Mathias raised an eyebrow. “Why?” he asked her with a low voice, as a flying, eye-shaped drone patrolled the sky above their street corner. That was the fourth one they crossed path with since they left his house. “It’s like, a free spell.”
“Yes, but it is not mine,” Kari replied. While she had taken his suggestion to use Network for long distance communication rather well, but she remained intractable on the subject of additional spells. “I want to rely on my own abilities rather than yours.”
“I understand your desire to be self-reliant, but there are no downsides that I can think of.”
“There is one. Dependency.” She brushed off his arguments, turning mute. Mathias had realized that she pretended not to hear when she wished to change a subject. Clearly she was no conversationalist.
Another machine, this time a Gearsman, flew over them, scanning the road nearby. The first time Mathias had seen one, during the first day of the Conquest, he had mistaken the machines for superheroes. Afterwards, they became synonymous with oppression in his mind.
He lived for the day when he could watch a clear blue sky again.
“Is that why you fight, Mathias-san?” While Kari was no talker, she could clearly read him like a book.
“So people can walk free without a machine ready to arrest them at any time? Partly.” Mathias stopped as they reached their destination, an old, small stone church on the other side of the street. “Overall, though, I just hate Concordia and I want it gone.”
“Kirai? That’s your reason?” Her tone had turned disapproving.
Mathias just shrugged his shoulders. “More than two years ago, they took my mother from me. I just came home from school to find Gearsmen in my house, Mom gone, and Dad unresponsive. He didn’t have to say a word for me to guess what happened. I remember when I threw glass at a Gearsman at one point, and the machine didn’t even flinch.”
Kari listened to his tale, and Mathias found himself continuing, his voice breaking at a few points. How odd. He had never liked going into the details, even with the Werners.
“That’s the really terrible part, Kari. It didn’t care. They didn’t care. If it had reacted with violence, or explained, or even spoke, it…” He struggled to find his words. “It wouldn’t have made it right, but it would have felt human. Instead it felt like hitting a wall. That day, I understood, for them, it was routine. Banal. They put as much emotional weight in breaking a family as in signing a paper.”
He took a breath, as if removing a heavy load from his chest. “I wondered, how many other families experienced that awful day, too? All the time I watched news about Chinese rebels getting arrested, or killed, it never connected to me. Now it does.”
“You never knew what happened to your mother? Or why?”
“They probably sent her to Electon.” Only Concordia could have enough resources and enemies to dedicate an entire planet to imprisoning criminals or their enemies. “As for why, I have suspicions. Nothing concrete. She worked in artificial intelligence even before the Conquest, and we know how careful they are with those.”
Dad often said he had inherited her drive and skills in that area, although he didn’t mean it as a compliment.
Kari crossed her arms, pensive. “What was her name?”
“Alice. Alice Martel.” He looked at her dead in the eyes. “They took someone from you too, didn’t they?”
“No. Not directly. They took my purpose, my pride.” She seemed about to open herself up as he did, but strained against showing the pain inside. “My family has served in the military since the unification of Japan. We fought for our homeland, or to protect it.”
Mathias understood the implications. What purpose did they have in a country conquered and stripped of its name?
The two made their way to the church, strangely silent for a Sunday. Not that the surrounding area felt welcoming, with barred windows and decrepit buildings. The area used to be Evermarsh’s poorest district, which Concordia had mostly condemned after relocating the inhabitants to work in weapon factories farther north. The Empire hated wasting resources, especially citizens.
The Yellow Ministry, which oversaw all cultural activities in the Empire’s territories, had allowed Sol to maintain the church, in spite of waning belief worldwide. Monotheism had taken a big hit after Concordia sank Israel and the Middle-East beneath the waves for their terraforming project.
As he knocked on the door, he felt Kari’s eyes on him. “Can we trust him?” she asked, unaware that Mathias could see Sol through the church’s stained glass windows, listening. The priest did that since his unfortunate meeting with a sicario years ago.
