25 8 / 2014

The Zombie experienced the peace of an empty vessel. He channeled it, concentrating on the void where his soul should be. The lack of a self deprived the periphery. Nothing informed the neurological machine. The Zombie imagined that the brain and body expected the homunculus of consciousness to radio instructions, but they tuned in to the static of a dead station, and they waited, even though that inner signal was thousands of years gone.

Sooner or later, this deterministic body would stir to act on its own. It was inevitable. A body endured, thinking and alive, and it was indistinguishable from a person. If you put a magnifying glass over the Zombie’s eye—the window to his soul—you’d believe someone stared back. If he smiled, how could you know that the void yawned behind those shining teeth?

You couldn’t know. Nobody could know at a glance. There was no stiffness, awkward movement or dead expressions. The body was authentic, the emotions authentic. At worst, the Zombie forgot to breathe, but nobody seemed to notice once he started to move.

If you lost your soul, how could anyone tell? A soul was an eternal record and the source of true free will, but it didn’t make life, and the Zombie didn’t need that metaphysical freedom. His living mind probed his choices like a gap where a tooth should be, and that was enough to create an illusion of choice, a false sense of control. When the body wasn’t concentrating on the emptiness, it moved with all the signs of agency. It could scream. It could cry.

But if the brain reflected on his inner life, on the shadow play of perception, it found that the audience was missing. Nobody lived inside.

The Baron would’ve argued that this interpretation wasn’t true, but the truth of it didn’t matter. The void of sense remained, and it was that serene desolation which kept the Zombie from killing today. So many men were posturing around the Baron, speaking with barbed tongues and brandishing their arms. Their lack of fear made the Zombie nervous. He felt a fundamental urge to assert his authority over the fragile world, to crack bones and sunder weapons.

The situation was usually too fragile for his invincible hands. He let the Baron lead, paying attention to the void whenever he became too upset. It wasn’t a technique he usually favored. On any given day, he would simply calm down, because what could worry an invincible man?

But the Generous Man had produced evidence that the Zombie was tamed, that he no longer provided the same threat to the world. The Zombie’s urge to kill had become overwhelming, and he’d already wanted to murder Gen for arranging the rifle shot at Jamrud. He’d fantasized about ripping out his living intestines and shoving them in his noisy mouth. It was an irrational desire, one that did no good. The Zombie knew for a fact that within 24 hours, he’d probably like Gen. They’d be friends! But gods be damned, the Zombie couldn’t stand being perceived as weak. If he wasn’t a monster, how could he protect the Baron from the world?

He could almost hear Gen’s gossip. “The Zombie is safe. Who knows if he would kill for the pact. Would there really be another Akkadia, if d’Holbach died?”

Instead of writing yes in yards of blood, the Zombie stayed calm through these extreme methods. He didn’t need to worry. Circumstances were ripe, and there’d be plenty of chances to prove himself. Even now, as the Baron walked over to the Fairfax’s map of the pass, the Zombie sensed that his time had come ‘round again.

Landi Kotal was the first bloody mark he’d left in the Khyber. He peered over the Baron’s shoulder and wondered where he might next spill life on the stone and sand.

24 8 / 2014

“How much time do we have?” Fairfax asked.

“Minutes,” the Baron said, “ten, fifteen? That’s optimistic.”

“Smith, Goffe, plan C please.” Fairfax turned to the Baron. “How do you think the attack will happen? Hmm?” He glanced at a wristwatch. “One minute to decide.”

“Ambush,” the Zombie said. “No explosives.”

“Why?”

“Destroying the train will bring too much secular attention.”

“Killing people won’t?” Beth asked.

Gen said, “They’ve already been killing without consequence. They have influence. It’s too much risk to destroy the only train in the Khyber though.”

The Baron put up a hand to silence his friends. “Fairfax, I suspect they’ll stop the train, kill the guards and execute any surviving passengers.”

“Exactly,” Fairfax said, “They’ll be in a static position. Hence, plan C. We’re going to attack a fortified Soviet location.” He spread his hands. “The only question remains, where?”

“We were hoping you could supply that intel,” the Baron said.

Fairfax picked a bit of RDX clay from the corner of a block of explosives and rolled it between his fingers to make a thin sausage. “If we knew, we wouldn’t be standing here. We’d be there already.” He pressed the RDX back into the block, mashing it down with a thumb.

