Unknown Variables


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Scene Title Unknown Variables
Synopsis After surviving the Ǝvent, Asi Tetsuyama returns to New York City and reveals what happened to her new superior officer.
Date July 11, 2020

From the air, Laguardia Airport looks like a bone white starfish spread out across a concrete ocean floor. The organic redesign of the airport looks entirely alien from above, like nothing that has previously occupied the New York skyline. But as so many media outlets like to say: “the Safe Zone isn’t New York anymore.”

The 7:15 am Envoy Air flight from Kansas City lands twenty-six minutes late on a cloudy and insufferably humid Sunday morning. It’s a small plane, one primarily occupied by federal agents with one notable exception. The plane doesn’t disembark at a terminal, but on the tarmac where a convoy of black Yamagato Lapis marked with the SESA seal are waiting. Among that vehicular lineup is the ugly duckling of the group, a beat up maroon pickup truck circa sometime in the mid 1980s.

Avi Epstein waits outside the truck, arms crossed over his chest and brows furrowed as he watches rows of federal agents disembarking from the plane. After eight people disembark, that’s when he sees her.

Asi Tetsuyama.

Laguardia Airport, Tarmac
NYC Safe Zone

July 11th
7:39 am

The red-eye flight hadn't granted much opportunity for sleep, and Asi looks as though she's been up all night.

And maybe the night before that, too.

It's impossible for her not to draw comparisons to the last time she landed in New York— how the privately chartered jet had landed, spilled directly to the tarmac, releasing her to a private vehicle to be chauffeured away to her destination. Except: this time she carries nothing with her except the clothes on her back, and they're not even her own. The black tee she wears sports a Canadian maple silhouette colored like the country's flag. She's dressed in trainers, jeans. Like she's coming back from a vacation.

Save for that look in her eyes, a hollowness to her that doesn't fade even when she makes eye contact with Avi. And save for the discoloration on the inside of her arms, evidence of one hell of a trip.

She descends to the tarmac effortlessly, hands slipping into pockets to begin a slow walk behind the agents who've shepherded her this far. A cursory look is shifted the direction of the sea of black, and then back to the figure leaning against the single red vehicle out here. As soon as she gets close enough she's confident her expression can be read, she arches both brows at him expectantly, still following in the wake of her handlers. Well?

“Door’s unlocked,” is Avi’s greeting, as if going with that welcome back from vacation vibe she’s sporting. He offers the barest of nods of acknowledgement to one of the agents passing by, then opens the door to his truck and pulls himself inside. The agents part around Asi like oil on water, heading to their own vehicles and ignoring her as if she hadn’t just spent the last few hours crammed in a mostly silent aircraft with them.

When Asi joins Avi in the truck, he motions down to an old metal thermos sitting in the cupholder. “Black coffee,” he says, “don’t know if you drink it, or take it with whatever. There’s some sugar packets in the glovebox if you need it.” He puts the truck in drive, but doesn’t quite pull away from the plane yet. His attention skirts over to her, unsure of the cadence she wants to carry this all in.

Judging from his expression, Asi can tell he knows less than she does.

The coffee goes unlooked at, untouched. Asi has other concerns first.

"Do you have security footage from the Bastion for the fourth and fifth?" The passenger door is pulled shut with a noisy slam. Her eyes flit to one of the Lapis vehicles without particular reason, or particular venom. "Were perimeter alarms set that night?"

The night she disappeared, that is.

“SESA already came for it,” Avi says as he sets the truck into drive and pulls away from the row of SUVs. “I gave them a copy, we have our own if you want to go over it. But we didn’t see a goddamn thing. There’s no cameras in private quarters, but nobody went in or came out of your room.”

Droplets of rain sprinkle down on the truck’s windshield. A light rain shower begins to fall from the overcast skies, and there’s a sense of mourning to it. Mourning for the footage having answers, mourning for the loss of her sense of self. Avi turns toward the exit from the tarmac, glancing over at Asi as he does.

“Nobody inside saw or heard anything. We didn’t even know you were gone at first. Didn’t come down for breakfast, but half the staff doesn’t. But then…” Avi shakes his head. “We started getting calls. SESA showed up, some other feds too. There were some black-badge spooks involved in this, don’t know if they were CIA or what, but they weren’t SESA or DHS. Way too oiled.”

