There was no assault cannon or antivehicle sniper rifle waiting for them. Had Northberg's hangar been staffed by regular humans, there would have been an outpouring of surprise and relief, or simply the sense one gets when a VIP has arrived. These were Enforcers, and they continued their fast, methodical process of moving supplies and other Enforcers to and from other masters, only acknowledging the Dominator's presence as another flight-capable object in the hangar.
The tram was the only available transportation from the hangar; they took it and relaxed, beginning to warm up from the chill blown into their faces over the last few hours. Afterwards, they strode down the long hall to the medical section side-by-side, with a maximum of presence and a subtle hint of menace. Enforcers continued not to care; a couple of human servants got well out of their way. Both twins were glad the Operator hadn't done something like meet them at the entrance. This initial meeting was best done in private.
The Operator's office was a fairly formal affair, for receiving guests and general intimidation; he would surely be there now to meet the Dominator and perhaps his doom. "You first," William growled as they reached it, his voice with something mean, hateful, and altogether brutal behind it. Paul found himself cringing. Howard gave his brother a glance, understood that he might not have a chance to talk to him at all if he went second, and entered, leaving the door just a tad ajar. Anyone who wanted to could hear this- although with William and Sarah standing outside, eavesdroppers not in the ventilation system were unlikely.
The Operator stood and gave a subtle bow as Howard entered, offering no greeting but inviting his Dominator to speak first. As the master of medical technology he could change his appearance almost at will. He let his face keep its natural wrinkles, his hair full and greying, tinging towards white, the result of intentionally hypooxygenating his own scalp. He was naturally heavy-set, but had taken care to minimize the effects, removing lipids from his body by a variety of means. His suit looked akin to a standard doctor's outfit and coat, all in white and with a sheen of heavy stain resistance, with elements of the Dominator's suit design. Despite his workload he had always found time to cultivate his image. What it did for others was secondary; the prime reason he took such care was to remind himself who he was, to prevent his mind from retreating to normal habits under pressure.
The pressure right now was testing his sanity. He could read Howard's face very well. He had created that face. More than a dozen years ago, he had seen variations of it in a great many fluid-filled tanks and even more in simulations. To perform his job properly, the Dominator needed a face with unmistakable expressions; one of those was menacing rage. The Operator's cultivated persona never experienced fear, but that persona only existed when the Operator was certain that the monsters he had created would never turn on him, particularly not this one.
Howard looked around for a moment before speaking, not for observation but to prolong the tension. The Operator looked nervous and confused. This boded well for his survival.
"Do you know.. what I found.. in my head, Operator?" Howard asked, deliberately slowly, holding out a pair of implants in his hand.
"Those.. those can't be.. Howard?" the Operator asked, stupefied with the roiling of his thoughts. What he was seeing was impossible, and yet there it was.
"Yes, Operator. Howard."
"There's no way... I have no idea.. Howard, I swear I don't know.. maybe the Night Operator, but even he couldn't have..." The Operator put his head in his hands and shook it, then looked back up, his face red and persona broken. "I swear. It doesn't even make sense. You.. were implanted.. this is like a nightmare.." Were those tears? Was the Operator capable of faking it, or was this genuine shock and personal weakness? Howard's instincts told him it was the latter. "How did you survive?" he asked softly.
"One of the implant removal devices actually worked. How the hell did I get implanted?"
"How the hell should I know?!" the Operator blurted out. He was, now, calculating his responses- he had no intention of dying to a false suspicion.
"And how did more than three dozen Enforcers living on my island turn on me?"
"The- the Enforcers- what?!" He was exaggerating his very real surprise.
"That's right, Operator! Every last one of my Enforcers suddenly decided to kill me. Looks like they weren't really implanted for me after all. Now do you mind telling me how that happened?"
"I can tell you it didn't happen here," the Operator said, quietly. "I've reviewed those commands myself. It's your face. Your voice. And the only other person with access is the Night Operator. And I will stake my life that it's not him." The current Night Operator was handpicked by the Day Operator himself. The previous one, however... "You haven't been keeping Enforcers more than two years old, have you?"
"The rotation is in months. I don't keep past that."