The Baron was surprised. “You have been spying on the Soviets, haven’t you?”

“Of course, but we weren’t looking for static positions preparing to attack civilian targets.” Fairfax nodded towards Goffe. “It’s a little far fetched, even for the CIA’s planners. And we have plans for invading Canada, don’t we Operative.”

“You say too much,” Goffe said irritably, eyes down while he picked over his desk for various small ikons and occult paraphernalia.

“Boss is the boss,” Smith said, “He has the right.”

“Shouldn’t you be packing?” Goffe snapped.

Smith took a long, deep breath and pushed his chair back. “Yeah. If the Baron knows where we’re going.” He looked at d’Holbach carefully. “You do knows, don’t you?”

“I can find it,” the Baron said, “Just show me a map. I’ll figure it out.”

“If you’re right, we had to leave five minutes ago.” Fairfax thumbed towards his personal desk at the back of the tent. There was a spread of white paper with blue topographical printing and man-made landmarks drawn across it in black pen. “More classified data. Your lucky day.”

The Baron understood how close they were cutting it. Depending on the actions of Zin and the Chinese guards at the train station, they might arrive too late, witness to a pile of bodies being dropped by the rails like slaughtered buffalo. So much could be determined by choice, strategy and planning, but in the end, some things hinged heavily on chance. Their timing was one of them. Reasoning out the location fast enough was another.

He still said with confidence, “Show me. I’ll tell you right now.”

23 8 / 2014

Fairfax was skeptical. “They threatened to attack the train?”

“No,” the Baron said, “The threat wasn’t specific.”

“So how do you know they’re attacking someone right now?”

“A Soviet source told me directly that threatening the Chinese was a bluff. They mobilized with Orthodox soldiers, Spetsnaz, to perform another operation.”

Beth snapped her fingers. “d’Holbach, the Orthodox tent. They wouldn’t let us in.”

“Right,” the Baron said, “They had sensitive materials out. Plans. Maps maybe.”

Fairfax smiled. “A Soviet source?”

“We can’t reveal his name, and he’s told me everything he owes,” the Baron said. “There’s nothing left to learn from him, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Fairfax pursed his lips and shook his head. “Baron, Baron. You aren’t an intelligence man, are you? The well is never dry. You only need to pump harder. If you’ve called in favors, then demand trust. If trust fails, blackmail him. If that fails, seize him, then barter with his life, because there are always interested buyers, Baron, always men lining up to pump at the well.” There wasn’t any hint of irony. Only grim satisfaction tainted Fairfax’s voice. “Pump him until the handle breaks, Baron, then abandon the wreckage. If you won’t, sell him to someone who will.”

.”That’s not how I operate,” the Baron said flatly.

He was reminded of how only a few hours ago, Beth had asked the Baron to avoid being seen as a CIA ally. This was why—this ruthless, foul thinking and the zealous ideology that bore it. Don’t become friends with the CIA—the Soviets will hate you and the Chinese won’t trust you. She’d changed her tune out of desperation, because right now the Soviets were the pressing threat, and they needed Langley’s help opposing them, but the original warning rang true.

“Sure,” Fairfax said, “You have a reputation to keep.” He paused. “But that makes me wonder, Baron. You said you couldn’t afford to be my ally.”

“The situation has changed,” the Baron said. “Javed Khan stood here this morning and shouted at me for being a European invader. Minutes ago, he asked me to oppose the Chinese because he doesn’t trust them anymore. Think about it. If you help us, you’ll be saving the auction that you came here to destroy. We’re all compromising our goals to keep someone else from winning, and right now, I need your help to stop the Soviets.”

Fairfax scratched his nose. “What will happen if we let the Roamers die?” He glanced at Smith. “Why don’t we kill Javed Khan ourselves, stop the leak?”

The Baron was appalled, but he kept his voice steady. “Javed Khan can’t be the only Roamer who knows. Someone will have an idea. They might betray him to save themselves, to save any survivors—to save anything at all. That’s if the bloodshed doesn’t break Javed Khan.”

22 8 / 2014

Either Gen knew about Beth’s contingency plan already, or more likely he’d guessed it because she didn’t immediately object to the Baron’s suggestion. Regardless, he’d approved out of simple necessity. There was no other amenable faction prepared for conflict here and now. The Soviets had an occult-ready army. The Chinese had a secular force. But Langley had only three men, no fear, and believed they were as good as winners. Of course they’d be ready.

