China is as it has been for years, a dizzying blur of colors and work. There is something to be done everyday, so that the team I lead is split into shifts to take us all the way around the clock. Depending on what's going on I take either shift or both. The men and women under my command are a competent, competitive team and they push themselves hard. I cannot tolerate idleness in anyone and in a place as vital as the far east, such a personality trait could ruin things for Estet.
There are seventeen of us in all, spread out between Shanghai and Beijing, and we are all in contact with each other upwards of six times a day. Our work week is seven days long and Mondays mean everyone will be here in Beijing so we can trade papers and reports face to face and assign the following week's work and shifts. The clock on my desk says that it is a quarter to ten, not quite an hour before our meeting begins, and I have already been at work for six hours.
My office is large enough for two desks and four extra chairs for guests. I share the space with Alex Yun Fat, a thirty-five year old telekinetic of mixed racial descent. He is my right hand man here despite the fact that we have disliked each other since day one. Estet's goals are more important than our own disagreements, so for the most part we avoid a confrontation. Alex oversees a lot of China's internal affairs while I work on its relations with its neighbors.
At the moment he is arguing on the phone with someone in rapid Mandarin and I spare the conversation only half a mind as I organize reports for the meeting. Alex has been out here since before I even came to Rosenkreuz, so I was only given lessons in Chinese through the intermediate levels. I've picked up on more in my time here, but for the most part, I was grilled in Korean and Japanese. There are others here who speak Tagalog, Russian, Thai, and more, and we use German for our meetings. Such conference calls are the only time in which only one language is spoken between us.
Alex slams the receiver down onto its cradle and settles for glowering at the far wall, taking a few moments to calm down before reporting it to me. "Sao Ching is threatening to pull their support again," he says at last.
"I warned you not to invest in them," I remind him calmly, and the paper I'm working on shreds neatly in two in response. I don't acknowledge it but pull out a clean sheet and start over on my list. "They are more trouble than they are work more times than not."
"They had the money we needed."
"But not the backbone to carry through on our contracts," I point out. "Nevertheless, they are too far tangled in this to try backing out again. Pull the file on the board and schedule a dinner meeting with them tonight. We're going to find a better president; examine the files and figure out who among them is the best candidate. I want you and Ming both present at dinner to take care of it." Alex arches an eyebrow at me and I don't bother to return the look, instead lifting the ripped paper to show it to him. "I expect a repeat performance on Chow's heart tonight. Rosenkreuz will not accept such spinelessness any longer."
"You know what the Council said about such demonstrations," Alex says with a frown. "Aggravating as these people are, the Five do not want us showcasing our talents."
I look up from my report, pen stilling, and fix him with a cold look. "Rosenkreuz will not accept such spinelessness any longer," I say again. "It is for me to determine what is and is not acceptable behavior here in China and for me to accept any repercussions for such actions. Your job is simply to do as I tell you when I tell you." His frown blossoms into a scowl at such words and I continue, pointing my pen at him. "Everything Rosenkreuz and Estet are working for is at a crucial edge. The things we do today will shape the future; it no longer matters how we did things or what we did yesterday."
Alex just sneers at me. "I cannot stand precognitives' arrogance," he says. "And yes, you will be the one answering to Herr Hoffmann. Just because I am the one who will be stopping his heart doesn't mean I will take the fall for it."
My smile is small and cold, mocking him. "I would not expect you to be able to."
His face darkens, flushing red with anger, but the phone rings before he can snap out a retort. Both gazes flick to the phone on my desk. That particular ring tone is reserved for Herr Hoffmann's calls. I glance towards the calendar on the wall, idly taking note of the date. Hoffmann and I haven't spoken since my trip back to Rosenkreuz a little over two months ago, though I have continued to send him regular reports on our progress here.
I lift the phone to my ear, setting my pen down to focus entirely on the conversation. Alex slouches in his chair, watching me intently and quite content to listen in on the call. "Herr Hoffmann."
"There is a twelve-fifteen flight coming to Austria. You will be on it. Your ticket is waiting for you at the counter."
"Of course, Herr Hoffmann."
