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Authors: Edward Irving

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BOOK: The Last American Wizard
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The voice came out of the speaker again. “No. My hypothesis is that your telephone is
haunted.”

The picture of the cartoon hand with a big thumbs-up reappeared on the
screen.

“Well, Send Money agrees with you,” Steve said. “For whatever that’s
worth.”

The screen began to flash between apps and screens with
LOADING
on them. Barnaby said, “I’m installing a number of new programs. Fa Qian can store what you find, identify spells, and enumerate how the ways of power have changed. Essentially, he’s going to function as a spellbook, what Wikipedia calls a
grimoire
.”

“So, we have an app for
that?”

“Ha. Ha.” The computer’s sarcasm came through quite clearly. “While that’s loading, let me continue with our most accurate– well, most recent, at any rate–hypothesis of what this explosion of magic is going to mean in practical terms. Power will become POWER.”

“Hello. Hello.” Steve shook the phone. “Are you malfunctioning in there? You’re talking in circles and, what’s worse, in All
Caps.”

The telephone showed a cartoon of an anime-style figure looking sick with loops spinning around his head. Steve stopped shaking the
device.

“Let me say that again–your human speech has its limits,” Barnaby continued. “Whatever constituted power in our previous reality–financial power, physical power, political power, even computing power–is becoming All-Caps POWER–magical POWER–in this new
reality.”

“How does it
work?”

“As far as we can tell, it’s a version of the old Greek concept
of everything being made up of one of four primary elements: Fire, Air, Earth, and Water. We are finding that it is easier to grasp when you use the tarot, since the cards appear to represent archetypes in the collective human
unconsciousness.”

“Are you listening to yourself?” Steve snapped. “You sound like some New Age nutball rattling on about vortexes near Taos.”

“We expect those vortexes to reappear any day now,” Barnaby responded. “As for the tarot, we are looking for what works first and looking into why it works
later.”

“When will it wear
off?”

“Unless someone can work out a way to mend the Rift, I don’t see that it will,” Barnaby said. “Right now, it’s limited by the speed at which it spreads, but eventually, it should cover the entire world.”

“Great,” Steve said glumly. “Life in the New
Abnormal.”

“We only had a few–very few–individuals who could manipulate OTN events before the Change. For example, Master Chief Morningstar had the ability to cast a glamour that caused everyone to see her as a man.” Ace nodded. “We collected all the others we could find–remote viewers, clairvoyants, telepaths, et cetera–and we would get some useful information from them occasionally. Not often, but
occasionally.”

Steve looked dubious. “You mean all those stories about Men Who Stare at Goats were
true?”

“Certainly not with goats,” Barnaby snapped. “But, yes, for decades, we’ve been working with every OTN-aware sensitive we could find. Officially, it was called the Pendukkerin Group, from the Romani word for fortunetelling, but insiders usually called it Medium Rare. Of course, they did make a complete hash in the matter of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, but we believe that was the effect of a bleed-over from the vice-president’s incredibly powerful belief structures. At any rate, last month, almost all of our OTN operatives reported that they saw a great danger coming, and several–enough for statistical significance to significantly exceed random occurrence–told us that you and that cell phone would become critically important. I just received confirmation that all of the Pendukkerin Group have lost what power or talent they possessed–”

Ace spoke up. “And that’s why I had standing orders to collect you if an Incident
occurred.”

“As far as we can tell, the Incident opened you to all the magical elements. That’s why we’re referring to you as the Fool, the tarot card that is both the weakest and the most powerful and the only card that can control all four elements,” Barnaby continued.

“You can’t be serious. I’m America’s last wizard?” Steve asked.

“Don’t feel too bad,
kemo sabe.
” Ace stepped forward and patted him on the shoulder. “I’ve got your
back.”

“That’s not all that comforting, considering that you just threatened to stab me in
it.”

“True.” The blond woman nodded with a smile. “Better dead than a dragon’s dinner, I always say.” She pulled the battered silver card case out of its pocket in her cargo pants and chose a card from the middle of the pack without looking. It showed a
hand holding a single sword–a crown was balanced on the tip of
the
sword.

“Here’s my card, the Ace of Swords.” She slipped the card back into the box and put the box away. “Absolute protection, total loyalty.”

“That how you got your name?” Steve
asked.

Without looking up from buttoning the pocket in her cargo pants, Ace said, “I’ll bet that kind of lightning deduction is why you’re considered one of the top journalists in the
country.”

“Huh? Who told you that?” Steve asked. Ace just smiled in
reply.

“All right. So I haven’t had a regular byline lately.”

“Or in the last
decade.”

“Yeah, well, only people who suck up to the editors get the lead stories.” Steve changed the subject. “Why are you attaching so much importance to tarot cards anyway? There are a lot of other equally stupid occult ideas that might work just as
well.”

“We’ve found the tarot to be extremely useful,” Barnaby answered from the
speaker.

