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Damage Done
The familiar ding sounded an open line from the cockpit. Nikolai didn't break focus from the screen to answer it, "Yes?

The pilot's calm voice responded. "We are thirty minutes from touchdown, Ascendancy. I expect a smooth ride the rest of the way."

"Thank-you Colonel,"
always formal, Nikolai closed the line as he glanced at the window far to one side. He'd glanced frequently over the past few hours, until the fall of night finally eased his anxiety. The far-distant land below was dark and empty of light as the seas. More than preferring to fly at night, he felt cloaked in the evening. More in control. Although the notion was likely childish, even if most children feared the night.

He returned his attention to the screen. His speechwriter had sent the final version of the address he would give first thing in the morning before the talks. That meant several rounds of read-throughs, and paused only to add his own notation.

Deep in thought, this time a knock broke his concentration, and his brow furrowed with brief worry. He turned in his seat just as the door opened to admit the EoA Chief of Staff. The man had served his position for too many years to know the Ascendancy did not like to be disturbed when he was practicing speeches except for the most unusual of circumstances.

A grim frown creased his eyes with anticipation. "What is it, Viktor?"

"News from Mecca, Ascendancy."
He placed a transfer device onto a reader pad embedded in Nikolai's desk. A live feed from an Al-Jazeera news agency was suddenly overlaid on a fresh screen. "A Special Forces team has attacked Al-Hasan during prayer and in open view of the public. Initial reports say dozens are dead, and hundreds are injured. The mosque where he was located was nearly burnt to the ground. We don't know whether or not Al-Hasan yet lives."

Cold blue eyes drank in the sights panned by the camera while Viktor explained. "Who were they?"

Viktor cleared his throat. Nikolai rose to his feet.

"That's the problem, Ascendancy. We don't know. Our information says the team wore Custody uniforms. Vegas to be exact."

Nik blinked as though he didn't hear it right. Viktor wasn't sure which was the worse news: the impersonation of a Vega team or that he couldn't confirm the impostors' true identities.

"Conference room. Now."
His order cut sharp and cold. The speech was abandoned as Nikolai strolled from the room. Words of unity were worthless to him now.
Only a few members of the Ascendancy's Administration traveled with him, and were therefore on board the aircraft, but those that did occupied every seat in the conference room at the moment.

Nikolai sat at the head of the table. A screen on the wall behind him looped media coverage on the ground in Mecca where night had fallen, hovering like a sickly halo above his head. The plane was twenty-two minutes from touchdown, but on his orders, was going to circle open airspace until informed otherwise. He had to decide whether to continue at all.

The Deputy Chief of Staff, representing the armed forces and the defense of the Custody, concluded his briefing with a warning.
"Sir, until the area is secure, it is my strong opinion that you do not set a single foot on the ground in Mecca,"
two other men alongside the Deputy Chief nodded in agreement. Nikolai turned his attention to their arguments.

The first was the ranking Barrier praetor agent on board, a clean-cut, hardened man in a plain black suit and earpiece. Standing along the wall behind him was Alric, likewise attired in a similar suit. He'd remained quiet the entire time. Though he was an ascendant, and therefore entitled to greater purpose than guard-dog, he knew when to stay still. Nikolai respected that kind of patience.

"We agree, sir,"
the chief of security continued. The files from Alpha Directorate's udpate still hung in midair over the table. The Barrier agent frequently cited their report in his summary. Being a CSS chief entitled him to insight across the entire security service domain, including the counter-terrorism facets of Alpha's covert operations,
"At this time we cannot accurately estimate the risk for further acts of terrorism either upon the people of Mecca or upon yourself."
The agent, Petrum, served Nikolai for fifteen years now. He earned the consideration the Ascendancy gave his opinion, but instinct crept across his mind like ever-lengthening shadows; he was of another mind, and he could not let this betrayal go unpunished. There was a reason he sat with his back to the screen, to keep still the rage stirring deep within, but also to force gruesome scenes upon any that so much as looked down the table. He caught many eyes flicker above his head, often followed by a cringe.

"I will take your considerations into account,"
he spoke to Petrum, then cast an additional glance to the high ranking members of the armed forces that were present. "Both in terms of my own safety and that of the Custody's."

He gave a curt nod, "Thank-you gentlemen, that will be all."
His gaze shifted to include those remaining at the table. Rameshwar smoothed his tie and stood to file his exit along with everyone else. Empty of emotion, Nikolai's voice cut through the tension whispering in the air.
"Privilege Singh, if you would remain behind."
The Privilege of DIII turned and bowed his head when they met gazes. He took the liberty of closing the doors on the heels of the departing aids, and rejoined the Ascendancy's table, taking a seat to his left. With the table largely unoccupied, the medallion of the Double Crescent, sharp and black tipped, a vein of orange shining at its heart, gleamed the authority this room entailed by Nikolai's mere presence. The conference table was a poor representation to host the prestigious presence of the Sphere, but it would suffice.

