Riyad could only stare at the stranger in the entranceway, unable to remember that it was up to him to take the initiative and say something to the man, until Jin’s voice snapped him out of his stupor.
“Prove it,” the Xifengese man said.
The demand wasn’t unprecedented, but it was abrupt. With a slight frown, Riyad wondered if he would ever actually be in charge the way Ath’ran had been.
But Jin was sitting forward in his chair with his elbows on his knees and his chin cupped in his hands, waiting for a response. It was obvious that his impulsive curiosity had once again gotten the better of him; he wasn’t trying to usurp anyone’s authority.
Riyad pushed away his doubts and looked back at the newcomer, who ran a hand through his already-mussed hair.
“Let’s see...” He looked up at the ceiling. “In a week or so, you’re going to visit your aunt. She runs a restaurant and a brothel, right?”
He looked back at Jin, who nodded, and then murmured in an amused tone, “Genius...two main survival urges combined in one place. Is the food any good?” he added, cocking his head.
“Best Xifengese cuisine in No Town,” Jin said, sitting back in his seat with a small smirk curling his lips.
The man chuckled, but Riyad noted the strained look that came over his features as he continued his prediction. “You’re going to visit her. You’ll see something that’s important, but you’re not going to realize it’s important until much later.”
The three of them were silent for a moment, looking at each other. When Riyad finally opened his mouth to speak, though, Jin beat him to it.
“That doesn’t prove anything.” He crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head to clear his bangs out of his eyes. “You could’ve looked me up and found out about Aunty Xiao’s business, and the rest is too vague to mean anything at all.”
“Ah, well...” The newcomer rubbed the back of his neck with a sheepish smile, and changed the subject. “So it’s just the two of you here? Cross told me there were more. Five I think.”
“Cross?” The name drop got Riyad’s attention more than the hazy prediction had. “You know her?”
“She’s my fiancé.” The man’s smile brightened carelessly.
So the Messenger and the Oracle were that close. Riyad remembered the blond baby Cross had brought to the office with her and searched the man’s face for traces of a resemblance.
“There were five of us,” he said. “Nyr is busy elsewhere. Ath’ran left for a new job, and Du’shan died in the attacks.”
The man’s expression sobered a bit at that. “I see.”
Riyad took a deep breath and smiled. “Why don’t you come to my office? We can talk more there.”
Jin whipped around to face Riyad, his voice indignant as he protested. “But I want--”
“--To do your work so you can get paid?” Riyad chuckled and he held out an arm to usher the apparent Oracle toward his office. “A worthy goal. Please come this way, sir.”
They left Jin sulking at his desk, his fingers pounding on his keyboard in a cacophonous but voiceless protest.
The sound was cut off as Riyad closed the office door behind him and gestured for his guest to sit. The room was almost exactly as Ath’ran had left it the day he had retrieved his belongings. The walls and desk had no personal items on them--Riyad left those things in his room and at his workbench in the kitchen. He hadn’t even reprogrammed the window yet, so it still showed a pristine view of upper levels buildings rather than the blowing sand of New Arcadia.
The only thing that had really changed was the presence of dozens of rubber bands on the floor and desk; Riyad’s habit of shooting them at various targets to pass his time hadn’t disappeared with his promotion. If anything, it had gotten worse. Unable to motivate himself to do work that wasn’t put in front of him by someone else, he had very little else to do.
He had learned, however, that while the thinner rubber bands were great for distance, the thicker ones meant for packaging could knock a pencil cup a foot and a half across the room. The practical usage of this information currently escaped him, but Riyad was still hopeful his research would not be in vain.
The Oracle chose one of the chairs in front of the desk and sank into it, long-legged and boneless, as he looked around the office. Something rattled in his pocket as he shifted, pulling his sleeves down over his hands. Riyad cast him a curious glance as he settled down in his own chair, uncomfortable on the business-side of the desk, and the man smiled a little.
