29 August 2015

Significant Digits, Chapter Nineteen: Gholas

Significant Digits, Chapter Nineteen: Gholas

The Guild navigators, gifted with limited prescience, had made the fatal decision: they’d chosen always the clear, safe course that leads ever downward into stagnation.
--Frank Herbert, Dune


Innervate.  Innervate.”

Lawrence Bradwian and Annabeth Dankgesang slumped onto the chairs that had been set behind them, their rigid bodies relaxing.  “Just relax a moment, children,” Harry said, from where he sat at the meeting table.  “You’re in the Tower, but you’re fine.  You were just stunned.”

He glanced up at them, then returned his gaze to the book open before him.  He turned a page, slowly, and his unoccupied fingers fiddled with the end of his ponytail, where it lay over his shoulder to curl under his chin.  Auror Kwannon stood behind and to one side of the pair of students, watching them as she put away her wand.

“Feeling all right, Mr. Bradwian?”  The boy nodded.  He was an athletic boy, with striking features… perhaps Middle Eastern descent?  Close-cut black hair clung in curls to his head, and his eyes were a mellow brown.  Harry thought he remembered the boy’s mother was from the Sawad.  

“And you, Miss…?”  Harry said, looking to the other student.  She was a small girl, with black skin and tightly-twisted, short dreadlocks.  She seemed very calm.

She cleared her throat, but spoke clearly, “Annabeth Dankesang.”

“Well then, Mr. Bradwian… Ms. Dankesang…. I am Dean of the Science Program here at Hogwarts, Harry Potter-Evans-Verres.  I don’t believe we’ve had occasion to meet,” said Harry, glancing back down at his book.  He could hear the breath catch in Lawrence’s throat at the introduction.  Harry looked up again.  “You brought your classmate here… Samuel Meroveni-Bowles.”

Lawrence nodded, collecting himself, and he looked concerned, pursing his lips and raising his eyebrows.  “Yes, sir.  He fell after Div and P, and... it was bad, sir.  I didn’t think we could… well, Madame Pomfrey is wonderful, but like the song says, ‘when in doubt, stick it out.’ ”  The boy was quoting a promotional jingle the Tower had used a few years ago.  “Is Sammy all right?”

“Oh, yes,” said Harry.  He watched the two children closely as he turned another page of his book, adding, “In fact, he’s already back in his own bed in Ravenclaw Tower.”

He could see the small muscles in the boy’s cheeks flex as his jaw tightened.  Annabeth did better, but her eyes opened wide despite her best efforts.

“You might be wondering why I wanted to speak to you, Lawrence and Annabeth.  The reason is actually a bit embarrassing… it’s been brought to my attention over the past hour that you did me quite a good turn last year, and I never thanked you.  I would have done so if I’d known, of course,” Harry said.  He turned his head so that his ponytail would slip off his shoulder, out of sight behind him.  “I had a question, first, though.”

“Of course, sir,” said Annabeth.

“Well, then… I suppose I’ll start off by saying that I don’t believe in cruelty, so we’ll just out with it now: you’re pinched.  Caught.  Discovered.  I have had people toy with me too often when they had some small measure of power over me, often in the form of information I needed, and so I don’t have much liking for it.  So it’s best you know straightaway.  I’ll give you a moment to think about that and decide if you believe me.”  Harry looked back down at the book and read the page before him as the seconds passed, stretching uncomfortably.  After a minute, he finally looked up again.  The two students were sitting still, hands folded in their laps.  Lawrence looked like was trying to swallow with a dry mouth.

“I must confess that you will feel quite stupid, very shortly.  I’m sorry about that,” said Harry.  “But before we get there, my question: why in Merlin’s name did you think it would be okay to badly injure -- very nearly kill -- your classmate, just to get what you want?”  He paused, and clucked his tongue thoughtfully.  “Or maybe: why did you think I would think that was okay?  Surely you at least considered your plan might go wrong?  Didn’t you stop to think of the possible consequences?”

“I’m not sure what you mean, sir,” said Lawrence.  His voice warbled on the second word, and he looked worried.

Wise not to try to appear calm, little Larry, nor indignant.  But an innocent student would just be confused.  Maybe it’s because people worry so much about being caught for the things we’ve really done that we tend to be completely baffled by false accusation.

“Auror Kwannon, how many people are stepped-down in the clinic right now, in hold?”  Harry said, turning to her and leaning to rest his chin on one hand.

Kwannon reached into her pocket and pulled out a small brown abacus, identical to the one on the table.  She consulted it for a moment.  “Four, sir.  Not too many in Receiving or being treated, either.  Slow day.”

Harry turned and looked steadily at the students once more.  Annabeth’s mouth had opened slightly and Lawrence looked nauseous, as if he’d been kicked in the stomach.  Harry supplemented the effect by shoving one of the parchments in front of him towards the pair, with its decoded -- and obviously false -- message.


The abacuses were used in the clinic to track the flow of patients.  Harry waited a moment for the magnitude of their mistake to sink into the pair.

“You had some clever ideas.  But while the tactics were clever, the strategy didn’t really make much sense,” Harry continued.  “You were operating at an information deficit, and you knew that, and still didn’t account for it.”

“But if the abacus is…”  Annabeth said, brow furrowing.  Harry was able to watch her as her thoughts progressed, and he wondered if this was what it had been like to deal with himself as a child… cleverness and innovation trapped inside of a fishbowl-sized world, unable to grasp the limits of their perspective and experience.  When you can only see a handful of moving parts, the machine of the world looked so simple and easy to manipulate.  He remembered his stumbling horror when he’d been given occasion to see the workings laid bare, in all their complexity and danger.

“Yes, you understand, I see,” said Harry.  Lawrence’s pallor looked distinctly yellowish, but he still seemed more confused than horrified.  Slower on the uptake.  Harry addressed himself to Annabeth, who was clearly the brains of the operation (such as that might be) and the leader of the duo.  “So then: it seems as though you attempted to murder young Sammy, with whom you’ve had some problems in the past.  You’ve been stunned for about five hours, now, and I had a chance to speak to your victim, your Headmistress, and Director Diggory of the DMLE.”

Harry closed the book, a little more forcefully than necessary.  “When I was your age, I took it as a great offense that no one did me the courtesy of dealing with me directly unless I forced the issue.  So then, let me be direct: you have been idiots on a scale that you cannot yet fully appreciate.  Not only was your plan unlikely to work, you thought it was wise to try to use it to frame a classmate -- a boy who has been involved in some dark dealings indeed with the rest of his family, some of whom were expelled for their pains, but who didn’t do anything wrong here.”

He stood now, rising and placing both palms on the table in front of him, looking down on the two students with cold green eyes.  “You are said to be ‘Silver Slytherins,’ but I wonder if that little faction of Draco’s has turned out to mean anything at all in his absence.  He told me, once, that it was about the purity of truth -- that he’d learned that truth was the most important thing, even when plotting, since if you didn’t know the reality of the world then you couldn’t affect it, no matter how brilliantly effective your plans might otherwise be.  That’s why you need both instrumental rationality -- acting based on truth -- and epistemic rationality -- knowing what is true.  They are both necessary if you want things to happen as you desire.”

Lawrence had rallied, now.  Harry imagined the boy forcing down his nausea and searching for an escape.  The boy forced himself upright in the chair and thrust out his chin, saying, “But that’s the very reason why we acted… we knew the truth, and wanted to act on it.  The Meroveni-Bowles are no good and--”

“And you wanted to make your enemy pay for something, even if you couldn’t make him pay for his real crimes.  What was it that he’d done, exactly, Mr. Bradwian?” said Harry, and now his voice was as cold as his eyes.

“He and his family tried to kill Turm, just because they were ashamed of what their father had done -- because they were ashamed of their half-brother.  They tried to kill him,” said Lawrence.  The boy rose up slightly out of his seat as he spoke, taking strength from his indignation.  “They stole potion ingredients from Hogwarts, from Professor Slughorn’s stores and the greenhouses, so that they could supply Ragged Rooncrown and his Euphoric distribution in Knockturn Alley!  They tried to steal Helga Hufflepuff’s Cup from Smith Manor -- and that’s wrong, even if it turns out you did it, sir!  And Sammy tried to kill me in a duel when Annabeth and I stopped the Meroveni-Bowles!  His sister and brother were expelled, but he managed to get out of all the trouble for everything, just because they took the blame!”  Now he was standing, and Harry noticed that Lawrence was actually his same height, so that Harry had to stand up straight and stop leaning on the table in order to look the boy in the eyes.  Maybe he should make himself taller.  Auror Kwannon had moved to one side and drawn her wand, clearing her line of sight, though her wand remained casually at her side.

