and water him and take him for walks. Seriously, Zielinski, what the fuck are you talking about?"
"Alright, you got me," the other Driver said, shrugging. "Cards on the table, I was gonna murder you back here and take your powers, but I don't need to kill you now, do I? We can BOTH have these powers and we can make people really fucking scared of the organisation. Makes sense, right?"
"Oh. Oh, yes, I see." Light was beginning to dawn for Ten Count. "Sorry, Soar, I should have explained. The rumour's gone around that if you kill a Shaper, you take their power and you become a Shaper yourself. So he kills you, he takes your power, he and I terrorise the Nexus when the engines tune up. Makes sense, it's a good plan. Thing is, Soar wants gelato."
"With chocolate sauce," Soar added, helpfully.
Ten Count nodded wisely. "With chocolate sauce. And since he's been talking about it, I realised I want it now as well. Hazelnut or lemon, I haven't decided, so this isn't a fantastic time. We're a bit busy."
With his mouth hanging slightly open, Zielinski looked every inch the uncomprehending thug he was, confused beyond reckoning at why they weren't quailing or begging for their lives. "Are you not understanding? I'm gonna shoot him in the head."
"Holy magnolia!" said Soar, "No one's ever done that to me before." He turned his head very slightly to fix Ten Count with a wide-eyed expression. "You know I can't fight back, right? My life is in your hands!"
"Oh no," replied Ten Count, voice flat and leaden. "Such responsibility. However shall I carry this burden."
"Right. I'm gonna count to three, then I'm pulling this fucking trigger and then I'm shooting you as well." Zielinski broke into a wide grin as the potential of absorbing the power of not one, but two Shapers percolated into his head. "That'll be sick."
"Mm, it will," agreed Ten Count, sounding bland as possible. "You'll have quite the time with it. Shapers can create almost anything - I mean, take this," he added, holding up his communication cube for Zielinski to see. "My comms cube, a great little device. Pair it up to a similar gadget somebody else has and you can keep in contact wherever you are. It's also useful for something else."
"Yeah, it's a great distraction." Zielinski had paid far too much attention to Ten Count's left hand to spot him drawing his pistol.
"Don't-", Soar started, an instant too late and a fraction of a second before the bullet erupted from the back of Zielinski's head, spraying gore all across the back wall.
"That was a waste," he said, in the ensuing silence. "I really wish you hadn't done that."
"What were you expecting? He was completely prepared to shoot you and me both. Doesn't matter that it wouldn't have done anything, the intention was there."
“And I can’t stop you!” There was a note of frustration in Soar's voice that Ten Count had never heard before – though he sounded more miserable than angry. "Don't you get it? I can't affect this world one way or another. You can turn these mortals into paste in front of me, if you like, but I can't..." He stopped, uselessly. "I can't."
"Can't or won't?" Ten Count shrugged, holstering the pistol. "Look, I thought you and your mob were all about making sure this new world doesn't suck out loud. Do you actually think keeping that sack of organs around would have made it any better? He wasn't worth the oxygen he was breathing, Opportunity's better off without a psychopath like him wandering around. You know he got his nickname because he liked blue eyes? He had brown eyes, he just liked blue eyes, used to cut them out of people. What part of that do you want hanging around?!”
There was a long pause before Soar replied. "There are things that you can’t..." Again, he stopped. Suddenly he sounded exactly like a parent trying to explain something important to a child. He caught Ten Count’s gaze and held it with disconcerting intensity, and began again. "This world has a certain kind of a balance. Everything is connected into a spiritual whole that- well, it takes years to learn to see it. But we’re all wrapped up in it, because the whole is contained within each individual just as each individual is contained within the whole. So, when I say wrapped up, I kind of mean that each person is the world-" He stopped. "Taking a life is significant, okay? It isn't to be done recklessly. I don't need or want to be involved in that sort of thing."
