DeGroot is interviewed in his jail cell.
Angelo DeGroot is in jail. It's not the first time; in his long and checkered career as a mercenary, he's been in a lot of people's jails. This one isn't so bad, as it goes; the cot is clean and there's a toilet. It's also warm, which is a good thing, since winter nights at these high latitudes are pretty brutal.
The thing that's pisses off DeGroot, though, is how he got here. A fistfight in one of the town's few good watering holes on a Friday night, with another merc who was on the other side, a few wars ago. Turns out he's a deputy marshall here. So DeGroot's stuck until the courts open on Monday, and then he's probably going to lose his ride to some bullshit plea bargain.
There's no TV in the cell; so he passes the time playing chess against himself. DeGroot can't help but feel that he's losing on both sides at the same time.
The man who enters the cell isn't a local. He walks with the calm, tight urban gait of an arcology man. One of the people who live safe beneath the domes, not out in the open air. He has the luxury of not having to look up at the stars in the night sky, of not having to think about them. He's dressed in a nice suit, with wraparound sunglasses that DeGroot is pretty sure are fully wired up. His sleeve is quietly blinking. On closer inspection, the mercenary makes out the distinctive cut of the Calculum Suitsys — a clothing computer. The visitor isn't just well-dressed.
He sits down on the good side of the bars, folds his hands together, and stares through his impenetrable shades at DeGroot. "Hey," he says. The voice is calm, practical, practiced.
DeGroot frowns. He pulls the cell's one chair around to face the bars, has a seat. "Hello," he says evenly, hiding a mild unease. The suit isn't the lawyer for anybody in this town; which means someone has taken a particular interest in DeGroot… and a jail cell doesn't make a good impression.
"You're Angelo DeGroot. Former pilot, astronaut training,
EETGA and CCT certified,
DeGroot nods. "Yeah, that's me. And… yeah, that's about it." He rubs the back of his head where the other merc hit him with the stunner. He thinks whether he should explain, and doesn't. It just sounds too stupid.
"Did you win?" The question is concise; there's no hint of sarcasm.
DeGroot can't help but chuckle. "I'm in jail because I won," he says. Then more seriously, "If I'd lost, they wouldn't have bothered."
The man in the suit nods slowly. "Alright. Was this a discipline problem?" His voice changes subtly; DeGroot recognizes the intent. This was the real question, and he knows that the man will be scrutinizing him very carefully indeed when he answers.
DeGroot frowns again. "Maybe for him," he says. "Not for me. No, not for me. This was… marketing." He folds his arms and rocks the chair back, perfectly steady. "He was on the other side, once. He lost then, too. Seems he's taking it personally." DeGroot shakes his head. "No matter whether I think it's right or not, if you back out of that kind of fight, word gets around."
The enigmatic man cracks a smile. "I see. Quite right, Mr. DeGroot." He leans forward, then, clasped hands pushed forward. "I'm here to offer you a job with my employer. Ten missions, just flying. The catch is that it'll be in occupied territory. Archaeology. The expedition leader will call the shots while on site, you'll be in charge of the flight crew."
DeGroot doesn't bother to hide his interest; the guy's probably wearing enough sensors to administer the Voight-Kompff test with two fingers and and a deep breath. "You've chosen an interesting time to approach me. Do I get to know who's signing the checks?"
"You will after we're out of earshot of the fuzz," the man replies. "10,000 Tn per dig site. Ten sites. I'll spring you after I get an answer, either way."
DeGroot pauses. It's an amazing amount of money; above his pay grade… but the money is a formality. Whatever is happening here, he doesn't want to jeaporadize it by asking too many questions. DeGroot lives to fly; and this is his kind of job. He nods once. "I'm in." And that's all it takes; whatever plans he had yesterday, this is his life now. DeGroot stays bought.
"Good." The man stands up. "So officially the charges
are being dropped due to lack of evidence. Unofficially
there's a bomb on the
DeGroot takes a moment to understand this; it's really heavy-handed, to spring one merc. Whoever these guys are, they take care of their allies. Better with them, then, he thinks, and stands up. "I'm happy to oblige them," he says. "I, uh… don't need to pack."
