This is the prelude to my 65k word novel, Serpens Cauda.
|President Cauda stood facing out over the darkened plains of Antarctica. His city sprawled at his feet, the people hidden underneath a fog of steam that filled the crevices between each building. It glowed a pale orange, streetlights dotted through the haze like fireflies on a bayou. It was Winter, the sun had not risen for months. His office in the penthouse of the central tower was a cosy twenty-three degrees centigrade: outside it was minus five, or so the blinking thermostat on the wall told him. Still, hardly the blistering minus forty it had been in this same spot decades ago, the temperature at which both Celsius and Fahrenheit put aside their differences and agreed it was just perilously cold.|
The buzzer sounded on his intercom. A softly spoken female voice followed. “Mr President, the anti-mage is waiting outside.”
“Show her in,” he replied. The mahogany doors creaked open. From the corridor outside entered a red haired women taller than the poised president in his polished leather shoes and bespoke suit. In stark contrast to the warmly furnished office she was clad in little: a tight fitting set of fatigue patterned clothes, conforming to her slender, toned body shape as if it had been painted on. She walked with purpose, with regimented rhythm; holstered pistol tapping against her thigh, sheathed blade hanging from her belt.
Still the President watched out the window, the Southern sky glimmering with its astronomical brilliance. Above his head was the central point about which all the stars rotated, as if Cauda himself were the pivot, not the Earth’s tilted axis.
He heard her stand to attention. There was no glare in his perfect window, but he knew what she looked like, despite having never seen her before in person. Her kind all looked the same. Slowly he turned, waving his hand slightly to the side, signalling the window behind him to darken, reverting back to the solid wall it usually presented itself as.
“At ease, anti-mage. Please have a seat,” he motioned to one of the empty three chairs across from his desk. He spoke with an uneasy gait, pairs of words slurring together while stuttering staccato around them: he had not been elected for his oratory.
In fact, he hadn’t even been elected.
“Thank you, Sir,” she said instinctively, placing her body into the sumptuous chair, though she remained upright and alert, hardly at ease by any standard.
He took his seat after her. A gulf seperated them: little adorned the scuffed wooden surface. It was aged and worn, having been rescued from its former noble habitat before it could be burned or looted.
“It is my nature to keep things short, so let us to business.” He pulled out a cigarette from a drawer in his antique desk, placed it between his thin, pale lips, and lit it with a flurried flick of a silver lighter. The tip flared as he dragged on the acrid fumes, the latest strain of tobacco far more exquisite than anything nature had produced, despite being marginally more addictive. The smoke diffused from his nostrils like those of a mythical dragon.
“I need you and your squad for a surveillance mission. A new power has come to our attention and our satellite reconnaissance is being scrambled in the region. We need eyes on the ground to establish the threat before we can decide on a course of intervention.” He tapped the burnt ash of his cigarette into a bowl set into the desktop.
“Sir, my squad is currently on their leave,” she stated boldly. AM was not the kind to be phased by authority, despite what years of training and indoctrination had drilled into her. She was too clever for all that.
“Not any more. I’ve recalled them all to duty. I don’t trust this mission with any other set of mage hunters. Yours are the best.” A wry smile graced his shaven cheeks.
“Thank you, Sir.”
The front of the desk slid away to reveal a slender keyboard. Stubbing out the remaining three-quarters of his cigarette he begun typing, his fingers roaming the keys without his eyes moving from AM.
“I’m sending you all our documentation on codename Rasalhague. Brief yourself and your crew with the details. You’ll be leaving tomorrow. Any questions, anti-mage?”
“What about Rhodes, Sir?”
Caudo narrowed his eyes. “Your tactical officer?”
“Yes Sir. I was told I would be getting a replacement now he and his wife are trying to start a family.”
The muscles around Cauda’s cheeks tensed in what for most other people would have been a smile, but the President always had a morose, sallow look to him.
“He has already agreed to accompany you on this mission in his usual role, though a refusal would have been unwise on his part - and irrelevant for that matter. Once a mage hunter, always a mage hunter, isn’t that right?”
AM nodded. “Yes Sir.”
“Good. Now as I said the details have been sent to you,” the president stood and with a motion of his hand showed her to the door, “I have other business to attend to.”
AM rose in kind and came to attention, puffing her chest out and aligning her feet. “Yes Sir.”
A glance up to a monitor bank on the rightmost wall showed her moving along the corridor outside, being shown to the elevator that would carry her down to the central plaza at the heart of the city. Once she was safely away, he tapped away at the keyboard: the monitors surveying various parts of the tower all flickered to one macro image shared between them of a sonograph, a single green line cutting across the middle row as silence pervaded the room.
“I trust you were listening in,” the President spoke out as if to no one, sitting back down at his desk, spinning his chair around slowly to face the back wall. He waited for the response - it would come in a few seconds once the delay had passed. His voice had to be carried vast distances, distances that made those between planets seem negligible.
“We are always listening,” came the reply, the green line shaking into a pattern of sound. The voice was sharp and clear, undistorted in the slightest, as if the speaker had been the the same room, let alone from a distant star system.
“Satisfied?” Cauda surveyed his city below, a mere speck of civilisation dwarfed by the starry sky above. He detested having to speak with Overlord; Cauda was the President of humanity, but that meant little to the far-off race that had once ruled over Earth.
“Time will tell. She has not disappointed us in the past, unlike the former models.”
“Spare me the indignation. We’re doing what we can with what you left behind. Considering what we’ve built and done given the circumstances, I would say the Academy is a great success.”
“The process of elimination provides us with no small degree of entertainment.”
Cauda felt what remained of his integrity rising in his throat like a wave of nausea. Quickly he swallowed it back down.
“Her competence aside, I’m certain through her mere presence in the region we’ll be able to learn a great deal about, well, whatever it is.”
“We have our suspicions. If they are correct, we stand to lose a great deal, so let us hope they are incorrect.”
Though Overlord and his race were vastly powerful, they were not beyond feeling fear. For the first time in his dealing with them, Cauda could note it in it’s voice. If the Benefactors were afraid, then what did that spell for humanity?
Across the darkened, frosty plains of a melted Antarctica, Cauda could only wonder what the future held. His foremost anti-mage would shed light on the matter, this was his only certainty. Perhaps, if the cards fell correctly, this single mission could set off a new revolution and throw off the unseen shackles enchaining Earth, and with enough cunning, he might climb his way to the real top of the pile, not this puppet presidency he currently held.
Such ambitions were dangerous. If Overlord or any of the other interested Benefactors suspected him he would be removed, or worse. He had been chosen for his intelligence, his strategic sense, his political prowess - but most importantly for his cowardice. He was a man that could command great power, while uniquely being a man capable of being commanded.
Yet all this was known to him. That was half the battle: all he needed now was to know his enemy, and this was precisely what he had sent AM out to do.
“Well then, I guess we shall see,” he said finally, resting his elbows on the wooden arms of his chair and cupping his chin against his clasped fingers.
“Indeed,” the voice of Overlord replied dryly, “indeed, we shall see.”