Ten Count whistled. Of all the things he could have encountered, deep philosophical theory from one of the last people he'd expected to hear that from was fairly low on his list. "Damn, Soar. The way you talk, it's like you think that worthless bastard actually had value to the world." With another shrug, he stood up. "Look, I can't promise I won't need to kill anybody else today. Will it help if I say I'll try to just... like, incapacitate them non-fatally? That any better?"
It had the opposite effect to what he intended: Soar's expression softened into one of extremely condescending sympathy. Very sincerely, he asked, "Why are you so determined to destroy pieces of yourself?"
"I wasn't joking when I said you made me want gelato as well." Ten Count was deliberately avoiding the question, but there was no reason to let Soar know that. "Are you coming?"
Soar’s smile was far too knowing, but at least he sounded more like himself. "Of course! You promised!"
In spite of its name, Harmony Ice was one of three different ice cream parlours within the Harmony Complex. But it was by far the busiest that evening. Myriad casual observers – at least three clad in souvenir t-shirts – watched two men enter. The first strode purposefully to the counter, while the second trotted eagerly behind him. Then the first, with a look of mild embarrassment, ordered one scoop of hazelnut gelato, and one scoop of lemon. Seeing the price of cones, he did a double take, and made a comment about daylight robbery. His companion chirpily informed him it was night, then demanded scoops of chocolate, fudge, chocolate fudge, salted caramel, cookie dough, and green tea gelato, presented atop a pile of waffles and drizzled with chocolate sauce. And a green tea.
Once it was confirmed that the green tea was, indeed, brewed at eighty degrees Celsius (no higher), they sat down opposite one another in a red leather booth. It had a clear line of sight to the door. As a waiter brought their order, the first man said, “Bloody hells,” in genuine surprise. The second collapsed in peels of laughter.
Perhaps an hour later, the first man excused himself. Left alone, briefly, with the dregs of his fourth cup of tea, the second removed something from his pocket and dropped it in the centre of the table. He stood without haste, flicked invisible dust from the collar of his jacket, and left.
On his return, “Ten Count” Markowitz discovered an abandoned table, a sizeable bill, and the missing screw from his desk chair.
Sunk Cost Fallacy
Authors: Thoughtful Spider and “Ten Count” Markowitz
Some said it was planned, some called it an accident, but regardless of who was right, over the years the Margin Drivers had evolved from the titanic, globe-spanning conglomerate it had once been into that most archaic of financial concepts. Good business practices and old tricks passed down from parent to child, nepotism running rife, grudges and personal beef infecting the market...in everything but name, the Margin Driver organisation had become a family business.
“Ten Count” Markowitz was living tribute to the process. By now, he imagined his story had spread fairly effectively - the third generation of Markowitzes to take up arms in the pursuit of brute profit, the first to show the Shaper’s gift - and despite most of his baser urges, Ten Count had found himself starting to think maybe his father had been onto something all along. There was good marketing potential into making sure the dynasty carried on and, if he played his cards right or cheated enough, he’d be able to carve out a nice big slice of the new Opportunity in the name of Markowitz, the new leaders of the Margin Drivers.
Of course, spanners were being hurled into his plan’s delicate inner workings on a fairly consistent basis. For one, it all hinged strongly on him being alive when the Nexus’ engines finally powered down - he’d only made it to one Nexus opening and by his count, at least half a dozen other Shapers wanted his kidneys for decorative earrings. Taking those projections, by the time the engines slowed to their final halt, he’d have earned the enmity of between thirty and seven thousand Shapers.
Statistics were often difficult to interpret.
On top of the growing list of folk keen to carve a name on his headstone, the fact remained that information on what Shapers were actually capable of was thin on the ground and no matter how many times his mother dropped increasingly-heavy hints about wanting grandchildren, Ten Count had no idea if it were even possible for two Shapers to procreate. Soar Ever Upward had claimed he and Bethany the accursed Steadfast had many chronologically-unlikely offspring but believing that meant believing Soar, who’d claimed to have every background under the sun in the brief time he and Ten Count had known one another.
