Big Trouble In Little China
At 100 stories, XSWAT HQ is an imposing structure, dominating the local skyline. To an outside observer it looks implacable, resolute, a tower of unmovable strength. But as anyone who had been in the top floors on a windy day could tell you, the tower sways, ever so slightly. It would move to and fro, leaning with the wind, before returning to center.
Leaning back in his chair, Mitch Brogan closed his eyes. It was late and he was tired, but what’d he expect? It was Orientation Day, when the newest crop of XSWAT recruits arrived, were sworn in, and received their assignments. Jama herself had been up since, what? 5 AM? Getting ready, practicing her speech (although after two times a year for 10 years, she had it down pretty well), and making sure everything went smoothly.
It was now after 10 PM, and all was quiet in the Director’s office. Jama sat behind her desk, idly shuffling a deck of cards (Tarot to be precise), and keeping Corporal Cadbury company. The Maine Coon, who weighed in these days at a whopping 10 plus kilos, idly batted at the cards she laid out, inspecting some with curious intensity, ignoring others.
“I met one of the recruits before Orientation today. Out at the Memorial.”
“What was that dear?” Mitch started awake, and glanced over at his wife. She was still studying the spread of Tarot cards before her, Cadbury looking on raptly.
“I said I met one of the new recruits this morning at the Memorial.”
Jama looked up and grinned. “You should’ve seen his expression once he realized who it was he was talking to. Honestly, you’d think an esper would have a better memory for faces.”
Mitch grinned in return. “One of Yiska’s?”
“Yes. Officer Sean Dastoor.” Jama picked up the arranged cards and started to shuffle the deck again. “Who accepted meeting a living legend with reasonable grace.”
Mitch had to chuckle at that, memories of his own reaction to meeting the Director of XSWAT in person for the first time flashing through his mind. “Did he give you that ‘you’re too short to be Director’ look?”
“Yup.” There was a snap as she laid a card down, Cadbury purring as Jama paused to scratch behind his ears. Mitch swore the desk vibrated in response. “But he was smart enough not to say anything.”
“Or too intimidated.” Mitch sat up and looked over, “Dear, what are you doing?”
“Prog... what?” Long ago they’d established a rule—leave the technical talk to the techs.
“Foretelling the future.”
“Using Tarot cards? Didn’t you tell me that was all a sham worked up by Gypsies to prey on the gullible?”
Snap. “But people believe it to be so, right? Besides, would you rather I sacrifice a goat?”
And you’d do it too, if it was needed. “Deal away Chief, deal away.”
After sitting in silence for a few moments, Mitch cocked his head and opened one eye to glance toward Jama again. "Crowley's Golden Dawn tarot, or some variation on it, I should hope." He had an odd, questioning look on his face, as if still making up his mind whether he approved of the whole business.
At this, Jama and Cadbury both stopped in unison and stared at him in disbelief. Jama tended to forget that Mitch had actually picked up quite a bit of occult lore over the years, simply by virtue of being her spouse, and occasionally he surprised her with a bit of 'shop talk' when she least expected it.
"And why, exactly, should that matter, my husband?" She rested her chin on both hands briefly to wait for his reply. This had better be good....
"Uh... well. Some of the others don't include all the major arcana, you know." Mitch spoke deferentially, as he always did when discussing such matters with her.
Jama sighed and went back to dealing her cards. "Yes, of course, Mitch. I'm very well aware of that." The next card she turned up was the Chariot.
His card. She stopped once again and looked at Mitch anxiously.
"Nothing to worry about—they're all here. And what would your point be?"
"What? Oh... I just wouldn't want anyone saying my wife doesn't play with a full deck...."
For a moment, just a moment, Jama debated throwing something at her husband. Cadbury, for example. Enough joking around. "Mitch, we need to talk...."
He stood up wearily and strode over to stand behind Jama's desk, much more casually than he actually felt. Mitch knew that tone of voice all too well—this conversation was about to get serious. Cadbury looked back and forth between them nervously. Mitch reached out and scooped up two arm-loads of Maine Coon, then began stroking the soft fur on Cadbury's underbelly, eliciting a deep, rumbling purr from the huge cat, and not incidentally preventing him from 'helping' Jama with the Tarot cards.
Mitch glanced over Jama's shoulder at the cards she'd dealt. It didn't look like any spread he'd ever seen or read about. But what he saw concerned him—the two he noticed first were the Tower and the Devil: both were inauspicious. And the Chariot....
"Uh, Jama...what is all of this?"
“I’m afraid it might be our future.”
He sighed heavily. "This has to be either completely pointless, or extremely dangerous. I'm guessing if it were pointless, you wouldn't bother. Go ahead."
Jama pointed at the cards laid out on her desk, while Mitch (and Cadbury) peered over her shoulder. “The Devil—symbol of bondage (note the chains) to the material world. It can also symbolize addiction or obsessions, especially with man’s more base desires.”
Mitch scratched behind Cadbury’s ears before asking “Such as?”
“Sex, money, drugs, BTL...” Jama glanced up, “Simply put, vice.”
“And the Tower?” Mitch nodded at the card.
