Part Five: Haruspex Analytics
Mara Ioannou sits patiently outside the Chairman’s office, both aware of and indifferent to the passage of time.
She meditates on a decision that will be made in the next few hours. She doesn’t know who will make it, and she doesn’t know what course of action will be chosen. She knows only that someone will be faced with a choice, and they will choose. She’s been trying to understand the decision by hypothetically assigning it to different people and following the lines of consequence that branch out from it. It’s an old gift; one of her oldest. It rarely provides a clear answer, but she almost always finds it useful.
The phone on the receptionist’s desk buzzes, a harsh, low sound that hurts her ears. The nondescript man behind the desk picks up the phone, listens intently for a moment, then returns the receiver to its cradle.
“The Chairman will see you now.” The nondescript man behind the desk doesn’t bother looking up from his work. The wall next to the couch clicks, sinks inward, then slides to the right, revealing a warmly-lit room with dark, bare walls.
“Thank you.” Mara stands, and all the creases in her white dress fall away. She walks into the Chairman’s office, face serene. He stands next to his desk, waiting.
“Mara.” He wears no shroud over his face—that has never been necessary between them—and his smile is genuine. “I’m surprised to see you at this hour. Not displeased, of course.”
Mara’s smile is just as genuine. She extends her hand, and he takes it, bowing slightly, and kisses it once. It is a ceremony that pleases her. It’s not a ceremony from the age in which she came into her power—it’s far more modern than that—but it acknowledges the need to place walls between beings of power, and to regulate the ways in which those walls are willingly broken. A modern echo of a much older exchange. The Chairman is a young creature, but he understands such things.
“I would not have come,” Mara says, “but I’ve been made aware of a problem that requires your immediate attention.”
The Chairman nods, his expression growing grave. He half-turns, gesturing toward the glass-and-steel framed desk—the only furniture of note in the room—and retreats to the large leather executive chair behind it. He sits as Mara chooses one of the two leather chairs set before it.
Both are just as comfortable as the Chairman’s, Mara suspects. The only indication of a difference in status, in this room, are the positions of the chairs themselves. One behind the desk, two before.
He is not a man who revels in the trappings of his office, Mara thinks. Then, suppressing the brief desire to smile in wry awareness, adds he is, of course, not entirely a man.
It is a point they have discussed before, at length. A point the Chairman acknowledges as true, but dismisses as irrelevant; Mara is beginning to understand and appreciate his view of things.
“The artificers involved in absolution of Senator Morgan have run into an unusual problem,” Mara says.
The Chairman gazes at her from across the desk, one eyebrow raising in surprise. “They ought to have finished by now.”
“They should have,” she says. “I have examined every aspect of the ritual and judged all observances were followed correctly. Something… someone… appears to be blocking them.”
The Chairman leans forward slightly. His eyes narrow. “Indeed.”
Mara nods. “I was able to follow the trail of power, but I wasn’t able to determine the physical location of its target. I ran into a barrier. I do not understand this barrier.”
The Chairman eases back into his chair again, head tilted back, eyes closed. “Please continue.”
“It is, at its base, power similar to our own,” she says. “There are parts of it that feel the same. But it mingles with something…” her voice trails off, and she tsks in annoyance. “I don’t have words for it. It is a power, but I can’t determine what it is. It suffuses the power I know with an energy I do not. Whatever it is, it’s strong enough to prevent the ritual from reaching its target.”
“I see.” The Chairman’s eyes are still closed. “Permanently?”
“No,” Mara says. “The barrier does not renew itself. The ritual does. I instructed the artificers to continue with the absolution. The barrier will be overcome in a matter of hours.”
“Good,” the Chairman says. “The issue, then, is not that the ritual will fail. The issue is that someone outside this group has power to counter it, even for a time.”
“Yes,” Mara agrees. “But I caution you not to underestimate this. The power required to block absolution at all is immense. I might be able to do it, with the necessary preparation. It would require a temple dedicated to my cause, and the offering of much blood. There is no temple in this city other than our own, and there was no blood in the barrier I detected.”
The Chairman opens his eyes, focusing on Mara. “But you did say there was a portion of the power you could not understand.”
“If it used blood,” Mara replies, “I would understand it.”
The Chairman considers her words, then nods in agreement. “So. There is a new power.”
“It seems there is. Something that incorporates the old powers, but also something that has evolved.”
“Do you think this is one of the other elder powers, making a play?”
“Absolutely not.” Mara speaks with absolute conviction. “The only powers that might have the flexibility to adapt to what I felt—and, more importantly, didn’t feel—are the ones who stood before you and accepted our parley. They are as bound to the terms of our mutual pact as you are, and will be until their ties to the powers that came before can be severed completely. If there were ties to the powers that came before I’d feel them, just as I’d feel the power of blood.”