He was willing to try, naturally, but after a few spots of bother in the Valtarian Kingdoms and a series of miscommunications that would have been comedic if they hadn’t been quite so painful, Ten Count was equally willing to shelve that plan for the moment and focus on the other dynastic resource he had to provide the new world. The five youngsters who’d been invited to join him in the firing range in his basement were the best and the brightest the Ten-Step School of Margin Driving had to offer and, if they had at least half the smarts they were collectively credited with, understood that this really was the opportunity of a lifetime...with emphasis on lifetime.
“Everybody here? Partington, Merhej, Takhasomi, good. Aizik, hurry up and take a rifle, it doesn’t matter which one.” Looking back out into the bare stone corridor, Ten Count bellowed at the latecomer. “Sundstein! You are wasting everybody’s time and you won’t have much more of that if you don’t HURRY UP.”
“Sorry, sir,” panted the tow-headed boy, the youngest of the lot by some way. All five had promise but, gun to his head, Ten Count would have admitted he had the highest hopes for young Johan before brutally neutralising whoever dared to point a gun at his head.
“Close the door, boy.” Ten Count handed him another rifle from the stockpile and took the final one for himself. “Now everybody’s here...disabling shots.” Lights at the far end of the range flickered on at a gesture, illuminating the human-shaped targets dangling from posts. “Which of you would like to demonstrate how to execute a disabling shot?”
He wasn’t surprised to see Aizik’s hand shoot into the air. Becca was the only one of the group who he’d deemed already worth a nickname - “Dazzle”, from her affection for flashbang grenades - and was probably going to head the next graduation class, but it didn’t do to let her head get too swollen. “Merhej, you.”
Silently, the stocky boy chambered a round and stepped up to the plate. Puberty had hit Merhej like a ton of bricks launched from a rocket-powered catapult, bringing with it solid muscle and sullen grunts in equal measure...but the boy could shoot. A round smashed squarely into the left shoulder of one of the dummies, spinning it around the pole; any human taking that bullet wouldn’t be using their arm for a long time. Merhej gave Ten Count a look over his shoulder - it wasn’t outright disrespect, but there was an undercurrent of insolence to it.
“Not bad. Insofar as you can shoot a target non-lethally, the shoulder is a reasonable place to aim. Sundstein, explain why.”
“It renders the target unable to return fire.” Either Sundstein had developed the ability to speak without opening his mouth, or the vastly more likely scenario...
“Class, Thoughtful Spider,” sighed Ten Count, not bothering to turn around. “Protean Dynamics, Contingency division and woefully undereducated in the concept of personal space. Does anybody wait for an invitation before they rock up to somebody else’s patch or am I the only one who respects the social courtesies?”
Thoughtful Spider smiled blandly. “I was unable to find you elsewhere in the building, I simply worked my way down through the floors.”
“Nobody’s dead, are they?” Ten Count asked, the thought striking him just as it had when Soar had stopped by. “It’s already a labour of love to ensure the Margin Drivers will have a strong enough presence in our new Opportunity without my kids getting killed.”
“Harming your business prospects wouldn’t give a good return on investment. Besides, only one even saw me. Send them by Franchise Centre 8 later and I’ll arrange a complimentary session in the REM palace; it’s rare for that to happen among petitioners”
“Small mercies. Make yourself at h-” Ten Count turned around to finally look at the man he’d chosen to call ally and the word died halfway up his throat; in a manner wildly at odds with the image most had of him, Thoughtful Spider had found a glass of beer from somewhere. “Oh, you already have. Help yourself to a drink, why don’t you?!” He knew all too well his voice had the tendency to involuntarily spike in pitch when he felt offended - it didn’t stop it being embarrassing.
“Yes. A drink.” said Spider, looking into his glass with some suspicion. “To clarify, Markowitz, you are a god.”
“Roundly correct, yes,” replied Ten Count, returning to the rifle range and closing one eye as he took aim. “I like to think of myself more as a force of nature.”
“With all the associate powers and benefits.”
“Of which there are many.” He worked the hammer, back and forth, and felt a tiny stab of joy at the sound. It was a beautiful noise, unmistakeable, terrifying and full of violent promise.