"That's fine." He pauses. "We didn't want things to get to this point, you understand. Money would have been fine. You were right — someone decided to make this personal. So we got personal." He smiles again, reaches for his pocket, extends a business card. "Call me for pickup when you're out. Shouldn't take long. I've got to make a few other calls first." With that he waves and departs.
DeGroot accepts the card; the only markings are BLAKE, and a comm code. The other man is gone almost before he looks up again. Personal. More is going on here than DeGroot knows about. That's not new, but it seems to have a little more to do with him than usual. Whatever; he folds and pockets the chessboard. A bigger game is afoot now.
Jamie Solak learns about FUTILE OCTAVE
The trauma of the Rite has receded. It's been a matter of weeks since Jamie was inducted by the Eldritch Society into the secret ranks of their holy warriors: the tagers.
Old wounds and angry impulses now live alongside alien urges and deeply disturbing visions in her mind. Hungers that nothing imaginable can satisfy have kept her awake nights. Of course, the Society hasn't waited long. Two weeks of intensive training, and three days of sleep and fevered dreams, were all that stood between her and her first mission.
It was a simple enough matter: investigate a little-publicized arm of the Chrysalis Corporation. Out on the unexplored frontier of their corporate holdings, leaning insouciantly against the line between NEG law and the Chicago underground, a company manufactures and leases high-quality gynoids: feminine androids built to serve any purpose their user might desire.
What wasn't publicized but was well understood was the steady stream of girls whom the company 'recruited' — real, flesh and blood women. The mutual deception was simple. Customers wanted a living girl to degrade and to use, while everyone would of course pretend that the product they received was just a robot undeserving of even basic human dignity. Not every one was like this, of course — the gynoids for ordinary paying customers, the special 'models' for… special customers.
The girls, of course, were a varied lot. Some needed money and didn't care how they obtained it. A few were in it for the experience. Many had no choice — drugs saw to their compliance in the masquerade. For Jamie, the method of infiltration was starkly obvious.
Such an operation would be prime hunting grounds for the Death's Shadow cult. Bent as they are on degradation and corruption in all its forms, the Eldritch Society felt sure that they would be behind it. But Jamie was withdrawn before things got too involved: while sneaking about, she overheard snatches of conversation that led her Society handlers to call her off entirely.
The phrase "futile octave", and crates stacked in a store room, marked with the corporate logo of Harold and Marks Ventures. Seemingly innocuous. Now, in the Society's briefing room in Chicago, Jamie speaks to her handler, Cornelius.
Jaime makes her entrance, possibly with a little more flair then she should. What of it? She was the hot shit now. She looks over her 'handler' Cornelius. Such a word, as if she needed to be handled. She looks down at her hand for a moment… Then looked back up to Cornelius. "So, I came back as they told me…" She doesn't do the courtesy of disguising the disgust in her voice for being pulled off prematurely.
"While I'm disappointed that we didn't finish that
business, this was more important." Cornelius' tone
is neutral, but his eyes are grave. The handler's job
is to scout out and mentor new Tagers —
he isn't a boss, more akin to an agent or
Jamie looks up as the gravity of the name hits her; the same thing from the mission that she was so urgently pulled from. This snaps her back out of her attitude, at least for the time being. She takes a seat, and looks at Cornelius. She says nothing, having learned that questions are usually not answered anyway, and breath is usually best saved.
"FUTILE OCTAVE is a military secret of the Migou. It's the NEG military's codename for it, anyway — nobody knows what the Migou call it. They don't even know what it is. We know it because of our spies." Cornelius paces the length of the small room, tapping his fingers together as he walks. "Harold&Marks are art dealers, with operations throughout NEG territory. If what you told us is true, FUTILE OCTAVE must be somehow connected to those crates. I need you to get back there, as soon as you can. Stake out the building. If new shipments arrive, get some good photos, video, samples, whatever you can of whatever's in those crates. Don't interrupt the shipment — we can't tip them off yet."
