Aflame with the Fires of Delusion

The water seems to scorch him as it falls. His eyes are frozen to the screen; the words are burning off the page. He can't remember hot or cold any more—just that there had once been some jagged, sharp kind of sensation. Something more real and worldly.

There is a window opposite his desk. Mostly, he ignores it. Every now and again he'll be struck with some sense of being, of physical need, a headache. So he'll get up, grab a glass of water, or open a tin from one of the care packages They send him. Then it's straight back down to continue from where he's left off. The barest of distractions.

But occasionally—very occasionally—he glances out of the window. Towards that realm that he's left behind. His burnt-out retinas see only—only a kind of fire, dancing in red and purple, swallowing the ground and the people and the buildings.

He only has a single snapshot here, from this window. One angle, one view: a tarmac street, concrete tower-blocks, a few frail lights in the windows. This has become, to him, the extent of the tangible. All his needs are taken care of by Them and nobody ever knocks on the door. There is just rain—rain, memory, and the lights.

You don't need to look outside, someone thinks. And that someone is right. Is it him? He doesn't know. No self, that's the key. You can't let the self get in the way of the Work. No true bodhisattva would allow such a thing.

He looks away. He doesn't see the three figures, but he knows they are there. Text and images fly across the screen—whispering, dancing, engorging. He knows that they are coming for him. Be prepared, Bat. Obliterate your fear.

"Was there really", comes Shu's dark mutter, "no other assignment we could have taken?"

Monsoon nights are not pleasant in the south of China. Shu grew in the north, which is hardly free from the seasonal downpour, but years of missions abroad have made her forget what it could be like. The past week in Guangdong hasn't reminded her of her youth so much as it has engendered a savage bitterness against what she calls the "swamp-pot of the South".

The lobby's electric light alternates between surrender and defeat, pitifully illuminating the grey, dulled surfaces that surround them. There is no care for beauty, for humanity, in these towers: only a cold, utopian efficiency. The quintessential high-rise, framed and forgotten in concrete.

"I think it's interesting. There's nothing like this back home." Meyers, removing his coat, stares out at the sheets of pouring water. He is fascinated, and as green as could be. Shu inwardly groans.

"Quiet, both of you." The voice of their captain rings back, and they both tense up in silence; one out of fear, the other out of respect. You listen when Kuang Qiu speaks. They begin to fall back on procedure; their weapons out, their raincoats packed away.

This has not been, as Shu has intimated, a pleasant assignment. They've been sent out by the Foundation's Guangzhou Branch for an investigative mission. Not a dangerous mission: just a hidden youth, yǐnbì qīngnián, who's been frequenting some strange parts of the internet. They'll interrogate him, maybe bring him in, and definitely apply amnestics. The usual spiel.

But the 5 hour ride, the 30 minute walk in the freezing cold, all to wind up in some block of interminable hirked Shu. She hadn't relocated to be put on babysitting duty for an American rookie. And why the hell was Qiu here? An agent of their standing deserved better.

If Shu was fully aware, and not full of sores, she might be thinking more carefully about this. But she doesn't. She is there to follow orders, not question them. And so the three agents creep through the building, through its damp corridors and flickering lights, watched from above by an unseen eye.

His hands make tiny, minute movements. They've been trained that way—to interact with mouse and keyboard over thousands and thousands of lonely hours until they're clumsy with anything else. Orders and commands come through on the screen and he responds with more movements, more twitches.

He sometimes thinks, in those seconds after looking outside, that he is like a puppet master—gently tugging and pulling at the strings to make the world move to the divine will. A man of power, of wealth, of influence.

But if that is true, why is he here?

He remembers the monks at the old temples. Their great spires and walls of whitewashed stone—Hohhot's pride. The old man had smiled and spoken encouraging words in Mongolian. But Father had never taught him the language. So the old man had tried Chinese instead, and asked where Father was, but he hadn't known. The old man tried to help search for Father but they'd found Mother instead. She hadn't even glanced at the monk.

The old man had raised a hand in farewell.

What a fool that puffed up old fraud had been! The rest of them, too, with their Lamrim paths and Tantric idols. Mother had told him as much.

