It was 1:55 pm in Nagoya, Japan but the local clock on the wall of the communications room of Kazemoto Security’s International Headquarters wasn’t the one that Ryosuke Kazemoto and his staff were watching. In a darkened room usually loud with the clacking of dozens of mechanical keyboards, the Hunt-data co-ordinators sat silent but ready. In Texas it was five minutes to midnight – five minutes until the State executed Rodney Ellison Bates. There would be no stopping it. The usual not-for-profits had made their submissions for the sentence to be commuted to life but all had failed. Ryosuke pushed his hands through is hair and silently cursed those who thought killing murderers like Bates ended their evil.
Two minutes to midnight, Texas time. Bates had refused all spiritual or psychological guidance and the Gossips the five families had bound to him had not witnessed any sign of repentance. Not that repentance would have made much of a difference to his karma. To be capable of inflicting such pain on fellow beings and to enjoy it pointed to disconnection that was almost complete – which was also the reason he’d been so difficult to track down, even with all the supernatural resources at Kazemoto’s disposal.
One minute to midnight. Under the row of world clocks across the far wall, the giant screen flickered and switched to a countdown from the proprietary, secure app developed for just this purpose. In the jail in Texas, Sister Agnes was there to witness the execution and would use the app on her smart watch to surreptitiously report to Ryosuke’s team as it progressed.
“Everyone ready?” Ryosuke asked, more as something to do, rather than from any doubt. Most of the staff spoke Japanese but less than half were native to Japan so at critical moments instructions were given in English.
Midnight. The screen turned red and the message from Sister Agnes flashed across it in large white letters:
The red message also popped up on all 45 computer monitors, giving the darkened room a red glow as they waited for the next alert. From first injection to death took on average eight and a half minutes but it could take less or many more. The first injection was supposed to make the prisoner unconscious and pain-free as the other drugs ended their lives, but it didn’t always work. Often their last minutes were excruciating and filled with anger that had a profound effect on the prisoner’s karma and, in turn, their next life.
The room cooled from red, to yellow as, in Texas, Sister Agnes tapped the amber button on her end of the app. The message flashed on screen:
“Wait for it.” Ryosuke warned as desk chairs rolled forward and hands hovered over keyboards.
Green light flooded the room. On screen the single word:
Bates soul had left its body and disappeared into the astral plane.
Keys were already clacking as Ryosuke called out, “Okay boys and girls, you know the drill. Let’s see if we can identify him while he’s young – maybe before he starts on puppies this time.”
“So we’ve got six years then?” Joerg, the Senior Hunt Co-ordinator quipped from his station, but there was no lightness in his voice, it wasn’t a joke.
“Five years is our record. Let’s see if we can break it. I’ll be upstairs. Ganbatte!”
A ripple of head-bows and a sharp “Hai, Kazemoto-sama!” in unison responded to the Japanese word that had no real English equivalent. Ganbatte meant ‘do your best’ and was used as most English speakers might use “good luck” but luck was far too contrary a force to rely upon at a time like this.
Two floors up, the elevator doors opened on to the Aviary. Flooded with sunlight through its glass walls and roof, it was the opposite of the dim communications room, below. Ryosuke slipped on his sunglasses as he crossed the vast, white marble floor to the central platform from which the Senior Wranglers supervised. For today’s operation, his sister Akiko was at the helm herself. He took the spiral stairs two at a time and emerged in the middle of the platform which itself echoed the octagonal shape of the room. From here, the 360 degree view 50 floors above Nagoya still took his breath away. Mind you, Ryosuke’s view was particularly spectacular, adorned as it was by the shimmering, glistening bodies of thousands of Gossips. Like all Kazemotos raised at the family compound just outside of the city, Ryosuke was super-vigilant.
Technically, super-vigilance was actually quite common – most humans were born with the talent but almost all of them lost it quickly as they learned to focus on the beings from which comfort and sustenance came. Just as a babies’ hearing adapts to prioritise the frequency of its parents’ voices, their vision adapts to ignore the astral beings that inhabit the physical plane, looking past and through them like raindrops on a windshield, seeing only those beings and objects that their parents acknowledge. The Kazemotos, and members of other families in possession of the ancient knowledge, raised their children to maintain the extended awareness they are born with, allowing them to communicate and work with forces and beings most humans would dismiss as ‘supernatural’.
Standing on the supervisors’ platform in The Aviary, most humans would see a vast, empty room, two stories high with enormous glass enclosures at each corner of the octagon, each with sliding doors leading onto balconies outside. Within each enclosure, on a white ergonomic stool seemingly unnecessarily pressed against the right-hand wall, sat a person in a white, knee-length, traditional Japanese quilted coat to protect them from the cold when the doors to the balcony opened, every three to five minutes and things really got weird. Each time the door opened, the quilt-coated man or woman stood, faced the empty enclosure and performed a kind of solo dance with oddly specific hand gestures. After that, they sat again, eyes closed for a minute or two before they rose again to perform exactly the same odd dance, only backwards, sitting again for a few moments before the doors opened and then closed, again.
