9

"We will see you in fifteen minutes, Mikhail one-one-o-nine-three," said the official's secretary before hanging up.

Mikhail groaned. He hated surprise visits, even more so from someone that high ranking. True, it was a routine, monthly visit, but he had expected it to be at night.

He hated the condescending tone of the official's secretary. People always thought he was stupid. Slow. Brutish. Crude. Crass. Muscle-brain. But when he allowed himself time to think, he didn't mind it that much. People underestimating him was an advantage he freely used. Let them lower their guard all they want.

Like that secretary. The call being made on a secure line notwithstanding, she had mentioned his name and number, for god's sake, breaking one of the most basic phone call protocols.

Of course Mikhail wasn't his real name, but a codename, a kind of pseudonym allocated to a bunch of individuals working for the Empire doing the dirty jobs, with a random number assigned to it. He, Mikhail 11093 wasn't the eleven thousand ninety-third, and he had no idea how many Mikhails there were after all. Heck, he was an Invisible in another sense. No one would find him in the official records, only in the most secret docs in the vast, sprawling labyrinths that constituted the basement of Moscovitch Security Agency.

He yawned, not even bothering to cover his mouth. Another night spent sleeping in the office. He'd learn to wake up to the dulled noise of the factory's operations, signifying eight in the morning.

Upon hearing a knock on the door, Mikhail straightened up in his seat, and the CEO and founder of Tarkovski Laboratories came in to see him. The President. Knocked. To see me. That was the kind of power he held as government supervisor.

The inward swinging door didn't have a nameplate, but everyone here knew it was his lair, the lair belonging to someone even the CEO bowed to, even if half of them didn't fully understand what kind of business relationship they had. And to outsiders, he was just some beefy Westerner guy in a tweed jacket. Oh yeah, with spiky dark hair. Maybe at the most, just some plainclothes security staff.

A wolf in sheep's clothing. A formidable sheep nonetheless, but still actually a wolf.

The old Gregorov Tarkovski sauntered in, looming over one of the armchairs by the wall, the long fingers from both hands wrapped around a small, thick folder. With his stooped posture, bald head, walrus mustache, shiny glasses, and long limbs, he would remind anyone of a human spider.

Maybe he hides some more arms under that crinkly lab coat, who knows?

"Mikhail." Gregorov's voice had a muffled quality to it. "Did you get the…"

"Yeah." I got the call.

And the curt conversation died.

The silence got oppressive, Gregorov staring into the air in front of him, and Mikhail pretending that he was not looking at the old man.

Gregorov Tarkovski, the man who made Tarkovski Laboratories what it was now. Ten years ago, a medicine that could cure cancer brought on his meteoric rise. No joke. Even as they called him the Professor, he was no researcher, but a mass producer. He struck gold, having funded the medical professors who'd worked on the project, and he patented it, but sold it at a lower price than how other companies usually would if they got their hands on such a monopoly. A smart businessman, but in a way, a noble soul.

But then the big bad government got to him.

Poor guy. The world isn't such a nice place.

Mikhail scratched his nose. "Eh, take a seat."

Gregorov gave him a grateful nod but still said nothing.

The silence made audible the distant echoes of moving workers and machinery. Except for a table, his chair, a locked cabinet, and a couple of armchairs, Mikhail's windowless office was bare.

Dammit old man, don't stare at me with those shiny specs, you make me feel bad.

As meek as Gregorov appeared, Mikhail knew the old man regarded him with a veiled loathing. The old folks' version of passive-aggressiveness. Mikhail could see it from the way Gregorov looked at him, the subtle body language and tone every time someone mentioned him or the government, and the way he'd turn silent every time Mikhail appeared in his vicinity. The old man could make his expression change without moving a muscle. Probably something that only old folks could pull off.

Trying to ignore the awkward silence, Mikhail flipped his right hand. A fistful of blue flame flickered to life, hovering over his palm. Playing with his magical version of a cigarette lighter didn't entertain him for too long, though. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a burger from yesterday's dinner. Unwrapping it as noisily as possible, he ate it in front of the CEO, with noises that bordered on impoliteness.

