In the Sydney branch’s media operations centre, Terrance was going through the footage Jason had stolen from the EOA at Broken Hill again, discussing it with his publicity staff.
“The key to what he’s doing here is that he’s not telling us what the EOA’s secrets are, which would get people immediately calling bull. He’s ‘inadvertently’ letting slip in his anger that he knows what the EOA’s secrets are. Instead of people denying what he’s telling us, he’s got them wondering what he’s keeping to himself.”
He pointed at one of his staffers.
“Hailey, what is number one on trending right now?”
“Which platform?” she asked.
“Just pick one.”
“Alright, boss, just a moment… number one is #scottbaioeyebeams.”
“Scott Baio? The Charles in Charge guy? You know what I’m looking for, Hailey.”
“Number three is #wheredothepowerscomefrom.”
“Where do the powers come from?” Terrance repeated. “When the monster waves started, people were asking about the powers but it was one more thing in a world gone crazy. Now people are getting a handle on monsters and superheroes, so it’s time to refocus that question, which is exactly what Asano just did.”
The doors opened up and Aram came in.
“The Steering Committee wants an in-person update,” he said.
“Very well,” Terrance said. “Hailey, take over the analysis. Pay particular attention to the way that instead of going against the EOA’s hero narrative, Asano played into it to give himself the authority he then used to undercut it. Seriously, I could kiss that man. I mean, I couldn’t, he was very clear on that, but still…”
Jason and Dawn were riding the underground tram out to the cloud house.
“You’re getting close to silver-rank, now,” she said.
“Events have accelerated my advancement,” he said flatly. “If I had the choice, I’d rather it take longer and not have all the death.”
Globally, the death toll from the monster waves was over two-hundred thousand, although those were soft numbers. The count was potentially much higher.
“You have a question for me,” Dawn said. “One that you need to ask before we can move forward.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about Farrah?”
"You realise that you could have asked that instead of punching my nose through my brain."
“No regrets. I bet you were all ‘that little bastard’ afterwards.”
“Of course I wasn’t,” she lied. “I’m an ancient and powerful being, so I’m a little more mature than someone who just turned twenty-six. I noticed that you didn’t celebrate your birthday last week.”
“It’s not a celebratory time. I never liked my birthday anyway.”
“Because it’s on April Fool’s Day?”
“It might seem like a fun combination but it’s not,” Jason said. “Why didn’t you tell me about Farrah?”
“Because of you.”
“If I had come to you when you first arrived back, what you have done?”
“I’d have gone and got her.”
“No,” Dawn said. “You’d have died trying. Think about the state you were in when you got back. No local resources, no allies, no information, no understanding of the magical society of your world. You were also still very much caught up in a war mentality. Your first instinct to every obstacle was to murder it.”
“I’d have found a way.”
“You did, when you were ready. You had allies, information and a more balanced mindset.”
"You could have shown me how."
“And would you have trusted me enough to listen?”
“No,” he acknowledged.
"She was sent here to help you, not just as a warrior but as a friend. She understands what you've been through because she has been through much the same. Most of all, she is someone you can trust. It took time to get there, even with your family. Except for your niece, but she couldn't offer you the support you needed."
“I know what Farrah represents,” Jason growled, then his face softened. “And I am grateful that she was brought back.”
“You can thank the Reaper for that,” Dawn said. “He was the one who offered. He wanted to avoid the World Phoenix sending your soul zipping back and forth across the astral with her tokens every time she needed you in one world or the other.”
“And now I have to figure out how to astral travel fully intact or not at all,” Jason said.
The tram tunnel emerged from underground into the underwater section.
“This is rather nice,” Dawn said.
“I like it. I have more questions for you.”
“The Builder did not violate the agreement,” Dawn said.
“Then how are the Engineers of Ascension making converted with his clockwork cores?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t know everything, Mr Asano, and I can only tell you so much of what I do. What I can tell you is that the Builder has not intervened in this world any time in the last five centuries or so.”
“Unless he found a way to sneak past you.”
“Sneaking past me is possible,” Dawn said. “Sneaking past the World-Phoenix is not.”
“You’re saying you can’t help me figure out what’s going on, then?”
“I am not saying that. I would direct you to the defector from the EOA leadership who is working with the American Network branches. She has insights into their enhancement program from its very origins.”
“How exactly is it that you get your information?” Jason asked.
“I’m not going to tell you that.”
“Is it just a bunch of people?”
“It is not just a bunch of people.”
“You don’t want to tell me who they are because then I could just go ask the bunch of people myself, right?”
“It is not just a bunch of people!”
“Sure, it’s not. I totally believe you.”
“I’m beginning to understand why the Builder was so caught up in killing someone as insignificant as you.”
The tram came to a stop at the end of the tunnel and they went through the airlock into the cloud house. Jason looked around as he did every time he entered, still happy with the configuration of interlinked domes.
"This is rather nice," Dawn said, the air shimmering with light passing through the water outside. "It reminds me of home a little."
“And where’s home?” Jason asked.
“The city-universe of Interstice,” she said. “It’s minute by the standards of a normal reality, but quite large by the standards of a city. It is also profoundly magical, yet unique in that monsters do not manifest there. Many consider it to be the capital city of the astral, at least the portion of it that we know. The astral is more vast than even a diamond-ranker like myself can conceptualise.”
“So, the astral has its own societies, then?”
“Many worlds are more familiar with astral travel than the one you have known. Pallimustus has rather undeveloped astral magic, although the Builder’s intervention is changing that. Even now, your friend Clive is deciphering and disseminating more advanced astral knowledge.”
“You know about my team?”
“They are all doing well. They do not know that you are alive again, however.”
“Knowledge must know I’m not dead. She knew about the token your boss gave me.”
“She knows. She just isn’t telling.”