Asi arcs an eyebrow at that, sliding a sidelong look. Fingers on her right hand similarly arc away from the passenger armrest. "Certainly CIA would treat you better, having been one of their own." She knows in practice that could end up meaning very, very little at all, but…

The corner of her mouth pulls back in an unguarded frown. Say it hadn't been the CIA. Then who?

Her hand falls back to the armrest, nails clicking. After a pause, long enough they near the gate at the slow, safe pace, she asks, "How much did they have to say?"

Avi laughs, a gross barking laugh like a seal. “Yeah the Agency is super keen on former members who go fucking rogue. We have a knitting circle.”

Picking up his coffee from the center console, Avi uses the time it takes him to swivel open the top of the thermos and take a sip to compose his answer to Asi’s larger question. “They didn’t say much, cardstock responses. Part of an ongoing investigation. That same song and dance. I read enough between the lines to know you might not have been the only person to get yanked. The creepy wunderkind agent was there,” he slides a look over to Asi, “Bluthner?”

Shrugging, Avi sets his thermos back down in the cup holder, then focuses on the road, turning off onto Grand Central Parkway headed southeast along the eastern perimeter of the Safe Zone. “We eventually got a call that you were found, but I got fuck-all else from them. Right up until I coordinated your pickup.”

Avi looks over at Asi, silently inquiring: What the fuck happened?

She wishes she knew.

"I would love to tell you it's not related to Mazdak, but I honestly don't know what happened." It pains Asi to admit that. "And if I'm grasping for straws, Mazdak almost makes sense." Looking out the window, her hand curls into a fist on the armrest.

"I woke up in the middle of a plane crash, Epstein. Inside a ACT coffin. The other victims were mostly centralized to New York. Anyone from college-age kids… to the CEO of Yamagato Industries… administrative leadership from SESA… Yi-Min Yeh was among the number, as well." She turns back toward Avi slightly without actually looking at him. "It seemed convenient that a good number of those who had been kidnapped would have been enemies or potential enemies of theirs they might like to keep under their thumb."

The next part comes from her more quietly. "SLC-E, each and every one."

“Fuck,” Avi exhales in a slow, tired sigh. “Seems like a risky move, figuring out a way to grab that many people. But it’s Mazdak’s MO, up and down. Same thing happened to Richard and— and Nat.” He still has a bit of trouble talking about that. “Snatched right out of the blue. Wouldn’t be surprised if that teleporter of theirs was responsible.”

Shaking his head, Avi hits the freeway and moves into the far left lane, cruising along. It’s long drive from Laguardia to the Bastion.

“ACTS are nasty pieces of work,” Avi considers, thinking back to the arcology. “Interesting, though. That’s Institute tech, far as I know the only people who had access to them after the war was Praxis. Maybe this is some death rattle from them.”

Avi glances from the road to Asi. “Did you get a chance to dig into their user logs after the negation wore off? Flight recorder? Or did you get picked up fast?”

It's a long drive back to the Bastion.

"It was a plane crash— there was a lot going on. The parts of it that were left were on fire, and us, barefoot. One of the other victims was impaled. By the time we found a way to get him free, the authorities were flying in." Asi shakes her head, indicating more clearly that no, there was not enough time to review any of that. "Not sure if either government will allow it, but I want that box." Her voice takes on a cold break away from the even she'd been speaking with. "Whatever they find, it's not like they're going to be free with that information."

"And I'm not sitting idle on this, waiting for them to merely guess what it is that happened, or why." She turns to him partway through that emphatic statement, the brown of her eyes sharp. "I will figure this out. So help me."

"Well, at least they didn’t stick you in one of those fucking Gemini chairs.” Avi says with a click of his tongue. “If I had to put money on it, that’s probably where you were bound. Mazdak’s too pro-super to go about detaining random people like that, but if all the shit we pulled out of Praxis is any indication, harvesting people for their fucking abilities?” He shakes his head. “It’s like cutting off someone’s hands for stealing. Punishment fits the crime, in their eyes.”

Distracted by a slow truck in front of him, Avi switches lanes and speeds up. The storm outside has intensified, rain hammering down on the windshield and limiting visibility on the overpass. While he drives, Avi picks up his thermos again and takes another sip while he thinks, then sets it back down between the seats.

