Interlude IX — Magnanimity of the Modern Man
”What the fuck just happened?” he shouted over the pulsing helicopter blades. The city rushed past underneath, a blur of light cutting through the darkness.
”Unexpected resistance, sir.”
”Unexpected—” Viper cut off as the helicopter made a hard turn, tilting nearly halfway over as it swung north. “…It was two goddamn college kids in a hotel room! What kind of unexpected fucking resistance was there?”
”The girl caught us off guard. Couldn’t attempt the original exfil safely. Had to take a detour.”
”I noticed,” he snapped. “You blew up a neighborhood. Civilians, asshole.”
Viper glanced over his shoulder, leaning out of the co-pilot seat to look at his men in the rear compartment—ten in all, out of the fourteen he’d originally arrived in the country with. Three dead, while Rook was long gone doing God-knew-what. They all had basic medical training, and were busy patching each other up from the scrapes and cuts caused by one of the collapsing buildings. Another had taken a hunting rifle bullet straight through the shoulder.
”Syke, Piller and Mauer?” he asked, just to be absolutely sure.
”Everyone else clear?”
”Yes, sir. Stukov took one in the shoulder but it’s clean. Entry and exit. Minor casualties otherwise. No disabled.”
He took a headcount. “Son of a bitch,” Viper growled. “You didn’t even get Walker?”
”Turn us back around,” he said, turning back to the pilot. “We ain’t done—”
”Sir, we got something.”
His second in command—technically his third, but his second had just gotten pulverized by a golem out on the pavement, so a field promotion was in order—dug into his side pack and pulled out a tiny crumpled piece of paper. Not even a plain piece of paper as he expected, but ragged, ancient parchment, covered in writing he couldn’t make out in the dark helicopter interior.
”It’s legitimate,” the man added proudly. “Checked it myself. I saw her.”
Viper smiled, while relief washed over him like the howling wind blasting through the chopper doors. He settled back into the co-pilot seat, and actually started to enjoy the ride for once. “Guess this wasn’t a waste after all.” He rubbed at his arm, finally freed of the sling after so long. It still felt strange, being able to use it again, but it was a gift he wasn’t about to resent any time soon.
”Take us home.”
It was a long, disjointed ride back to London. They landed over the border in B.C. at a private airstrip, where they boarded a cargo plane that was waiting on the tarmac. It flew them straight across the Canadian wilderness, staying well out of sight of towns and low enough to avoid tripping any flags, which meant they had to go a bit slower. Most of Viper’s men stayed behind in Quebec, while Viper and Napowsky—his new second-in-command—boarded a smaller, lightning-fast private jet belonging to their benefactor.
Viper took the opportunity to sleep. It was a life lesson he’d taken to heart while serving with Rook: every opportunity he got for some downtime, he took it. Never could be too sure when the next one was coming around, and after so many long, exhausting days out in the deserts and the jungles, he’d learned to sleep pretty much anywhere, anytime.
Napowsky wasn’t so lucky. Every time Viper woke up to check, the man was pacing, more nervous than Viper had ever seen in his career. Granted, they’d only been working together for about a year, but still; his recruits were usually more stable than this.
”Get some R&R while you can,” he grumbled, turning over in his chair. “You know the boss is gonna keep you up all night with testing now that you’re one of the gang.”
He clearly wouldn’t just take a hint. Viper opened his eyes and sat up. “What?”
Napowsky scratched his chin, where a wicked scar ran from the bottom straight up the side of his face, all the way into his hair. An old war wound. Napowsky always told people he’d gotten it in a knife fight with a guerilla, but Viper knew it was bullshit. He’d watched firsthand as Napowsky tripped over a body and landed right on a spike of broken glass from a shattered window pane.
”You saw her too, right?”
He shrugged. “‘Course I did. Everybody does.”
”Who is she?”
”How should I fuckin’ know?”
Napowsky shook his head. “She isn’t human. Do you think…” He trailed off.
Viper rolled his eyes, leaning back in his chair again. At least the chairs were nice. Malton didn’t skimp on his private jets. Best rides Viper ever got across the Atlantic, without a doubt. “Spit it out, so I can get back to sleep.”
”She’s a witch. She’s testing us.”
He snorted. “Ain’t witches supposed to be evil?”
”No. She’s a guardian. Like… watching us and waiting to see what we do. And if we choose wrong, she’ll punish us.”
”That ain’t no witch,” Viper said dismissively. “I dunno what the fuck she is, but she’s not gonna punish anyone. She’ll stay out of it. Trust me.”
Napowsky didn’t exactly look convinced, but Viper didn’t care enough to continue the conversation. Since the man clearly wasn’t gonna let it go and get some sleep, he decided to distract him with some more bog-standard grunt work, anything to shift his train of thought.
”Give me a post-op.”
As he’d hoped, Napowsky snapped right back into his old professionalism. He even stood at attention, though Viper never required that kind of bullshit in his squads. They’d all gone through basic, they didn’t need every discipline practice anymore. Didn’t even care if the men called him ‘sir’, though many still did. It was a tough habit to break.
”We staked out Walker’s hotel room as ordered, sir. The Nishimura girl was there until around 1700. She vacated the AO at approximately 1704, at which point Piller ordered Bravo to breach. Bravo dropped from the roof to the balcony, and entered the room via the balcony door. Walker was on the bed. Stukov incapacitated him using the stun-gun, as ordered.”
