Chapter 17: The ECT
Everyone was too tired to cook, so dinner was cold sandwiches and leftover soup. Despite the simple fare, the diners ate ravenously, treating the meal like it was the finest thing they’ve ever eaten. The food went a long way to restoring their energy, and their spirits, and soon the small dining table was host to the murmur of conversation.
“I’m telling you, masks!” Sam insisted to Peter. “I mean, if we’re going to go out there, fighting in the streets against the Dark God’s minions, we got to keep our identities secret!”
“Why stop at masks?” Arthur teased. “Why not go for the full super-hero costume? Long-johns, underwear on the outside, whole nine yards.”
Peter gave Arthur a wry smile. “Well, we can’t all have your fashion sense, Arthur. You going for that old-school gangster vibe?”
It took the reminder for Arthur to remember that he was wearing the worn blue-and-gray suit that Kanos had insisted he put on. The damage it had taken during the day’s battle didn’t do it any favors.
“Aw, I think it’s right stylish,” Marco declared through a full mouth. “Can’t beat the classics.”
Sam was getting frustrated that no one was taking this seriously. “I, for one, really don’t want my mom to find out I’m fighting for my life against people with crazy powers.”
Ullen coughed. “Or, you could just, you know, not fight in the streets. Keep that up and you’ll have the rest of the ECT after you, and they won’t be as understanding as me.”
“I was actually meaning to ask you about them,” Arthur said, glad for the segue into a conversation he’d been wanting to have. “Ai was only able to tell me a little about you guys. I was hoping you could fill me in on some more.” When he saw the suspicious look Ullen gave him, he continued, “So I know how to stay on their good side, of course.”
After a pause in which Ullen seemed to be judging Arthur’s sincerity, he sighed. “I don’t suppose you’d be satisfied if I just told you not to use your Elements in public?” He shook his head. “ECT is an abbreviation for the English name of the organization, Elemental Control and Tactics. We’re an international group with loose ties to various government agencies, at least to certain members of those agencies who are in-the-know about Elementalists. They provide funding and authorization for us to do what we do, in exchange for certain favors, as I understand it, but that’s above me. What else? We’re headquartered here the US, have been since the Cold War, if I remember the orientation spiel. Anything else?”
“You guys are like the magic police, right?” Sam asked. “Stop the bad guy Elementalists?”
“I suppose you could put it like that. Our primary stated mission is the protect innocents from rogue Elementalists. However, the first objective to fulfilling that goal is to protect the secret of Elemental magic. The idea being that the less people know about the Elements, the less chance that the power winds up in the hands of, well, ‘bad guys.’”
Ai didn’t miss anything. “Yet you don’t sounds convinced.”
Ullen frowned. “I believe that they’re not wrong, at least not in theory. It is Adaghast who throws a wrench into the works. We need as many powerful Elementalists as possible right now if we’re going to have any chance against his return.” His expression grew distant. “That’s what I used to think, anyway. I’m not so sure anymore.”
“So what is the ECT’s plans regarding the Dark God?” Arthur asked.
With a low growl, Ullen replied, “Officially? None. Our stance is that Adaghast doesn’t exist. He’s a myth, perpetuated and used by powerful people throughout history to force others to their cause. There’s no evidence to support his existence, after all, except for old stories that can’t be backed. And even if there was an Adaghast who acted as a dictator at some point in history, he is dead and there is no coming back from that. So anyone claiming to be working towards that goal is just a brainwashed cultist working for a charismatic, perhaps powerful, leader, who will be dealt with the same way the ECT has dealt with all charismatic, powerful, Elementalist cult leaders.”
“Wait, wait, wait!” Sam stuttered, accidentally knocking over his soup-bowl as he rose suddenly. “What about the Fragments? That’s definitive proof, right?”
Ullen shook his head. “A random but natural part of the Elemental flows, or so they say. You have to understand, carriers are nothing new. They’ve popped up all throughout history, as have the people who have tried to use them, but it has never heralded a return of the Dark God. It is true that there are have been more carriers appearing recently than we would expect, but that’s not enough to get the alarm bells ringing.” He paused. “There is a standing order, though, in regards to carriers. They’re considered a particular threat, one that needs to be controlled. One way … or another.”