“And yet, with all that power,” Spider took a sip, and Ten Count was sure he winced behind his glasses, “you produce the most objectively terrible beer available in Outworld.”
Ten Count lowered the rifle an inch or two. “Spider, my man, you’ve seen the Cross. You’ve seen the appetites I cater to, right?”
“I’m not implying there’s anything wrong with having the worst alcohol. It’s a credible marketing angle.”
“Marketing ang-” he scoffed, taking close aim. “Between my staff, the folk who deal in pleasures of the flesh, and everything Scarlet is producing, I cater to people who know what they want from life and know that that is extreme sensation with an undertone of scum. Class, pay attention because I will be asking questions,” he added, speaking louder for the benefit of his watching hopefuls. “What are you suggesting, you want it in bulk for your little corner shop?”
Spider mulled it over. “There’s potential; if the sales don’t produce a return, we can always rebrand it and sell it as drain cleaner.”
Ten Count ground his teeth for a moment before pulling the trigger and immediately turning to face the man he’d chosen to call his ally. “Drain cleaner?” he objected, voice again peaking in pitch. “I run a high-class establishment dedicated to providing sex, drugs and violence to the highest calibre of lowlife Opportunity has to offer! If you come here for alcohol, you’ve been wasting my time!” Spitting onto the raw cement, Ten Count handed the rifle off to his student. “Partington, you’re the eldest. You’re going to teach these four how to aim for the extremities and I don’t want to see any of you until you could use that to cut my toenails. You,” he jabbed a finger at Spider, “let’s take a walk.”
The fact the ambience at the Cross got steadily more debauched as his patrons descended lower into the earth had bugged Ten Count since the place had been shaped into existence. Somehow, it all felt just a little too cliched and if he’d had his way, he’d have liked to properly compartmentalise the perversions he catered to. Masochists on the Fourth, sadists on the Fifth, satyriases and nymphomaniacs up at the Second, Gleeks with the Sub-Chambers on Seven, that sort of thing. Unfortunately, every time he made the effort to re-shape the place, he’d leave briefly and come back to find it had changed back in spiteful resistance. Eventually it’d crack and give in entirely; until then, Ten Count had to be happy with his smaller victories, like coercing the Entryway into doing what he wanted.
You could tell who the newest patrons were. They tended to look the part and act right but there was still an ephemeral sense of vulnerability if you knew what to look for, and Ten Count had ensured his staff absolutely did. The smiles and the laughs of the scantily-clad greeters were genuine as they ruthlessly flirted away...but then again, sharks were happy when fresh meat came swimming into their territory. One of them caught his eye - a rangy young man, deep blue lipstick already smudged from the attentions of the greeters - and smiled nervously. “Feels good to be alive, doesn’t it?”
Spider said nothing, merely tapping a finger on the tabletop in mimic of the heavy backbeat. Although there weren’t a huge amount of people around, the room was still close and humid enough to verge on uncomfortable - if he’d judged the man correctly, Spider sensed that was a deliberate choice designed to encourage the Cross’ patrons to disrobe. “If you say so.” Part of him idly wondered whether or not Ten Count’s choice of venue was intended to spark a reaction from him.
“You need to give in once in a while, boyo,” shouted Ten Count, dropping a baggie full of snow-white dust between them. “All work and no play makes Spider really fucking boring, y’know?” Without a word, Spider untwisted the bag and took a pinch of powder, rubbing it against his gums. “You’ll thank me in a few minutes,” added the Margin Driver smugly, tipping a rough line out and swiftly snorting it up.
Ten Count twisted his wrists with a cacophonic crack and sighed. “Right then, now we’re on the level. Lovely to see you, nice weather for this time of year, how’s the family, what do you actually want? You’ve never been the ‘social visit’ type.”
“A professional courtesy. You’ve been out of Opportunity,” Spider tapped twice, Ten Count echoing it a moment later, “Noxx for some time and I thought it prudent to schedule a debrief. The word on the grapevine is that you’ve filed papers to move departments.”
