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Hiro returned home to the apartment building he owned. His penthouse floor was only accessible by his private elevator or through the regular elevator by using an access key. He walked straight to the bar and poured himself a stiff drink. It had been a strange night.

The entertainment lounge had one wall made up of windows looking out onto the balcony. Just as he was about to sit, Hiro spotted a silhouette out there, easy to miss on a moonless night. His first thought was to shout for Taika but he recognised Jason’s figure, leaning on the railing as he looked out over the city. Hiro opened the sliding door and stepped outside.

“How did you get up here?” Hiro asked.

“You’ve been nothing but generous, Uncle Hiro,” Jason said, neither answering the question nor turning around. “All I’ve brought you in return is trouble.”

Hiro stepped up next to Jason at the railing, resting his drink on it.

“You’re family, Jason. All you ever have to do is ask.”

Jason turned giving his uncle a smile.

“I admire you for feeling that way after the way the family has treated you. I was less magnanimous, with less reason to be.”

“Your brother stole the girl you loved since you were ten years old, Jason. That’s seriously not okay.”

“I know, right?” Jason said. “It’s nice to have someone actually say it. My own mother more or less told me to suck it up and be happy for them.”

“Seriously? I’m going to be honest, Jason; I never liked your mother.”

“Really?” Jason asked with a chuckle. “You always hid it so well.”

“I swear that the only reason she kept the baby was your father being Japanese.”

“Don’t you dare say yellow fever,” Jason said.

“I’m not that crass,” Hiro said. “I’m pretty sure she was entranced by the idea of an adorable Japanese baby, though.”

“In her defence, Erika was very adorable,” Jason said. “I’ve seen the pictures.”

“She really was,” Hiro agreed with a reminiscent smile.

“How did things go after I left you with those hoodlums?” Jason asked.

“Hoodlums?” Hiro asked. “Jason, we don’t carry money out of banks in a big sack with a dollar sign on it.”

“How am I meant to know that?” Jason asked. “If I was a criminal mastermind, I wouldn’t need your help.”

“Taika has your money,” Hiro said. “Full market price.”

“Why?” Jason asked. “That’s highly suspect.”

“After you left, Ari called our boss. He told Ari what to pay you, but he also wants to meet you. You should know that the man we talked about, Vermillion, will probably be there.”

“He works for your boss?”

“Definitely not,” Hiro said. “I’m not sure who Vermillion works for exactly, but my boss is very careful about how he treats them and their secrets. All I know is that there’s some kind of group that has no interest in criminal enterprises themselves, only maintaining some useful contacts. I don’t know if they’re government spooks or a bunch of shady rich people who occasionally need some dirty work done. They’re way above the likes of my boss, though, let alone me. Vermillion is someone from that group the boss calls on for favours, from time to time. He scares my boss as much as everyone else.”

“Alright,” Jason said. “I don’t want to cause you more trouble than I have, so set up a meeting with your boss. In the meantime, I’ve brought a lot of strangeness to your door. I know you must have questions.”

“I thought you came to me because you knew I wouldn’t push.”

“And you haven’t, which I appreciate. But fair is fair, Uncle, and you deserve some answers. That said, there are things I think it’s better you don’t know. Some secrets open doors that can’t be closed again.”

“Jason, you’re being very clandestine. Faking your own death, the self-driving car, the secrets practically dripping off of you.”

“The James Bond thing again?”

“The James Bond thing,” Hiro said. “Did you go off and join ASUS or something?”

“Nothing so safe,” Jason said lightly. “As you said, there’s a very big secret hanging over me and I’m starting to suspect that there are powerful people invested in keeping it.”

“This organisation that Vermillion belongs to?”

“Maybe,” Jason said. “More likely, they’re only part of a wider circle. I don’t know who these people are or what they would do if they found out you knew the things I’ve been keeping from you. But if you’re willing to take the risk, I’m willing to tell you everything. To answer all your questions.”

He let out a frustrated sigh.

