Saga of Soul
CHAPTER 19: MASTERPLAN
"<And what was she like?>" asked Potentially Dateable Classmate #8. Several other students - some of them male, to Katsutoshi's vague, hidden irritation - nodded in shared fascination.
"<Well, outwardly, she looked much the same as does on TV,>" he said. "<She was wearing the same white uniform, even. Now as to attitude, I would describe her as... well, respectful, but direct. Ever so slightly lacking in tact and refinement, yet far from rude. Certain in her goals and desires, but not so certain as to how to properly express them. I have also noticed her accent... A hybrid of Japanese and American. You might say I have some familiarity with it,>" he said with a wink, prompting a giggle or two. "<I can also say without a shadow of doubt that she was highly intelligent...>"
As he kept expounding on the magical girl - sticking, of course, to what his mother had judged safe to reveal - he wondered about the situation. I am used to being at the center of attention... but, usually, not because of who I know.
Granted, I have never before known someone who walked on the Moon.
My name is Torada Kansuke. I'm a reporter.
We're living in interesting times, for better or worse. With the war (or do we still call it a crisis?), you just never know what to expect. One moment you've got a general apocalyptic vibe as kaijus rampage through the city and infernal cultists burn down landmarks; the next moment, hope is restored when the big bad evil demon is defeated on live TV; and now, there's the sense of wonder over Soul's recent moonwalk. It's all good for business, and bad for my nerves - but then, I guess that's part of the job.
Right now, me and 30 other reporters are here at the Kantei*, waiting for the Prime Minister. Routine politics, this time - just some questions about his opinions on the Diet's new economic plan. Should be here in ten-twenty minutes, and...
Kansuke's thoughts started going in an altogether different direction when he heard the crashing sounds. It wasn't long before the sirens started.
"<Sir, this new kaiju...>"
Koyama blanched. "<By all the gods, it's less than a kilometer away from the Kantei! Where's the Prime Minister? Send the gunships, send everything! Where's Aoyama?!>"
"<He's on the Soul-Signal already, sir!>"
Kansuke watched with horrified fascination as the enraged monster tore through the streets. He barely remembered to stay out of his cameraman's way. This kaiju... It looks a bit like the first one, but it's smaller. Faster, too - definitely faster. I guess that makes sense - the second kaiju was heavily armored and it still died, so they're trying to go in the opposite direction? Maybe? Holy crap, look at it chew through that car! I hope Soul and the PCTF get here soon...
He felt immense relief when the portal opened. Oh thank the Heavens. Wait... That's... That's not Soul.
Of all the times for an emergency, they had to pick ten minutes after class started?! Eriko cursed internally, precious minutes wasted getting out of the classroom on the pretext of needing to see the nurse. That's gonna look hella suspicious later. I really need to find a better way of handling this sort of situation.
"<Oh hey Eri,>" said Monsoon as the magical girl touched the transformation pillar. "<What's the matter?>"
"<Another construct,>" Soul replied hastily as she opened another portal, dropping into the air only a few kilometers away from her target.
Now where is... there! Giving herself a boost of kinetic energy, Soul flew toward the rampaging monster. Then stopped herself before the unexpected sight.
What the hell? What are these people doing here... dressed like that... flying around... and fighting the construct... with magic?
Seven combatants, clad in matching red and white full-body armor, were coordinating their assault. Two of them, from the looks of it, were imparting kinetic energy on two steel platforms to keep them flying, while standing on those platforms along with the others. This freed the other five team members to focus blasts of hot plasma and heavy projectiles on the monster, causing it heavy injuries. I... I think it's less heavily-armored than the first two. Better at dodging, though. Guys, why don't you just use a portal to the vacuum of space to immobilize it? That's what I did the first time around!
The construct roared in anger and pain while she reevaluated the situation. Who are these guys? I mean... Seven mages? That's huge! Another invasion force? Doesn't sound too likely; Aurora says sending even one person between universes is a huge deal without her power or Murder's knife. Then again, Murder just got his knife back; could he have brought those guys? Or are they locals like me who have been getting training from... from whom? Murder? The Circle of Wisdom? A plan of Aurora's that she didn't tell me about? Or just humans who figured out that magic thing? I mean, with Living Curse in custody, the PCTF probably found out, but did they have the time to train seven mages?
Well, they're fighting the construct. The enemy of my enemy is my friend? ...No, that's a dangerous oversimplification. I don't know whose side they're on yet. But if they're fighting this thing... I might as well pitch in! ...As long as I don't lower my guard.
Flying right behind the construct, Soul opened a portal to the Mariana Trench, sending a powerful water blast that caused it to lose its balance and fall flat on its face. She quickly took some altitude, while the armored mages converged above the beast and blasted it before it could get up, easily hitting the head now that its mobility was greatly reduced. She watched as they finished the job without too much trouble, the construct unable to get back up in time to evade their combined assault. Then she watched as one of them - the one whose armor had the highest red-to-white ratio, she noted - left his metal platform and slowly flew toward her.
All right. Friend? Foe? To the very least, they're not all rushing toward me together. She observed warily as he reached her height, awkwardly trying to hover. Hm. He doesn't have my precision and maneuverability yet. I think he's new at this.
And then he spoke, in a perfect Japanese accent. "<Soul. You have our gratitude, on behalf of Japan. Thank you.>"
"<You're...welcome. But who are you?>"
"<We are SDF soldiers. You may call us... the Kamirentai.>"
She blinked. The "Divine Regiment", huh? But if they're SDF... "<How come... How come you all have magic?>"
"<This was not accomplished without heavy sacrifices. Most volunteers for the program died. But those few of us who managed to reach the Tunnel of Light without completely dying... We are now ready to protect our country, as you have valiantly done until now.>" He placed his fist over his heart: "<We will not allow Japan to fall - not to demons, not to the Circle of Wisdom, not to anyone. Perhaps we will work together again soon,>" he said, looking at the ground, before allowing gravity to bring him back down.
Soul looked at the battlefield, with several damaged buildings, a devastated street, destroyed cars... ultimately, only a fraction of the damage caused by the previous constructs. She watched as what looked like a TV crew began approaching the monster's corpse. Huh. Well, this... might actually make my job much, much easier!
...But even so, I suspect Aurora won't be happy about this. She went back through a portal. On the plus side, I actually have enough time to reach the nurse's office without raising extra suspicions.
Mother Aurora briefly paused her ritual as she listened to Monsoon's report. "<This is most unwelcome news.>"
"<Not entirely unexpected, though. We knew they were getting magic soon.>"
"<Sooner than even my rather pessimistic projections. Seven new unbound mages make for seven new injuries to reality. I had hoped that their progress would be slower, more manageable.>" She paused. "<Could they, perhaps, be benefitting from outside lessons? Such rapid progress, and you say one of them was able to open a portal...>"
"<You mean, if someone's teaching them?>" said Monsoon. "<Could be, I guess, but I don't think so. I've scryed on Downfall and his pet human, and it doesn't look like they're being let out of their cells. The Elysium doesn't seem to be involved with this Earth yet, the Circle of Wisdom would have lots of trouble getting them to cooperate after the stunts they've been pulling... Eriko could do it, but it would take way more sneakiness and lying than she's got to hide it from me. Girl reads like an open book. Besides,>" she shrugged, "<this is the country that came up with the kamikaze. It would be just like them to get a few dozen soldiers to have NDEs just to make mages from the handful of survivors.
But none of this should really matter that much if you complete your ritual, right?>"
Once again, Hyosuke watched the recording of the battle with the construct, and what had followed. Like with the last two times, the image of the caped figure had appeared in the air not long after the monster's death:
"PEOPLE OF EARTH! HAVE HOPE AND KEEP FAITH, FOR THE CIRCLE OF WISDOM FIGHTS ON FOR YOUR FUTURE!