Something stirs as Avi turns over the information Asi had given him earlier. “You said Nakamura was in that wreck?” He squints, looking less certain of anything now. “Yeh I can understand, Nakamura too. They all had ties to Monroe or Mazdak. Did you recognize anyone else?”

At least they didn't, huh.

Hand tightening into a proper fist on the armrest, Asi shakes her head, even though she speaks in the affirmative. "Kaylee Thatcher and Abigail Caliban with the NYPD. Gillian and Jacelyn Childs. Isabelle Wesley-Khan of Yamagato, and her husband Shahid. Some very unfortunate multiple-kidnapping victim named Isaac Faulkner, the second time he's been targeted over his ability." She rolls her jaw for a moment, sighing as she continues down the list. "Nicole Miller neé Nichols of SESA, and her husband Zachery…" Her head lolls slightly to the side in thought. "I didn't recognize her up front, but there's an expatriate named Daphne Millbrook who was kidnapped from outside New York. She said she had been living in… Paris?"

Her eyes narrow. Paris sounds right. But had it been? A certain glint enters her eyes, like she might do when mentally checking her notes…

But her irises remain brown, and all she receives for her effort is an ache in the hollow place where her ability should be. Asi looks away out the window before dismissively brushing past. "The others, children, practically. Brynn Ferguson, a tattoo artist, and Nova Leverett, the college student." An impatient sigh leaves her as she searches her thoughts. Anyone else?

"Only some of them make sense from a threat-to-Mazdak angle. Some of the others had abilities which could have benefited them. The college student, though— she said she was unmanifested. It starts to break a hole in my theory."

That, and Nicole… But Asi isn't even sure where to begin with that.

With admitting she wasn't even sure if she was herself anymore, and not… somehow become like Devon.

The list of names is chilling to Avi, in how many he recognizes. The immediate, “Jesus Christ,” that comes out of him is palpable. “Childs is huge, that woman’s got connections all the way up to the fucking president. Colette’s fucking sister? That’s a whole other shit-storm.” Avi sighs through his nose and scrubs one hand over his jaw.

“I know Ferguson, too. Loosely. She was one of Brian Fulk’s wards. He was uh,” Avi looks over, realizing Asi hasn’t been around as long as it feels like she has. “Ferrymen asset, ran an orphanage for special kids. Good guy, guys. Whatever, he’s a replicator. Retired, but…” Avi’s eyes wander the blurry windshield streaked with rain. “Fuck.”

“Whoever did this,” Avi says with a slow shake of his head, “just painted the biggest fucking target on their heads possible. I mean short of kidnapping the fucking president. Kimiko Nakamura?” Avi angles a look over to Asi. “I mean, Jesus Christ. That’s a death wish.”

But none of it sets well with Avi. He looks back to Asi, unsure. “You know why the plane crashed?”

Asi only lifts her brow in tacit agreement when Avi declares whoever did this invited a death wish upon themselves. It was a particularly long list of people to piss off.

"No. I wasn't conscious to know. Perhaps the powers that be will deign to tell us, or the black box will have the answer. But I don't recall seeing corpses— guards, keepers, so on. No indications, from my limited frame of reference, that someone on board betrayed the organization and took down the craft. So, perhaps the pilot suffered a medical emergency. Perhaps there was a mechanical malfunction that took us down."

The longer she speaks, the morse terse she gets. Then, it goes beyond that, tense nerves changing her tone. By the end, it's clear it frustrates her greatly she has none of this information.

"What bothers me most about this is why bother with a plane when they teleported us out of our quarters? Why not take us directly to their facilities in… Iraq, or Syria, or…"

Or were they just not worth that level of effort anymore, after they'd been stripped of their abilities?

Asi closes her eyes, head slightly bowed as her teeth grit. The tension in her, the tightly clenched fist, is plainly visible now. Every second left to the Bastion as the rain pelts the old truck drags on more than before. Everything that she leaves unsaid in the midst of the information she offers up gnaws at her, ugly and unseemly. Everything that happened weighs on her in ways she's only begun to comprehend, much less process.

