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“…spokespersons from Médecins Sans Frontières and the World Health Organisation have both dismissed claims of miracle healing, stating that the success in containing the outbreak is due to experience and the protocols established during the 2013-2016 outbreak. Evangelical aid group Samaritan’s Purse has officially echoed these statements, but unnamed sources within the organisation have made reference to what they describe as divine visitations…”

Mr North paused the recording playing on the wall monitor. The Four Cardinals of the EOA, Mr North, Mrs South, Mr East and Mrs West were seated around a square table. Lined up on the opposite wall to the large monitor were their various subordinates.

“Preparations are taking longer than expected,” Mr North said. “We need to reassess our response to Asano’s activities.”

“Before we start looking towards action, we need a revised time frame for our agenda,” Mrs South said. “When will we be ready to act?”

“Disabling the grid is proving more difficult than anticipated,” Mr East said. “To date, we have been successful in shutting off only localised areas.”

He glanced at Adrien Barbou, standing against the wall with Mrs West’s other flunkies.

“The information provided by Mrs West’s new subordinate has been useful in accelerating our progress in that regard. Our problems have come in enacting a wide-scale loss of grid functionality.”

“Surmountable problems, I assume, or you would have reported your inability to complete your task to us,” Mrs West said.

“Our original estimates were based on the scale of the grid,” Mr East explained. “Only once we attempted to scale up did we discover the key issue. The grid appears to have some manner of self-repair function. Whoever originally devised it apparently anticipated localised failures and developed a system by which surrounding areas compensate and restore the damaged areas. The Lyon branch had to repeatedly disable the grid to hide the astral space that formed in Saint-Étienne.”

“And the solution?” Mr North asked.

“The same thing that is impeding us will also enable us to achieve our goal with less direct intervention than originally anticipated. We have been making attacks on grid infrastructure, disabling various sectors around the world as we mapped out the nodes critical to the self-repair function. Once we’ve identified them, then simultaneous strikes on these critical nodes will cause the entire infrastructure to fail.”

“What about the risks of this mapping process?” Mrs South asked.

“Obviously,” Mr East said, “this has come at the risk of exposing our activities to the Network. Their response teams are active but our contacts within the Network have kept them from intercepting our activities. Mrs West’s new associate maintains a number of Network contacts and has been useful in this regard.”

The cardinals glanced at Barbou, standing against the wall with the others.

“If the Network traces your activities back to us before we act, they will intervene,” Mrs South said. “Again, I ask for a timeline. Our original intention was to have made our move by now. How much longer do we have to risk discovery?”

“I anticipate two more months,” Mr East said.

“Very well,” Mr North said. “Mrs West, will you add your resources to Mr East’s efforts, in order to keep the Network from drawing too close while he completes his work?”

“I will,” Mrs West acceded.

"Then that leads us back to the issue of Jason Asano. Now that our time estimates have been extended, we need to revisit the impact of his activities on our intentions. He is far more brazen than the Network about employing his capabilities and that is entering the public consciousness. Thus far, the attention had been minimal and contained but we need to formulate a response before that impacts our own goals negatively. I know you have each had your people analysing the issue, so I suggest we listen to the potential responses they have devised.”

The other cardinals nodded their assent.

“Very well,” Mr North said, turning to one of his own subordinates. “Keenan, we’ll begin with you. What is your proposed response?”

One of Mr North’s subordinates stepped forward.

“The mistake that every person to antagonise Asano has made,” he said confidently, glancing as Barbou, “is that they have always employed half-measures. Asano needs to be dealt with using direct and overwhelming force. I have developed a proposal by which we incite the Network branches here in the US to eliminate Asano using their own category threes. We already know that the US elite operatives have superior capabilities, commensurate with Asano. Unlike the category threes of the French and Vietnamese, Asano will be unable to overcome one of them, let alone multiples.”

“You advocate elimination,” Mr North said.