Lawrence was incensed now, having worked himself up into enough outrage to serve as a shield from his shock and fear.  The boy’s clear young eyes were narrowed in anger.  He lifted a finger and jabbed it in Harry’s direction.  “And Sammy was never going to die, since I was waiting at the bottom of the stairs to catch him with Wingardium Leviosa.  No one saw that, but veritaserum can prove it.”  He lowered his hand.  “I stopped him from falling so fast, and I saved his life.  But he needed to pay for what he’s done.  I wasn’t doing anything but justice.”

“Samuel Meroveni-Bowles comes from an unpleasant family, but he has not, to my knowledge, done anything more than get dragged along with his older brother and sister and be bullied into helping them occasionally.  Questioning under veritaserum revealed a scared boy in a bad clan trying to muddle his way through… rather a different picture than you’d paint in defense of your actions.  The child has not earned a brutal beating and near-death experience, even if you managed to stop yourself short of giving him an execution.”  Harry looked at Lawrence, coldly and with clear contempt.  Annabeth had leaned forward and buried her face in her hands, and was crying quietly.  “You are badly in need of a lesson on losing… a lesson I once had to learn, as it happens, but one which I have no time to teach at the moment.”

Harry pushed back his chair and walked to the end of the table, where two wands were sitting.  He picked up Lawrence’s in one hand, then looked back at its owner.  “To your great good fortune, Prior Incantato showed that you did help arrest the vicious fall that you caused.  And to your even greater fortune, no lasting harm appears to have been done.  Sammy doesn’t remember anything.  But you are a thuggish young pair, and stupid.  You have brutalized a boy in an act of vigilantism because you were sure he was guilty though you had no proof -- the swan song of so many thugs, who always manage to make themselves the true hero or victim.”

Lawrence sagged back into his chair, his bravado evaporating like the bluff that it was.  He stared ahead of himself, and Harry knew that consequences and dread were playing out in his head.

“You have been bullies -- stupid ones.  You have brought shame to your families and your House and to whatever the Silver Slytherins might be, these days, besides a fashionable social club.  I want you to understand that, Lawrence and Annabeth.  Where you’re going, you will need that understanding.  You will need that lesson to make you strong.”

Annabeth began crying even harder, her shoulders shaking, and Lawrence slumped forward, gripping the arms of his chair spasmodically.  He looked about ready to cry.  Harry waited.  Not to be cruel, but because he knew from experience that it was very difficult to change who you were.  They needed to sit there with bile rising in their throats, tears burning hotly in their eyes, seeing their entire futures burning around them… and they needed to know that they weren’t being oppressed.

Harry knew that it was a difficult thing to realize that you’d never really been the hero, all along -- to know that you were some form of lesser villain, deluded and stupid in your villainy -- somehow even less than the honest evil, since you rewarded yourself with misplaced righteousness.  Let them see the tears of their mothers waiting in the future, the bitter scorn of Headmistress McGonagall, the tall walls of Howard Prison.

“You will need that lesson, because you are going to help me with something,” Harry said.  “The world is changing quickly these days, and a great many very smart people have convinced me that my previous strategy hasn’t been working…. so you are going to help me with a new one.”

“One constrains the partner’s choice by constraining one’s own behavior,” Schelling had written in The Strategy of Conflict.  “The object is to set up for one’s self and communicate persuasively to the other play a mode of behavior (including conditional responses to the other’s behavior) that leaves the other a simple maximization problem whose solution for him is the optimum for one’s self, and to destroy the other’s ability to do the same.”

In other words, strategically limit one’s own courses of action to only allow for the ones you prefer, so your enemy must either allow you to move unmolested, or else move against you in one of the styles you’ve chosen for them -- since by limiting your own available responses, you’ve limited their ability to provoke you to unfavorable action.

“You are going to join the Honourable, Lawrence and Annabeth,” Harry said.  He dropped Lawrence’s wand on the table.  “It was you two who helped my people discover where the Cup of Helga Hufflepuff was being stored, secretly mewed up in Hepzibah Smith’s house after her death, so I know you can be of some use.  And perhaps now you understand your weaknesses in terms of strategy.  And maybe in time, you might even understand the value of life and the price of pain, and why I have dedicated my existence to preserving the one and preventing the other.”

“We can’t be spies,” Lawrence said, dully.  He turned to stare at Harry.  “I’m only fifteen.”

“I have good reason to think that your ages will help make you excellent spies, in this case, Mr. Bradwian.  I have a plot in mind to improve the world, or at least one small corner of it, and you are an absolutely necessary part of that,” said Harry.  The Dean of the Science Program returned to his seat, where the book he’d been reading lay on the table in front of him.  “I will give you instructions on how to get started.  We will not be meeting for a while, I’m afraid.  Pip will be in touch, though.”  Harry picked up the book again, and opened it back to the page where he’d left off.  “I’m not asking, of course.  But I don’t see how my little plot could work without you, and with your callous stupidity and violence you’ve forfeited a great deal.”  He looked down at the page, and resumed reading.  “I think one day you’ll understand, if it’s any consolation.  Goodbye.”

Kwannon stepped forward, now, gesturing at Lawrence to get up.  The boy did, as slowly and gingerly as if he were afraid of breaking something.  He gently put a hand under Annabeth’s elbow, and guided her to her feet, as well.  She didn’t stop crying, keeping her face hidden.  The auror escorted the children out of the room, pausing only to collect their wands.

Harry returned to God-Emperor of Dune, and read quietly for some time.

25 August 2015

Significant Digits, Bonus: Shichinin

Significant Digits, Bonus: Shichinin

April 15th, 1999
Luuq, Somalia

“Drop your guns!” shouted Neville, leaping through the window.

“Guns are stupid!” shouted Fred, leaping in next to him.

“Your mother is a hamster and something something elderberries!” shouted George, leaping in at Neville’s other side.

“That’s not even close to being right, George!  Phlogisticate!” said Neville, as he swept his wand across to one of the eight soldiers.

The soldiers were tough: hardened Ogaden warriors who had been fighting for years.  It would be hard to say what their cause really was: independence for their clans; the unity of the Ogaden regions in Somalia and Ethiopia; or personal power.  But whatever the cause, they had spent most of their recent time intimidating, beating, or shooting the residents of local villages.  They were hard men, and used to violence.  And so while they were surprised when white men in black dresses jumped through the window and began waving sticks, there was an easy solution at hand.  They raised their rifles.

Click.  Click.  Click.  Click.  Click.  Click.  Click.  Click.

The Extinguishing Charm suppressed small fires.  That included small chemical fires.  That included the ignition of the primer in the 5.56×45mm NATO cartridges in the soldier’s guns.

The two worlds were separated, but not by that much.  The Záh Kardja used flamethrowers during Grindelwald’s War, and many wizards were constantly scrutinizing the Muggle world -- if only so that they could disguise themselves better (or make ironic devices, like a lighter that turns off lights).  Unfortunately for Smith and Wesson, guns happened to be unusually easy to disable with simple and quick magics.

“References are only funny--” said George.

“--if everyone is in on the joke,” completed Fred.  The twins snapped their fingers at the front and rear doors to the store, and both locks clicked audibly closed.

“The exact opposite is true… it’s funnier if only a few people understand what’s going on,” retorted Neville.  “Stupefy!  Stupefy!

“Iksa jir!” screamed one soldier, still pointing his gun at Neville and wildly pulling the trigger, even as two of his companions fell to the ground, shivering with red energies.  A fourth soldier barked at another, “Wac caawimaad!”, as he threw down his own gun and pulled a knife.  It was a short blade with a tape-wrapped handle; the cutting edge was concave with long use and frequent sharpening.  The Ogaden fighter hefted it lightly in one hand, and advanced, his face hard.

Stupefy!” cast George and Fred in unison, and the knife-wielding soldier slouched sideways, stunned.  Four of the five remaining soldiers dropped their guns and raised their hands, one pleading, “Joogso, sixir, joogso!”  The fifth combatant appeared too terrified to do anything more than pull the trigger on his useless gun again and again.

The three wizards stunned them all, methodically and easily.  The entire encounter was finished within a minute.

The work was easy, as it always was when the three magical knuckleheads zipped somewhere on the globe to be superheroes around Muggles.  They were skilled Hit Wizards backed by the most powerful wizard and most powerful organization on the globe, and so naturally there wasn’t much risk.  If they did get in trouble, they’d teleport out and call in like… fifty more guys.  It was like the SAS fighting toddlers, and the most serious danger to the trio was the terrible quality of their own jokes.  Example: they’d called their trio the “Shichinin” (七人, or “Seven People”) because they really loved a Kurosawa movie Harry had once shown them, and because Fred and George were certain that “our enemies will think there’s four more of us somewhere!”

