“Chloe, it’s good to hear from you,” Jason said as the video chat opened. “How’ve you been?”
“I’ve been staying with my sister,” she said. “It’s been nice but I am increasingly ready to go.”
“As a guy who ran away from his family for six months, I completely understand.”
“Well, whatever your reasons, the entirety of West Africa benefited, even if they don’t know it. Which is actually why I called you?”
“The outbreak is flaring back up?”
“No, it’s about you. I’ve been talking to my colleagues and a lot of them have been contacted by an investigative journalist.”
“I didn’t think they had those anymore. Isn’t it all just ideologues and regurgitated press releases now?”
“It depends on who is willing to pay, and someone is putting up for some airline miles on this one. The people I’ve talked to haven’t been talking, but sooner or later, someone is going to.”
“I’m aware of someone pushing me into the spotlight from the shadows,” Jason said ominously. “He’s an enemy I picked up along the way.”
“I have to think that someone like you has a different kind of enemy to someone like me,” Chloe said. “My biggest enemy beat me out for the good parking space at the hospital where I used to work.”
“My enemy held my friend prisoner and… let’s just say yes, different kinds of enemy.”
The meeting room of the Four Cardinals of the EOA seemed cavernous, with high ceilings and wide walls while being almost entirely empty. There was a large monitor on one wall, a square table in the middle that seemed diminutive given the scope of the room and an exterior wall, made entirely of glass.
Mr North and the new Mr East stood in front of the wall, taking in the panoramic view of Los Angeles as they awaited their final two companions.
“You realise,” Mr North said, “that if we tie you or Mrs West to the demise of your predecessor, the consequences will have a resounding finality.”
“I do,” Adrien Barbou said.
“Then let me compliment you on your thoroughness, Mr East. My investigators rarely find themselves at such a loss.”
“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about, Mr North.”
Mr North gave a saturnine smile.
“I do so hope there won’t be any problems stemming from a leadership change at this critical time, Mr East.”
“I think you will find, Mr North, that a change was exactly what was required. I called this meeting for a reason.”
“I’m positively dripping with anticipation.”
Mr North did not probe further, awaiting the remaining members of their collective. He had long ago schooled himself out of dangerous curiosity and exploitable impatience. When Mrs West and Mrs South arrived together, the four took their places around the square table. Their subordinates were not present at this meeting and the four were alone in the large room.
“The meeting is yours, Mr East,” Mr North said. “The agenda is yours to set.”
“In the process of auditing the activities of my predecessor,” Barbou said, “I have come across a number of unfortunate irregularities.”
“Oh?” Mrs South prompted. “What manner of irregularities?”
“It would appear,” Barbou said, “that the previous Mr East had rather drastically overstated the problems in enacting the final stage of our plan. It seems that he was stalling the process to give certain factions within the Cabal time to prepare.”
“What factions are those?” Mr North asked.
“Unknown. I have only just made these revelations and immediately moved to lock down all of the previous Mr East’s subordinates for investigation and table this meeting. I felt it prudent to discuss these issues before launching an internal investigation and enacting inquiries into the Cabal.”
“A choice wisely made,” Mrs West said.
“You have evidence of these improprieties on the part of your predecessor?” Mrs South asked.
"I do," Barbou said. "As the materials are sensitive, rather than digital transmission I am having the full details hand-delivered to each of you on secure drives."
“Prudent,” Mr North said. “If Mr East truly was stalling, then do you have a revised time frame in which we can enact the next stage?”
"We could begin immediately," Barbou said. "I would recommend, however, that we wait two weeks. This will give me time to root out any more surprises the previous Mr East left behind and vet his people. It would also allow me to bring my project from before ascending to my new role to fruition."
“You’re ready to move forward with that?” Mrs West asked.
“Yes, although I won’t make the final move without consensus. This will go further than the Network is willing to tolerate.”
“And will prime the world for our next move with a conversation of what is and is not possible,” Mrs West said.
“There is another problem the late Mr East was either hiding or unaware of,” Barbou said. “One that potentially means cancelling everything.”
Eyebrows raised all around the table.
“Go on,” Mr North said.
"I've been personally re-examining every aspect of the grid blackout program, now that I have control of it. Mr East's grasp of the magical mechanics involved was not as comprehensive as either we would like or he portrayed. In addition to the fact that we are ready to go, he failed to grasp the full ramifications of dropping the grid in its entirety.”
“My predecessor indicated that it would take the grid between one and two weeks to reactivate following a total shutdown. Enough time for dimension incursion spaces to deliver monsters across the world and definitively proving the existence of magic. We already know that the results of this will be damaging. The reality is that the grid will be down for months. At least two, most likely three or four. It could be longer, or even permanent. That’s a low but real probability. This is all assuming that the Network fails to find a way to repair the damage and return the grid to functionality, which would alter our timelines, obviously.”
“Months,” Mrs South said. “That wouldn’t be damage. Months of monster hordes being spewed into the world would be an apocalypse.”
“That’s a little dramatic,” Mrs West said.
“No,” Barbou disagreed. “Mrs South is right. I’ve seen the dimensional spaces, the armies of monsters. Months without the grid to intercept them will change civilisation forever. It could potentially end it.”
“Assuming that the Network can’t get the grid active again,” Mrs West said.
“How likely is that?” Mr North asked.
“A year ago, I would have considered it highly likely,” Barbou said. “The outworlders have changed that. My contacts tell me that the outworlder once in my custody has been advancing the Network’s comprehension of the grid in leaps and bounds.”