”So what the fuck went wrong?”
”Nishimura came back faster than expected. She forgot her keys.”
”Son of a bitch…” Viper muttered.
”Since we had strict orders not to engage her—”
”You got a problem with that?”
Napowsky cleared his throat, realizing what he’d implied. “Sorry, sir. As I was saying, we couldn’t engage Nishimura, so I ordered Bravo to retreat immediately. Nishimura used magic to seal the back door and electrify it, so we couldn’t exfiltrate on our intended route. I had to force our exit through the front. She gave chase.”
Me and my fucking deals. Rook would give me so much shit if she was here. This is bigger than me. Should’ve ordered them to just take her too, and ditch her again later before Corny found out. “You couldn’t evade a single female pursuer?”
”Sir, she had magic. We didn’t. Getting into any vehicle was a tall order. Piller hotwired a truck, and we tried a bait-and-switch. We loaded Walker in and we kept moving on foot, while Piller, Mauer and Syke drove off with the target. Nishimura didn’t fall for it.”
”Which lead to a car chase on every news station in the goddamn world,” Viper concluded.
”How did you get the Scrap?”
”The what, sir?”
”The parchment. The piece of the book.” He pulled it out of his pocket and waved it around. “This.”
”Walker was holding it when we came in. Not sure why. I assumed it might be useful, so I kept it.”
Viper chuckled. “Good fuckin’ call. So what, you read it while you were in pursuit?”
”Wait…” He was still building his mental image of the whole chase in his head, piece by piece. Debriefing was an important part of being a part of the team, so that even if he couldn’t be on the ground, he could still understand what his men had gone through. Every detail mattered if he wanted them to think he was on their side—one of the boys, as opposed to their billionaire employer who couldn’t care less. Not that Malton fit the stereotype at all, but they’d never believe it unless they really got to know him like Viper did.
The idea that Napowsky had read the Scrap while in a helicopter chase was just one step too far. He laughed. “So what, she teleported into the bird with you guys?”
”Right in front of me. I swear to God. I think Stukov probably would have shot her if he could, but all of our guns just stopped working. He couldn’t pull the trigger. Jammed, from what he said.”
”T-shirt and jacket, jeans, brown hair, so on?”
Viper shook his head, still amused. “That girl in the middle of a pile of you chucklefucks, and not one of you can move a muscle. That’s gold.”
”It was fucking terrifying, sir.”
”Don’t remind me.” He didn’t let it show, but Viper was just as terrified of that black void he’d felt when he awakened. Viper needed to be in control, and that empty horror was his worst nightmare. He hadn’t been in control. He’d been dropped out of the world, beyond help, while Rook’s shouting got faint and murky. Lost in the black, Viper was wholly convinced he’d just gone to hell, until she appeared.
He owed Grey-eyes for saving his life, for sure. Just like he owed Rook, just like he owed Malton.
”Well, hand it over,” he added, extending his hand. Napowsky, with some reluctance, fished out the Scrap and passed it to his boss. Viper peered at it, and as he did, the words drew him in yet again. He’d done this before, more than once, and every time it got a little easier. Like he was acclimating to magic. Adapting.
Viper had always prided himself on his adaptability. When he was in the service, he’d never had a problem going to the worst of environments. Stick him in a desert, with little water and food for weeks on end and just Rook for company, and he did just fine. Strand him in a jungle and he’d come back out like he’d just been on vacation. It was dealing with people that really bothered him—civilians most of all. Whiny, entitled civilians that didn’t understand how hard he worked to keep them safe at night. They were so exhausting.
As he lurched back into the world and set the Scrap aside, Viper smiled. He was adapting to yet another new environment, one that the world was just now waking up to, and he was already ahead of the game.
When Viper got to Malton’s office, he was stopped just outside the door by Malton’s personal assistant. He’d never been stopped going into Malton’s office before. The diminutive woman—with thick spectacles and a pen always stuck in her hair—actually stood right in his way. She was probably less than half his weight, and he had a good six inches on her at least, but she didn’t budge an inch.
”Mr. Malton is on a very important phone call right now.”
”Lady, do you know who I am?” he growled. He was feeling really impatient, given the news developments while they’d been in-flight. “He’s gonna want to see me.”
”He was quite specific, sir. No interruptions.”
”I’m not a damn interruption.”
Still, the woman refused to let him by, and the doors were tightly sealed unless she pressed the button to allow him through. Viper could have just leaned over and pressed it himself, but it became moot a second later as the doors swung wide.
Three suits left the office, none of whom Viper recognized. One shot him a curious look, which wasn’t too surprising. Viper never did fit into boardrooms whenever Malton dragged him to one. It was rare, but sometimes Malton had to account for some of the larger expenditures required by the Malton Solutions private contract service. Bringing Viper into the boardroom to silently intimidate the more obstinate board members was just the easiest way out.
She said he was on a phone call though. Who the fuck were those guys?
”You may go in now,” the assistant added, way too smug for her own good. Viper resisted the urge to flip her off as he went in.