He'd moved away from there a long time ago, purged his accent of his roots; they were just more ties to desire—to the world. He is beyond that. He is going to be free. They do not know the true Buddha, the joy and horror of Siddhartha's visage. Moribund scholars in blank and crabbed halls!

The monk's smile had been slightly crooked, and kind.

The cameras all show different angles of the same scene: three figures creeping through the halls. They look ridiculous: dark shades with guns, moving, pointing, gradually shifting through the building. Their faces distort in the electric lights. The material marching in to invade his kingdom. Fools. They are all fools.

Bat looks around—window, screen, fridge. He feels agitated, without truly knowing why. He tries to stay calm, tries to keep his connection open. If only he were more like the others, that privileged few who cast their whole song into heaven. He has given what little of his mind he can, but he wants now to do more, give more. Then, maybe, he will stare upon the form of the true Buddha as He leans His golden head, displaying the truth of Dana, and pulls Bat's being into nothing.

Let them come. Let them all come. Not one will touch me.

"You know who we're here to take?"

Shu's voice rings in her captain's ears, a kind of pleasant irritant. Qiu duly sighs and stops, leaning against the wall. She could do with a rest; this building had continued to prove just how unpleasant it was with its lack of a lift. The stairs feel as if they could go on forever

"Did you actually read your briefing this time?"

Shu grins, slumping back against the wall. "Of course, Qiu. You know me."

Qiu did know her. The two of them had roughed it together on numerous missions: the Bengal Cataclysm, the Children's blood-rite, the Day of the Risen Xia. They know each other quite well—their ticks, habits, preferences. As much as Shu likes to mess around, she gets the job done.

She feels rather more apprehensive about the other one. Qiu thinks that she must seem rather cold to Meyers, the young, starry-eyed American rookie. So full of vim and vigour and the wonder of the paranormal. Normally, she would be nervous or dismissive of someone so green, but his record thus far has been excellent—some truly inspired actions when under fire. The exact kind of agent they wanted.

This didn't stop her from occasionally being a little tough on the rookie, though.

He pipes up now, in his chipper little voice: "I still don't understand what this group is, though. The briefing really wasn't very informative."

Qiu nods. "Everything's still being set up. It's all in a state of flux. The new AI's not even online yet. HQ's a panicky mess. They wanted bodies, competent ones, who have experienced this kind of shit before."

"Psychedelic nightmares?" Shu's light voice has an edge to it. Both of them remember some of the missions they'd been sent on in the past.

"Right. Well, sort of. We're calling the team Karma, because there's a Buddhist flavour to all this…" She waves her free hand in front of her, gesturing up and down, "stuff. There's… something going on in this part of the world. Websites, groups, reports of anomalous actors who spout gibberish when questioned."

The rain started to rattle the windows. Qiu looked up. They'd have to be moving on soon.

"They were a cult, essentially. A cult who believed in some bizarre stuff, some new-age mix of Buddhism and Scientology. Nothing to worry about, except they managed to drum up some links with the anomalous communities here and work havoc, for a time. But they were suppressed, the Chinese government and the Foundation working in tandem. Happened years ago. One of a hundred of these tiny groups."

Throughout her commentary, Qiu's voice is quiet. She has spent a lifetime cultivating it—a calm, quiet authority. Dependable, that is the word. A good actor in a crisis, capable of seeing things as they really are in the heat of the moment. The chiefs she's worked under have always nodded at her with an air of satisfaction; here, at least, is someone they can really rely on.

And so that's all she became. Someone to rely on.

"But the cult didn't die." she continues, "Not quite. It survived, in little underground cells, online discussion groups, that kind of thing. And it… changed."

"Changed how?" asks Meyer's dreamy voice.

"Just… changed." She continues to speak, looking up the stairwell, "And they're becoming a worry. More people getting suckered in, transformed into yǐnbì qīngnián, hidden youth, starving themselves on a diet of third-rate theologies. And so here we are. To fix it. Like we always do."

The three are silent for a moment. The rain batters the windows. The lights hum. The scene seems, for a moment, to freeze.

Shu breaks the silence. "They don't sound like a huge priority, though. A few underground cells? There are bigger threats to worry about. Why the new taskforce?"