Gotta keep up the brash, crude attitude anyway.

What did it matter that he actually finished Crime and Punishment three times, or had written a thesis on patriotism viewed from an economic perspective? People judged from first impression, people were mentally lazy like that.

Having finished his quick meal, Mikhail wiped his lips with a handkerchief.

Gregorov gazed at him with those round, shiny glasses. He couldn't feel sure that the old man was the kind to underestimate him. That guy always seemed to keep his guard up whenever he saw Mikhail. Maybe that guy was scanning Mikhail's soul, but his reflective glasses stopped Mikhail from seeing the old man's.

He decided to listen to the echoes and clangs of distant machinery and the hurried steps of factory workers instead. He had sharp ears.

Then came a couple of sets of steps that moved in a different tempo than the rest. Deliberate, businesslike steps. The door creaked open.

With fluid steps, the secretary who called him earlier stepped inside.

Ah, the lovely Miss Nina Kashirski.

Mikhail had to wonder whether she didn't feel stuffy in her all-black clothing. Midsummer passed a few days ago and she had on a long black coat, one of her arms ending in a leather glove, while her slender legs were garbed in tight-fitting trousers that ended in a pair of boots. Under a peaked cap, the tall lady had her hair ending in shiny brown curls.

"Missus Centurion," Mikhail jested, knowing full well that his rank was higher despite her much smarter appearance, "how great it is to see you. Where's the big man?"

And the high-ranking official appeared in the doorway, Major General Aslan Arsanyev, his long coat wrapped around a thin, lanky frame. His balding head wore a kindly, round face, almost baby-like, accentuated by his round specs. "Good day Tarkovski, Mikhail."

The kindly smile and soft voice gave Mikhail the shivers, and that didn't happen often. It didn't help that the Major General was taller than him, and Mikhail was a big guy. If underestimating Mikhail would be carelessness, underestimating the Major General would make the mistake of a lifetime.

"Good day, Major General," Gregorov said.

Mikhail stood abruptly, almost knocking off his chair, and saluted with a stiffness that most people wouldn't expect after watching his lax manners.

The Major motioned for them to sit down. "Good day, Tarkovski. I can just send in any Private to look over the state of the facility, or talk of the matter over a phone call. But no, I have to be personally here. That is how important your project is to our country."

Our country. A bunch of Moscovitchs lording over a factory labored over by the locals.

"Yessir," Mikhail couldn't help saying, even as he settled in his chair.

Nobody expected the door to creak open again.

Nina moved like lightning, a blur of motion, and a heavy thud followed. When Mikhail could finally see her, she already had her ungloved hand around the neck of a person in hazmat suit, lifting him against the wall of the corridor outside, spiderweb cracks showing on his visor.

"Major General, sir!" Gregorov was back on his feet. "That's our top researcher!"

"Yeah, he is," Mikhail assented.

"Let him go, Lieutenant Kashirski," the Major muttered.

The newcomer dropped onto the floor, hyperventilating.

"What is it?" Gregorov's voice was calm. "You wanted to see me?'

The Doc stirred, sitting up, wildly turning his head left and right before shaking his head, and running away, his hands covering the cracked visor.

The Doctor was really close to the old man, who allowed the Doctor to see him anytime, to talk about anything, like a father and his beloved prodigal son. The Doctor and the Professor. Come to think of it, Gregorov never let him see the Doctor's personal information. Once, he had reported the CEO's refusal to the Security Agency, but received no response, which increased his befuddlement.

Nina returned into the room, resuming her motionless position by her superior's side, hands clasped behind her back.

The Major spoke in his quiet, soft voice, "So how did project Zarathustra go?" It sounded eerily commanding in the silence.

Gregorov passed the folder in his hands to the Major, who browsed through it in only three quick flips, every flip having him passing through the entire file's hundreds of pages in ten seconds, with machine-like precision. They watched him, tensely waiting for the verdict.

"Very good," the Major commented, not lifting his gaze. "87 subjects, and only 42 failures in the last twelve months… and one escapee. As disappointing as you might think it is, your result is actually better than our bigger facilities, with their more impressive array of equipment." His cold gray eyes pierced into Gregorov's. "How did you do it?"