The Operator was silent for a bit, trying to think of how a transport full of loyal Enforcers could be turned aside and replaced with duplicates, or suborned before they got there- things they were commanded never to allow, with immediate deadly force.
Howard studied him. An extended interrogation would be completely fruitless so long as the Operator could continue with flat denial. Truth drugs could do damn near anything, considering how many times the Operator modified himself and what his occupation was. Torture would make him eventually say yes whether he actually had or not, and that would not make the Dominator any friends. Implants were the only real way to be sure, but that would make him a great number of enemies the moment any Illuminatus learned what he had done, and he had enough of those, thanks.
"All right. You don't know anything. I choose to believe you, Operator, because if you really were behind this, nothing makes sense. I command you to find out. And I command you to personally reset the implants of every Enforcer in this building, if you're still alive."
"If I'm still..." But Howard was at the door.
The glance that Howard gave his brother said it all: We need him. William did not reply, simply throwing the door open, slamming it behind him, and fixing the Operator with a stare and a snarl, breathing heavily as a mad bull. In his hand he held out two pieces of metal, just as his brother had.
The Operator opened his mouth, realizing immediately what had occurred, trying to find an apology or something to placate the beast in front of him, mentally cursing himself for not cogniting that Howard had intentionally been vague about removal, and then suddenly his favorite set of genetics was upon him.
William grabbed him by the throat, spun a quarter turn, and threw him into the side wall, applying torque so he hit it at the base of his spine, followed instantly by two swift kicks to the abdomen. He barely had time to think 'Oh thank God he's not doing this full force' before William popped out his shoulder joints with a snapping bubble-wrap sound, jerked them downwards, and slammed his dislocated arms into his side. The Operator screamed, a high, bloodcurdling shriek audible through the closed door.
"TWO YEARS!" William screamed, air blasting through both of his larynges, still pressing the Operator's arms into his ribs, on the thinnest edge of self-control. "You made me.. into my own brother's fucking servant.. for TWO WHOLE GODDAMN YEARS!! And it would have been the rest of my FUCKING life, you motherfucking asshole! That was your plan, decided in a whole three seconds!" That was something the Operator had confided to Howard, figuring the boy would tell his servants, but never expecting to be called out on it. Not like this. William released his arms and slammed him back-first into the wall, forcing white-hot rage down enough to remember not to damage the Operator's valuable brain. "TEN YEARS as a normal! No real education, no real anything! Just bullshit and servitude! Give me one good fucking reason why I shouldn't just blow your fucking head open!" With his fist.
"You don't want to." Pain had sent the Operator back to his traditional refuge, simple logic. William had not killed him already, ergo he would not kill him.
And with that, William laughed, and laughed more with echo, and released the Operator, who slumped down quickly, his legs curled up into his chest.
"That's right, you son of a bitch! Because I don't want to." William yanked on the Operator's legs, splaying them out, and put his foot on his balls. He almost pushed before saying, "No. You gave my friend back his testicles." He then simply dragged the limp man back in one smooth motion and pushed his thighs outwards, one after another, the previous bubble-wrap sound combining with something squishy and wet.
"Put yourself back together, if you can," William told him, before turning and walking out, closing the door behind him to cut off the flow of sniveling.
Howard gave him a indescribable look, not quite reproachful, not quite dismayed, not at all surprised. Paul was mechanically silent, intentionally nonchalant, the thought coming despite himself: 'Wow, I hope I never get him that pissed.'
"Sounded like fun," Sarah said. "Although that might slow down his investigation a bit."
"After twelve years? He's not going to discover shit. And if these Enforcers were going to turn they would have done it by now. Do you want him?" William asked. She shook her head. "Come on. Let's go talk to the kids."
The older kids came first, the 6-7 year olds, chattering among themselves as they saw their heroes- they would have met them at the door had they been told of a Dominator visit- and the first thing any of the kids said to them was from a little girl: "You did let him go!" she squealed. A few of them clapped, including ones with servants, and Howard grinned at the irony. William smiled wryly; would any of them be so happy if they knew the Operator was probably still trying to get his thighs and his hips to meet up? There were a great many questions, all of which were answered truthfully, even the incredibly awkward ones.