After they’d finished stunning the soldiers, Neville, Fred, and George took their guns and ammunition, feeding them into pouches designated for that purpose (whose extra-dimensional space must be positively bulging with tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of armaments at this point), and Fred bubbled an Obliviator squad.  It wasn’t that the three of them couldn’t have done the False Memory Charms, of course, but rather that the professionals had enormous experience in designing plausible multi-cultural explanations for bewildering events.  They could even design the new memories to serve a larger purpose.  In this case, the new memories would encourage these soldiers to abandon armed conflict and take up a peaceful political movement within Muggle Somalia.

The Obliviators were quite good at handling these situations.  The usual method was to create a tragic and deeply affecting past event, prolonged discussion, and personal agreement for each participant.  In Kosovo, the Obliviators had helped the Shichinin turn an entire division of the State Security Service of Yugoslavia away from violence by crafting a fictional encounter where two of their armed squads were ordered to kill an Albanian family who’d refused to leave their home.  A little girl from the family made an impassioned speech and offered them flowers, instead, and all the members of that squad remembered being moved to tears and vowing to preserve the lives of the people above all else.

Harry had called it “weaponizing cognitive dissonance” when he’d given them their mission, after a considerable speech about how it was monstrously unethical to simply ignore the massacres that took place on a regular basis in the Muggle world.

“These are fancy guns,” said Fred, examining the last rifle.  He’d grown to be tall and handsome, with a thick mop of reddish-brown hair and a strong jaw.  “Very shiny and new.”  He threw it to George, who caught it and squinted at it closely.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of fancy guns, lately,” said George, nodding.  George had also grown to be tall and handsome, although -- unlike his brother -- he had a strong jaw and a thick mop of reddish-brown hair.  He glanced at Neville.  “Remember the guns we got off those fellows in Jijiga?”

Fred spoke to the pouch in his hand: “Gun from Jijiga warehouse.”  When a stock appeared at the mouth of the pouch, Fred grabbed it and pulled a rifle free.  The mouth of the pouch chewed toothlessly at the gun as it emerged, the lips undulating around the weapon.  It was a rifle just like the one in George’s hand: matte black metal with a plastic-looking black stock.  It looked much more modern than the cheap Chinese or Eastern European guns they usually found (mostly AK-47s or variants).

Neville sat on a stack of plastic-wrapped soda flats, frowning.  “Where is the ONLF getting these guns?”

“Let’s ask them!  Fred, do you speak Somali?” asked George.

“Why no, George.  Say, do you speak Somali?” said Fred.

“I used to, Fred, but I’m afraid being forced to watch boring movies where mustachioed men bang coconuts together has quite driven it out of my head,” said George, sadly.

“That’s a shame, George.”

“A terrible tragedy, Fred.”

“Maybe quoting constantly about dead parrots will help bring the knowledge back, George.”

“Why of course, Fred!  That’s the ticket!  That won’t be extremely annoying at all!”

“You just don’t appreciate true genius,” said Neville, sourly.  The wiry young man had a prominent nose and flashing green eyes.  He gestured for the rifle, and George threw it over to him.  Neville spoke to his own pouch.  “Gun encyclopedia.”

“True genius is repeating the same ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ line over and over, George.”

“Quite right, Fred!  And singing songs about lumberjacks!”

“AK-101,” said Neville, comparing a photograph in The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Guns with the rifle in his hand.  “Oh, bloody hell, it says that right on the barrel.  And there’s a date.  1999… these are brand new.  ‘ИЖМАШ’… these are Russian, not cheap knock-offs.”

“The OLNF is getting monies from Egypt--“ said Fred, more seriously.

“--but where did they find someone to sell them these?” said George.

“Those Eritrean blokes had fancy rifles, too.  The ones shooting civilians in Maidema?” said Fred.

“Someone is aggravating these wars, on purpose or for profit,” said George, scowling.

“You’re thinking what I’m thinking?” Neville asked, feeding gun and book back into his pouch.

“Find the source of the fellow willing to sell the best hardware to the worst people--” said George.

“--and cut off the supply, and maybe his hands too--” said Fred.

“--and we might save a lot more lives,” finished Neville.


April 16th, 1999
Jijiga, Somali Regional State, Ethiopia

The rangeland surrounding the city of Jijiga was greener than it usually would have been; the drought had killed off eight of every ten grazing cattle, and the xerophytic acacia and crossberry on the gentle hills around the city had flourished in their absence.  The warehouse was in a small complex of storage buildings to the north, past the airport and the dry riverbed.   It was actually quite a pretty area -- quiet, and far enough from the main city that there were almost none of the sun-bleached scraps of trash that were usually littered everywhere.

As they approached the building on foot, Fred and George paused to gather handfuls of crossberries, and some of the purple, star-shaped flowers.  They would be a nice surprise for their mum.  If there had been any observers, it would have looked an odd sight: the Shichinin were Disillusioned, and it would have seemed as though berries and flowers were vanishing into thin air, one by one.

Outside of their Mobile Mary, the trio was virtually always Disillusioned.  It was an unfortunate necessity when working in any of the places in the world where white people were rare.  There were other ways to avoid sticking out, of course, but this was the easiest.

Neville pushed open the simple door to the plain corrugated metal of the warehouse.  It was unlocked, and the place looked deserted.  The heavy metal shelves were mostly bare.  The entire place appeared just as it had when they’d left a week ago, except that the four stunned guards and Obliviator squad had gone, and the eight crates of automatic weapons had been disposed of (the large crates being rather too inconvenient for the Shichinin to take care of themselves).

Fred and George made a beeline for the two old card tables that had been set up in one corner.  They’d remembered that there had been some paperwork there -- shipping forms and tariff slips.  Ethiopia had strict import and export controls, as well as high tariffs.  The two wizards found something that appeared to be a ledger, with numbers in columns that they guessed represented wholesale costs, shipping fees, tariffs, label numbers, and the amounts spent on bribes (considered a reasonable business expense here, indeed as in most countries).  The shipments were mostly small, but a few shipments had big numbers -- hundreds of thousands of birr, the local Muggle money.  Not knowing how much the guns cost or the exchange rate for… well, anything to anything else, really… it was hard to figure out if these were the shipments they wanted.

“We better take this,” said Fred.

“Maybe someone can sort it out for us later,” agreed George.

They fed the ledger into Fred’s pouch, and checked in with Neville.  He wasn’t inside, but they soon found him.  He was sorting through discarded shipping crates.  Most of them had been reused or repurposed, but some of them were broken or damaged along the joints, and had been tossed in a haphazard pile outside the warehouse.  Many of the more robust crates had handfuls of moldy hay still inside of them, which had once kept contents dry and cushioned.

“Find anything?” he asked, as he shifted broken-sided crates around.

“A ledger for recording transactions, we think,” said George.

“Maybe just looks like it, though,” added Fred as an afterthought.

“Oh ho… creeping quackgrass!” said Neville, delighted.  He snatched up a loose handful of of withered brown stalks from one of the crates.

Fred and George looked at each other, trying to decide if he’d made that up.  They decided that he hadn’t.

“Of course it is,” said Fred.

“We were about to say the same thing,” said George.

“Bleeding obvious it’s quacking creepgrass,” snorted Fred.

“Embarrassing you even have to say anything, really,” laughed George.

“No… there’s some Siberian Spurge in here, too… Euphorbia seguieriana,” mused Neville.  “I wonder if this is a different wheatgrass, other than quackgrass.”

“What do you feed a boffin like this?” Fred asked George.

“Nothing, you just let them swot and change their litter regularly,” answered George.

Grass Genera,” commanded Neville to his pouch.  He sat down with the resulting The Grass Genera of the World, and got to work.


At least an hour and four games of gobstones later, Neville made a hooting sound of glee.  “I have it, gentlemen!”  He leapt to his feet, and trotted over to where Fred and George were squatting, flicking marbles on a chalked-up board.  Fred looked up, wiping his face, and asked, “Oh, good, we were worried it would take forever--”

“--and be extremely boring to even think about,” said George, scooping up the gobstones.

“This hay is from the Don River valley in Russia!” said Neville, grinning hugely.  “The only place where any Agropyron grows with the Euphorbia seguieriana subspecies niciciana!  It’s… it’s... ”  He grasped for some suitable word.  “It’s elementary!” he declared, after a moment, lamely.

It might seem unbelievable that anyone could be such a nerd.

And yet it was true.

“Then it’s back to Abuja--” said Fred, referring to Nigeria’s capital.