But she lets out a short pass of a sigh, eyes opening to slits. Her voice is hard again, back to business, as she asks, "So what have I missed?" Clearly, what happened to her is terrible, but it doesn't put a pause to other responsibilities. "Anything new?"

“Nothing pressing,” Avi says distractedly.

The elevated section of highway they’re driving on passes by a massive construction site on the far eastern edge of the Safe Zone, dozens of buildings and a stadium all surrounded by scaffolding and tarps. Avi glances out the window at it, then back to Asi.

There’s something in Avi’s eyes, an unasked and uncomfortable question, pushed out of the way by different words that come easier. “Obvious thought is the flight was automated. Or maybe it was intended to crash, but you weren’t supposed to survive.” He looks away, a briefly troubled look crossing his face again. Asi can see how tightly he’s gripping the steering wheel.

“Last time someone Mazdak-adjacent kidnapped someone…” Avi closes his eyes and shakes his head. “Anyway, the plane feels like the weird link in this. Because you’re right, if they can snatch you out of your bedrooms…”

He hesitates, brows creased together. “We noticed you gone morning of the sixth. Probably after the crash. But…” his eyes search from side to side slowly across the rainy highway. “If you were picked up…” He can’t put the dots together, but he knows something feels wrong.

“You get a clean bill of health?” Avi suddenly thinks to ask. “Nothing fucky? I mean— other than the negation?”

Asi considers putting it off until later. She considers shirking sharing what she knows now in favor of more complete information some time from now. She doesn't want to talk about this anymore— it's why she'd made the hard shift to trying to discuss work.

But a quiet "No." comes from her anyway, in response to his first question.

"They did an x-ray that showed something they wanted to follow up on, but the MRI came back 'fucky', to use your language. Electromagnetic radiation prevented them from getting a clear read. But aside from that… an astonishingly clean bill of health, for someone involved in a plane crash."

"Injuries of other victims prevent me from thinking it was a plant— that the crash was staged and we were placed after, if this event was meant to be a message; that we can be taken anytime from anywhere and used for their needs."

"But…" Asi clasps her hands together before her tightly, shoulder leaning against the window. "I don't know. That, too, is just speculation as to why they did what they did."

Her head turns slightly back in Avi's direction without looking at him, eyes out the window. "Did any of my subprocesses give off particular function while I was gone? There is one in particular that is meant to go off in the event of my disappearance." But that might be hard for him to tell without particular frame of reference.

"Did…" Now her gaze does shift his way. "Did my apprentice contact you?"

Avi makes a noise in the back of his throat, takes a moment to pretend like he really has to focus on changing lanes because of the rain to buy some time to consider an answer. “I got a call from a telemarketer trying to sell me a time share in a city I’m pretty sure is under-fucking-water in Florida now.” He angles a look across the truck to Asi, “so unless that was some sort of code, I’m gonna say no.”

Judging from the look she gives him back, no seems like the right understanding.

“As far as your tech-witchyness goes,” Avi mumbles, “I’m not sure I’d know what was normal and what was abnormal. I mean you’ve seen me use a fucking smartphone.” He’s all dragging knuckles and bone clubs, hooting into the dark. “The auto-file report you normally send every morning didn’t arrive, which felt weird but like… not alarming.”

Avi tries to think more on it, squinting as he watches the rain blur across the windshield. For a moment Asi catches sight of her own reflection in the passenger side window, and she feels like she’s looking at a stranger in her own skin. It;s a subconscious, nagging feeling of unfinished business and unanswered questions.

“Whoever did this has some scary fucking resources,” Avi explains with a look down to his speedometer, slowing a little when he realizes he’s gotten lead-footed. “What’re you thinking the next step is?”

Her ghosts in the machine weren't alive on their own, then. It's a question she never wanted to have answered.

What of the Red Oni, then? Was she reduced to the red-tinged subprocesses Asi had absorbed from Praxia's central network, and thus gone, or did her being carry on because it was something more?

She reaches inside, clawing the hollow in the hopes she brushes past something, anything to give her an indication one way or the other. But nothing stands out— nothing feels like it's out of place or doesn't belong. But maybe that's the way it was supposed to be? They were, in the end, the same being.