"Because it's going to get big, if we don't nip it in the bud." Qiu sighs, and motions upwards. "It's places like this, you see, that they end up. This is where their delusions take them. It's a racket. A disease. You take people, real people, living their lives, and con them into delusional fantasies. Light and sound, fury and noise. The empty fire. But it's better warmth than nothing for those out in the cold."

They fall silent again. Then John murmurs, "We'd better be getting on."

The other two nod. They push through the doors, and up the stairs.

The eye sees them. Its smile is fraught.

The surge pulses upwards, thrusting its way to heaven. That feeling, that certainty, that knowledge of enlightenment, courses like healing light through his body. They will come to take him away, he knows. He can feel it. That mind of minds, that belief, that intangible wisdom given form, a manifestation of unreality made reality, an enlightened form coming closer, closer, closer.

It moves through blue veins, through frail thoughts, until it becomes its own negation. They'll see. They'll understand the gift he's given. The others, the chosen—maybe they will let him become one with them. To talk to him! To talk to it! Siddhartha himself!

Blessings come to those who take, Bat.

There are no flickers of doubt in his mind. No sheets of rain, no monks, no Mother, nothing. There is nothing. There is n—

"Khulan Bat-Erdene?"

He hadn't seen them. His attention had wandered! A fraught and fractious eye. They would be displeased. He feels Them, crowing, crowding, cornering him in his head.

What have you done, Bat?

"My name is Kuang Qiu. I am here to ask you a few questions."

They cannot know. Will not know. He will not—they cannot take his gift away.

He turns and sees them, the three figures in the black jackets. The first one is stern, focused, hair wound in a tight bun. The second stands looser, hands in her pockets, a single eyebrow raised. The third, a scrawny European, gives him a weak smile. A false smile.

"Th—this is my property. I am not available today. I am sorry."

Whose is that tinny voice? The first woman's face softens. Pity! Pity for him, the swooping Bat, the gift-giving servant of Siddhartha!

"We know what you are, Bat—can I call you Bat? I know what the Federation has promised you. We've met others like you. They're charlatans. They don't give what they promise. It's all a lie. But we can help. We can get you out of—well, of all this."

Bat grips the chair. His voice had sounds hoarse. Unused. The room is filthy—how hadn't he noticed that? The woman's voice is kind. Caring. He can't remember the last time someone spoke to him like that.

"We can help. You just need to let go. Come outside. Have you been in this rain much? It's a nightmare, but there's something cooling about it. Refreshing. Cleansing, even."

A flicker of humour. A hint of more than he saw. There is a person there, he can tell; full of complexity and life. Warmth, maybe. Like—

Like Mother.

He springs back, and moves his fingers in a complicated motion, chanting the old hymns. The others sing and dance, giving him their strength. The gift is yours to give. You wanted more choice, we know, but all who see the light will be changed by it.

Incandescent flames spring from his hands, moving into four-fold symbols, figures, words. The crackling sound ebbs and flows, gaining and losing form. The agents raise their guns, but they are too late, always too late. To defy Siddhartha's will!

The fire surges into the form of a dragon and flies to the woman's throat. She collapses. The other woman roars, the scrawny one takes a shot and Bat slumps back against his chair.

He lets out a wet and bloody laugh. Such a deep shade of red. Such a hail for Nirvana.

Bat doesn't move again.

The walls are cobalt. Everything is cobalt. So cobalt that it seems to fold in on itself, making shapes where there are none. It is a square room—at least, Qiu thought it is a square room. The blue envelopes everything—it is almost calming.

She rises, groans, and sees the spider. A white spindle of silk, descending from the ceiling before her. A thing of black and grey, bristling with brown hair, the size of a small car. Its eyes are trained on her. Its mouth moves. She can almost smell its breath.

She lets out the smallest of sobs. It is nothing, she tells herself. A delusion. A fakery. "Just charlatans", comes her desperate mumble, "just empty fire."

The spider begins to laugh, a hissing, whiskery sound. "Would you like to take some tea, my dear?" it whispers. And then it begins to climb into its web, revealing the door that stands behind.

And beyond that, only stars.

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