“Bloody transcendents and their bloody games,” he muttered, shaking his head.
They went through a tunnel into a lounge room, each sitting in a comfortable cloud armchair.
“I’d offer you refreshments but I don’t keep any on hand,” Jason said. “Rationing, you know.”
"…consistently gaining ground in defining the discourse," Terrance reported. He was standing in the Steering Committee meeting room giving his report.
“The EOA was always running on a clock before they lost control of the narrative,” he continued. “We’re seeing them pay for it now. Even in the beginning, certain areas were resistant to their obfuscation. In the US, for example, the EOA has incredible media dominance but the Emergency Broadcast System cut through a lot of the noise. Now that countries are enacting media intervention laws like our Emergency Communications Act, the EOA can’t muddy the waters so easily.”
“We know the EOA have been insinuating themselves into states who have long felt that the Network was a tool of the west,” Anna said. “Certain states are even looking to oust the Network and have the EOA fill the role. This is the EOA’s endgame, as far as we can tell. What is your assessment, based on media analysis, for further action on this front?” Anna asked.
“If the projections of the grid coming back up inside of two to three weeks hold up, then I think the EOA are pretty much out of steam in terms of infiltrating governments. I would be looking out for a reorientation of their plans moving forward. There is no way they don’t know about the grid projections, so we’re keeping a sharp eye for a shift in messaging that might indicate whatever new approach they’re going for.”
"Alright, thank you, Terrance," The committee chairwoman said. "So long as nothing else terrible comes up, I don't anticipate there being any problems.”
“Oh, come on,” Terrance exclaimed. “Why would you say something like that?”
“Why are you here, Dawn?” Jason asked. “I’m sure that you could find a nice, secure spot in any of the big cities.”
“I warned you in the past of what is happening to your world as the magical density grows.”
“Most of the astral spaces on this world were already going undiscovered, under the water,” she said. “With the deactivation of the grid, the rate of magic being introduced to your world increased by a third, which is a not-inconsiderable amount.”
“It’s accelerated the process,” Jason said. “Not hard to surmise.”
“It’s worse than that, I’m afraid. I’ve been studying the effects on your world and the rate of acceleration seems to have crossed some manner of threshold.”
“Meaning something’s happened that won’t get fixed when the grid goes back up? I don’t suppose you ever considered helping with that. Or warning us what the EOA was up to?”
“I am an astral magic specialist, Mr Asano. While I am not unversed in array magic, I am used to operating with higher-order magic, meaning higher-rank rituals in high-magic zones. Your friend, Farrah, is more conversant with lower-order array magic than I am and better suited to the task. As for warning you, there are rules on how much I am allowed to interfere.”
“That seems like a convenient excuse for acting when you want to and ignoring us when you don’t.”
"Then where do we draw the line, Mr Asano? Where would you like the intervention of higher-order beings to stop? Do you want the World-Phoenix coming in and solving all your problems? Of course, what constitutes a problem and an acceptable solution would be for us to decide. What if it was the Reaper instead? The Builder? How much freedom are you willing to give up? Knowing you, Mr Asano, I'm guessing not very much. There are lines that we do not cross and I recommend you be grateful for that. As it stands, my presence here is already edging that line. I am a servant of the World-Phoenix, whose authority is dimensional integrity, so I have some leeway on how free I can be with information pertaining to that. Anything else I need to be more careful with. I can help you connect dots but not draw the dots myself. Even then, I must be cautious.”
Jason looked unhappy but nodded, acknowledging the point.
“If you’re an astral magic specialist,” he said, “how about you help me get my head around these books that Knowledge gave me?”
“Wait, yes? As in yes, you’ll help me out without buggering about being mysterious?”
“Uh… great. Thank you.”
“I will need some local accommodation.”
“We can do that. The food won’t be terrific; we’re rationing the same as everyone else.”
“This avatar can be sustained on spirit coins.”
“No worries, then. Now, back to what you were saying about some kind of change that won’t be fixed when the grid goes back up. Are you talking about direct manifestations, with no proto-spaces?”
“No, that is still a number of years away. A smaller number, now, but there is time for more pressing concerns. What I am talking about is something even I have not seen before. Do recall that I told you about the previous Builder creating this universe as an experiment?”
“Something about making it using existing realities as a template instead of starting from scratch?”
“Precisely. I have been examining the dimensional integrity of this world and I believe that the increased magic from the current circumstances has triggered a unique symptom of instability based on templates from which your world was constructed. Once the grid is back up, the acceleration in magic will be arrested somewhat as the proto-spaces it detects are once more being intercepted. At that point, I believe the instability will show itself, like a dimensional whiplash effect.”
“Show itself how?”
“By the flaws introduced in the way this universe was constructed manifesting directly. Pockets of reality, warping into patterns based on the templates on which this reality was designed."
“What will that look like?”
“Like an astral or proto-astral space. Different geography, climate, magical conditions. Except there will be no dimensional boundary. Instead of being connected to your world, these zones will be part of it, the space they occupied being reshaped on the most fundamental level.”
“What about people in that space?”
“I don’t know.”
“Will there be monsters?”
“I don’t know. What the previous Builder did here was drastic enough that he was removed and replaced. This is, as far as I am aware, unprecedented. If the World-Phoenix knows more, it has not shared that information with me.”
“Doesn’t feel great, does it?”
“No, it does not.”
“So, what do we do?” Jason asked. “Farrah said the grid reactivation team is hoping to get it back up in less than two weeks. Until just now, I thought that was a good thing.”
“All you can do is warn the world. I am not withholding information here; I truly do not know. You will need to discover how to deal with whatever comes for yourselves, although I have a place that you can start.”
“You’re going to connect some dots for me?”
“Yes,” Dawn said. “It is time for Akari Asano to tell you why she is really here.”