CASE FILE 1923.X.XXXX
Sir or Madam,
Please admit the enclosed materials regarding the so-called “Pharaoh of Hong Kong” to the Century Club’s archives.
Due to the highly sensitive nature of these documents, as well as the means by which they were acquired, these records are to be secured in the Deep Vault. If you are unfamiliar with the Deep Vault, IMMEDIATELY REPORT TO YOUR SUPERIOR AND READ NO FURTHER.
The bulk of this material was collected from the accounts of Dr. Fang Mei, special agent from the Ministry of Parahistorical Defense, Hong Kong Office, a branch of the Bureau of Hypothetical Affairs under the Secret Intelligence Service.
Though we believe the documents are presented in roughly chronological order, strict linearity cannot be guaranteed due to the unusual interactions several of the described events have with time itself.
Hong Kong socialite Benjamin Hu features prominently in the events as described. The specific nature of his involvement displays the telltale signs of a Centurion. It is our highest possible recommendation to contact him in consideration for club membership.
* * *
My name is Dr. Fang Mei. I am a Special Computational Agent of the Ministry of Parahistorical Defense, Hong Kong Office.
And there should be a record of this.
Oh, there’s the official report, of course. But it’s useless. It ignores half of what happened and glosses over what’s important about the rest. Not that it matters anyway. It’s locked in an anonymous gray filing cabinet where no one can find it, I’m sure. It’s the nature of our work to catalog things no one is meant to know about.
It occurs to me I could lose my job if this account is ever found.
I’d like to see them try to find a replacement though.
“Eat. It’s entirely edible!”
That’s what he said the night we met. It is, I think, the most succinct summation of all things Benjamin Hu.
Benjamin claimed to have lived as a street urchin from the ages of five to twenty, stowing away on tramp steamers and splitting his formative years between San Francisco and Hong Kong. He credits this chapter of his life for his array of extraordinary talents. And while I’m certain that’s true, they came at a terrible price: Benjamin possessed among the world’s most thoroughly destroyed palates.
To Benjamin, the only thing that mattered about food was whether or not it would kill you to eat it. If there happened to be a flavor, its quality or intensity was of no concern to him.
And so Benjamin greedily attacked the contents of his plate while I (barely) suppressed a gag reflex after sampling whatever was on mine. By sight I think it was a kind of porridge? By odor it may have included yard clippings? By taste…? Either his chef considered me to be an enemy, or Hu’s definition of “edible” had taken several shifts from the normal range during those fifteen years on the streets.
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.
It was the spring of 1923 when I first met Benjamin Hu. He introduced himself by kicking down the door to my interrogation cell. This was particularly inconvenient as I’d been captured on purpose.
Technically I can’t blame him for the error. He’d been told I was kidnapped. He was on the case.
I was on a mission, but officially I’d been “missing” for nine days insofar as I never exactly cleared the mission with my superiors who, by this point, would have assumed the worst. For the record, I’d only been kidnapped for two days when he found me, not the full nine. It took me a week to get kidnapped to start with. And while we’re on the subject, I’m not sure it was really kidnapping since it was, as I say, all part of the plan.
Just without anyone knowing about it.
I had to do it without Bureau clearance because my superiors never would’ve allowed their top mathemagic operative to fall into the hands of what we’d guessed were agents of Doctor Methuselah. At best it’d be like putting out a fire with gasoline. At worst? Well, the worst doesn’t fit into words—we just have a handful of equations for that. It’s my job to help keep their variables from getting to the worst.
So that’s why I was kidnapped. And I think events bear out that I was right to do it. Had I not allowed myself to be captured, then nothing that followed would have happened. And then, one day, the world as we know it never would/will have happened either.
Contortions like that previous sentence illustrate our need to invent a new grammar for time travel. Yes, I understand the MPHD is the newest and least understood agency under the purview of the Bureau of Hypothetical Affairs. And yes, our budget is stretched thin enough without engineering new hyper-tenses, but it’s my pet project, so yes, you’re going to hear about it.
Where was I?
Right. Benjamin Hu kicked open the door because he’d read too many kung fu novels, and my first thought was, “This idiot is going to get me killed.”
I didn’t know it then, but that would set the tone for our dealings ever after.
He stormed the room with nothing but a walking stick. In three slashes, if that’s the word I want, one cultist was out of the picture before the others had time to consider a response. In that instant he made a most convincing case that a walking stick, in his hands, was almost as deadly as a rapier. Almost.
Behind Benjamin came a brutish fellow, Caucasian, with a face that might have been chiseled from rough granite. He swung his fists, clad in brass knuckles, at the head of another cultist who otherwise would’ve gotten the jump on Benjamin. I had the immediate impression this was their routine: the one dashing into scrapes, the other making sure they both got out of them. He cursed like an Australian but his accent had a touch of every corner of the empire.