“You may remember the Total Information Awareness project that we told the public was abandoned back in 1981 when John Poindexter made the mistake of mentioning it. The TIA project consists of gathering all the world’s data and then mining for correlations we don’t know exist until we find them. In many ways, it’s a cybernetic duplicate of what Carl Jung called ‘the collective unconscious,’ and, as I told you, we’ve known for a long time that the tarot is an excellent tool for data mining that. One of our smaller subsystems has been laying out random cards in a Celtic cross a couple of hundred times a second and recording the results for
years.”

“Learn anything
useful?”

“To be honest, not a whole lot–although it did warn us about the 1973 Manhattan car
bombs.”

“There weren’t any car bombs in Manhattan in 1973.”

“Precisely.”
A
picture
of
lightning
blasting
the
top
off
a
tall tower
and
sending
a
man
and
a
woman
falling
to
the
rocks
below appeared on Send Money’s screen. “Since the Incident, we’ve been getting the Tower in the tenth position in almost every
hand.”

Steve peered at the screen again. “What’s the tenth position?”

“That’s known as the Final
Result.”

“Smashed building with people falling to their deaths,” Steve noted. “Can’t be
good.”

“No. It represents significant changes in power and especially in the ruling class–or in our case, the
government.”

Ace spoke up again. “I don’t know if you noticed, but the prevailing wind is out of the north and that would mean that the plume of this purple stuff you say is pouring out of here would be–”

“–heading directly for Washington,” Steve
finished.

CHAPTER
ELEVEN

 

 

Steve and Ace emerged from the shaded interior of the fake building to find something unusual anywhere near the District of Columbia–a perfect day. Bright sunshine, low humidity, a soft breeze–it was the sort of day when veteran Washingtonians instantly took off from work and headed for a local
park.

Lieutenant Colonel Tataka was standing nearby, talking to three of the technicians in the white lab coats. When she saw Steve, she made some terse comments to the techs–clearly orders
of some sort and a dismissal–and walked over. Steve was surprised to see that she looked distinctly different from when he had last seen her only moments before. Her face seemed to be more angular, cheekbones and nose were more pronounced, and her eyes appeared larger. He shivered in the warm sunlight as he saw that her shoulders had broadened and her hands looked longer, thinner, and stronger. Steve could swear he could actually see her military- standard short fingernails growing
longer.

He wasn’t the only one who noticed. Ace moved casually to his right side and a step in front of Steve. On a whim, he brought his phone out and took a quick
picture.

“This is a lousy place to take snapshots,” Tataka said. “Luckily, we’re on Fort Meade proper and not under NSA jurisdiction or I’d have to confiscate that
phone.”

Steve could feel Ace stir and cut off a possible refusal with an apology. “Of course; I should have assumed it was a bad idea.”
He replaced the phone in his jacket pocket. “See, no camera, no problem.”

Tataka looked as if she wanted to make more of it, but Ace broke in. “Sir, are there any orders for us? We’ve been cut off in there–that mock-up seems to block phone
signals.”

Steve noticed her bland lie and assumed that the Master Chief was letting him know that any reference to Barnaby or Send Money would be a bad idea. That was fine with him; he wasn’t comfortable talking about a sentient computer and a haunted cell phone
anyway.

The colonel shook her head angrily. “I’m not sure what to do with you two. I’ve just received two sets of orders–the latest says that all previous orders are rescinded and you need to head out immediately on an unspecified but urgent
mission.”

She stopped and Steve noticed that several of the armed troops were moving casually but steadily in their direction. “What were the earlier orders?” he
asked.

“Well, they were quite
different–”

At that moment, Send Money began vibrating violently and softly
playing
Danger
Zone
from
Top
Gun
.
He
took
the
little
phone out again and looked at the
screen.

It was the picture he had just taken of Trinidad Tataka. At least, the background and her clothes looked like what he had snapped but the...thing...that was wearing her uniform wasn’t even human. Blue skin, enormous muscles already tearing the seams of her coat and trousers, clawed hands, and a mouthful of long, pointed fangs instead of
teeth.

Web pages flashed until finally the phone stopped on a Wikipedia page and highlighted a
sentence.

TATAKA WAS A HINDU DEMONESS, THE FIRST OF THE
RAKASHI
.

Then some of the words disappeared and others grew larger to fill the
screen:

TATAKA
DEMON

He looked up. The tall woman had changed in the past few seconds–increasingly matching the photo–but still predominantly human. She had pulled a neatly folded handkerchief from her breast pocket and was wiping perspiration off her
forehead.

“Where was I?” She seemed confused and angry–angrier than she had any reason to be. “Oh, yes, the earlier orders. They were from USCYBERCOM–the Offensive Ops Division. They said to take you into protective custody for further questioning at Blue
One Security and if we couldn’t place you under guard, we should be prepared to ensure that you wouldn’t fall into enemy
hands.”