Cornelius Ferdinand Anastasia Malton stood behind his desk, scribbling something on a piece of paper. He always stood. His desk didn’t have a single chair behind it, and the only one in the whole room was stuffed in the corner, as a courtesy for guests who didn’t have the constitution to stay standing for longer meetings. It was all part of his image—the youthful, athletic CEO that exuded health and competence.
He’d deliberately sold himself as the opposite of Thomas Laushire in many ways. Laushire was nearly twice his age, at fifty-six to Malton’s thirty-one. Malton was an active, aggressive executive that forced himself into the public eye time and again (partly to ensure the board could never truly get rid of him if they wanted to), while Laushire preferred to act the aloof master above such trivial concerns. Even down to appearance, they were starkly different—Laushire was a bit overweight, sporting the iconic mop of fiery red hair that he shared with his daughter, while Malton was in his prime in every form, and kept his dark brown hair trimmed so close he might as well have been bald.
When Malton looked up, Viper felt unsettled. Not that he thought the man could ever beat him in a fight—even without magic, Viper had nearly a decade of real combat experience, while the closest Malton had ever been to a fight was a bar when they’d both just turned twenty-one. No, Malton was intimidating because Viper knew what he was capable of. While Viper kept to a code, one drummed into him in the military which he’d adapted to fit his new life, Malton was unpredictable. It was a quality that helped him dominate the business market, as his seemingly risky ventures became goldmines of profit.
At the same time, it meant he could be utterly ruthless when the time came, and Viper could never tell when that time was coming. Without Rook at his side, he felt distinctly unsettled. It hadn’t always been that way. Once upon a time, Malton and Viper—Corny and Stefen, as they were known in every pub from Southampton to Edinburgh—were closer than brothers.
Those days were long gone by.
”So.” Malton said, setting down his phone on the desk. The room was uncomfortably silent, another common tactic he used to unsettle negotiations.
”Who were the suits?” Viper asked, trying to get ahold of the conversation before they really got into it.
”Lawyers. It seems Thomas has decided to lodge an inquiry into my international dealings in the colonies. Something about trade agreements and tariffs.” Malton shook his head. “It’s all rubbish, but Thomas is grasping at every straw he can find. It won’t slow us in the slightest.”
”Why, though? Ain’t he Europe-based?”
”An excellent question,” Malton said, digging through a stack of papers. He pulled out a sheet and set it on top, and Viper leaned in to read it. Something about permit regulations and failure to follow procedure—bureaucratic shit that reminded Viper why he’d never get anywhere in business. “Thomas doesn’t have a single quid in the entire region. I had Research check it three times, and our other sources concur. Nor is he angling to make any investments in the area. He’s up to something.”
”This Wilmore person. If they even exist.” Malton started pacing behind his desk. Normally, he was able to stand stock-still as long as he needed to, with infinite patience to wear down stubborn opponents, but he’d never bothered around Viper. He let his true feelings show. It was one of the main reasons Viper still trusted his old friend. “They’ve been gobbling up capital and firms left and right in the West, particularly around the Pacific Northwest region. Almost like they knew what we did.”
Viper paused. “You still don’t have a clue who Wilmore is?”
”Whoever they are, they’re smart. Playing businesses off each other and striking killer deals, and all without showing their face once. I’m impressed. They’re a shadow without any sort of history behind them.”
”And now they’re workin’ with Laushire?”
”Not on paper. Not even in rumor. I’d stake my company on it though.”
”‘Course you would, you’re insane.”
Malton smiled. “Thomas is making a play to control magic, and I’ve already got it in my pocket.”
”Speakin’ of which…” Viper glanced over his shoulder, even though they were alone in one of the most secure private offices in the country. “Got something for the lab.”
Malton’s smile grew wider, and Viper still wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. Fuckin’ hell, Tess… Where are you when I need you?
Malton’s primary thaumaturgy lab—as he’d named it, though Viper just rolled his eyes—was buried underneath an unassuming shop a few streets away from the Culver-Malton building. Malton was a known frequenter of the shop, which sold books and other curios, so to see him enter in the middle of the day wasn’t unheard of. The old man running the place gave them both a knowing wink as they headed straight into the back room.
Straight into the back, around the corner, through a rotating bookcase, past a retina scanner, a voice imprint, a handprint, down a steel elevator and another two floors, and finally into a wide box of a room stuffed in between all the old London sewers and undercity. Viper had no clue how Malton had managed to build it in the middle of the city without being noticed, but Malton often said there wasn’t anything one couldn’t do with enough money. Viper had long-since accepted it as fact.
Nothing, that was, until they’d discovered magic.
The secret might be out, but Malton still wanted to maintain a hold over his research as long as he could. Given their perfect and total infiltration of Laushire’s system, he’d gone to great lengths to ensure absolute privacy for their own operation. Only three people had ever entered this room after it was initially sealed. Now, it was about to become five.
Viper smirked at Napowsky. The man was gaping at the sheer layers of verification and security as they descended into the antiseptic, evenly lit white lab space. “Isn’t this overkill, sir?”
”Can’t be too careful,” said Malton over his shoulder as they walked down the steel staircase set into the wall. “Kleiner, as I instructed.”
”Yes, sir.” The other member of their party was one of Malton’s research scientists, a man with doctorates in both theoretical and applied physics, plus a great many other educational achievements that Viper couldn’t be bothered to remember. All he cared about was that the mousey-looking man with the nervous tic had cleared his background checks. Kleiner didn’t have a speck of dirt on him, and Malton trusted him, so Viper let him into the circle.