“--where we can catch a portkey back home for a nap and some brekky,” finished George, referring to rashers and eggs.

“And then: Russia!” declared Neville, relishing the idea.  He triumphantly held a handful of moldy hay.


A nap and brekky later
Main Office, Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Ministry of Magic, London

“Good evening, gentlemen,” said Director Diggory.  He was examining a map on the wall, tracing routes with his finger as he consulted one book plucked from a large stack, and occasionally sipping a large mug of tea.

The young man was only a few years their senior, and they’d all once gone to school together.  The twins had even had a nickname for Cedric: “Pretty Boy Diggory.”  Director Diggory was aware of this, but -- oddly -- didn’t find the name all that hurtful.  He’d had to grow a thick skin, since he was in command of aurors decades older than him.  Fortunately for him, there were few complaints by this point, six months into his command.  He benefited from a great many factors: he was shockingly good at his job, he was blisteringly handsome in a way that made Madame Bones blush, he was personal friends with the Tower, and he was from a house so Noble and Most Ancient that the first Chief Auror had been named Eldritch Diggory (who had gone on to be Minister for Magic).

“We brought in a temporary Muggle expert with the usual procedure, and sorted some of this out,” said Diggory, closing the book next to him and sitting at his desk.  He brought his tea with him, setting it at his elbow.  He picked up a sheet of parchment.  “He’s identified the source of that crate: an airport in Russia in a town called Mikhaylovka, by way of Veshenskaya.”

“Ah, yes,” said George, wisely.

“We summer there,” said Fred.

“Lovely place,” said George.

“Wonderful flowers,” said Fred.

“Beautiful plumage,” said Neville.

The twins groaned.

“You three go to Russia.  Bring Bogdanova with you; she’ll be able to help.”

The twins groaned a second time, and George flopped dramatically forward onto Diggory’s desk for a moment, leaning over the Director’s tea with exaggerated despair.  Ilya Bogdanova had been the head of the Office for the Detection and Confiscation of Counterfeit Defensive Spells and Protective Objects until recently.  She had survived the great purge of the Ministry in 1994, probably as an attempt to conciliate the Malfoy faction by leaving one of their number in a position of power, but she’d burned through all of her chances to turn over a new leaf, and had been demoted.  Percy had told the twins at family dinner one Sunday that Bogdanova had been lucky to keep any sort of job at all, since they’d had dozens of complaints about her attitude.

“That’s enough,” said Diggory, scowling.  “None of you knows Russia or Russian.  Bogdanova speaks eight languages, and grew up there.  She went to Durmstrang, and most of the people now in charge there were her classmates.  If you want to do this thing, tracking down guns in one of the Independent states, you’re taking her.  Things are too tense with them right now, politically... we don’t want to push them further away thanks to some idiots meddling in their affairs without a guide.  I don’t care what you think of personality.  Take her… otherwise, you’re off to Yemen, tout de suite!”

The Shichinin grumbled as they walked down the hall to the elevators, to head down to the ODCCDSPO’s overflow offices.

“She’s a pureblood fanatic from Russia who graduated Durmstrang, loves Malfoy, and just got demoted,” said Neville, glumly.  “We’ll be there ten minutes before she stuns us in the back and feeds pieces of us to snargaluffs.”

“All the more reason to take her along--” said George.

“--and expose her as a traitor,” said Fred.

“But we’ll be in pieces inside of snargaluffs!” objected Neville.

“When else will we have the opportunity to flush her out?  She’s kept her head down since she lost her position to Covenant, keeping quiet.  Probably spending her time sending detailed reports to Narcissa and Draco Malfoy,” said Fred.

“And relaxing in her off-hours, painting a series of tasteful landscapes in the blood of muggleborns,” said George.

They stepped onto the elevator, accompanied by a flurry of interdepartmental memos that circled busily overhead, and hit the button for the fourth level.  Almost half of all DMLE and DMAC (Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes) offices were now on other floors, since the second and third floors were full.  Aurors and arithmancers and a few other professions had done very well in the Ministry, of late.  Fortunately, there was room to spare, since middle management and licensing boards and regulators had been decimated.  The entire games division had simply been sacked in 1995, after losing half their staff the year before.

Fred knocked on Bogdanova’s door when they arrived there, calling out, “Hullo?  Madame Bogdonova?”

“Come,” said a sharp voice, and George opened the door.

“Hullo, Madame,” said Fred to the older witch who was sitting at a desk inside the cramped and dark office.  “The Director sent us… he was wondering if you would lend us a hand with an excursion?”

Agapa "Ilya" Ilyinichna Bogdanova put down the parchment in her hands, looking at the Shichinin coolly.  She was perhaps a hundred years of age, with grey hair kept in a short pixie cut.  She was one of a shrinking percentage of older Ministry workers who hadn’t taken advantage of rejuvenation, and it showed: the skin hung loose at her neck but was taut on her face, and liver spots were visible on her thin hands.  Her blue eyes were still sharp, though, as she regarded them with visible displeasure.

“I see, gentlemen.  So two Weasleys and a Longbottom want me to go on an ‘excursion?’ ” she asked.  There was only a slight trace of a Slavic accent.  “I don’t know whether to be flattered or frightened.”

“The Director has asked that you accompany us to Russia, Madame Bogdanova… we’re trying to track down the source of some Muggle weapons,” said Neville.  “We were hoping to leave tomorrow morning, if that is possible.  I hope you’re not too busy?”

Bogdanova glanced at the parchment in her hands, and dropped it to the desk with a look of distaste.  It fell among dozens of other sheets and forms.  “I am not.  They have put me in this dreary little office and set me to writing reports and giving depositions to the Wizengamot on counterfeit Safety Sticks and other such trivialities.  It is busy work, nothing more.  So no one in the department has to speak to me, you see.”  She collected parchments into a rough stack with a few aggressive movements, then dumped them in a pile to one side.  “Why is the babe-in-charge interested in Muggle weapons?”

George explained, “Someone is selling powerful guns to some bad people in Africa -- in Ethiopia -- and it’s making a few wars down there a lot worse.  The Ogaden National Liberation Front and the Eritrean militia groups have been--”

“Wait… a wizard is selling Muggle weapons?”  interrupted the witch, raising her eyebrows in surprise.

“No,” said Fred.  “It’s probably a Muggle.  But the ONLF and the Eritreans used to only have cheap old guns, and not many of them.  Now they’re better supplied, and it’s showing in the civilian death toll down there.”

“So a Muggle is selling Muggle weapons to other Muggles, and those Muggles are killing still other Muggles,” said Bogdanova, rolling her eyes.  “What is our concern?”

That is our concern,” said George.  “A lot of people are being hurt--”

“--and we’re in a position to stop it,” said Fred.

“I know your little trio’s mandate,” said Bogdanova, rising to her feet and walking to the coatrack.  She pulled down her cloak, and settled it over her robes.  “But surely you don’t waste your time pretending to be some sort of… Muggle aurors?  What possible difference do you make, when they die like ants all day long?”

Fred and George glanced at each other.  Their lips were tight.  Neville hurriedly spoke up.  “We’ve been making a lot of difference.  We’re mobile, we’re effective, and we’re stopping hundreds of future deaths every day.”

“And why is that our responsibility?  Are we Muggles, now?” she asked, fastening her cloak in place.  “No, never mind.  Spare me.  I will go with you, no argument.  Better than pushing parchment here.  And it has been months since I was back home.  Let us go make arrangements.”


The limit on how far one could Apparate was a combination of the physical and metaphorical distance.  Land's End to John o' Groats was a single trip for a native Englishman, but a Bulgarian attempting the hop had better have his three D’s firmly in mind.  Any trip of any considerable distance, then, required portkeys -- for the sake of safety and brevity both.  One of the great advantages enjoyed by Ministry officials -- aurors and Hit Wizards included -- was ready access to the Official Business desk at the Portkey Office.  Further, the assistance of the Chief Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards, as well as the Tower (who had considerable influence in any Treaty state, such as Nigeria), eased any concerns about international travel.  The Shichinin had been extremely fortunate in their friends, as events would have it… perhaps anyone in close proximity to figures of mighty destiny would have a tendency to get caught up in orbit, swirling around in the eddies of fate.

The Shichinin, accompanied by Bogdanova, who had humorlessly told them to call her “Ilya,” were soon on their way, whisked by portkey to the closest available destination to Mikhaylovka: Volgograd.