“I would put my life in his hands, if he asked for it.” He was a friend, and used to keeping secrets.
Sol, dressed for Mass, opened the door, a fatherly smile on his face. “Mathias.” His eyes set on Kari next. “I see that you brought a friend.”
“My name is Kari, Solomon-san.” Kari bowed deeply. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“A pleasure shared. Please come inside, I prepared drinks.” Sol welcomed the two into his haven and closed the door behind them.
Mathias had already seen the deserted church since it had come within his Glass Field range. Their steps echoed through the empty building, as if alone with God. He guessed that with the new patrols, most people chose to remain at home.
Sol led them to a door on the left, leading to a stair to the basement. Mathias heard the sound of the Lord of the Stars animated series opening coming from downstairs. To Mathias every trip to Sol’s basement felt like the start of an adventure, like entering a dungeon. You always found a surprise downstairs.
They found Maggie sitting on a dusty couch, bored out of her mind as she watched a starship battle on an outdated plasma screen TV. The basement was less cramped than Mathias’ own apartment, but made up in discomfort with the absence of windows, light bulbs being the only source of light. Sol had set a table nearby, with a teapot letting out steam.
“‘Sup, nerd?” Maggie said upon noticing the group, wearing boy clothes a bit too long for her. Sol had probably given her whatever he could find. “What’s Matsumoto doing here?”
“She’s safe,” Mathias replied. “I thought you would enjoy the company.”
“Yeah, I’m sick of watching animation on a plasma screen,” Maggie complained. “It’s like looking for a sushi shop, finding it closed, and settling for a kebab instead.”
“I do not buy Concordian products,” Sol said with a dignified expression, as he served Mathias and Kari cups filled with green tea before taking one himself. Maggie declined the offer; Mathias figured out she was fonder of energy drinks. “Maggie, could you put Firman News on?”
“Don’t buy their products, but you watch their propaganda?” Maggie groaned, but obeyed the suggestion. Network told Mathias that she respected Sol enough to listen to him. “How can a plasma screen relay those anyway? I thought it only worked with holo-TV.”
“Holo-TVs are linked to Concordia’s UB network, but they retransmit news on internet infrastructure,” Mathias explained as they settled on the sofa.
After the Manus incident almost half a century ago, where their main AI went rogue, Concordia replaced their hardwares with organic technology. Centerpieces to that network were the UBs, biological supercomputers that administered the empire’s whole infrastructure and day-to-day operations, using magical signals instead of cables to transfer information.
Due to Earth’s reliance on internet telecommunications, Concordia had granted the web a grace period, letting it survive while slowly replacing it with their organic systems. He doubted that anything would show on Sol’s plasma screen three years from now.
“Mathias,” Sol spoke up. “Maggie told me a very strange story. She did not give me many details, and I did not ask for them, but I would like to hear your own tale.”
Mathias took a deep breath. He had deeply considered whether or not showing Sol what he could do, but he knew the answer already in his heart. “Sol,” he said. “I can do magic.”
Mathias raised his hand, calling upon Glass Field. Instantly, the screen began to move and shift on its own, taking a spiraling shape.
“Alright,” Sol said, as stoic as ever, as Mathias returned the glass to normal. “This is new.”
His underwhelming, zen response disappointed Mathias, and amused Maggie. “Somehow, you do not sound surprised,” the young man complained.
“Lad, if you reach my age in the world we live in, few things will surprise you anymore.” His eyes shifted to Kari. “And you, young woman? Mathias must trust you a great deal to show us this in your presence.”
Kari, instead of answering, rose to her feet, holding her cup away from her chest. Once everyone’s eyes settled on her, at speed beyond what a human could reach, Kari jumped like a cat, spinning in the air. Her feet landed on the ceiling’s surface, and she stared at them, her entire body upside down.
As for the cup, it remained aligned with the ground. In a masterful show of dexterity, Kari had managed to keep it in its original position, without dropping anything.
