“Well big man, it’ll be a little complicated on this end, but the best buyer for your piece of merchandise is a certain Alpha we both know and, well, maybe we don’t love but we at least get along with.”
“That seems a little too convenient. Is he willing to buy it just so I owe him a favor or something?” Callum asked.
“Honestly, maybe a bit? But like I said, I don’t actually have much in the way of, ah, criminal mage contacts. BSE and GAR keep a very tight lid on that. And homebonds are basically special order from Duvall, so one just showing up is bound to create questions.”
“But the Alpha can handle it?”
“Well, shifters and vamps do hire mages. So I guess the idea would be for him to have a mage charge things or something, not sure.”
“Mm.” Callum was pretty sure that Chester was still trying to do him a favor, more than buying something he really could use. That was something he was quite leery of, but he also needed the cash infusion for a bunker. Preferably in gold, or something that would easily and untraceably convert into other currencies. “Well, once again, I haven’t made it yet, so if there’s some specifications on size or the like, I’ll see what I can do to accommodate him.”
“You’d do better to talk to him directly, big man. I can set that up for you, tomorrow?”
“That sounds great, Lucy.” Their calls had been maybe a little awkward on occasion after he’d admitted a more-than-professional interest, but not much. He had the feeling that she was as strained for proper human contact as he was.
When he hung up he bent himself back to the task of practice and study. If he was going to be making another homebond, this time for an actual customer, he needed to get the enchantment right. Alpha Chester probably wouldn’t appreciate needing antacids and pepto-bismol after every use.
His progress on turning threads into tubes was not going too badly, but it was becoming pretty obvious that he’d never have the facility at it that he did with his threads. He could, with effort, flatten out a thread and roll it into a tube, at which point the structure was stable. It was a tedious and finnicky process, though, and he was far from being able to do it ad-hoc.
Trying to make structures with them clarified a lot of differences between himself and regular mages, though. The tubes were stiffer and larger, not as easy to manipulate but not as prone to deformation. That meant there was none of the vibration or oscillation his threads always had while the frameworks were energized, but it wasn’t possible to match the outline as well. So it actually required less total vis, was presumably not nauseating, but it was far slower and left behind a lot more evidence.
Sadly, it was not the cure-all that he’d been hoping, but it would at least mean his enchantments could be less terrible. Especially since he’d been making at least a little progress with the actual literature and theory. Enough that he could identify some of the simpler aspects, anyway. If nothing else, he could make a larger receiving plate, something more along the lines of the GAR teleporters, so multiple people could fit through simultaneously.
The derivation from construct to enchantment and back still escaped him. It was, apparently, hard to begin with, and the advanced stuff was of course restricted to the Guild of Enchanting. At least the more basic techniques were widely known simply because every mage wanted to turn their spells into foci instead of having to construct them manually every time. Not that he blamed them.
His gravitykinesis was actually the perfect candidate for turning into a focus. It was basically impossible for him to lift himself because of the impact his blurry vis threads had on things like guts and the inner ear, but having to construct that from tubes every time would be exceedingly difficult. Unfortunately, there was just too much involved in that process to even start at the moment, so he’d have to stick to the floating chair or flying luggage version until he found some better references.
Callum had also spent a lot of time drafting up plans for his bunker. Which was, despite the name, not something he wanted to build underground. With air and earth mages, that wasn’t that much protection anyway. No, the value would be in making it difficult to find for anyone, mundane or magical. Doing that while still being able to have things like power and internet might be more difficult, but magic would help.
Now that he had the materials, he really wanted to enchant permanent portals. Not big ones for people or vehicles, but something small enough to run a cable bundle through. He was pretty sure that was what GAR used to increase the amount of mana at their offices, since they very definitely had more than the surroundings. The only issue was whether there was enough ambient mana around, though he’d been making strides on reducing the costs for his own constructs.
He’d kinda-sorta cracked the recirculation issue, after much study of the CAD drawings he’d taken from the dragonlands, but what he could manage thus far was a pretty crude approximation. Eventually, he was confident that he’d be able to manage a proper one, though, since he was ever so slowly learning some of the principles behind the structures. Trial and error weren’t nearly as good as instruction, but he wasn’t sure he’d trust any mage at this point.
