All the World's A Stage

Chapter I

"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts."

-William Shakespeare

Bombs were falling on New York City. Again. But this wasn't the kind of "again" that you got used to. If you at any point stopped being terrified when something explodes, chances are you've been dead for three minutes. By that standard, United Nations Peacekeeping Force Corporal Henry Gibbon was still alive, but for how long, he had no idea.

Clutching his rifle like a security blanket, Corporal Gibbon turned to his unit's noncom. "Uh, sir, shouldn't we get under cover? Explosions, shrapnel, dismemberment, decapitation?"

The grizzled noncom in question, Sergeant Adam McGregor, made a production out of lighting a cigarette, drawing on it, and blowing a perfect smoke ring in Gibbon's face.

"Peacekeeper, did I give you permission to bitch? Orders are to hold this line to the last man."

To hell with military discipline. "Hold the line against what? The Papists will just bomb us to hell and gone and go home like they do every other night."

"Damn conscripts. Tell me, what's the weather like up your own ass?" McGregor drew on his cigarette until the coal glowed cherry-red. "Look, not that it'll help much, but let me give you a little perspective. Back when we actually kept the peace, back around 2015, we pushed through a universal nuclear disarmament resolution. If that hadn't happened, we wouldn't have made it here to 2112 and I wouldn't have to listen to you piss and moan about the goddamn Papi-"

A crack rang out across what was once Manhattan's fashionable West End. Such a crack was instantly recognizable to anyone who had been at the front for three seconds. The sergeant collapsed in a boneless heap, a fine spray of blood and brains spurting out of the back of his head.

Most of it landed on Henry Gibbon. He screamed.

The word "content" could not accurately describe Archbishop Silvio Auditore. Nor could the words "jolly" or "affable." As the secretary of war to the new Catholic nation known as the New Papal States (dubbed the "Unholy Roman Empire" by critics with a functioning irony detector, of which the archbishop was not part), he quite possibly had the most stressful job this side of the papacy.

Speaking of the papacy, His Holiness was not doing anything to shrink Archbishop Auditore's fast-growing ulcer. He crossed himself several times before entering the cabinet meeting.

The cabinet room was almost obscenely ornate. Gorgeous murals on the walls depicted the Biblical story of creation in glorious rococo detail. These were painted by either Michelangelo or Bernini; Auditore could never remember which. Gathered around a forty-foot redwood conference table relaxing in plush velvet office chairs were the cabinet members, the various movers and/or shakers of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. State, Navy, Air, Army, Space, Treasury, Interior, and Information (read: Propaganda) were all represented here. At the head of the table, seated in a disgustingly gilded straight-backed throne, resplendent in miter, staff, and formal vestments, sat His Holiness Pope Pius XVIII.

Archbishop Auditore knelt before the Primate of Rome and kissed his Fisherman's Ring. "Your Holiness, I am always at your service," he said with reverence uttered but not altogether meant.

The pope smiled indulgently, clearly enjoying the pomp, not to mention the circumstance. "Arise, Silvio," he said grandly. "Tell us the good news." He gestured to a modern world map mounted on the wall, obscuring what was surely a masterpiece. Glittering blue and red pushpins denoted the positions of friend and foe, respectively.

"Right away, Your Holiness." Auditore bustled over to the aforementioned map, files, binders, folders, and various other paraphernalia flying. After unceremoniously dumping his materials on the corner of the conference table, clearly annoying Pius (small victories, small victories), Auditore extricated a telescopic pointer from the piled and telescoped it. He cleared his throat noisily. "Yes, well, the news is good, though not entirely so." He slapped his pointer at a cluster of red and blue pushpins along and on what had once been the northeastern coast of the United States of America. "After years of bombing, strafing, et cetera, our forces finally succeeded in establishing a beachhead on Long Island late last night. Losses are heavy, but the enemy was caught almost entirely by surprise.

"On the African front, the Ninety-Nine Tribes are proving especially belligerent. These fanatics bushwhack our troops with extreme prejudice. Four divisions have been gutted by suicide bombers in the last six months alone. I suggest a swift and efficient retreat and regroup." Auditore paused with baited breath. His Holiness did not like the r-word. And, sure enough-

Pius cut in harshly. "No! No retreat, no surrender! We are the army of the Lord! Only we have His blessing, and all the devils in hell cannot turn back this, our Last Crusade!"