The cultists collectively recovered from the shock of the breach and the lightning attack that followed. They drew upon that great well of confidence that has nourished every cultist in every dark recess of the globe throughout all of history: superior numbers. They formed a human wall in front of me and brandished all manner of exotic ceremonial knives in Benjamin’s direction. It was an impressive collection.
Benjamin’s brute drew a pistol and shot one in the leg. The cultist hit the ground with a yelp and some sobbing.
This gave the cultists pause all over again. Their comrade wasn’t dead, but he wasn’t in a state the rest of them had an interest in sharing. The pause wasn’t more than a second, but it was all the time my “rescuers” needed to steal the melee’s momentum before it began. Moments later we were up to our ankles in defeated cultists.
Benjamin looked at me, still tied to the chair, and said with what I’m sure he considered a very dashing smile, “Dr. Fang, I presume?”
I long ago came to accept there exists a specific breed among the male sex who, as a rule, cannot imagine a human being could resist the charms they believe themselves to possess. Men of just enough talent and intellect to be lazy with both. Men who are handsome insofar as they wear suits. I meet them constantly in the halls of secret government agencies.
They annoy me instantly.
Benjamin was hardly an exception. Granted, he didn’t wear a suit, just a dingy shirt, dingy pants, and boots that had walked across ten thousand miles of dirt. On top of it was a hat that must’ve lost a fight. Every article was a different color of soil. He looked like he’d just come from an archaeological dig. After being unearthed.
His companion dressed a little better, if only because he might’ve changed his clothes in the last week. On the other hand, if a man’s face tells a story, then his used violence as punctuation.
“Who are you people?” I said, probably too loudly, but these oafs had just ruined my plans.
“I’m Benjamin Hu,” he said, reaching down to untie some knots around my wrists. “But that’s a secret. That’s Clayton. He’s my chef.”
I don’t pretend to understand why Benjamin brought his chef. Or, having since sampled the man’s cooking, why he considered him a chef at all.
“Not sure if it’s his first or last name,” Benjamin said as an afterthought.
“Just Clayton,” the man said as if that clarified anything. Benjamin seemed satisfied with it though.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” I asked.
“Yes, we rescued you,” Benjamin said. He yanked at a particularly difficult knot and my wrists were free. “Well, rescuing. Can’t say we’ve done it yet.”
Clayton cut the rope at my ankles. I kicked him, stood up, jabbed a finger into Benjamin’s chest, and said, “You just ruined my sting operation!”
I’ll be honest. Calling it a sting was something of a stretch. But he didn’t know that and I was angry.
Benjamin’s eyebrows crashed into one another.
“Sting?” He looked down at Clayton. “You know anything about a sting?”
Clayton looked up at him and said, “My shin stings.”
Benjamin absentmindedly rubbed his cheek with the back of his fingers. He did that when something didn’t line up. “Probably not what she meant,” he said to no one in particular.
Clayton stood and dusted himself off. I suppose out of reflex or as a gesture since it did nothing to clean him up. “Well,” he said, “I got nothing.”
Benjamin’s eyes narrowed. “Why would a British official from a government agency that doesn’t exist come to us to rescue another agent, you, from the same agency, who had gone missing, but really wasn’t missing, because it was a sting all along?”
Clayton cleared his throat. “We weren’t to rescue anyone,” he said. “We were to locate her.”
Benjamin smiled too widely and awkwardly as he swiped at Clayton with the walking stick. The big man must’ve seen it coming a mile away, possibly due to familiarity, and leaned out of range. Benjamin turned to me and said, “Ah, ahaha. Hm. Yes. But we weren’t to know Dr. Fang was here until we opened the door.”
“Kicked, I recall,” Clayton said.
Benjamin held the smile. It reminded me of how one might greet a reviled relation at some family function or other. “Stop helping, Clayton. Anyway, sting or kidnapping or rescue or not, these are dangerous people, and they have friends. It’s time we left.”
Benjamin took my wrist and pulled me toward the door.
I pulled back. “Hands off. I got myself captured to collect information from these mooks and I don’t have it yet.”
“Like what? How many knives they’d stick you with?”
“There weren’t any knives until you two barged in.”
“She’s got you there, Benjamin.”
“I’m not leaving empty handed,” I said.
We went around and around like that for some minutes. In the end it was decided we would take the cultist Clayton shot. The man needed medical attention anyway, and he wasn’t going to find it among his unconscious conspirators.
We put him in the trunk of Benjamin’s motorcar. I’m not proud of that, but no one wanted to sit next to him as he was, well, leaking.
Clayton drove. And that’s when I began to get really nervous.