Truth be told, the portkey -- the stiff and filthy cover of an old library copy of a Muggle book named Battlefield Earth -- came from a box labeled “Tsaritsyn,” but that was nearly a century behind the times.  Muggle names changed too frequently for the Portkey Office to worry about, and they made do with a huge blackboard scrawled with guides to the current nomenclature.  Really, the Shichinin had gotten lucky that Russia was relatively stable: some Muggle areas were so prone to changing their names that the Office had given up.  After Herzegovina’s Tomislavgrad changed its name for the fourth time in a century (Duvno became Tomislavgrad became Duvno and then finally back to Tomislavgrad), the Office had stopped making portkeys for the city entirely.

It was a fairly long trip from London to Volgograd: 2,400 miles or so.  They ripped the dirty piece of book cover in half, standing in the Ministry atrium off in a quiet corner, and it felt as if a rope had been knotted around their waists and yanked violently, pulling them sideways and up and back and around.  They whirled down to the ground and came to a staggering stop, but their feet sank into an inch of thick mud almost immediately.  Neville waved his arms around wildly for a moment to keep his footing, his boots skidding a pace.

It was fairly cool, but not so cold that it was uncomfortable.  Even here, spring was a pleasant time of year.  They were in a building that was mostly empty, but which seemed to superficially resemble a barn (albeit with poor drainage).  A ragged bulletin board, its lower edge looking as though it had been chewed upon, bore a few parchments stamped with the ornate crest of the Russian Oak.  They were in the right place.  The right muddy, run-down place.  The right muddy, run-down, manure-strewn, dangerous-looking place.

“An hour and a half to Mikhaylovka,” said Bogdanova, who was wrapping a scarf around her neck, having leaned her broom against the bulletin board.  “We should go check in with the Domovoi here and then be on our way, if we wish to have a few hours of light when we get there.  Bukavac live in the rivers and feed at night, so we should not linger.  They feed on children.”  She glanced at her three youthful companions, who seem to have missed her implication as they buttoned mackintoshes over their robes.  They only nodded, looking around warily.

The Domovoi was situated in the dirty brick Muggle civil services building, a disappointing distance away from the beautiful neoclassical City Duma.  Most of the offices in the civil service appeared to have no function except to support an astonishing variety of people taking quiet naps.  The Domovoi was one of these: a sleepy-looking little man with a wilting wet mustache, who unquestioningly stamped their documents and waved them on their way.  He probably would have done the same if a trio of Voldemorts in fiery hats appeared in front of him with their own documents.  It was comforting to know that there was some constancy in the world.

They kicked off from outside of the building within minutes, riding cruiser brooms that were comfortable for long hauls, but which could be adjusted for better speed and maneuverability if necessary (mostly a matter of aerodynamics and swapping out the forward hand-hold, to replace the Braking Charm with a version featuring tighter turns).  They flew while Disillusioned, as standard procedure dictated.  The invisibility might seem silly, especially when they left the last buildings of Volgograd far behind, and the only Muggle road wended its way in and out of sight among vast stretches of unpopulated wheatfields and steppes below, but time had proven its utility.  The only annoying thing was the necessity to use minor charms to keep track of everyone’s location, and the occasional confusion that resulted when someone fell behind (bathroom breaks were the usual culprit).

After a longish period of silence, Bogdanova drew her broom alongside Neville’s, and called out a question.  She had to raise her voice to be heard over the wind.

“Tell me something,” she called.  “Why are more Muggles a good thing?”

“What?!” replied Neville, unsure if he’d heard her correctly.  He’d thought she had asked why more Muggles would be a good thing, but that was something a cartoonish sociopath would say.

“Why are more Muggles a good thing?  You’re interfering with their little wars to save them, and now we go to stop Muggles from selling Muggle guns to other Muggles.  You’re taking responsibility for them, like a shepherd.  But shepherds have a very good reason for their work.  What is your reason?”

There were spells to make this sort of chatting easier in the face of the wind, but Neville wasn’t sure he wanted to be having this conversation at all, so he didn’t cast any of them.  “We’re not shearing the Muggles, if that’s what you’re asking,” he said.

“No, but you’re making yourself their masters, which seems a curious thing for someone like you to do.  To step in and say who should live and who should die -- by virtue of where you intervene and where you do not -- that is making choices for them, yes?  And you are deciding as a principle that more Muggles is better.  You want to stop them from being shot, yes?”  Bogdanova sounded amused by the entire idea: Neville could imagine her sharp eyes as sardonic and mocking.

“Sort of,” said Neville, after pausing to think.  “It’s more… if you have the ability to save someone’s life -- anyone’s life -- you should do it.  And that’s especially true when it’s very easy.”  He pointed down to the ground below them, picking out a small lake from near its parent river as it passed beneath, then realized she couldn’t see the gesture.  “Like if there was a person down there in the pond, even a stranger, you would go and help them.  That’s still something you should do if the pond is a mile away, or a hundred miles away.”

To Bogdanova’s credit, she didn’t answer right away, but actually thought about what she’d heard.  This is rarer than one might imagine.  Their brooms drifted apart.  Eventually, though, she pulled back in close, and said, “I should think that it would be good if I could save the person, but it is not my duty.  Not my job.”  Neville was going to reply, but she went on.  “And if I save one person, then I would have to save the person in the next pond, yes?  Otherwise I am deciding that the first person is better.  Soon I am saving all the people in all the ponds… being able to do it makes it necessary, for you, yes?  We do what we must, because we can?”

Neville had a ready answer for this, since he’d heard Hermione Granger talk about this with Harry.  He shook his head, and called back, “No… you rescue as many people as you can, without ruining your own life.  Doing the right thing can’t mean destroying yourself.”

“Can’t it?” called back Bogdanova, maddeningly, and pulled her broom away.  But Neville wasn’t about to challenge his own conclusions just because this Russian witch was confusing contrariness for wittiness.  He rolled his eyes and kicked his broom up another ten meters, pulling level with where his charm said the twins would be.

“Well, that was an unpleasant conversation,” he said to the air.

“Tell me something, young man --” called George.

“-- have you really never tried a fine filet of Muggle?” said Fred, smacking his lips noisily.

Bogdanova was left to fly alone the rest of the journey, while the Shichinin chatted about other ways to leverage their mission.  The older woman might have meant to be nasty, but she’d brought to Neville’s mind the possibility of force-multipliers.  This single arms dealer could be -- should be just the beginning of a new phase of their operations.  It was widely known (widely rumoured, anyway) that Harry was engaged in all sorts of Muggle charity.  Fred was friendly with a bloke who worked as an arithmancer at the Ministry, and it was apparently a pretty open secret that they were shipping out truckloads of advanced water filters, cooking stoves, and other goods.  So Neville and the twins didn’t think they’d step on his toes, there.  But it would be quick and easy to smash up some weapons factories, for example.  There were strict regulations about subverting Muggle politics, but none of the Shichinin could think of any legal, ethical, or practical objection to making sure that arms manufacturing suffered a brisk run of bad luck.

What could be wrong with that, really?


Bogdanova brought her broom up to their level, clicking at them four times.  They all dropped their Disillusionment for the time being, and came to a halt.  Fred leaned over and pulled a beetle out of Neville’s hair, where the thing had become trapped at some point during the past hour or so.

“Mikhaylovka,” Bogdanova said, pointing ahead.  It looked like just larger version of some of the uninteresting grey Muggle towns they’d passed, but a brightly-colored banner was visible strapped to a grain elevator and labeled with blocky Cyrillic lettering  -- it must have meant something to Bogdanova.

Crescent lakes, reservoirs, and canals marked this southern side of the town, as well as some industrial-looking buildings to the east.  Squat houses with fenced-in grounds surrounded one large lake directly in front of them, continuing off to the west.

Fred took out a pair of omnioculars, and scanned the town.  Train tracks bisected Mikhaylovka -- if the shipment of arms they’d tracked had needed to be moved about, before being loaded on a plane and sent on to Veshenskaya, that may have been how it had been done.  Wordlessly, Fred held the omnioculars to one side, where George was holding out his hand.

“Not a lot of factories, here.  Some other Muggle industries, but not a lot of manufacturing on a big scale,” said George, peering through the device.

“Some places working with big piles of rock and sand, other places with grain silos and those trucks… not a lot of big factories,” agreed Fred.

“It has been much time since Muggle Mastery for me,” said Bogdanova, leaning forward on her broom and using one finger to push her hair off of her forehead.  “What do you mean?”

“They’re saying that the Muggle who shipped the guns to Africa probably wasn’t selling them directly -- whoever operates from here was a middleman.  Like how Potage’s doesn’t make the cauldrons they sell… they buy them from craft-shops, instead,” said Neville.

“Maybe the gun craft-shop is hidden here as something else,” said Bogdanova.  She might have been trying to be helpful, or she might have just enjoyed meddling.