They always thought they were ready.

The Baron’s party followed him out of the barracks and into the dry, arid atmosphere of an early Khyber noon. The sun was almost perfectly overhead. A slight shadow cast to the east of their feet; zenith had passed only minutes before. Despite the rising temperature, the dust blowing on the breeze, and the Baron’s western formal wear—they began jogging, all of them, making a beeline straight for the Langley tent. Sweat broke out instantly on their skin.

“Fairfax!” the Baron called ahead.

Operative Smith appeared at the tent flaps, all bulk and business. His Garand still hung from the strap over his shoulder, but he had one hand on the stock of the gun, and that alone seemed to give him the kind of cold confidence that others would interpret as killer instinct. He might be able to pull the rifle from that awkward position and kill someone before they reacted, but the threat was vague and defensive, and the Baron paid it no heed. He stopped just in front of the man and waved for him to step aside.

“Youse making a lot of noise,” Smith said to the Baron.

The Baron called past the man. “Fairfax, we need to talk!”

“That’s rude,” Smith said plainly. “Man at the door? Youse should speak with ‘em.”

“Operative Smith,” the Baron said, “Time is crucial. I don’t want to repeat myself, so here’s the short version. Langley needs to fight the Soviets immediately.”

“Need?” Smith drawled.

“I’ll explain—”
“Let him in!” Operative Goffe shouted from inside.

Smith grunted and leaned back into the tent. “You ain’t the boss!”

“You’ve made your point,” Fairfax said, just audible. “Let them in.”

Smith shrugged at the Baron, then turned and walked back into the tent. Fairfax was standing with Goffe, leaning over a table covered in broad plastic trays with screwholes, sheets of scored steel, and a layer of tin foil coated in slabs of white clay. Everything stank of motor oil in the worst way, but there wasn’t any visible oil spilled in the room. The director looked up and smiled. “Look Baron. I’ve just authorized you to view classified military technology.”

“What’s that smell?” the Baron asked. The motor oil stench was positively cloying.

Director Fairfax straightened. “You don’t recognize it?”

“I do!” the Zombie said, eager as a child. “I’ve tasted it. RDX.”

The Baron squinted. “Bombs?” RDX was Research Department Formula X, one of the stronger but more stable explosives known to man. That would make the clay a British weapon.

“Composition 3,” Beth muttered, pinching her nose shut. “Poisonous slabs.”

“Close enough,” Fairfax said, “but not quite correct.”

“Why are you showing me bombs?” the Baron asked.

Fairfax grinned. “I’m not showing you anything, Baron, you demanded to speak to me, and I don’t care if you know about the bombs. I do love your paranoia though.”

“You want everyone to know that you’re building bombs.”

“Sure. Find meaning in everything.” Fairfax was dismissive, but the Baron was certain that this was a calculated leak of information. No matter.

The Baron had far more pressing matters. “Look, we need to stop the Soviets.”

“Yes, I heard you shouting past poor Smith,” Fairfax said.

Smith was seating himself at his personal table. He didn’t respond.

“You’re lucky. The man is unflappable.”

“We’re wasting time,” the Baron said. “I believe the Soviet deployment during the auction was targeted at coercing Javed Khan into giving up the Rites.”

“They’ve already been killing his men, correct?” Fairfax asked.

“Useless men,” Smith said.

Goffe pinched the bridge of his nose. “Baron, what’s changed?”

“I’ve got it under control—” Fairfax warned the veteran cultist.

The Baron spoke to Operative Goffe directly. “There’s a train out of Landi Kotal running in a few minutes. It’ll be carrying the Roamer’s families to Peshawar.”

“The Soviets are going to kill them?” Fairfax asked.

“They threatened exactly that.”

07 8 / 2014

“He’s not going himself?”

Wu scowled. “He is far too important. He banks. He keeps the artifacts.”

The Baron didn’t object. That explained why Beth expected Zin to enact their plan. If the Chinese received the Rites, Zin was in a position to either carry them or assist the man who did. In either case, his position of trust made him an ideal traitor. Presumably, his family had also been kidnapped. He’d have the means and the motive. Maybe he would be enough. While it was morally abhorrent to kidnap innocents, especially children, he wouldn’t allow the crime to go to waste, not when it could save the world from the Ark of the Covenant.

