Kahina and I made our way into the MAC office, shoulders squared back and ready to go. I hadn’t slept worth shit, too frustrated over how DISO had fucked me and too nervous about today. What had seemed like the only sane way to cut through the damn red tape bullshit had become a seriously fucking bad idea once I’d gotten home.
Removing surveillance video from base without authorization from both a superior officer and a security officer with proper authorization was highly fucking illegal. If I raised even one eyebrow, there was a real good chance that I could be thrown in the stockades so fast that my head would spin. And guess what? Me opening my big, fat mouth had led to a major getting fucking arrested. If what he’d said when we first met a few weeks ago was true, then a whole lot of people were going to be watching me like a fucking hawk.
I could feel every glance, every look, every acknowledgement of my existence as we headed for my office. Every moment of eye contact made me wonder, did they know? Were they just waiting for me to get to my office before jumping on me and dragging me away?
I kept reminding myself to play it cool. Deep breaths, no stress. Don’t let it show just how scared I was. I had to remind myself of it every step of the way.
Somehow, despite all odds, we made it to the office without anything happening. While Kahina settled in to get caught up on… whatever it was that she did first thing in the morning, I made my way into the office to let out a sigh of relief. Everything was getting too complicated.
I’d wanted to hate the Defenders. I’d expected them to be a stuck-up, batshit crazy group. And while they were the level of… odd that I was expecting out of wizards, they’d gotten along well with me. There hadn’t been any of the exclusion that I’d expected; instead they’d seemed to be determined to draw every ounce of information out of me that they could on the case.
What had gotten me was that they’d then tried to fill my head with every ounce of information or theories that they could come up with. Most of what they’d said had gone in one ear and out the other for various reasons – many of them were way too technical for me to figure out what the hell was being said at all. Others? Some of the shit that Ian came up with was hard to believe, but they came up with some real batshit ideas.
When Johansenhad reappeared for the night shift briefing, I’d had to go through it all over again; I hadn’t even done anything on my shift, and I still couldn’t get out of there until almost 0200. Which did nothing to improve my stress situation.
I settled in behind my computer. For the next hour and a half, I spent my time simply reading through everything that everyone had done yesterday. Every paragraph made it harder to read the next, making my eyes droop a little more. There wasn’t any real progress that I could see. Thousands of lines of text that basically amounted to We have no idea, but we’re going to have to do even more of this to find our who our fuckwad is.
Honestly, the phone ringing was a relief, snapping some life back into me. “Acone.”
“Wooten,” the general snapped back. Oh fuck. Now I was really awake as raw fear flooded through my veins. “What’s our situation on this case?”
“I, uh…” Shit, say something. Something. “If I woulda known this is the bullshit that cops go through, I would have let myself get char broiled over there.”
Yeah, brilliant thing to say to a general. Ace job, Molly.
If Wooten was amused, he didn’t show it at all. “It’s only been a month, Lieutenant. This isn’t like in books where the case is solved and everything’s wrapped up by chapter 42 at the latest. If a case isn’t solved within 48 hours, then most likely it’s either going to go unsolved, or it’s going to take years. I’m hoping for a faster resolution than that.
“Is DISO Two still offering their full support?”
Fuck. Shit. Did he know? Did… Focus, Molly. One thing at a time. “Yes, sir.”
“They’re taking their sweet time on those transcripts.”
“They’re making about as much progress as we are, sir. They have as vested of an interest in this as we do.”
General Wooten grunted. “You’re with DISO Three, right?”
“Can they offer any assistance?”
Oh, yeah. Because a bunch of overworked wizards were going to be so willing to help us out with this. I hadn’t even considered asking them for help, and I wasn’t about to. “Sir, with all due respect, I haven’t asked. First of all, I know what kind of things they’re up to currently. Secondly, it might be seen as a conflict of interest as I’m still serving with them in a junior capacity.”
There was a pause, and I could feel his frown from over the phone. “It would be like a private asking an officer to rebuild his mother’s house because the people they hired weren’t moving fast enough.”
What? “Y-yeah, sure, let’s go with that.”
“Right. Well, here’s to hoping. That said, there was another reason why I called.”
“A report on you crossed my desk.”
Oh fuck. Oh fuck my shit with a roto rooter and a thermite enema.
“You skipped your Monday therapy session.”
What? Seriously? Out of everything, this was what he was calling me about? “Sir?”
“I’m asking you to explain yourself.”
I took a deep breath. “Remember how you asked me for a sitrep on DISO Two?”
“Ah.” He sounded vaguely disgusted. “I would suppose that occasional visits would be necessary. Alright. Honestly, I doubt that you need them anyway.”