The copious notes he was taking, on the other hand, might well help someone down the line. He didn’t know who, or when, since it wasn’t like he was in the running to get his work immortalized by the magical authorities. Still, there was no telling what the future held. Plus, he’d long ago gotten into the habit of sketching or writing down everything, and so much magic was relative distances, curves, and angles that it shared a lot of commonality with his architecture training.
In anticipation of the cash infusion he’d be getting from Chester, Callum drove all the way to Dallas to trade in a couple of his gold plates for money. There was nothing particularly exciting about the trip, save for the fact that there was quite a bit of supernatural presence there and he felt a little weirded out having a heavily warded building within his perceptions.
With his tattoo gone, he couldn’t pose as a mage anymore, so he had to make do with a normal buyer for his gold, though he didn’t cash out more than one plate at a time. If he looked hard enough, he could find people who were happy to take bullion, no questions asked. One particularly seedy place, though, sent someone to trail after him when he turned down their laughable offer. That was kind of hilarious, since he just discreetly turned a corner and teleported to the next block.
It did drive home why he was staying out in a sparsely-populated area in a trailer home, despite the drab surroundings and occasionally sketchy neighbors. The whole thing made Callum miss West Virginia, or even South Dakota. Anywhere with more green. But even that was better than the sea of uncaring faces and bland concrete of a city.
After he refreshed his cash reserves, it was a long tedious process of shopping around and doing the minutiae of getting his plans fleshed out. He had, somewhat regretfully, decided that his bunker couldn’t be in the United States, if for no other reason than the surveillance everywhere. Or rather, the fact that every transaction and phone call and so on was so interlinked and the requirement for identification so ubiquitous.
Eventually, some facial recognition database somewhere would flag him on a store camera or something, and he’d have another GAR kill team after him. Considering the way the last one acted, that wasn’t something he wanted to deal with. Especially since they didn’t seem to have much care for other people or infrastructure. He had to wonder how many “industrial accidents” and “tragic fires” were the result of such things.
Though from what he’d seen, there probably weren’t too many rogues like him. Enough that they had a black ops force, sure, but for all he knew they mostly operated in the portal worlds. Or their magical cleanup squad was really good, which was equally possible, since there weren’t overt signs of major magical battles anywhere.
The secrecy still bothered him, because from what he saw it wouldn’t have been that hard for mages and assorted supernaturals to establish themselves on top. Sure, there weren’t that many of them, but they were so obscenely powerful that they ought to have been at the top of all the classical civilizations. But there were no real hints of that.
Either history worldwide had been thoroughly scrubbed, which didn’t seem likely, or supernaturals hadn’t actually been around in antiquity. It was one thing if they’d been there to found Rome or Babylon, but it was another if they would have had to compete with the Holy Roman Empire. Now, of course, he was sure they’d inveigled their way in with the elites of the world, who could use things like healing magic. Or instant teleports.
The mages, he could understand. They had the portal worlds and probably not a huge need for normal technology. The vamps and the shifters seemed like they’d benefit far more from positions of power, though he supposed they might have issues that weren’t clear at first glance. Even with glamours, things like not being active during the day would make it difficult for them to rule over humans.
Or maybe they just wouldn’t be able to restrain their appetites.
For the moment that secrecy did help him, or rather, the disconnect between the magical world and the real one. It meant he could wander around a showcase on solar panels without having to worry that something would mark him as a rogue mage. Partly because no normal person knew about mages, and partly because solar panels just weren’t something the magical world especially cared about.
He doubted they spent much time in the offices of civil engineers, either. Which Callum did. He couldn’t get his plans properly certified since he hadn’t located the actual land he wanted to put his bunker, but he could at least get someone qualified and start running it through the process of figuring out electrical and plumbing. Not that he even wanted to get it officially certified, since that would risk his ID and he’d rather not.
As it stood he’d at least learned from his past mistakes and had his pickup under a different name than Keith Summers, amateur metalworker and the actual purchaser of the various services and material. The amateur was not a stretch, either. After watching the mordite processing, Callum figured that he might as well get a crucible and some other equipment so he could do it himself in the future, or if he needed to recycle his wire.
His knee made it essentially impossible for him to move heavy stuff with pure muscle, but that was what magic was for. He could even transfer molten metal with gravitykinesis, and probably more easily and safely than physically pouring a crucible. At some point he wanted to see if he could get anything of value from simulating microgravity, but that was pretty far down the list in his notebook.