“Filed, processed, registered, notarised, criticised, ostracised and completed, my man.” Ten Count skidded a card across the table. “You are in the presence of Harry ‘Ten Count’ Markowitz, Sales Director and Brand Ambassador to the Chambers. Comport yourself appropriately.”
Spider flicked the card over for a brief inspection. “Congratulations on your promotion.”
The newly-minted Sales Director shrugged lightly. “The organisation always recognised good work and being that I was very much a pioneer into this bravest of new worlds, ensuring that the Margin Drivers keep a tight hold on our share of the markets, it seemed overdue.” Tapping out a second, thinner line, he smirked and added, “Besides, I’m a god and there’s nobody around to dispute it.”
“Yet.” Spider made to take another drink before reconsidering and beckoning one of the waiting staff over. “It seems unlikely in the extreme that in an organisation of millions just one would present with the Shaper’s gift.”
“That’s as maybe.” If the possibility of competition concerned Ten Count it didn’t show, although with his world softening by the second very little short of an explosively hostile takeover would have properly registered. “If they show up, I’ll have more allies, more support and more resources. Either they play along or I’ll have to strongly consider the cost/benefit analysis of wiping them from the Nexus.”
Unconsciously, Spider raised his hand towards the implants above his right eye, before steepling his fingers again. “I’m not entirely familiar with the process maps of the Margin Drivers, but should there not be a few more steps between ally and dead? I ask purely out of a sense of self-preservation.”
“Oh, there are, there are.” Ten Count gestured at another hovering waiter. “Water, would you kindly? Thanks babe. The steps more or less go like this,” he began to tick them off on his fingers, “new Margin Drivers come through the breach as Shapers, new Shapers think they can give me shit because they haven’t assessed the playing field properly, new Shapers get the Nexus’ version of a warning shot, new Shapers still think they can come at the king, new Shapers are never seen again. See? Five steps.” Accepting his drink with a nod, Ten Count smiled. “Should I add in some more to make it to ten, or is that too on the nose?”
“Dare I ask how the process applies to Shapers currently present in the Nexus, who by strategy or the invisible hand haven’t come into your crosshairs?”
“The invisible hand! The boy is learning how to speak Margin Driver, it’s about time!” crowed Ten Count, plucking an unwanted slice of lemon from his glass. “On the whole, I would prefer not to be party in murdering anybody else unless it really can’t get back to me. It’s funny, you and Violet plan out killing our Prime Executive and I’m the one who ends up in the firing line.” He thought for a moment before verbally backspacing. “‘Funny’ may not be the right word for it.”
Spider leaned back and raised his eyebrows, a smirk playing on his lips as he took a sip from his own glass. “I never thought I’d hear you complaining about brand saturation. You were the one who publicly abandoned Ziggy with such an effective soundbite, I just signed off on the project as it neared completion.”
“That is…” started Ten Count, trying to phrase a protest before giving it up. “It was a soundbite, at least. The gods do not do temporary, where did that come from?”
“Perhaps, if I’m adapting Margin Driver turn of phrase from you, you’re picking up a few bon mots from our Joy Effect stakeholders?” suggested Spider.
“Probably. The way this sort of cross-pollination is going, it won’t be long before we’re all Joy Effect. I mean…” Ten Count plucked at his shirt, an especially eye-scorching shade of yellow, “the colour palette is already spreading. I’m the only representative of the organisation this side of the Breach, I can’t be seen to go completely Joy Effect.”
“Is that why none of us have seen you in months?”
The Margin Driver looked quizzical, brow twisting in confusion. “Well, yes? You know where I’ve been, I don’t follow you.”
Spider steepled his fingers and stared at them for a long moment before meeting Ten Count’s eyes. “You wandered the Outworld for almost a year, as I estimate it, during which you were completely out of reliable contact. If you had an itinerary, it was known to you alone.”
The first fingers of a hot flush began to crawl up Ten Count’s neck; it had been a long time since anybody had felt brave enough to try to chide him. “I didn’t realise I was reporting to anybody, old boy,” he said, trying to disguise his irritation behind an avuncular tone.