Which was exactly the sort of attitude that had made laws about mandatory medical duty necessary. I didn’t like therapy, but just how I reacted to seeing Hubert almost get his arm removed was kind of a wakeup call that I might need my shit unfucked. Plus, it wasn’t like that didn’t give me enough extra trauma as it was.
“However, there would be others who would fight me on this, so let me say this as plainly as possible. File. A fucking. Report. I don’t care if you have to do it on your phone; I have no desire to have some uppity shrink telling me that they had to pull you off duty because you missed too many sessions. It’d look bad for all of us. File a report and reschedule. Do you understand?”
He couldn’t see it, but I had my head rolled all the way back, my eyes closed. I’d dodged a bullet the size of a cruiser. “Yes sir,” I said, somehow keeping my voice even and clear. “I’ll make sure to do that from here on out.”
There was a hesitation on his end. Probably feeling out if I was sassing him or not. To be fair, I wouldn’t blame him if he thought so; if someone said the same to me, I’d probably think that they were sassing me.
“Alright, Lieutenant. Get back to work.” With that there was the soft click of him hanging up.
Get back to work. Ugh. I knew that I should respect one-stars, but I wanted to punch him in his fucking face. First he assigned me to a bunch of bullshit training that I really didn’t need, then tried to take my weekends, my scant free time, away from me. I’d gotten out of the training thanks to needing me here, but still. Fuck him.
Overseas, I didn’t mind not having a day off. Here, at home? It was a different story.
I yawned as the fear began to ebb out of me. No rest for the wicked, and I was a goddamned witch. And I still didn’t get any time for it. I hung up my phone for all of three seconds before plucking it back up and dialing. At least he picked up on the third ring.
“Agent Massen, how can I help you?”
“Massen, it’s Lieutenant Acone.”
“Ah, I was afraid it was you.” I could hear the wince in his voice.
“Relax, Massen. Trust me, I’m not calling to bust your balls. I know you’ve got a ton on your plate with this, and I’m thankful. Unfortunately, I’ve got a colonel busting my balls, so I gotta at least go through the motions. Tell me you got an ETA for me. I don’t care how loose it is, just something to get him off my back.”
That got a laugh out of the spook. “I can do better than that. Tell them that unless someone puts a heavy load on the system tonight, it should be done by noon tomorrow. Sorry, but this is currently a tier-three out of seven task. I don’t have the authorization to bump it up on the stack priority.”
I smiled a little. “No, I get it. You guys have a ton going on. Even if we’ve got the brass asses breathing down our necks, you all putting us on any priority means a lot of us.”
But that wasn’t what actually made me smile. I was smiling because I only had to deal with one more day of this damned fear.
“Alright people,” Johansen called out, once again standing on his table. “I’m going to keep this one brief. Check your terminals! Case notes galore, so I’m only giving brief highlights.
“We’ve had possible sightings in four different locations of the island for our secondary target in the past twenty-four hours. We have two melted bodies that we’ve confirmed for our spider creatures, and one possible homicide relating back to this case. Even worse, we’re suspecting that there may be more than one of the secondary target.
“Analysts have confirmed, the creatures are artificially produced. We still have no idea if they’re being made locally or off island. I want boots on the ground in known smuggling spots. If you have any contacts who deal with smuggling, hit them up. If you know of anyone who has contacts like that, hit them up. If they’re being brought to the island, I want to know how as of yesterday.
“I’ve assigned some of you into rapid response. If you’re part of a squad of Guardians, ask your Captains for permission to co-opt them. If you are a Captain, use your digression. Either way, I want you at the assigned locations so that if we catch any more sightings, you can respond immediately to the location.”
He looked around the room. “I don’t need to stress again how dangerous this is, but I’m doing it anyway. If you get confirmation on a sighting, try not to engage solo. Report in, keep your eyes on them, and wait for backup to arrive. If you can’t do that, engage with extreme prejudice. By order of the Council, this isn’t a caption mission anymore. This is an elimination mission.
“Defenders coming off of shift, stick around. Those coming on will probably have questions for you. Defenders coming on shift, remember that half of morning shift are still out in the city. They most likely won’t be coming in until you’re already out there. Take more notes than you think you have to, and spend some time reviewing the terminals in your vehicles throughout your shift.
“That is all for now. Get to it!”
As Johansen hopped off the desk, a hand grabbed my elbow. I spun, looking into the smirking face of Ben. “You’re with me today.”
Really? Fucking seriously? I wasn’t awake enough to deal with some paper pusher.
I exhaled, finding myself too tired to fight it, either. “Yeah, alright. Lemmie guess, you need me to look at images in the archive to match what I saw from John Doe’s muscles?”