The car ride was uneventful insofar as there were no collisions. Hong Kong’s roads were not built for motorcars and Clayton drove as a pilot might. Which is to say, by his instruments.
I distracted myself by conversing with Benjamin, opening with the obvious question. Namely, “But who are you people?”
“I told you,” Benjamin said as if his name was all there was to the answer. As if he didn’t know that was immensely irritating. And as if I didn’t know he knew that.
“Yes, fine, Mr. Hu and Mr. Clayton.”
“Just Clayton, Miss,” Clayton said without ever taking his eye off the speedometer.
I took a deep breath.
“Perhaps,” I began, “you could tell me why officials from my department came to you when perhaps the most important part of being a nonexistent government agency is never ever admitting you exist? Why hire a private detective to find one of the agents you don’t have!”
“Ah,” Benjamin said. “It appears Clayton and I have derived a kind of reputation in the last few years.”
“Don’t drag me into this,” Clayton said with the tachometer under heavy scrutiny. “It’s your reputation. I just cook the food and drive the car.”
Benjamin appeared doubtful but neglected to engage.
“Have it your way.” He turned to me and said, “They—your agency that’s not there, I mean—they have a file on me.”
I knew nothing about this file of his, but he didn’t need to know that. The MPHD have files on all manner of people for all manner of reasons. Our Hong Kong office, being the newest foreign branch, had been adding files regarding locals of potential interest at an alarming rate. I nodded noncommittally.
“They knew I was the kind of person who could find the kind of person they were missing. I don’t mind telling you, that in and of itself rather impressed me. I make something of a career out of being unknown.”
That the Ministry had come to him impressed me as well. Whatever file they had on Benjamin, its contents must have made the case that he was also the kind of man who could be trusted with the Ministry’s greatest secret: its existence.
“That’s a curious business plan,” I said, coolly.
He let out a little laugh. “You have me there, Dr. Fang. But then you got yourself kidnapped and almost killed. I’m sure I don’t see the wisdom there.”
“I told you, that was a sting.”
“It seems to me that’s the kind of operation one’s superiors would know about in advance.”
Benjamin had a way of cutting straight to the heart of the matter. It was incredibly annoying to be on the receiving end of it.
“The window of opportunity wasn’t wide enough to accommodate bureaucracy,” I said. “I had to act fast.”
Technically true. What went unsaid, though, was that the Ministry never would have allowed it had I followed the proper channels.
Benjamin replied with nothing but a barely suppressed smile—a little bemused thing.
We arrived at the Hu Estate hidden away in a quiet patch of Kowloon City. It must have been two or three in the morning.
As the car came to a stop, Benjamin said, “Since we weren’t meant to rescue you, your superiors won’t be expecting to hear from us just yet.”
“It wasn’t a rescue.”
“They had knives.” That was Clayton. He was on his boss’s side for the first time since he stopped one of the cultists from getting the drop on Benjamin.
“If I let them kidnap me, then I had plans to get myself out.”
Mind you, they were a little vague. But I’m resourceful. A few swift kicks and a headbutt would’ve done it, though, I’m sure.
“Regardless,” Benjamin said. “We have our prisoner—”
“We have the prisoner to ourselves. We’ll get him patched up. You need food and a decent night’s sleep. In the morning we can—”
“No,” I said. “We interrogate him now.”
“He’s no good to you right now,” Benjamin said.
We’d come around to the trunk by then. Clayton popped the deck lid. Our cultist was right where we’d left him, and the poor fellow wasn’t looking well. It’s not like in the dime novels. There’s no such thing as a minor gunshot wound, and when fighting cultists, Clayton did not strike me as the kind of fellow to be careful about where he put the bullet.
So, Benjamin had a point. This time.
The man was still bleeding. Clayton assured me it was a nonfatal wound, but all the same, keeping it nonfatal meant removing the bullet and bandaging the man up before he lost any more blood.
I asked about the potential for escape and Clayton punched the man where he’d been shot. The yelp and the sobbing started all over again.
Clayton just smiled. “Won’t be going anywhere on that leg.”
“Is it safe to leave my prisoner with your man?”
Benjamin pursed his lips. “I can guarantee his safety if not his comfort.”
I felt this was all a bit harsh. But we were talking about one of the men who held me captive for a couple days, so my sympathy didn’t go terribly far.
“That’ll have to be good enough,” I said.
Clayton hauled the prisoner out of the trunk while Benjamin and I entered his mansion.
The Hu family estate was a hybrid of several architectural philosophies that didn’t quite clash, but they didn’t exactly mesh either. It was like two large houses had been connected by a third in the middle. And each part had been designed with very different ideas about what a fashionable home ought to look like. Though I’d only been once, I was immediately reminded of the MPHD home office at Bletchley Park.
“Pet food,” he said.