“No ties at all?” The Chairman asks. “No signs of affiliation?”
“Hm.” The Chairman stands, walks around his desk, and crosses the room, stopping before a lone picture set against an otherwise empty wall. It is the picture of his battlefield, Mara knows. He speaks of it from time to time. It is one of the great events that shaped him, even before he came to be. “You might have mentioned that sooner.”
Mara thought back on her words so far. “It is hard to describe a thing I don’t understand,” she admits. “It wasn’t until you asked about ‘signs of affiliation’ that I realized I’d felt none.”
“Yes, of course,” the Chairman says. “I apologize, Mara, that was me being petty.”
Mara smiles slightly, gets up from her chair, and stands to his right.
The Chairman laughs suddenly. A startling laugh—easy, delighted—it is reflected in his face, and in his eyes. He seems… pleased.
“It’s finally happening,” he says.
Mara looks at him questioningly, but says nothing.
“I had, of course, hoped that it would happen from within our own group,” he continues. “I had—and still have—high hopes for Nuzzio in particular. But it was inevitable that after I came to be, in apparent violation of all that we understand of our power, and the ties it has to the True Realm, that other deviations would appear.”
He turns to her, eyes alight. “It means I am not a single aberration, in danger of being swallowed up and forgotten over time. I was the first, but more are coming. Change is happening.”
Mara feels herself smiling in return. She doesn’t bother to hide it. They share the moment, and then when it passes they return to the matter of hand.
“Of course,” the Chairman adds, “it is unfortunate that this change is manifested among our enemies. It complicates things greatly.”
“Do you think it is one of the heroes?” Mara asks.
The Chairman shrugs. “One of them, or a newly acquired ally of theirs. Curveball and Scrapper Jack kidnapped the Senator, with the aid of at least one other. And now someone has, at least for a time, prevented his death.”
Mara nods thoughtfully. “It seems unusual that they’d deal with this power directly.”
“Very,” the Chairman agrees. “For the moment, let us assume there is a method they have devised that we don’t understand. Perhaps one of their technologists has found a way to manipulate the power mechanically. We don’t need to focus on it. I believe we will get a clearer picture soon.”
“They will come here?” Mara asks skeptically. “That seems tactically unwise.”
“Have you read the profiles Mr. Kline has assembled on that group?” Amusement runs deep through the Chairman’s voice. “They all have histories of making ‘tactically unwise’ work.”
Mara concedes the point. That is, after all, one of the reasons she wants to kill them.
“I think this may work to our advantage,” the Chairman says. “Project Recall has advanced to the point, I think, where we no longer require this infrastructure.”
Mara looks around the Chairman’s office uncertainly, feeling a sudden pang of loss. The Chairman places a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“Not a pleasant thought,” he agrees. “But it was never intended to exist beyond a certain point.”
“I know,” Mara says. “Who do we save?”
“Doyle, of course,” the Chairman says. “He will be needed until the end. And Richter—he will continue to be invaluable. The inner circle, and I think we will add Mr. Klein to that number. We may still need someone with the insight he provides.”
“His team?” Mara asks.
“Ah yes,” the Chairman says. “His team.”
He turns his gaze back to the picture of the soldier’s graveyard.
“An analyst,” the Chairman says, “works from a distance. They make decisions and recommendations that other people must carry out. That other people, in the end, must pay for. Don’t misunderstand me, I quite appreciate the necessity for that kind of separation, but Mr. Klein is transitioning away from that work. He is becoming a leader. But unlike you or I, who have been forced to bear the consequence of every decision we have made, he has been insulated as a result of his work.”
“True,” Mara says. “Is this to be a test, then?”
“It is,” the Chairman says. “Make him aware of everything that will happen, and give him every opportunity to fail. If he takes up the mantle we offer, he must do so with the knowledge that those he loves will die.”
The question Mara had been pondering earlier—the decision that she knew would have to be made, but did not know who would be called upon to make it—suddenly grows still. One more mystery revealed, she thinks. She sees all of the potential futures branch out from that decision.
“There is peril in this,” Mara says. “Peril for our enemies, perhaps, or peril for us. But overall I think this is right. Klein has potential, but he needs testing. If he cannot do this, he is useless to us.”
“We have never shied away from peril,” the Chairman says. “So let us dance with it again.”
“I will tell him,” Mara says. “If you tell him, his innate awe of you may override the very things we wish him to struggle against.”
The Chairman sighs. “Agreed. We will deal with that unfortunate quality at a later date. While you deal with Mr. Klein, I will begin organizing our egress. Meet me back here in… let’s say an hour?”
“An hour,” Mara agrees. She turns to leave.