“What the hell happened here?” Rick Morgan strides up to QH-97. “How did a Marauder manage to get into the construct and abduct an agent?” Even if he was the most useless. He and Lin are still sort of in a conspiracy with him. “Don’t we have security against that sort of thing?”
Xifeng genuinely likes her boss, she does. But the last thing she wants to do right now is try to break this down for him. “Of course we do, but they aren’t perfect,” she explains with more patience than she really has at the moment. “With respect sir, I think the more important question right now is where he took Bickley.”
Keisha uncrosses her arms, straightening from where she was leaning against a desk. This is Xifeng’s amalgam, but she is their Marauder expert in specific. “A fortification against ”/characters/joshua" class=“wiki-content-link”>Joshua isn’t going to be good against any other kind of Marauder. Any Marauder is as individualized as any other group of deviants." Rick glances at her, his brow furrowed as he processes that in the moment.
“So every Marauder is a unique, special snowflake,” Thomas pipes up. Keisha glances at him, then back to Rick and Xifeng. “This is actually good in the long run. If Meshadi is discordant with Lopez’s madness—and we thought it was unlikely that they would share a paradigm, whatever their association—then they’re not going to be able to keep working together. Especially as the junior Marauder gets more powerful and asserts more of his own version of reality around him. It’s not much help, but we’re looking for where Meshadi has taken him, not what Lopez has done.”
Xifeng hardly looks offended that the experts are piping in. She’s had more face time with Joshua than the rest but it doesn’t mean she understands him better. “We’ll have an easier time with Meshadi than Lopez since he’s not as powerful yet. Has anyone tried to run a trace on the GPS in Bickley’s handheld device yet?” Technology, she comprehends. It’s nice that Iterators, like Virtual Adepts, carry so much shit around with them.
Not yet. Thomas, their Q Division, moves off to take care of it. And Koaumé, fresh off the elevator, walks up to the group. “They’’ll have to do it without you. She’s here.” The Chrononaut makes eye contact with Xifeng alone. “In the Starbucks across the street.” Xifeng knows the rules of this encounter. Sedna will meet with the two of them alone, once the Juncture starts. She is powerful and cautious.
This is really not great timing. Xifeng ruffles her hands through her hair, glancing around at her team. She’s just going to have to trust in their expertise. “Okay. Siera, you and Lacey take point on this. If you all figure out where Bickley is being held and you’re able to mobilize before I’m done, just leave the details for me and get going. I’ll catch up. You can coordinate with ”/characters/charlotte-bailey" class=“wiki-content-link”>Charlotte Bailey if you need to pull WU-51 in." Smoothing her dress jacket down over her torso and feeling the weight of her X-5 at her hip, she nods at Kouamé. “Let’s go.”
It’s never great timing. Her team scurries around to follow her orders, and Xifeng gets in the elevator with Kouamé. He’s quiet on the way down. If he’s uncomfortable meeting a Master Dreamspeaker on her turf—on her time—the least he can do is not show it.
They exit the lobby of the Scripps building, walking across the street to the Starbucks they’ve probably seen many times before on their way to work (neither one seems like the type to send a subordinate for coffee). This time, to Kouamé at least, it seems a little different. He looks up at the mermaid or sprite or whatever it is with a small sense of foreboding. Then they go inside.
It’s still fairly busy at this hour. A blonde, white man sits in a corner reading the paper. Another group of well-dressed men, mostly white, sit together or along the wall, talking sporadically. A pair of black teenagers are picking up some caffeine by the counter. There’s nobody that look Inuit, or even a woman in their target’s age range—not the hapless young intern rushing out with six or seven coffees in her hands, or the Asian woman stirring in sugar at the counter, or the baristas, their hands in play.
His eyes draw back over to the man in the corner, well-dressed, watching them now over the paper. “Him,” He says softly, verifying discreetly the appearance against the effect. Kouamé will sit down at the man’s booth. Once Xifeng joins them, he will draw his paper up, and then lowers it. In his place is an old woman. No one seems to notice.
“Too reliant on your eyes. I would say it’s your youth, but we both know a man your age should be past appearances by now. You’ve forgotten how to live without your toys, and what to do when a stronger foe blocks those abilities. No wonder the Time Marauder has caused you such difficulty.” She criticizes with a dismissive wave of her hand, before turning her eyes on Xifeng. Each finger on her right hand has been artificially shortened to the first knuckle. “And you. Aren’t you a promising young girl, and not even Awake yet. If I may be the first to outright suggest you may find a more fulfilling tradition of service in the Traditions as an Enlightened being? Think on it if you do not Awaken in their Tradition.” She opens bluntly, mixing paradigmatic language in her praise.
