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In the time it took Jason’s plane to arrive in France, circumstances on the ground had gone through significant changes. The Sydney Network team was met by a driver who took them in the direction of the Network’s Lyon branch to participate in an operational briefing.

“It’s a beautiful city,” Jason said as they drove.

“It’d be a nice posting if the local branch wasn’t a nest of vipers,” Asya said. “We’ve come a long way from debate club. Back then, I never would have anticipated a mid-air rescue from an exploding plane.”

“Are you sure the local branch has been taken in hand?” Jason asked.

“Quite certain,” Asya said. She had been briefed by the International Committee while they were still in flight, passing the information on to Jason and the members of the Sydney branch.

The Lyon branch had discovered that their Operations Director had gone rogue and sold them out to the EOA. Their Steering Committee realised that unless they came very clean, very quickly, their branch was going to be purged. That was a rare event, given that the International Committee itself did not have the authority. Only by agreement of the majority of the Network’s member branches could one of those members be acted on punitively. Scrambling to avoid that fate, the Lyon’s branch had invited the International Committee in, giving them free reign to sweep in and administer operations until local affairs were back in order.

The Network office was not located in one of Lyon’s gorgeous buildings but a disappointingly plain office park. As with the Network’s Sydney branch, Jason could detect a magical array protecting the core sections of the building. They were taken to an area on the ground floor that did not contain sensitive operations and was not within the array’s protective magic.

In a briefing room full of milling people, Jason was given several introductions. One was to Hector De Lange, a Belgian man from the International Committee who was in charge of proceedings. Another was to the leader of the International Committee’s assembled tactical response team, Acting Director of Tactical Operation Karen Espinoza. She was introduced to him by Bruce as the acting Ditto.

“I’ve heard that you can fight like a category three or better,” Espinoza said to Jason.

“It takes the right circumstances,” Jason said.

“Well, we’ve put together a multi-branch platoon of three nine-person sections, with four category threes to a section,” Espinoza said. “I’m willing to take you on, if you want it. I’d like you see what you can do for myself.”

Espinoza was a bullet of a woman, all no-nonsense capability. Most of the silver-rank tactical personnel Jason had seen looked like models for a line of military-style fashion. Even with the beautifying effects of silver-rank, Espinoza was every-inch the soldier.

“I’d like that, Acting Director,” Jason said, “but I’m not sure you want me. Whatever objectives you might have around Barbou and whoever he’s with, my only objective is getting my friend back. Most likely that puts us on the same team, but if it comes down to getting her back or catching Barbou, there are circumstances that could put us at odds. You’re probably better off without that kind of liability in your ranks.”

Espinoza gave Jason an assessing look.

“I appreciate your forthrightness,” she said. “if you’re not part of my tactical operation, what do you intend to do, exactly?”

“Whatever it takes, to get my friend back,” Jason said. “I’m hoping that what it takes is letting you and your team do your thing, but I get a feeling that it won’t go that smoothly.”

“It never does,” Espinoza said. “Alright, Asano. I don’t want you running around rogue if I can help it, so how about this: attach yourself to my team, and if you’re going to go off the reservation, let me know.”

“You’re being awfully accommodating, Acting Director.”

“Just call me Espinoza,” she said. “My information is that you’re the solution to our escalating monster level problem.”

“That’s the idea,” Jason said.

“That’s why I’ve been told to keep you safe and happy. Frankly, I’d rather keep you where I can keep an eye on you. If you’re going to cause me problems, I at least want to see them coming.”

“That sounds fair,” Jason said.

***

Hector and Espinoza called the room to order and began a briefing into the upcoming operation. Everyone was seated, Jason at the back with the Sydney branch, with Asya sitting next to him.

“The Lyon branch, as it turns out,” Hector said, “had been hiding more than an off-the-books black site. We knew of the existence of this black site, although not its location. That, as it turned out, was just another layer of misdirection, designed to keep us from realising a deeper secret. A member of the Lyon branch’s Steering Committee will explain. Mr Abreo, if you would?”

A haggard-looking man moved from the side of the room to take Hector’s place behind the speaker’s podium. He had a core-fused bronze-rank aura and being in a room full with more than a dozen silver-rankers wasn’t serving to reduce the stress that looked to have kept him from a good night’s sleep.

“My name is Paul Abreo, and as Mr De Lange said, I am part of the Lyon branch Steering Committee. Unfortunately, many of the decisions that led to us all being here today were, at least in part, mine. I’ve been asked to provide some context before Mr De Lange goes into the detail on upcoming operations.”