“Sem’s sick. I went to pick up some medicine for him. The pharmacist gave me pills, ‘cause they’re running low on liquid forms of the medicine, I guess? Because of the healthcare crisis. But I think we can hide it inside his macaroni and he won’t even notice. I mean, he doesn’t really chew that stuff anyway.” He laughed. “At least, when he throws it up, it’s pretty much in whole pieces. But I think it’s ‘cause he likes the way it feels going down his throat unchewed.”
Riyad couldn’t help smiling at that. This man was definitely a father; he spoke about his son as candidly as Ath’ran did his children.
“I passed by here on my way back. There was a memory attached to this place--something about making cookies and playing cards--so I decided to drop by.” Caine smiled. “It’s time, really.”
Riyad wasn’t sure how to respond, or even what all of that meant. “Well...I’m glad you did. My name is Riyad Shihar D’sen. Plain Riyad is fine, though. The man out in front is Jin. You don’t even want to know his full name.”
The corners of the man’s eyes crinkled as he smiled. “Caine Rodion.”
“Caine.” Riyad nodded. “What do you mean ‘it’s time’?”
“The Shards need to come together.”
Riyad’s eyes widened in anticipation. But Caine paused and took a deep breath, as though trying to remember the scent of the office: must from paper, the rubber bands Riyad spent increased spare time shooting at the door, the faint lingering smell of spices from his lunch.
“I know you don’t know where everyone is,” Caine said finally. “The Impulse is safe, as far as I know. Heh, if he wasn’t, I guess the whole city would know about it. Anyway, Cross can probably get a message to him somehow. And the Witness should be easy enough to track down--I’m certain at least one of the others knows him.”
He was silent a moment, yanking on a piece of his hair absently. Riyad watched him, waiting. The prospect of finally having all of the Shards together, no matter how suddenly it might happen, was starting to get him excited.
When Caine didn’t continue, he finally asked, “And the other two? The Prodigy and the Metamorph?”
“Oh, the Metamorph is easy. I think you know him already.” He curled his fingers into a fist and rubbed his eye with his knuckles. “Nicholas Rabbit. He delivers stuff to you, right? For that necromancer.”
Riyad stared. He’d known Rabbit for years. It had never occurred to him that the surly, tattooed man could possibly be a Shard. He just didn’t seem the type. With a mental grimace, he chided himself that there probably was no “type” when it came to Shards.
Caine sank further into his seat, and looked at Riyad. Although his whole demeanor was that of a man about to fall asleep, his eyes were sharp. Riyad noticed for the first time that they were different colors and had to repress a shudder. Something about those eyes made strange, half-remembered things coil in gut, and the sensation was haunting at best.
He shook his head, trying to reorder his thoughts. There were questions he needed to be asking.
“What does the Metamorph do?” When it took Caine more than half a second to respond, he pressed on, leaning forward across his desk. “Why do the Shards need to meet now? What’s going to happen? What’s your power? Is that how you knew to come here? How do you know Rabbit? And do you know many of the others? What about the Prodigy? You still haven’t mentioned him.”
Caine’s dazed look was all the response he got for a moment. He smiled sheepishly; he hadn’t really meant to ask all of his questions at once.
“Um...sorry.” He sat back a bit, hoping to ease pressure off of the other man. “I get a little excited sometimes.”
“It’s not a problem. A lot of those things I’d rather wait to explain until we have everyone in the same room--why I’m gathering everyone, what we each do, those sorts of things. It’s easier to only explain once.”
Caine shook his head, raised his eyebrows and sat up straighter, as though trying to wake himself up. “As for actually gathering everyone, I’m certain that the Impulse will be able to locate the Witness, once we find him. And that will be everyone except the Prodigy.”
“Will that be a problem?”
“In the long run, yes. For the time being though, no.” Caine offered him a sleepy smile and Riyad had the surreal feeling that it was very possible that the man might doze off in the middle of their conversation. “I trust he’ll turn up, if he’s meant to.”
Riyad resisted the urge to frown at the other’s fatalistic attitude. It made him uncomfortable to trust the future to work itself out that way. “And if he doesn’t?”
Caine’s parti-colored eyes gazed back at him, half-lidded and serene. But now it wasn’t the benevolent serenity he had expressed earlier: this was a carefully coiled potency, handled with extreme precision and elegance. Riyad felt a wash of cold spread up from the base of his spine looking into those eyes.