The newest Tager starts in on defending her honor when it seems like her reliability is question, but as he moves on with a different task. She thinks about this for a moment. "Alright." She moves to stand, watching Cornelius critically as he paces. "Anything else before I go?" She asks, already moving to the door and formulating a plan in her mind.
"Come back alive. You are the most important asset the Eldritch Society has," Cornelius replies frankly. His voice is level. His gaze is steely. There's no bullshit here, no empty words. He means it — or he can convey that he means it.
Jamie nods, and thinks as she wanders back to the Shipping area of the building. Of course, as a new gynoid for them, she has some leeway to be sneaking around. But probably isn't too welcome at the loading dock. Still, it seems foolish to try and make her way into the building from the back when she's more than welcome at the front door. She'll make her way back to the loading dock, once inside.
Jamie is cautious now, not exactly staying hidden, but trying to avoid being in a hallway with someone else. Her eyes are quick, daring from one thing to a next, looking for a terminal that might be left on, showing when shipments are scheduled. She clicks her fingers over the keys, looking at the schedule, finding the next 'art' shipment.
Jamie makes a note of the next art shipment. What luck, it's not too long from now. She looks out of the bullpen area and into the warehouse itself. Waiting for the lunch bell, she watches the human workers all migrate back to the lunchroom for break time. As soon as all the sentient beings have left, she wanders into the warehouse, keeping near pallets, and avoiding being seen, she sneaks her way near the receiving dock, and holds up around some boxes, waiting for the designated time.
In time a truck arrives. Workers stand ready to unload it; it's clear from their movements and their conduct that this is routine business. Boxes are unloaded, PCPUs are exchanged for a digital thumbprint signature, crates are spot-checked, and so forth. During this time, Jamie manages a glimpse of a few of the crates. What she sees inside would probably classify as artwork — pottery, sculptures, clay statues, and so forth.
Jamie thoughtfully pulls her camera out and snaps some pictures of the crate contents as they are unloaded, trying to get as many of the actual items photographed as possible. Art is basically lost on her, for the most part. She makes a careful note to listen for any clue where the art is going to end up, though, if necessary, she will simply attempt to follow one of the crates to its destination.
For the most part, the crates are simply stored here. Not in large, obvious piles, of course. They're mixed in with other boxes such as robot parts, crates of various clothing and costumes for the 'girls', and other less mentionable accessories. In time, suitcases, travel bags, and other personal luggage is hauled onto the dock, and many of the pieces are loaded into them and padded carefully. Jamie recognizes some of these as belonging to the patrons of the service, and she realizes that what she is seeing is an art-laundering operation. A few of the customers come here for the pieces themselves, not just a piece of the action. There's no obvious record of financial transactions that Jamie can find; they must be links in a chain, not the final buyers.
Jamie takes a breath. She takes a few more pictures of the cases, then tries to sneak away before the cases make their way up to the lounge. She always figured the luggage taken by some of the patrons was more for the girls, but it takes all sorts, one supposes. She tries to make her way back up to the lounge where the special models live. At least here she doesn't need to hide, as it's mostly where she's expected to be. She waits for the delivery of the luggage, using her memory, and the photos if need be, to see if she can be 'taken home' by one of their intended recipients.
Jamie lounges out on one of the couches. There's far too much red in this room for her tastes. He looks at one of the guys, who's toting one of the indicated cases along with him. She walks over to the counter, where he is doing buisness with the maitre d'. He seems likely, the way he holds himself, the skittish way his eyes creap over the various girls up here. She looks at him, "Let me help you with the case…" She says, and before he can respond, she pushes a shoulder into the man's torso. Whether the reaction is falling on his back, or simply staggering a bit, she looks down at him, and with an almost practiced tone of callousness she says, "Sorry about that." And looks at him.
Jamie watches the man's posture as he stands up. She picks up the case, a twinkle on her eye as she says, "This is heavy mister. Lots of fun toys in here." She turns to the maitre 'd and smirks, "Jack, Mr… " She checks the tag on the bag that she lifted. "Mr. Thomas will be taking me as well…" She looks at the man, who simply nods. "Lead the way…" She smirks, locking arms with his.
