Tyche slipped into the plush leather embrace of her Tesla UC-0096 Skylance. Despite some of the dreams she had been having lately, as well as some of the more recent turn of events, she felt good. In part it was thanks to Tovera’s insistence that rather than sitting around and doing nothing in between cases, the squad does some form of training. While time at the range was useful, there was only so much that she was willing to do and there was only so much she could do in with regards to maintaining her equipment. In light of this, Tyche preferred to hit the gym; the decision prompted by equal parts of wanting to keep herself in shape (she wasn’t getting any younger!) and enjoying the reactions of those who happened to be present at the same time. She looked good and she knew it, and on the rare occasion she did enjoy showing herself off.
The helpful chirp of a new message on her databand immediately derailed her thoughts. Her first thought was that Tovera had something else for her. For a moment she thought about ignoring the message, but the thought of Jaden being able to snitch on her caused her to change her mind. Checking the message, she frowned.
You wanted to see me about something.
The rest of the message consisted of an address and a time, not quite an hour from now. “Good thing I’m in civvies already” she mumbled under her breath as she pulled her spinner into the air.
* * * * *
The Ice House was one of the more… interesting theme bars to be found in Angelus. Of course, as fitting its name, it was also one of the coldest, kept at a constant 16 Celsius. The decor didn’t help in alleviating the chill, either; seeing as everything in the Ice House was either stainless steel, clear Lexan, chrome, pure white, or ice blue. The staff, with one exception, all wore insulated bodygloves; customers wore whatever they felt like. Some came dressed in full parkas, while others—fools in Nicodemus’s opinion—wore only shorts and Aloha shirts. Then there was the one exception—Mara, the chief of security. She tended to wear open shirts and dress slacks, along with an ankle-length black coat that was constantly covered with an ever-present coating of frost and rime. She, at least, didn’t seem to mind (or even notice) the chill.
Sipping at his mulled cider (another specialty of the Ice House was their selection of hot drinks—both alcoholic and non-), Nicodemus closed his eyes for a moment and savored the flavor. Images flashed behind his eyelids as he did so. Images of the past, present, and future. Those of the past possessed a sharp clarity. He could examine every detail, every facet, and every nuance. Which was only proper, as the past was set and done. Images of the present tended to gain focus and clarity as he concentrated on them, since they were transitioning from the probable, to the possible, to the here and now. And a moment later, they were part of the past. It was images of the future that gave him the most trouble. They tended to be filmy and mutable, changing shape as the threads of fate came together and separated. One needed to concentrate when trying to watch them, since you could never be sure if you were looking at what might be, could be, or would be.
Nicodemus glanced up, to see Mara’s slender form standing next to him. Her voice always reminded him of a spring breeze through wind chimes. Less-learned patrons of the Ice House thought she used a throat mike and a voice modulator. They also thought she was a mage specializing in ice magic. But he knew better. Still, her secret was safe with him. Otherwise, half the people in the bar might go screaming out into the street, and no good could come of that.
“Yes, please. Also, it is good to see you’ve managed to get everything repaired and back to normal.”
Mara shrugged, causing a cascade of ice crystals to fall from her coat. “Wasn’t as bad as it looked. And Jack’s fun to hang around with.”
“Excellent. I take it then that he’s not particularly perturbed by your… unique condition?”
“If you’re asking that he’s happy that I don’t ice over the bed, then yes.”
Tapping his cup, Nicodemus nodded. “Along with the refill, can I get a second glass? I have a visitor coming.”
Arching an eyebrow, Mara motioned to a waitress. “Anyone I should be aware of?”
“Oh yes, she’s ‘miss-I’m-in-XSWAT-you-can’t-arrest-me’.”
Almost as if on cue, Tyche stepped past the door and gave a cursory glance. The first thing she noted was that the bar had already been replaced and one could not even tell that they (though she would blame Tovera and Jack for most of it, after all, what could she do?) had wrecked the place but a few days ago. Still, she had willingly cast her lot with those two, which meant that she had to take the good with the bad—good thing then that the former eclipsed the latter.