Callum also picked up a new cane while he was out, something with a bit more style than the generic medical one from Mallorca, since despite all the exercises he was still feeling a bit lopsided. With that, he was ready for his call with Alpha Chester. Mostly, anyway. He still felt that same tension as he used to whenever he met any client for the first time, that little niggling worry that he’d come off as a complete idiot. Of course, he’d dealt with Chester before, but not in this exact way.
“Chester here.” The man’s voice came from the phone as Lucy linked him into the conversation. Callum wasn’t entirely certain what technological witchcraft she had worked so they could talk anonymously, but he figured she had to know what she was doing. “You say you’ve got a homebond to sell?”
“More like I can make one to sell,” Callum replied, sitting in the back of his pickup out at the edge of cell service. “Considering you’re not a mage, I was thinking you might like something a little different from the ring-plate setup. Like maybe two plates that connect to each other?”
“That would be excellent,” Chester said. “How would I use it, and how big can you make it?”
“Well, you’re still going to need a mage to activate it, unfortunately. I can’t change that just yet, nor the fact that you’re going to need a mage or some kind of mana source to charge it up. But as for size, probably a meter diameter circle.”
“Wait one,” Chester said. Callum tapped his pencil against his notebook while he waited, thinking. The paired-plate thing was actually a fairly simple evolution of the homebond, since the actual teleportation enchantment was symmetrical. It wasn’t nearly as complicated as what GAR used, but it also didn’t have any protections or security or anything. Which was why he wasn’t going to make one for himself.
Chester might be able to secure both ends of the teleport, but Callum sure couldn’t. Teleport pads would probably be more pleasant to use than a homebond, but it’d also be an open invitation for someone to wander into whatever secure area he used. That wasn’t even counting that he wasn’t sure how the teleport overcame the vis resistance people had.
When he fed it directly, it was linked in, so that made sense. But mages that just shoved mana into it, rather then vis, didn’t have that benefit, and that wasn’t mentioning the bubbles and shields and so on. Nor did he know how a non-mage like Alpha Chester would use one, given the difficulty he’d had teleporting Clara.
“We can manage that,” Chester said after a moment. “One meter is acceptable.”
“It also doesn’t have any of the flourishes the GAR system has,” he said. “There’s no security, nothing. It’d just teleport from point to point.” He was planning to leave some room on the pads for Chester’s pet mage to add any extra stuff to address that, though maybe it was just a matter of raw power. Either way, he needed to make it clear because it wouldn’t do to sell Chester a lemon.
“That’s actually better, for our purposes,” Chester assured him. “The more stripped-down, the better. ”
“That’s handy,” Callum said dryly. “Though that means no safety features, either.”
“But it will work?”
“I’ll test it myself before I send it over,” he said. “I assume we’ll use a dead drop again.”
“Of course,” Chester said, with some degree of amusement. “I’ll have Lucy supply you with a map of my territory.”
“Works for me,” Callum replied. “Speaking of Lucy, I’d like you to pay her out of whatever this is going to run. Say, ten percent finders fee and ten percent more for a deposit.”
“So, twelve kilos to you and three to Lucy,” Chester said, without skipping a beat.
“Works for me,” Callum agreed. “I’ll let Lucy know when it’s ready.”
“That is acceptable,” Chester told him.
“Sounds great to me, big man,” Lucy said happily. “Another couple like this and I can retire!”
Most of the official work correspondence Lucy got was routine. For her, it was all through email, because fortunately enough her bosses were technology-literate. Most of GAR proper was, in fact — all the bureaucrats and decisionmakers for the day-to-day operations. The Houses themselves still lagged behind. There was also the fact that GAR employed a lot of non-mages, so they couldn’t use foci.
Lucy was pretty sure they’d come up with scry-coms solely to avoid using mundane-produced goods.
The email that dropped into her inbox that morning landed with an almost audible thud, marked with importance flags and all caps and exclamation marks. That by itself wasn’t really an issue, but the contents were a little unsettling. Orders for every employee at GAR Midwest to report to the main floor, with the implicit threat that anyone who didn’t would be at best fired. Considering it was GAR, the penalties could run a lot more severe than just job termination. Like life termination.