"By the way, Major General, sir," Mikhail interrupted, "all the other 44 are conscripted, with satisfactory results."

"None of them are Centurion levels, though."

Mikhail winced. It was Nina.

But to his surprise, the Major backed them. "I am optimist we will get at least one Centurion out of the bunch. They just need to hone their skills."

"Three committed suicide, sir. Two went on a destructive rampage. Seven more tried to escape, and one actually joined rebel forces."

"And 23 more are under constant psychological therapy. No need to remind me, Lieutenant."

"As I once suggested, Major General, sir," Gregorov muttered. "Using Invisibles isn't the wisest choice."

"They came here out of their own accord," Mikhail reminded.

"Because we tricked them," came Gregorov's nearly inaudible reply.

"Well we can't waste the tests on valuable personnel," Nina scoffed, her level tone ending up the loudest in the conversation. "I mean, Project Zarathustra is still an unstable endeavor, isn't it? Once you hit on a formula that brings out more than eighty percent chance of success, we will use the best, willing personnel from our own men."

Nina didn't continue. The Major had raised an admonishing hand. He kept staring into Gregorov's eyes. "You are doing well. I'm calling it strange, even. Mikhail told me you tried to shrug it off as your facility's close proximity to the Spire, but of course, Mikhail didn't believe that. Government wolves are expected to have sharp noses after all. So it turns out that one particular researcher produces amazing breakthroughs at an alarming rate, we've been circulating his files in our own inner circles, as guidance for other research facilities." The thin lips curled into a smile. "Are you sure he's not a Disciple?"

Neither Mikhail nor Gregorov answered. The Major was half-joking, and even Mikhail was not sure if he was supposed to answer. But nevertheless, the suggestion remained. Could the Doctor actually be a Disciple?

"As usual, we'll be taking this," Nina motioned to the file in her superior's hand.

Gregorov's slow nod hinted at veiled distaste.

"Now, the mana suppressor." The Major jerked a finger in his secretary's direction.

Nina picked it up, not missing a beat, "We entrusted to you one of the strongest mana suppressor under construction in the Empire. Why is the research on this one moving so slowly?"

Gregorov's fingers twitched. "Well…"

Mikhail had to step in. "It's a high-level mana suppressor, sir. They couldn't research it while any of the factory's operations that involve magic are going on." He was the one who told them about the slow progress, after all. He didn't really want to defend the old guy.

"Yes." Gregorov nodded, mumbling, "If something goes wrong, everything will go wrong."

"With the factory's usual operation by day," Mikhail added, "and Project Zarathustra at night, they don't have as much time to focus on the mana suppressor."

The Major drummed his long fingers without sound. "The Emperor is waiting for the results of this one. His Majesty is in no haste, but he showed personal interest in the mana suppressor."

"No botched job for this one," Nina said. "It's powerful, and will be given a very important role. Not to mention that we're entrusting you one of the biggest experiment so far in using a human as the vessel core for a mana suppressor."

Nina didn't say 'the biggest'. Only 'one of the biggest', always 'one of'. Standard government talk, the Empire never giving away how many cards it had.

"You haven't even reduced the subject into a complete vegetative state," the Major said. "Postponing that in particular, is dangerous. Don't tell me you forgot what I told you, what the subject used to be, what the subject did before the government apprehended… are you having moral scruples, Gregorov? Emotional conflicts?"

The Major using the old man's first name carried no friendly undertone. Gregorov's hands clenched, his knuckles white. But his facial expression didn't change. "We have experience with standard-fare mana suppressors, those that use the alien cells as the vessel core, but not a living human."

"The cells the aliens gave us are weak," Mikhail drawled. "They don't trust us with anything stronger. No way they're enough to block someone Centurion-level unless you pile truckloads of those. Don't think we're greedy or anything, it's a global arms race. Everyone is thirsty for more power."

"Gregorov," the Major said, "would you make sure the mana suppressor takes precedence over… pick one, Project Zarathustra, or your factory operations?"

"Project Zarathustra."

Of course the Professor would pick that.

The Major almost sighed, but he kept his eye contact unbroken. "Of course. But we give you one month only."