Zin was potentially one of their best agents in this conflict.

“What will you do, Baron?” Javed Khan was not broken. He was deeply worried, but his voice was firm, commanding. He’d supplied them with information. Now he wanted action.

Wu was hesitating to leave, to see what the Baron’s answer would be.

The Baron hesitated. They needed to find the Soviets and interfere with their operation within the next half hour tops, if not in the next fifteen minutes. This meant they had both a limited range of movement and limited options in time, and they had no railway-marked maps of the Khyber Pass at hand—no way to even guess at the Soviet location.

They needed resources and intel immediately, and it was clear that Javed Khan and Wu had nothing to offer beyond the initial plan of putting the women and children on a train. Worse, the activity at the station would’ve been obvious. The Soviets certainly would know about the train, no matter what Wu hoped. They’d be setting up to take advantage of the pre-planned route, the tight confines of the passengers, and the obscured ambushes they could set.

There was only one place the Baron had seen today that’d been covered in maps. Only one group who’d have been actively considering contingencies. Beth had been planning on asking for their assistance against the Soviets in any case. The Baron might as well include them now, when the opportunity was fresh and Wu could do little to refuse the alliance.

“We’ll contact Langley,” the Baron said.

“The CIA?” Wu asked, genuinely confused.

“They’ve been spying on the Soviets. They’ve mapped out the Khyber. Wouldn’t surprise me if they knew about the attack already. If they give us intel, we’ll supply the manpower.”

“If those fools know anything…” Wu shrugged.

“It’s the only realistic plan.”

“What’s realistic is making sure Zin arms my men. Good luck, Baron d’Holbach. I’ll brief you on the train ride after the Roamers depart in Peshawar.” He waved his hand, a short tip of the fingers rather than a friendly goodbye, and he opened the door, pulling it shut immediately behind him. There were shouts in Chinese, and one of the guards walked away with Wu.

“Here?” Javed Khan shouted.

“Yes!” the second guard shouted back in clear English.

Javed Khan leaned forward in a whisper. “I wished my speech wouldn’t reach the guard.” He then stood up straight and spoke in a normal voice. “They cannot spy on me in here.”

The Baron pointed a thumb at the door.

“Correct,” Javed Khan said, “I trust the Chinese, but they are only men, not saints. If they find an opportunity to be rid of me and the Roamers and still receive the Rites, they will take it. I’ve come to believe that now.”

“Changes?” the Baron asked vaguely.

“They’ve been sending my guards away.”

The Baron nodded. He’d noticed a lack of Roamer protection. Even the last bodyguards, who’d just minutes ago retreated with Javed Khan to this officer, were now gone.

“They’ve put me at their mercy,” Javed Khan said, “They tell the guards that it’s for their safety. I ask that they stay, and the Chinese pay them to go and be with their families. I no longer have a choice in the matter. That’s not a position of trust. That’s a position of power.”

So the Roamers were giving up faith in Javed Khan. They were voluntarily allowing China to fully assert their dominance over the cult that’d brought the Rites.

Javed Khan frowned. “There’s little time left. I believe the Chinese will pay if it avoids a fight with you, with the Zombie, or with Schuler. If you are convinced to leave or back down, or if Schuler is eliminated, I believe they will no longer regard the auction as necessary.”

The Baron and the Zombie exchanged glances. Was this the threat that Osin had been warning the Baron about? Were the Soviets afraid of the Chinese trying to kill him under the Zombie’s watch? No matter, the point was clear. Javed Khan wanted the Baron to counterbalance Chinese ambitions. If he could put his hand into any action to preserve the Roamers, Javed Khan would benefit twice over. First, he could provide an opposing presence, someone that forced the Chinese to remain honest. Second, he could show his subordinates that his leadership reached further than just a single wealthy faction.

“I assume you’ll speak with Langley now?” Javed Khan asked.

The Baron guessed the wish’s duration had expired. Every wish only worked for a definite period, and Javed Khan hadn’t intended to have a conversation. He’d said all he’d wanted to say.

“We’ll head out. We’ll rendezvous here later, tell you anything and everything we learn.”