"Pack for three days, Oracle. We have a lot to accomplish while you are here." He doesn't wait for a response but hangs up on me.
I set the phone back down and honey brown eyes consider the calendar once more. At length I finish my list and push myself to my feet. I carry my stack of work to Alex's desk and set it down as he waits in silence for the reason behind the call. I tap the stack with splayed fingers, holding his gaze easily. "This is what will be accomplished today. The reports, the shifts, and our newest project are all here. Tonight you will arrange that dinner and Chow will be dead before anyone leaves the restaurant. Am I understood?"
"Ducking out on us again, hm?" Alex pulls the pile closer to himself and rifles through it. "Have your way; he'll be dead. I won't miss that fuck, anyway."
I say nothing but retrieve my keys from the top drawer of my desk and leave. Doors are open all the way down the hall; a jumble of voices, languages, and phones fills the air in a familiar cacophony. I don't bother to slow to talk to anyone; my comings and goings are not unusual and not anyone's business. I do not have to explain anything I do to these people and they learned that years ago. Alex will cover for me while I am gone and lead the meeting, and if he decides to tell them that I'm back in Austria, none of them will be surprised.
The thought just makes me think of the Council's warning to me to find a replacement. There is no one else it could be but Alex, but that does not mean I relish the thought of relinquishing my command to him. It will not hurt China's future with Estet and that is really all that should matter, but I don't have to like it. Despite Rosenkreuz's training, I am still human enough to feel bitter over my approaching demotion. It can be nothing else but that; there is nothing for me to do in Rosenkreuz except waste my time as an instructor. My peers will be amused.
I do not think this visit to Estet is going to go particularly well, though I already know what I am going back for. If the Council knows I am there, they will want to speak to me again. Nikolai is just a few months away from madness. He knows his end is near and he has been growing more desperate for years. Hoffmann has been a steady barrier between the telepath and the date in my head and keeps the Council from drawing me needlessly away from my work to deal with Nikolai's selfish demands as often as he can.
But this visit has nothing at all to do with the Council. The last time I saw Hoffmann, he told me a telepath would become available in two months' time. The timing is right for this to be about that half-starved rat in Berlin. I am not sure what I have to do with the matter, but I am not against returning to find out. The flickers of visions from my last flight to China linger in the back of my mind and a part of me has been waiting for this day since my gift showed me such things.
I take my car back to my apartment and pack just enough for three days. The suitcase is set in the passenger's seat and I call Ming as I roll it into the airport a half hour later to tell him to send someone to pick up my car.
My ticket is at the counter as Hoffmann said it would be and it is easy to get through security. My seat is in first class and the chair beside me is empty, giving me plenty of room to think without another encroaching on my space. The suitcase fits into the overhead compartment easily and I consider my view of the runway before letting my gaze slide out of focus. It stares past the runway and airport to months-old visions. I did not report them to Hoffmann, feeling that the time would come when I needed them for myself. There is no sense of betrayal for the selfishness; a precognitive's visions are his own to consider and Hoffmann hasn't asked me about the child since my last visit.
The strongest of the three is watching that already tortured mind shatter and give way beneath Hoffmann's gift. I do not know if that means that Rosenkreuz will be successful in their induction of the telepath or if it is just a sign that Hoffmann will finish him off as a useless requisition. I am going to guess it will be the former, judging by the sanity in those haunted green eyes. That mind is still very much alive and Rosenkreuz cannot afford to let him go.
It still doesn't explain Hoffmann's intense interest in him, however.
"Schuldich…" I murmur.
But guilty of what?
I report straight to Hoffmann's office upon my arrival at the Austrian school. The car that met me at the airport drops me off in front of the building Hoffmann works in and I take the stairs up to his office. I pass faces that are familiar from past visits; two of them make amused comments about my presence and I ignore them completely, expression serene as I seek out the Council's heir.
I knock on the door and wait until he calls out to me before entering. The door is shut quietly behind me and I stand a polite distance from his desk. Hoffmann is standing by a globe that rests atop an ornate stand and he gives it an idle smack to send it spinning on its axis. His clothes are wrinkled badly and his hair is a mess; I have a feeling he hasn't slept in a while.