“Holy fuck…” Maggie whistled, as Kari climbed down, still without letting her tea go. “You’re magic, too?”
“Is Ulysses a magician too? Is everyone in my social circle witches?”
“Just the two of us,” Mathias replied. “For now. I recently discovered I can grant spells to others.”
Maggie’s head perked up in interest, while Sol examined Mathias warily. “You can make us wizards? No kidding?”
“No, I can lend you a spell of mine. I haven’t explored the limits yet.”
“What do you intend to use that power for, Mathias?” Sol lowered his head, his eyes peering straight into the boy’s soul. “I want to hear it from you.”
Mathias fell silent, the priest’s gaze felt heavy on him. “You know what I will do with my power.”
“Yes, I do. And I am loath to have even asked. Does your father know? No. Or he would have stopped you from walking such a path. Mathias, no good for you will come out of fighting Concordia.”
“Why the critic, old man?” Maggie replied, “He’s the real deal. Everyone speaks about rebelling against Concordia, and no one has the guts to put their words into actions. He can.”
The sudden respect in her voice surprised Mathias, who reddened a bit.
“I said no good for him.” Sol’s gaze hadn’t moved from Mathias. “You have the rashness of youth and the desire to change the world. Good. But taking down Concordia in your current state is a doomed effort. The dragons have limitless resources, and you do not.”
“I gotta start somewhere,” Mathias insisted. “If I hadn’t used my powers, Maggie would be dead. Did she tell you what almost happened to her?”
“I did,” Maggie said, muting the sound of the TV as Dad showed up on it, being interrogated by Smokefang.
“Sol, with great powers must also come great responsibility,” Mathias said, quoting his own personal Bible. Praised be Stan Lee. “If I don’t use my powers in the face of injustice, then I’m complicit in it.”
“You misunderstand my point, Mathias.” Sol shook his head. “Everyone has a choice. God granted us free will so we judge for ourselves and be accountable for our decisions. I am not telling you that your choice is good or bad. However, I want to see if you understand all the implications of that same choice. A just cause can sustain you in the darkest times, but the crusade will be a hard and lonely one. I speak from experience.”
Mathias looked at the scar on Solomon’s forehead. “Have you ever regretted taking that path?”
“No,” the priest replied bluntly.
“Neither will I.”
Sol looked away, thoughtful. Then, he reached a decision. “My door remains open to you and those you wish to shelter,” he spoke. “I am willing to offer my church as a sanctuary, and I will keep your secrets. However, I ask that you tell your father the truth in due time. You owe him that much.”
“I will.” He already dreaded that moment, but the priest had a point. Keeping the secret from his father sounded wrong. “Thanks, Sol.”
“You guys sound like a self-help book,” Maggie groaned.
Mathias turned to her, an idea crossing his mind. “Ulysses told me you carried a gun at school.”
“He told you that?” Maggie frowned. “I could only carry it thanks to Dad.”
“Any idea where we could get weapons?” Mathias asked, wishing to find an edge to deal with creatures like the fiery fiend. Sol listened in silence, slightly uncomfortable with it but offering no judgment.
“Mmmm…” Maggie seemed a bit hesitant at telling him more. “There’s an arms dealer in town. One that avoided the scalies’ detection.”
Mathias blinked at the news. Due to the heavy ban on weapons, civilians couldn’t acquire them through any legitimate mean. Concordia ruthlessly arrested or killed anyone found violating those rules. “How did he do so?”
“Dad covered him up. A protection racket of sorts. Been a customer of his. He’s very expensive though. The Midnight Market charges a lot.”
The Midnight Market was among the few interstellar regions independent from Concordia, and served as a trade hub between various inter-planetary powers. Imperial authorities heavily restricted access to that place, although they often dealt with it for large scale projects near their borders. Mathias had heard intrepid merchants often “forgot” Imperial regulations when it came to merchandise.
“Money is not a problem, only the quality.” He had a pretty good idea how to fund those purchases. “You sound a bit ambivalent about introducing me to the man.”