I replied with a blank stare.
“The house. It’s less impressive if you remember it was bought with pet food.”
Bartering in the markets of Hong Kong was as common then as it ever had been, but I didn’t think there’d ever been a recorded case of trading a house for some pet food. And there are four thousand years of records.
“Dad was a pet food magnate,” explained Benjamin.
“Ah. Animal lover then?”
He shrugged. “Possibly. I didn’t know my parents very well. They shipped me off to a British boarding school when I was young.”
Being raised by nannies and maids and such was a familiar enough story among the rich, so I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Only later did I remember that Benjamin also once claimed to have been an orphan who spent a good deal of his childhood in San Francisco. Ask him again (should you ever get the chance) and no doubt you’ll get an entirely new origin story out of him. Benjamin Hu went to great lengths to remain mysterious.
These stories may just be an irritating game of his, but I think not. I didn’t notice it then, and maybe I’m only imagining it now, but looking back I swear there was a flicker in his demeanor whenever he spoke about his parents, imagined or real as the case may be. The grinning, brash detective slipped away just a bit and someone else was left in his place. Benjamin Hu might be the smartest person in the room, but I’ve come to think that he might also be the loneliest.
The moment didn’t last long, though. Maybe I’d have thought something more of it then, but Benjamin was already changing gears.
“You must be starving,” he said, all smiles once more. “Let’s treat ourselves to a real meal!”
The dining hall matched what little of the house I’d already seen. It was filled with artifacts, but I don’t mean of historical or artistic importance, though surely such items were counted among them. These were artifacts of some other family or some other life. Looking at Benjamin as he sat uncomfortably in an ornate chair at the head of an ornate dining table in an ornate dining hall, I didn’t see the master of this house. I saw the gardener. I still couldn’t tell if his clothes were earthen colored due to their materials or if they’d been caked in a great deal of earth.
The wealthy wear their riches with an easy confidence. Benjamin, sitting there, looked like a squatter. And my God, he was still wearing that hat!
“How’s our guest?” He was speaking to Clayton who must have come in from some servants’ entrance or other without my noticing.
“Very good. I think Dr. Fang could do with a little nourishment after her ordeal.”
Clayton nodded. “I’ll see what I can do about that.”
I’m still haunted by that meal.
It was eleven by the time I woke up. Eleven-thirty by the time I got out of bed. By twelve-thirty I was cleaned, dressed, downstairs, and ready for about six or seven breakfasts so long as Clayton had been nowhere near them.
I made it to the kitchen without seeing another soul. As a question of etiquette it was probably permissible to raid my host’s stores, but the eagerness with which I did it made me feel like a criminal. I hadn’t eaten in at least forty-eight hours—the previous night’s meal absolutely did not count—and with Clayton nowhere to be seen, I thought the hell with decorum.
Satisfied at last, I left by way of the dining hall. I opened the door and was immediately startled. There was Benjamin, waiting for me in the same dusty clothing and crumpled hat that he’d had on last night.
“Morning,” he said. “More or less.”
“Didn’t you wear that yesterday?” I asked.
“You definitely wore that yesterday,” he said.
“I didn’t pack a change of clothes when I was kidnapped!”
“See? There’s a reason for everything. That’s the central tenet of all investigative efforts.”
I had a mind to investigate a kick up his rear, but Clayton poked his head into the dining hall.
Benjamin nodded at him, turned to me, and said, “Shall we?”
* * *
Clayton, Benjamin, and I loomed over the prisoner.
The cultist was tied to a chair in the cellar. A bandage of clean rags had been applied to his leg wound. I presume he’d been left tied to that chair all night. Served him right.
His robes hung on a nail sticking out of a wooden beam on a far wall. I never gave much thought to what one might find under the robes of a cultist. This one just had a simple white undershirt and dark slacks.
Benjamin and I tried talking to our prisoner in Mandarin, Cantonese, English, and finally a couple smatterings of Japanese. The cultist made no sign that he understood a word of it. Despite Clayton’s rough “bedside manner,” he stoically refused to answer our questions.
Clayton sighed. “Stubborn fella, and I don’t think punching him anymore is going to help things. Of course, being the cockeyed optimist that I am I could give it a try.”
The cultist began to talk. Quietly at first, as if his voice existed only as a theory. But it rose with growing confidence to a rich, full timbre.
I have no idea what he said. This was no dialect I’d ever encountered before.
“It’s Egyptian,” said Benjamin.
“Egyptian,” repeated Benjamin. “Tell me, the fact that they spoke a foreign language didn’t come up in the nine days you were held hostage?”
“First of all, it was two days. And secondly, when they spoke in my presence, which was rarely, it was in hushed tones amongst themselves. True to form, they were all very cult-like.”