“Well, shit.” She scrambled to flip a few switches on her various machines and peripherals, burning her secretly routed connections and purging a few bits of local storage. Most of her illicit work was kept offsite, with only a few connections that she had full control over. It was probably a little cheeky to route anything to GAR Midwest, but she was the one who was in charge of the network and had as anonymous and encrypted a connection as could be managed. Besides, it wasn’t like she had anything else to do most of the day. Her job was mostly a game of waiting until something broke.
This seemed like it was a little more than something breaking though, and she could always re-establish things if it wasn’t anything unusual. Or maybe she’d just leave them off. Given how stirred up things were at the moment it was probably a smarter idea, but she’d always enjoyed sticking it to the mages higher up who were supposed to be supervising her and had no idea what she actually did.
She locked down her workstation and got out of her chair, patting herself down for a quick inventory to make sure she had everything before heading out of her dungeon. The IT center was, in fact, underneath the main part of GAR Midwest, a flight of empty echoing stairs taking her up to the ground floor and in among the people who were emerging from various offices.
There was various confused conversation, the crowd naturally splitting into the duds and the lower-level supernaturals who worked at GAR. Lucy was by far the youngest of the duds, most of the others being well into middle age and about as cheerful and exciting as could be expected from a group of office drones. She was technically an office drone herself but she preferred to think she didn’t count.
“What’s going on?” Albert, the facilities clerk, asked her.
“I don’t actually know,” Lucy said, which was the concerning part. Usually she caught wind of anything unusual going on by snooping on emails, but there had been nothing to indicate some kind of emergency all-hands. Which meant it had come through purely supernatural channels, mage-to-mage.
“Huh,” he said, and they continued on out into the main floor. Everyone else was there, with some of the mages and a couple of the fae floating above the gathered employees. Supervisor Lowell stood at the front, flanked by people in black uniforms. In fact, she realized, the entire area was surrounded by the black-uniformed types, scattered about the edges, which made Lucy very uneasy.
“Hello, everybody,” Lowell said, a false smile plastered on her face. “There have been some internal issues of late, so the BSE is here to do some interviews. If you don’t have anything to hide, you don’t have to worry about it. All interviews will be confidential, of course.”
A thrill of fear shot through her, but she tried not to show it. Of all people gathered there, she was the one who actually did have something to fear. There wasn’t any way she could bow out of it either, if the Bureau of Secret Enforcement was about. At least she didn’t stand out because everyone was nervous, and a dozen people started talking at once.
“Silence!” The speaker was a small woman next to one of the BSE folks, and her voice carried enough magic with it to still the tongues of everyone who was speaking. Lucy found she couldn’t even open her mouth, and shuddered involuntarily. She hated compulsion, and she hated more that she had no real way to stop it.
Usually she had some resistance to that kind of thing, even if she was a dud. While she couldn’t exactly see magic, she could still sense it, and sort of brace herself against it. Not so in this instance, since the woman’s magic was so powerful, some fae thing of frozen rose petals reaching into her brain.
“Thank you, Agent Black,” one of the BSE members said. “Now, M-0 follow Agent Carter. M-1, Agent Jay. M-2 and above, Agent Black.” The agents raised their hands as their names were called. Lucy gritted her teeth and started making her way toward Carter.
The compulsion was already fading, but there were only a few mutters here and there. Nobody was happy, but at the same time, nobody was going to risk the wrath of BSE. They were the real deal, and they had no sense of humor whatsoever.
What was even worse than being separated out that way was the fact that they were being taken to the teleporters. There were some interview rooms on-site, but they were just meant to deal with low-level supernaturals who had been caught being naughty. Going off-site meant they were anticipating something serious.
She found herself maybe third in line, ahead of Albert but behind two of the switchboard operators. A quick glance showed that there were more BSE personnel up there, working the teleporters and determining the destinations. They were definitely taking this seriously.
The line shuffled forward as a BSE agent processed them through the teleporter one by one. When it was Lucy’s turn, the room blinked and she found herself in a bare, white alcove behind a security station. The atmosphere was oddly oppressive, so it was probably in a portal world, but there was nothing to indicate where. Yet another black-clad BSE agent, this time a vampire lifted a crest marked with the symbol of House Fane, and the tattoo on her wrist tingled.
“You will state your name,” the agent instructed, the vampire’s voice compelling her to speak. She couldn’t even brace herself against it that time, her mouth opening of her own accord.