“We may do that,” Ben said, turning to leave the room. “But later. For now, I have something else in mind. I wish that I wouldn’t have already gone through the effort of setting everything up for today, though. You look dead on your feet.”
“Goodie,” I deadpanned. “Then I look better than I feel.”
“Would a nap help? We have bunks where Guardians can—“
I shook my head. “Nah. I’m… If I try and take a nap, I probably won’t wake up until 0400 at the earliest. Better to keep what little forward momentum I’ve got, then rush home for a quick five hours of sleep.”
He nodded. “I’m… familiar. When Umeko was younger, I had to pull too many days like that.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Umeko?”
“My daughter. Her mother and I are… separated.” I noted that Ben’s smirk didn’t shift at all. Default expression, like a resting bitch face? Or was it some sort of emotional armor? The way that he hesitated told me that it wasn’t something that he was at peace with. A bad divorce, or was she no longer among the living?
I wasn’t about to ask.
“She’s brilliant. In a few years, she’ll be joining us in R&D, at least for a little bit. She graduated when she was fourteen, and has quite the lab at home already. It isn’t easy, raising a child mostly on your own. Especially when they’re that smart. So much to the time, I have no idea what I’m doing.”
I nodded. “Yeah. I can imagine.” Still, a topic change was in order. “So, if I’m not helping you look at pictures, what do you need me for? Clearing up notes? Looking at old case files?”
“You keep better records than most of the Guardians here.” He paused as he hit the button on the elevator. “Did you know that John and I were partners?”
John… Right, he meant Igen. “I think you mentioned something about that, yeah.”
“Mm. Well. When he came to the Guardians, Tsubasa assigned me to him. She was a wiley Sergeant, and knew that we’d get along well after a period of time. But more importantly, she thought that it was important that he learn some magic.”
Now that made me perk up as we stepped into the elevator.
“I hope that you don’t mind that I looked into your files, and the files on your friend Ian. I understand that he’s been teaching you?”
I nodded eagerly. “Um, yeah. Well, trying to. He’s not into Spatial magic stuffs.”
Ben nodded. “It’s fairly uncommon. And he focused on a path that’s even rarer on the island these days, Binding. He’s also self-taught, which is commendable. Especially with what he seems to have accomplished. Being self-taught means lots of digging up references, experimentation, and building of the theory yourself. Of course, he started when he was young.
“But you and John… The two of you didn’t start out young. John may have learned about the existence of magic and the supernatural while young, but he never learned any himself. Tsubasa, as I said, wanted that changed. But it’s hard, teaching someone like you.”
As the doors opened, Ben took the lead down the hall. I had to hurry to keep up to the long-legged Asian bastard. “Why’s that?”
“Because you’ve lived a life without it. It hasn’t shaped your perception of the world around you. You have ideas, ways of thinking… The core of your being isn’t shaped around the idea of magic. This is why we prefer to teach people when they’re young.
“Now Ian, he’s trying to teach you like you would a child. No offense.”
I snorted. “None taken. I kinda am.”
Ben nodded approvingly. “But you are not a child in many other ways. You’re a grown woman, with your own opinions and ways of looking at things. Teaching you as a child, where you are molded around magic… It won’t work.”
He held up a finger as he suddenly paused outside of an office, knocking on the door. The woman inside looked up from the computer that she was hunched over, giving him a bewildered look. She quickly looked back down at her computer before sighing softly.
“I’m sorry, Benjiro. I completely lost track of time. Let me finish this and I’ll be right there.”
“It’s fine, Claudia. You have ten minutes before I call you.” Ben nodded to me before continuing on.
“As I was saying, it won’t work. Working from the bottom up… While it will work for some, I believe that you are too resolute in your own reality to be able to do that. No, we must work from the top down.
“Magicians, as a general rule, despise the concept of teaching hard spells. They are static, immutable. Instead, we prefer to teach the framework for a spell, you teach the theories behind it, so that a person may modify it as need be. Without the act of creation, there is no discovery. For you, much like for John, I believe that it is the wisest route.”
I frowned, my heart sinking. “So I’m just going to learn a collection of spells.” That wasn’t what I wanted. It was like always having to go to the store to buy a chocolate cake, instead of being able to make one whenever you wanted.
“Initially.” He looked at me. “Now, if I were to ask you to add up all the numbers from one to five—“
“Fifteen,” I said without hesitation.
“Right. How did you get there?”
I shrugged a shoulder. “One plus two, plus three… You know…”
“Precisely. You move in a very linear, logical method. Now, what if I were to tell you that to cast magic, you needed to take five, add one, add four, add two, and finally three?”