“Catastrophe and ruin. The collapse of all we hold dear.” She paused, “But the lightning and fire comes from on high, from the heavens, and might be a sign of divine retribution against the false temple of...” Jama indicated the previous card, “the Devil.”
"Could be worse—the Tower card's not inverted." Jama turned around to look at him for a moment. When's he had time to learn all this stuff, anyway? Oh, never mind... it goes both ways... he's taught me a few things over the years, too. Her attention went back to the cards on the desk.
“I think—think mind you—these cards allude to some of our present issues with Ryuzo and the Yamaguchi-gumi. They have wormed their way into this tower, no matter how hard I’ve tried to keep them out, and have their hooks in far too many XSWAT officers.” Jama looked back up to Mitch and Cadbury, her expression grave. “They will destroy us if they can, leaving XSWAT nothing more than a figurehead that protects the Yamaguchi-gumi, not opposes them.”
Mitch could see where she was going with this—with or without the Tarot. Ten years was long enough, and now Madam Director meant to take decisive action against the Yakuza. And she was going to need his help doing it.
"No, they won't. They've gotten to a lot of our people, Jama, it's true. But there are some who'll always be loyal to you." He picked up the Chariot card. "And rumor has it a few would do anything for you. Who else is on the table?"
He spoke quietly, with none of his usual bravado. When Mitch said he'd do anything for her, he meant it. He'd very foolishly taken on the Yakuza once before, eight years ago, and very nearly gotten himself killed by one of their mahotsukai's death-curses. They had used him, just to get to Madam Director. And that very same mahotsukai was still out there, somewhere in Angelus. Now, Mitch was volunteering to face him again, for XSWAT and Jamadigni Renuka.
Jama brushed her fingertips across Mitch’s before taking the Chariot and setting it on the table. “Who else indeed.” She turned over another card.
“Strength. Fortitude, self control, discipline.” Jama tapped the card with each pronouncement. “That could almost be my card.”
“But it's not?” He was beginning to get really curious about all this.
“No. I'm the The High Priestess. Or in this deck, the Papess. Symbol of mystery and deep understanding, as well as wisdom and contemplation.”
Mitch rubbed his chin, “So who is Strength? Nathan Carpenter?”
Jama shook her head, “No... Nathan is the Emperor, the father figure who exudes stability, common sense, and leadership. And he’s no longer in XSWAT. I don’t think this card refers to anyone from the old squad. If we are to have any hope of eliminating the threat of the Yamaguchi-gumi we’ll need unknowns, people Ryuzo knows nothing about.”
“You mean rookies.”
“I’m afraid so.” Jama looked up at Mitch and gave Cadbury a scratch. “But then I was a rookie myself when this all started.”
But not for long—you had your trial by fire, as did I. So who's next? “You still haven’t answered my question, Chief.”
Pausing to give Cadbury’s ears one last tussle, Jama turned back to her desk. “I read a report about one of our rookies about a week ago. A Clade by the name of Chrysine. She’s ex-Lace and Steel, who came to XSWAT after escaping from her stable during a tournament here in Angelus. She ended up in Roar... Rho Sector and was granted full citizenship under Angelus law. She joined XSWAT since it seemed a logical choice for someone of her talents.”
“And?” Mitch prompted.
Snap. Jama flipped a card over to reveal the Ace of Swords. Setting it next to Strength she continued. “Her CO was writing me to recommend her for a commendation. He says she’s very level-headed, obeys orders promptly, and is dedicated to her duties. So I checked her file. She’s never had a disciplinary measure taken against her, even at the academy, assists in teaching armed combat courses, and studies philosophy in her off hours.”
“Philosophy?” Mitch tried to imagine Tyger reading Kant or Jung and immediately had to suppress a smile.
Jama gave a small shrug. “She’s apparently trying to ‘understand the human condition’ as her CO put it.”
“How does this make her Strength?”
“She can also bench-press a patrol bike.”
"Okay... interesting. Let's see where this goes, shall we?" Mitch was starting to think there might be something to this....
Snap. The next card was the Moon, followed by the Five of Rods. Mitch almost missed it, but Jama actually blinked.
"The Moon symbolizes subconscious urges, hidden fears... the beast within. And the Five of Rods... has a number of meanings: discord, stress, but when it's inverted like this—internal conflict. Sound like anyone we know?"
"In XSWAT? I'm not sure... it's not Dad, right?"
"No, he's the Hanged Man... don't give me that look, Mister Mitch Brogan, I know what I'm talking about. Now quit obsessing and think. You ought to know her—she was at our wedding."
"Wait... not Liz Carpenter! You sure about dragging her into this, Sifu?" He looked at Jama sternly, reminding her they'd both known Nathan's daughter since she was in high school—she was practically family, for both of them.
Jama's response was a glare. "If I told her once, I told her a thousand times, I'm not her sifu. A sifu is Chinese, which," She poked Mitch in the chest to emphasize her point, "I'm most assuredly not."
Mitch ignored Cadbury's apparent smirk. "So what is it then? You were her teacher."
"Urukin ngurukin. Which is what you'd use when speaking to your superior." Jama shook her head. "Anyway, I'm sure she won't sell out to the Yakuza—ever. Besides, it's in the cards."