“Well, I’m not sure of the dialect,” said Benjamin. He strained to tease out some nuance of accent or tone.
“But definitely Egyptian?” Clayton asked.
“No question there. Spent time south of Cairo some years back. It’s Egyptian.”
“So what’s an Egyptian cult doing in Hong Kong?” I asked.
“Maybe if we knew something about the cult?” Benjamin said, giving me a hard stare. It wasn’t just a question. It was a suggestion.
For a moment, I wavered. The Ministry may have trusted Benjamin Hu enough to ask for his help, but I didn’t. And that was assuming he told me the truth. Technically he and Clayton shouldn’t even be in the same room as the interrogation, so it was just as well it didn’t actually happen.
The point is: I wasn’t about to share state secrets with him. Yet.
I shook my head. “That’s classified.”
Benjamin objected, of course. We went back and forth on the point with neither gaining an inch. Meanwhile, the cultist’s useless chatter slowly turned into a chant. Clayton was the first to notice and it was his shouting that roused me from arguing with Benjamin.
Clayton had no way to know what he was saying, but it’s always bad news when a cultist chants. Unfortunately, it was already too late. There, in the air, shimmering like a street lamp through fog, were sigils.
Specifically of the mathemagic variety.
It wasn’t quite a full equation, much less an actual spell. The clumsy work of an amateur. In some ways that was more dangerous than the alternative. A child with a gun might shoot you in a million ways an adult never would.
Benjamin and Clayton were as horrified as they were fascinated by the symbols before them.
I punched the cultist in the gut. Gasps took the place of chants and his sigils winked away.
Benjamin pointed where the symbols had been. “What was that?”
“Nope,” he said. “Not in my home.”
I said nothing.
Benjamin huffed a sigh through his nostrils. “Does he have to talk to do that?”
“Yes,” I said.
Benjamin nodded at Clayton. The Englishman grabbed some rags from a workbench and stuffed them into the cultist’s mouth.
“If it’s all so classified, then perhaps we should get your superiors down here.”
Explaining to the Director where I’d been for the last week and a half was the last thing I wanted to do. I’d have to do it eventually, of course, but that fact didn’t exactly endear me to the idea of making it happen any sooner than necessary.
“Do you have a phone?” I hated to ask, but Benjamin had a point. The Ministry needed an update.
* * *
A parade of dark sedans appeared in front of the Hu Estate an hour later. Director Wu Qian and a fleet of sub-directors deployed from them, marched through Benjamin’s front door, through the foyer, and right up to us.
Short and gray haired, the Director maintained an ageless quality insofar as he could have been seventy, or ninety, or a thousand years old. Maybe all of the above.
“Special Computation Agent Fang,” he said.
“We have an incident, I understand.”
“They’ve been cleared.” Director Wu glanced at Benjamin and Clayton but he did it without ever taking his eyes off me. Must be a talent of upper management. “Anyway, they won’t understand a word of it. Please.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “My calculations in recent months indicated an urgent need to extend investigations into—”
The Director raised a hand. “We’ll discuss that at another time. This cultist of yours, he had an equation?”
“A Methuselah Equation. I think. Part of one anyway. Strong enough to manifest.”
I shook my head. “There wasn’t much time. Struck me as Forming, but it’s hard to be sure. There wasn’t enough to get a full read.”
“She punched him,” Benjamin clarified.
The Director raised an eyebrow almost enough that someone might notice.
“To stop him,” I said.
“He’s got a rag in his mouth now,” Clayton said.
The Director took in a deep breath and surveyed the three of us. “Show me the prisoner.”
An hour later I left the Hu Estate with the Director, his fleet of sub-directors, and the prisoner. The gag had not been removed.
I had the notion I’d never see Benjamin Hu again.
I smiled. Escape from the potential of encountering Clayton’s cooking ever again was a greater relief than my actual escape from the cultists’ basement the previous night.
I should have known better than to indulge in such blind optimism.
The following week was a busy one.
But then I suppose they all are at the Ministry. I had my regular battery of computations to log, but time on the Analytical Computation Engine would be a luxury due to the new high priority workload mandated by our prisoner.
The Egyptian, as we’d taken to calling him around the offices, took a great deal of satisfaction perplexing us with answers spoken in a language we couldn’t understand.
That lasted about a day.
Linguistic equations are always finicky. There’s just enough chaos in language to turn a straightforward computation into a nightmare. And then of course we’d had little cause to work with Egyptian dialects in the past, so that was another layer to muddle through.
In the end Benjamin was more or less correct. The man spoke Saidi which is, as I understand it, a dialect spoken principally in the Upper Kingdom of Egypt. It occurs to me now the Home Office likely had a robust set of Egyptian formulae that could’ve saved the overnight crew a few headaches. I suppose it doesn’t matter either way, as it would’ve taken ages for them to send the instructions.