Jamie and Mr. Thomas drive to his place. As they stop, she pulls out her phone, looking at him, "Give me a second, toy. Gotta make a quick call." She taps out a message with a GPS signal at it to the ES, for someone to be along to the address indicated to pick up the case. She includes a picture. Once inside, Jamie performs her duties as trained, making sure as Mr. Thomas is otherwise disposed to carefuly drop the container out of a handy window. She comes back, finishes her job, and leaves before Mr. Thomas knows somethign is missing.
The analysis comes back pretty quickly. "These pieces were, for the most part, stolen," Cornelius explains as Jamie sits down and takes a drink of water. "Where they're going doesn't really tell us where they came from. And that's where we'll find FUTILE OCTAVE. We need to go right to the source." He sighs. "You're going to become an archaeologist."
Jamie looks Cornelius in the eyes, and says levelly. "Better than my last job…"
From the Starkweather Solutions archives, filed under 'Nathan Latham — sustained recollection suppression under the effects of pseudopthisis', 2085
"We think they used to live in these caves." Those were the words, the exact words. Herr Doktor I'm sure had no idea of their significance, nor any idea that his offhanded remark made within the labyrinthine tunnels beneath the Pyrenees were what caused my brief but intense psychosis.
My father was an ambassador, back when there were such
things as ambassadors, so we traveled a lot. Maybe
that's how I got to learn so many languages. And that,
in turn, is why I knew when I was a kid I wanted
to be an archaeologist. I wanted to be the next
Ashcroft, find the secrets that'd make the next
And that's probably why, when the First Arcanotech
War broke out when I was still in college, I didn't
wait to be drafted. I signed on with the Ashcroft
Foundation just as soon as I could. The
The living languages I'd learned in high school became the foundation for my learning of dead languages. Starting with the languages humans spoke in ancient times — Chinese, Hebrew, Aramaic — and then moving on to languages the speakers of which were long forgotten. So when they sent us on a trip to the Pyrenees, to explore recently discovered ruins, I knew I'd be the one who'd be able to decipher the secrets we found there.
I wish I hadn't been right.
Oddly enough, my mother was the one who was the most proud of me, when I got into the university of my dreams. She always told me I was brilliant, that I'd go far. My father was the one who worried for me. The Ashcroft Foundation didn't have much to say about their founder, but he'd paid attention to what had happened to the man. I guess my dad knew I'd go far too — he just had a different idea of what that might mean.
My friends in high school thought it was great, of course. They loved asking me what time it was in a dozen different languages, or whatnot. We were young, and we all figured we were indestructible, just like young people do.
We went into the caverns in the mountains. I remember Herr Doktor was explaining about the caves, like I said. I have no idea if anything else happened that day, because the next thing I remember was waking up, strapped to a hospital bed with a bunch of stuff glued to my scalp.
I'm told I was in that hospital for six weeks. They'd run every test I'd ever heard of, and several that I hadn't. At the end of it all, things were starting to come into focus again, and they let me out. At the time, mostly I remember just being vaguely frustrated that I didn't get to go on the trip.
Over the weeks and months to come, of course, my frustration only grew worse. I didn't quite understand why, but I knew my career in archaeology was over. My parents were devastated, though I think my father was secretly relieved. I was still mostly myself, I was still very smart, and I wasn't raving or homicidal. He figured I'd got off easy.
Fortunately, it turned out that my talent for decoding
things transferred well to the world of arcanotechnology.
After all, the
I didn't end up inventing anything really new, but I was
still pretty good at what I did. I didn't
try to figure out too much about why the
Perhaps things would have been different. Perhaps it was for the best that I got out when I did. It was the dreams that did me in in the end, and they are only dreams — products of the mind. No doubt I had simply studied too much. And yet, gentlemen, if you asked me today, I would have said that I was there — really there.
The dreams contain many things, but the most vivid was an almost-memory. It's impossible that I could have actually been there, of course. For where I stood was amongst the ruins of Chicago. The long-dead, desolate, burnt-out shell of a city was bad enough. But the inhuman bodies of my companions, of the creatures who crawled with me there, were far worse. And as one held up the fragments of a human skull, another gestured with a cilia-studded foreleg, pointed at the buildings and the skyscrapers around us. "We think they lived in these caves," it chittered.