Javed Khan walked past Beth, looked to Gen and said, “Thank you,” as if Gen was responsible for bringing the Baron into this situation. He opened the door, then closed it once the party had filtered out into the hall. The guard leered at Beth, but she ignored his gaze.

“This could be a military operation,” Beth said. “I like your plan. Bring in the Americans.”

“Langley really is the best choice,” the Zombie said.

“You don’t have to put on a show for me,” Gen said. “Hurry to them.”

05 8 / 2014

“I will always be Gen to you,” said the Generous Man.

“Gen—” Beth began.

“It’s my occult name, not a title!” He pulled off his round, wide-framed glasses. His milky eyes appeared almost opaque in the half-light of the naked bulb, but he was staring directly at Wu, attentively. Likely, minimal prestige had been used to save his vision. “I’ve earned the right in the Khyber to bury my real name, my secular name.”

“I understand, Generous Man.”

“Do you? You’re a leader to the Chinese cult, but I’m a leader period. I will not have my secular reputation soiling my occult good deeds. This is where I help the world, Wu. This is where I leave a legacy that cultists will be proud to remember.”

“Your identity isn’t a mystery—”

“It’s kept like the system of prestige, Wu, through our agreed silence.” He put his glasses back on his face, then adjusted them before glancing at Beth. “I apologize.”

Beth said nothing. It wasn’t her place to forgive him, and she wasn’t the kind of woman to drop sweet words to ease the bitter shame of someone’s embarrassing behavior.

“What can we do?” Javed Khan asked, visibly shaken. “If the Soviets stage an attack, Baron, six men cannot defend dozens.”

“We don’t even know where they’re attacking,” Wu said, “There’s a chance they’ll have to scratch the plan. Say they even know about the train. Say they want to block it. With what? The half track? The one they need to move personnel around the Khyber?”

“We’re running out of time,” the Zombie said.

“Can you stop the train before it leaves Landi Kotal?” the Baron asked.

“No,” Wu said, “No. The station may be guarded, but Landi Kotal has the bulk of the Soviet forces, Baron. If they’re starting a fight, a full blow war? We can’t respond to it. Most of our men are here, guarding, or elsewhere in the pass. We can’t defend Landi Kotal.” He scooted his chair back and stood. “I trust Zin and his men to be able to protect a moving train.”

“Where are you going?” the Baron asked.

“I have to tell Zin about the potential Soviet assault. He’ll make sure the escort has a deep pool of prestige, in case they meet resistance on the way to Peshawar.”

03 8 / 2014

Javed Khan glanced at Wu, who shook his head almost immediately. The Roamer leader squinted, then turned in his chair to stare at the Baron. “What will you do?”

“Alleviate the pressure,” the Baron said. “Stop the threat.”

“You’ve threatened me too.”

“They’re murderers, we’re not.”

Wu slapped a hand on the desk. “Don’t say a word. Not unless the Baron places his cards on the table first.” To the Baron, “What is the threat? Specific threat.”

“The Soviets are going to kill Roamers,” the Baron said. “We don’t know their exact target, nor the location. We’ve worked by process of elimination, but we need intel.”

Javed Khan spoke up without waiting for Wu’s approval. “Just before—”

“Quiet!” Wu shouted.

“I will speak, damn you!” Javed Khan pushed back his chair and stood, turning his back to Wu. “The Chinese want to handle this alone, but I want the Zombie.”

“I’m his bodyguard,” the Zombie said, “not your enforcer.”

The Baron held up a hand. Peace, Zombie. “What happened, Javed Khan?”

“Before the bid, I received a reminder, the fifth one.”

“Fingers!” Wu shouted.

“Chopped off a corpse. My right hand man’s right hand, mutilated.” Javed Khan flexed his own fingers, as if to remind himself that it wasn’t his own hand under the knife. “It was the end of a countdown. The original threat was delivered by courier, no written copy, just a fresh pinky and a speech. Every finger would mean more pain for my people.” He tapped his own fingers, one by one towards his thumb. “My lieutenant first, one man. My officers second, three men, all dead. My soldiers third, many of them now laid out in the yard. My support fourth. Old men, young boys. They handled money, supplies—logistics as the Raj would say.”

“How many of them are dead?” the Baron asked.