"Until we have better information," she decides. "lashing out in the dark will do us little good. We submit requests for updates. Attempt to be…" Here, Asi tries to shed some of the tension from her voice with a shaky sigh. "good partners in this investigation so they do not cut us out."

"We install better security at the Bastion. This is the second kidnapping endured there this year. Two too many." She knows Avi knows this, though, and moves on quickly from that point. No need to twist that knife.

"We see what we can find out on our own after that. After I have more to work with, there may be leads I can follow up on internationally." Asi breezes on calmly through suggesting, "I can put my ear back to the wall when it comes to Mazdak. See if I've been burned from their online spaces and need to take over another identity, or if my own is still valid." It wasn't as though she was ever able to learn much, perpetually on the outs, but some tidbits were better than none. "If they're talking about this at all, that's valuable intel on its own. Means they have a source where even we don't, if it doesn't simply signal their guilt."

Her certainty, her sureness of course reveals itself to be a tenuous thing the longer she speaks. In a way, her plan amounts to throw a little bit of everything at the wall and see what sticks.

“You need t’be careful there,” Avi warns with a quick look over to her in the passenger seat. “If this is them and they did a snatch and grab, you sniffing around again might tip them off that you know who’s responsible, and then they might come at you again. Or worse, someone you care about.”

Avi looks out the driver’s side window to the passing scenery of mostly leveled buildings beyond the fence wall of the Safe Zone in what was once eastern Queens. He stays fixed on that for a second, but Asi can tell there’s more he wants to say. Still, the sound of rain on the roof and the roar of tires across wet asphalt is their only company for a time.

“There’s another possibility…” Avi hates to even suggest, from his tone. “The possibility that the ‘call is coming from inside the house’.” He slants a look at her, realizing1 she may be both too young and from too different a culture to get that quote. “Part of me hasn’t been able to shake how this feels like something the CIA would do. Just… overseas.”

Someone you care about.

Asi's eyes darken at that thought. Once, she'd thought she kept enough distance between herself and her family for them to never be leveraged against her. She'd burned every bridge there was to burn. Only a select few people knew who she was before.

And some of them were still in the JSDF. Some of them had set her up to be hurt by Mazdak previously. And then there were other cases, other possibilities, like the ones that had lead Kimiko Nakamura to address her by her dead name the moment they first met.

If they really were dealing with Mazdak, they were nothing if not liberal with their collection of powerful and obscure abilities, and using information gained by them for their benefit.

"So what would you recommend doing then, Epstein?" Asi asks, just shy of snapping at him. She's more terse than she means to be. "Nothing?"

“You ever go hunting?” Avi asks, and Asi hasn’t been around him quite long enough yet to know this is going to be a long-winded answer. “My dad took my brother and me hunting once when I was really little. One of the few good memories I have of either of them.”

Avi looks his the driver’s side window for a moment, then back to the road. “We were hunting rabbits. My dad figured what better way to scar a kid than by murdering something cute and fluffy.” He laughs, bitterly. “Anyway, rabbit hunting is a fuck of a thing. Did you know rabbits don’t like to be hunted?” He glances at Asi, as if expecting an answer. He doesn’t wait for one.

“You miss a rabbit and it runs, and it hides, but the hunt isn’t over,” Avi explains. “See, if your dad’s like mine — and let me just say I sure as fuck hope he wasn’t — he makes you finish what you started.” Avi makes a noise in the back of his throat. “Anyway, the metaphor or whatever. You gotta wait the rabbits out. Wherever they’re hiding, they’ll eventually pop their little fuzzy heads back out, and then…”

Avi makes a pop sound with his mouth and points a finger-gun at the windshield.

“…then you’ve got ‘em.”

Slowly looking over to Asi, Avi inclines his head. “So yeah, sometimes, you gotta do nothing so that you’re ready to do something when the time’s right.”

The methodology is familiar to Asi, even if the use case isn't. That's what makes it so frustrating to hear.

Because this is the one time she doesn't want to accept it. She wants to claw down the walls until she finds the answers about what happened to her. She wants to find whoever did this, and beat them— with her bare hands if necessary— until they make things right again. She wants… anything but to be patient about this.

To avoid showcasing her sour mood, she keeps her silence for a moment. The twinge of her jaw is a subtle thing compared to what some of what she'd like to say. When she moves past it, she's halfway to speaking again when an uncomfortable thought strikes her. One that makes her wonder, just enough. The lightbulb clicking on brings her to slide her arm away from the armrest, sit upright with a little more interest.