THOUGH THE PATH TO YOUR LIBERATION REMAINS THORNY AND FRAUGHT WITH DANGER, WE SHALL NEVER GIVE UP ON YOU! THOUGH YOUR GOVERNMENTS SEGREGATE YOU INTO ARTIFICIAL COUNTRIES AND ENSLAVE YOU, WE SHALL ABOLISH THEM ALL! OURS IS THE POWER TO BRING YOU THE GLORIES OF MAGIC, TO SHOW YOU THE WONDERS OF THE MULTIVERSE, TO FREE YOU FROM DISEASE, POVERTY, AND MORTALITY ITSELF!
THERE ARE MANY WHO STAND IN OUR WAY, BUT WE PROMISE THIS TO YOU - THEY SHALL ALL FALL! THE CIRCLE WILL STRIKE DOWN THE DEMONS WHO SEEK YOUR DESTRUCTION. THE CIRCLE WILL BRING DOWN THE GOVERNMENTS THAT ENSLAVE YOU. THE CIRCLE WILL PUT A HALT TO MURDER'S ODIOUS DEATH-SPREE. THE CIRCLE WILL END THE CRUEL CHARADE OF SOUL, AGENT OF THE FAIRIES WHO SEEKS TO LOWER YOUR GUARD.
REJOICE, FOR THE CIRCLE OF WISDOM WILL SAVE YOU ALL."
Hyosuke crossed his arms. "<Again with the mention of fairies. What is up with that?>" He closed his eyes. "<And does the Circle actually think it's convincing people like this? Is that their masterplan?>"
My name is Watanabe Eriko... and today, for the first time since this crisis started, I'm going to watch the big world-shaking news from the safety of my home instead of being present on the scene.
Heh. I guess Junko and I could watch it with our parents in the living room... but that would set a bad precedent. Better to keep getting them used to the idea of the two of us watching it online in our room.
The PCTF hasn't been very informative about those SDF mages from yesterday. From the sound of it, the whole thing was news to them, too... but the Prime Minister did contact them afterwards to confirm that these guys were from the Self-Defense Force. And now, here he is, opening the press conference...
"<Ladies. Gentlemen.>" The audience fell silent as the speech began. "<Citizen of Japan, and people of the world.
For months now, we have been at war. An unprovoked war, with unknown enemies. They attack us with powers, powers that eclipse anything else ever seen in the history of warfare. They strike at civilian population centers, burn down temples, hand us ultimatums, seek to destroy our way of life and enslave us.
When these attacks began, we all faced the temptation of closing our eyes. Of believing it was just a fluke event that would not repeat itself. That tomorrow would be the same as last year. But again and again, we have seen that it is not so. The Circle of Wisdom has, on three occasions, unleashed devastating monsters on Tokyo. The demon Downfall had organized an entire campaign of terror, and we have every reason to believe more of his kind will follow in his wake. Every day that passes, more human lives are snuffed by Murder somewhere in the world. The Earth is at war.
Our enemies, despite their incredible powers, have been facing an uphill battle. Human ingenuity and courage have both been put to the test; the PCTF and its many allies the world over have struggled to study and understand the invaders; they have taken the battle to them with more and more advanced weapons. We were also blessed with another ally in the person of Soul - and though we do not even know if she is one of us, another alien being, or even a human from a parallel world, there is no denying that she has saved countless thousands, simply by being the only person on our side with magical powers.
Yesterday, however, the tide turned. Yesterday, the war stopped being uneven. Yesterday, our enemies lost their greatest advantage. Yesterday, we fought fire with fire!>"
Watching the speech on live TV, Helen Barker raised an eyebrow. He's really trying to sell everyone on this. That suggests he's confident in these new forces, at least.
He went on: "<Ladies. Gentlemen. Citizens of Japan, and people of the world. I give you: The Kamirentai!>" As he spoke, he gestured toward the space next to him; the following second, a portal opened there, and the crowd of journalists gasped as a man in body armor stepped through, standing in a row next to him and giving a salute. Another one followed, then another, all seven of them taking position. "<These brave soldiers, codenamed Ace-1 through Ace-7, are now the Earth's premier line of defense against supernatural threats. Each and every one of them, armed with the same powers as Soul and our enemies.
The Kamirentai is the result of an intense research program. From the moment we realized the scope of our enemies' power, we have sought to reverse-engineer it. The Kamirentai is the first of our successes - and yesterday, they met one of the Circle of Wisdom's attacks head-on, and emerged victorious!
Our research is still in its early stages. For now, the process of empowering a soldier remains terribly dangerous. This did nothing to discourage volunteers from our Self-Defense Force, who displayed true Japanese bravery and dutifulness, risking their lives to acquire the weapon of victory. It is with this courage that we will win this war. It is with this courage that we will tell the invaders 'no more'.
The demons have sought our destruction. Our magically-empowered armies will fight them at every turn, and bring destruction to them!
Murder has been treating mankind like game, hunting us for his sick amusement. We now have his power; we will make him face justice!
The Circle of Wisdom has promised magic for our submission, and threatened to meet defiance with terrorism. We are not their slaves, and we are not cowards; we will fight them wherever they dare tread, and give them a bitter taste of defeat!
Soul, thus far, has done nothing but help us. We will proudly call her an ally.
We are humanity. We are the people of Earth. We will not bow down, we will not give in to fear, and we Will! Not! Lose! Japanese or foreign; human, or mankind's ally; we will face the forces of evil, and we will teach them fear!>"
"<An excellent speech, sir,>" the Prime Minister's assistant said on the way back to the Kantei. "<I suspect you have just gained at least ten points in approval ratings.>"
"<Thank you. Confidence in the government will make it easier for us to do what needs to be done, and maintain stability nationwide. It is also important to prepare the nation for the idea of alien allies such as Secano and the Elysium.>"
"<Of course, sir. But as for your schedule over the next few days... The PCTF's Koyama has been desperate to talk to you since yesterday. He's probably worried that the Kamirentai will be making him and his agency redundant, and wants to put it under his jurisdiction. South Korea still wants you involved with the tariff talks. You need to schedule a meeting to put Project Galactica into motion. The CEO of Maxcorp is insisting on a meeting too. And your wife is complaining that the only times she's seen you for the last two weeks was on TV.>"
"<My wife will have to understand that national security takes center stage. Koyama is an adult; I will send him a memo to explain that the PCTF's investigation mission remains unchanged, but the Kamirentai answers only to the Kantei. The South Koreans can talk things out with Chancellor Fujita. For now, we need to prioritize Project Galactica...>" He paused. "<...On second thought, see about scheduling a meeting with the Maxcorp CEO the day before the Galactica meeting.>"
"<Of course sir.>"
My name is Steel Katsutoshi. I am, generally speaking, not in the business of being impressed. In a quiet corner of my own mind, however, I will confess that the young girl with whom I am currently walking toward my mother's office manages to ever-so-slightly impress me regardless. In her awkward, over-intellectual way.
"<Of course I considered Mars!>" said Soul. "<I'm the sort of person who watches the International Space Station with a telescope for fun. How could I not have considered it? But...>" she looked slightly uncomfortable, "<...it felt dishonest. I always figured that the first human expedition to reach Mars should be a Crowning Moment Of Awesome for humanity, like Apollo 11 was. Having it just be some person who lucked into superpowers would feel... empty, you know? I mean, maybe as an international effort or something...>"
Katsutoshi chuckled. "<You save the world, vanquish demons, blow up giant monsters, give hope to billions, and decide you're not worthy of being the first person on Mars? Soul... should we add superhuman humility to your list of powers?>"
She blushed. "<I wouldn't go that far. But, well, actions have consequences. And I figure, if you're gonna do something, do it right. Maybe I should talk to the UN about mounting an expedition... I could mention it to Miss Steel?>"
"<You might as well, though I assume the Kamirentai changes the equation a bit,>" he said as he opened the door to his mother's office.
