It was enlivening to be on the streets again. Those stationed at the Seat would disagree, but what would they know? These lesser ones who had nothing except a sense of the future. Who thrive not on their own actions, but the convictions of others? To be on the streets again, to once more be at the frontline, was a revitalised flirtation with possibility. Sometimes this led to death, other times, sorrow and despair. But like the Universe itself, chaos must precede order. The serenity of tomorrow is only available to those willing to enact and survive disorder. Those who shun chaos will never earn any right to the cherished key.
“Getting somethin’,” Woon, hands delicately kneading the twin globes of the SpectreVoice, whispered.
“Concentrate on the final half hour,” Jones instructed. “That’s usually when he talks.”
Woon muttered agreement. A moment later, the SpectreVoice started to crackle, emitting a cacophony that included anything said, mumbled, hollered and thought in the vicinity during the focused period. Mouthing a curse, Woon’s left hand carefully swivelled the directional globe to narrow the geographical capture, zooming in once more on the massive edifice across the street. Improvement came slowly and haltingly. Some voices thinned away, others thickened and became clearer. Before long, the familiar hubbub of the Ministry of Internal Security started echoing. Two interrogations were going badly in the basement; a suspect was soon to suffer unlawful violence. At the rooftop café, two administrators simultaneously debated, mentally, the impact of inflation on the price of coffee. Near the entrance of the ministry, a receptionist reminisced about her dinner with her boyfriend the previous night. Her unbridled thoughts dominated the crackle streaming through. Much of it revolved around the pantyhose she specially wore for the occasion.
You have no way to contact Mael …
“There,” Jones and Woon blurted at the same time.
I have repeated myself many times over the months, captain. I am not part of Maelstrom. I have never been. I do not have a hotline to them.
That is hard to believe. Given their keen interest in recruiting you.
I find it incredible that you believe an organisation like Maelstrom would do something so stupid as to leave me a phone number. Would you do that if you operate a terrorist organisation, captain?
Sweets, it’s too expensive for us to…
But I want to go to Paris! I want to see the new Eiffel. You promised …
Woon’s hands adjusted quickly. But his tone had no apology. “You have to come up with somethin’ better than this soon,” he grumbled. “I’m barely able to control …”
“I’m not getting’ any from …”
Is that your strategy, Captain? To keep harassing me till I say something that pleases you? Or are you hoping to goad Maelstrom into kidnapping me? Some sort of, lure them out of inaction plan?
I hardly call bombing a downtown building inaction. Would you?
“Enough,” Jones said. Before Woon could react, he terminated the power flow to the SpectreVoice. “That’s all we need to know for tonight. Get us out of here.”
Woon blinked. “We barely heard anything. I … I could try to zoom in closer. Or maybe I could broaden the time focus …”
“We heard enough. Ruperts was toying. Pereira was weary but determined not to cooperate. Unless you’re keen to listen to the bureaucratic squabble when Pereira’s lawyer arrives, start driving.”
Woon obeyed, and grumbled incessantly about the aged SpectreVoice through the drive back to the Seat. Leaving him to it, Jones settled into concluding the operation for the day. He began by calling in, verifying that all three mission teams had successfully retreated and returned. Then he contacted the two Seers still on surveillance duty near Damien Pereira’s residence, and instructed them to remain at their posts throughout the week. Finally, after shuffling to the back of the van, he rang his link at the Ministry of Internal Security. Miraculous as the SpectreVoice was, it was still just a piece of machinery. A gadget that was useless without human operation. In order for it to tap into voices and thoughts, a physical anchor was necessary. A breathing, human anchor.
“He’s on the verge of breaking. I could see it in his eyes, even though he tried to hide it. It wouldn’t be long.”
“We don’t want him to break too soon,” Jones reminded. “Or without us beside him.”
“That’s your job, not mine. I received the updated tally, by the way. Sixty-seven dead. Fourteen in critical condition. You set a new high.”
“Just thought you should know. You probably should also know that you’ve forced the country’s hand. The Minister will declare a curfew in the morning. She’s also meeting the Cabinet to discuss a new taskforce dedicated to eliminating you. I was told they would be equipped with very interesting weapons.”
“She tried that in the past. Didn’t turn out so well, did it?”