There was a whole lot of absolute terror when they mentioned the Enforcers. A couple of kids looked wildly around at the Enforcers surrounding them. A few sat up straighter, intentionally refraining from such behavior- they would be leaving the building soon, to get holdings of their own and become Illuminati themselves, and they felt they had to act like it.
The 4-5 year olds were next. These kids, as young children will, recognized the twins but didn't stop what they were doing. Most of them had no personal experience with authority, save the one with a pair of twin servants of his own; he was still in the make-them-do-funny-stuff stage. Wait, there was a girl with one, too- but she'd concealed hers a bit, letting only the black gloves give it away. They asked questions as well, foremost among them being why both twins and Sarah were wearing white; the answers they got shocked the hell out of them.
When they were told about the rogue Enforcers (the idea of hiding critical facts from growing minds was unthinkable), they went nuts; a few started screaming, touching off an instant wave of panic. Three of them ran from the room. Several froze up. The boy with servants hid behind them, who managed not to try to hide behind him. The twins, chuckling to themselves, waited the few minutes it took for them to calm down when they realized their own Enforcers hadn't started attacking them. The three who had ran trickled back in, one by one, a bit sheepish. "Thanks for the nightmares, Master!" one called out in Latin. "You're joking, right?" one asked in the same language.
"Nope. Not joking," William replied in English, nearly touching off another panic wave.
The two to three year olds were almost universally asleep, not in bed but napping in a puddle like puppies, sleep apparently contagious between them. The twins left them in silence.
In the youngest children's room they saw Quad, not quite a year old, doing a strange crawly-walky thing reminiscent of the insects from a cheap space movie, with quadrupedal motion of his legs and lower arms, his upper arms in front of him, grasping whatever objects they could find. There were a great many toys in that room, with quite a few babies Quad's age learning how to explore their environment.
"Du braaaki!" he squealed as he saw the twins enter. Engineereds learn language quickly, from birth- instead of "Daddy", Quad called his father "Two arms!"
"Do you even know I'm your mother, Quad?" Sarah asked, in a strangely soft voice, picking him up and holding him close. While she was still a servant she didn't dare go ahead and do this. "Do you know what you've been drinking? Do you know where it comes from?"
"Ah-ah!" Quad said. Whether or not he actually understood any of that was anyone's guess.
Sarah pulled down the zipper of her suit and nursed him from each teat right there. She'd been lactating since he was born, sending the milk to Northberg in batches; it was better than synthesizing it. He burped on his own, loudly, and Sarah looked at his throat, seeing what she didn't notice before. "No doubled larynx."
"No echo?" William asked. That got the attention of most of the babies in the room. 'Someone has just done something very weird! Let's stare at him and see if we can figure it out!' "Yeah.. I don't think he'll miss it." Sarah hugged him again and set him down. She then quietly led the twins out of the room, and once they were in the hall she got between them and put an arm around the thick chest of each one, the three of them walking down the hall together in silence.
'Damn, left out again,' Paul thought to himself. He shook his head and smiled. Fuck, he was lucky to be alive. Of course he was watching their backs. Somebody had to.
The implant resetter itself was the size of a watermelon. Using similar technology to the experimental implant-remover they had used before, it cut a hole into the skull, found its mark, and ran a microvolt of current through a certain circuit, rendering the implants' indirect connection to the facial-recognition part of the brain invalid, forcing them to accept a new one. This model worked on both humans and Enforcers, with their drastically altered frontal lobes. The twins inspected it carefully for sabotage, pondering enemy plots. What if it was a fake, Flatland was in on it, and they were going to not-really-reset Enforcers who would proceed to blow the place up while the twins slept?
Sarah was tempted to tell them that there was no way, that if the enemies could think that far ahead or move that fast, the twins would surely already be dead. She let them come to that conclusion themselves after exhausting possibilities, some she didn't think of. The twins' gifts were already screened for explosives by servants of the island's steward and servant trainer, and if he had turned against them they'd all be dead. It was screening the screeners' screeners that was important now. A handful of spies in the right hierarchy, and something explodes. The fact that they were in an organization whose main focus was secret plots was both a blessing and a curse- curse for obvious reasons, blessing because everyone competent would also be on the lookout for plotters.