Time, as always, was the enemy.
At any rate, the look on the Egyptian’s face on the second day when our men started taking notes was priceless.
He had no idea how much of what he said had been recorded. No idea that what we were getting from him was a rough translation anyway. We would’ve needed a few thousand more words, at least, to tease nuance out of the equations. We’d get there eventually, if he kept talking, but it wasn’t necessary.
Not knowing what we knew, he assumed the worst and broke down. It turned out his French was very good.
He revealed the following:
The mathemagical sigils he’d projected represented the sum total of his knowledge of the computational arts.
Every member of the cult had memorized a different mathemagical function. Presumably these were all parts of the same incantation, possibly the same equation. None of them knew. It would be impossible for us to be certain until we’d gathered a few more pieces for cross-reference.
None of the cultists understood the bit they’d memorized. By extension, they may not have known the correct order to incant the equation, or equations, as the case may be.
He knew there were “many” cells, but whether that meant five or fifty was unknown.
He didn’t know if all cells practiced compartmentalized mathemagic.
He didn’t know the size of any cell other than his own (thirteen members).
He didn’t know if more than one cell operated in Hong Kong.
When asked the purpose of the cult: “To preserve the Red Lands.”
When asked what the cult was doing in Hong Kong: “Preserving the Red Lands.”
It wasn’t much, but realistically we were never going to get more than that anyway. You rarely capture a vast international cult’s leader on your first run. Anyway, it was more than we started with and that’s all you can ask for.
* * *
The following day there was a note on my desk first thing. I was to report to Director Wu’s office immediately. This, I knew, would be the inevitable dressing down I’d earned by going after the “Red Land” cult without authorization. I steeled myself for the worst and entered his office.
Benjamin Hu was there.
“What?” is what I meant to say. What came out was significantly more colorful. We will leave it at that.
“And you’ve already met Special Agent Fang, whom I’m sure didn’t mean it like that,” the Director said.
Benjamin tipped the brim of his hat—that damn hat!—and made no effort whatsoever to hide the fact that he was failing to hide a smile. “Mei.”
“Dr. Fang,” I said. It was a growl.
“Mr. Hu will be joining your investigation into this ‘Red Lands’ business.”
“If I may be frank, sir, Mr. Hu’s presence can only impede our efforts. The sheer volume of classified information and events we undertake as a matter of routine—”
The Director held up a hand again. It was his most flamboyant gesture insofar as it was a movement one could notice without scrutiny. “Mr. Hu has full clearance.”
“He assisted Hypothetical Affairs with a matter just last year. We have a full file on him.” The Director picked up a manila folder on his desk, opened it to the first page and scanned it with two flicks of his eyeballs. I knew he’d taken in all the important parts. It was the kind of talent that made him the Director. “His discretion is assured.”
“I’d like to see that file,” I said.
There had to be a typographical error. Something along the lines of “most trusted” in place of “not to be trusted ever.”
Director Wu flipped to the next page. “Oh, you’re not cleared to access it.”
I could feel Benjamin’s smile.
The Director flipped a few more pages. “Hm. Or Clayton’s, it would seem.”
I made a fist.
* * *
Benjamin and I exited headquarters and entered the chaotic bustle of downtown Hong Kong.
The car was parked right out front. It took me a moment to realize it was the same Vauxhall they stuffed me into when we escaped the cultists. Clayton was already there, leaning against the automobile, smoking a cigarette, reading a mainland newspaper, and barring me from opening the door.
Clayton, without looking away from the paper, said, “It’s his auto, miss.”
I turned around. Benjamin made his way toward us, slowly and backwards, as he admired MPHD headquarters. The building, by design, was never admired. “Of course she’s coming with us, Clayton.”
Clayton folded the paper under his arm and stepped aside. I’m not sure it would ever occur to him to open a door for a lady, so it wasn’t even worth being annoyed at him for failing to do it.
Benjamin caught himself a moment before he would’ve bumped into me. He jabbed his walking stick at HQ. “That’s quite clever.”
Due to tricks of architecture, some feng shui, a handful of mathemagical wards, and a few façades, the Hong Kong headquarters of the Ministry of Parahistorical Defense appeared to be nothing but a small Post Office nestled in a row of office buildings you wouldn’t bother to remember.
In reality we took up half the block and kept the most powerful computation machine in the Eastern hemisphere, if not the world, in our basement. Acquiring it, I think, was Director Wu’s proudest achievement. It was a useful device, but my fellow Computational Agents and I regarded it with some suspicion.
But just because Benjamin was cleared to know everything didn’t mean I had to offer it to him on a platter. I shrugged. “We have to be clever to keep the kinds of secrets we have.”