"<You'll probably consider it a relief to have the Kamirentai around,>" Steel-Sama observed neutrally.
"<I guess so, yeah,>" said Soul. "<I mean, don't get me wrong... All the battles I fought, I'd fight them again if I had to. But it shouldn't have been me in the first place. I'm not exactly a professional.>"
"<Sensible. Yet you seem uneasy.>"
Soul looked to the side. "<I... I'm not sure how wise spreading magic is.>" I'd probably be surer if Aurora kept less secrets.
"<One cannot put the genie back in the bottle,>" Steel-Sama pointed out. "<If magic is to spread, perhaps more civilian uses ought to be considered.>"
"<What do you mean?>"
"<Look at it this way, Soul. So far, we have seen magic used almost exclusively for warfare. But we know other uses are possible. It is a cure for cancer and AIDS. It can create rare materials. It can change space travel. It can change the world. Change it for the better.>"
"<I... I don't think it's that simple, Miss Steel.>" Then again... is it? Using portals, space launches are almost trivial. If we cut down the price of putting satellites in orbit...
"<Life is rarely simple,>" the businesswoman said tonelessly. "<However, Soul, I believe you to be a rational individual.>" Soul straightened up. "<You are aware that countless people die and suffer every day from things that magic could easily prevent. To stand aside and allow them to die is to effectively condemn them to death.>" Soul fidgeted with increasing discomfort. "<At the same time, you cannot be everywhere, nor can you spend all your time helping others. In fact, I imagine you can only dedicate a small portion of your time to your heroic activities without getting in trouble.>"
Soul blinked. I suppose it's not too hard to guess I've got a hard-to-maintain secret identity...
Steel-Sama continued: "<You can only afford to dedicate limited time to helping others. We can help you figure out the optimal way to use that time, if you want our advice.>"
"<I... I'd appreciate advice, yeah.>"
"<In that case, my first suggestion would be focusing on large-scale solutions. Helping one dying man at the hospital is good, but improving millions of lives is better. Currently, there are multiple challenges facing humanity that magic might be able to solve. For starters, consider the energy crisis: All of our technology, everything we do, is dependant on our energy production. But most of our power stations rely either on dwindling, polluting fossil fuels, or radioactivity-generating nuclear power.>"
"<I've... been thinking about that, actually,>" Soul admitted. "<There are some interesting possibilities. Take nuclear fusion... The biggest technological challenge to making it work is the containment of the ultra-heated plasma. I think magic might be able to solve that, but I'm not sure about the orders of magnitude involved.
Failing that, I've been thinking about ways to harness portals...>"
"<Couldn't one simply create a hydroelectric power station, using a portal to return the water to the higher location as it cycled through?>"
"<Well, it wouldn't be that simple. The portal wouldn't remain stationary relative to the Earth. But I think I've figured out a solution...>"
"Must be frustrating for Maxcorp," Helen reflected. "Their press conference just couldn't seem like that big a deal compared to yesterday's unveiling." The redhead had just returned from covering the conference where Maxcorp had officially unveiled the Black Arrow missile.
"I'm sure the millions they're making from these missiles will console them," said the Ghost.
"Speaking of which - just how good is the Black Arrow?" asked Walker. "Maxcorp is making it out to be a game-changing kaiju-killer, but how much of that is hype?"
"We won't know for sure until it gets field-tested," said Helen, "but none of what they said about it sounds unrealistic. Image-recognition software has come a long way; if it allows missiles to lock onto the giant monsters, it should be more effective at hurting them than what the PCTF has been using so far." She paused. "But their profit margin is too small. The way they slashed those prices... I assume that's why the PCTF wants us to leave them alone."
"Very likely," said the Ghost. "If Steel does give you that interview, Barker, then interview her like a normal journalist would. I think we've invested more than enough time and effort into the Maxcorp lead from now."
She frowned. "Maxcorp is dirty and you know it, Kurt."
"Oh, they're dirty all right. But I don't think it's the kind of dirt that concerns us. For now, we have bigger priorities than corporate corruption."
"Like making sure America gets magic? I understand that's the politicos' job right now. What are we supposed to do?"
"For now, Barker... For now, you keep your ear to the ground, and wait for opportunities."
In the middle of an Antarctic blizzard, a lone figure paid little mind to the wind and the cold as it set about its work.
My name is Ender. I am the demonic envoy of Endless Ravage.
His skin was as white as the snow around him. His eyes blood-red. He could have passed for a large human from a distance, but up close, one could begin to see that his skin was cratered with numerous tiny mouths, each filled with dagger-sharp teeth.
Downfall, Downfall, Downfall. We never expected great things from you... but your humiliating defeat was far worse than we could have accepted. You're making Endless Ravage look bad.
His fingers - longer and thinner than humanly possible - were holding an amulet made of steel as his magic sought to import its enchantments.
But I suppose we can blame only ourselves, now can we? Your incompetence was the very reason we sent you. The politics of Hell.
His real mouth - wide and filled with fangs - smirked cruelly as he went about his work.
Hellish factions and demons earn prestige by inflicting Righteous Vengeance upon humanity. To be the first demon to wreak havoc on an Earth brings immense prestige. It's a role every demon wants when his faction acquires the rights to a new universe. When Endless Ravage finally got a world of its own... I petitioned to be first. You petitioned to be first. Everyone petitioned. Our - heh - 'esteemed leader' would have gone there himself if he could.
He didn't even blink as snowflakes fell into his red eyes.
But he couldn't. Such an absence would have left him open for a coup at home. He had to choose who to send. He had to play politics, avoid looking weak and avoid angering the mini-factions within Endless Ravage at the same time. So in the end... In the end, Endless Ravage sent you, Downfall. The compromise candidate. The one nobody actually liked... but who was too incompetent to actually become a threat later on, no matter how much prestige he earned.
He let out a chuckle. With his modified throat, his voice generated its own echo.
You ended up screwing yourself over far worse than expected. Defeated by a little girl, humiliated... Now imprisoned, possibly dead. But rest assured, Downfall - no-one shall weep for you!
This time he let out a great laugh, each sound repeating itself after a fraction of a second.
Rot away, Downfall. You have embarrassed us long enough. The time has come for Endless Ravage to show this world what a true demon can accomplish.
I am Ender. I am a curse upon this world. I will bring to it pain, suffering and destruction on a scale beyond their darkest nightmares.
"<Please take a seat, Miss Steel.>"
She did so silently. "<I believe congratulations are in order, Prime Minister.>"
He cocked an eyebrow.
