jl8e: (shadowfist)
[personal profile] jl8e
In which some things finally get explained.

This is the shortest of the final three chapters, and the first section with Rei and Song is the one that I wanted in chapter four, but just couldn't fit it into the chapter's structure.

Li Ting contemplated the device before him. It was a smooth hemisphere of a black, glassy material, slightly larger than two fists. It bore a few small openings at the base. It had been accompanied by a bag containing a snarl of cables and devices of unknown purpose.

This was not at all what he had been expecting to receive from his agent, but it was all the courier had been given. The only indication of purpose was a small note affixed to the device's surface, instructing him to touch an otherwise indistinguishable point on the device's surface.

After first banishing his servitors from the chamber, he did so.

The point he touched began to glow, and the device emitted a melodic chime.

A ghostly image appeared before him, the face of his Harbinger, somehow formed of light projected from the device. The image began to speak.

"My liege. As you instructed, I have made alliance with the masters of this juncture. A more complete report is contained within this device, but it will wait."

"I have also learned the secret you sought. It proved to be a secret guarded mostly by the difficulty of making use of it."

"In order to combine chi and technology, one must be able to design and construct one's own cybernetic enhancements. The understanding so gained allows one's chi to flow unimpeded through the devices."

"...or so I am assured. The construction of cybernetics requires many years of study even for denizens of this time, who have been raised with their technology. Such knowledge is well beyond my capacity."

"This computer contains vast amounts of knowledge and instruction in the necessary arts, as well as instruction on how to use the device itself. It draws energy from an internal source, but it will fade in perhaps ten hours."

Another image materialized in the air, of a device composed of a flat plane the size of a man's hand, and covered in ridges, all of which was on the end of a long cord. Then another image, this one of the device's base, with one of the openings glowing.

"Place the large end of this device in an open flame, and connect the cable to the main body of the computer as indicated. As long as the device remains in the flame, it will power the computer."

"Once it is connected, I must give way to a tutorial designed to teach the use of this computer. It was created to educate children, for they are the only residents of this world who need it; it does not deliberately give insult."

He bowed, and disappeared.

Li Ting sent for his two most cunning artificers. He was a patient man when he needed to be, and the secrets held in this device would be worth his patience.

The security man waved Song and Rei through the door, shutting it behind them. He did not enter with them.

The lab itself was remarkably clean and well-organized. A small man, with thin, greying hair looked up from his comm pad when they entered.

"About time you arrived," he said. "This is all very irregular. Our work here isn't even cleared for release to most of the company, but they woke us up in the middle of the night to work on this rush project for you. I assume Ms. Xu will not be joining us?"

"No," said Song, "She's busy."

The scientist sighed. "At least she's on the board. I do not look forward to explaining this to my superiors. I would like some evidence that this is authorized."

Song produced a data card. "Will a signed directive from your CEO do?"

He snatched it out of Song's hand. He tapped it against the com pad, checking the digital signatures. "Fine, fine." He exhaled slowly. "Sorry; I'm a bit cranky when I haven't had enough sleep. I'm Dr. Leung. I assume you want to interview, um... we've been calling him Subject Alpha. I assume he has a name. I don't want to know what it is."

Rei nodded.

"Unfortunately," said the doctor, "That's not yet possible. He's proving remarkably intractable. Are you at all familiar with the basic concept of neuroprogramming?"

"I've read a little on the basics." said Rei.

"That should be sufficient," said the doctor, "Even if you could understand the deeper explanations, I'm not allowed to go into any details."

He continued, "We exposed him to a generic pattern designed to induce compliance and suppress independent thought; he remained resistant and hostile. We tried several other basic behavior-modifiers; brain scans indicated they were working, but his behavior remained unchanged. Follow-up scans were interesting; it was as if somebody else were reprogramming him immediately after we did so. We were working up a custom pattern for him when I left."

Rei raised an eyebrow. "Aren't you worried about causing permanent damage by rewriting his brain so often?"