Nikolai pressed a touchpad beneath the table, and a midair images of the missing six members of the Sphere were projected in a semicircle around them. Their images were crystal clear, and Nikolai could make out every cringe, crease or thought to cross the faces before him as easily as Rameshwar's, a man who shared the physical space. Virtual meetings of this magnitude were rarely needed, which was why each Privilege was based in Moscow itself, but time was short, and Nikolai valued the opinions of his advisers.

"I trust by now you've been briefed regarding the situation,"
he began, hands folded against the edge of the conference table. Behind him, the media coverage continued its silent broadcast.

The silver-haired, dignified Valentin Sulteev, the Privilege of Dominance I, a man of whom Nikolai would always lend an ear, began their conversation.
"Custody special forces raiding Hasan in public view, slaughtering civilians, while wearing identifiable uniforms? Nobody in their right mind would believe the farcity of such a scenario,"
he said, lip curled with disgust. If the Custody were to do such a thing, they would at least send in ghost operatives, unmarked, anonymous men who could be disavowed without hesitation. Valentin was old enough to remember the Cold War, then again, so was Nikolai. They knew what true espionage entailed. They knew true tension. To him, and Nikolai agreed, the actions undertaken in Mecca this night were those of a wailing child provoked into desperation. There was one logical explanation as to the identity of the imposters.

To Valentin's left, Borislav Alkaev nodded agreement.

Al-Rahji cleared his throat. The Privilege was also of an age with the first two men to know better, but as he called Dominance V his home, and was a Muslim himself, Nikolai was inclined to give his opinion additional weight given current circumstances.
"The greater cities of DV will know, as the esteemed Privilege suggests,"
he bowed his head in recognition of Valentin. They could likewise see one another as Nikolai could view them. "But the common man of Saudi Arabia, the ones on the screen behind his Excellency, they will not care. Tonight there will be bloodshed in the Holy City, and tomorrow, the informed and educated will not care to seek the truth of who is to blame. They will see only infamy and shame. They will slur the name of the Custody. Unless-"

Nikolai interrupted, "Unless, what?"

Daan cast a narrow glance at those in his company before continuing. "Unless Al-Hasan forbids it."

At his side, Rameshwar shook his head. Nik looked to him as the man began to speak.
"I don't think even Al-Hasan has that kind of influence. On a stage before thousands of followers, perhaps, but the chaos of night and the call for revenge will send men running in all directions."
Daan asceded, lifting his hands.

Takeo, the newest Privilege to join the Sphere, reminded them of the power of image itself for good or for ill.
"Canceling the Summit entirely will only be seen as weakness on the part of the Ascendancy's office, effectively abandoning the very people he was coming to save. It will give Hasan all the endorsement he needs. The Ascendancy bows to no one."

There were nods of agreement, including one from Nikolai himself. CSS and the deputy chiefs concerned themselves with his safety, but the Ascendancy had to consider the political implications of the situation: foreign and domestic. Takeo's opinions made an excellent addition to the Sphere.

Zephyrine spoke up. The lack of empathy in her voice could cut a man's throat with words alone.
"If as the esteemed Privilege of Dominance V says, and the other cities will remain as they are now, then wipe Mecca off the face of the planet. Severina surely has something that will destroy millions of people at once. Problem solved."

Nik's brows rose. Clever idea, and Nikolai could not say he hadn't considered it. He thought of the hatred in the eyes of Amira's brothers when he held the young woman's hand; and the blame for her murder laid at his feet. Those illiterate barbarians would be executed tomorrow if it could be lawfully done.

Upon mention of Severina's name, the table turned toward the brillant, albeit quiet Privilege of eastern Europe. She seemed to think for a moment, then turned to Nikolai with a coy smile. "I don't think the Ascendancy needs me to accomplish all that, Doctor Hughes."

Nik considered the bravery of voicing such insights. Of course she was right, and everyone at the table knew it.

The room fell deathly quiet. Let them think he gave the idea great consideration.

Finally, Nik broke the ominious silence that descended upon them. Seven pairs of eyes, including Rameshwar's, watched him stand, only to turn his back upon them. He tucked his hands behind his back and considered the scenes drenching his face with color and motion. Fires of rioting spread, the mosque crumbled to ash, and body after body were laid aimlessly in the street, and a cold chill of apathy numbed his mind to all of it. This was not his fault, yet he would again be the one to save madmen from themselves.

"What happens when an investment goes poorly?"
Nobody answered him. They knew. "You cut your losses while you can still recover."

He made his decision. "That will be all,"
and spoke with disturbing tranquility. One by one, the connections severed until he was left with only the sound of his own steady breathing. Even Rameshwar took his leave.

"Let them burn,"
he said to himself.

Finally, he broke his gaze from the screen to signal an aid in the next room. "I am ready to land."


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