Some of the fae and vampires employed by GAR pushed around their dud coworkers, so it wasn’t like she’d never been the target of compulsion before. It was kept to a minimum, since even if they were duds they were still part of GAR, but that didn’t stop the occasional instruction to forget what they’d walked into the room for, or eat the wrong lunch. So she wasn’t completely unfamiliar with nature of such things, even if she’d never felt it hammer home so hard before.
“You will proceed through the gateway.” She had no choice but to comply, in that horrible feeling of doing something against her own better judgement. Of knowing that something is a mistake and doing it anyway. It wasn’t like there was even any need to use compulsion to simply wave her through into the facility, but they did it anyway.
Her feet carried her forward past the warded gateway, skin crawling at the feel of the vis scan, and she stopped. The facility was chillingly bland and unmarked, a dull gray hall with dull gray doors and sourceless lights stretching out in front of her. The door to her left opened and another vampire stepped out, also clad in BSE black.
It could have been the brother of the one at the security station, but most vampires bore at least a vague resemblance to each other. They could be taller or shorter, paler or darker, but there was something about the eyes and the mouth that they all had in common. Maybe it was just the inhuman interest and the faint sneer, but Lucy didn’t need to see fangs to know it was a vampire.
“You will follow me,” the new one instructed, and proceeded down the hallway, forcing her to walk along behind. A few moments later she heard the agent at the security station instruct someone new to state their name, and heard Albert answer.
“Halt,” the vampire told her, forcing her to nearly fall over as she stopped abruptly. He opened one of the unmarked doors to reveal an empty room with two chairs, a table, and some cameras. “You will enter the room,” he instructed, and she was compelled inside.
“You will sit down. You will not speak until you are told.”
Lucy seated herself on the nearest chair in a kind of nightmarish haze, unable to ask questions or even protest her treatment. Not that she thought BSE would listen, but this was far beyond bullying or poking fun. It was like they’d already judged her guilty.
What was worse, they just made her sit there for a good ten or fifteen minutes before the vampire agent returned. For some reason the compulsion never waned, and all she could do was stew in fear and anxiety, not knowing what was going on or whether they knew anything about her. When the agent did come back, he had a small folder that he set down on the table as he took the seat across from her, his nametag labeling him as Agent Blanchet.
“This interview will be recorded,” Blanchet stated flatly, and Lucy would have scoffed if she could have. It was hardly an interview when she couldn’t say anything of her own accord.
“You will answer all questions truthfully and completely,” Blanchet said, and opened the folder.
“What is your name?”
“Lucile Rosetta Harper.”
“What are your duties at GAR Midwest?”
“Information Technology management. I run the servers for GAR.” Even if she couldn’t fight against the requirement to speak, she could at least control the precise words she used. The first few questions were innocuous enough, which she was glad of. It gave her some time to regain her bearings and start actually thinking rather than reacting. The introductory portion of the interrogation was probably to get people used to answering questions, since even under compulsion people could trip over their tongues, but for her it was an opportunity to clear her mind.
“Have you given anyone, for any reason, any information restricted by GAR?”
“No.” It wasn’t a lie. She had never given anyone any information. She had always sold it, never given it for free. Although part of her struggled to elaborate on that, the flat no was far better than a twisty truth that might invite further questioning.
“Are you aware of anyone who has, for any reason, supplied restricted information to individuals opposing GAR’s interests?”
“Five years ago, Lucian Friar supplied the preferred pastry choices of the lower office pool to Gran’s Doughnuts across the street. Four years ago, in August, Albert Lan gave the bid data for office supplies to a wholesaler friend so they could underbid.” She had almost five years of personal experience with all the little, petty, harmless sort of peculation that could be considered restricted information and individuals opposing GAR’s interests, without even touching on the sort of nonsense more important people got up to.
Tattling on anyone of real importance would generate questions of its own, but she had plenty of little things to get through first. It was the best bluff she could think of to screen anything she had done, because while she couldn’t refuse to answer, she could answer in the least helpful way possible. Blanchet listened for a few minutes, frowning, before finally getting fed up with her increasingly petty and convoluted stories. He held up his hand, then realizing that didn’t do anything, actually commanded her to stop.