The table went silent, the only noise the dripping of soup from the table to the floor.
“Well, great,” Arthur said. “So not only do I have deal with the Dark God’s minions, but these ECT guys are also a threat to the carriers.”
Ullen could muster no defense of the organization he had sworn his allegiance to. He couldn’t explain that his membership was the only way he would be allowed to take students again after what had happened to his school. Nor did he feel that ‘most carriers would simply be locked away for their own good until it was certain they could be controlled’ was a good defense.
There was some grating of his pride, though, in the way the others at the table where looking at him. Despite all of its faults, the ECT did do good work protecting people, all while knowing they would never receive any recognition for it. Ryu had understood this, at least he had at one point. Hopefully he could convince his students. The last thing Ullen wanted was another confrontation with Arthur.
He decided he really shouldn’t linger here much longer. They would be missing him at headquarters soon, particularly with how busy things would soon be.
Kairi bundled herself up against a chill only she could feel. She pulled her scarf higher on her face with one hand and flipped a switch in her coat pocket with the other. A faint buzz let her know that the electric warmers located throughout her many layers were working. Today was a particularly bad day for her, one which she would greatly prefer to just stay wrapped up in her heater at home with some hot tea and a good book. She had something important to do, though, and she would not be deterred.
She would certainly have garnered attention, dressed as heavily as she was during this unseasonably warm day. Fortunately, the ‘ECT’ lettering on the sash tied over the right arm of her outermost coat ensured no one really gave her a second glance. Everything in a three block radius was owned by the organization, and those worked with them regularly saw stranger things than a woman wearing cold-weather clothing on a warm day.
The two guards standing watch over the main entrance to the headquarters didn’t so much as glance as her as she passed by. Their job was more to discourage civilians who had accidentally wandered into the neighborhood, occasionally giving out the official story that this was a government research lab.
The offices on the first floor resembled any one of many bureaucratic centers. Men and women in business casual attire hurrying back and forth between small offices and cubicles to handle to day-to-day minutia required to keep an organization the size of the ECT running. And secret. In today’s age of fast information connectivity, that last part required an entire division. Whenever someone decided to Instragram themselves conjuring electricity from their fingertips or live-streamed someone running across the water of a lake, they needed to quickly move to make sure the comment sections where filled with declarations of photoshop and camera trickery while passing the information on to the Enforcers.
As she waited for the elevator she peered into the central courtyard. Recruits for the ARU, Armored Response Unit, were currently running drills. The ARU were not Elementalists, but were equipped with the latest tech in armor and weapons and trained in tactics to counter Elemental threats. They were effectively the ECT’s riot squad, only called on when the situation grew beyond the control of one or two Enforcers.
The elevator announced its arrival and Kairi stepped inside, suddenly growing nervous now that her destination was so close. She was not a confrontational person by nature. In fact, quite the opposite. She was the type to go along with the will of others because she couldn’t handle the anxiety of saying ‘no,’ the type who tried to slink back into her coat like a turtle retracting into its shell whenever someone spoke to her forcibly. Today she mustered her courage, driven by anger that was unfamiliar to her.
As the elevator doors were about to close, a tall man in full uniform stepped inside. Kairi slunk back against the wall to give the man space. Also because she was as intimidated of him as always. Brake wore the same antique fedora and black tie with his uniform as usual, a somewhat silly combination that had made Kairi smile the first time they had met. Only afterwards, when she learned how severe a man he was, did she realize why no one ever mentioned his manner of dress out loud.
“Kairi,” Brake said by way of greeting, not bothering to actually look at her as he spoke, instead keeping his attention on the elevator doors as they descended.
“Uhm, hello, Brake,” she managed, weakly.
“I see you layered up today,” Brake said flatly. “Are you fit for duty?”