"<With the Kamirentai as proof-of-concept, Japan is now a superpower. The only nation with access to magic.>"
"<Well, I wouldn't go that far,>" he said with a token nervous laugh, "<We are mostly trying to protect ourselves from invaders and terrorists...>"
"<You can reach outer space with portals,>" she cut in. "<You can cure cancer and grant youth. You can trivially replicate any physical object, produce tens of tons of the rarest materials. If you so wished, you could have the Kamirentai abduct or eliminate the governments of any other given nation. You <i>are</i> today's superpower.>"
He blinked. "<Perhaps, but surely you realize it's never that simple.>"
"<Of course not. You will not necessarily be a superpower tomorrow,>" she said. "<It will not be long before others acquire magic too. With or without your help. What you have, in effect, is a short window of opportunity. If you wish to advance your national interests, then you need to make the best of this window, and quickly.>"
He raised his eyebrows, amused. "<I thought you were here to discuss your role as the PCTF's main weapon supplier?>"
"<That is a subset of what I speak of,>" she replied. "<Magic has been used for complex manipulations of matter, as evidenced by Downfall's shapeshifting. It has been used to duplicate banknotes. Presumably, it can be used to duplicate shield-piercing rifles, PRISM units, and even Black Arrow missiles.>"
"<Well... I suppose that may be possible. Are you concerned about losing a buyer?>"
"<These weapon designs are all Maxcorp intellectual property. We can reach a mutually-beneficial arrangement where Maxcorp allows you to create copies and pay us a reduced price, enabling us in return to save on manufacturing costs.>"
"<Thus saving money for both the PCTF and your company. Such intellectual property arrangements would probably become frequent if magic was used in such a manner.>"
"<Precisely. But that is merely a small example.>" She steepled her fingers in front of her mouth. "<I am aware that you have been meeting several Japanese heads of industry and telecommunication recently. You, too, realize what profound economic changes magic brings.>"
He gazed at her. "<Where are you going with this?>"
"<I intend to take part in those meetings,>" she said simply. "<The economic map of the world is to be redrawn, and Maxcorp needs to be part of it.>"
He chuckled. "<With all due respect, Miss Steel, while I appreciate Maxcorp's haste in developing new weaponry, it seems to me that you're asking for a lot.>"
"<Hardly. You need Maxcorp's cooperation to maintain even a short-lived monopoly on magic.>"
That stopped him in his tracks. "<What do you mean?>"
"<I mean that magic is obtained via NDEs. As the subjects reach the Tunnel of Light, they need to channel their will through it in order to affect reality. But even if they master that skill, it remains a tricky matter to survive and recover from the near-death itself.>"
This time, he gazed piercingly at her. "<You seem unusually well-informed, Miss Steel.>"
"<I pay close attention to the PCTF. The creation of the Kamirentai involved spreading the knowledge even further. I talk to Soul. I have my own researchers studying the question. I keep a close eye on unusual events across the world. Take your pick - there are numerous ways for the information to be obtained by one who knows where to look.>"
"<Are you spying on us, then? Be careful about your implications.>"
"<I shall neither confirm nor deny the nature of my sources, Prime Minister. Maxcorp has the information, and we're days away from creating our first corporate mages - people taken from engineering backgrounds.>" She let the words hang in the air. "<Right now, at this moment, Japan and Maxcorp are the only major Earth factions with magic. If we work together, we can achieve great things. Japan can become the superpower of the new era. Maxcorp can become richer than Apple and Microsoft combined. But for that, we need to cooperate. Coordinate our actions. Set the direction in which magic goes, and how it is regulated.>"
He crossed his arms. "<You get your hands on classified information, keep your sources secret, and now you want a seat at our discussion table? You're not earning yourself any trust right now, Miss Steel.>"
"<Magic has greater geopolitical implications than nuclear power, Prime Minister. If you're only going to work with those unwilling to dirty their hands for it, you will soon find yourself entirely alone.>"
"<Can I even trust that you did get your information from any of the potential sources you've mentioned? Just the other week you were investigated for assisting Downfall!>"
"<A transparent attempt to frame Maxcorp. The PCTF agrees.>"
"<Perhaps too transparent. If you're willing to dirty your hands for magic, why not work with demons?>"
"<I will give you the same answer I gave director Koyama: Because, considering the threat to civilization Downfall represented, I would have had to be a complete idiot to help him in any way. Even for magic.>"
"<Even intelligent people sometimes do stupid things.>"
He cocked an eyebrow. "<So what you're telling me, then, is that in order to maintain what will inevitably be a short-lived monopoly on magic, my government ought to include Maxcorp at the corporate roundtable deciding how to proceed with the matter.>"
"<I can be either a highly useful ally or a grave loss, Prime Minister. I already have ideas on how to push regulations of magic and use it to turn the world economy around in our mutual favor. I can give you the tools to ensure Japanese supremacy on the world stage. If Maxcorp does not obtain its goals, however, my labs are under instructions to sell the information to multiple other nations. America, China, Russia, South Korea, the various nations of the European Union, and more - any of them would be willing to pay a fortune for this data. And if the information spreads to so many people so quickly... leaks will lead it to the public eye very, very soon. Before you've had the time to truly exploit it. Not an optimal scenario for either of us, but Maxcorp will make the best of any situation. I do, however, hope we can work together - that is where true profit lies.>"
He gazed at her. Then he chuckled. Then he laughed. "<If this is how you run things, Miss Steel, then I suspect I'd rather have you on my side. Explain to me some of these ideas of yours. If I like what I hear, you will be invited to tomorrow's meeting with other corporate heads. However,>" his tone got harsher, "<do not expect to be allowed into this game with the power imbalance you describe. You will only be allowed in if Maxcorp places the totality of its financial reserves in the hands of the Bank of Japan.>"
"<Checks and balances.>"
"<Precisely, Miss Steel.>"
"<How did it go, Prime Minister?>" asked his assistant shortly afterward.
"<Either surprisingly well or very poorly,>" said the statesman. "<Arrange for Miss Steel to participate in tomorrow's Project Galactica meeting. She has crafted a situation where we cannot afford not to have her on board... yet at the same time, her contribution may be exactly what we need.>" He stroked his chin. "<Get me as complete a profile as we can on her. I believe I will need to study her character more deeply.>"
"So how did it go?" asked Harris.
"Mostly as expected, albeit quicker," said Steel. "Has the rhodium deal with Hallotech gone through?"
"Almost, ma'am. But... isn't your tactic with the Prime Minister risky? We do have a leak in the PCTF. If they get concerned about that, they might find it."
"A minor risk. At this juncture, it was vital to obtain a close partnership with the Japanese government. Decisions made in the coming weeks can reshape the world. Being part of the inner circle can mean the difference between remaining a minor faction, or the most powerful organization on Earth."
He sighed. "If you say so. Do you need anything else?"
"Get me a more complete dossier on the Prime Minister and those close to him than we currently have. The speed at which the Kamirentai became operational, the rapid moves to take advantage of the situation, the recent negotiations... Something doesn't fit. There is an important unknown variable at work."
"<You win by one and a half points,>" said the captain of the girls' team as she surveyed the go board. "<I shouldn't have played F-14. Can't believe I made that blunder.>"
"<Yeah, that probably cost you four points,>" said Eriko, chipper. "<Well, that still gives you four victories out of six games with me this week! But I'm pretty happy with our battle in this corner,>" she indicated a region on the board.
The captain nodded. "<You did play really well there. I guess you got your fire back, Watanabe?>"
"<You might say that,>" she said as she stretched her arms. "<And it's not just me, is it? Things seem to be picking up. Have you been watching the news lately? Downfall's out, Soul went to the Moon, and now the Kamirentai... It no longer feels like the end of the world, I guess.>"
"<I saw the Kamirentai on TV yesterday,>" said one of the younger boys. "<It's awesome! They're like real-life sentai!>"
You're not the only one to notice the resemblance. I'm seeing So. Many. Power Rangers jokes on the Internet now, Eriko reflected. "<Well, we already have magical girls and kaijus. So why not?>" she said with an amused wink.
"<So you see,>" Murder explained in stilted Portuguese as he stepped over the bodies of one of the museum guards and two of the visitors, "<sooner or later, photography is invented, and then centuries of trying to make paintings look more and more realistic are suddenly irrelevant. Artists need to find new things to do with paint. And that's how you end up with, well, this,>" he pointed his golden knife at one of abstract art pieces of the small Brazilian museum.