"No, not really. Our techniques are considerably more sophisticated than what's generally considered to be the state of the art. We forecast minimal degradation of recall and language skills, and at most ten percent long-term cognitive impairment."

He turned, and tapped his ID badge against the door. "Let's go and see if they've made any progress; I expect that the tailored approach will prove no more successful, but we have to try before moving on."

He paused, "Oh, yes. Young lady?"


"Please keep away from the computers. Your reputation precedes you, and security only agreed to allow you in if all systems were forced to automatically shut down should you attempt to touch them. I'm sure you can understand how disruptive that would be, so better for all of us if you kept away. It's not that we expect you to try anything, but you know how security people can get."

Rei did not respond.

He watched the sun sink behind the city of Beijing from a dozen angles. He was overextending; the lag shouldn't have been noticeable, but everything was a heartbeat too slow.

Fortunately, all he was doing tonight was watching.

His remotes settled into their search patterns, and he settled in for a long night. From his vantage points, he watched the city finish up the business of the day and get started on the night. He watched the people hurry from place to place, avoiding being out after dark. The ones who had nowhere to go huddled together in the back alleys, hoping they'd live to see the next day's misery.

There. A non-human infra-red signature crept across a rooftop, soon joined by others. He moved in closer, to confirm what he already knew: the monsters were out, and much earlier than he'd expected.

He set the one remote to following them. He was surprised when one took to the air, ferrying the others across the street on insectoid wings too delicate-looking to believe they could support the weight. He pulled the remote back further, but kept to the trail. The things moved more like a well-trained commando team than rampaging beasts.

The rest of his remotes collapsed on the point of initial sighting, then spread out again. The lair must be nearby. Time to call in the Triads. He opened the comm channel.

"Yue? It's Dimitri. I've got them. Copying you the location feed now. Still vague, but by the time you get your crew there, I should have something."

"Excellent," she said, "Your associates still wish anyone we find to be taken alive?"


"My men are not happy about that. It's more dangerous, and they want payback; we have lost several people."

"So have others," he said, "And they want to make sure the payback is properly distributed."

"I know," she replied, "They will complain, but they will do as they are ordered. I'll call you when we get there."

There were a lot of candidates in this run-down industrial area, but he soon settled on a warehouse. It had a roof hatch for aerial cargo loading, no ground-level windows, and blacked-out skylights. Heat signatures were hard to read through the walls, but there seemed to be two people, and some operational heavy machinery.

A quick check of available ownership records proved surprising: The Toriyama Group could certainly afford to engineer monsters like these, but they were mostly in media and associated merchandising. Still, this was just a warehouse; nothing should be operating this late.

He tried to get a remote inside, but security was much tighter than he'd expect for a target of relatively limited value.

Yue and her crew were there soon enough. He floated three remotes down to join them, and kept the rest in a patrol pattern. There was no activity to be seen on the nearby streets except for the cleanup crew parked on the next block.

He opened the comm channel again. "All clear. Two inside. One near the door, one in back. Security's high, so I couldn't get in, but I see nothing lethal, just alarms."

Yue walked over to crack the front door herself. Dimitri moved a remote closer to get a better look. As she worked, she said, "I know the answer, but I was told to ask: you are still unwilling to sell your technology?"

He sighed, "Still no, and no, I still won't work for you, or anybody else, either. I like the freelancer's life."

"I know," she said, "But the bosses, they see the value you could bring us, and they want it." She stepped back. "We're in, so you can have your drone stop staring at my ass now. Count of three."

On her count, two men burst through the door. Dimitri slipped a remote right behind them, in front of Yue and the rest of them. The man in the office had just started to stand, reaching for a gun. Dimitri dropped him with a narc dart before the first wave could reach him.

They spread out, looking for anything among the stacks of boxed toys. Dimitri checked the EM scanner's logs.

"There was a signal burst as we came in. Assume he sounded an alarm."

Yue nodded. They spread out, searching the warehouse, still cautious, but more hurried.