This was getting weird. “Um… Unorthodox, but it gets the job done?”
“Because, simplifying it considerably, that is how magic works. You look at the final step, the final result. The five. You think about the basic theories and principles that you wish to utilize. The one. You compose the framework, the four. You combine the theories, melding and matching them together as best you can. The two. You then combine the theories to the framework, the three. Only then do you go through the casting.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to tell him that he was still going through everything in a linear fashion, just a bass akwards way.
“Of course, this is somewhat simplified, but still. It’s the best way that I have to explain this. Just like how I tried to explain it to John. However, he can now compose his own spells.”
Aha! Now I was pretty sure that I was getting where he was going with this, and I couldn’t help but grin a little. “So lemmie see if I’m getting this straight. I go through the motions enough, the five, and eventually, even though I don’t know the one, I might start to pick up on the four?”
Ben nodded as he led me into a large room with a whiteboard covering a wall. I paused at the door, glancing at the plaque: Theory Testing Room 7.
“Exactly,” Ben said as he moved to a closet, getting out three folding chairs and a small cardboard box. I moved to help him set them up. “You’ll be taught the two next, be expected to get the three on your own, and then, perhaps, you can begin to understand the one as it’s taught to you.”
I nodded slowly. Even if not everything he said made sense, that much at least did. Top down. It was like a weird algebra equation. That much, at least, worked. Even if the math that magic apparently used didn’t.
“So, uh… That person…?”
Ben snorted. “I’m completely useless when it comes to spatial magic. Christine will help you with that.”
“Ah, fair, fair.”
A silence filled the room. I wasn’t sure what else to say, and Ben wasn’t offering anything up. I sat in a chair, and he put his hands on the back of one, leaning against it.
Something. Something to occupy the space.
“Yes?” He sounded happy for something to talk about.
“I’ve been doing a thing with DISO Two, and, uh… Their facial recognition stuff seems to take longer than ours. Is that because we have a different program, or is there, like, magic involved?”
Ben frowned a little. “I’m… not sure. I mean, magic doesn’t get worked into technology very often. We’re a fairly backwards people as a general rule, preferring the sword over the gun, that sort of thing. It could be a program, but I’d imagine that DISO Two would have a better one than us. Sorry.”
“No, no. It’s cool.” So much for that answer. Crap. I’d have to find someone else to ask.
Silence again. What the hell was taking that woman so long?
“So… So where are we?”
“Research and Development. We’re constantly trying to come up with all sorts of things to make the lives of the Guardians easier. Both in the development of spells and enchanted items. Though it would be easier if we had more enchanters.”
“Ah, cool.” I nodded, trying to find a way to ride the wave. “If Ian trusted us more, I’d definitely try and hook him up here. Or the archives. He’d probably love it.”
“To be fair, most Guardians end up requesting to spend some time here. But yes, from what I read, I’d imagine that he would be.” He tilted his head, looking at me curiously. “What’s your relationship with him?”
I blinked. “Uh… Relationship?”
“Is he just your mentor, or…?”
Oh, crap. I shook my head. “Friend. He wasn’t, like, the rabbit hole, but he was the one who explained everything to me, and who stuck with me through all of this. I mean, I dunno what the files say about him, but… He’s a good guy. A little weird, but his heart’s in the right place. And he’s so easy to get excited!
“He has this… I don’t know. It’s like, a childish enthusiasm about stuff. I mean, it doesn’t hurt that he’s a genius. I’m sure that if he wouldn’t have ever found magic, he would be in some sort of high tech research facility. Or maybe a teacher. He’d make a good teacher, I think.”
I paused, frowning a little. “It… bothers me, how he lives. He’s not safe there. And I know that he couldn’t afford food for a while there. He doesn’t even have a bed, just a couch. And… I worry. Like I said, he’s a good fella. He deserves more than what he’s got.”
“I understand,” Ben said, nodding.
The woman walked in, and I finally got a good look at her. A bit shorter than me, and while we might have the same weight, mine was muscle while hers was flab. She had her dark brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. She fixed me with a polite smile, as she moved a poster tube from one hand to the other.
“Guardian Acone. May I call you Molly?”
“Sure.” I hurried to my feet, offering her my hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, miss…?”
“Just call me Claudia. We don’t do the whole ‘last name basis’ thing up here.” She took my hand briefly before taking the box from Ben and moving to the whiteboard. “It’s always so sad to see an independent such as yourself. Especially one who was so recently a Gump. The least that I can do is teach you something.”
Great, another member of House Gowon. Which meant that I’d have to deal with all the insensitive remarks and insults that she didn’t know that she was making. God damn it. The things that I had to fucking put up with to learn magic.