"Or guru for short, right?" Mitch got another slightly-less-annoyed look. "Okay, mighty guru, who's next?"
Jama dealt another card, snap. The Hermit; “One who seeks knowledge, apart from the world of men.” And then the Eight of Chalices, "A journey into the unknown, or a search for deeper meaning in life." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "Officer Nicodemus Tsanthos is new to XSWAT, but disturbingly well-informed, for a rookie. Now pay attention, Mitch, and stop calling me guru."
Snap. His Wife the Sorceress was on a roll. The Star? Now Mitch was really lost. The next card was the Three of Cups. Jama smiled sweetly at her husband. "So, what do you think of Diedre Thornhallow?"
"I think you've just drawn a joker, dear. She's nothing but trouble."
Jama took Mitch's hand in hers and squeezed gently. "Trust me. Even if Diedre doesn't know it herself, there's an incorruptible spirit within her the Yakuza can't touch. She's just beginning to understand. That's what this means." She nodded towards the cards. "We're almost done here."
Snap. Another card down. And another. Judgement and the Page of Rods. Jama stared at them for a long time before she spoke, while Mitch waited in silence. Something wasn't right. "There was another esper I recognized at Orientation this morning."
Understanding slowly dawned on Mitch... the Page cards usually denoted a young person, so this was a raw recruit, and it was someone Jama knew. An esper... oh shit. Judgement, not Justice. "Lorraine Hemelshot. On the same squad as Liz and Diedre. Won't that be fun? Jama, the Yakuza may be the least of your problems."
"No, I'm sorry to say, the worst problem is you, Mitch." She spoke softly, with no anger in her voice, but it was impossible to take the sting out of those words.
"Jama, I'm the last one you'll have a problem with. Ever. You know that."
She looked at him sadly. "Yes, I know. But you remember what happened the last time you went against the Yakuza. They used you, just to get to me. We must find some way to prevent that." Snap. Another card turned and she laid it between the Tower and the Chariot....
"The Lovers. Symbol of union, passion, pleasure, desire, bonding...." There was a curious timbre to Jama's voice.
"Is that us?" Mitch was fairly certain he knew the answer, but wanted to make sure.
"Yes... we are linked by more than duty and honor, we are linked by our hearts." Jama nodded her head, "We complement each other, you and I. But there is a darker side to this card."
"And that is?"
"Difficult decisions, dilemmas, and doubt, all with long-lasting ramifications. Our next choice won't be an easy one." Jama flipped the top card from the deck and laid it down below The Lovers. It was the Three of Swords, depicting a heart, pierced by three crossed swords.
"Betrayal, heartbreak, loneliness, separation...." Jama fell silent and stared at the cards arrayed before her. Abruptly she announced: "Mitch, we're getting divorced."
Jama turned her chair around to look at Mitch directly, who stood there dumbfounded with an armful of cat. "If they think I don't care anymore, if we're no longer a couple, they won't see you as a means of getting to me. Your value as a target will be reduced. We'll both be much safer." As she spoke, Mitch began to realize she was absolutely right, no matter how appalling the idea was.
He took a deep breath, calming himself somewhat. "Okay, Jama. We'll do this. But we just go through the motions—I mean the legal motions. I'll get my own place for the duration of the assignment. You file for 'irreconcilable differences' and keep the real reason confidential. I'll keep the thing tied up in court until the assignment's finished, then you drop the case and I'll move back in. No harm done. We'll plant some rumors so everyone thinks they know what's going on—including the Yaks."
"Good," Jama nodded and then paused to brush her hand across her eyes. The symbol on her forehead was one he'd never seen before, a diamond within a diamond. "Mitch, someone should know what's really going on, just in case...." She looked into his eyes, and for the first time in years, he saw just a trace of fear in Jama's expression. It mirrored his own feelings exactly.
"I'll let Dad know what we're up to, but nobody else. You shouldn't tell more than one other person, either, Jama—someone who can keep quiet. I don't need to know who." She started to say something, paused, and then nodded.
A storm was brewing outside XSWAT HQ. Rain hammered against the office windows, lightning flashed across the sky, and thunder shook the floor, the desk, the cards.
"I think we're done here. I'll drive us home, Chief, unless you plan to send me packing right this minute." Mitch took Jama's hand and gently pulled her to her feet. She stood up and rested her head on his shoulder, one arm snaking around his waist, the other giving Cadbury's ears another scratch. Mitch glanced at the cards once again—on the Devil card, a satanic figure held a man and woman in bondage, and he couldn't help but remember how the Yakuza had nearly killed him, just to make Jama suffer.
And next to it, the Tower, being shattered by a lighting bolt, a cloaked man and a crowned woman falling to their doom. After all these years, is everything we've built nothing more than a house of cards? Mitch closed his eyes and held Jama in his ams, while outside, lightning crashed all around the Tower. Or is the Yakuza's influence rotting it all away from the inside out, where we can't see it happening until it's too late, getting weaker until it all collapses under its own dead weight?
He wasn't sure, but he thought he could feel the Tower starting to sway.
As they try to change their world
Are immune to your consolations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.