"Hasst's telepath is back in Rosenkreuz," Hoffmann says without looking up. "We are sending him to Austria in a few hours. You and Ikida will be going with him and you will be in charge of the operation regardless of what Borin says."
Silence follows that. Hoffmann continues to stare at his globe and he gives it another smack when it starts to slow. I wait patiently for him to continue. It takes him several minutes before he bores of the globe and he takes a few steps back to fall heavily into his chair. A cold blue gaze travels around the room, taking in the clutter that is evidence of a lot of hard work. I do not envy the Five for the things they must do. Hoffmann, as head of Asia's future, has been short on sleep and overworked for years. I've seen enough of him to know that he's up at least three nights a week getting things in order, from fighting for Talents and resources with the other Five to keeping track of all activity in Asia to keeping the Council placated and more. I can only imagine what it will be like when he is Council.
"How much information do you need to make a successful prophesy?" Hoffmann finally asks, flicking his eyes towards me. My gaze is safely fixed on his globe but I feel his power skitter over my skin regardless, like a wave of frantic little ants.
"As I am not a specific instance sensitive, it takes a varying amount of information to be a trigger, Herr Hoffmann," I answer. "At times, it is just a word; at others, it comes best from a matter that is days or weeks in the making. My instructors said it is never a sure thing and I have had to accept it as truth through years of experience."
He already knows this, so I do not elaborate further, but he thinks it over just the same. At last he stabs a finger at the chair across from his desk. "Sit," he commands, and I obey silently. "I need your gift to breed true on this. Seraphim is the one who told us he was still alive, but it was all she had to say about him. Malachi can't see anything about him no matter what we give him and I am not willing to give him everything he could use as a trigger. This is about that brat in Berlin, as you should already know."
I incline my head to him, mentally tucking aside the reference to Seraphim. She was nothing in my life except an occasional teacher, and considering who her visions were for, I never knew what sorts of things she was looking into. If she was indeed the one searching for Schuldich, then it explains a bit why I am the one in charge of the youth's study and retrieval. Precognition, like empathy, almost always breeds true, and sometimes there is a link by the shared blood to help strengthen and reinforce visions. Oftentimes precognitives are used in pairs with their relatives, but as Seraphim reached a level eight and was handed over to the Council, I was given a solitary path.
Seraphim thought Schuldich was important enough to mention to the Council, but how did she know of him? Most SIS precognitives need to be asked a specific question in order to see anything, but as the Council's pet, she was forbidden to ask herself anything past what the Council wanted. I suppose they were looking into the matter of the dying breed of telepaths.
I find it vaguely amusing- and satisfying- that Malachi is completely useless when it comes to a proper assessment of the ragged telepath.
"Schuldich was supposed to be one of ours from the start," Hoffmann explains. "His mother was one of Rosenkreuz's top agents back in the day. She had a strong gift; it blossomed young and hit hard. She had a control over her power that many thought was going to bring in a new age of telepaths; she showed no signs of a weakening mind even at the age of twenty-four. Her service to Rosenkreuz was cut short when a mission went bad, however, and she took a shot to the head." He taps two fingers against his skull, indicating the injured spot. "She survived somehow, but the trauma to her head destroyed her gift. It cracked and shattered inside of her.
"Instead of terminating her, Rosenkreuz wanted to use her as a breeder." A flick of his fingers dismisses that notion. "They set her up in Berlin with another telepath and gave her the order to get pregnant and stay pregnant."
"In Berlin, Herr Hoffmann?" I question. "If her mind was broken…"
"Yes, yes. It would seem a foolish thing to do, moving a bleeding 'path far away from Rosenkreuz's shields, but she did better for the distance. The doctors said that it was perhaps because it was easier to defend herself against dead minds rather than ones that were twisting with power." I incline my head in apology to him for the interruption but he ignores the gesture to finish with his story. "She conceived three times before she managed to conceive one that wasn't brain dead. Nikolai ended the other pregnancies early, forcing miscarriages. The fourth made it full term and everyone knew soon after he was born that he had bred true."