Kleiner hurried down to the instrument panel set into the wall, checking the sensors. He’d brought several boxes of equipment as well, which Viper and Napowsky were lugging down the stairs. Kleiner instructed them to set up the sensors in a small circle around an open space near the center. Little towers of what looked like tiny satellite dishes, black boxes with revolving tops, antennae, and numerous other dark plastic and metal objects Viper couldn’t begin to describe.
While he was setting up, Malton took them aside. “I retrieved your men.”
Viper raised an eyebrow. “Thought Tacoma cops claimed the bodies.”
Malton shrugged. “A well-placed bribe or two. They’re on their way back to London now. My assistant will arrange discreet burials.”
”They didn’t have any family,” said Viper.
”Of course,” Malton nodded. “Nonetheless, they deserve a proper burial. They did their jobs.”
Napowsky looked on with approval, even admiration. “Thanks, boss.”
Right, that’s why he’s the guy in charge. Viper settled back, focusing on the future again. “They link us to the fight?”
”The Battle of Lakewood, as the talking heads coined it,” said Malton, with a faint smirk. “No. Your men got away clean. The blame has been placed squarely on the mysterious golem-summoner.”
”Yes, though the general public isn’t aware of his identity yet.” Malton scratched his chin. “I’ve been trying to come up with a plausible way I might have obtained that information. A quiet leak is still risky, and may not be believed even through the proper channels.”
”Do we care, sir?” asked Napowsky.
They both looked at him, surprised. “‘Course we care,” said Viper. “The guy’s a psycho. Blew up the whole damn neighborhood. Our explosives weren’t anywhere near the structures.”
”But I thought we wanted people distracted from what we’re doing.”
”Distracted is one thing,” said Malton, while simultaneously launching a monitoring program on the bank of computer monitors. “We don’t want them outright hostile to the idea of magic though. Public opinion is on this being a fight between awakened, and not the witch hunt it really is. If it continues, we won’t be able to implement our own strategies for magic-fueled economies.”
”So that’s the end-goal, sir?”
Malton stopped typing. He glanced at Viper, slightly amused. “Your men don’t actually know, and they still follow every instruction to the letter? I’m impressed, Stefen.”
”Didn’ need to know.”
”Know what?” asked Napowsky, obviously confused. He looked between his two bosses, waiting for answers.
”We’re in the business of energy, Napowsky,” said Malton, and both of them were surprised he even knew the man’s name. “At the end of the day, every industry boils down to energy.”
”Every science, in fact,” added Kleiner, rejoining them.
”Indeed.” Malton nodded an acknowledgement. “Magic is just the manipulation of that energy in its rawest form, in a far more direct manner than we’ve ever believed possible. I want to harness that. I want to understand it and control it. I want to know everything there is to know about this new technology.”
”And do what, sir?”
”Save the world,” he said with a steely grin.
They stood out at the edges of the room, to avoid any possible interference. Malton stood alone in the center, wearing a sterilized lab coat. Kleiner was hunched over his console, watching a dozen graphs and meters, while Viper and Napowsky watched and waited.
Malton picked up the piece of parchment, took a deep breath, and lowered his eyes to the page.
For a few moments, nothing happened. Kleiner glanced over, but all they saw was Malton saying something, his eyes slowly tracing over the Scrap. The monitors showed no unusual activity, except for one. They could hear him, in the otherwise-quiet room, but the computers could not.
”There’s no sound,” Kleiner murmured to Viper.
”Look,” he added, pointing at the decibel readout. “It’s increasing consistently with his breathing, nothing else. But I can hear him speaking from here. It should be registering something.” He picked up the headphones and put them on. Viper pointed at his own ear, raising his eyebrows. Kleiner shook his head and set it aside. “Just white noise. Nothing.”
Malton’s voice cut off. The lines on the graphs turned into mountains all at once.
”Heart-rate just doubled. Shit.” Kleiner was dancing across the keys. Malton had given them strict instructions not to cross the line, to get every measurement they could. Viper could reassure himself that this was normal, that everyone went through the same awakening process—but seeing his friend start to choke, watching him fall to the ground and twitch, he could barely restrain himself.
”Show up, damn you…” he murmured. Where was she?
Shit, what if she can’t teleport this far? Every awakening has been in Washington state until now. She is human, ain’t she?
”Brain activity is through the roof. His prefrontal cortex looks like it’s on fire.” Kleiner’s voice had a note of panic now.
”Calm down, doc,” said Viper, though he was having trouble keeping his own voice steady.
A loud beeping sound. “I lost him!” Kleiner shouted, whipping around—but he needn’t have worried.
She’d appeared, as she always did. Viper let out a huge sigh of relief. He sat back against the console desk, wiping the sweat from his forehead. Grey-eyes was kneeling on the hard surface next to Malton, holding his head up off the ground while she read the rest of the Scrap to him.
”Amazing…” gasped Napowsky.
”…Who is she?” asked Kleiner.
”If you figure that out Doc, you’ll be the richest man in the world,” said Viper.