“As I said, just thought you should know.” The link chuckled. “Pereira mentioned something interesting today. Did you catch it with that toy of yours?”
“I wasn’t paying attention. What did he say?”
“Something about there being others. It was a slip, really. He lost it for a moment and implied there are others we should be investigating. Something about a lady. When I pressed, he gave the name of a reporter. Started playing the victim card and claimed the reporter was spreading all sorts of malicious rumours about him.”
“What’s her name?”
“Janice Nakamura. Opinions Editor at Veracity. One of those online news portals. I’m giving her a ring tomorrow.”
“Do that.” Jones considered, then added. “You probably should have a word with Pereira’s secretary too.”
“Why? She knows nothing. He doesn’t trust her as much as he appears to.”
“He doesn’t. But maybe she overheard things. Seen things. As you said, he’s breaking down. He’s not as careful as he used to be.”
“The woman detests me. I’d need some time to work on her. One other thing, Jones. The tally is too high this time. You need to cool it for a while.”
“Ministry pressure getting to you? Or conscience?”
The link’s voice went harsh. “Take it as both. You don’t want me to start considering Maelstrom as terrorists too, would you?”
“I’d bear that in mind. Meanwhile, get me the information I need.”
The last he checked, Damien had slightly over a billion in his bank account. This grew solely on interest in recent years, but with such a large capital, whatever earned annually was still more than enough to afford him any sort of lifestyle. The amount itself, probably, could also be doubled easily, were Damien to agree to any of the countless business partnership proposals hand delivered to him every day. But since the announcement ten years ago, Damien had kept to his word. No more partnerships. No more co-developments. He had shared the most lucrative of his impressions with the world, and made enough money out of it. From that point, he had only warnings and admonitions. Ugly words that the world must find a way to endure. Or suffer the consequences for not doing so.
In other words, no more SpectreVoices and Encephatrons and Selen-Drives. No more exotic, space-age names and inventions and patents. Just bitter, harsh, unwelcomed words.
The corporations did not give up. If anything, they became more determined and learned to profit in other ways. A couple of the larger ones quickly banded together and established a chain of mini-museums across the world. Snazzy, high tech chambers that honoured either Damien’s experiences, or associated inventions, or both. His city itself had the most branches, over thirty, each strategically situated so that no one would ever be beyond walking distance from one. Damien naturally protested vehemently to this arrangement, especially when most, if not all of the museums, had a tendency to dwell only on the more flashy and euphoric elements of his impressions. When it became clear that there was no way the corporations would relinquish this final cash cow, he resigned himself to silent protest. He never visited any of the museums, refused also to attend any inauguration or event. Each morning, he deliberately took a long detour to work, just so to avoid the one nearest to his home.
Of late, he stopped making those detours. Thanks to the bombings and rising dissatisfaction towards him, he discovered that these places have a practical use for him after all. They were crowd magnets, especially in the days after a Maelstrom attack. Those who flood the museums tend to harbour all sorts of colourful speculations in their heads. Bizarre conspiracy theories laced with raw, irrational anger. Clustered together, these thoughts formed a sphere of deafening racket that no SpectreVoice or Encephatron could ever be capable of weathering. In the heart of such pandemonium, oases of privacy were thus created. They were very useful when Damien have a need to be absolutely alone.
“Mr. Pereira is only here to check the commentaries for the upcoming displays!” Nancy yelled. “Please! No questions about yesterday! Mr. Pereira has no comments!”
“Thanks, Nan,” Damien whispered, and quickly vanished into the rear office. So as to fool the museum staff too, he did some actual work regarding the commentaries, fussing over grammar and vocabulary and sentence structure, then cooked up a list of errands to send everyone away. Before prepping the device he required, he checked on the din outside once more, pressing his ears against the walls and grinning when Nancy’s irritated voice echoed bossily. Returning to the dead centre of the office, he then carefully placed Prototype XD-2197 on the floor and sat cross-legged beside it. He waited for over five minutes, after inserting his hand into the prototype, before a familiar warmth crept over it.
“You are there,” he said. “Speak to me.”