Spider continued as if he’d not said anything. “You returned from Outworld, briefly hosted the Penitent Soar Ever Upward, and ever since have appeared to spend your time here either watching magically-created facsimilies of people you knew on Homeworld indulging in all the vices you cater for here, or in your private quarters, alone.” Most people found the lack of emotion in the Contingency agent’s voice disconcerting, as it often was; what they failed to grasp was that it was ever more eerie when it wasn’t there.
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Ten Count sighed. “Do you want to cut through the bullshit or should I? This isn’t a debrief, Spider, what are you actually doing here?”
“Would you like me to be blunt?” For one horrifying moment, Ten Count thought Spider was about to do something unprecedented and remove his eyeshades; thankfully, it passed. “Your students are concerned for you. My understanding is that the young man, a “Stalker” Beaumont, who reached out to me was acting on behalf of many others. They’ve asked me to step in and take you out.”
Ten Count’s smile frosted over. “Thoughtful Spider. I know they must have done a lot to you, but I didn’t realise your sense of self-preservation was quite that atrophied, to walk into here and make your intentions that clear. Do you want to follow Ziggy into the grave?”
“Into the gr-ah.” Spider raised his hands in surrender. “That was a poor turn of phrase. ‘Take you out’ to mean ‘socialise’, not in the more euphemistic sense.”
“And for a moment there, I thought everybody was out to get me.” The atmosphere thawed slightly - only slightly. “Fine, you want to socialise? Let’s go.”
“I know a great gelato place.”
While he’d never intended it and couldn’t get rid of it, the Cross’ entrance had an ambience all of its own and all down to the mingling scents of old blood, stale liquor and sweat; Spider noted that the two young Margin Drivers standing patient guard both wore nasal plugs. Ten Count had joked that it was the only way to make sure anybody coming to the Cross really wanted to make it to the Cross, but he knew the brutal aroma was part of what could pass for charm in a poor light. When the Joy Effect elite wanted to feel up Opportunity’s underbelly, with all the danger and sleaze that entailed, they came to the Silver Cross, and the scent was as big a part of the atmosphere as any. He had it on sale as an aftershave.
Just like the rest of the building, the elevators in the Harmony Complex were typical neo-futurist trash, festooned with adverts for NBTV’s latest “smash hit saga” or whatever product the highest bidder wanted to show off. At the time, Ten Count had been very proud of his idea to make them unnecessarily slow and thus maximise the amount of time potential consumers were exposed to it; this time, he was deeply regretting not including some sort of Shaper-specific override.
“Ziggy Love: A Retrospective,” Spider read out, certainly not intentionally sounding amused at his ally’s exasperation. “Follow the tale of the legendary Heartisan from the most humble of beginnings to the highest office in the land.”
“Until he bit off too much and got wasted.” Ten Count bashed his head against the one window as the elevator made its painful slow way up the floors. “I bet they don’t even cast anybody to play me.” At floor 27, the skyline began to drop away and left the Margin Driver with a vague sickness in the pit of his stomach. Ten Count was very much a land-dweller and, Opportunity being the font of smog and light pollution that it was, he rarely saw much of the sky. It struck him that Spider was one of the few Visionaries who got to look up and see stars in his territory - for the denizens of inner Opportunity, the closest they got was a light purple haze, their stars being galaxies formed from the neons and the halogen signs.
“It would seem an unusual creative choice to include the fall of your hero.” The billboard shimmered as Spider touched it, Ziggy’s face dissolving away into another image of Ziggy, this one far more sickeningly heroic. “Unless they intend to portray him as a tragic figure, betrayed by those he held most dear at the height of his powers.”
To Ten Count’s blessed relief, the cheerful dinging of the elevator signaled their arrival; he could get off and hope the unpleasant feeling in the pit of his stomach went away. “The only one Ziggy held dear was himself. Hell, the only reason he came to me was because he figured I was inexperienced and obsessed enough with profit to throw in against all of Opportunity. You’re welcome, by the way.”