“Few. The fourth finger arrived this morning, and after all the fighting in Landi Kotal, they’ve been staying with their families.” He tugged on his raised thumb. “This brings me to the last finger, Baron. Women and children.” Javed Khan dropped his hand, having difficulty keeping his voice calm. “Wives, daughters, sons too young to know better. All threatened.”

Wu spoke in defense of himself, even if Javed Khan hadn’t made any explicit accusations. “We’ve been handling it.”

“The Baron should know!” Javed Khan said.

Wu shrugged aggressively. “Zin’s working on this. It’s why he couldn’t attend the bids. He’s shipping the Roamers to Peshawar over the Khyber Pass Railway.”

“It’s Saturday,” Gen said, “the train doesn’t run.”

“We’ve worked out a deal with Khyber agency officials. Even though it’s not Sunday, they’ve agreed to light the boilers and set up safe houses in the city. They’ll leave Landi Kotal with a Chinese escort in less than twenty minutes.” He checked his wristwatch. “Fifteen.”

“I haven’t heard of this,” Gen said sharply.

“Not everything has to pass over the table of Ali Khan—”

“The Generous Man!” Gen shouted, suddenly furious.

“Interesting,” the Zombie said.

The Baron noted away Gen’s secular name for future research.

Wu was taken aback for a long second, stiff and upright in his chair. When he relaxed, he turned his eyes down to the table, an unconscious submission. “Our manpower is spread thin. The Khyber is large, and our escort is minimal.”

“Do you need us to accompany it?” the Baron asked.

“No, we’ve supplied enough firepower, and the stations themselves are secure. We just couldn’t send them until we could spare six men for the journey.” Wu took a deep breath and looked up. “The fifth finger came too soon. We thought we had time.”

02 8 / 2014

Gen grimaced. “They might be stepping up their original campaign. They can add pressure to the Roamers by becoming more direct, now that they’ve been accused.”

“We’d have to find the Soviets,” Beth said. “We won’t know what they’re planning until we see the battlefield. Even then, it might be ambiguous.”

“We’re not going to search the Khyber,” Gen said.

“If you’re worried about wasting time, we won’t,” the Baron said to Gen. “We saw Javed Khan go into his office with Wu. Maybe we can ask him for the details on the threat.”

Gen breathed slowly. “It’s worth trying.”

The Baron led the way to Javed Khan’s room. Chinese guards were standing outside the door. Not a single Roamer was in sight. They weren’t shocked to see the Baron coming. One of them leaned back and rapped on the door with his knuckles. “Laoban! Zhéxué jiā!” Then he opened the door without waiting for a response or even looking inside.

The Baron hesitated. “Gen, Beth, it’s a small room.”

“We should be in there,” Beth insisted.

The Baron decided it wasn’t worth arguing. He went inside, moving immediately to the far corner behind Javed Khan. The others filtered in, taking up a corner each. Javed Khan was seated in the center at his desk with Wu across from him.

“Baron d’Holbach,” Wu said, “I thought you might come.”

“Why is the woman here?” Javed Khan asked.

“She’s fine,” Wu said. “She’s more loyal than the Baron.”

The Baron was quick. “I’m loyal, I just don’t start a fight without a reason.”

Wu dismissed the argument with a flick of a hand. “Have you spoken with Song?”

“I have.”

“Then you’re no longer in our employ Baron. Loyal or otherwise, you’re not helpful.”

“You’ve made your accusation to the Soviets. No matter what, you don’t need me anymore. There’s nothing to investigate.”

Wu scratched his elbows through his sleeves. “We seem to agree, but you’re here?”

“We needed to inform you both. We have reason to believe the Soviets are going to attack the Roamers soon, but we don’t know where or how they’ll strike.”

“So you agree,” Javed Khan said, “They’re the murderers?”

“Absolutely,” Beth said, “the Baron doubted the bullet evidence, but Wells and I discovered the same thing. Soviet rounds were found in Pashtun corpses.”

The Baron didn’t correct her. Better that his reputation take a beating than directly implicate Emin in a leak of Soviet intel, he thought. “I’m trusting her judgement over mine, considering the immediacy of the threat.”

“What immediacy?” Wu asked.

“They were mobilizing to fight, not to posture,” the Baron said. “You don’t intimidate someone by leaving first. You make a show of arms, even if it’s a bad decision.”