It did not take her long to find her quarry. Adjusting the collar on her leather jacket, she made her way to the bar and slid into the stool beside Nicodemus. “Really? The Ice House?”
“Would you prefer we meet at Space Station V, over by the skyhook?”
“I would have preferred some place that wasn’t wrecked by people I associate with.” She gave a slight nod to Mara, a silent acknowledgement that she intended to be on her best behavior. Not that it would be hard to do since Jack wasn’t around. “You sure this place is safe?”
“Compared to what?”
She shrugged. “Well, our usual place seemed to work well enough.”
“I thought this might be a more suitable location, considering the nature of our upcoming conversation.” Pushing back from the bar, Nicodemus produced an antique pocket watch and checked the time. Snapping the cover closed, he then gestured at a booth located along a far wall. “Would that be more suitable? I can assure you that Mara will ensure we aren’t disturbed.”
Another shrug of her shoulders and a glance to Mara. “Alright, that works I guess…”
Settling into the booth, Nicodemus placed his glass of cider on the tabletop. He watched the steam rise from the cup for a few moments, enjoying the unpredictable twists and turns of dissipating mist. Folding his hands together on the table he regarded Tyche directly. “You have questions.”
Tyche slipped into seat across the table and gave a wry smile. “That’s an understatement.” She paused to collect her thoughts. “Where to begin?”
“Begin at the beginning,” Nicodemus quoted in a grave tone of voice, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
“Well, first off there’s this assistant councilman, Flagg I think his name was. The man gave me the creeps when I first saw him; it’s like you… only worse.” There was a pause. “No offense, but just because I’m used to it doesn’t make it any less true.” She adjusted her sunglasses just slightly as she sat back. “Anyway, I’m not sure why, but I trust that guy about as far as I can toss a spinner. Figured you’d know… or like to know something about that.”
“Flagg?” Tapping his chin, Nicodemus pondered the name. He’d heard it before, but then he’d heard a lot of names in his time. Still... the name was known to him, if only because of that time in Delain. Then again, that was a long time ago in a kingdom far, far way. “Assistant councilor you say... Do you mean Assistant Councilor Randal Montgomery Flagg from Iota Sector?”
“I think so. I didn’t catch his full name, just that he’s the assistant to the Sector councilman, but what would he want with our precinct? He seemed exceedingly interested to the point of ‘drooling fanboy’ in the building and our squad on our first day….” she trailed off and sipped her drink. “Anyway, Tovera apparently told him to hit the road at some point as she didn’t seem particularly thrilled about him showing up in the parking lot.”
“And why shouldn’t an up-and-coming assistant councilman be interested in a newly-installed XSWAT squad? Tyche, you seem to forget that even today many citizens of this city are apprehensive about dealing with XSWAT. If by ingratiating himself with your squad perhaps he thought he could help smooth over your arrival in Iota. Doing so would certainly win points with his superiors.”
Nicodemus paused to collect his thoughts. “As for him being a… ‘drooling fanboy’ as you so indelicately put it; he has some rather illustrious ancestors I’ll have you know. He’s named for one James Montgomery Flagg, a famous American painter of the early 20th Century, and is also related to Colonel Samuel Flagg, a hero of a land war in Asia from the middle of the same century.” Nicodemus stopped and then looked at Tyche, “What about him strikes you as... creepy?”
Tyche lowered her sunglasses and peered at him from over the rim. “Really? I just compared him to a drooling fanboy.”<
“Yes, I just remarked on that.”
She fixed her sunglasses and sat back. “Bluh…” She began, counting her points on her fingers. “Well, for starters just being around the guy made my skin crawl. I can’t put my finger on it, but that’s just how it is. Next, he insisted on only using his left hand when shaking hands. Who does that? Yeah, sure, he said that he’s left-handed, but I think he’s full of it. The fact that he hung around after Tovera and I left him in the parking garage was bad enough, but he just hung around there for about an hour or so afterwards. It was as if he was a lost puppy or something and was expecting one of us to change our mind and let him inside. The fact I got a ‘creepy stalker’ vibe from him when I glanced out the window just made the whole thing worse.”