On this matter, Xifeng defers to Kouamé. She’s just as quiet, her body language casual but prepared as they step into the coffee shop. Her grey eyes drift over those inside, the detective falling back on her instinct to mark the faces she sees, the entrances and exits, this small detail or that. Giving a small nod, she follows Kouamé to the table in question. Xifeng gives the man a polite if professional smile as she slides into the booth next to her colleague.
This is hardly the first time a Traditionalist has expressed interest in her future, but that doesn’t show on her face. “I appreciate the vote of confidence,” she replies softly. It’s not like the word “yet,” as in “Awake yet,” slipped by her. “Thank you very much for agreeing to meet with us. You’re right; we’re struggling to contain Joshua Lopez. We were hoping you might have some insight into why he hasn’t yet been sealed behind the Gauntlet.” There’s really no time to waste beating around the bush today.
Sedna makes a scornful sound. “Tch. You have always advance this.. tale that one can simply tell a story and it’s the same as experiencing something. Can you explain to him what it’s like to be a woman?” She gestures. “Could a servant explain their invisibility to you?” She asks Kouamé, pointing to the baristas he only looked at when he go stumped. “You can’t just reason out what’s wrong.” Her face becomes coolly detached. “Neither one of you are willing to go though what it takes to understand what’s going on, and we don’t have time for that. We need to push him through. And we can if we’re lucky, and clever, and brave.”
Xifeng’s eyebrow tics. She didn’t really think she was advancing any such thing. She asked for insight about as paradigmatically neutrally as she could. “We reached out to you because we recognize your greater experience in matters like this,” she replies patiently. “The situation is grave enough that we’re prepared to ask Traditionalists to lend us their expertise to confront something that threatens all of us, including countless defenseless Sleepers. So, respectfully, I think it’s irrelevant to speculate as to what else we would or wouldn’t do – we don’t have the time to bicker over details of paradigm today. What exactly is it that we need to do to push Lopez across?”
She smiles at them. “Anything I say.” Flicking her gaze to Koaumé’s face, “Within reason. I have no designs on your construct today. But I can’t anticipate everything a Marauder will do sitting over tea in a Starbucks. You’re going to be the bait and keep him grounded,” She says to Xifeng. “I’m going to make sure the Gauntlet is receptive to a little push. And you and your people are going to provide the firepower to keep us all alive.” There’s something in her tone, despite the language choice, as if that’s the exact same version of the plan she would explain to a 6-year-old. Xifeng knows Joshua needs to go beyond the Horizon today. Sedna knows it, it’s part of the arrangement. But she doesn’t seem inclined to get into explaining those details to a pair of Technocrats.
“So.” She glances at the clock. “A four-hour alliance then?” She holds out her mutilated hand to Xifeng.
Today, the hows and whys don’t matter anyway. The relative damage Sedna might do to consensual reality today doesn’t compare to what Joshua has been up to, as far as Xifeng is concerned. She glances at Kouamé once, giving him a chance to intervene – she’d still bow to his judgment here. But if he says or does nothing, she turns her attention back to Sedna and shakes her hand. Her gaze is steady, in spite of the fact that she’s just been told she needs to deal with Joshua personally. “Yes.”
They touch… and Xifeng feels a wrenching sensation.
Koaumé, fresh off the elevator, walks up to the group. “They’’ll have to do it without you. She’s here.” The Chrononaut makes eye contact with Xifeng alone. He has a weird expression on his face. “She’s in your office.” Nobody reacts to the fact that a second deviant has just waltzed into the construct in the space of ten minutes because he doesn’t announce who ‘she’ is—they all assume it’s some high-ranking Technocrat who just made herself at home in Lin’s office.
Xifeng knows the rules of this encounter. Sedna will meet with the two of them alone, once the Juncture starts. She is powerful and allegedly cautious, although that’s apparently not the case.
Xifeng nods at Kouamé, raking her fingers through her hair. Her eyes sweeping over her team, she decides that she’s just going to have to rely on their collective experience to get them through this. “Okay. Siera, you and Lacey take point on this. If you figure out where Bickley is, just make a decision and get a move on. Leave me the details, I’ll catch up when I can.” She adjusts her jacket, doing up the button at waist level. “Go through Charlotte Bailey if you need to pull resources from WU-51. Let’s go.” This last is directed at the Chrononaut as she moves out into the hallway.
She’s not sitting at the desk. The figure has drawn a chair up against the wall, her long hair covering her face as the pair walk in. She parts it a little with one bony finger as they walk in. Her left hand: all of the fingers on her right have been amputated down to the first knuckle.