As Malton started to sit up, she vanished again, with only the faintest hint of a breeze. The air was so still, though, that they all felt it even across the length of the room. He rubbed at his eyes, blinking rapidly and shaking off the feeling of the void. Viper took a step forward, but Kleiner held him back by the shoulder.
”I’m still collecting data. Wait.”
Malton stood back up and stretched out his limbs. He rolled his head around his neck, going through a quick muscle relaxing routine.
A ball of purest fire burst into life right in front of him.
Viper’s mouth fell open. He’d been awakened for ten seconds, and he could already do that?
Tess… I hope to god you ain’t right about him.
Kleiner was practically jumping up and down as Malton finally rejoined them after a grueling demonstration of magic, dancing about like an excited puppy. “All right, Napowsky, your turn. Get in there.”
Napowsky finally strapped on the last couple sensors and made his way into the center, trading places with the boss. Malton had just finished going through a series of different spells, as called out by Viper from outside the ring of instruments. He had to explain a few of them in great detail before Malton could pull them off, and he didn’t quite master everything on the first try, but it was still intimidating to say the least. Next, Napowsky was going to perform the same series, while Malton and Kleiner compared the data.
”See, look at this! It’s amazing,” Kleiner gushed, while Malton and Viper leaned over the monitor. A readout of Napowsky’s brain showed parts lighting up as he cast the first spell, the same fireball that Malton had summoned—though considerably weaker and dimmer. “Precisely the same areas of the brain.”
”That’s not really surprising,” said Viper.
”No, but look! The exact same area. And now—” he looked over to Napowsky. “Next, please!”
The man let go of the fireball and started levitating a clipboard they’d left nearby. As he did, the monitor shifted in color, and a different portion of the brain lit up.
”Again, exactly the same!”
”So it means,” said Malton, nodding along in that irritating knowing tone, “that magic is consistent between individuals. It means we can target it.”
”Do what now?”
”Enhance it,” said Kleiner, rubbing his hands together. “Next, please!” he shouted at Napowsky. The clipboard clattered to the ground, and Napowsky started pushing it across the floor. Kleiner had a document open on another monitor and was furiously typing in notes while they spoke.
”There are seven affinities, correct?” asked Malton.
”Far as I know,” said Viper uneasily. “Movement, Elemental, Nature, and Creation, then there’s Self, Mental, and Knowledge. Mental’s useless as fuck though. That trick I just taught you is the only spell I know in that whole branch.” Which, gettin’ rid of a headache ain’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s not that impressive compared to most of this shit.
”And we’ve measured seven rough areas of the brain where these activities align,” Malton continued. “And within them, even further specification based on what kind of spell is being used. For example, see Napowsky’s data with levitating the object as opposed to pushing it. Both fall into the septant we’d label Movement, but still in different, overlapping regions.”
”The seven don’t cover the whole brain though,” said Kleiner. “Nor are they equal. I wonder if there are other affinities yet to be discovered?”
”Fuck if I know,” said Viper. “The Council seemed pretty damn certain though, and they had both the Knowledge affinity players in their pocket.”
”Regardless if there are more, we have them isolated now,” said Malton. “Kleiner, how are you with neuroscience?”
”I’ve dabbled,” he said, looking up from his notes. “I wouldn’t presume to call myself an expert.”
”Do you think a medical treatment could potentially enhance performance in these areas?”
”Perhaps.” Kleiner started pulling up information on one of the screens, though they were limited to what the local network had available. Viper wasn’t about to let this place get hooked up to the wider internet. “Stimulants are an obvious first step. Mr. Gearhardt, you’ve said that you felt your abilities grow stronger linked to releases of adrenaline, correct?”
”Yeah,” said Viper. Fuckin’ saved my life once, too.
”So naturally, we can assume any similar effect to increase brain processing and cognitive function may have similar effects.” Kleiner glanced over at Napowsky, still pushing the clipboard around. “Next, please!”
”Start looking into those tonight,” said Malton.
”Absolutely. Nootropics could also be a good source,” said Kleiner, trailing off into his own tangent. “Any over-the-counter cognitive enhancer might be too weak though…”
Viper took Malton a few steps away, while they continued to watch Napowsky work through the list of spells. He was getting concerned about his friend. Malton looked exhausted, for one, but more importantly, his eyes were lit up with an unsettling sense of glee. Viper didn’t like it one bit.
”Look, we’ve been down here for two days now. You gotta get back up into the real world for a bit.”
”We have beds and living quarters down here,” said Malton dismissively. “There’s so much to explore we haven’t even touched on yet.”
”You’re dead on your feet, man.” Viper pushed him gently, and he nearly toppled over.
Malton put his hand on the desk, steadying himself. “There’s more to do. Think about everything we could accomplish.”
”We’re talking about pure energy in its raw form.” Malton frowned. “If you’d managed to learn any spells manipulating electricity, this would be so much simpler. We know how to store that in a usable form. But even so—” he added quickly, as Viper opened his mouth in an angry retort, “—even so, this is all excellent. We can generate real power, and by our measurement we’ve exceeded one hundred percent efficiency. This is breaking the known laws of physics, Stefen.”
”Fuck physics,” he growled. “If you die tryin’, it’s not worth a damn.”
