On that dark and stormy night, when the lights went out, Conrad was ready, even if nobody else was.
During the storm season, when the violent hurricanes brewed in the vastness of Swan Lake's world ocean blew into the settled archipelagos, the power grid was usually disabled to keep it from being damaged by lightning and high winds, and people had to rely on their generators. But Conrad had been in charge of maintaining the generator this year, and he had seen to it that it would fail.
While the rest of the vast Donmarren household was panicking, Conrad quietly made his way through the darkness to a locked cabinet in a disused sitting room, and retrieved his vibro-blade. It had belonged to his brother Desmond before he died. In fact, it had fallen from Desmond's cold fingers after his death at the hands of their brother Horace. Horace still walked free--their father had decreed that the family's affairs stayed within the family, and the outside authorities had no right to interfere. Conrad had wept on Desmond's grave, unmarked in the applecot orchard, for days. But now his eyes were dry, and his brother's blade would have its revenge.
He had checked the blade's batteries frequently, to be sure they would be ready. He turned it on to standby mode, so it cast a dim light and made a soft hum, which he could feel against his hand but which would be drowned out by the roar of the storm. Even through the thick walls of the house he could hear the pounding hail and roaring wind.
He entered the servants' hallways by means of a discreetly concealed door outside the sitting room. They were dimly lit at the best of times, and often cramped, so as he suspected they were abandoned. Anyone who had been in them when the lights went out would have fled to the nearest public hallway as soon as they could. Unless they went into claustrophobia-induced catatonia, that is. Like Conrad almost had once when Horace locked him in that chest for an entire afternoon. Conrad had been only six Terrayears old then, and Horace twice that; Desmond, a year older than Horace, had rescued him. Conrad had never told him who did it to him, but Desmond had soon figured it out, and that had been the start of the brothers' feud.
Their father hadn't wanted to pay for Conrad's therapy, but Desmond had persuaded Conrad's mother, and the two of them had eventually changed the old man's mind. But it had damaged Desmond's credibility--the old man hated weakness, especially in his children. Since then Horace had risen in his favour.
The servants' hallways didn't go all the way to the old man's room. After his own father's assassination and his ascension to patriarch, he had redesigned the house so that the patriarch's quarters were nigh-impenetrable. The only gap in the thick metal walls that surrounded it was the single door from the anteroom, and that door was guarded not only by human guards--well, cyborgs, bought offworld and engineered/conditioned for unbreakable loyalty--but by computer systems and electronic countermeasures.
The generator failure will have rendered the latter moot. As for the cyborgs...Conrad had taken an offworld trip a few years ago, and had managed to elude his security long enough to have a brief meeting with a representative from a certain firm on Toliman. He had returned with a small knick-knack which played a variety of ancient 20th-century pop songs, as well as transmitting a particular little-known override code at very close range. That and the vibro-blade should be enough to accomplish his goal.
The outside entrance to the anteroom itself were large double doors made of huge slabs of Terran wood. Conrad turned off the vibro-blade's light and quietly opened the door, which swung on well-oiled hinges. Still, as he stepped inside, he heard the inhuman voice of the cyborg guard. "Warning. Emergency security mode in effect. This unit is authorized to use lethal force in case of plausible threat. Do not approach." The message then began to repeat.
Conrad reached into his pocket, briefly caressing the knick-knack, a plastic carving of a bright orange anthropomorphic tiger, before he settled his finger on top of the slightly depressed stripes that served as keys. He tapped out the long-memorized code. A small, distorted speaker began to play a dark, grinding song, and the repeated message stopped. Then the cyborgs began to whisper, in synchronization with the song, the words, "Exit light, enter night."
Conrad turned the vibro-blade back on, this time to a brighter setting, as he let the doors close behind him. He could see the cyborgs clearly now, three of them, standing in a rigid posture, faces staring straight ahead, still whispering the words of the song. He turned the thumb-bolt on the doors behind him and crossed the room, whose intricate and baroque decorations were little more than random patterns in the harsh light from the blade.
The door was before him, and he paused with his hand on the knob, gathering his courage. Could he really do this, confront his own father and kill him for all the evils he had done? But he remembered Desmond, and his resolve firmed. He opened the door.
The room within seemed to be lit brightly for a moment, but then it faded away, and Conrad realized that it had merely been a flash of lightning. There were no windows in the room, of course, except for a realistic screen that transmitted real-time images of the outside, or whatever one wished. Apparently the old man--Ira Donmarren, the first of his name--was content to see the storm.
Except that the form standing by the curtained bed in the middle of the room was not Ira Donmarren. It had been years since the old man had stood on his own for very long, and in any case it was a woman's outline he had seen in the flash. He brightened the blade again, and she turned to face him. "Ariana?" he said in disbelief.
"Hello, Conrad," she said, her face sad. She had never been particularly pretty, but her long, dark hair was smooth and immaculate, and her dress handsome, if plain. "I thought it would be you."
Conrad furrowed his brow. "If you've come to stop me--" he began.
"It's too late," Ariana said. "He's gone. It took me some time to convince him, but he did leave. He will be back, but not until I tell him that it's safe."
"How dare you!" Conrad yelled. "You've robbed m-m-me of--of--" He stopped as he felt his old stutter start up again. He hadn't suffered from that in years, except with Horace or the old man himself. All the things he wanted to say, all the pent-up frustration, seemed to be trying to get out at once, almost choking him.
"To all you boys, he's some kind of monster," Ariana said. "All you can see is the old man keeping you from what you want. You think that Horace is some kind of monster because of what happened to Desmond. You don't see that Desmond was just as bad in his own way; he just made an effort to win you over to his side. And it worked; even after his own death he's got you carrying out his wishes. I've been telling Father for years how well you've been doing, how well you recovered from your childhood traumas. When I caught on to what you were planning, I didn't even tell him it was you. I let him think that it was Horace, trying to make his final move. And if you had killed our father tonight, then that would have been almost true. Two days from now, you would be dead and Horace would be in charge. I should think that that would be something you'd be eager to avoid most of all."
Conrad was still speechless, but now from shock and horror at how he had almost ruined his own plans through lack of foresight. In his mind he had thought that after killing Ira, Horace would be easy, but in his heart he knew that was wrong. He would still be as helpless before Horace as he ever was. "So what now?" he almost whispered.
"I told Horace about your plan," she said. "He will be on his way here soon. He will be expecting me to help him take care of you, at which point he will betray me. Perhaps not kill me, but lock me up in a sub-basement somewhere to gloat over. He was never able to believe that I had any of the strength in the family, any more than you were. But if you can reactivate those guards out there, then perhaps Horace can take care of himself."
Conrad nodded, fumbling at the tiger controller in his pocket. He didn't know that code nearly as well, but eventually he fumbled it out. "Do you, don't you want me to love you," whispered the song.
"We can get through this together," Ariana said, coming over to him and placing her hand in his. "This fighting has hurt the family enough. It's time to let it heal."
Conrad set the vibro-blade on the table. "The generator shouldn't be too hard to fix," he said. "I can show you, later."
"Later," Ariana said.