Ever suckers for a trend, since not one but two Shapers had been spotted eating there, Harmony Ice had cornered the market on frozen desserts in the Complex and business was only booming in the same way a nuclear detonation was technically an explosion. The nineteen-deep queue didn’t especially concern Ten Count, ignoring the lot entirely and striding straight to the counter; such were the perks of owning the business, the building and the powers to unmake anybody who might have raised a complaint. “I swear, the cones get more expensive every time I come here. Figured out what you want yet?”
Spider appeared to be moving in slow motion. “I must admit I didn’t expect…” he started, trying to find the right way to phrase the sentence and failing, “...I didn’t realise gelato meant...gelato.”
With an undignified snort, Ten Count laughed. “You thought gelato was slang? No, it’s fucking gelato, it’s delicious, I’ll order for you.”
“How does it compare with the beer in your territory?” Spider asked, stalling for time.
Ten Count ignored the jab and turned smartly away, feeling smug that for once, Thoughtful Spider seemed to be on the back foot. “I will have the Sweet and Sour Sundae and my compatriot...he seems like a Hot Chocolate Fudge Volcano man, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Hot Chocolate Fudge Volcano,” repeated Spider, in a bewildered tone. “Thank you.”
“You are still very welcome. Now,” they settled into one of the plastic booths, “you wanted to talk, want to hear what I did with my summer holidays?”
Spider inclined his head, re-steepling his fingers and settling back as much as he could in a seat designed primarily to be wipe-clean. “Very well.”
“So,” Ten Count clapped his hands, for no reason other than dramatic effect. “I had a lovely time touring Outworld, I have to admit. Dropped in on the Webways and had a chat with your favourite person, he sends his love.” Ten Count allowed himself a brief chuckle as he saw his colleague tense and suppress a growl. “Terrorised a few people in the Kingdoms, but I think they’re used to that by now. Went to the Gallery of Truth and Lies, left a strongly-worded letter of complaint with An Endless Falling and turned some of the dark spots in Rosie Ratchet’s Industrioclastville into my own personal shooting gallery until I got bored. It took some time.”
The waitress, as surly as her contract demanded, arrived with a pair of grandiose desserts; one dark and rich, the other obnoxiously bright. Only the most basic social programming prompted Spider to say “Thank you”, looking thoroughly ill-at-ease with the dainty dessert spoon.
With far fewer social graces to call upon Ten Count dove headlong into his sundae, talking between bites. “By and large, if people are concerned about the Ziggy affair, they’re doing it with their cards so close to their chest they’re about two inches behind their ribcage. It doesn’t fit the narrative the networks want to tell, but people seem aware of the titanic coup Ziggy tried to pull off and have just...kinda accepted what happened as something that had to happen.”
“Either Ziggy lives and Opportunity becomes a dictatorship under his rule, or…”
“Exactly.” Ten Count stifled a giggle as he watched Spider working out where to begin eating. The Hot Chocolate Fudge Volcano appeared to be the one thing the Contingency operative hadn’t planned for. “So it could be worse.”
“Quite. Although it would be a little premature to assume we were out of the woods. We still don’t know what Raul Tiberius Unicorn will say in his tell-all.” Spider took the tiniest bite he could politely manage. “This is...unusual.”
“I know, it’s good, ain’t it?” Having torn through his own dessert like the proverbial hot knife, Ten Count sat back. “So, you were the one who wanted to socialise, let’s stop talking shop. Quick game of I’ve Never? Two Truths and a Lie? Fuck Marry Kill with the good folk of the Combine? I’m happy to start if you need some time to think.”
Spider looked across the top of his ice-cream and considered Ten Count for a moment. It occurred to him that - by the nature of wetwork and the Shaper lifespan - the Margin Driver might be his oldest friend.
“Can we just… sit and enjoy the gelato in as close to quiet as you can manage?”
“Thoughtful Spider has a weak spot and it's a Hot Chocolate Fudge Volcano. Even Channel 60 couldn't have made something this unlikely up.” Grinning, Ten Count snapped his fingers in the air. “Staff person! Two more! He's paying!”