Malton sighed. His eyes suddenly focused up again. It was rare Viper ever raised his voice around Malton. He saved it for the rare occasions when he knew his friend was about to do something incredibly stupid and reckless. “…You’re right. Of course you’re right.”
”Sometimes I’m the smart one. Don’t you forget it.”
”How could I?” Malton said with a smile. “You saved my life.”
”You saved my fuckin’ life. Those snakes were goin’ for me.”
”Because you leapt in front of me and distracted them.”
Viper shook his head. “Remember it however you want, man.”
”Kleiner?” Malton called out. Kleiner looked up, glasses slightly askew. Though Viper and Napowsky had both taken a break and gone up for food more than once, the other two hadn’t left the room since Sunday, when they’d first entered. “We’re done for today. I’m taking you out for dinner, and then we’re resuming tomorrow morning.”
”Was I unclear?”
Kleiner gulped. “No, sir.”
Malton turned back to Viper. “Join us? I think I owe you dinner from the last mission.”
”Damn right you do.”
All through dinner, as Malton’s personal chef brought out dish after dish, Viper kept a close eye on the two newly awakened. Napowsky seemed to be taking it seriously, at least. He didn’t do anything frivolously, and his magical aura—for lack of a better term—was reluctant and withdrawn. Viper didn’t need to worry about him.
The aura was something he’d begun to sense back in Rallsburg. As he spent more time around other awakened, particularly in the Council meetings, Viper noticed that every awakened generated a sort of aura. It was unconscious, and he couldn’t sense his own, though he had no doubt it must be there. He likened it to the smell of a person—he was so used to his own scent, he could never notice it until it changed significantly. For his aura, that meant when he started casting particularly difficult spells. In the same vein, he started to become very aware of other auras, particularly the most powerful ones.
It was a technique that could be taught, too, as he’d done for Piller. His second had gone down with the other two, as the only other awakened in the group. He’d gotten ahold of one of the so-called “second-gen” copies which were starting to filter out into the community. They only worked once, but Piller hadn’t seemed any weaker than usual.
Now, he was the only one still missing from the strike force. Syke and Mauer both came back with shattered skulls—one by a .357 round, and the other through sheer blunt-force trauma. Viper assumed one of the golems had gotten him. Piller was nowhere to be found though, not even a body. Viper had no idea where he might be. He had to assume, after four days now, that the man had been captured. By whom, he hadn’t a clue.
Back in the present, Kleiner and Malton were excitedly discussing the potential applications of magic on the energy market. Viper could follow along with the basics, but they were delving right into the math before too long, as Malton started getting into the business end of things—how he could drop operating costs dramatically and undercut competitors while still serving up the cheapest electricity Britain had ever seen.
It sounded all well and good, but when Viper felt Malton’s aura, his bones chilled. Malton had an impossibly strong aura for someone so young in magic. It wasn’t anywhere near the level of the true giants, like Hector Peraza or Kendra Laushire, but it sure as hell felt stronger than the average Joe. Viper didn’t have a whole lot to compare to anymore, of course, but this felt way beyond the likes of the Council, or any of the other morons in the group.
His phone buzzed. Viper welcomed the opportunity to get away from the table for a bit. Something about Malton was seriously unsettling him. They’d been friends for so long, Viper always felt like he knew exactly what the man was thinking—but today, though the words sounded the same, something had changed in the intent. Like Rook said, it wasn’t about the greater good anymore.
It was about power, and Malton had found a real source, of pure unbridled power unlike anything money could ever offer him.
Speak of the fuckin’ devil… Viper hurried out to the hallway and lifted the phone to his ear. “Kaikki kunnossa.“
”Kiittämättömyys on maailman palkka.“
”…The fuck does that mean?”
”Something I remind myself daily to keep myself strong.” Rook’s voice crackled. She had a bad connection, no doubt, wherever the hell she was.
”Where the hell are you?”
”No shit.” Viper glanced over his shoulder, making sure no one had followed him into the hall. As expected, the rest of the group were still inside. Napowsky had gotten drunk and was regaling Kleiner and Malton with a story, to uproarious laughter. Viper hadn’t taken a single sip, wanting to keep his mind sharp. “How long?”
”As long as necessary.”
”I already picked up a target, with a bonus.” Viper paused, lowering his voice again even with the reassurance that no one could hear him. “You don’t need to stay out there.”
”I have not yet succeeded.”
”Look—” Viper took another few steps away. “Remember what we talked about, right before we left?”
”Myöntävä.” She paused. Viper could hear her breath on the microphone. Wherever she was, Rook was trying to be as quiet as him, with her secure sat-phone pressed right up to her mouth. “Is it too far?”
”I don’t know yet.” Despite triple-checking their network, and paying for the whole thing using his own funds, Viper didn’t trust their phones. “Puolitiessä.”
Rook didn’t respond for a full minute. The breathing went away, too. Viper wasn’t sure if she were gone or not, and didn’t dare make a sound for fear of alerting anyone nearby to her presence. He didn’t hang up, either. They’d done this before, more than once, and he’d keep the line on and muted as long as it took. She’d give him an all-clear, or she’d send an alert. They had a protocol.
To his relief, she spoke again. “I will hurry.”
”Are you good?” he asked.
”Yes.” She paused again. “I will contact you again soon.”