Neville shrugged.  “Maybe.  But to run a place like that, you need lots of things from other Muggle places, I think.  Hard to hide… and why bother?”  He shook his head.  “Plus, our current theory is that the whole thing is illegal, so we’re really looking for a middleman, like Potage.”

“Nip in the train station--” said Fred.

“--and have Madame Bogdanova chat with someone who might know?” said George, lowering the omnioculars and offering them to the Russian witch.  She waved them away, and Neville swung his broom around to take them, instead.

“Sounds like a plan.  Madame, if you’re up for a quick chat and Confundus Charm?  The airstrip here looks small, so if many heavy industrial crates, ones that may contain guns, have been trucked on out there from the train station over the past year, that’s probably our guy.  There shouldn’t be that many… too expensive for most shipping.” said Neville.  “We find the source, and we’ve found our arms dealer… and whoever’s stoking the flames in Ethiopia.”

“Happily I will comply.  Why so easy, though?  Would this person not fear Muggle authorities?”  Bogdanova said.  They all began lowering their altitude, to bring themselves to a rest behind a deserted-looking grain silo.

“I don’t think it’s something they worry about here--,” said George.

“--although Muggle politics are bloody insane, so who even knows.” said Fred.

“So this isn’t even a crime -- selling the guns?  You are happy to overrule their own leaders, and decide for them what should not be allowed, eh?”  Bogdanova said, smiling and raising her eyebrows.  “Makes sense to me, but it’s surprising.”

No one took the bait.

Landing on the ground, they stowed their brooms.  Bogdanova didn’t have Hit Wizard gear, but Fred had brought along an extra pouch for her to use as a convenience.  It was actually very thoughtful of him; there were four loaner pouches in the DMLE, and he’d made sure he requisitioned the good one for her (the only one of the four that didn’t stink of troll, for whatever reason).  The four of them recast their disillusionment, sorted out who would lead the way with a clicker in hand, did some basic security scans to check if they were being observed, and got moving at a brisk walk.

The walk to the train station brought them almost all the way through Mikhaylovka, walking along the roads that ran next to the tracks.  It seemed like the workday was winding down as the day itself waned; a scratching of cirrus clouds forming overhead helped darken the remaining daylight.  Sunset proper wouldn’t arrive for hours yet, but the streets were beginning to fill with people.  It was only Thursday, but there were already some drinking parties audibly going on -- the four wizards saw a sizeable contingent of men in overalls dusty with chalk, walking down the street with bottles in hand and enjoying the mild evening with a mellow song.  Quite a nice town, really.

The train station had tall fences and some guards posted, but it was easy enough to stroll past the tollbooth and duck under the barrier arm.  Bogdanova took the lead once they were up onto the rust-streaked concrete slabs of the platform, clicking three times to signal she wanted to take charge.  She glanced at the signs invisibly and led them with intervals of clicks past pallets stacked with plastic sacks of concrete, forklifts, piles of rough-barked ties, and the other machinery necessary for a rural freight.  Two trains were being loaded with containers of crushed rock, via slow and painstaking maneuvers with short cranes.  A lot of yelling was apparently essential to the process.

Bogdanova paused in front of a red-painted door with squat green Russian words on it, and clicked four times.  The four of them dispelled their Disillusionment once more, and the Shichinin followed her wordlessly into the office.

Confundo.  Проверка!” said the Russian witch to the pot-bellied man in grey coveralls standing in front of a cheap plastic filing cabinet.  “Мне нужны документы о доставке грузов на аэродром.”

The man blinked rapidly past a pair of thick bifocals, but eventually shook his head as though to clear it, and answered hesitantly, “Конечно. У нас всё в порядке.”  He leaned down and opened the bottom drawer, drawing out a file folder and offering it to her.  Its label had been scribbled out and rewritten at least five times.  “Вот документы за последний месяц…”

“Были какие-нибудь большие ящики с грузом?” asked Bogdanova, accepting the folder.  She spoke sharply and brusquely.  Neville glanced at the twins, uneasily.

“Только от Курагина. Вы из налоговой?” said the man.  Bogdanova brushed away the man’s question with a puffing of her lips.

“I believe we have -- oh, Somnium -- I believe we have the man you’re looking for.  A man named Kuragin is the only contractor in town who regularly has them run such things to the airstrip.”  She studied the documents in the file folder with evident distaste, as the man she’d questioned collapsed into sleep.  “Lev Kuragin.  Although the manifests for his shipping says that they’re all ‘machine parts,’ this is the only person who fits your bill.”

“Does it have a location there?” George asked, grunting as he dragged the man into a sitting position against one wall.  Fred drew his wand and cast a quick Obliviate on the man’s last five minutes.

“Yes.  No trouble.”

“Then you take the lead,” said Neville, and Disillusioned himself.  The other three followed suit, and Bogdanova led them out, clicking at intervals.


About twenty minutes later, deep into dusk, they arrived at a prefabricated construction-site trailer resting on cinder blocks.  Unfinished wood paneling and two old doors had been nailed together to extend or repair one end of the trailer, which was surrounded by weeds.  A green pickup truck, bleached by the elements, sat outside next to a shiny new motorbike.  There was no sign in front of the low-roofed building, but a small hand-printed label on the mailbox outside read, “КУРАГИН ЭКСПОРТ / ИМПОРТ.”  The windows were opaque with grime, but it was still evident that a light was on and that someone was inside.  Bogdanova clicked twice.  It must be the place.

“Let’s go around back, and go in from there,” said Fred, quietly.

“Put whoever’s inside to sleep, and quiz them a bit,” said George.

Somehow, although they were all still invisible, the Shichinin could hear Bogdanova roll her eyes.  Still, they all moved quietly out behind the trailer, foregoing the clicks at this point, before removing their Disillusionment.

Phlogisticate,” cast Neville on one end of the trailer, and then again on the other end.  “Guns are stupid,” he whispered to Bogdanova, turning to her.

“Agreed,” replied the Russian witch.

Quietus,” said Neville, laying a thin blanket of quiet around the door of the trailer.  It was a spell very limited in scope, but essential for moments like this.

“Just stay here--” said George.

“--and let us take care of this,” said Fred.

“We’re professionals,” they said, in unison, looking very serious.

Bogdanova folded her arms, a light smile on her lips.

The trio of young men crept up to the trailer’s back door.  Neville tried the doorknob gingerly -- it turned cleanly.  He stepped to one side, and Fred and George squared off in front of the doorway, wands out and ready to breach.  They nodded in unison at Neville, and Neville threw the door open with a convulsive motion.

It is important to note at this point that the Extinguishing Charm has no effect whatsoever on an angry dog.

One hundred and thirty pounds of angry muscle in the form of a mottled-brown Presa lunged into Fred, snapping for his throat, and the wizard was knocked backward into his twin’s face.  The two men and the dog fell into a struggling tangle.  The impact and the snarling dog were all eerily silent for the first moment, then the wizard’s backpedaling and kicking as they fought to escape the blunt-nosed snapping attack of the dog brought them out of the short range of the Quieting Charm, and the snarling of the creature burst out into the night.

Neville didn’t waste any time taking careful aim, and fired off a hasty Stunning Hex immediately into the tangle just as Fred succeeded in landing a well-placed kick to the dog’s snout.  A pained yelp was frozen in the beast’s throat.  The dog trembled with a red glow for a moment, then fell stiffly onto its side.

“Nice one!” said Fred.

“Bloody hell!” said George, still lying on his back.  “Someone’s getting away!”  He scrabbled for his lost wand.  Through the rear of the trailer and the open front door, he could see a bald man throwing a leg over the motorbike parked out front.  The man kicked the starter, and the motorbike’s engine thrummed hoarsely.

Neville lurched forward to the open door, wand raised, and fired a second Stunning Hex.  “Stupefy!

This time, though, luck wasn’t with him.  The red bolt of the stunner sizzled right over the head of the motorbike’s rider, and as Neville took another step forward to fire again, his heel slid on something slick underfoot, skidding out from beneath him.  He grabbed the doorway with his free hand, but still swayed in place for a moment as the motorbike jerked into motion and moved out of the narrow range of view afforded by the front door.

“Less of a nice one!” said Fred, scrambling to his feet, but Neville ignored him and sprinted forward, out into the front yard.  The motorbike accelerated rapidly.

“Come on,” shouted George, bursting past Neville.  He threw open the door to the pale green pickup truck, climbing inside.

Fred pushed past Neville as well, running around to the other side of the cab, while George had his wand out.  George squinted at the Muggle device warily, and then tapped the ignition with the tip of his wand, dubiously saying, “Alohomora?”