“I do, sir. If you’ll allow, I can elaborate on my plans to spur the US branches into action, predicated on Asano’s known anti-American prejudice.”

“Perhaps before that,” Mrs West interjected, “we might hear from an alternative perspective.”

“Agreed,” Mrs South said.

“Very well,” Mr North said.

“Adrien,” Mrs West said. “Please share your proposal.”

Barbou stepped forward, throwing Keenan a glance as Mr North’s subordinate stepped back.

"To contextualise my proposal," Barbou said, "I feel I should first respond to the idea of employing direct force against Asano. Frankly, that is the most idiotic path we could conceivably pursue. Every man, woman or force that has been pitted against Asano has fallen short, myself included. He’s been outranked, outnumbered, ambushed, suppressed and blown up. The last category three we know to have confronted him not only stood above him in rank but possessed specific counters to Asano’s key abilities. That man did not suffer so much as a scratch at Asano’s hands, yet to this day, he remains terrified at the idea of ever encountering him again.”

Barbou threw another look at Keenan.

“I’m not saying that I believe Asano could defeat a team of category three elites from the US Network.”

He turned his gaze back to the cardinals.

“The point is that I neither over nor underestimate Asano. Putting him down might work. Might. But that is not a reliable basis on which to move forward. Assuming nothing goes wrong in my associate’s plan to push the Network into mobilising some of their most powerful assets, Asano would definitely not defeat them. But does he need to? Victory may not be possible, but escape might be. We already know that he is highly elusive, even from category three senses.”

Barbou panned his gaze across the cardinals.

"Asano can demonstrably poach from any dimensional incursion at will and seems to be doing so for the purpose of growing stronger. Right now he's remaining relatively predictable, but if he wanted to be more evasive about it, he certainly could be. I can’t speak for you, but I don’t want that man out there going hardcore guerrilla warfare, building up his strength in the darkness, waiting for the moment to hit back.”

He once more looked to Keenan.

"What do we do if we strike out and miss, only for him to come back stronger than ever? Right now, his power is limited but incredibly strong for his rank. Do you want to take that man on at category three? I don't. What do we do if it reaches that point? Convince the US networks to bring one of their category fours out of stasis?”

“You know about those?” Mr North asked. “The Americans were only participating in the debate over resources to create category fours to hide that they already have them and that they’re useless without gold spirit coins. I didn’t realise the international branches were aware of that.”

“It’s not widely known,” Barbou said. “There have always been rumours within the Network. I just happen to know that they are true.”

Keenan snorted derision.

“You’re so well informed about the US branches?” he asked. “You French are a bunch of second-raters compared to the Network branches here. Why would we believe that you knew anything?”

Barbou gave Keenan the smile he would give an obnoxious child he was trying to indulge so they wouldn’t throw a tantrum.

“As a whole,” Barbou explained, “Americans dislike the French. Individually, however, American women like French men and American men like French women. When chosen well, of course. Their operational security is far less stringent than the United States branches like to tell themselves.”

A smile played across Mr North’s lips.

“An issue the Americans have had with multiple countries,” he said. “Their field operatives are solid, but their management has had… issues.”

“My proposal,” Barbou said finally, “is the exact opposite of bringing the hammer down. We help Asano.”

Aside from Mrs West, that earned raised eyebrows from the cardinals.

“I’m intrigued,” Mrs South said. “Please expand on that.”

“We don’t need to stop what Asano is doing,” Barbou said. “We need to change the way we look at the situation. We’re worried about him stealing our thunder, but there’s plenty of thunder to go around. So long as he isn’t forced to go public before we’re ready, he’s laying the groundwork for everything we need to do.”

“You’re saying we use him,” Mr North said.

“Exactly. When the time comes, we reap the benefits of every child he rescues from earthquake damage and camp full of sick people he cures. All we have to do is make sure that he stays a rumour, while still working his way into the public consciousness.”

“A modern myth,” Mr North said.