Benjamin opened the rear door for me. I made to get in out of habit, but hesitated due to what I can only assume was my instinct for survival when I saw Clayton sliding behind the steering wheel.
“Perhaps I could drive?” I offered.
“You drive?” Benjamin asked.
“No,” I said. “But that makes me more qualified than Clayton.”
Benjamin laughed. “He’s among the best drivers in all of Hong Kong!”
Drivers in Hong Kong, as a species, are not bad. They are fearless. One would have to be to use a car on this city’s roads. They are narrow, winding, and packed with twice the traffic they were ever intended to sustain. Consequently your average Hong Kong street isn’t in disrepair so much as it is beyond repair.
“Well, he’d have to be,” I said, “It’s how they avoid him.” I had previously considered the necessity of both skill and daring to navigate these streets. Clayton proved you only needed all the other drivers to posses those qualities. Therefore, my life was not in Clayton’s hands. It was in the hands of the rest of Hong Kong.
It was a contortion of logic, I admit, but it let me climb into the vehicle. Never looking outside kept me from jumping out of it.
“Where to?” Clayton said into the rearview mirror as he wrestled the engine to life.
“The happy little abode where we found Dr. Fang,” Benjamin said.
Clayton smiled. Then frowned. “But they’ll be long gone by now.”
“Without question. But if we can track down where they went, then we can be violent upon them once more.”
Clayton’s frown turned back into a smile. He shifted the Vauxhall into gear and pulled into traffic without noticing there wasn’t room for us.
We’d been in the car for ten minutes. Or one or forty. Time took on strange dimensions with Clayton behind the wheel. But I think it was ten.
Benjamin asked, “Parahistorical defense?”
I repressed the sudden urge to chop him across the nose, dive out of the car, and go into a limp roll. People from outside the Ministry talking about the Ministry triggered an instinct for immediate violence—an instinct the Ministry had gone to great pains to instill.
I nodded instead.
“And what is that exactly? Because I have an idea of what that could mean, only it sounds too crazy.”
There was no sense in keeping it from him. He’d be no good to me if he didn’t have at least a cursory idea of the work we conducted. “Our principle responsibility at the MPHD is to identify and eliminate alternative historical outcomes before they happen.”
Benjamin’s gaze drifted away. “That’s what I was hoping it was too crazy to be.”
“It really is. That’s why we’re so serious about secrecy. It’s the kind of information you can’t have out in the world. Trust in causality is the basis of all sanity. If we acknowledge that anything in the past could come undone, or redone differently, and destroy everything everyone knows and loves, including themselves, and that this could happen at any time, well, our calculations predict a total collapse of modern civilization.”
Benjamin’s eyes maintained a lack of focus. He nodded dumbly as if only half awake. “Yeah. Yeah, I could see that. But why, I mean how, I mean why are pasts that never happened suddenly a threat to the present?”
“Oh, it’s not sudden. These things have been a threat for thousands of years.”
“Then how did we stop it before?”
“Previous defense efforts against historical re-coherence were conducted by a loose knit group we believe to have ties to the modern Century Club.”
“The MPHD was established in the wake of the Great War to prevent it from retroactively ending in the Kaiser’s favor. The Crown was uncomfortable leaving such a grave concern to private citizens, however exceptional they may be. Our responsibilities have since expanded into defense against all parahistorical phenomenon.”
“It’s getting, in a sense, worse. We believe the past becomes more rebellious in response to increased codification. The current theory suggests it’s due to human memory becoming external. First through oral traditions and then written language.”
Benjamin rubbed his cheek with the backs of his fingers. “And how do you stop these things from happening?”
“Two plus two equals the Renaissance is still safe?”
“And six divided by three equals the Song Dynasty happened. I know it sounds a bit daft, but, yes, that’s it basically.”
“The universe runs on math. We search for irregularities emerging in that math and work mathemagical incantations to, uh, iron them out. My recent computations shed some light on a new wrinkle.”
“Our Egyptian’s cult.”
I let the use of the plural possessive slide. “I believe they’re using similar mathemagical processes to ‘plant’ those irregularities backwards through time.”
“Where you can’t fix them.”
Benjamin was silent for about a minute. “And there’s just us looking into it?”
“Up from zero, yes.”
“I don’t mind telling you that seems like a gross misapplication of resources.”
“You can’t send information backwards through time, so my proposed investigation into this matter was rejected. I’m positive my computations show someone’s found a way to do it though! It’s why I had to undertake my, uh, unique sting operation.”
“Which just happened to uncover a cult of mathemagicians.”
“Of no real ability it would seem. But we need to find who’s teaching them, what he’s teaching, and why. How you’re meant to help with that, I don’t claim to know.”