He floated to the rear, and around a near-wall of boxes. "Back here," he said, as he scanned the scene. About a dozen tanks of some sort, like much weirder versions of the healing pods they use in burn wards. Racks of tools, a couple of computers...

A burst of static, and suddenly he was only flying eleven remotes.

In the thirty seconds it took to get the other two inside, the orderly search had been replaced by a scene of chaos. Two of Yue's crew were already down, and as he watched, another fell, firing ineffectually into the creature's torso as it closed and backhanded him across the room. It leapt impossibly high, clung to a wall, then hurled itself at two figures below.

Yue kept firing at it, leaping away only at the last instant. The man next to her was not so fast.

Dimitri finally gathered his wits. A quick burst of micromissiles from the lead remote got the thing's attention. He dodged backward, luring it into his crossfire, and emptied his magazines. Tiny explosions burst all over its flesh, and it howled in pain before slumping to the ground, still twitching.

Yue stalked over and put two bullets into its head. "Cleanup's on the way," she said. "And when payback time comes, tell your friends to make sure we're included."

Rei Okamoto watched as they strapped the man into the chair and wired his eyes open. He looked so different from the way she remembered him; so helpless in the hands of his captors.

She felt some sympathy for him, but only a little.

Doctor Leung spoke. "All clear. Reprogramming in five... four... three... two... one... zero!"

Only the intended victim could see the pattern displayed on the screen before him, and it was designed to fit only his mind, but Rei and two of the scientists still flinched and looked away from the light reflecting off his face.

Only seconds later, the light dimmed. He seemed to sag against the restraints, no longer fighting them. Somebody touched a control, freeing his eyes again.

Doctor Leung turned to the scientist at the brain scanner. "Anything?"

She adjusted the display. "It's still disordered, but it's looking good so far. The implanted pattern seems to be holding."

Rei saw him stiffen in the chair, struggling against his bonds again.

"Wait... it's breaking up. The prior pattern is reasserting itself."

Doctor Leung turned to Rei. He looked exasperated. "I don't understand it," he said. "We've checked for every possible cause. None of his implants could do this. Nothing like this exists in the literature."

The door opened, and Song returned. Rei hurried over, and they embraced briefly.

"Anything?" he said.

Doctor Leung shook his head.

"Well, we may have found another one, and a consultant should be here in a few hours to help."

Doctor Leung looked puzzled. "I am not one to question Xu Mei lightly, but who does she think could possibly be qualified to assist us? All the foremost experts in the field are right here already."

Song smiled. "All she said was that she was sending an expert in weird shit."

Holz checked the time. Everybody should be in position. He turned on his radio. "We are go. Shut down all electronics and move." He gave them a moment, then pressed the button.

The radio shrieked as the first micro-EMP bomb went off. He shut it down then, trusting that the rest would detonate in sequence. Each pulse would only take out modern electronics for a little while, but they'd scattered dozens over the building, each barely large enough to see unless you were looking for them. Until they ran out, it was back to the Stone Age.

His squad were already through the main entrance, and he was right behind them, unspooling cable as he went. They'd practiced this extensively, and so far everything was going smoothly. The enemy were taken by surprise, their command and control systems cut off.

He checked the box he carried. It was just electrical cable and light bulbs, too simple to be scrambled. The other teams' lights were still green.

They stalled a bit in front of the board room. The last guards decided to make a stand there, and the hand-to-hand fighting was not going as well as it should have.

"Fall back!" he yelled, his voice cutting through the din. His men did as they were told, and the guards clustered around the door, relieved but suspicious. They knew this was too easy. There was no way an assault this well-planned would back off at the first sign of resistance.

They were right. As soon as his men were clear, Holz unslung his Helix Ripper. The guards had never seen anything like it, but they were no fools. They started to dive for cover, but he was too fast to them. The Ripper's beam tore into them, detonating flesh wherever it touched.