Super-vigilance – and a certain amount of arcane training – made sense of the strange picture. Queuing at each of the balcony doors, in lines stretching out over the city, were thousands of domesticated Gossips, the creatures’ bright, hot brands pulsing across their distended bellies as they waited to make their reports. The dance the quilt-coated Gossip Wranglers performed, forward and backward, removed and replaced the brands, allowing each creature to share what they had witnessed with the other non-corporeal creatures inside the glass enclosures: The Vaults. Once normal, wild Gossips themselves, Vaults had been trained to incorporate the memories shared by Gossips into their very being, storing them so that they could be accessed, by another ritual, when needed. Like their smaller brethren, a Vault’s eyes were lidless, yellow spheres and their unnecessary limbs tiny, shrivelled appendages but with each memory they absorbed, their bellies grew, so that an elder Vault’s limbs stuck out of its belly at odd angles and the effect was that of a of a latex glove the size of a small truck inflated to amuse the child of giant.
But the domesticated Gossips weren’t Ryosuke’s focus today. Today was about the several hundred newly captured, wild Gossips corralled in the domed ceiling directly above him.
“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” Akiko said, leaving her work station to join him gazing up.
“Is that enough?” he asked.
“Eight hundred and eighty-eight. The old rules have their reasons.”
Ryosuke sighed, he wasn’t going to get into that with Akiko today. The Gossip from the jail would arrive any moment and there was work to do.
“There.” Akiko said, pointing into the sky beyond the dome, at a streak of fire accelerating toward them. She returned to her workstation and tapped at the keyboard. A whirring noise reverberated around the Aviary as the dome split down the centre and slowly slid open. The wild Gossips made a break for it but were held back by the same spell that was keeping them corralled in the dome in the first place.
As the Gossip from the jail neared enough to be more than just light, Akiko sucked air through her teeth and hugged herself. Ryosuke shuddered. The being accelerating toward the open dome of the Aviary, flashing and pulsing between shades of deep red anger, so dark it sometimes absorbed light altogether, was monstrous.
Witnessing a death wasn’t like any other event a Gossip witnessed. At the moment of ascension, the departing soul, unleashed from its physical body, expanded momentarily, surging through every being in the vicinity before snapping back, remembering its human form and passing into the astral plane. A human barely noticed the spiritual assault but without a physical body to maintain its integrity, a Gossip simply dysmorphed, taking on the form of the departed. The monster now streaking toward them was a spiritual facsimile not of Bates’ physical form before death but of his soul.
The Gossips in the dome sensed it coming. But where Ryosuke’s instinct was to flee, theirs was to flock to it. They jostled and fought, throwing themselves toward the sky, beating themselves against the invisible barrier. Behind him, Ryosuke heard his sister muttering under her breath and he turned to see her finishing the spell that would release the Gossips. This was why they had been mustered.
The eight hundred and eighty-eight Gossips shot out of the dome and swarmed Bates’ spiritual doppelganger, creating a writhing, pulsing ball of energy, like a miniature sun. Akiko handed him a pair of binoculars and he zoomed in on the frenzy of feeding. Like a contagion the dysmorphia spread through the group, each of them taking on the monstrous form until, in a flash accompanied by a sonic boom, they were gone.
Ryosuke lowered the binoculars and took some deep breaths to dispel the juddering in his gut. Beside him, Akiko was doing the same. No amount of experience made anyone immune to witnessing raw evil. They stood silently for a moment – no words were necessary. No words would help.
No-one knew what happened to them on the other side but when – if – Bates was reborn, they would accompany him through and stick with him until one of the guardian families picked up the intense Gossip activity and found him. Now, it was up to Ryosuke’s team. He set the binoculars on Akiko’s desk and took a step toward the staircase and stopped as one of her staff came up.
“Sumimasen Kazemoto-sama,” she said, bowing to them both and offering Akiko a folded piece of paper.
Akiko took the piece of paper, nodding to the woman in thanks and dismissal, then reading it. Akiko’s face lit in a smile full of warmth.
“Nan desu ka?” Ryosuke asked quietly. What is it?
Akiko handed him the note. “A Gossip’s just reported in. One of the hyper-vigilant kids we’re watching in Melbourne has crossed paths with Tak-kun.”
Ryosuke’s heart lifted as he read the immaculately drawn characters of Takeshi’s name.
“Shall we take five minutes and go see what we’ve got?” Akiko said.
“Hai,” Ryosuke said, matching her smile. News of their nephew was just what they needed right now.