Benjamin cleared his throat. Lightly. If it were anyone else I would’ve assumed it was an innocent coincidence. He said, “Well. I know where they were holding you captive. You don’t.”
I knew where they captured me, of course, but they were quick to apply a blindfold. Then I was stuffed into the back of what I assume was a truck where I spent a few hours wondering where the roughly eight hundred alternating left and right turns they made would take us. And then it was the dead of night when Benjamin and Clayton found me. I’d kept my head down as we ran for the auto and I kept my eyes shut to avoid thinking about how Clayton drove it. I had a general sense I’d been kept near the water, but they call it Hong Kong Island for a reason.
So, fine. Benjamin and Clayton would be of some use.
* * *
It was early evening by the time we reached a disused industrial park on the other side of a disused harbor. It was a concrete sea next to the South China Sea. Clayton navigated the Vauxhall through the ruins of warehouses and machine shops and came to a stop a short distance from a small and squat pile of bricks that had been an administrative building in its previous life.
Benjamin pointed at it. “That’s where they kept you.”
All I’d really seen of it was the interior, but it matched my idea of what the outside of such a building would’ve looked like.
“Shouldn’t we, I don’t know, be a little more clandestine?” I asked.
Clayton snorted. “Cults don’t hang around after they’re found. They’ve had days to clear out. They’re long gone.” I noted he didn’t even bother to take his gun with him.
Benjamin agreed with a nod.
Indeed, the MPHD was no stranger to cults and their ways, so I had no argument either.
We piled out of the auto and walked up to the front door. It had been boarded shut an aeon ago and then, somewhat recently, pried open.
Benjamin pushed the door open with his walking stick.
Four cultists jumped us.
Four cultists against the three of us. Rather balanced on paper. You might even think it was in our favor since Benjamin and Clayton had acquitted themselves so well last time when it was a dozen cultists against just the two of them.
But that’s missing half the equation.
Benjamin and Clayton were prepared then. They struck by surprise and that momentum carried them to victory.
That and Clayton’s gun.
This time though? The cultists were ready. They’d likely seen us coming a mile away. Heard us walk up to the door. Benjamin could hardly be said to have opened it before they came at us.
This was my first good look at the cultists in daylight. For an Egyptian cult, they were surprisingly international. Two looked of Middle Eastern descent, but their companions were Caucasian and Asian. This was troubling as it suggested the cult had an even farther reach than we’d assumed. They still wore ceremonial robes because I suppose a uniform is important. The robes should’ve provided easy handholds for us to gain the upper hand, but on the contrary the billowing material was to their advantage as it concealed their movements until the last possible second. It was like fighting with a den of cobras.
Clayton reacted first. Unfortunately, he went for a gun that wasn’t there. It was a split second mistake and it got him knocked in the side of the head. Clayton fell back and the cultists spilled out of the door. Benjamin retreated with Clayton and kept the cultists back by whirling his trusty walking stick at them.
That kept three of the brutes occupied. The fourth mistook me for the easy prey I’d been when they kidnapped me. He slipped past the larger melee and no doubt expected to end things quickly with my capture.
He was a little too eager to come at me. I couldn’t say whether it was a clumsy mistake or he believed that I posed no threat, but if he missed his shot he’d be wide open.
There’s a great deal of math in hand-to-hand combat.
Probabilities. Weight ratios. Leverage. Speed.
Every blow that has ever struck did so thanks to a thousand simultaneous calculations.
Just math. And I spend all day contorting math to my will.
I slipped out of his grasp and he found himself overextended. Even if he’d seen it coming, I don’t think he could’ve stopped the heel of my shoe from crashing down on his unprotected toes.
I felt a shift in the bone and flesh of his foot. Nothing was broken, probably, but he’d be limping for days.
He lashed out wildly, furious and blind from the pain in his foot. I ran toward Benjamin and Clayton—half to back them up and half to get away from my newly feral friend. I could hear him shuffling after me, so I knew he’d need dealing with again before too long.
I reached Benjamin as he jabbed a cultist in the chest, precisely between a pair of ribs, with the business end of his walking stick. The man crumpled to the ground as if he’d been switched off. He gasped for air and writhed with every desperate breath. I suspect Benjamin bruised the man’s lung and did some kind of damage to at least one rib.
I grabbed the cane right out of Benjamin’s hand and spun it around like a cricket bat. I struck my limping cultist across the side of his head and it snapped in two.
The walking stick, not his head.
Benjamin looked at the chunk of cane still in my hand. Then at me.
“I needed that!”
“I’ve seen you walk without it.”
Clayton tossed one cultist into another and now all four of our attackers were on the ground and not likely to get up again in the short term. “We’re about done here anyway,” Clayton said.
Then eight more came through the door.
Long curved knives flashed out of their robes and spun in their hands.
We ran for the car.