Hoffmann goes quiet, staring off at memories of long-dead times. "Ever since the accident, her time was ticking out. She was going mad slowly and every year that passed just made it harder. It was a wonder she lasted as long as she did, actually. Because of her imminent death, the Council allowed her and her husband to keep the child until her death. They thought it would be best to have two of his blood there to shape his young mind. That was a mistake." His lip curls back in a sneer. "With her mind, she was losing her husband. The strain was too great on him, to have such a fierce power so close that was so out of control. Throwing a child into the mess was too much. One day he finally snapped and killed her in a drunken rage.
"I killed him." Hoffmann gives a little shrug, expression smoothing out some. I'm not surprised by the news. For someone to move against one of Rosenkreuz's Talents, even a defective one, is an unforgivable crime. "And then I killed the boy," Hoffmann adds. "Or rather, I tried to." He tilts his head to one side as he thinks on that. "I could not see any of his mother in that face. He's a spitting image of his father, a useless father with too many ambitions who himself didn't have much longer to go. Seventeen when the brat was born and he was already starting to lose his own gift. It was a recipe for chaos in Berlin and the Council didn't see it coming."
I have just about decided that Hoffmann was in love with this unnamed female telepath when he speaks next, and the revelation means just about the same to me as for how much he had emotionally invested in her. "She was my sister," he says. "My older sister. His gift be damned; there's not a single nerve in my body that wants that boy to live. But." He emphasizes the word heavily and I can hear the disgust in his voice. "The choice is not mine to make and Rosenkreuz is in dire need of that Talent. What I want to know is if we will be wasting our time in dragging him back here. That is what you're going to tell me."
It makes almost too much sense all of a sudden; my gaze is fixed on the collar of his shirt but I'm not sure when I looked away from his globe. I am a little surprised, admittedly, that Hoffmann is so wound up in all of this, as empaths are supposed to master their own emotions before being allowed to play with anyone else's. He broke the rules for this sister of his, and considering that he makes monsters look tame, I cannot imagine what his sister could have been like to make it worth it and to force him to make such a human mistake.
A telepath in her mid-twenties that was showing no signs of madness… The thought seems amusing, almost. Aside from Nikolai, telepaths don't make it past nineteen years old before their shields start to splinter. What does it take in a mind to be able to handle such a gift? What sort of personality, what sort of convictions?
I do the math to figure out a rough timeline and decide that Schuldich was seven when his mother died. Seven years of being around two telepaths, of having their training engraved into him. And with that training- the mother's convictions. Her Rosenkreuz past, her Estet ideals, but most of all, her spirit. She lived through a bullet wound to the head and so many years of madness; she had to have been at least thirty when she was killed to go through four miscarriages and then raise her child for so long. How did she keep her mind from collapsing on her for so long? It shouldn't have been possible.
Then this son of hers… She had to have been the one to make his shields, her and her husband. It was crafted by two other 'paths and it was strong enough that it could withstand Hoffmann's gift once upon a time. I'm sure he shattered it, but there was enough of it to keep his gift alive, and that must have been what helped put a bleeding mind back together when Hoffmann left him for dead. What an amazing child he must be; Rosenkreuz can't even begin to imagine what sort of person they're trying to drag into their clutches.
Guilty of taking after his father's side, then?
"Schuldich…" My lips move around the word; I don't know if I'm saying it out loud or in my mind. The swarm of colors that follow it are almost vicious in their intensity as they flicker across my eyesight. I'm not sure if Hoffmann has said anything else or if he is still waiting on me; I'm hours, weeks, months ahead of this moment. I'm watching the child scream. I see a mouth work and he's spitting blood right into the Soul Shaker's face in hateful defiance. There's a flash of gold and dark blue; I think they're eyes but I don't know who they belong to and they're gone too quick to really take note of.