Auditore sighed. The pope was so deluded he wouldn't even call it World War III like everyone else. But he had no choice. As Pontifex Maximus, Pius was commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Auditore made a note on his handheld personal computer (they didn't even bother calling them cell phones anymore; phone calls were such a very small part of what they did) before moving on.

"Moving on to the East," he said importantly. "There, the Muslim foe-"

Pius cut him off yet again. "Infidels! Call them the infidels."

The beleaguered archbishop ran through a few Ave Marias before continuing. "There, the…infidels are highly distracted by the Chinese to their north and east. Now, I believe, is the time to spring a multi-pronged attack on Istanbul. I have prepared a twelve-point plan that-"

"Constantinople! Its name is Constantinople! Call a spade a spade!" snapped the Vicar of Christ on Earth.

Archbishop Auditore neglected to point out to the pontiff that this was precisely what he was not doing. He muttered a quick mantra to himself. "Lord, help me keep my mouth shut."

"What was that, Silvio?"

"Nothing, Your Holiness."

It was going to be a long meeting.

The Third War of the World had yet to touch the Democratic People's Republic of Poland. Judah Loew Belaziel found this highly unusual. The Seven Years War, the Hundred Years War, the War of the Austrian Succession, the War of the Spanish Succession, World War I, World War II, the bitter but as yet unnamed territorial fighting that paved the way for the rise of the world-states, all of these had either consumed Poland completely or dismembered it into some sort of fraction. Belaziel shook his head to dislodge these thoughts. To spend too much time musing on something was to make it real. But then, as a history professor for the University of Warsaw, sometimes he couldn't help thinking about these things.

He downed his scalding coffee ("Coffee should be blacker than death, stronger than brandy, smooth as a kiss, hotter than hell, and sweeter than love," he always said), bundled himself up to the point that he resembled not so much as a sentient mass of insulation and synthetic fur, kissed his wife Ruth on the cheek, and set off to mold young minds.

After the bell rang and the students filed in, muttering and swearing groggily, Judah dived right in so fast he was at risk of getting the bends. "Ladies and gentlemen, start your livers! It's time for current events." This garnered a smattering of laughter from the still lethargic student body. "So. This Third World War has been going on for seventy-four years now, and doesn't show any signs of stopping or slowing. So why are we still here?"

One of the students, a German by the name of Wilhelm Wicki (incidentally Judah's favorite name ever) raised a hand. "Because nobody has any nukes, right?"

Judah did a happy little tap-dance-to-heel-click. "Precisely! And why does no one have any nukes?"

"Because the UN did…er, something or other."

Judah sighed, his little academic high dashed against the rocks and cynicism setting in. "Herr Wicki, do please try to form thoughts completely before you attempt to communicate them. But you are essentially correct. In 2015, before Secretary-General Vassikin turned it into a world-state, the United Nations passed a universal nuclear disarmament resolution. They enforced this by confiscating and destroying any and all documents and evidence having even the slightest thing to do with nuclear weapons.

"And, by now, anyone who ever knew anything about them is now long dead. So, now no one even knows what goes into the damn things anymore. Not even the UN. But, let's back up for a second."

Judah strolled over to the smart gel blackboard. One tap in the center sent ripples across the whole apparatus, stimulating and activating the microcircuits and display crystals. Currently it displayed a highly convincing simulacrum of an old-fashioned blackboard. "Okay," he said. "Let's discuss some of the major players in this farce. First and foremost, we have the Papal States." Judah took his finger and traced the phrase on the blackboard. An animated piece of chalk followed it and wrote it out as if it were actual chalk. "Now, who can tell me anything about the Papal States?"

Another student raised her hand. "It's ruled by the pope."

Judah pointed at her. "It is indeed. We have a firm grasp of the obvious. But the Papal States are much more complex. But as a dependency of the United Nations, we are formally at war with Christendom. I, as a Jew, find that hilarious. You see, this new Catholic state started back in 2012, when Pope John Paul III…"

Judah stayed behind in his office late into the night, grading papers. Wrong, wrong, wrong. He'd need more red pens before midterms. He jumped at lest a foot in the air when his door fell in with a resounding BANG. He groaned. Even the most sophisticated thumbprint, DNA, and elaborate passcode security could not prevent someone from kicking down the door. Who could it be this time? A disgruntled rugby player kicked off the team because he couldn't tell Magellan from Marco Polo? An even more disgruntled parent? Representative from the government claiming he didn't talk about Poland's glorious new Communist regime (it certainly wouldn't be the first time)? It turned out to be none of the above.