The tall woman was clearly struggling to make a decision–and appeared to be talking to herself. “If I take you under guard, Blue One can always send you on your mission once their security office is
satisfied.”

The four Marines had formed a semicircle around them and were casually swinging their chest-slung rifles into positions where they could quickly come up and cover both Steve and
Ace.

The Master Chief spoke up, the tone of her voice completely level and relaxed. “Steve, I’ll deal with the mortals, but I’m afraid that the colonel is quickly moving out of my weight
class.”

Before she’d even finished speaking, she was whirling towards the closest
Marine.

Steve blinked and concentrated and it was as if a cloud cleared from his eyes. Colonel Tataka didn’t look like the photo–she looked
a
lot
worse.
She
had
gained
at
least
another
foot
in
height and her bulging muscles had shredded the trim uniform–leaving
her in an elastic top and compression
shorts.

She howled, a terrible sound of mixed rage and some terrible hunger, and came at Steve–fully grown claws
extended.

The rose shield snapped into being almost instantly without
the intense concentration followed by agony and disorientation that Steve had gone through when he had blocked Ace’s lightning bolt. It was a good thing, because Tataka hit the opalescent curve a microsecond after it flashed into existence. She bounced back, hooked talons slipping off the shimmering surface like an eagle
that had just attacked a cue
ball.

Steve noted that she was as efficient and determined a
monster, as she was a human military officer. She began to circle, striking fast blows to determine the limits of the
shield.

There was a tearing pain in his right leg. He looked down to see that a truly impressive set of talons had ripped right out of Tataka’s formal pumps and she had gone under the bubble shield and struck his leg. Through thin slits in his pants, he could see blood beginning to
flow.

Blood
magic.

He continued to move the shield up and down and side to side to fend off Tataka’s attacks. Soon, he realized that he was more efficient when he stopped thinking about placing the rose and just let it move automatically. It was almost as if the shield itself was making the decisions, moving to counter as it read the blue monster’s feints and
dodges.

There was the harsh
crack
of a rifle shot. Steve hoped that the blonde SEAL was OK, but he didn’t have time to find out. He had to concentrate on creating some sort of offensive weapon. Even if he held Tataka off indefinitely, she’d just go after Ace, and then, with more troops, she would inevitably, eventually,
fall.

Blood magic had been potent when he’d used it back in his apartment, but that had been something that had risen from the depths of his unconscious mind. Now that he was thinking about what he was trying to do it was like sex–being aware of what you were doing made it much harder to
do.

He tried to concentrate on the trails of blood running down his shins. The image of the Fool came to him. What did he have in his right
hand?

A sword? No, a staff with a red sack on the end. What was this guy, some 5-year-old running away from home in a cheesy comic strip?

Red. The color of
blood.

The blue demoness came at him with a flurry of strikes– coming off the ground to stab at him with all her claws in quick succession. The rose shield moved much faster than he would ever have believed possible, and she backed away, howling in rage.

The staff and a bag the color of blood. What was in the sack?

Barnaby had said the Fool was a creature of all four
elements.

Was there
Air
in the sack? Earth?

Water? Fire?

Certainty came to him as soon as the thought crossed his mind. There was
Fire
in that red sack. Red as blood. Blood would be the element that controlled the power of red
Fire
.

What the hell, it made as much sense as anything else today. He
Studied
the red
bag.

He
Concluded
that it was filled with a blazing fire beyond fire–more like that deep in the interior of the
sun.

Tataka was coming in again–even
faster.

Steve brought the image from the card firmly to the front of his
mind.

He concentrated on the slashes on his leg–the viscous fluid seeping down filled with platelets and iron and oxygen–alive with the slow smolder of
oxidation.

Blood! Made from all four
elements!

He didn’t have a plan–he acted as if in a dream. The blood moved to cover his right hand like a red glove, and he found that
he could reach into the bag without pain. The sun-stuff was a gas under so much pressure that it was almost solid–like thick mud at the bottom of a pond. He formed a chunk into a ball, took a split- finger grip that was a muscle memory from his childhood, and threw a beautiful dropping fastball directly at the
demon.

This time, the pain ripped up from his leg like a chainsaw– tearing through his chest and finally splitting his head just above the right ear. A brilliant light flashed and he desperately blinked away the afterimages, terrified that a talon was whipping towards the veins of his
neck.

When his vision cleared, he saw that Tataka was standing still, regarding Steve with her enormous alien eyes. Then she looked down and studied her midsection. A charred hole now passed entirely through her body–a terrible wound where her abdomen
and a good part of her chest had been vaporized. The white ends of ribs poked out on both sides, and thin trickles of smoke curled lazily up from the frayed and charred bits of clothing and skin that edged the
hole.

Her head came up slowly, her eyes following the smoke tendrils as they braided and split until they dissipated in the sunlit air above her head. Her misshapen skull continued its upward motion, and finally, her body
followed.

The tall blue figure fell backward and lay
still.

BOOK: The Last American Wizard
7.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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