My gift hurts like it hasn't hurt in years, as if something's tearing across my mind. It is a horrible, nauseating feeling that reminds me a little too keenly of the times Hoffmann has grown bored enough to use his gift on me. Laughter echoes in my thoughts, almost unfamiliar because it has been so long since I last heard it. "A crack," my mother's voice purrs. "A crack…"
"Naa, Crawford…" someone drawls, sounding amused. I can only barely recognize the voice. Fingers dance over the back of my neck and I look back to see Schuldich stretched out in a patch of moonlight with a broken smile on his face. His mouth is moving in a near-silent, hoarse whisper. "Black black black black black…"
And when the visions clear, there is only darkness. I know immediately that I'm not in Hoffmann's office. For one, I am stretched out on my back on something that is slightly softer than a plank of wood, and for another, Hoffmann's office does not have that antiseptic smell in the air. I tilt my head to one side, trying to open my eyes only to realize that they are open. A hand lifts from by my side and I skim my fingers carefully along the skin under my eyebrows, feeling eyelashes move against my fingertips as I blink.
My eyes are open, but I cannot see anything.
Shoes tap against the floor, approaching me, and I turn my head in that direction. "You're awake now," someone says, and I recognize Ikida's voice. Fingers brush against mine; the greeting was a warning so the touch wouldn't startle me. The Japanese doctor takes my hand and sets it back down, and something warm and wet is wiped across my cheeks.
"I cannot see," I tell him.
"I wouldn't expect you to," he answers easily. "Herr Hoffmann brought you in here early this morning when you started bleeding out of your eyes." I say nothing to that because I'm not sure how to respond. "You're still bleeding, in fact," Ikida says, continuing to wipe away, "but it's only off and on and it should stop soon. You've been unconscious for almost twelve hours, you know, lost in that gift of yours."
I reach up to my face, touching my cheekbones to feel the damp skin there where he has been cleaning as if I can find some evidence of blood there. Ikida has to stop in his work but he allows me to feel at my face, and I blink up at a ceiling I cannot see. It is a strange and unwelcome sensation, and I feel my stomach clench into knots. Nails rake over the sheets at my side and I turn my head, thinking that maybe if I just strain my eyes enough, I can force them to see again. "Why can't I see?" I want to know, and I am glad that the question is calm despite my inner turmoil. Detached, maybe, but calm.
"It is not unusual for precognitives to lose their eyesight as they progress through ranks and overload their minds." The voice is Jean's, and I hear more footsteps as others approach the bed.
"Didn't you see it coming?" comes Hoffmann's amused drawl. I don't appreciate the taunt and his laughter tells me he's having a little too much fun feeling what I am fighting not to show. It is easy for empaths to mock the fate of precognitives; we were all taught in school that there was a fifty-fifty chance of going blind as we aged. Depending on the mind, blindness could come at any level. To be a prescient means to risk trading physical sight for mental, and while there are many who accept this easily in hopes of reaching a higher rank, a percentage of those who claim it is acceptable are ones who change their minds once they realize they cannot see the present world anymore. I am one of the ones who was never interested in losing what I had, despite Seraphim's frequent comments that I had the makings of a man destined for blindness.
I try to count the shoes against the floor and there's an annoyed "humph" from the foot of the bed. "There are ten of us here," Nikolai says in an answer to my thoughts. It surprises me for a moment; he shouldn't be able to hear me. "The Five and the Council have come to bear witness to your waking."
"If it pleases the Council, I will be waiting next door," Ikida says. Their answer must be a gesture, because no one says anything in response, and I hear his shoes tap against the floor as he leaves. The door closes with a creak and I straighten my head on the pillow, pointing my sightless gaze up at the ceiling once more. My fingers are still on my face and I close my eyes, resting my fingertips on my eyelids. My glasses are gone. I suppose I don't need them anymore.
I don't like that thought at all.
"Councilmen," I say in greeting, and I force myself to lower my arm back to my side. I leave my eyes closed; it is not like I can tell the difference between them being open or shut.
"The Five are here as witnesses," Ahmed says, and the bed creaks as someone leans against it. "The Council of Rosenkreuz hereby declares rank. The prescient Oracle, only son of Seraphim, is hereby recognized as a rank eight general view precognitive Talent. The Council bestows on you congratulations and the expectations that you will use this promotion in the best interests of Rosenkreuz and Estet."
"Everything that I do is done for Rosenkreuz's future," I answer. "My life and my gift are at your disposal." And while it is the truth, I am not sure I want their congratulations. I would much prefer to just have my eyesight back.
The thought is bitter, and I have a feeling Hoffmann is smiling.
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