If another Xifeng could compare with Xifeng she might reassess her description of ‘old woman.’ This one is ancient. She looks like she may need some help getting up from the chair she got herself into. But she is still and, frankly, a little creepy, and the way she doesn’t regard them is cold.
“Sit,” She commands, pointing at the floor in front of her. She doesn’t say anything else until they are in the room. “You’ve bitten off more than you can chew. The Marauder will kill at least some of your amalgam today.” This is directed at both of them.
On the floor, when there’s a perfectly good chair? Xifeng twitches in a funny way, her reflexive resistance visible, but she does in fact have a seat on the floor at Sedna’s feet. She frowns. Well… whatever. “Thank you for seeing us,” she begins, only to trail off as Sedna starts to explain.
Her expression turns solemn. “I don’t know that we expected to all survive a juncture with a Marauder this powerful in the city,” she replies plainly. “We’ll do our jobs.” We. Not they. Xifeng doesn’t think she’s such hot shit that she can keep strolling away from Joshua the way she has been. “Do you know how we can minimize our losses?”
“Yes.” Sedna answers slowly. “You can do everything I say. You don’t know why the Marauder,” She is careful not to use his name, “Has been unable to travel beyond the Dreamshell, or even the Gauntlet. I do. You don’t know how to take him there, even with a team of Spirit mages in funny clothes.” She quirks a lip a little. “This isn’t an alliance. You will do whatever I tell you, and in exchange I will keep as many of you alive as I can and deal with the Marauder, with your assistance. Do you agree?”
“I agree,” Xifeng replies without hesitation. Immediately afterwards she blinks at her own willingness to basically promise to follow every direction a deviant gives her – but it’s easy to rationalize it away when she considers that she wants to keep her team alive. “Where do we start?”
“Yes,” Kouamé answers on top of his boss. He’s quiet while she asks a follow-up, and then he abruptly seems to realize what’s going on. “Wait, why did we—Sedna, how is this not temporal—”
The world flickers and wrenches.
“She’s here. She’s in the lobby.” Kouame explains again. In the lobby, while a little risky, is not quite as bold a move as strolling into the construct. He waits as he did and didn’t before.
They head down and find a young woman this time, standing in the middle of the lobby looking a bit lost. “You must be Agent Lin,” She says when they approach. “And Agent Bekoe. Can we sit somewhere?” She asks. Her eyes hold curiosity, not challenge.
Xifeng is visibly puzzled by the woman’s age, but then, they’re dealing with a powerful Traditionalist. She politely extends her hand. “Yes, that’s us. Thank you for coming. We can speak privately through here.” She gestures off to their left, where there are a few smaller rooms reserved for just such purposes – talking with contacts who perhaps shouldn’t be let right into the construct. If only she knew.
“Thank you for contacting me,” Sedna says amicably. “We all need to cooperate together against threats like Marauders.” She pushes some loose strands of hair behind her ear.
“You’re the experts here,” She says as they settle into their seats. “You’ve dealt with both Marauders in your community. Tell me what you need from me.”
Xifeng gets Sedna a paper cup of water from a cooler in the corner of the room, setting it in front of her like a nice host. Then she takes a seat across from her, next to Kouamé. “Well, Marauders are supposed to eventually get locked on the other side of the Gauntlet when they grow as powerful as Lopez. He hasn’t been. So we were hoping to take advantage of the Juncture to force him through to the other side. That’s why we reached out to you – we understand you have significant experience with the Dimen- .. the spirit sphere, in addition to an understanding of time. Our own methods don’t seem to be sufficient and he’s threatening enough to warrant a temporary alliance with a Traditionalist.”
Sedna waves a hand. Strangely, all of the fingers on the right hand appear to have been amputated at the first knuckle, long ago. “Whatever skills I have in the Time sphere are not worth getting into a pissing match over with a Time Master, no less a Marauder. But I have other advantages, like you mentioned.”
“We don’t know what’s wrong with the Gauntlet but it hasn’t escaped our notice. In a history of thousands I f years something like this is unusual but not unprecedented. Once,” and for all that she seems young, her voice takes on the timbre of a storyteller now, “The Gauntlet worked in reverse, spitting strange beasts into the world. Once it locked certain mages on the other side. It has been sick, or manipulated before.” She folds her hands in her lap.
“We don’t know the cause, but I can work around it on a smart smaller scale.”
Yeah, before the Technocracy came along to patrol the borders. Xifeng keeps that thought to herself. “Okay, that’s great news. What do we need to do to support you? Just keep him off you?”
“That would be helpful,” Sedna agrees. “More than that though, I understand he responds to you. He doesn’t have any family or friends, that we know of, who can stabilize him, but if he recognizes your humanity that may come in handy to cool him and keep him in place. And if we truly do want to send him beyond, we may have to agitate him when everything is ready.”