Two muscular, swarthy men in khaki military uniform loomed over his desk. They wore head scarves that obscured everything but their piercing black eyes. The apparently senior of the two pointed a thick finger at him and said a single word in Farsi: "Jew?"

"Sorry, I don't speak Farsi," Judah said in flawless Farsi. He'd always had a notoriously dry sense of humor. "Yes, I'm Jewish. Does it matter?"

Then men didn't respond for a few seconds. Then in unison: "Allah hu'Akbar!"

The junior one leveled a dart gun at him and fired. The world went black.

Father Captain Hugo Stiglitz was, by his own nature, a very jolly man. He always had a smile on his face, and could joke with the best of them. Now, however, he was just as dour as men of the cloth are assumed to be.

The recent massive armored thrust for Istanbul by the Papal States had been quickly reduced to a parry. Troops were scattered thinly, and Stiglitz's company was bogged down outside of some miscellaneous anonymous Bulgarian village. He couldn't quite remember what its name was, but he was fairly certain it contained three-quarters consonants.

Stiglitz surveyed the enemy lines through a pair of high-powered field glasses that held several filter options, such as night vision, thermal, 1000x magnification, and motion-sensitive. Hugo had it set to the motion sensor, watching carefully for a lull in enemy fire. He took his chance immediately when he got it. He shouted at the top of his voice in Latin, "Forward! Charge! Watch your buddies and follow me!"

With the rise of the papacy, Latin had resurfaced as a spoken language. Not many people paid attention to word endings, verb conjugation, or man bites dog anymore, and modern terminology was often difficult to adapt, but it was handy to speak a language the other guy thought was long dead.

A very, very long way from the Mass, Stiglitz charged out of his foxhole and dove for cover behind a retaining wall that by some miracle had survived the endless bombardment. There he was met by one of his company's platoon commanders, Lieutenant Leonard O'Doull (he had earned officer's rank by virtue of surviving and casualties; had he worn an Ostia ring like Stiglitz, he would have been a priest). The only Irishman in the company, if not the regiment or division, everybody called him Mickey. He thought that was funny as hell.

He tipped his helmet to Stiglitz, looking for all the world they had met outside a holo theatre in Venice, not fighting for their lives outside of a bloodsoaked Bulgarian hamlet. "Afternoon, suh," he said to Stiglitz, brogue thicker than honey. "Gotta stop meetin' like this."

Stiglitz laughed a great, booming laugh; one might imagine Santa Claus laughing. "You're telling me!" It took a conscious effort to switch to English; Mickey spoke no Latin.

Mickey lit a cigarette. Stiglitz had never picked up the habit himself. "Tell you somethin', Padre. T'ain't gonna happen."

Stiglitz frowned, for a moment oblivious of the danger and death exploding around him. "What do you mean?"

Mickey popped his head up above the wall for a moment to take a potshot with his assault rifle. A string of phlegm-ridden Farsi curses told him he'd hit his mark. He ducked back down. "I mean, t'ain't gonna happen. We been runnin' afta these goddamn towelheads for a long, long, long, long, long, long, long-"

Stiglitz coughed impatiently.

"-long, long, long time. So what makes we think this here in particulah is gonna amount to anythin' more than, say, a big ol' keg of warm spit?"

After trying to wrap his head around the image of a keg of warm spit, Stiglitz coughed again. "Lieutenant. I'm a forgiving man. But this I can't stand. I can have you excommunicated for defeatism."

Mickey sighed and stubbed out his cigarette. "Yeah, believe me, I know that, suh. It's just, I dunno, seems like all this blarney had gone on long enough, y'know?"

Before Stiglitz could respond, several shouts of "Allah hu'Akbar!" rang out, along with stutters of assault rifles and the unique skew-womp noise of an officer's laser. He cursed violently and fluently in several languages. "Jesus Christ on a hoverbike! Is the entire population of Islamabad coming at us at once?!"