It was unusual for Kairi to be here when her condition was this bad. But there was something important she had to do. “I’m just handling a quick errand. I won’t be in the field.”
“Hmph,” was the only reply.
Brake was an Enforcer, an Elementalist trained for battle, specifically against other Elementalists. Kairi herself was one of the Specialists, Elementalists whose skills were less geared towards fighting and more on providing support through unique twists on their Elements. Many of the Enforcers, Brake included, tended to distrust the Specialists, whose powers they had a tough time understanding. It made the already socially anxious Kairi even more uncomfortable to be regarded with that kind of suspicion.
Thankfully, the elevator ride came to an end and her and Brake went their separate ways. She winded her way through the labyrinthine underground level, her eyes taking time to adjust to the sterile white lighting, her steps guided more by memory than the occasional sign. There was some relief as the next two faces she saw were of a more friendly variety. Two of her fellow specialists, Stacks and Raina, conversed near the ancient coffee machine which served as a landmark for the interrogation rooms.
“Kairi!” Stacks called out when he spotted her, waving her over as if she didn’t have to pass by him to get through this passage anyway. “Hey! It is good to see you! Oh, you look absolutely chilled, girl. Let’s fix you up with some hot coffee. I just beat this machine back into operation.”
Stacks was an aggressively friendly guy, which would make Kairi uncomfortable if not for the warmth of that smile. Those thick glasses of his and gray-brushed hair made Kairi think of a friendly uncle.
“Coffee would be good,” Kairi agreed, convincing herself she was just taking a small break to warm up and was not stalling for fear of her final destination.
“Have you come to observe as well?” Raina asked.
Raina was also very friendly, and Kairi liked her, though sometimes standing near her made her feel somewhat … inadequate. Raina was gorgeous, looking more like she belonged in a Hollywood movie than her sterile surroundings. Even when dressed professionally, with her blond her tied back in a ponytail and her figure somewhat diminished by her uniform, she was eye-catching. Kairi had seen her with her hair down, all dolled-up for a night on the town, and it was enough to make her squirm about how frail her own appearance was.
“Observe?” Kairi asked.
She looked into the closest interrogation room. The seated figure whose arms were chained to the table was barely recognizable from the last time she had seen him. The one who called himself Spike had recovered from his injuries, but he still looked weak. The shaved side of his head had grown a light brown fuzz, while the other side dangled in long strips of fading pink. Despite his dim surroundings, he was smirking slightly, like someone had told him a funny joke.
“They are finally handing him over to Marcus, huh?” Kairi asked.
Raina sighed. “I tried my best to get information out of him my way. He’s a stubborn one, able to break through my suggestions by blathering about sports stars and cartoons. He definitely knows something, though, about these recent incidents involving potential carriers. Word is there’s another nutjob claiming to be attempting to revive ‘The Dark God’, and if that’s the case, who knows how many others he might have suckered into that cause.”
Kairi nodded as she accepted the cup of coffee from Stacks. She felt kind of sorry for Spike, knowing what he was about to go through. Then again, he was a dangerous man, and he likely knew the location of other dangerous men. If it was in the name of protecting innocents, Kairi understood.
“I’m kind of excited, to be honest,” Stacks said. “Not about the interrogation, of course, but about what it might yield. I’ve been following our open cases, all these missing persons who were potential carriers, these battles that involve potential carriers. This guy could be the key to the biggest group of rogue Elementalists in decades!”
One thing that could be said about Stacks was that he enjoyed his job. He was always excited to have new opportunities to test his Elemental theories. And study the abilities of captured rogue Elementalists.
“Hopefully I can help shed some light,” said a soft voice.
No one had heard Marcus approach. The small man had a boyish face and a slight build that made him seem more like a kid dressing up like a soldier than the ECT’s top interrogator. The childish bangs on his straight-combed, light blond hair didn’t help make him seem any more mature. Nor did the way he he couldn’t seem to look anyone in the eye, always looking to floor or off in the distance when talking to people.
“The man of the hour arrives,” Stacks said jovially. “Hope you don’t mind, me and Raina are going to observe. Curiosity.”