She hung up without another word. Viper wasn’t exactly reassured, but at least he knew she was still operating. He pocketed his phone again and headed back into the room, but stopped before they saw him. He wanted to listen in for a while, see if Malton was drunk enough to give anything away without Viper sitting across the table.
”…so we need to control the process,” said Kleiner, suppressing a hiccup.
”Exactly!” said Malton, and Viper heard the sound of a chair scraping. Malton had probably stood up in his enthusiasm. “If we get a real level of control, we’ll be able to direct magic itself. Push it wherever we need to.”
”It’s all about control,” added Kleiner, now audibly slurring his words. “Control it and you control the real source of power. Of all the energy.”
”Yes. We control the energy and we can put it to whatever use we deem fit.”
Viper shook his head and rejoined the group, to a raucous greeting from Napowsky and Kleiner. They were drunk and spouting off the same theories they’d been shouting while sober. Nothing new to be learned. He’d enjoy the night, and when the two big heads in the room had finally gotten some sleep, they might actually start getting back to the point, and doing some actual good in the world. Viper had visited far too many shithole places in the world, and Malton was aiming to turn them all into paradises, one by one. That was a man he could get behind.
Friday morning, November the 23rd, Viper woke up immediately sensing something was off.
He couldn’t put his finger on it. He got up, got dressed, enjoyed the view outside his luxurious apartment that Malton provided. It was way too nice for his tastes, but at least the view was good. He never ended up sleeping in the bed though. Can’t get a wink in somethin’ that fuckin’ soft.
But he trusted his instincts. They rarely steered him wrong. He trusted Rook’s instincts even more, and hers were saying that Malton couldn’t be trusted. Viper wasn’t quite to that point yet, but he could tell there was something coming.
He entered the little bookstore, ignoring the cheerful greeting of the shopkeep, and descended down into the lab. The other three were already there, and the day’s work had already begun. They were measuring Napowsky’s specific range of magical reach, as close as they could get, and Kleiner was also tracking the air between Napowsky’s brain and the object he was trying to move. Every single inch with every sensor he could get his hand on, just to see if they could sense magic itself in the air.
Nothing had worked so far.
”What’s the end-game on this one, Cor?” Viper asked quietly while Kleiner shouted impatiently at Napowsky.
”Artificial generation,” murmured Malton, while he stared at a tablet he’d hooked in wirelessly to the main console. He liked to keep moving while he watched the stats come in. Kept his mind active, as he said.
”Like… doing magic from a computer?”
”In a sense, yes.” Malton scrolled through his tablet to a different screen, showing a diagram that Viper couldn’t make heads or tails of. “I want to be able to create a self-generating system that will be able to use magic in the same way we awakened can. Our main concern right now is the human limitation. If we lose concentration, the spell breaks or worse, it backfires. A computer doesn’t lose concentration. I want to remove the human factor.”
”Makes sense,” said Viper. He winced as Napowsky dropped the cup he was supposed to be levitating, and it shattered on the ground. “Why’re you usin’ a mug?”
”Consequence.” Malton glanced up for a moment at the sound of the mug shattering on the ground, then shrugged and returned to his tablet. “If there’s no consequence, Napowsky doesn’t seem to put in his full effort. I’m not about to descend to medieval era encouragement, of course, but having something of Kleiner’s on the line does seem to be motivating them both quite well.”
Viper smirked. “Does he know you’ve got whole fuckin’ pallets of those damn mugs?”
”Evidently not.” Malton smiled. “Regardless, that’s not the primary goal of today. This was just a warmup while we waited for you to arrive.”
”Kleiner!” Malton called, setting down the tablet. “Let’s move on, shall we?”
Kleiner, who looked like he was about to start beating Napowsky with his clipboard—which would have ended with Kleiner getting a broken nose, or much worse, if Viper knew his men—faltered, glancing over at Malton. “Are you sure, sir? I think we almost had something that time.”
”I don’t want to delay any longer. This is far more important.”
”What’s more important?” asked Viper, while Kleiner and Napowsky started clearing away a space in the center. Still surrounded by sensors as usual, but not a single other object beside.
”Control, as I said,” said Malton. He went back into the corner of the room, near the exit to the living quarters, and tapped at the wall safe. It was triple-locked, again with voice, retina and palm-print, in addition to a passcode.
Viper felt the unease in his system, like little strings in his chest suddenly pulled taut. “…What do you need that for?”
The safe made a loud beep three times before it opened. Malton reached inside and pulled out the metal vacuum-sealed tube, and uncorked it. Inside was the Scrap, sealed away after he’d awakened. He pulled it out reverently—as reverently as Viper had ever seen Malton with any object, at least. The man wasn’t one for ceremony in most situations.
”Kleiner, are you prepared?” he called. Kleiner was back in the center of the room, tapping his foot anxiously.
”So we’re awakening him now too?” Viper asked, still feeling left out of the loop. “What’s going on, Cor?”
”Just be ready,” said Malton. He handed the Scrap to Napowsky and took his spot back by the console—behind the line of blast-proof shielding. Viper joined him, while his nerves screamed at him in unison to act. Something was wrong, but he wasn’t sure what yet. He couldn’t act if he didn’t know what the threat was. Especially if he believed the threat to be the man in total control of the place.
”Napowsky, clear the circle.”