Mickey tut-tutted. "Such language, and from a man of the cloth, too!" He fished in his bandolier, removing a couple of nondescript-looking gray orbs with a single black nub sticking out of the top. These were hollow orbs full of jellied nitroglycerin, cushioned by plastic foam. A yank of that black nub removed the pin and set of a spark that would reach and ignite the nitroglycerin in ten seconds. These were commonly referred to by frontline soldiers as an Oppenheimer.

Stiglitz grinned widely, his typical good humor returning for a split second. "You, Lieutenant, I will have to see in the confessional next leave."

Mickey returned the grin. "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned!" As if to punctuate his last word, he yanked out the pins with his teeth and tossed them over the retaining wall. The explosions brought a roar like unto the Final Trump. Mickey tipped his hat to Stiglitz again. "Best of luck to ya, Padre."

Stiglitz made the sign of the cross. "May the Lord bless you and keep you, Lieutenant." They shook hands and charged forward.

Luc Harcourt always thought of himself as a knight in shining armor. As a sniper, he was above the murder and mayhem of the front lines. He killed in a flash and was gone without a trace, his hands clean of the blood they spilt.

Other individuals might call him a terrorist. To each his own.

Luc's latest assignment took him to Vichy, a city in the central county of United Nations Operating District 12. The locals stilled called it France. Bureaucracy was a powerful thing, but not quite powerful enough. The current Secretary-General of OpDist 12 was one Marcel Carrere, self-styled Louis XX. Apparently his bureaucrat bosses were getting a little tetchy about Louis' big ideas (something about a fast food chain and a planet-destroying space station), and wanted him dealt with.

Luc Harcourt was the best at what he did, and what that was wasn't pretty at all.

"Merci," he said to his surly cabdriver (a fanatical nationalist who simply would not shut the hell up the entire 2 kilometer drive from the airport, and thus murdered and disemboweled his tip) and stepped out onto the cobbled stone streets of Vichy's historic city square. Luc shifted his chaw of bubble gum from one cheek to the other. The first step was to establish a stakeout point.

His Most Ineffectual Majesty would be coming to Vichy by parade in three days. Ordinarily Luc would have balked at having such precious little time to prepare, but another couple of thousand credits tacked on to his fee assuaged any misgivings. He strolled casually around the perimeter of the square, looking for all the world like every other tourist. But behind mirrored sunglasses his sharp eyes darted to and fro, marking and recording everything there was to know.

Stakeout locations, Luc thought, his mind running a mile a minute. Okay. Courthouse? Good vantage point, but obviously extremely well-guarded. Not a chance. Office building? Just looking at it made Luc queasy. Limited hours, private area, private security agency stickers in the windows. Absolute nightmare. Church bell tower? Luc grinned savagely. Public tours, open spaces, negligible or, more likely, nonexistent security. He blew a pink bubble until it popped. Perfect.

So for the next three days, Luc Harcourt actually was a tourist in Vichy. He gained at least two pounds in croissants, visited the mineral springs, and took in a show. Then parade day came. Luc gathered up his bag of tricks and went to early-morning Mass at the cathedral. Afterwards he went to the bathroom and waited quietly for everyone to leave. Then he exited and quickly scaled the ancient wooden staircase leading up to the bell tower, wincing at every creak. Once there he unzipped his bag and swiftly and skillfully assembled his high-powered sniper rifle with multi-filter scope and absolute silencer.

He was cleaning it lovingly when the parade came. What was once the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, echoed across the square. Marcel Carrere stood waving and smiling in an open car. Luc snorted. "Who does he think I am, Lee Harvey freaking Oswald?" He adjusted his scope and brought the rifle to bear on Carrere. Too easy.

The rifle bucked silently as he pulled the trigger. Through the scope, Luc saw Marcel Carrere's…wife fall over in a heap. He swore, adjusted the scope again, and fired. This time Marcel Carrere, would-be King of France, did topple from his car.

Luc quickly packed up his bag of tricks, left out the rear exit of the cathedral, and flagged down a cab. "Airport. Step on it." He grinned in satisfaction as the cab sped away. That would teach bureaucrats to aspire above their station or miscount their self-styled dynasties.

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