“I suppose that’s alright,” Marcus replied, studying a patch tiles on the floor. “Though it’s a little embarrassing having people watch me work, I’m being recorded anyway.” He turned his attention to Raina, which for him meant he looked at a spot on the wall somewhere beside her. “Oh, by the way, Raina … your underwear today is blue.”
Stacks sputtered on his coffee. “Not cool, man! You’re going to get to called into HR again! Don’t you remember what happened last time -”
Raina gestured for him to calm down. “It’s alright. Me and Marcus have a running bet. He was bragging so much about how he could find out anything about a person, so I bet him he couldn’t tell me what color underwear I was wearing for thirty days in a row. If he can’t, he has to let me take him dancing.” She sighed. “It’s been two weeks and I still haven’t figured out how he’s doing it to try and put a stop to him.”
“Two more weeks and she will have to watch an entire season of Doctor Who,” Marcus said, smiling lightly.
“God help me,” Raina sighed.
Kairi quietly sipped her coffee while watching the proceedings with amusement. It was her usual place, watching others have fun from the sidelines. She preferred it that way.
“Will you be watching, too?” Marcus asked, drawing Kairi unwillingly into the conversation.
“Oh … uhm, yes. Maybe just a little.”
With a nod, Marcus turned from the group and entered into the interrogation room. The three onlookers crowded around the view-window to watch.
“I really like this place,” Spike said enthusiastically as Marcus walked around to the other side of the table. “It seems very secure. I bet it would be really hard to break out of. You guys should be proud.”
Marcus ignored him. He had been instructed that Spike tried to disarm his interrogators with fast, nonsensical, and friendly chatter. “Chen Lian,” Marcus said, taking the seat across from the prisoner. “We need to have a chat.”
The prisoner shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I don’t really go by that name anymore. Super impressed that you guys were able to figure that one out, though. Chen Lian is dead, officially.”
“They buried an empty casket,” Marcus replied. “Wasn’t the best case of faking your own death that we’ve seen.”
Marcus looked Spike directly in the eyes, his silver eyes probing. The only time Marcus ever looked directly at someone was during an interrogation. The look gave Kairi chills, even though it wasn’t directed at her.
“You have four brothers and two sisters,” Marcus continued. “We have addresses for each and every one of them, the five still living in China and the one that immigrated to the US. We can pick them up, if you would like.”
Spike seemed to try and rise to his feet but was stopped midway but the chains. He sat back unsteadily in the chair, unbalanced by the drugs that hindered his channeling. “If you want to get to me by threatening my family …”
“No, I would never do that,” Marcus responded. “They are innocents in all of this. I just thought you might like to see them. Or see that they are protected from your employer.”
The prisoner smiled. “Why would my employer go after them?”
“Because you failed.”
“Have I?” Spike laughed, but it wasn’t the playful chuckle he had been recorded doing during his sessions with Raina. It was a wild laughter, crazed. “Then why am I still here? I don’t blame you for thinking so. You don’t hear what I hear. You don’t know what I know. But my God hasn’t given up on me yet. And I will not give up on Him.”
Kairi nearly crushed the coffee cup in her gloved hands. There was confirmation: their prisoner believed himself to be working for The Dark God. It wasn’t surprising news; Raina’s reports had detailed that conclusion. He had just never said it aloud before.
“I just thought I’d try one last chance with the carrot,” Marcus said, rising. “I felt the obligation to do so before getting started for real, but now it is time for the stick.”
Spike smiled broadly, wholly unafraid of Marcus’s threats.
Kairi had only one though: ‘How wrong Spike is.’
“First question,” Marcus began. “How many other followers of your God were you working with?”
“Do you know how many players are on an American football team?” Spike replied. “53 in the NFL, even though there are only 11 positions on the field. Though during training camp, they start with a roster of 90 …”
Spike rattled off his nonsense about the NFL, so intent on his recital of numbers he didn’t notice the slight breeze picking up in the still air of the underground chamber. His words came to a sudden halt as a clear blade, large as the end of a claymore and composed entirely of rapidly swirling wind, appeared and buried itself deep in his chest.