Nina bent and spoke in her superior's ear, "But Major, we're here to check up on both."

The Major General's nod was almost imperceptible. "Yes. You know how it works, Gregorov, monthly inspection… routine. Ten at night, we'll be here."

"But for Project Zarathustra, Major General, sir," Gregorov said through his mustache, "we don't have any new subjects scheduled for tonight."

"We can still show you the recuperating subjects and test results," Mikhail corrected.

"Yes, you may go, Gregorov Tarkovski." The Major motioned with his hand.

The old man stood, but didn't leave. "When will all these illegal side projects end?"

"As highly ranked as I am," came the Major's faint, calm answer, "as the officer watching over the whole of East Tokyo, the decision is in the hands of those above my station."

"Your site is too valuable," Nina said, "and so is your expertise. Either that or we transfer the Doctor's team into a proper military facility. That was how we wanted it in the first place, but you refused, and what we have right now is a compromise, remember?"

Gregorov didn't break his stare. "Very well. Good day."

The old man strode outside.

He hates us.

Nina inspected a stain at the end of her sleeve, her brow crinkling.

The Major turned to Mikhail. "How did your persuasion of Valen go?"

Mikhail snorted. "Nada, um, sir."

"As I expected. Kashirski?"

Nina reached inside her coat, took out a small black file, and passed it to Mikhail. Still warm. "Files on his past. We got it from sharing his biometrics with Interpol while you made the passport request. Valen Albrecht is only one of his multiple aliases. He's dangerous."

"Gregorov and the Doctor are too close to him," Mikhail pointed out.

"The higher ups have decided that the facility will need a new Disciple, one with less questionable loyalty."

Mikhail browsed through the file. He had seen his share of surprises in his career, but the file contents made his eyes twitch. "Damn. I thought that guy's so likable it's fishy. Damn."

"Invisibles are tricky to track, not to mention that we can't be sure of his real strength levels."

The aliens need to stop recruiting Invisible Disciples.

The Major General stood up. "Lieutenant Kashirski will oversee that. We'll be going, now."

"Oh," Nina turned towards Mikhail. "What if we get lucky and there's a new subject operation tonight?"

Behind her, the Major General had already left.

Mikhail finally allowed himself a grin. "Then this one's gonna hurt a lot. You know those 42 failures? 17 of them are from this one particular modification. The tests will, too, more than others. I won't envy that person."

Nina showed one of her rare smiles. "Hope we'll have time to enjoy the show, then. We'll give this Valen a final choice. Get conscripted and join the Empire as a trooper, and we'll deport him to a training camp on the opposite side of the world, tonight. Or we'll arrest him, and deport him to a prison, also on the opposite side of the world. Of course they want a Centurion to be there, just in case the anti-magi squad aren't enough."

It's nice to have someone like Nina around, without someone like the Major General around.

"Imagine if we have an escapee tonight," Mikhail chided.

Nina chuckled, one hand on her hip. Before leaving, she said, "Then that has to be the unluckiest escapee ever."


In the privacy of a locked office three floors away, listening through a bunch of custom-made bugging microorganisms planted earlier in Nina's sleeves, the revelation made the Doctor break into cold sweat.

The Doctor mulled over what Nina mentioned. A high-ranking government official, a Centurion, and an anti-magi squad. Did she expect for things to get this dangerous real soon?

What kind of person were you, Albrecht? What kind of person are you? What will you do?


Author's Note: Yes, I know that Russian naming conventions and honorifics are much more complicated than that, like how Nina's surname would be Kashirskaya instead, to mention one of the simplest. Nina's diminutive form is Ninochka, Mikhail's is Misha, Gregorov's is Grisha, etc.

But then, for the sake of not complicating the read, I decided to not gloss over those, the same as why I didn't use Japanese honorifics when I had the characters speaking in Japanese. The -chan and -dono and -san and all…

I know this is a stylistic choice, and there are other authors going down different routes out there. Got to deliver the story somehow without making a fuss over naming conventions. Hopefully that helped the delivery.

Thanks for reading, and until next time. Please tell me what you think of the story so far.