The ignition switch “unlocked,” key or no, and the engine turned over and started.  George looked almost criminally pleased.

“Go go go!” cried Neville, leaping into the bed of the truck with a vault.  He stood up behind the cab and grabbed hold of the rear windows for hand-holds.  The red light on the motorbike was receding rapidly away from them, down the road.

“Seen Dad do it a thousand times,” said George, as he yanked firmly on the gearshift and stamped hard on one of the pedals in front of him.  Nothing happened.

“Easy as pie,” said Fred, turning the crank to roll down his window, in case that might help.

George took his foot off of one pedal, and slammed it down on the other.  The truck’s tires spun for a moment and then the vehicle caught traction and began to move rapidly backwards.  “Got it!” he said, still grinning and turning to look behind him.  His view was obstructed by Neville’s crotch.  “You’re in the way, Neville!”

“Stop stop stop!” shouted Neville in reply.  He clutched the roof of the truck desperately as the vehicle thumped vigorously over some stray cinder blocks and the kerb, out onto the street.

“We’ll have to tell Dad about this!” called Fred, holding his wand to the dashboard in front of him and flexing his fingers for the delicate Charm of Perfect Function.

George took his foot off of the gas, and yanked on the gearshift again.  The truck made a horrid squeal, sounding almost like a precisely-tooled machine being badly abused.  Indeed, logic and mercy dictated that the engine should probably seize up and die, but Fred’s timely spell prevented that.  The truck’s motor immediately became a throaty purr, and George stepped on the gas again.

As the car began to lurch forward, George turned the wheel rapidly, aligning the truck with the motorbike that was now turning out of sight at the end of the lane.  George stamped on the gas as hard as he could, and the truck’s engine roared.

The entirely ridiculous chase was on.

The motorbike had many advantages, though -- being agile and quick to accelerate -- and by the time they reached the end of the lane, it had already reached the end of the next road, and was making another turn.  Even with magical enhancement and the enthusiasm of the ignorant, the truck just wasn’t fast enough.

Stupefy!” said Neville, and shot a glowing red bolt at the motorbike before it vanished from sight.  He was far too distant to hit, but the escaping Muggle seemed to have been startled or confused by the stunner, since he swerved wildly and barely remained upright as he sped out of sight.  Neville wasn’t even sure he wanted to hit the man anyway… being stunned while going that speed stood a good risk of killing a Muggle.  He pounded on the roof with his free hand to urge the truck on, but George already had the gas floored back down.

“Sure, we could have used our brooms--” said Fred, turning the knobs on the radio.

“--but what fun would that have been, honestly?” agreed George, spinning the wheel until the vehicle threatened to tilt onto one side as it went around the corner.

The motorbike zipped down the road past what appeared to be a cannery, accelerating rapidly.  Neville almost tried a quick, “Accio Muggle,” before remembering Cuthbert’s Breathing Principle.  He summoned the motorbike instead, and the white bike and its bald passenger visibly slowed.  Encouraged, he did it again, even though it was a challenge just to stay in the truckbed, much less cast at the same time.  The radio inside squealed hellishly, and Fred hastily started punching buttons on it, as the truck began to gain on the motorbike.  Slowly, but gaining.

If they got close enough, Neville could pluck the man right up and off the bike.  He holstered his wand and hammered on the roof again, leaning down to shout through the window in the rear of the truck’s cab, “Get in close, I’ll nab him off that thing!  Can’t stun him or he’ll crack up all over the place!”

“Yes!” replied George, turning to look over his shoulder at Neville.  “This is much safer!”

“At least we’re putting him far away from Bogdanova,” said Fred.  “So he might not get eaten.  Hold on, I know this song.”  He turned the volume knob on the radio.

♫ Gotta, gotta
Keep on holdin’ on
Never gonna turn you loose
I can't turn you loose
Gotta gotta -- Keep on holdin’ on

“That’s on one of Dad’s listening-dog discs,” said George, delighted.  He followed the motorbike around another turn, tires squealing.  “That Muggle device he was always cranking during hols when we were twelve.”

The motorbike’s engine revved loudly, and the rider leaned forward.  Neville summoned the bike again, but the Muggle motor and magical magnetism seemed to be evenly matched.  Even worse, they were heading east, out of the sparsely-populated outskirts of Mikhaylovka and towards the main body of the town.  Even now, they were starting to pass cars parked on the street, and occasional people turning to stare at the high-speed chase.  Empty lots and dingy warehouses were turning into shops and homes, with overgrown bushes that crowded the sidewalk and cement-block walls with iron gates.  Fairly well-peopled… there was the Statute of Secrecy to think about -- unless they wanted to call in about ten thousand Obliviators.

The motorbike dropped in speed, and turned sharply down a street that ran almost parallel to the one the Shichinin were on.  The Muggle roared off as George hit the brakes, which shrieked in protest.  They had the chance to get a good look at their target for a just a moment, as they slowed down and he sped away: a slightly overweight bald man with thick black eyebrows and a terrified look on his face.

The turn carried them away from the populated areas of town once more -- that made sense, Neville realized.  This guy probably was only interested in escape, not in getting caught by Muggle aurors.

The truck roared after the motorbike, and they scooted over a low bridge spanning a narrow canal, whipping past parked cars and a woman walking her dog.  There was an intersection ahead, and Neville saw the bald man’s goal: there was some sort of construction going on, and most of the intersection was blocked off by orange-painted wooden barricades.  Even the sidewalk was blocked with some orange barrels and cement pylons, presumably to stop overzealous motorists.  A ragged-edged hole had consumed most of the asphalt within the barricades, and an official-looking van was parked nearby.  The obstruction slowed the traffic of the automobiles through the intersection, and there was a line of seven cars waiting ahead to inch through.  The bald man was going to take advantage of his broom-sized motorbike to zip through, leaving them in the dust.

“Unbreakable Charm!” he shouted through the window.  His feet slid out from underneath him as he called in and the truck bumped wildly beneath him.  Even with excellent balance and a death-grip on the window, he fell into the bed of the truck with a thump that was lost in the wind.  He concentrated on holding on, so the constant bucking of the vehicle didn’t just throw him clean out.

Fred and George must have heard him and taken his meaning, or come up with his same plan (a frequent occurrence these days), since as Neville got up on his knees, he saw Fred touch his wand to the dashboard.  In almost the same moment, he saw George jerk the wheel to the right, and felt a tremendous thump as they jumped the kerb onto the sidewalk.  Neville almost went flying again, and only stayed with the truck by thrusting his arm through the open rear window and clutching desperately.

♫ I can’t turn you loose now
I'm in love with the prettiest thing
I never, never turn you loose now
Because of all the sweet love she brings
I can't turn you loose to nobody
‘Cause I love you baby, yes I do

The biker slowed only slightly as he reached the intersection, went to the left of the lined-up cars, and threaded past oncoming traffic.  He made a left turn as soon as he could, vanishing from sight.

The truck followed to the right of the lined-up cars, shuddering along the uneven sidewalk, and smashed through the orange barrels and concrete pylons.  The barrels turned out to be filled with water, which plumed behind them in a spray mixed with chunks of broken concrete as the Unbreakable truck, preserved by Fred’s timely charm, cannoned on through.  The motorbike was back in sight in moments as the truck shrieked its way around the corner.

The Shichinin pursued their prey, leaving wreckage in their wake.

“That Charm--” said Fred.

“--won’t last long!” said George.

They glanced at each other and grinned hugely.  Some Muggle devices worked perfectly well, indefinitely, when charmed.  When an Unbreakable Charm or a Charm of Perfect Function wore off, you could apply another one without worry.  But most Muggle machines -- including any that had electronics, batteries, or the like -- would endure (at most) a single application unless they were carefully prepared (replacement of a lot of the Muggle workings with magical equivalents was time-consuming and laborious).  As far as they knew, no one (Harry included) had yet figured out why.  Whatever the cause, though, it was certain that this particular vehicle wasn’t long for this world.

“And this truck--” said Fred.

“--is bollixed when it goes!” said George.

Neville, meanwhile, struggled to his feet in the bed of the truck, holding the back of the cab with a grip so tight his hands ached.  He drew his wand again.  “Accio motorbike!  Accio motorbike!”  They were almost within range of Wingardium Leviosa.  “Come on, come on!”

The motorbike accelerated, the engine now a high-pitched whine as it strained against Neville’s magic.  They were out in the south of the town now, a long lake to their left along the road, while clapboard houses and rickety fences whipped by on their right.  Neville didn’t remember the layout of the town that well, but he was fairly sure that much more travel in this direction would take them clear out of Mikhaylovka entirely, back out among the fields that they saw on their aerial approach.