The three surviving visitors, huddled in a corner, just nodded silently, their eyes constantly darting back to the ten or so still-warm bodies laid all over the room.
"<Well!>" said Murder, "<Enough of my lecturing for today. This place will soon be swarming with interference. Normally, this is the point where I'd kill you, but, lucky you, I want to leave a message.>" He grinned like a shark as he gazed at them. "<Let Soul know that we're having our rematch sometime this week. I'm truly looking forward to it.>"
"...and obviously mom and dad were furious, but hey. Totally worth it," said Lisa Barker. Technically the teenage girl was Helen's cousin, but the age difference meant their relationship was closer to that of aunt and niece.
"I see that smart mouth of yours remains as active as ever," said Helen, with a slight grin, from the phone in her hotel room. "But hey. I suppose you'll probably learn respect at some point in college."
"Leave the jokes to folks with a sense of humor, Hel. So! How's Tokyo treating you?"
"Good food. Polite people. Can't find trash bins anywhere, but somehow the streets are clean anyway. Also, giant monsters and magical girls."
"Wow. That was so informative, I might as well quit school. C'mon, cuz - you're right where all the interesting stuff is happening! By right of blood, I demand juicy details!"
"And by right of being an actual professional, I'll be telling you to read my articles, same as anyone else, hotshot."
"Do you at least have fun? Met anyone cute?"
"No can do. I don't really have the time for hookups while I'm here." Well, I do now, but getting close to people while doing intelligence gathering is not a wise move. Secrets spill out too easily.
"So...You're hot, bi, confident, single, in an exotic land... and you're not up to your neck in hot dates. Cousin, have you ever considered the possibility that you might be... boring?"
"Lisa? I am getting the distinct impression that you're watching too much TV, based on your so-called understanding of the world. I'm starting to wonder if I should tell your mom about her daughter's wildly inappropriate commentary."
"What do... Oh you-"
Helen hung up with a small smirk. OK, Helen. You're still capable of outmaneuvering a smartass high school kid. I'm sure this is a huge boost to your ego. Hopefully that makes you feel better about your current absence of any lead to follow. She checked the e-mail tab on her browser again. Face it, Helen - for the first time since this crisis started, you're genuinely bored.
"<There you are,>" said Hyosuke, standing on the roof of the PCTF's HQ.
"<Sorry I'm a bit late.>" Soul rubbed the back of her head in slight embarrassment.
The inspector glanced at the setting sun, then his watch. "<Five minutes isn't a huge delay, especially for what isn't a crisis meeting.>"
"<It is when you have portals,>" she countered.
He chuckled. "<Very well. Now... I assume you already know about Murder?>"
Her expression turned somber. "<It's all over the Internet. I guess that rematch had to come sooner or later.>"
"<Does it?>" Hyosuke gazed into her eyes. "<You've done a lot for us when no-one else could, and I'll always be grateful for that. But you don't have to anymore. The Kamirentai are trained soldiers - they're supposed to risk their lives fighting our enemies. Wouldn't it be better for you to return to, well, to civilian life? You can do science with professor Maru and his colleagues, or do charity work with the Ebisu Foundation, or camp on a comet, or even do things that don't involve magic at all if you feel like it. You're not obligated to do more at this point. Maybe you should just let the military handle Murder and the others?>"
She paused. Not like I haven't considered it... Monsoon doesn't seem to think that'll be enough, but she and Aurora never tell me anything. And can the Kamirentai replace me? On one hand, I think I'm actually pretty good at this. On the other hand, they are real soldiers... "<I don't know, inspector Aoyama. And as for Murder... Well, that's kinda going to depend on him. He might set things up so that it has to be me anyway.>" She shuddered slightly, remembering the feeling of the knife parting her back's flesh. "<One way or another, though, it's high time someone stopped him. How many victims has he made?>"
He grimaced. "<Over a thousand that we can confirm. Probably twice that many in reality.>"
"<Then we have to stop him. I don't care who stops him, as long as it's done.>" She paused for a moment. "<...You think the Kamirentai can protect us?>" she asked in a hopeful tone.
He shrugged. "<I like to think so. They've come to the HQ once so far. Never removed those armors, even the helmets. Mostly they asked questions, and now we have a new attaché who's supposed to be our liaison with them.>" He got a small chuckle thinking about the extra stress the recent development had put Koyama under. "<I think it's an important positive step. If we can make our own mages, we have the advantage.>"
"<I hope you're right.>" Makes sense to me, but the fairies don't seem too convinced.
"<There's one more thing,>" he said, pulling out a USB key. "<I've compiled a list of facts about the threats so far - everything that seemed potentially interesting. We keep combing this data, but maybe your different perspective can help you figure out something we missed. Feel free to take a look at it when you have the time.>"
"<Thank you. I will.>"
I imagine so. But is that all you will do? he pondered as he gave her the device.
The Domain of Wonders, Grand Adviser Lio had long ago concluded, was the greatest architectural marvel of the multiverse. Ever since his own admittance to it all those centuries ago, he had had little inclination to leave the colossal palace. And why would he? Let the mortals and the unexalted praise the small marvels of the rest of the Elysium; for his part, he considered the Domain of Wonders his true natural habitat. The libraries, the ballrooms, the theaters, the gardens, the Infinity Gate, the artworks, the luxury accumulated over entire historical ages from so many worlds... Most days, it was enough to make him forget about the horrors sleeping underneath. Most days.
In the end, of course, there was just one room that truly mattered. The one all else revolved around. The throne room. It was from here that all else flowed. Here that the Supreme One, from his Rainbow Throne, had exalted him. Here that the Supreme One had declared him Hero to the Elysium for the brilliant plan through which he had brought Earth Starlight to heel. Here that the Supreme One had made him Grand Adviser, thus making him one of the most important figures in the multiverse. Here that he fought again and again to defend his position and prove his worth above all others - and today was no different.
"<...and thus, following this victory, we believe that Warmaster Rassass has eliminated the last demon currently present on Earth Sunrise. Given the general attitudes of this specific demonic faction, I believe there is about one chance in three that they will make further attempts there in the near future,>" he told the Supreme One. "<In more distant news, finally, the demons of Perfect Agony seem to have the upper hand on Earth Melody, and have been setting up more and more pain factories... this is, I suspect, making our military campaign on Earth Blossom easier, as the Circle of Wisdom cannot send as much reinforcement there as it would like.>"
"<Indeed,>" said the Supreme One. "<This time, the depredations of the Queen of Pain serve our interests well. The Circle is facing war on too many fronts at once nowadays.>"
"<Well said, Supreme One. But perhaps it would be for the best if the Circle chose to focus its attention on fronts other than ours. If we were to allow these human mages what seemed like an important victory on Earth Blossom, then the next reinforcement they choose to send out will be all the more likely to go toward fighting another of our enemies.>"
"<A sensible strategy. I shall leave this matter in your capable hands, Grand Adviser.>" He paused, smirking slightly. "<Speaking of capable hands, I believe we are approaching the date of Grand Adviser Chancell's reinforcement?>"
Lio did not allow the subject change to destabilise him. At least, not visibly. "<Indeed, Supreme One. After all these months, no doubt he shall be glad for reinforcement, having gone for so long with such limited resources.>"
"<There was a reason for that,>" said the Supreme One, still wearing that minuscule smirk that had taken Lio a while to learn how to discern. "<Chancell was given as many resources as he needed. I am confident he is well on his way to completing his mission.>"
"<Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this meeting of Project Galactica and associated programs. As you may see, we have a new member at our table today in the person of Miss Steel, CEO of Maxcorp. Miss Steel, these are- >"
"<I know who they are, Prime Minister,>" she replied matter-of-factly, having already recognized the other people present - CEOs of major Japanese electronic and telecommunication companies, the director of JAXA, the Foreign Minister, the Defense Minister, and the head of Naicho, one of Japan's premier intelligence agencies.