She took a deep breath and exhaled. “I don’t know, maybe I’m looking too deeply into it, but still, you’d think that someone that high up would have better things to do than hang out in a parking lot for an hour.”
“Apparently you’ve never seen someone totally absorbed in viewing the goings-on of the world via their tablet.” Nicodemus sipped at his cider before motioning to Tyche’s glass. “Please, try some. It’s very good.”
She made a face, took her drink and drained about half of the glass. This prompted a wince thanks to the unexpected sudden flavor. “…I guess that makes sense.” Tyche set the drink down. “Maybe I’m getting paranoid. Between the strange dreams and the visit from someone I can only assume was one of your friends the last time I was in here, I’m a little on edge.”
“Dreams?” Nicodemus cocked an eyebrow over the rim of his glass. “Pray tell, what sort of dreams?” Then he processed the rest of Tyche’s statement, adding “And what friend?”
“Well…” She looked at her drink and for a moment wished it were something stronger before taking a sip. “…the other day, when I was here ‘babysitting’ Jack and Tovera and before things went to hell, this little guy showed up. I use the term ‘guy’ loosely because that’s what he looked like when he showed up at the table.” She nodded in the direction of where she was sitting during her last visit to the Ice House. “But when he… it was talking to me, it couldn’t decide what it looked like. One moment it was a leprechaun, the next Ganesh, the next Daikoku… well, you get the idea. It kept changing between different creatures, spirits, and deities that are associated with luck. Anyway, it mentioned that I will have to make a choice or something, in regards to my ‘powers’, like what I would be willing to give up to keep them or something.” She shrugged. “It knew of you well enough, though just enough for it to assume that I was your apprentice or something. I figured that he was a friend, you can take that however you see fit.” She sipped again at her drink.
“I can assure that I do not count fortune spirits among my friends. I tried to avoid attracting the attention of beings such as that.” Nicodemus laced his fingers together and looked at Tyche. “And didn’t I tell you to be more... circumspect in the use of your talents? I would hate to see your good fortune suddenly reversed.”
She frowned. The man did not associate with fortune spirits, but he was willing to have dealings with things made entirely from nightmares, or worse. “I have.” She paused. “Ok, I mostly have. There was that one time I was at a diner with Claire and there was this guy…” She shook her head. “I think giving him 49 days of bad luck was being too nice.”
A slight cough into a closed fist was Nicodemus’s only reaction.
“But I haven’t been tipping things in my favor as much, if at all, at least not directly… I mean, if the squad and XSWAT succeeds, then of course I benefit.” She stopped and rested her forehead in her free hand. I sound just like Bernard. “I didn’t mean it like that… I mean, I’m trying to be a bit more responsible and, well, make sure the people I affect deserve it. I know I’m not the best judge of character… but still…”
“But there is always that chance that by ensuring your good fortune you’re denying someone else theirs?”
She sighed. “We’ve been over this; the best I can do is to either take as little as possible from a very large area or give a few people a really bad time, but it’s not exactly something I can just turn off. It’s why I try to send it where it can help my teammates and those around me. It’s not like I really want to hurt people… ok, some people I have no problems in making sure their lives are hell, but that’s because they’re assholes and they deserve whatever pain is coming to them anyway.
“I highly suspect that a certain Captain Chrysine would disagree with the philosophy behind that statement.”
“This the same captain who crushed a man’s hand because he got under her skin?” she replied with a raised brow. “I met the man, had a brief talk with him and heard the story. He didn’t know the good captain’s name, but between his story and talking with Claire, it was easy enough to figure out. Regardless of what he said or did to set her off, he did or said something that earned him the pain and suffering. And no matter how anyone tries to legitimize it, the guy was an asshole and deserved what he got; just saying.”
“Hmm... true. However, she did try to apologize later, realizing and recognizing what she’d done was... improper.” Nicodemus paused for effect. “Have you?”