She's running something in her head in silence, but her eyes lack the telltale blue shift in hue to overtly indicate it. There's enough merit in her first few mental checks for her to turn back to Avi, facing him.

"I don't think I told you what happened with Yeh, leading up to her release." Not that she's even sure he knew the doctor had been released from federal custody. "There was an agency involved, one with enough apparent pull to negotiate the end of her sentence on their terms. Whoever they were, they refused to identify themselves. Their aims and motives weren't clear, but their line of questioning in their interview related to the Entity that possessed Eve Mas in Detroit."

She brushes right past memory of skepticism Epstein had shown her in previous months regarding that footage, regarding the what the fuckery of the being she'd been mostly obtuse in explaining.

Instead, Asi frowns. "I don't know if they're the CIA or… something darker, for a lack of a better word… but if the call is coming from inside, now I'm wondering."

Immediately there's things that don't line up about that, either, but the what if of it is enough to instill in her a sense of caution she didn't have before. Even so, she sighs as she looks forward again. "I don't know," she relents aloud.

"Too many unknown variables." she mutters.

Now Asi has stepped into Avi’s side of the yard, past the rickety fence of social norms and into the tangled mud of his past. The look that he gives her is one she’s never seen from him; at once assessing and guarded. Avi’s hands shift on the wheel, his shoulders square a little, and he glances around the truck as if no longer entirely comfortable within its confines. Old habits come crawling back, like spiders, up the back of his neck.

“Could be,” Avi says after that long silence. “Special Activities probably didn’t shut down because I stopped showing up for roll call. The Royals program might even still be active, but I have fuck-all of an idea who might be behind it. There’s other possibilities. Humanis First pulled shit like this once before, they’d have access to the ACTS, might’ve had another fallback site beyond Fort Irwin…”

But Asi is right, too many unknown variables.

“It happened to one of my own.” Avi states, as if Asi was somehow unaware. “Talk to Yeh. Specifically about this. I don’t know if this is connected, maybe…” he considers something, “maybe form a support group for the others. A pretense for a meeting. Go over commonalities.”

Something dawns on Avi and he looks up to Asi. “Before this. Before you were taken… did you experience any missing time? Waking up later than you intended to? Driving somewhere and you don’t remember how you got to your destination?” His paranoia spins up new and horrible possibilities, and he voices the worst of them all.

“This might not have been the first time you were taken.” Avi says with a look across the truck to her. “This might just be the first time they slipped up.”

Each progressive thought here is worse than the last. Asi knows without question, though, they all need to be addressed.

"No missing time," she confirms quietly. It needs said. After a beat, she also offers up, "The closest thing I've got is a hangover I woke up with two weeks ago, and even then, that time is well accounted for." The dry humor behind that comes across in her voice only.

Then she's running her tongue against the back of her teeth, deciding what else she wants to say. "The support group option is already an angle we are exploring, and it wasn't even my idea. Whoever the fuck decided we would be their targets underestimated our drive and determination to get answers."

Quietly, though, human needs also slip in. "First, though, I need to get a few hours sleep when we get back. Hospitals aren't great for that, no matter what country you're in." Asi's posture holds in the same position as before, like the admission doesn't admit weakness so long as she doesn't treat it like one. She even sits up slightly straighter, running a hand back through her hair.

Avi makes a noise in the back of his throat, something worrying at him as he listens to Asi. But whatever it is, he doesn’t remark on it. “We’ve got thirty minutes before we’re back to the Bunker, if you wanna pass out for a bit… I won’t blame ya.”

He doesn’t take his eyes off the road at the offer. Avi’s mind is too tethered to something Asi had said, an assertion of hers that will eat away at him for hours into the night. When you consider the people who were taken, their public personas, their visibility, the why of it becomes remarkably curious. They were, nearly, all public figures. Though not universally.

It doesn’t feel random. It doesn’t feel coincidental. But what Asi said makes his stomach turn with worry.

Whoever the fuck decided we would be their targets underestimated our drive and determination to get answers.

“Did they?” He wonders to himself.

He’s afraid of the answer.

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