Prof Hassan

On the streets of the city of al-Azbah, there's a single torch that has never gone out. Supposedly, the day that it is extinguished is the day that the world begins to tear itself apart. Supposedly.

"What do you want now, Roman?" I still hate him. But I have to work with him, because of some inexplicable system that assigns operatives to base operations. I watch his calm hands slide across the shiny info kiosk—an old habit of his that kicks in whenever he has something to say that he considers dramatic, but with a capital D. My shift at the desk is almost over, and I pray that I can finish my research summary before the operators come in tomorrow morning to check on the operation going on here. I shouldn't worry too much, according to the operators and base supervisors; after all, they merely want to maintain the order and functionality of all existing operations in all 729 sectors; we are not aiming to ruin your lives by displacing certain positions, but if you do not perform as expected, you will be cut. Of course, it doesn't mean much to A-grade researchers like me, I suppose, but it matters more to field agents that can't even capture a dog with minor telepathy. Like Roman.

"Don't give me that attitude now, man. I need some help." Roman brings his hand to his hair and runs his fingers through his long, buzz-cut-styled blond hair.

"You need a beer." Beers usually do the trick with these fighting types.

"Just listen."

"Fine." I blow air through my mouth as if I'm terribly annoyed, although I honestly have nothing better to do at the moment.

"Thank you." Roman's eyes shine. "Remember that one operation, back in September, when we got assigned to that post in Israel?"

I nod. The beers there were quaintly sour, but fresh in a charming sand-everywhere-like-salt-in-an-ocean kind of way. Good times.

"Do you remember what my role there was?"

"Yep, you were supposed to be on a kill team with psycho semi-finalists to track down a loser in a hut somewhere; then, you failed and you, Roman, were assigned to track down a three-legged dog instead. Where you failed again."

This time Roman was the one blowing air through his mouth. "First of all." He holds up his thumb. "It was a search team with psychic specialists, and we were tracking down a high-profile telepathic target in Middle Eastern war territory. The dog was a follow-up mission, not some relegated responsibility."

I nod, jokingly rolling my eyes. I let him continue.

"Second of all…It was all worth it. Because we found something of worth, let's say. Before you ask, it was a paper—ancient papyrus, to be honest—and we found it left in the abandoned domicile of the guy we were tracking, to use formal lingo. What it said was even crazier: On the streets of the city of al-Azbah, there's a single torch that has never gone out. Supposedly, the day that it is extinguished is the day that the world begins to tear itself apart. Supposedly."

"Well, that's an informal translation to say the least, huh?"

"Not funny. This is actually a serious lead; it was confirmed by some of the researchers back in Israel as part of a larger collection, 'The Ramblings of al-Azbah from the Monks'—"

I hold up my hand, halting his words. I finally understand—or really, accept—Roman's ramblings as a real call for help.

"Say no more, I get what you want now." Roman waits. I continue.

"You've failed twice already. You've probably been looking for some way to avoid the supervisors' wrath, or at least minimize it. Then, knowing you, you panicked at first, having nothing. Until you had something, right? This 'lead' which you just happened to 'find', you got it back-checked with Amy V—the stationed researcher here, not the researchers in Israel—and made sure it wasn't just some random piece of trash…and then you were delighted with the fact that it was something significant that the supervisors would be pleased to know if you could somehow get more information…"

Roman's demeanor just twitched. Slightly. It's time to drop the load. I continue.

"…Essentially, you've concealed an almost-vital part to the investigation from your own team…and by now you want to follow it, with my help as an A-grade field researcher. Am I right, or am I right?"

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