“You’ve been unreserved in helping me,” Jason continued. “I fear that all I’ve done in return is bring danger to your door. If you get involved in my affairs, you’ll have no more protection than what I can personally offer. Ignorance is an uncomfortable shield, but it may be the best one you have.”

“Alright,” Hiro said. His curiosity was enough to strongly war against his prudence. “How about I ask you some questions and you tell me when we’re nudging into dangerous territory?”

“That works,” Jason said. “I know you must have some pressing questions. Things haven’t quite seemed rational since I showed up, have they?”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Hiro said. “Things have been getting strange for a while now. We’ve all felt it, like something in the air. This EOA group with their juiced-up thugs. The army running around with their terrorist readiness exercises that are so transparently a cover up for something. This guy Vermillion and whoever’s behind him. There’s a game I can’t see and the rules are changing. Then you show up and you seem to understand what the new rules are.”

Hiro flashed Jason a self-deprecating grin. “This probably sounds like nonsense to you.”

“No,” Jason said. “I know exactly what you’re talking about. It just worries me that this was happening before I ever left and I didn’t know. I need answers, but for now, you were promised yours.”

Hiro rubbed a hand over his face, unsure of where to start. With Vermillion, he felt like he had brushed up against a dangerous truth long before Jason returned. He couldn’t help but think of the similarities Ari saw between the mysterious man and Hiro’s now mysterious nephew. Ari certainly seemed to be scared of Jason in the same way, if not more. Unlike Vermillion, however, Jason had not scared Hiro himself or Taika. He had also not unleashed that strange effect until he needed it. In the presence of Vermillion, by contrast, Hiro felt like a prey under the gaze of a predator every moment in his presence.

“Did you really make Ari’s dogs go submissive like that?” Hiro asked.

“Yes,” Jason answered.

“And the thing you did that scared Ari and his guys. That was the same thing?”

“Yes.”

“Do you think it’s the same thing Vermillion does?” Hiro asked.

“I can’t be certain,” Jason said. “It’s highly likely, though.”

“And what is that thing?”

Jason gave his uncle an awkward smile.

“This is where we head into dangerous territory, Uncle. I’ll try and explain enough to give some understanding, but I’m going to start out very vague. If you want more details, you can have them. But be certain before you ask for them.”

“How dangerous is this secret you’re not telling me, Jason?”

“I honestly don’t know. I have no idea about the local situation, which I’m hoping this Vermillion character can help me to rectify.”

Jason took in a cleansing breath of winter night air, only to find it not so cleansing. The city was far from what he was used to, be it the rich, pleasant scents of the astral space jungle, or the waters of Greenstone. Whether the waters of the delta or the ocean, the magic carried down the Mistrun River left even bog water smelling oddly fresh and clean.

Making things worse was Jason’s enhanced senses of smell and taste. Taking a deep breath of city air was like coating his tongue in old motor oil.

“You alright Jason?”

“Yeah,” Jason said. “Where I’ve been, it’s hard to get in or out. There’s no internet, phone, television, radio. No communication of any kind. My chance to leave came unexpectedly and I don’t know how things ended up after I was gone. They might think I’m dead.”

“Why would they think that?”

“Because I died.”

“What?”

“Let’s put that aside for the moment,” Jason said.

“Put it aside? You just told me that you died!”

“I got better, obviously. Uncle, it might be best if I try and give you some kind of overview. While I was away – in fact, the reason I left – was that I became part of… lets call it a community. I never realised it existed here, and in secret, until I joined it myself, over there. I haven’t even confirmed that it’s here, but what you just told me seems to.”

“Well, if you’re going to brush off the whole faking your death thing, I want to go back to what you did to Ari’s dogs. And to Ari. Is it like pheromones or something? Did the CIA MK-Ultra you with designer drugs until your body odour triggers a fear response?”

“That sounds more plausible than the reality,” Jason said with a chuckle. “But no; it’s something else. As for what, that would be crossing the informational Rubicon. If you want to know…”

“No,” Hiro said firmly. “One of the reasons I’ve been successful doing what I do is knowing when not to go deeper. And these waters are getting very deep.”