Viper’s man retreated to the opposite side. Kleiner took a deep breath, then sat down and picked up the Scrap. He started to read, murmuring yet again.
The instruments were recording. Viper saw the graphs begin to spit out data—but Malton wasn’t watching them. This wasn’t about another awakening.
”Cor…” he started. Viper squinted at Kleiner, cross-legged in the center of the room. He finished the content of the Scrap and fell back, twitching, the same as every other awakening.
Something was in his lap. Something dark.
Grey-eyes appeared at Kleiner’s side. She was kneeling, bent over him, whispering hurriedly in his ear. She began to read to him, to pull him back from the void. Viper started to move forward, but Malton grabbed his shoulder.
”Cor, what the fuck is going on?” he hissed.
Kleiner’s eyes fluttered open. He took Grey-eyes’ offered hand, and pulled himself back up to a sitting position. His other hand fell to his lap, so neatly and innocuously that even Viper believed for a second it was genuine.
As Grey-eyes started into her usual speech, Kleiner moved.
His hand shot upward. Electricity flashed. The crackling sound filled the room, deafening in the tense silence. Viper bolted forward, breaking free of Malton’s grip.
The stun-gun latched onto Grey-eyes’ arm. She shuddered, twitching. Viper froze.
Holy shit. Did we just—
Grey-eyes stood up. The stun-gun fell away. Kleiner’s eyes widened in terror.
She turned around, and her eyes locked onto Viper’s. Not Kleiner’s, not Malton’s—his. She knew him better than the others. He’d been around the longest. He’d witnessed the fight between the other two Gods.
He should have known better.
”Godammit, Cor…” Viper muttered.
Her mouth opened.
”You have two minutes.”
Her voice seemed to echo from every surface in the room. It was soft, but there was no doubt they’d all heard her. Viper didn’t need to be told twice.
”Wait—” called Malton, stepping out from behind the shield. Viper ignored him. He grabbed up his friend around the waist and bodily carried him up the staircase. Napowsky was only a few steps behind, following the lead of his commander. Kleiner was still dumbstruck on the floor.
”Move, you idiot!” Viper bellowed, taking the stairs two at a time. He didn’t bother with the elevator, barging through the emergency door next to it. An alarm sounded, but it just fit the scene all the better. He took one last look before he left, down at the girl in the center of the room.
Grey-eyes was staring right back at him. Her gaze was normally soft—comforting, even. She was the key to magic itself, and she took that role as seriously as anyone Viper had ever met. He wouldn’t dare mess with her. He would have warned Malton against this, if he’d known it was coming.
Today, her eyes were full of disappointment—as if he’d betrayed her, though he didn’t know her name, nor she his.
”I’m sorry,” he mouthed, while Malton continued to struggle against his grip. Napowsky was already halfway up the staircase to the surface, and Kleiner was stumbling past him.
Her head tilted just slightly, but he saw it. Viper turned and ran, fast as he could, dragging Malton away.
A huge rumble finally shut his friend up, like a distant explosion. Every monitor, every instrument in the room shattered simultaneously. The sound of millions of shards of glass hitting the floor echoed up the staircase after them.
Another rumble, and a huge explosion. The stairwell heated up by a dozen degrees, and then twice that. Viper saw the walls light up with orange, but he didn’t dare look behind him. He kept climbing, and suddenly Malton was ahead of him, climbing even faster.
And Malton was laughing.
He ran with a full-bodied laugh of pure glee as he dove through the upper door and landed in the bookstore. The entire building rumbled. Dust fell from the ceiling. Viper didn’t stop at the door like the other three, but continued straight out into the street. They followed, and the shopkeeper seemed to realize what was about to happen.
Fire spat out of every window. Glass shattered outward, though by some miracle—or magic—not a single person outside was injured. The building visibly shuddered. People backed away, across the streets, as it began to collapse inward. No debris fell away, and not a soul was at risk for a moment. The building was caving in on itself. Right in the center of London, a huge dust cloud plumed into the sky.
They could already hear the sirens approaching. People were gathering to look at the wreckage.
Malton kept laughing, while their painstakingly constructed lab—and every piece of data they’d collected over the past week—crumbled into dust. They’d lost everything, but still Malton laughed. Kleiner edged away, and Napowsky looked like he’d had enough of the whole insane venture.
Viper cautiously put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Cor?”
”I’m fine,” Malton said, calming down remarkably fast. “But I believe we’ll need a new approach.”
”Let’s get the fuck out of here,” said Viper, glancing around at the crowd. The police were already on their way, and there were far too many eyes on them to feel comfortable. Malton nodded, and they hurried to his car parked around the corner. The four of them piled in—Viper had no idea what had happened to the shopkeep, and didn’t much care—and soon they were pulling away into the city streets, far away from the building that they no longer had any connection to.
In his rearview mirror as they drove away from the wreckage and the ensuing spectacle, Viper could have sworn he saw a person fly out of the sky, straight into the cloud of dust. As he turned the corner, though, he lost sight of them.
Viper put it out of his head. He had more important things on his mind, like the insane man in his passenger seat with a smile plastered on his face—one of the richest men in the world, who now had access to magic itself, and with apparently no reservations on the rules he might break to achieve his goals.
Tess, you better get back here soon. This is over the line. Way the fuck over the line.