Wu tapped his index fingers together. “Go on.”

“We need to know what threats you’ve received, Javed Khan. What deadlines? What penalties? What will they do to you, if they’re looking to break you.”

01 8 / 2014

They stopped in the shadow of the Jade Emperor.

“You sure?” Gen asked. “This place has ears.”

The Baron nodded. A few bugs wouldn’t change the outcome. If they figured something out, it’d only give them an edge, not create new enemies. Still, they needed to protect Ivan. “Speak only the facts. We saw the Soviets mobilize. Assume it wasn’t insurance.”

“Mobilize against who?” Beth asked for the theoretical eavesdropper.

“Four possibilities.” The Zombie sniffed and folded his hands behind his back. He spoke in the dry tones of an academic. “Langley, the White Mountain Roamers, Schuler, and us.”

“Excluding China?” Gen asked.

“The ruse was to threaten China,” the Zombie said.

The Baron looked at Beth and the Zombie, one after the other. “Let’s go through the list. If they wanted to attack us, they would’ve tried for Beth and Gen’s life already.”

“No ambush then?” Beth asked.

“Where would they set it up?” the Baron asked. “They can’t guess where we’re going. They can’t even plan for us to leave. For all they know, we’d be here until the next bid tonight.”

“Ok, scratch our group for now. Who next?”

“Schuler was here. They didn’t try anything yet. Frankly, they won’t.” He’d have to be the last target, someone they could focus their efforts against when all other competition was down. “So think about Langley. Why leave if they’re the target?”

“Don’t target the leadership,” Beth said, “target the support. Slaughter the secondaries, cut the lines of communication and leave them isolated, then circle in for the kill.”

The Baron liked that interpretation. Langley was dangerous enough to deserve a methodical elimination, but he suspected that wasn’t the Soviet’s current objective. “We’ll leave that as a realistic possibility, but I’m putting my money on the final target.”

Gen spoke up, “The Roamers do seem like the best target, but the method is flawed.”

“How?” the Baron asked.

“They’ve been killing discreetly,” Gen said, “Contrast that with a half-track full of soldiers. They’re different forces for different objectives, Baron.”

“Then come up with new objectives,” Beth said.

“It’s not Javed Khan. He’s their safest bet for locating the rights.” The Baron hesitated. There was only one other target, if not murdering Roamers nor Javed Khan himself.

“Oh Christ,” Beth said, coming to the same conclusion.

The Zombie grinned. “That’s heinous.”

“They’re going to slaughter the women and children,” the Baron said.

26 7 / 2014

He couldn’t blame Ivan for underestimating Schuler. The title “Theist” was weak, dry, almost scholarly. It was a flavorless Renaissance invention, a piece of verbal obfuscation lifted from 17th century philosophy, new jargon meant to veil the truth. Secular listeners only heard the uncommon noun related to a common belief—that there was a creator and a ruler of the universe. Depending on the century, the term had sliced awkwardly across faith in miracles and divine revelations. After the final cut, “Theist” had indicated belief in the reality of divine intervention. It implied an occult reality. This change had reinforced the spread of “Theist,” supplanting countless superstitious titles, myths and legends with a single word.

Theist. Was that any better than wizard?

Theist Jakob Böhme was apparently over a hundred years old when he suggested the name himself, nearly a century before he would meet the Baron d’Holbach and set in motion the Fall of Trust. Vatican chapters had casually referred to him as the Mystic of Görlitz. He’d buried his secular name by the banks of the river Neisse and accepted his title, but his peace with the occult hadn’t lasted. On the long search for a rational proof of the divine, he’d been received in homes and churches with fear and worship. As the Mystic, he’d realized that he was the living embodiment of an irrational heritage, one he’d sought to overthrow by example.

Renaming his position to Theist was meant to dispel superstitions.

It’d worked, the Baron supposed, because people didn’t treat Meister Schuler with the right degree of caution. If he’d been the Magician or the Thaumaturge, he might’ve been given the distance usually reserved for hermits, shamans and other holy men. Instead, cultists treated him like a servant—like an occult freak created and herded by more important authorities in New York.

But Schuler was a power as significant as the Zombie.

The Baron only hoped they would leave the Khyber peacefully, with Schuler’s empty hands folded at his waist, his eyes unfocused behind lustrous copper frames.