He didn't miss a beat. "<Very well, then I shall dispense with introductions. Maxcorp will be participating in our program as a partner, having recently acquired their own corporate mage. They will be lending assistance in the civilian applications of this new technology.>"
His two ministers, along with the JAXA director, had already been informed of the fact. The corporate executives, on the other hand, displayed some surprise. "<Forgive me, Prime Minister, but how is it that Maxcorp has its own mages?>" asked one of them.
"<Working with Soul has its advantages. She was in need of certain services that we have been willing to provide,>" Steel said. She did not, after all, want to encourage the other corporations to put too much effort into their own research on the subject... and she imagined the Prime Minister felt the same. She and the older statesman had gone over what to reveal to the rest of the roundtable.
"<If I may... Miss Steel here will be lending her corporate mages to some of our projects, in addition to the existing Kamirentai. Since her mages come from engineering backgrounds, rather than special forces, they will be more adept at some of the civilian applications we need to develop.
Miss Steel, to bring you up to speed, Project Galactica itself revolves around one specific application of magic: We hope to create a new, worldwide telecommunication network.>"
"<That is sensible,>" she replied. "<Modern civilization is dependent on satellite communication, but the satellization process remains prohibitively expensive. A single satellite will cost billions of yens to place in low Earth orbit, never mind geosynchronous orbit. But with portals, the need for expensive launch rockets is erased.>"
"<A portal can bring a satellite to orbit for free,>" the JAXA director confirmed. "<It will still need to be accelerated to a speed measured in kilometers per second in order to stay there, but we believe that, if they follow the satellite, mages should be able to give it the required acceleration, too. The entire launch process can be handled at a minimal, token cost,>" he concluded with mixed feelings.
"<It's not just the launching,>" said a telecom exec. "<Since we no longer need to keep the weight of the satellite down to a strict minimum, we have much greater freedom in designing it. We can produce satellites with greater capabilities, without spending a fortune on extensive miniaturization, making the device much cheaper... and then, a mage can simply create a copy for free.
In short, magic can make the creation of a large satellite constellation almost trivial. From there, the telecom applications are far-reaching.>"
"<Correct,>" said Steel. "<Much of telecommunication relies on satellites in geosynchronous orbit. At their high altitude, they can provide coverage for most of the Earth, but there is a significant latency while radio signals reach them and then return to the ground. With low Earth orbit satellites, the latency can be reduced by two orders of magnitude; the downside is that they can only cover a smaller portion of the Earth. Teledesic had an ambitious project in the 1990s, proposing a constellation of 840 satellites to give the entire planet high-speed Internet, but the project was too expensive then. Now, however, its execution can be made cheap and short.>"
"<Indeed. The Prime Minister felt we could now do better than Teledesic had dared hope,>" said the JAXA director, glancing at the older statesman.
"<And that is the core of Project Galactica,>" he said. "<Within a few short months, we can have a new, Japanese-owned communication network able to provide faster than ever Internet to the entire world.>"
"<I would suggest, if you have not decided so already, that you do not offer the full capabilities of such a network at first,>" she said. "<By offering privileged users faster connectivity or cheaper access, you can have other countries and telecom giants jockeying for your favors, making the implementation of the network proceed far more smoothly.>"
"<But of course.>"
"<I also imagine that controlling the world's telecommunication, if only for a while, would present significant intelligence opportunities. I take it that the Defense Intelligence Headquarters*,>" she gazed at the Defence Minister, "<Will be able to monitor communications to a degree that would make the NSA envious.>"
The Defence Minister frowned silently, preferring to let the Prime Minister answer: "<There is some truth to that. Being able to monitor international communications will give Japan a legs-up in intelligence, albeit that advantage will be limited - after all, we will not have a monopoly on satellites.>"
"<Perhaps, but that is not the only approach,>" she said. "<Soul's collaboration with the PCTF has clearly established that the creation of micro-portals is a highly effective method of remote observation. I imagine that the Kamirentai is already loaning its services to the DIH and Naicho. Through careful implementation of these portals, it is possible to gain many secrets - from governments, rival intelligence agencies, corporations, anyone you can place on a map.>"
He chuckled as the rest of the roundtable began mumbling. And you've figured we've already started, haven't you? Which is why the Kamirentai agent observing you since yesterday hasn't been able to get a single clue about your corporate mages. You're probably working on countermeasures already, I imagine. "<It is true that the Kamirentai, in addition to their military role, will be assisting Japanese intelligence. Learning the secrets of, for example, the NSA, would effectively have such an agency working for our benefit. Knowledge, as always, is power.>"
"<...We are also considering the possibilities for corporate espionage,>" an electronics exec said hesitantly, "<but most of those would be too heavy-handed - if the world realizes we are copying blueprints and practicing systematic insider trading, we would attract the wrath of the international community.>"
"<Which is why you need subtler approaches,>" said Steel. "<Use magical surveillance to gather blackmail material on CEOs and shareholders, then combine those with the stock market to take control. Force rival corporations to make poor decisions, and then sell shares at low prices. Buy enough shares to get controlling interests. Short-sell the stock of companies liable to become obsolete with the arrival of magic.>" She pulled out several printouts. "<I have compiled a preliminary list of advantageous targets and how to handle them.>" Silently, she noticed none of the people present seemed uncomfortable with the idea of blackmail. I suppose the Prime Minister selected them for ruthlessness as much as for their resources.
"<Prime Minister...>" said one of the execs, "<There is truth to that. A few choice buyouts and takeovers can allow Japan's economy to rival, or even surpass America's, provided we are subtle about it.>"
"<Of course. And I believe,>" he said with a smirk, "<that Maxcorp has already started playing the game. I understand that you have recently sold over two tons of rhodium to Hallotech... at two-thirds of the market price. I suppose they think they have made an excellent deal... but that opinion might change once they realize the rhodium was magically produced, and corporate mages can easily drive its price much, much further down.>"
"<Precisely,>" she concurred. "<With only 30 tons mined yearly, rhodium was until now rare, and one of the most expensive materials in the world. A single mage, however, can produce a hundred tons of rhodium within an hour. Any material whose yearly production isn't in the megaton range is vulnerable to the same sort of manipulation.
As for Hallotech, they believe that they have saved a large amount of money with this transaction. In the short run, their stock will rise. The opposite will happen, however, once Maxcorp sells rhodium at a far smaller fraction of current prices to their rivals. This rapid rise and fall of share prices will allow Maxcorp - and others - to make additional profits by short-selling Hallotech stock. This is just one example among many of how we may manipulate the market to our advantage.
And there are more applications still. You've already thought of duplicating satellites, but what about doing the same to planes? Missiles? Supercomputers? Energy is another lucrative market, even more so than satellites - Maxcorp is working to determine the optimal way of producing it on a large scale, from nuclear fusion to portal-assisted hydroelectricity. Medical magic, despite issues of scale, has immense potential.
However , time is of the essence. Other countries will develop their own mages in time. You must make optimal use of all of these strategies within the coming months, or better yet, the coming weeks. In the meanwhile, you must, above all else, regulate magic.>"
"<We... are negotiating with the Americans for magic,>" said the Foreign Minister. "<We are making an effort to stall for time, but we cannot do so eternally. Prime Minister...>"
"<I am satisfied with your work on the subject,>" said the statesman, "<but the main reason we cannot delay forever is that they will eventually discover it on their own otherwise. They are not without resources.>" And sooner or later, some civilian will survive an NDE, get magic, and make the knowledge public. Steel knows that as well as I do.