“Precisely. The Network has all the government influence but we have the media power, which is exactly what we need. We spin Asano, let him prime the pump for when we draw the water. And if he needs to be dealt with then, we let the public do it. We have footage of Asano killing people in nicely graphic ways.”

Mrs South narrowed her eyes at Barbou.

“You were the one who prompted the Vietnamese to go after him, aren’t you?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Barbou said with a smile. “I was just fortunate enough to get a hold of the footage before the Network eliminated it all.”

***

Flying through the sky on Shade, the ultralight trike, Jason felt it as he approached the region coterminous to the proto-space and put away the grid compass.

“Alright, Shade,” he said as his cloak manifested around him. Shade’s vehicle form turned into darkness and returned to Jason’s body as the starlight cloak swept out like wings of night and Jason started gliding. Shade could not transition into the astral space, even hidden in Jason’s shadow as he normally was. Only when fully unmanifested could Jason carry his familiars across.

Gliding through the air, Jason let his aura bleed into the ambient magic. Spending time around proto-spaces had actually been excellent for his aura control, with his aura being the means he used to insinuate himself through the dimensional membrane. He felt out the dimensional barrier separating Earth's physical reality and the proto-space, then passed through it like a curtain of water.

Gliding through the air, the African landscape sprawled out below him blurred and was replaced with an entirely different vista. The terrain below him was now a snow-strewn taiga, looking more like Russia than Africa, although one feature was native to neither. Odd, alien ziggurats dotted the landscape, dusted white with snow.

Shade re-emerged, retaking the form of the ultralight trike, already in flight. Settling back into the seat, Jason pulled out a computer tablet. This was the standard issue magitech tracker that the Network used to track the anchor dimensional entities that were the key to containing proto-spaces. Shade did the flying as Jason navigated them in the direction of their targets.

***

Shelia was the Director of Tactical Operations for the network’s Monrovia branch and was first through the aperture once the ritual team cracked it open. The taiga terrain was fairly hospitable, albeit cold after arriving from an African late summer. She immediately started organising the teams that followed.

After the sweeper teams secured the area around the aperture on the inside of the proto-space, the support teams were brought in and started setting up camp. Assessments were quickly made.

“Director,” one of Shelia’s subordinates said as he approached. “The detectors aren’t registering an anchor entity. We can move straight on to farming the rest of the monsters. Also, the stability readings say the space will hold for more than sixty hours.”

“He’s still here,” Shelia said. “Was there any indication that anyone else had opened the aperture?”

“None. I would go as far as to say that there was definitively no prior use of the aperture.”

Shelia sighed.

“How is he getting in and out?” she mused.

“I could just leave through the aperture you’ve conveniently opened up there,” Jason said, emerging from the shadow of an awning set up by the support teams. A dozen guns were instantaneously pointed at him.

“Harsh,” he said. “Lovely to see you again, Shelia.”

“I take it that you have dealt with the anchor dimensional entity, Mr Asano?”

“Actually, it was a triple, so I snagged a few silver spirit coins for myself. I still left most of them for you, of course. They were all on top of those weird ziggurats, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding the loot. I did take an essence for myself, though. I didn’t realise that a hair essence was a thing, so I couldn’t help myself. I did leave you that sun essence the other day, so I don’t feel super bad. Do you think I could do a Medusa confluence with this hair essence? Probably add in snake and earth, is what I’m thinking.”

Shelia plastered on a transparently false smile.

"We've been instructed to extend you every courtesy, Mr Asano. By all means, feel free to immediately depart via the aperture."

“Well, gee, Shelia. You almost make a guy feel unwanted.”

“I’ve been specifically directed not to express that sentiment.”

“Oh, you have?”

“Yes.”

“Someone felt the need to go out of their way to tell you to not tell me that my presence was unwanted?”

“They did.”

“They mustn’t be aware of our great dynamic.”

“They are. The aperture is right there, Mr Asano.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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