Faint humming from the rear of XD-2197. A splutter, then another, in the midst of that. An experiment into the possibilities of interstellar communications, XD-2197 was one of the rare co-developments that didn’t produce usable results. Or so the world thought. Through devious misinformation and clandestine payment underneath tables, Damien managed to fool the research team back then into believing they developed a useless device capable of no more than capturing meaningless cosmic frequencies and reverberations. What the team didn’t realize was that the prototype completely worked as intended, as long as it had an activating catalyst. That catalyst was Damien’s unique biological frequency.
“Speak,” he demanded again when no response came.
We sense the query in your mind. We are uninclined to discuss further.
“You will discuss with me, whether you wish to or not.”
You were warned of this outcome. You distanced yourself from us when you chose not to listen.
“Did I? Tell me something. Did you say the same to Jones when he announced his decision to take over the world? Did you warn him not to, distance himself from you, when he concluded he has a right to decide the future of my planet?”
We have gone through this numerous times, Damien. We are not in contact with Jones. He does not possess the technology to reach us.
“I saw what he did yesterday. While I don’t deny humans are occasionally capable of such feats, only your technology can ensure total localization of such devastation. You and I both know that Jones would never do anything he is not completely confident of.”
Silence. Unparalleled in intelligence and evolution as they might be, the Unnamed often behaved in starkly human ways. Their usual reaction in the face of guilt was to retreat into silence.
“I need to stop him,” Damien whispered when the Unnamed did not speak again. “At the very least, I need a way to contain him.”
You do not possess the capability to do so.
“I don’t. But you do. You have the technology to destroy my planet in one strike. You will have the technology to redeem us as easily.”
Your companion, Michela. Do you remember what she asked for during our first session? Do you remember what we said to her?
He faltered. “I didn’t … take you seriously back then. After all, why would you show us …”
We do not jest, Damien, as you must already know. We also do not lie. For our folly thirty years ago, we now pay the price with banishment. Contact with you is only permitted because the council needs to monitor your destruction. We have no more knowledge to share with you. We also do not have any technology that could be your salvation.
“That’s it? You are leaving us to our doom? You are washing your hands clean of us when you are the ones who started this?”
We did not start this, Damien. You know we are not guilty of your undoing.
The heat dissipated, dying together with the humming. Incensed, but not entirely surprised at the outcome, Damien returned XD-2197 to its storage shelf and left the office. Outside, the crowd has not thinned at all and at the sight of him, several reporters attempted to press their way through security. From the corner of his eye, Damien glimpsed the young lady he had taunted the previous day. Still donning the same grey coat, and with the same double screen scribbler. When their eyes met, she responded with a curt nod. Gone was the jumpiness of the previous day, replaced by a grim determination. To Damien’s smile, her gaze turned cold. Then it became predatory.
“Nan, it’s … okay,” he stopped Nancy before she hollered. “I have something to announce.”
Immediate silence. Incredibly, despite the commotion, everybody heard that statement. Several of the reporters retreated, a few looked awed. The young lady from yesterday stood rooted, her eyes fixated on Damien.
“It is common knowledge that Maelstrom has been trying to recruit me. I believe, or rather I hope, it is also common knowledge that I have consistently rejected their offers.”
“When was the last time …”
Damien stopped the question with a hand. “I admit I was foolish not to foresee the threat of Maelstrom. I was warned repeatedly in many of my impressions. For reasons that I remain too humiliated to reveal, I chose to ignore these warnings. Many are dead because of this unwise decision. Their blood is on my hands.”
“Damien!” Nancy tore at his sleeves. “Have you gone mad? This is not going to …”
“So you confirm you were warned about Maelstrom,” the lady reporter interjected. “This contradicts what you said over the last two years.”
“I do. For that, I accept any punishment by this city for deception.” He raised both hands, stopping the uproar before it swelled. “More importantly, I intend to reveal the solution for Maelstrom. Many of you have previously criticised that I was vague about the details of my final impression. I was, intentionally. Because I was afraid, in denial of a truth that terrified me. This is no longer the case. Tomorrow, at noon, I will answer the question you have been asking this past two years. I will reveal the solution for Maelstrom. I will show you the way to deal with them. This is a solution that would also work for any likewise threat in the future.”
A moment of silent disbelief. Then they swarmed him.