"<In the meanwhile, the offer of teaching them magic can convince them to support a set of international regulations,>" said Steel. "<Make it illegal to attain or control magic without State sanction. This shouldn't be too hard for the public to accept, considering the highly public nature of magical terrorism so far. Restrain State sanction to corporate allies and maybe a key individual or two, such as Soul. This will, at least, prevent a proliferation of magical freelancers, and minimize chaos once magic becomes more widespread.>" It will also make governments into corporate kingmakers, since they will determine which corporations may use magic. To you and most heads of State, of course, that is an added incentive. To me, it is a plus in the sense that it will provide you with a feeling of control over the situation. In the meanwhile, though... She handed out a few more printouts. "<If you will consider my notes of these questions...>"
"<...and I'm meeting with Maxcorp again tomorrow,>" said Soul. "<I don't know how things are going to be now, with the Kamirentai and all... but whether or not I keep getting into fights, I want magic to be used for, for the common good. And they've got some good suggestions.>"
Hyosuke shrugged. "<That's your business, I guess. Better you or the government than the Circle of Wisdom, at least.>"
"<They're still healing people?>"
"<Here and there. Some idiots actually created a Facebook page for people to beg the Circle for their 'miracles'. Apparently they've answered a couple of the requests.>"
"<Couldn't have put it better myself.>"
She sighed. "<What about Murder? Any new developments?>"
"<Not since yesterday, at least. Did you check the data?>"
Her body language turned more awkward. "<Um... yes. I didn't really manage to find anything useful there, but, er, you...>" She took a deep breath. "<There was this one file in the folder that I don't think was supposed to be there.>"
He raised an eyebrow. "<What do you mean?>"
"<You... You had a login and password recorded there.>"
He paused, then pinched the bridge of his nose. "<My password for my PCTF account. I haven't had the time to memorize it yet, so I keep it on my laptop.>" He sighed. "<I copied everything without checking. Amateur mistake.>"
"<Ah... Well, you can ask the IT folks to change it anytime, right?>"
"<Of course. Thank you for telling me.>" As I hoped you would. I've actually changed my password before giving you the data. I had the tech guys keep track of attempts to log into my account. No attempt was made. This doesn't prove you are trustworthy, Soul... but it's more circumstantial evidence in your favor.
"...Finally, your financial compensation will be 15% of the total cash. That is 15% of $20,000,000.
Finance Minister Hassanal Bolkiah."
I guess the Nigerian Scam lives on, Helen reflected as she finished reading the spam e-mail. For a moment, her mouse cursor hovered above the deletion button. Then she changed her mind and began typing:
I am honored that you would ask for my help with such a weighty matter, and I must thank you for the very generous compensation. Unfortunately, I'm afraid my banking coordinates would do you little good - my credit card was recently stolen, so the bank has frozen all transfers for a while.
That said, they let me make a big withdrawal before freezing my account, so I have plenty of cash at home. If you give me your address, or the address of any trustworthy friends of yours, I can mail the cash there..."
She added a few more embellishments before sending the reply. Well. In the unlikely case that they're dumb enough to give me a physical address, I can forward it to the IRS or any other relevant authorities. She considered for a moment. Well, they might actually be dumb enough... You don't need a high IQ to replicate the Nigerian E-Mail Scam.
Oh God. Finishing up all my paperwork, calling relatives, and now I've actually reached the point where I reply to spam for entertainment. Get a hold of yourself, Barker! Screw having no leads, try thinking about the case! Think laterally! Try finding a new angle!
She got up from her bed and began pacing through the hotel room. Take the Circle of Wisdom. Their first action - no, the first action for which they have claimed responsibility - was unleashing a giant, feral beast on a massive population center. They repeated that same action soon afterwards. And again this week, this time striking near the Prime Minister's office. Each time, they left highly visible messages claiming that they were acting toward the public good. Their justifications sounded like fairly poor attempts at swaying public opinion - like a fundamentalist who doesn't understand that those he is trying to convert are not working from the same set of assumptions he grew up in.
At the same time, they have been healing the sick, even bringing a new youth to the elderly. Targeting primarily, but not exclusively, the rich and powerful. From the looks of it, an obvious bribe.
It's the carrot and the stick, except that they used the stick far too early, far too often. Why not start with the carrot? Are they truly deluded enough to believe this is a good strategy for swaying us? We have been operating on the assumption that they're just that crazy, but is that a safe assumption? If the Circle of Wisdom does know what it's doing... let's make that assumption for a moment there... then what does it want to achieve? First question: What is it achieving? What does...
She stopped pacing, her eyes going wide. She grabbed her forehead, then let her hand go down to her chin, starting to pace quicker than before. Then she returned to the bed, quickly checking her data and notes. "No way... So... stupid..."
Two more minutes of intense reflection. Turning the idea around in her head. Then, finally, grabbing her phone. "We are so stupid!" she muttered to herself as she dialed the Ghost's number.
Kurt Winston was only three hours away from a CIA board meeting when he got Helen's call, so he wasn't exactly in the mood for non-vital discussions. But Helen had more than earned his respect as an agent over the past few years, so he merely frowned slightly as he answered. "Hello?"
"Kurt? This is Helen."
He could detect the adrenaline in her voice. "Is everything all right?"
"Kurt, listen. Those giant monsters, the miraculous healing, the public posturing... I think I've figured out the Circle of Wisdom's plan!"
He blinked, the board meeting suddenly feeling like a much less pressing concern. "All right, Barker. I'm all ears."
She took a deep breath. "Winston... The Circle of Wisdom has no plan!"
Officially, Secano was under constant surveillance by the Japanese government - all his time was spent with officials, with the Kamirentai, or with agents officially attached to his "security". In reality, Chancell's plan ensured that Secano had multiple hours every day where he could disappear with the government none the wiser, either to work on hidden aspects of the plan or to unwind.
This was one such intervals. Leaving the Kamirentai HQ via portal, he entered a secret hideout, deep beneath the Japanese mountains. With kilometers of solid rock between them and the surface, and no exit whatsoever, it was all but perfectly secure. He casually began transmuting the accumulated carbon dioxide in the room back into dioxygen - there was enough air that the prisoner could survive for several more days, but Chancell believed in safety margins.
The prisoner, for himself, grabbed the bars confining him to the corner of the room. "<YOU! Listen to me! You will allow me out at once, or the consequences will be dire!>"
"<I'm afraid you are incorrect on both counts, Prime Minister,>" he replied. "<We will be keeping you here for as long as we need to.>"
"<You are insane! The entire country is looking for me! Do you really think you can hide forever?!>"
"<Prime Minister... We can hide you here forever. No-one will be able to find this place. And more importantly... The people and the government of Japan are not looking for you. They are not even aware that you're gone.>"
"Winston... The Circle of Wisdom has no plan!"
He blinked. "What does that-"
"They have no plan," Helen went on, "because they're not even involved! They might not even exist! The attacks, the messages, the healings... Done in their name, but not by them!"
"A false flag operation?" He paused. "What makes you think that?"
"It's just a theory, but it makes more sense than anything else I can think of. I mean, think about it: What have been the effects of the Circle's actions so far? They caused some panic. They made everyone want magic. And they made everyone hate the Circle. They could have approached the whole thing differently, and far more effectively. We've been assuming that it's because they are insane, but if they're rivals of the real Circle of Wisdom, then everything they've done so far suddenly works in their favor! They're turning us against their enemies, and they're giving one hell of a sales pitch for magic!"
"...Which they then offer us under their real identity. Or maybe the Circle of Wisdom is their real identity and they later approach us under a fake one, since our data is so limited we couldn't tell the difference anyway."