“You will stop talking,” he said bluntly, and then referred to his paper again. Lucy rubbed at her throat, glad that she hadn’t been specifically commanded not to, wishing she had something to drink. Wishing she could ask for something to drink.
“What are your duties with regard to Alpha Chester?”
She’d been expecting that one. It was no secret she was on retainer for Alpha Chester, and even had her physical residence near the pack headquarters. It wasn’t like she could stay in the House she’d been born to.
“I provide technical support and troubleshooting,” she said. “I make sure his networks function, his phones are supported, and supply teleconferencing services.” Those were what she was hired for. Anything beyond that was freelancing and not, strictly speaking, a duty.
“Do you have significant relations with anyone outside of GAR aside from Alpha Chester’s pack?”
She struggled with that question a fraction of a moment, completely unable to keep herself from answering it, but not willing to betray the big man. The thought of which sparked enough of an idea that she could harness her tongue in the instant before she actually started speaking.
“My big man calls me up sometimes and we flirt a lot. Last time we talked he wanted to take me out somewhere and I think that would be really great because I haven’t had a proper date in—”
“You will stop talking,” Blanchet said, with a long, flat look at her. Contrary to mundane literature, vampires were not sexy at all. They weren’t sexual at all. They couldn’t reproduce and had no interest in anything related to it. Finally he stood, closing the folder and tucking it under his arm.
“You will stand up and follow me,” he instructed her, and brought her back along the sterile, featureless hallway. Back through the gateway, and the vamp there lifted the crest again. Suddenly the irresistible compulsion faded, and she staggered suddenly, gasping and heart hammering like she’d run a marathon.
“You will go back through the teleport,” the security guard said, but it lacked the bite of before. Not that she was about to disobey. She wobbled through and found herself back in GAR Midwest, where she was directed to sit off to the side with the others who had finished their interrogations.
Lucy knew she was incredibly lucky that they’d not asked more specific and pointed questions, ones that would have been harder to answer without betraying herself, but it wasn’t all luck. She had always known she could be compelled to speak, which was why she separated everything. Why she always worked by individual contract, why she didn’t call her clients by name, nor ask them for their names. Even Alpha Chester.
Even so, she’d never thought it would be needed. Not beyond, at most, deflecting a too-curious fae. She’d never considered that she’d be treated like some criminal renegade and deprived of even the ability to speak for almost an hour. Lucy slumped down and put her head in her hands. Her jaw ached from gritting her teeth and her palms smarted from where her fingernails had been digging into them.
She sure as hell wasn’t getting anything else done today. Being angry was one thing, but Lucy was too pissed to even think.
“So, nobody admitted anything.” Agent Jahn looked at the reports from the BSE folks that he’d cleared to work on the case. He’d known it would be a headache from the beginning, but not this much of a headache. Part of him thought wistfully of the large television at home and the stack of those animated foreign shows he had yet to get through.
Not that he’d ever admit to such a thing.
“I wouldn’t say anything. We did get a lot of confessions of minor wrongdoing,” Agent Lavigne, of the Lavigne nest, pointed out.
“None of which we will be doing anything about. Well, except for Ms. Janry.” Jahn grimaced. He didn’t care about stealing paperclips or salting doughnuts, but a full embezzlement scheme was something GAR would have to address. Not that it was his problem.
“It would be easier if we could have told people what we’re looking for,” Agent Belas said, his bald head reflecting the overhead lights like a mirror.
“That’s against policy,” Jahn told him brusquely.
“For internal investigations, especially,” Agent Danforth added. “The fae spreading around their stories is bad enough, but to admit we think GAR is compromised? We’d have entire Houses pulling their members out, not to mention packs and nests.”
“And the duds would gossip about it,” Agent Blanchet said. Jahn had given him the job of dealing with the duds, though he hadn’t been aware the vampire would be so annoyed about it. “They chatter on and on about such pointless and stupid mundane things!”
“Keep it professional, people,” Jahn warned them. “Danforth, what about the magic sweep? Find anything?”
“Only a few people with extra privacy wards on their office,” Danforth said. “If there were any other foreign enchantments, they’ve been integrated into the base structure, and Tarson checked against all the renovation records. Nothing’s out of place.”
“I don’t like it,” Jahn sighed. “But sometimes you don’t find anything because there’s nothing to find.”
“You don’t really believe that, do you?” Danforth looked over at Jahn.