He tapped the touch screen on the podium and a map appeared on the wall monitor behind him.

“In 1948,” Abreo said, “local Network operatives discovered a number of anomalous factors with an incursion space dimensionally coterminous with an area near Saint-Étienne. Not only did it have multiple apertures in the region, which is unusual in and of itself, but the incursion space remained stable past the normal window. In short, it had become a permanent dimensional space.”

Jason had wondered if earth had any proper astral spaces from the moment he learned about the proto-astral spaces. Now he had his answer.

“The Steering Committee of the Lyon branch at that time,” Abreo continued, “made the decision to monopolise the dimensional space and any potential benefits it offered. Which meant hiding it from the rest of the Network. At the time, the Network was much more fractious than…”

“Justifications can come later,” Hector interrupted. “Relevant details, Mr Abreo.”

Abreo sighed, clearly reluctant.

“In order to monopolise the space,” he said, “it was required to hide the astral space from the Network. Obviously, the fact that every branch has access to the Grid was a problem, given that the Grid’s express purpose is to identify and monitor dimensional spaces. As this predated computer monitoring, there was some leeway. The initial action was to disable the grid in that local area, claiming that there was an infrastructure collapse. While the branch told the International Committee that they were working to fix it, they were, in fact, developing the means to falsify the Grid being active.”

Abreo paused, looking around the room with trepidation.

“They were successful,” he said. “That sector of the grid has been offline for the last seventy years.”

That statement triggered a susurrus of murmured disbelief.

“The prevailing wisdom of the time,” Abreo spoke loudly over the noise, “was that with a dimensional space already in place, another one was not going to appear, rendering the Grid pointless in that area anyway.”

Abreo’s excuses only fuelled the fire as the room full of Network members exploded with outrage. Asya, sitting next to Jason, leaned over for an explanation.

“We Network members may be prone to inter-branch politicking,” she said, “but we’re united by a sense of duty to protect our world. None of us are too good to be at least a little self-serving, but this violates the core tenets of our unifying purpose. There’s no way they don’t purge the Lyon branch after this.”

Hector stood up to calm the group down.

“There will be time for recriminations later,” he said. “Right now, there’s work to do. Mr Abreo, please continue.”

Hector once again ceded the podium to Abreo, who was now faced with a deeply hostile audience.

“Over time, our branch developed the dimensional space, which came to be referred to as the dimensional fortress. It was named as such both for the nature of the dimensional space and for its purpose as an ultimate fallback in the case of catastrophic events that seem more likely now than even then.”

Jason leaned closer to Asya.

“Catastrophic events?” he asked.

“There’s been growing concern that the escalation in dimensional incursions may outstrip our ability to intercede,” Asya said.

“You’re talking about a monster apocalypse.”

“Something like that,” she said and Jason turned his attention back to Abreo.

“…came under the influence of each succeeding Operations Director,” Abreo was continuing. “Which brings us to Adrien Barbou. I considered this man a friend, so I was betrayed as much as anyone by the revelation that he was working with the EOA. Once I realised this, I naturally contacted the International…”

“Thank you, Mr Abreo,” Hector said, standing up. “I think I can take things from here.”

He replaced Abreo at the podium while Abreo stood to the side, flanked on either side by bronze-rankers who did not look to be his subordinates.

“Adrien Barbou,” Hector said, “was part of the highly secretive and highly selective group of Lyon branch staff who knew of and worked in the so-called dimensional fortress. We now believe that he has been cultivating loyalists from within the Network’s ranks and that he stepped this activity up after being made Operations Director. It is highly likely that anyone and everyone in the dimensional fortress is one of his, not one of ours.”

“What’s the big deal about this dimensional space?” someone asked from the front. “What’s so important about an incursion space that doesn’t go away?”

“The key feature of the permanent dimensional space,” Hector said, “is that it appears to have a naturally heightened level of magic. That means the environment is beneficial for essence users, as well as producing magical materials. More importantly, dimensional entities manifest directly into the space. Primarily category ones, but also category twos on a regular basis and on two occasions, category threes.”

It sounded to Jason like the magical density of the space was similar to that of Greenstone.

“The dimensional fortress is a DE hunting reserve,” Hector continued, “and over the last seventy years the Lyon branch has stockpiled resources. Most critically, they have figured out how to use the space to generate spirit coins.”