“Why should I? Karma’s a bitch, and so am I. The cat doesn’t apologize to the mouse for trying to kill it, and I’m pretty sure that that to the mouse and anybody not privy to the conversation, the cat is a complete jerk. I know the analogy doesn’t exactly apply here, but it’s close. Sure, I could just sit around and do nothing, but the fact remains that I would still be potentially robbing people of their good fortune and would just sit on it; peoples’ good fortunes are being taken away and nobody benefits from the loss. What would that accomplish? At least I am now trying to redirect somewhere useful that can still benefit others in some way.” She stared at her glass in thought for a moment. “Heh… maybe it’s just too late now. Maybe my past sins have caught up with me and what I’m doing now is too little too late.” Her tone turned sour. “You’re partially to blame for all of this; at least half the crap I pulled before I signed up with XSWAT I did because you paid me to.”
“And yet you were free to quit the game at any time. You could have refused my money and my patronage, and gone your own way, but I highly suspect that you unwilling to do so.” Nicodemus gave Tyche a slight grin. “Do not blame your present circumstances on me, Miss Fortune. I am not controlling you in any way.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it, old man. You took advantage of me and even if I refused, you would have found some other way to strong-arm me into doing what you wanted anyway. I know now that I could have done things differently, and I made some mistakes along the way. I’ll own that. But don’t you try to tell me that I had a choice in the matter when we both know that for a fact that you would have gotten me to do what you wanted one way or another.”
She took a deep breath and exhaled. He had a point, even if she knew better back then; she enjoyed the game far too much. “Not that any of it matters at this point and playing the blame-game won’t get anything done. Anyway, that Monday, we found a tarot card on the doorstep of the precinct; The Tower, inverted.” She paused and took a drink. “Showed up in the same spot as that key did too…”
“I understand the key was found on Lieutenant Tovera’s desk.”
Tyche looked like she was about to say something, or at least ask how he knew this, but thought better of it. “…anyway, the dreams started after that. It’s the same thing every time; this casino cam with a red lens just seems to be everywhere I look, watching me, but not watching because, it just does its usual back-and-forth pan. But I know it’s watching because the dammed thing just seems to be everywhere.”
“Perhaps your guilty conscious is trying to tell you something.” Glancing at the ceiling of the Ice House, Nicodemus tapped his chin. “And what does the Tower, inverted, mean to you?”
Another shrug. “Maybe. As far as the tarot card, well, Jack, Bernard, and Tovera seemed on edge for some reason. I guess they don’t know the deck all that well. By default, The Tower is about change. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s catastrophic or anything, but trying to hold on too tightly can be. In general, The Tower, inverted means that the changes that are going to come about may still have negative connotations, like someone or something that was depended on before may not be there in the same way it has been in the past… but again, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is going to be significant, horrible or catastrophic, it’s just change.”
“Curious.” Nicodemus mused. “In truth, tarot cards are no different then any other playing card. They didn’t gain occult significance until the 1800s. Still, as the Director would say, popular belief often trumps fact, and magic runs off of belief.” He paused and thought for a moment. “Speaking of which, her stepping down is almost certainly a form of change. Significant change. But for the better or worse?”
“My thoughts exactly. The fact that nobody that I know of knows who’s going to be taking her place, much less anything about them only makes things that much more difficult to predict.”<
“The Director is many things, and a fool is not one of them. By keeping her replacement under wraps, she protects not only the replacement, but herself as well.”
Tyche sat back and folded her arms under her breasts and looked thoughtful. “Makes sense. I’m sure that there’s no shortage of people out there who want to ruin everything good that’s been done over past twenty years. The fact that most people are resistant to change or that they deem any change to be bad, they overreact to such things, which makes matters that much worse.”
She drained her glass set it aside. “But change in general depends on perspective, and in regards to the tarot, also depends on what other cards are showing and the circumstances that the reading was made. Because the card was by itself, I can only interpret it’s meaning based on where we found it or as it pertains to each individual. If we’re going to focus on myself, then it could be an indicator of what that visitor told me. Alternatively, it may not apply to me at all, but one of the others that were there at the time, or even all of us individually. I could also say that because it was found in front of our precinct house, that it could apply to all of us as XSWAT officers, just our precinct or even XSWAT as a whole. As you said, because the Director is retiring soon, it means that someone that was depended on in the past is no longer going to be around in the same way, which is part of the base reading of the card.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “From my perspective, it’s really hard to go into the actual meaning because there are just too many variables, very little context and too much up for interpretation because of it. That’s why I didn’t think too much about the card in the first place.”
