From Key of Passage

The pyxel appeared at a most inconvenient moment for Robert. As usual on such appearances, the air flickered a little, an invisible violin began to play softly, and there was a whiff of vanilla. The pyxel materialized some thirty centimeters above the tabletop. He windmilled his little arms, piped, "Oh shit," and fell to the table with a crash surprisingly heavy for an insubstantial being.

He got up, brushed himself off, adjusted his official cap, and turned a serious face to Robert and Bess, who were sitting on either side of the little café table.

"Of you here present, which is the Robert Gralewski?" he asked, scrutinizing.

Bess gasped, amazement on her face.

Robert adored it when she was amazed. Actually, he adored her every word and gesture. He had become smitten with Bess about fifteen minutes ago. The moment he saw her at the café door, he popped an EZ philtrum, felt the familiar tremor in his cheeks—and was instantly head over heels. Having already arranged to meet her, he thought, What could be nicer than a rendezvous with the person you love?

She was perfect.

"They can't distinguish gender in humans," he explained quietly, patting her hand. "A construction flaw."

"I am repeat, of you here present, which is the Robert Gralewski? Which the?" asked the pyxel. Pyxels not only couldn't distinguish gender, they also had trouble with Polish verbs and word order. Well, but these comp sprites that had been programmed to remote-communicate with humans were of the telepathic variety and didn't need grammar.

"That's me," said Robert. "The password is six-three-seven black walnut cracks between teeth."

"Roger password received," said the pyxel with clear satisfaction. "You are summoned to Central Command, by Guard of the Shield Ogalfin."

"Please tell him I'll be there in an hour. Over."

"Over very welcome. Ding ding, end transmission," said the pyxel and vanished. Robert put a finger on the place on the tabletop where the messenger had stood. It was warm.

"What was that?" asked Bess, cocking her head. A shock of hair fell across her face, covering the delicate row of input sockets along her neck. Bess was not only lovely but smart too. She worked at a big information concern as a net jockey. Robert had once used the services of her company; they were introduced at a bank. Bess fell for him, alas without reciprocation, though objectively he had to admit that she was a knockout. He dated her on a few occasions, but today was the first time he had used an EZ philtrum. And look how it turned out: he's crazy about her now, she's crazy about him, and duty calls. He was appalled at his lack of foresight: buying the EZ philtrum but not also a kwik E neutralizer. So there was a bit of suffering ahead for him, of the parting-is-such-sweet-sorrow sort. (On the package it said: "The effect may last more than four hours. The manufacturer cannot be held responsible if public humiliation, legal action, or death occurs after the drug is taken.")

"Excuse me, darling, but that pyxel was from the Commandant. I have to go."

"Of course you don't have to," she said mildly, but he could hear the steel in her voice. "You'll simply call him and tell him you're busy."

"But . . ."

"Please." Again she smiled, and Robert realized that for love he was ready to, yes, even risk the displeasure of Ogalfin. Bess was now everything to him, everything . . .

"Very well," she said suddenly, getting up from the table. "This happens. I have some work to do myself: there's that Phoebus report, for tomorrow. Ciao."

She gave him a peck on the cheek and walked out. Left. Life had lost all meaning.

Elves were strange. Robert liked them, liked working with them, but could never really figure them out. He didn't fret over that: there were plenty of people in the world no less strange than elves, yet the world kept turning. It would keep turning, even if some felt that with the advent of magic on Earth our planet should have come to a stop, with the Sun going around it like a roulette wheel.

Taste, for example. To each his own, maybe, but the elves' could have been better. When they took over Warsaw, they fell in love with the Palace of Culture, Stalin's dreadful gift to the city. "What wonderful architecture," they said. "How sublime, what class!" They removed the towers that had been put up around the palace in the 2020s; they leveled a considerable section of Midtown and with an enchantment placed three copies of the building there. Joined by bridges of light, these structures, according to the elves, would concentrate the life-affirming power of the Sun.

Robert's grandfather, born in 1947, kept diligently shelved in his memory various facts from the past; he especially liked those that were completely useless and unconnected in any way to the present day. When he saw four Palaces of Culture pointing at the sky with their golden spires, he concluded:

"I knew right away those elves were all Jews and Communists."

How wrong, oh how wrong dear old Gramps was. The majority of the elves embraced Catholicism and went to Mass more often than most humans. And Communism wasn't their favorite system, because a king ruled over them, and they all had titles, baron and up, and a minimum of fifteen honorary names. Their style.

Police headquarters was located in the Northern Palace of Culture. Getting there shouldn't take long.

Robert left the Architects' Café a little after Bess but saw only the cab of her departing rickshaw. The trusty pneum, wheezing and whistling, brought Arrow. The pneum handed Robert the reins; compressed air hissed from between his teeth and from his joints.

Robert climbed into the saddle and slowly set off down Koszykowa Avenue toward Chaubinski. New horseshoes clopped along the asphalt; the horse gave a little snort every now and then; the metal buckles of Robert's belt clinked against the barrel of his automatic.