As soon as they were down, he stopped firing. He felt the old familiar sensation of insects crawling beneath his skin. Of all the things he'd missed, he'd missed that the least.

A minute later, they were in the board room. The Board of Directors of Chiba Prefecture were lined up against the wall before him, watching him warily. He checked the lights: still green, and the white lights were lit, saying all objectives were secured. He flipped a switch, and his own white light lit up.

Now for the weird part. It bothered him mostly that they were used to this here. It didn't happen all the time, maybe two or three times a year, but the fact that there was a formalized, traditional, process for this was something he just couldn't get his head around.

He recited from memory. "As a duly appointed representative of the Dao Biotech Corporation, whose business interests and property have been threatened by your inability to maintain public safety, I am dissolving the Board of Directors of Chiba Prefecture and assuming direct control."

He pulled out the paper and a pen. It was archaic; everything was done electronically, but paper was still accepted, and with the micro-EMPs still going off, it had certain advantages. "Sign here." It was a standard contract; they were giving up their shares and ceding all authority in return for token compensation.

The CEO stepped forward. "No. We refuse. You manufactured this crisis. You have no grounds for this; nobody will accept it."

She turned pale as Holz stepped back and raised the Helix Ripper, but did not move. She simply watched him.

Holz closed his eyes as he fired and her head exploded. Much to his relief, the rest of them signed.

In the waiting room by the labs, Rei curled up in a large comfortable chair, half asleep. It had been a long few days, and it didn't look like it was going to slow down any time soon.

While she slept as best she could, Song meditated. Doctor Leung fretted. He didn't seem to like disruptions to his routine, and had had nothing but recently.

When the door opened, Rei found herself wide awake, her heart racing. It took her several deep breaths to calm down.

The man in the doorway was tall and pale, with long, unkempt white hair. He was shirtless and well-muscled beneath his long leather coat, and she could see the handles of the swords he wore at his sides.

The two guards escorting him looked deeply uncomfortable. They didn't want to be here. No; they didn't want him to be here.

She could see why. There was nothing about his look that was out of place; a bit wild for corporate space, but far from the strangest you'd see on the street. Still, there was something in his posture and the way he moved that was fundamentally out of place. It said he didn't really belong, and he knew it, and he didn't care.

Song was on his feet as soon as the door opened. The two eyed each other warily, warriors taking the measure of a possible opponent. The moment stretched out, neither willing to yield. Doctor Leung picked nervously at his sleeve.

"Just take them out and measure already," grumbled Rei as she stretched.

Song snorted. The stranger looked at her. Slowly, his mouth crept into the shape of a smile. He bowed. "I am the Harbinger," he said. Rei decided not to ask.

He continued, "I was told that I might be able aid you with the interrogation of a prisoner."

Introductions were made, and after some discussion Doctor Leung grudgingly led them back to where Subject Alpha was sitting in the holding cell. When Song and the Harbinger entered, he backed away in fear, soon finding himself trapped in a corner. Song calmly applied a sedative patch to the man's neck, leaving him conscious but limp, and they maneuvered him back to the bench.

There, the Harbinger sat facing him, staring silently into his eyes for several minutes. Without a word, he stood and left the cell, Song following behind him.

"I see why your science was thwarted," he said, "This man is the subject of an intricate work of sorcery."

Doctor Leung spluttered something about absurdity and nonsense, and everybody else ignored him.

The Harbinger continued, "It is well beyond my ability to break it; I could send for one who could, but it might be several weeks before he could arrive."

Song looked thoughtful. "Can you track the people who did it?"

"I cannot."

"Can we? Could this have been done to him just passing by on the street, or does it take more time and contact? Did whoever did it even have to be there?"

"I believe it would be the work of several hours, and must be done in person," said the Harbinger, "But there are several philosophies of sorcery in the world, and some may be better able to do this than the one I know of."

"Probably good enough," said Song, "Rei, how old was the sabotage you dug up?"

"About six months."

"It's enough to start with."
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