♫ Give shaking mama,
I told ya I'm in love with only you
Gotta, do it baby why don't ya
I'll give ya everything you want

The road curved to the right, and then the bald man took a sharp left turn.  He almost lost control of the bike, over-correcting to the right, but he managed to wrestle it back into the straight before he took a tumble.  George took a lesson, and slowed down his fierce stamping of the gas pedal on the turn.  They were less than fifty meters away now.

Neville, riding higher than the twins, saw what was ahead, and began scrambling for his pouch.

Fred and George saw a moment later.  George began cranking down his window with one hand and pulling out his wand with the other.  Fred’s window was already down, and so he did his brother the favor of taking the wheel.  The quality of their driving remained exactly the same, for better or worse.

The road ended in a muddy cul-de-sac two hundred meters ahead, and the fields beyond had been flooded.  It must have been done earlier today -- maybe they were going to graze bicorn here, next season.  It was hard to tell, but it looked like as much as a foot of muck and water sat evenly in wide pools ahead, broken only by low rocky embankments.

♫ Gotta gotta
Keep on holdin on
Never gonna turn you loose

Fred took back the wheel with his right hand, and stuck his wand out the window with the other.  George leaned out of the window, brandishing his own wand.  Neville had put his away, so that he could try to find that damn pouch in his robes oh no oh no why don’t I keep it on my belt who cares if it doesn’t look cool.

“Nevvie, hold on!” shouted George, as loudly as he could.

And that was when Neville realized that he’d come up with one obvious solution but that the twins had come up with a completely different plan.  But he had his pouch in hand now, and there was no way their plan would work, and so he just shrieked, “Broom!” at the pouch as hard as he could, and hoped for the best.

The motorbike buzzed off of the road and into the field ahead, sluicing through and spraying ribbons of mud and water behind him.  The man barely even slowed.

Glacius!  Glacius!  Glacius!  Glacius!  Glacius!  Glacius!  Glacius!  ” chanted the twins, simultaneously, wobbling the tips of their wands over and over.  A simple spell with simple wandwork, but they felt their skulls ache with the strain of so much magic.

The mud and water of the field ahead froze, a spreading triangle of muck flash-chilled into brown and grey ice, crackling and cold.  It looked as though winter had come to just one section of the field, icing it over to within twenty meters of their target.

Unfortunately, it was nothing like a flat surface, thanks to the passage of the motorbike.  When the truck thumped off of the road and roared out into the field, it hit the uneven surface of one frozen slope, and skidded to the right, starting to spin.  The tires thudded across frozen hillocks and waves of muddy ice, and the truck danced like it was a child’s toy being dragged along a washboard.  The Weasleys held onto anything they could find, and hooted wildly as the truck spun and shuddered.  The world whirled around them, icy and uneven and crazed.

Neville was launched like a kite into the air, pinwheeling wildly and screaming, “I hate you twooooo!”

♫ I can't turn you loose

The accumulated strain on the magics sustaining the truck’s structure, combined with the conflict between enchantment and electronics, came to a peak.  The truck’s battery exploded violently, blasting open the hood, at the same instant the radio began to sizzle and shoot sparks.  A hole appeared on the top of the dash, the plastic darkening and melting away, as some carefully-engineered Muggle component crackled with flames.  The flaming truck spun and shook as it danced along the icy, uneven mud.

Neville was tumbling wildly, end over end, but he had presence of mind enough to clutch his broom to himself and hook his leg over it and will it to lift...

♫ Gotta keep a grip on you

...and he swooped up (up? yes, up) into the air, orienting himself with the ground in seconds, laughing hysterically as he evened out and leaned forward, streaking towards the motorbike ahead of him like a giddy bolt of lightning.

The truck’s spin slowed as it skidded out of the area that had been frozen, ice turning to slushy mud and slowing the destroyed vehicle’s revolutions.  Fred and George wasted no time, whooping and kicking open their doors to stagger out of the truck, sloshing around into the mud and staggering drunkenly away from the vehicle as best they could.

The radio burbled and screeched, unnaturally riven with interfering magics gone haywire, and wailed out a final line of music before dying with a last sizzle of static.

♫ Gotta gotta keep on holdin on

Wingardium Leviosa!” Neville cast, as he dove down over the motorbike.  The rider was plucked out of his seat, legs and rear end lifted up, hands still clinging to the handlebars.  The motion turned the throttle on the bike, and it revved fiercely; without the bald man’s weight, the entire thing upended and tore itself out of his grasp, rolling and toppling around into the mud.

“Guns are stupid!” shouted Neville, streaking by the Muggle.  The young man’s mackintosh flapped around him as he flew, his brown eyes wide over his aquiline nose.  “Stupefy!

The bald man toppled sideways into the mud, rolling on his back with a squish of bubbles.  Neville brought his broom around, and held himself stationary over the man.  He found himself wishing that he hadn’t stunned the fellow, or that the Muggle wouldn’t be Obliviated of the whole experience, since there were all kinds of things he wanted to say, like “You can’t run from the sinister seven!”, or “Nothing’s swifter than justice!”

He settled for shouting happily at Fred and George, rising up from the broom to call, “Do you think we can fit Muggle trucks in our pouches, so we can do that again sometime?”

“Yes, it looked like quite a ride.  Quite a spectacle,” said the empty air above Neville, in the voice of Ilya Bogdanova.  The Russian witch materialized with a wavering in the air, sitting placidly on her broom, as she dismissed her Disillusionment.  Neville started violently, his wand already pointing at her in the instinctive defense of a trained duelist before he could consciously lower his guard.

Bogdanova didn’t react, only circling her broom around to face him squarely, and adding sardonically, “It has been, oh, just delightful following you three idiots and cleaning up the mess so that we don’t start some sort of war.”

“Huh,” said Fred, who was flying sedately over, dripping with mud and water and delight.  “The Director thought you might help with avoiding that, actually.”

“Good on him,” said George.  “I feel bad about the tea, now.”

“Eh?” said Bogdanova, shifting to face them.  Her short grey hair was disheveled, and the footbars and grips on her broom had been changed out -- she must have been flying hard.  But she was smiling.

“He’ll forgive us--” said Fred, shrugging.

“--once he gets off the loo,” finished George.


The bald man, as it turns out, was none other than Lev Kuragin himself, the gentleman who had been shipping crates out of the town by air.  And naughty Lev had been using temporary shell companies to buy serious weaponry from old Russian Army buddies.  While he was happy to sell the resulting crates of weapons and ammunition to any buyer he could trust, he had found that the Ogaden National Liberation Front would pay a premium.  Lev had found that the ONLF would even grease his palm if he shipped weapons to any other militant groups in or around Ethiopia, particularly since the 1995 Ethiopian elections that had pushed the ONLF out of power.  An unstable country was to the advantage of the violent political minority, which was working to seize power once more.

Lev even knew the source of their money: vast funds fraudulently drawn from World Bank development efforts in Ethiopia, that had been intended for the area around Calub, as well as five wealthy Cairo financiers.  And he’d been extremely willing to tell them names, addresses, and specific numbers.

Veritaserum was a wonderful thing.

After the Shichinin and Bogdanova dropped Kuragin off at the edge of town, replete with new memories to account for a missing night and morning -- and a few to ensure a change of heart when it came to the arms trade -- they made ready to return home, Apparating back to Volgograd and the local Domovoi.  They had been concerned about having a good story ready for the sleepy-looking man with the wet mustache, but he’d stamped their documents as disinterestedly as he’d given them entrance.

Fred got out the portkey back to the Ministry lobby, holding it up.  It was the broken stub of a child’s plastic meterstick, in keeping with the principle that a portkey should look completely uninteresting (or even unpleasant) to casual Muggle inspection.

“Well then--” he said.

“--that was fun.” George said.

“I hope it was not too boring for you, Madame Bogdanova,” said Neville, taking hold of the portkey as well.

“It was actually… quite amusing, I must admit, gentlemen.  Quite a bit more exciting than my current post, even if the goals here are even sillier.”  The Russian witch smiled again, and put her hand on theirs.

George and Fred glanced at each other.

“You know, there are five Egyptians who have been spreading money to very bad places,” said George.

“We’ll probably be going after them, next.  We’ll need someone who speaks Arabic,” said Fred.

“And I can see many interesting philosophical discussions, waiting to be had…” said Neville, grinning.  “How about it?”

Bogdanova sighed, and shrugged.  “Why not?”  She put her hand on the portkey, and leaned over to look Fred dead in the eye.  “After all, I know a place in Cairo that serves an excellent fillet of Muggle.”

Fred opened his mouth to say something, but she snapped the portkey, and the four of them vanished.