“Farrah Hurin,” Mrs West said.
“It doesn’t matter what her name is,” Barbou said. “Only what impact she has on our plans.”
The other three looked to Mr North, the first among equals. They waited as he sat in thoughtful silence, tapping a finger against his lips. Then the finger stopped.
“One week,” Mr North said. “If we can move now, then we go at the earliest reasonable opportunity. Is that sufficient to root out any further problems regarding your predecessor, Mr East?”
“If you are willing to loan me some of your excellent investigators, Mr North. I am still building my own cadre of reliable people.”
“Done,” Mr North said. “Mrs South, please coordinate with Mr East and take charge of looking into the Cabal’s activities.”
“Are we truly going to gloss over this?” Mrs South asked. “Our goal was to forge a place in a world turned to magic, not to burn that world down.”
“A wide-scale collapse of civic and social infrastructure does not obviate our objectives,” Mr North said.
“You would leave us ruling over a pile of ash?” Mrs South asked.
“So long as we rule,” Mr North said. “The complete collapse of the systems on which the Cabal and the Network have built their power bases will, at the last, bring us to parity. As the world rebuilds, we will finally stand as one of the tallest pillars.”
Mrs South took a long, slow breath, then stood up.
“We are not the people we set out to become,” she said. “In the beginning, our goal was to democratise magic. To take it from those who were hoarding it for themselves. Somewhere along the way, instead of defeating them, we became them. I have no illusions that I am good and I can live with that. I gave up on pulling down the tower for the chance to live on top of it, looking down at others like ants. But there is a difference between looking down on ants and using a glass to burn them. I may have given up on making the world better but I won’t be party to burning it down.”
In the wake of her tirade, the other three shared a look, then turned their gazes back to Mrs South.
“Are you certain?” Mr North asked. “You understand the consequences of standing on what’s left of your principles. You won’t affect change. You won’t make anything better for anyone but whoever we find to fill your seat. Someone who we will make sure does not share your compunctions. Only if you participate do you have any chance of steering events in the direction you want them to go. You can’t stop it, but perhaps you can ameliorate it. Only by standing with us will you have the chance.”
“Mrs South,” Mrs West said, her face filled with reluctance. “Audrey. If you go against us, you change nothing. You won’t leave this room and you know that. I understand that staying the course might feel like a stain but do you want to die clean or actually make some kind of difference?”
Mrs South turned around, placing her back to the table.
“I’ll die clean.”
“…amateur footage of a figure that looks to be wrapped in an eerie garb made from the night itself. It doesn't move like a human and what it does to the people in this video is not something a human can do. Perhaps not even something any human would, given the horrific results. The Vietnamese government denies this incident took place, claiming the video is a hoax, but we have found what we believe to be the site of this altercation and spoke to local residents. As you’re about to see, these people believe the impossible is not as impossible as most of us believe…”
Anna sighed, pausing the footage. She was in her office with Asya and Michael Aram, who was temporarily serving as Anna’s assistant. Her normal assistant was not cleared for the information anticipated to pass over Anna’s desk in the near future.
“How much traction is it getting?” Anna asked.
“It’s getting a lot of promotion amongst susceptible demographics,” Aram said. “The mainstreaming of conspiracy rhetoric in the US is helping this along, and with their cultural influence, it’s spreading far and digging deep. Most outlets are dismissing it but they’re all playing it because it’s content that gets people talking. The footage from the rolling gunfight here in Sydney is getting more play than ever.”
“How bad is this?” Anna asked Asya.
“The International Committee is throwing a fit,” Asya said. “Not the local one in Canberra but Brussels, Berlin, Shanghai, New York, Johannesburg, Cairo…”
Asya shook her head in resignation.
“There’s an emergency video conclave going on as we speak,” she said. “It was decided that there wasn’t time to convene in person. I’m not privy to what they’re discussing, but the preliminary directions they’re issuing speak volumes.”
“Which are?” Anna asked.
“All branches are being instructed to prepare to enact breach protocols.”
“This is it, then?” Aram asked. “The IC is ready to bite the bullet and go public?”
“The consensus is that the Engineers of Ascension will do it if we don’t. Expect direction soon, and in the meantime, get ready to start working with local government officials. Those channels are going to be critical, now.”
“I think I always knew,” Anna said, looking at the frozen image of a cloaked Jason on the screen. “From the moment that lunatic popped up, he was always going to be the one to bring it all down.”
“I don’t think that’s fair,” Asya said.
“Of course you don’t,” Anna said. “It’s hardly a secret that you’re looking to be the coulis on his panna cotta.”
Asya’s body language closed off.
“I’ll thank you to show some professionalism, Committeewoman Tilden. If I have any further directives from the International Committee, I’ll see you receive them.”
Anna winced as Asya stiffly left the office.
“Stress,” Anna said, pinching the bridge of her nose, “is not improving my work performance. Aram, sort out a car. I'm going to be spending a lot of the upcoming time in the office, so I'm going to see my wife while I still can."
Aram left, but shortly thereafter came running back, his feet pounding the tiled corridor.
“I take it this isn’t about the car,” Anna said.
“The grid went down,” Aram said, his face flushed.
“A blackout here in Sydney?”
Blackouts in major cities were always the most dangerous.
“Not a blackout,” Aram said. “The grid went down. The whole grid. Everywhere.”