They agreed that the worst part was that there were no precautions they could take to ensure absolute safety. Events were fundamentally out of their control. There had to be allies they could at least somewhat trust.
"There are," Howard said. "And we should be making more of them. Speaking of which, we still haven't decided what to do for our birthday this year," Howard said. Sarah slowly looked at him. He got like this sometimes, but he couldn't be this childish, could he?
"Same as last year? I'm sure the basement's still fine," William replied. Their basement was a hundred meters straight down, through magma-formed rock. Nothing short of a nuclear direct hit would faze it from the surface.
"And have them walk back and forth through a bunch of swarming servants, and wait for the elevator constantly, and have them worried about getting blown up over the ocean where we can't secure it?" Howard looked at his brother: C'mon, you're me, you're supposed to be smarter than this.
William's look in reply was equally wry. "You know of a place more secure than our island? There hasn't been a moonbase this whole time you haven't been telling us about, is there?"
"No, but that's a great idea. We'll have to build one sometime." It was impossible to know if he was joking. "Actually I was thinking of staying off the Western Hemisphere this year. I think we can enjoy some curry tomorrow. There's a young man named Hadji-"
"I REMEMBER HIM!" Paul suddenly blurted. "He was trying to get me to marry his sisters. They were like.. little girls, too."
"I remember that," William said. "They were his servants." He looked at his brother askance. There had to be a good reason for this one.
"This sounds like a great idea!" Sarah exclaimed, sarcasm dripping and patience finally gone. "Even though we're being hunted by a variety of people whose identities we have no idea of, let's have your twelfth birthday party anyway, in a third-world country not nearly fully controlled, in a culture where women are treated so badly that the sisters of Illuminati are implanted, while a third of the attendees are female and more than half are engineered! I can't possibly imagine what could be wrong with this plan. Now, you were going to continue with some intended consequences?"
"There's a young man named Hadji Rajadhiraja", Howard reiterated, unruffled, "whose father, Sumar, is the creator and distributor of special-purpose, small-scale nuclear weapons." Ah. This wasn't childishness- this was politics. Sarah was one of the few people in a position to tell the difference. "His father does have more than his fair share of quirks. For example, he's probably the single person keeping the currency system alive, and he also doesn't strictly sell or give his developments to engineering teams; he licenses them. And he keeps very careful tabs on what he licenses to who, when."
"So careful, in fact, that nobody he's sold to has ever actually used one," William pointed out.
"I think he's only sold about a half dozen, actually, but it's what he's famous for. At least it was until microfusion. He has an entire line of his own stuff, most of it not nuclear. Since he demands tangibles instead of recognition and possibly another couple of levels, he's.. respected, but not exactly well-liked."
"Tangibles would be what, units?" The only currency the Illuminati recognized as valid, a sort of transferable IOU for uneven transactions. Illuminati generally didn't trust money, being the masters of it. "If people aren't taking those as seriously as they used to then he better start cashing in his chips," Paul noted.
"He is, and does constantly, taking things that other Illuminati don't need or want. He's been giving most of them to his son. Nominally Hadji's the governmental overlord of India but he has an amazing catalog of resources."
"So the pawnbroker of the Illuminati is a Brahmin Hindu. Makes sense," William said. "Strange, he's got his fingers in everybody's pot and we've never talked to him."
"He's actually a reason we don't hear more arguments. We hand out justice; he makes deals," Howard replied.
"I'm surprised you know all this without looking it up," Sarah said.
"The rules of the Inheritor," Howard reminisced. "No one could approach me for any reason. Most of the restrictions weren't on me, they were on everyone else. A lot of them wouldn't answer my calls, and everything was monitored. So, Hadji. He was unique, exotic, and too young to be scared. Long-distance only, though." Paul had an impulse to reply with something involving either an unresponsive pity meter or nanoscopic violins, but chose not to.
They called Hadji from a Northberg terminal, and he was ecstatic about the prospect; by the time the twins could get to him in a Northberg jet, he'd have everything set up and ready to go, and dozens of other young Illuminati would drop everything for a chance to see their Dominator in person. The twins smiled. Allies, they had.