“Spirit coin farm,” Jason murmured to himself in surprise.

“The dimensional fortress is possibly the most important strategic asset on or adjacent to the planet Earth,” Hector said. “Right now, Barbou is holed up inside it, having sealed the apertures from the inside. He clearly recognised that he was tipping his hand in being so overt in his attempt to kill Mr Asano, who we have with us here today and is the second most important strategic asset we know of. Or, Barbou possibly tried to kill him because he was ready to make his move. Whatever the case, it precipitated some kind of incident at the Lyon branch black site. We’re still figuring out exactly what happened.”

“What about the outworlder he was holding at the black site?” Jason asked.

“We have confirmed that she was a prisoner of Barbou and the EOA when they entered the dimensional fortress,” Hector said.

“What does he hope to achieve?” a person down the front asked. “Can’t we just guard the apertures so he can’t come out?”

“That is what we’re doing right now,” Hector said. “We have teams that we know Barbou hasn’t compromised, preventing his escape from the dimensional space. Calling it a dimensional fortress is not just for show, however. He has sealed the apertures from the inside and we can’t get in. We have ritual specialists working on it as we speak, but they aren’t optimistic. Right this second, none of us can do anything but sit on our hands and wait.”

“What’s the point?” the person at the front asked. “If he’s stuck in there, why bother with it at all?”

“Barbou has been recruiting from within the Network,” Hector said. “He’s been working towards the entire staff occupying the dimensional fortress being personally loyal to him. He most likely has full control of the space. Our current thinking is that he’s playing a long game. Either he believes that the EOA will come into conflict with the Network and liberate him or that the dimensional space escalation problem is far worse than is generally accepted and the dimensional fortress will become a key refuge that he can leverage. He has the resources there to remain inside without external supply. In fact, the dimensional space was a major source of resources for the Lyon branch. He simply doesn’t need to come out.”

Hector tapped the podium touch screen and four points lit up on the map.

“These are the locations of the apertures to the dimensional space,” he explained. “As we speak there are people attempting to breach the seals on those apertures. We are on standby until one of those apertures is opened.”

The back and forth of the briefing continued but the details mattered little to Jason. He spoke up again when Hector called for questions.

“Where does the outworlder fit into this?” he asked. “How did she end up involved?”

“For that, you’ll have to ask Mr Abreo,” Hector said, gesturing for Abreo to return to the podium.

“We first became aware of the outworlder when the twin anomalous signals appeared on the Grid simultaneously, in Australia and here in France. Our signal was right near the edge of the Saint-Étienne dead zone, close to one of the apertures. Our original suspicion was that it was somehow related to an attempt to investigate the dimensional fortress by another branch that went awry. Our people were stationed close, near the aperture, and we moved quickly, finding the woman unconscious. We secured her with a suppression collar and moved her to the black site.”

Jason kept his aura restrained but everyone in the room felt it boil like a witch’s cauldron.

“Once we realised what she was and the potential she represented,” Abreo said, “we were already past the point of diplomacy. In any case, we were used to having resources the rest of the Network did not and knew that if we were open about it, the International Committee would remove her in order to improve the general capacity of the other branches to resist the incursions.”

The room was once again unsettled at the naked betrayal of their core purpose.

“We realised that the Australian signal was likely another outworlder. As we hadn’t heard anything, this meant that either the local branch there was hiding him, like we were with ours, or their outworlder was still at large. Adrien advocated for having the Australian outworlder captured or, failing that, eliminated. The Steering Committee reluctantly agreed, under the stipulation that we send a stealth specialist, rather than the more aggressive team Barbou wanted. The goal was to remain unnoticed, or at least unidentifiable, even in failure.”

“Which went out the window when I left your guy limping to the local branch while I killed his support team,” Jason said. “Sorry, allegedly killed his support team. I totally didn’t do it.”

“You’re the outworlder?” Abreo asked, turning pale.

“Yep,” Jason said, standing up. “So, just to be clear. You found my friend unconscious, slapped a collar on her, realised she wasn’t what you thought but you’d already screwed her over too much to cooperate and decided to torture what you could out of her. Would that be an accurate description?”

Abreo stood trembling, too scared to answer.

“Mr Asano,” Hector said. “I understand that you’re emotional, but please restrain your aura.”

Jason turned a look on Hector that made him flinch before he got himself under control.

“Somebody show me one of these apertures,” he growled.

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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