“Hob. Not a man. And yeah, he’s big on secrecy, and you’re about to become public enemy number one.”
“That would make me his best customer, and I can vanish easily. Try setting up a meeting, tell him I will pay top dollar for his gear. If I’m happy I might become a long-term client.”
“I’ll see what I can do, but no promises,” Maggie replied, before turning back on the TV. “Now shush, nerd, the news is on the screen.”
Mathias turned his focus back on the TV, where pictures of the various conspiracy members showed up in front of Dad. Maggie glared at her father’s, put forward with John’s own, as she unmuted the TV. “ — did you suspect the mayoral office and police involvement?” Smokefang asked Victor with a concerned voice, almost like a parent worried for their child.
“Yes. Dad seemed a bit uncomfortable speaking. “I suspected the involvement of police forces. How else could the cases remain unsolved? We tried to call the Concordian authorities on the matter, but our efforts were constantly blocked.”
“A terrible oversight. I assure you, this kind of mishap will no longer happen in my protectorate. We owe it to all our citizens to protect them from monsters, especially those wielding magic. I guarantee that our forces will bring this plot’s sorcerer ringleader to justice.”
Sorcerer ringleader? Did they blame him for the cult’s horrors? How did they even learn that Mathias had been present?
Those bastards, destroying his reputation before he even went public!
“Now that the late John Brown can no longer censor you, what do you think of the mayoral institution, Victor?”
“I don’t think the mayoral office, or the police, should remain.”
Mathias’ eyes opened. “What?”
“This is a very strong message, Victor,” Smokefang responded with a neutral tone.
“Human institutions are made of people, who themselves are vulnerable to corruption or self-interests,” Dad continued. “While the UB system remains above those excesses.”
“Is it me, or is your dad selling mankind out?” Maggie asked.
His father had always supported the local authorities, Mathias thought in confusion, and now he spoke otherwise?
— Victor tried to present an emotionless front against Smokefang, as the dragon sized him up from head to toe. This was one of the beasts who had signed his wife’s arrest warrant. Interviewing the creature may help his career, but he couldn’t shake the undercurrent of disgust every time the reptile spoke.
“I will not waste my time, so I will be blunt,” Smokefang spoke. “Your spawn received a nomination for the Loctis Institute. One of the two in your city, and one of the few in the American Protectorate. Thankfully, the main rival for the position is the daughter of a traitor. You following me so far?”
Victor frowned. Was that a threat? “Yes, Lord Smokefang.”
“Good. There are a few elements of your investigation that do not match the factual reality, and I want them corrected.”
“Lord Smokefang, you want me to lie?” On national holo-TV? That would break every rule and ethic he stood for.
“No, no, no, I want you to tell the truth. Concordia’s truth.” The dragon’s eyes turned smug, terribly so. “Two files can find their way to my desk next morning, figuratively speaking. One is a personal recommendation for your spawn, in reward for the great service you do to society. The other is his arrest warrant with immediate deportation to Electon. So… will you tell the full truth, the entire truth?”
… Do it for Mathias, Victor.
Do it for him. —
“I fully agree with you, Victor. Such a ghastly event must never happen again. Which is why, citizens, I will make a declaration.” Smokefang turned to face the people behind the screen. “As governor of the American Protectorate, I dissolve all mayoral and police offices, effective immediately. The good citizens working in these corrupt administrations will be reassigned to new departments, as all administrative decisions will be handed by UBs; the security of our citizens will be fully enforced by Gearsmen, as in our other dominions. Victor, what do you — ”
The TV went dark, Sol having seized the remote. “Hey!” Maggie complained.
“That is enough,” Sol spoke, concerned for Mathias.
The young man ignored them, shaking with newfound fury. Nobody threatened his family and got away with it.
“I’m going to skin that lizard bastard, alive,” Shroud spoke through Mathias’ lips. “With a blade of glass.”