“That’s wise,” Jason said with relief. “I hope. It could be that I’ve already implicated you, just by coming back. The whole family, in fact. There’s a chance that some will see my return as a threat, an opportunity, or both. Those with poor intentions and few scruples may try pulling you in as leverage.”

“You worry that not telling us what you’re involved in might get us blindsided?”

“Yes,” Jason said. “Ultimately, though, knowing won’t help you. You aren’t equipped for what’s out there and I can’t get you ready in any kind of practical time-frame. All I can do is protect you if someone comes after you.”

“I have Taika and Growl,” Hiro said. “Taika isn’t just big. He’s smart and observant.”

“So I noticed,” Jason said. “He’s not enough, though. Not even close.”

“So, what are you doing about it?” Hiro asked.

“I’ve made a move already, to try and draw people out. For the moment, I’m keeping an eye on you. If trouble comes while I’m in the city, I’ll know and be there faster than you can imagine.”

“Are you having me watched?”

“Yes.”

“They must be good,” Hiro said. “My security hasn’t caught so much as a whiff of them.”

Jason chuckled again.

“And they won’t. Suffice to say that I’ll be informed immediately if anything outside of your security’s purview comes along. I’ve already done something eye-catching that should draw out some of the players to where I can get a look at them. That will hopefully give me some inroads to what is happening here.”

***

Annabeth walked into the conference room where an investigation team was waiting to update her. It was a six person team, specifically put together to investigate the children’s hospital event in Sydney. Also present was Ketevan, who was leading the other hospital investigation, up the coast. Annabeth took the position at the head of the table.

The lead investigator of the Sydney incident was a rugged-looking man named Aram, with a bushy beard and a large frame. He looked like he would be more at home in faded overalls than a suit and tie. Like those of the other people in the room, Aram’s outfit was a suit of mid-range quality, designed to evoke the feel of a faceless government agent.

In Aram’s case it didn’t work well, but despite his appearance, he was a consummate professional. After making sure everyone was on the same page with the basics of the investigation, he started detailing their progress to Annabeth.

“We’ve looked into the families and other connections of the people in the hospital,” he explained. “There were a couple of hits, but we looked into them and ruled them out as potential instigators of the event.”

“But that is only our Network personnel, right?” Annabeth asked.

“That’s correct,” he confirmed. “That’s allowed us to rule out any of our people, but we don’t have membership rosters for the Engineers of Ascension. As for the Cabal and the smaller collectives, there’s no telling.”

“But you are looking into that, yes?” Annabeth prompted.

“Yes, Ma’am. We’ve made it very clear that we will be finding the responsible parties and the other groups seem to be cooperating. A lot of them don’t like it, but they know that this kind of overt action crosses our bottom line. None of them want us coming down on their heads.”

“What’s your take on their responses?” Annabeth asked him.

“My instincts are telling me that this isn’t coming from an established group. They may be capitulating, but they aren’t hiding their displeasure at our heavy-handedness. No one’s stepping on eggshells. That’s not to say we aren’t continuing to be thorough. My instincts have been wrong before.”

“Good,” Annabeth approved, glancing at Ketevan, before turning her gaze back to Aram. “You think this is related to the other incident?”

“I’d say more likely than not, at this stage,” Aram said. “The timing suggests it’s not a coincidence, although everything is still on the table until proven otherwise.”

“Ketevan does have one theory,” Aram said. “Keti, if you would?”

Ketevan nodded.

“I had this idea about the event in the hospital,” she said. “I’ve been looking into it, but we have limited information. It hasn’t happened in centuries, that we know of. I haven’t found in what records we do have anything to contradict what we’ve seen.”

Annabeth frowned, guessing Ketevan’s theory.

“I won’t say the idea didn’t occur to me,” she said. “What about the simultaneous event in France? Isn’t that contradictory?”

“Not if two of them came at once,” Ketevan said. “We don’t know that isn’t possible.”

“I’m sorry,” one of the junior investigators broke in. “I’m missing something, and I don’t think I’m alone.”

The other junior investigators nodded their agreement. Annabeth panned a gaze over them.

“We’re talking about outworlders,” she said.

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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