"The former is likelier, but, yes. This was never about making us bend the knee to the Circle - it's a good cop/bad cop routine on a planetary scale!"
He took a moment to digest the idea. "Barker, that... makes entirely too much sense. We need more evidence before we can be certain, of course. However... If this is a good cop/bad cop routine..." he closed his eyes. "...who's the good cop?"
"There are three possibilities," she said. "One is that the 'good cop' has yet to show himself, and will only do so in a later phase. But I don't think that's the case. The second possibility is that they have shown themselves... just not to us. That would put the Kamirentai in perspective, wouldn't it? Perhaps we need to ask Japan a few questions. As for the third possibility... Who's become the most popular as a result of these events? Who was there from the very first incident, and is practically being hailed as the Second Coming of Sailor Moon by now?"
He opened his eyes. "Soul."
"<The people and the government of Japan are not looking for you. They are not even aware that you're gone.>"
"<Of course they are!>" the Prime Minister protested. "<I am the head of Japan's government! You think I won't be missed?!>"
"<Well, see, that was the challenging part,>" said Secano, who was now conjuring more food and water for him. "<When my superior and I got to this world, we had to spend quite a lot of time scrying on you. Oh, all those notes we took - your mannerisms, your personal relationships, your figures of speech... It's hard work, convincingly impersonating a man, especially a public figure. But my superior has been doing a great job of it for the past few weeks.>" He went on, as the color drained from the Prime Minister's face. "<Oh, it's still a challenge. He has to cut ties with family under a believable pretense. He has to avoid the Korean ambassador, since he's still learning his language - your fluency there was an unwelcome obstacle. But believe me, he's a genius - he's going up, up, up in the polls lately, acting like the decisive leader this country needs to oppose its enemies.>" Including some enemies that we have fabricated, or at least framed.
Several weeks earlier, during the first construct attack:
Secano looked carefully at the monster on the live news - a gigantic, bulky, bipedal lizard that seemed to be in the grip of raw, animal rage. He turned his head to Chancell. "<Did... Did you do that?>"
Chancell didn't say a word, but the contemptuous look he gave Secano was roughly equivalent to screaming "Are you freaking retarded?" at the top of one's lungs.
"<...I'll take that as a no.>"
"<Which leaves the question>", said Chancell, "<who did. What do you think?>"
Secano looked at the monster again. "<Well, this construct is obviously a terror unit. Probably pumped with adrenaline and junk to make it rampage like that. That skin looks heavily armored, and a creature that big shouldn't be so fast and agile, so I'm guessing it has a strength-boosting spell on it. Whoever created it was obviously an expert at construct creation.>"
Chancell nodded. Secano went on. "<It's causing damage at an impressive rate - it won't have a substantial impact on the city directly before either Soul or their military put it down, but the fear it creates will lead to social unrest and instability. If we're lucky, that's the work of Endless Ravage - they want their Righteous Vengeance, and this would be right up their alley.>" He looked at Chancell, and saw an expecting expression. "<...But if we're unlucky, this could be the work of the Council of Wisdom... If we found this world, then it's only a matter of time before they do, too.>"
"<Cogent observations, Secano. Samsod?>"
"<I have nothing to say beside that,>" said the latter.
"<Very well,>" said Chancell. "<I'm reassured - if it looks to you like the potential handiwork of the Circle of Wisdom, then Aurora and her allies might be convinced too.>"
"<Wait, you mean, you did create it?>" asked Secano.
"<Precisely. A message made by me will claim responsibility in the name of the Circle of Wisdom. They will serve as bogeymen, driving the governments of Earth to an alliance with the Elysium.>"
"<An alliance that we will gradually transform into control,>" Secano nodded. "<But... the Circle of Wisdom will reach this Earth eventually. Won't they deny it all?>"
"<Of course. But if we establish them as utterly untrustworthy before that, then they will do so in vain. This means we need to maintain a quick pace in the plan... Thankfully, we will probably have at least another month, even two, before the Circle reaches this world: With all the conflicts they are busy with at this juncture, they will not have the manpower to spare for it...>"
"<This is madness!>" said the Prime Minister, clutching the bars of his cell. "<You cannot impersonate me for weeks on end!>"
"<We can, and we have,>" said Secano. "<Understand that officially, you have been going through a rather rough patch, with your country having been invaded. No-one finds it suspicious that you have changed somewhat under the stress - they are just glad you have changed into a bold, inspiring leader.>"
A few weeks earlier, days before the meeting of the Japanese government with the "Circle of Wisdom":
"<I won't be able to impersonate the Prime Minister for that meeting,>" said Chancell, "<since I'll need to play the part of the Circle's mage. Samsod, you will be given his appearance for the duration. Your Japanese is decent by now, but, your acting isn't the best, so try to keep talking to a strict minimum...>"
"<You... You monsters!>" The Prime Minister glared at Secano with seething rage. "<You won't get away with this forever!>"
"<Why not? This isn't exactly the first world we take over,>" said the Elysian. "<And honestly, the plan is proceeding pretty well so far. The entire country looks up to my superior for leadership. When I introduced myself to your government, he made sure I got a positive reception.>" Which will mean, soon enough, an alliance with the Elysium against the fairies, the demons, and rebellious humans.
Less than two weeks earlier, before the creation of the Kamirentai:
"<But won't the generals, at least, be suspicious?>"
"<Not as such,>" Chancell explained. "<Each of them has provided a list of candidates that they are not allowed to share with the others. When none of the candidates they have put forward survive, or when only one does, they will blame bad luck, and assume that most survivors were candidates suggested by other generals. When we empower the candidates, there need to be two soldiers - no more, no less, so focus on keeping the first few of them alive, and only allow others to die after we have those two. For the rest, we need five or six survivors among our candidates.>"
"<Aren't survival rates with proper care around 75%? We shouldn't have too much trouble, then.>"
"<Be careful nonetheless. We need them as the bulk of the Kamirentai.>"
"<I am... still uncomfortable about that, Grand Adviser. Hitmen? Mercenaries? Can they really be trusted?>" Weeks of searching for candidates thanks to contacts in the underworld and third world warzones had yielded a list of potential candidates, each of which Chancell had studied carefully.
"<That is a risk, but a necessary one,>" said Chancell. "<These individuals were selected precisely because they are mercenary enough to knowingly work for the Elysium, professional enough not to let anything slip, and ambitious enough that working toward world conquest interests them more than any potential benefit of revealing our ploy. This is not a perfect guarantee of loyalty, but it will have to do.>"
"<If we still had Samsod...>"
"<Plans must adapt to the unpredictable. If they do not, then they are not plans, merely hopeful fantasies.>"
The Prime Minister took a step back. "<You... You'll slip up, sooner or later. You can fool some people all the time. You can fool all the people some time. But you can't fool all the people all the time.>"
"<We won't need to,>" said Secano "<And really, Prime Minister... I understand that you have good personal reasons to be upset, but don't blame us for what we're doing to your country - this entire world will soon be joining in the most glorious empire of the entire multiverse. Ultimately, you should be thankful.>"
"Something is off."
"During your meeting with inspector Aoyama. The one where he blatantly tested your trustworthiness with that fake data leak."
"What about it, Douchebaggio?"
"His clothes. You looked away for a few seconds, and when you looked at him again, they had changed."
"...They did? That... I'm pretty sure that didn't happen. More of your mind games, Douchecinea?"
"This is not my doing."
"Uh-huh." I know. It's mine. And it's just the beginning.
*Kantei: The building that holds the office of Japan's Prime Minister, much like the White House in the USA or 10 Downing Street in the UK.
*Defence Intelligence Headquarters (DIH): Major Japanese intelligence agency, specialized in the interception and decryption of communication. Run by the Defence Minister.