A musical tone indicated that the assembler was done. Following that, two things toppled into the dispenser tray. Christof lifted the lid and took out a gun and a box, inside which were sixteen bullets in a four by four row. He hadn’t used a gun in ages, but he remembered ammo boxes usually contained many more rounds. This was no larger than a wedding ring box. Drop down on one knee and proffer sixteen bullets—or exactly one magazine. Somehow, it was more sinister. With a hundred bullets, you were going to a shooting range. With sixteen, you had something in mind. If Christof needed more than that, something had already gone wrong.
He loaded the gun, one round at a time. It was soothing, unlike the forty fretful minutes he’d waited for assembly. At least now he had something to do, and something to study. The gun was unlike any he’d seen from his pre-tortoise days. It was shaped like a glock, but made of darker metal thick with carbon. The bullets were odd also. He wasn’t sure what they were made of, but it wasn’t copper. They were black, and each had a serial number and a QR code engraved on the bullet and the casing. No doubt they could be traced back to this assembler, this account, and this time.
If someone investigated, they’d easily find Christof, but it wouldn’t matter so long as Sakhr pardoned him. But why assemble serial numbers at all? Surely Sakhr could have gotten that waived, unless it was a built-in requirement. Or perhaps a waive would only make this business more conspiratorial. Sakhr was going to avow for this, or so he said.
Christof paused loading the weapon.
Unless Sakhr wasn’t. What if these bullets were serialized so this job would tie back to Christof? Given that Sakhr now had his master glyph, he didn’t need Christof any more than he needed Alexander. And surely he could have found anyone else more suited for this task, but Sakhr had said Alex wouldn’t trust other people near him while shielded. Except Sibyl, but like hell if she could do this.
Christof felt foolish that he’d only considered this now. There should be something he’d do for safety, such as tell someone, or leave a letter with the truth so Sakhr couldn’t dispose of him too, but then the more people who knew, the more likely Alex would find out.
Perhaps Christof was being paranoid, but that was what this life of politics and ploys bred. Given a choice, he’d preferred to trust rather than always keep up his guard. Life would be simpler, but he wasn’t naive enough to think that was possible anymore.
At this point, his decision was binary. Go upstairs and kill his old acquaintance, or leave. If he followed through, he’d have to trust in Sakhr. However, if he left, then what? He could try to explain himself to Sakhr, or he’d run away. Either way, that left Alexander. If he did dethrone Sakhr someday, Christof may have to answer to him instead.
That thought alone decided it for Christof. Maybe Sakhr was going to betray him, but Christof would take that chance. Historically, Sakhr had demonstrated loyalty to those who followed him. While Alexander… he just had that smile of his.
Christof tucked away his gun and tossed the ammunition box into a reclamator. The machine was hardly full, but he started it anyway. Some of these exemplar criminals might otherwise find the box.
Headed back down the hall, he kept his eyes forward. Even with his shield, he felt as though others could see right through him.
Up the stairs, he paused before the door. One breath, two breaths, and then he went through. This floor retained the clean, austere feel of the Committee. If someone went from security to the top floor, they’d never know about the cesspits in between.
Around the corner from Alex’s office, he paused. Guarding the door were two exemplar.
Two high exemplars.
According to his Empathy, they weren’t there, but he heard them talking. It seemed Alexander had been promoting people.
Christof approached. The exemplars had pistols holstered to their hips. They weren’t supposed to be armed. It was against their code. They were observers and interviewers, not fighters. Christof would have given anything to turn around right now, but it was too late. They saw him.
“What do you want?” one asked.
“I’m here to see High Exemplar Cho.”
“Too bad. The High Exemplar is busy.”
“The queen sent me. I have information the high exemplar needs.”
“Give it to us. We’ll pass it along.”
“No. I’m to give this information directly to him.”
“Her. I’m giving it to her. Now is she in there or not?”
“She’s in there, yeah, but she doesn’t want to be disturbed. So give us your information and we’ll pass it on.”
“I’m working under orders from—”
“Fuck the queen. Give us the information now, or we’ll take it from you.”
Christof didn’t back down. “You will let me through this door, or I will report you both.”
“Ooh.” The second widened his eyes. “Gonna report us, huh? What are you going to tell her? That we’re doing our jobs?” The man stepped closer. “Why doesn’t the queen just stick to her own damn business. I don’t think that bitch understands what the high exemplar does for her. Shits like you dance around living it up while Winnie holds this empire together. Now you just come up here with more demands? How about when that girl asks for a little time to herself, she gets a little time to herself and the rest of you fucks can piss off.”
That was… oddly impassioned. It seemed as though these guys actually cared about Alex—as in loyal. This was unexpected. They might actually think about avenging Alexander.
So three murders then.
“Look,” Christof said. “Just get out of my way. I need one minute to drop something off, and I’m gone.”
“Give it to me,” he said. “I won’t read it. You can trust me.” The man smirked.
Christof sighed. “Fine.” As calmly as he could, he drew the gun and shot the man’s chest. While the other scrambled for his weapon, Christof stepped back and shot him thrice.
The first man grappled him, startling Christof. His wound hadn’t killed him, and now they struggled on the ground together. Blood spilled on Christof as they fought for the gun. He could hardly tell where the gun was pointing as their slick hands pried at each other’s.
Three more shots fired.
The exemplar went limp.
Christof pushed him off. The man rolled lifelessly aside.
Struggling to his feet, Christof clutched his chest. All he heard over the ringing in his ears was his panting breath. His hands were cold, and they wouldn’t stop shaking. Blood loss? He patted himself down. No. Adrenaline. All this blood was the other man’s.
The whole damn spire must have heard that. Scrambling to his feet. Christof burst into the next room.
Alex sat behind a massive desk centered in the office. Before him was his plaque, screen lit. He seemed minuscule in that teenage body, and so innocent when his eyes widened.
“Christof?” he stammered. “What are you doing?”
Christof raised the gun and fired. The bullet punched into the wall next to Alex’s head. Alex dove under the desk. His plaque toppled aside. Christof circled around, took aim…
…And snapped his finger away from the trigger.