He let out a gurgling cry, his hands reaching futilely for the blade and finding it impossible to grasp. His body strained against the chains that bound him as the pain sent him into convulsions. Then the blade was suddenly gone. Spike leaned forward to catch his breath, clutching his chest where he assumed he would find a gaping wound. To his surprise he seemed completely intact. His shirt wasn’t even torn.
Kairi could understand his surprise. It confused her the first time she had witnessed it, too. Thankfully, not first person.
Marcus’s unique Wind techniques did no harm to a person’s body when they struck. Instead it attacked that body’s Elemental connection. To the person struck, it felt just like they were hit by the weapon Marcus formed, but it never left a mark on them. Marcus could impale them, stab them with hundreds of knives, even make it feel like their limbs had been severed. Once he stopped channeling his victim would be left with just the memory of the pain.
“First question,” Marcus repeated. “How many other followers of your God were you working with?”
“A soccer team is different,” Spike said. He was beginning to sweat, slowly becoming aware of what he was in for, and his breath was still labored. “Even though in the rest of the world, it is called ‘football.’”
A dagger formed out of the swirling wind beside him. It floated there a moment, giving Spike just enough time to to consider answering the question, and when he didn’t it sank itself into the right of his face. Spike could feel it piercing his cheek, chipping his teeth, cutting open his tongue, even though in reality it did none of that. The impact would have rocked him off his chair if the chains weren’t holding him put. His cry had to have been heard throughout the entire complex.
That was as much as Kairi could stomach. She had a feeling Spike would be a long time in breaking. Once he could no longer muster the will to recite sports trivia, he would try to make Marcus stop with lies. Marcus would see through the lies, because he always did, and the ‘interrogation’ would resume. Eventually, Spike would crack.
They always did.
Kairi slipped away, unnoticed by the other two as they were intently watching this display. A few minutes later she came to her ultimate destination: the office of Lestrix, ECT Commander, leader of both the Enforcers and the Specialists, and the second higher ranking member of the organization. In a move much unlike her, she barged into the office without knocking.
Lestrix sat at his desk, typing busily away at his computer. He was middle aged, paunchy, and had more hair on his thick black beard than he had on his head. His office was a simple one despite his position: a single desk, several filing cabinets, an end-table with pictures of his family. The only oddity was his bookcase full of rulebooks for the obscure tabletop games that made up his weekend hobby.
“Please close the door behind you,” he calmly said, not reacting at all to the sudden intrusion or bothering to look up from his computer screen.
Kairi was losing the little bit of the bluster she had built up to the Commander’s calmness. “I need to talk to you about the attack at West Walen High School.”
“What about it?” Lestrix asked, still tapping away.
“I read the report.”
“The full report. The one that mentions the frozen hallway.”
Kairi slammed on Lestrix’s desk, surprising both him and her. He finally turned away from his screen to regard her. “It didn’t concern you,” his voice suddenly firm.
“The hell it didn’t! How could you conspire to keep this from me? How could you not tell me that my sister is back?!”
Ullen prepared to head out, hoping that, at the very least, he and Ryu’s students understood each other a little better now. Adaghast was coming, whatever his peers believed, and when he arrived they would need allies, not enemies. And knowing Ryu, these students where only beginning to reach their potential.
“Oh, one last thing,” Ullen said, turning back at the door of the farmhouse. “You should have this back. I’ll say I lost it in the battle. It’ll be harder to track you without it.”
He reached into a hidden compartment inside of the uniform and pulled out Arthur’s straw hat. Arthur’s eyes lit up with joy to be reunited with the hat that had meant so much to him since childhood.
“Ah, great,” Ai remarked. “I thought we were finally through with that thing.”
“Never!” Arthur declared, plopping the hat unceremoniously back onto his head.
Ullen gave them one last farewell. Then he went about the unappealing task of collecting his student’s body. He carefully cradled her wrapped form in his arms.
With her, he stepped into the void.