She looks quizzically at the Technocrats. “Is that all you need from me?”
Xifeng can’t help but look faintly uncomfortable at the reminder that Joshua seems to have taken a liking to her. But if this is what it takes… “I’ll do whatever I can. This is really all we brought you in for, yes. When you say agitate him, what do you have in mind?”
“Reject your connection with him, when the time comes. The same thing tethering him will push him away.”
The scene shifts once again, And Xifeng and Kouamé are back on the floor as if none of this ever happened. “She’s here. She’ll meet us outside the building.”
Once Xifeng passes her orders, they go down the elevator and exit into the street, wandering the sidewalk until a middle-aged Inuit woman flags them down to follow her, apparently satisfied they don’t have a tail.
“I know who you are,” She says before they can introduce themselves. “And I know how desperate you must be to work with me. What’s your plan?” No one seems to be paying them any heed.
Xifeng folds her arms, glancing once at the people flowing past them on the sidewalk. “We need to push him through the Gauntlet,” she replies with no preamble. “Because he hasn’t gone yet, and he should have. Our people are going to do their best to make that happen but he’s very powerful – we were wondering if you had any idea what is keeping him here or any way to help us make sure he stays gone.”
“Of course I do. But I will concede your firepower makes a helpful distraction. I’m still only one person.” She holds up one artificially-shortened finger. All of the fingers on her right hand have been amputated at the first knuckle. “Your stabilizing influence as well. That doesn’t mean I trust you.” Shall she start with a stated goal of development in the arctic or her own personal deprogramming, or just the way mass media regulates storytelling?
“You stay out of my way, and I’ll stay out of yours. I don’t think your people want to cross me today, once our mutual enemy is ended.”
“We don’t need to interfere with each other today,” Xifeng agrees mildly. “But if we’re working together I think we should discuss what roles we need to play. Or do you literally just want us to keep him distracted while you do whatever it is you need to do?”
Sedna looks like she’s about to just say yes, that’s exactly what she wants. But Xifeng’s tone is just nonconfrontational enough to keep her interested. Kouamé looks as though he’s considering his words carefully, and settles on silence. If what Xifeng is saying is working there’s no reason to change it, and a student of time learns when to wait.
“What do you propose our roles be, then, Operative?” Sedna asks, looking straight at Xifeng. Her tone is less confrontational than her wording.
“I’m prepared to defer to your greater experience.” Xifeng is still being the very image of impeccable politeness, but her gaze is sharp as she watches Sedna’s face. “But you seem to be saying that we have the greater brute force, and that both our strength and your experience will be necessary to see us through the day. And Joshua might be a problem in just our community here and now,” here she’s using community deliberately, based on what little she knows of the Dreamspeaker paradigm, “but if we can’t contain him he’ll no doubt move on to another and another and another. It’s not that I think I have a better plan than you. It’s more that I have no idea what your plan is, and I think we should approach this from a position of mutual respect, if not trust. If we’re supposed to be working together.”
Sedna is silent, sizing up the Technocrat. “Respect, then.” She offers her hand; many recoil at the thought of touching a visible disability, but she has no thought Xifeng will hesitate to shake her hand. At least, not for the amputation.
They touch, and Xifeng is overwhelmed by the sensation, as if it were the only solid thing in the world. She’s falling into darkness—total, absolute darkness. Her face draws upward toward failing light, and then the tension on Sedna’s hand catches her. She is no longer moving through water—she’s back where she started, her right hand in Kouamé’s left.
The elevator doors open; Thomas and Siera stare at them.
Kouamé releases Xifeng’s hand—it’s not as if he would have chosen to hold it—but a string tethers him to the Woman in Black. A white string wraps around his little finger and hers, then her ring finger and his, his middle finger and hers, all the way to loosely entwine their thumbs, a string of remembrance. Kouamé starts, and glances at it.
Once he does—once she does—the memories come crashing back to them, all at once, four simultaneous narratives. Sedna who is old and young and ancient and middle-aged. Compliant and defiant and resistant and diplomatic. In her office, in the lobby, down the street, in the shop. Which of them is real? She experienced them all, and the string over her knuckles reminds her where Sedna’s are gone.
“They’re throbbing with deviant resonance,” Thomas reports to Siera, uncertainly. “Tons of it. All Entropy and Dimensional Science.”
Kouamé’s cell phone rings. As best he can with his fingers tied, he picks it up, putting it on speaker. ""I hate talking about this by phone but I’m not coming up there right now. Do you understand now?" Xifeng knows the question is directed at her, somehow.