There wasn't much traffic for 21:00—mostly folks on foot, a few carts. It was only at the viaduct that Robert passed the first automobile. The vehicle crawled uphill with great effort, puffs of vapor coming from its stack. On the roof was the sign of the Watch Cat clan, a powerful symbol that provided the drive. The air around the vehicle rippled slightly from the nanocadabras making sure that other signs didn't come too close, which could cause an accident.

Robert automatically moved to the right lane. His tattoo was strong enough to interfere with the car's defense system, and such warding tangles usually resulted in boils. How could a man deeply in love walk around with boils on his back? And not only there.

He turned at Holy Cross Boulevard. The gate of the Northern Palace zone was up ahead. No joking here—he was entering one of the most heavily protected areas in Poland. He jumped from his horse, uttered the regulation cipher spell, and when the guards approached with their armor and axes, he handed them his plastic ID.

"Cadet Robert Gralewski. I was summoned."

"We have confirmation. Proceed," said the guard—with a pleasant smile. The man must have been ill.

The door thrown open from Ogalfin's office nearly hit Robert in the face. Robert stepped back. Two policemen erupted into the hallway. After them, escorted by two others, came a man in handcuffs: a young skinhead with a curly beard and Day-Glo orange T-shirt that showed the familiar triumvirate of Lenin, Hitler, and Che Guevara and over them the eye of Sauron. The prisoner fixed his attention on Robert and for some demented reason decided to share with him his worldview.

"Down with the monarchy! Elves go home! Long live the socialism of the people!"

The guards allowed the youth to vent his propaganda but then led him firmly to the elevator. Robert stepped into the elf's office.

When Ogalfin was agitated, he spoke in a way that befitted neither his rank—High Commandant of the Recon Corps—nor his age, which was about three hundred.

"Can't people kill each other anymore for simple gain?" he yelled, pacing. His uniform was perfectly tailored and pressed, his epaulettes gleamed, and the creases of his trousers looked as if they had had the help of a steamroller. The misericord dagger bounced against his thigh at every step. Its scabbard was gilded, beautifully ornamented, and no doubt worth a fortune.

The elf had a smooth face, crossed by lines exactly where lines were needed to convey reliability and experience. His thick black hair was cut close, and the various earrings on his pointy ears indicated his rank. Ogalfin came from one of the most illustrious lines inhabiting this part of Europe, and he was related by blood to rulers in almost every corner of the planet. Even when he got drunk or swore, he did it as a leader.

During the invasion Ogalfin had led the Podlaski Division. He initiated and won four battles. He took half of Poland, the Czech Republic, and a piece of Slovakia. Now he ruled here, and frothed at the mouth only when paperwork took up more of his time than going after miscreants.

"Body counts, I understand that, sometimes you can't avoid it. Though I don't boast, don't try for that. Now we have this sect, doing ritual murder. And the king says to me, blessed be his name, that our prime is troubled by the increased interest in sects, weird cults, magic! Magic, can you believe that? It's bizarre, humans taking up magic . . . Our prime, he's a good man, but sometimes, when he says . . . I'm telling you, lad, the ritual murder rate shot up over twenty percent this year. Can no one in this country, damn it, simply kill for gain? And so the king, blessed be his name, wants an explanation, trials. This is nothing we can wave a wand over, is it, lad?"

Ogalfin plopped into the chair behind his desk, threw his head back, and stared at the ceiling, as if to find something there other than the usual animated fresco. His indignation was over. In a moment the hard work would begin. Robert stepped over the memo turtle dozing on the floor (elves adored turtles: further proof that their sense of beauty was an embarrassment).

"You are reminded," the turtle announced, sticking out its head from its shell. "Upper delta, quadrant black, the code six-eighteen-pi."

"Thoughtful of you," Robert acknowledged and sat down beside Ogalfin. "What's going on, Commandant? Why did you call me in?"

"The assignment you wanted: a foray outside the city. Our instruments have picked up an emanation in the Zone."

"What is it?"

"An artifact. Our satellites place it near what used to be Green Mountain City. It's no more than a dozen kilometers outside the Zone but still in unmagical territory controlled by the Margravate. Some villager found an amulet in the woods, or maybe a pectoral from the time of the last war. Or, out hunting, he caught an animal that had fallen under the Zone's influence, and now he has at home a pile of fey bones filled with nanos. The emanation is not strong, but our techs say they can extract a ton of power from the object. We have to take it before the enemy knows it's there. And this is a perfect opportunity for you to get some practice in the Zone."

"Which division?"

"You'll go as assistant to Hardadian of the Strong Hand. I don't believe you know him. An excellent warrior. He came to Poland three years ago and ever since, practically the whole time, has been sitting in the Zone. Hasn't even given Warsaw a proper visit. You might teach him a little of the language, you'll have the chance. But enough of this chatter. You depart in an hour."