“Yes...” Nicodemus nodded. “There are too many variables. I’m glad you came to me with this. I will keep my eyes open as well. There is something happening here in Angelus. Something important, but the threads have not yet come together sufficiently for my to see the entire tapestry. I suggest, Miss Fortune, that you and your squad keep a sharp eye out. You’ve been marked, and having been marked you’ve come to the attention of people and beings of power. This is never a good thing.” Sipping at this glass, he nodded in the general direction of XSWAT headquarters. “Look what happened to the Director.”
“If you ask me, that depends entirely on one’s perspective as well. From my perspective, I think the Director’s been doing a great job given the hand that’s been dealt to her. I’ve read the reports and given the circumstances, I really don’t think there could have been a better choice. All in all, I would consider such a thing to be quite fortuitous for both XSWAT and Angelus indeed. And I’m certain that almost everyone in XSWAT shares that view as well. From her perspective, however, I am willing to bet that the Director has found the results of gaining such attention to a mixed blessing at best. But I get your point, I’ll let them know to stay on their toes as well let you know if anything else happens.”
“Excellent.” Nicodemus raised his glass. “I would ask you to say, and enjoy another glass of cider, but I suspect you’ve had enough of this old man for one day.”
“That, and I do have other things to do” Tyche replied as she slid out of the booth and started towards the bar. “Oh.” She paused and peered at Nicodemus from the corner of her eye and flipped a 1972 silver half-dollar towards him. “You dropped this. Jaden found it. Curious thing really, finding a hundred sixty year-old coin stuck in a machine that was built less than three months ago. He didn’t understand the significance, but I know that he loves to figure out hidden things.”
Snatching the coin out of the air, Nicodemus eyed it for a moment. “Most peculiar,” was his only opinion.
“Well, you were better behaved than I’d hoped for this time around,” Mara commented from next to Tyche’s shoulder. “Too bad you and your friends couldn’t have been as well-behaved on your first visit. Otherwise, this place wouldn’t have been such a shambles.”
Tyche set her empty glass on the bar and smiled “I’m always well-behaved. But sometimes Jack and Tovera bring out the worst in me, especially when they’ve had a bit too much and Jack starts acting like an idiot. Besides…” she produced her payment card. “…you can’t expect me to leave my friends hanging, even if that means ending up in a cell.”
Handing the card to the bartender, Mara nodded to the Ice House’s entrance. “Then perhaps I should walk you to the door, so to ensure you don’t end up in a cell again.”
Tyche chuckled. “Unless one of them shows up and decides they want to start causing problems, I don’t think there will be a problem.” Once Tyche retrieved her card she tapped the side of her sunglasses and smiled. “But I can take a hint, so there’s no need for that. I can see myself out.”
* * * * *
This really is excellent cider. As Nicodemus set his glass down he realized the chair opposite him was occupied. The figure was dusky-skinned with thick black hair that fell to his shoulders and a matching beard. He wore a dress shirt and coat, but had decided to forego a tie, a decision Nicodemus heartily agreed with. Checking his pocket watch, Nicodemus stifled a sigh.
“She has bills to pay.” the figure stated.
“And she will pay them,” Nicodemus replied.
Now it was the figure’s turn to sigh. “But can she afford the cost?”
Taking a drink, Nicodemus gave a slight shrug, “Only time will tell.”
“Aye, you’re right. Still, tis an unfair hand she’s been dealt. It’s not like she asked to receive more than her fair share of the Destiny Engine's power. But, balance must be maintained.”
“Perhaps you can see about maintaining the balance once all of this is over?”
As the figure left, Nicodemus set his glass down and shook his head. He walked a fine line here, and all it took was one push in the wrong direction to send the whole house of cards tumbling down.
Or a tower.