It was Tuesday and the weather was still sultry. There were people on Regent Street tending to the palm trees, an illustrative point to the climate deniers. We'd had four years of summer, and though we continued to complain about it, we were getting used to it. We were even getting suntans. I picked up a locally-grown orange from a street-stall just down from the Apple store and peeled it with the machete I keep on my belt. People walking past gave me odd looks, but no-one complained. The ever-present heat had slowed people down a little.
A way further on and I reached a coffee-shop. The sign on the door was turned to show that it was closed; I ignored it and pushed the door open anyway. An alarm sounded briefly and a red light flickered over my face. I stopped, and tried not to blink.
"Dax," said a mechanical sounding voice.
"Wretched thing," said another voice, this one human sounding and female. There was a thump somewhere over by the espresso machine. "That's not Dax, Dax is out the back. You identified him already earlier."
"On the third try," said another voice, this one thin and reedy, could be either male or female.
"Still got troubles with it?" I asked, closing the door behind me and shivering blissfully in the air-conditioned room beyond. The chairs and tables were laid out in standard coffee-shop style; there was a dusty, faded blue sofa in the window, and a coffee-ringed low table there scattered with old, torn magazines.
"Just weird ones," said Zaïre, her dark face appearing briefly and then disappearing again. Something else got thumped. "It's doing the iris identification perfectly, but it's not matching them up in the database right. And that's not possible, it's a one-to-one look-up."
"So it thinks we all keep swapping eyes?"
"Hah, yah, well that would do it right enough. Hey, you don't, do you?" Her face reappeared, looking slightly worried, which on her was sexy.
"No," I said, smiling. "Sounds like it would be painful."
"Oh no, I know how we'd do it," she said.
"No way!" That was Dax's voice. "No eye-swapping. This isn't a Phillip K Dick life."
"Nah, it's Ballardian," I said, gesturing back outside. "If people calm down a little more I reckon we'll go into one of those pauses he wrote about, where the whole world just sits and waits for a few years, trying to decide if there's anything to do that's still worth doing."
"Namaste," said Dax.
I headed further into the coffee shop, into the gloom where it got a little colder. Dax was sitting at a little bank of tables, all pushed together to form a longer one. On the tables were boxes of bullets, each box holding twenty-four steel rounds. Each round engraved with the nine thousand names of God. I counted quickly, there were eight boxes, and a ninth not yet full.
"Where did you get so many?" I asked. My skin crawled very slightly to see them all lying there like that, so much potential power inert and inactive.
"Anna-Mix," he said, not looking up. His fingers were tying something almost invisible around another bullet, preparing it to go into the ninth box along with the rest. "I don't know where she gets them from. I know it's not the Needle, he's not doing much business at the moment."
"Is he recovered then?"
"Somewhat. Seems like being the subject of prophecy can leave its marks on a man."
"Is he safe still?"
"Harder to say." Dax placed the bullet into its box, and started putting the lids on each of them. "Two hundred and eight," he said. "The Needle won't be any use to us until we know for certain what's come back, so count him out. This time, we do it without him."
"No great loss," I said. It was, but he hadn't featured heavily, except maybe a way to resupply ammunition if we needed it, and with two hundred and eight rounds, maybe we wouldn't. I'd never expected to be able to get that many.
"Isn't saying much at the moment, so She can't be saying much either. They won't tell us what's going on until they think we need to act."
"Could be too late by then." Dax nodded, and I half-smiled.
"Lehar's still at the Café," he said. "She's keeping an eye on the Street. She says it's all quiet so far, but Lissa's been missing for the last two days and Asian Steve's been seen twice."
"Twice?" Lissajoux was a joker in the pack, a card I'd love to have on our side, but we had no hold over him. Asian Steve was a barometer, and if he was coming out of his den then he was worried that it wasn't safe in there. And that man had better defences than most fortresses. I'd seen him face down an angry Oni and walk away.
"Yeah. Lehar said he had to be nervous because he was so calm and controlled."
Dax finished putting the lids on the bullets and pushed one box over to me. "You need these."
"I know." I was still reluctant to take them. Each bullet would be the undoing of something or someone; sometimes catastrophically. I felt uneasy knowing I had such power to hand.
"Remember the Septentrional Fortress?" asked Dax. He didn't wait for a response. "This will be worse. Much worse."