“Then it won’t matter much.”
“What does that--”
Riyad was interrupted by a yell from the front room. Blinking in surprise, he rose and went to the door of his office and peered toward Jin’s workstation. The sight that greeted him made him stop and stare, while Caine drifted after him, and, looking over his shoulder, gave a soft laugh.
Jin was standing on his chair, one foot planted on the seat, the other propped up on the back. Both of his fists were raised in the hair in front of him and a wide grin distorted his face. He seemed unfazed by the chair slowly swiveling under him.
“Shensheng de gaowan! Jing cai!”
And whatever he was yelling, it wasn’t in a language Riyad understood.
“Wei?” The smaller man twisted to look over his shoulder, making the chair rotate further. It didn’t upset his balance whatsoever.
Riyad stepped closer, half afraid the Xifengese would fall and break his neck. “Are you well?”
“Well? Na mei guanshi.” Jin hopped down from his perch and pointed at the leftmost terminal screen in front of him.
Riyad couldn’t help letting out a relieved breath now that Jin had both feet on the floor, but he drew nearer to inspect the screen, nonplused. “That’s the symbol you were looking up.”
“Yeah! Turns out it’s not some kind of occult symbol at all!”
Jin grinned at him, but when Riyad could only give him a confused grimace in response, he rolled his eyes and pointed again, as though the gesture clarified anything.
After a moment, he heaved a sigh and leaned forward. With a few key strokes, several other images appeared on the screen.
“Someone on the CommNet responded to my query. The symbol we have is a combination of the alchemical sign and a simplified crystalline structure of tin.”
Riyad’s face twisted in confusion. “What does tin have to do with demons?”
“Yeah, that’s what I said. But, but!” He flopped down into his seat, beaming. “But have you ever heard of autocatalysis?”
“It’s a chemical reaction in which the product is itself the catalyst for the reaction.” Riyad looked up as Caine spoke, a smile edging his words.
Jin nodded. “When tin decomposes at low temperatures, the process fuels itself and speeds up.”
Riyad looked between the two of them, then back at the terminal screen. His tone was tinged with incredulity as he asked, “So the gateway sigil is symbolic? Its meaning has nothing to do with what it does?”
“Hey, I already solved the part of the mystery you wanted me to,” Jin said with a shrug. “You want to know more, do your own footwork.”
Riyad made a face at the smaller man; he had done no footwork whatsoever except that required to jump up onto his chair. Turning his face back to the images on the screen, his mind raced. If the symbol’s meaning didn’t have anything to with its function, then the power behind it had to come from the person who had made it, and he was simply impressing that power onto the outside world. It was like a symbol made by a rubber stamp: the ink used would be the same regardless of the stamp’s shape.
“...He knew someone would figure this out,” Riyad said after a moment. “He was sending a message.”
“So all that shit was so we’d decode these dumb-ass symbols?” Jin lifted one foot and kicked the edge of the terminal screen, hitting the power button and shutting the whole system down. “That’s a damned stupid message!”
Riyad had to agree. Julian had provided them with this image after finding it by chance; there had been no guarantee that anyone would even see the sigils, let alone decipher their meaning. And even now that they understood the reference to autocatalysis, they still didn’t know what that had to do with anything.
Caine’s voice interrupted his train of thought and the Arcadian looked up at him.
“I should go,” the Oracle said with an apologetic smile. “I need to take Sem his medicine.”
“O-of course.” Riyad straightened up and reached out for the Oracle’s hand. “It was nice to meet you, Caine. I’ll do my best to get in contact with everyone and see if we can all meet up.”
Caine shook his hand with a calm smile. “Thank you. I’ll give what you’ve just found out some thought. Maybe I can come up with something.”
“We’d appreciate it.”
The Oracle nodded and drifted toward the doorway. Jin flicked a button on his desk absently, unlocking the door once again. Riyad watched the man go, wishing he could feel more confident after their first meeting. He only had more questions, along with a sinking feeling that Caine didn’t have the answers he had hoped he would.