Nathan Latham is in his mid-40s. Production of the memory-suppression drug is affordable and we've done the relevant HyMRI mapping necessary to construct the anti-receptors for it. He's physically capable of the task and we think that the memory loss he'll suffer won't impair his functional knowledge of archaeology. He's certified to operate and repair the sifter.
Hiring Status: Recommended.
The Starkweather team gets its first mission.
The Starkweather conference room in Chicago is well-lit, white, spartan. Holographics are set up to provide a presentation. About thirty people are present here, seated in the comfortable folding chairs that mechanically adjust themselves to their user's posture. The crowd is a mix of human and Nazzadi, European and Asian and African and elsewhere. Once everyone who's hungry has gone for coffee and pastries and has seated themselves, the presenter — a Mr. Blake, according to his nametag — begins to speak.
"Ilya Muromets. Possibly a fusion of several historical figures, dating anywhere from the 10th century to the 15th. Reputedly couldn't walk until age 33 — the supposed age of Christ during His ministry — and was given some sort of superhuman infusion by a giant, called Svyatogor. He went off to save Kiev, fought monsters, fought the Mongol invasion, and uh, apparently once broke off all the church steeples in the city for being snubbed at a dinner party."
Historical images — paintings, photographs of statuary and cathedrals — drift pass on the holographic screens.
"In 1482, the Tatars — a Turkish ethnic group — raided the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev, the 'Kiev Pechersk lavra'. A hundred years ago, the bones of someone supposed to be Ilya Muromets were found buried in the cave system that gives the monastery its name. Monks went down there to hide out from the Tatars, who would ride in, take their stuff, destroy the rest, and ride out. Muromets supposedly died of stab wounds, and according to local legend, angels had actually carried him from his place of death right into the caves themselves."
A map of the monastery and its grounds, including a fairly detailed map of the cave system, springs into view on the screens.
"The NEG found all kinds of things in Istanbul, buried and ancient. Old texts, prayers, whatever. The Ashcroft Foundation scanned them in and put them up on their network. Some of them have made their way out. Like this little gem here. This is written in Ukrainian Church Slavonic. The language of the eastern Orthodox churches."
"The English translation of this particular passage is what interests us. 'In the clouded recesses of Demhe the coffin of my friend Svyatogor still rests. Upon the distant thrones of Carcosa the spirit of my friend Svyatogor still sits.' Now it's interesting because these names are, well, relevant to out there. The thrones in question would be on a planet somewhere near Aldebaran. Not really the usual stomping grounds of a Russian hero."
"The bones were interred in the caves with the greatest respect. To our knowledge they've never been violated and the whole site has been a historically significant monument for a couple centuries now. If there's anything — anything at all — that's relevant to the war on that site, we need to find it and decipher it."
"NEG military intelligence tells us that Kiev is still standing, although it's on the border of Migou territory. Expect it to be pretty heavily patrolled by the armed forces. You'll be going as legitimate archaeologists — because you are — but be careful. Juneau hit everyone pretty hard."
Jamie raises her hand, looking about the room to see if anyone else is confused. She turns her head, "Um… Mr Blake… Juneau?" She asks.
Most everyone else seems to be nodding along. After a moment,
Jamie sees the correlation. The
Blake explains. "You see, with a few exceptions, nobody's ever really invaded American soil successfully. It's… sort of a shock, like that series of terrorist attacks a century ago. And to be so thoroughly routed, well… Anyway, enough of the bad news."
Jamie withdraws her hand, and looks around, a slight blush to her cheeks, but she nods.
Blake steps away, taking a seat off to the side of the room. A brown-haired and bearded man rises from his chair to speak in his place. "I'm Dr. Armitage, Cornelius Armitage, and ah, it's a pleasure to meet those of you who have just joined us as friends. Many of you I have worked with before, or have met. I will be heading up the missions we have. With me are Doctors, ah, Bowen, Ling, and Short." He gestures to the audience; one human man and two women (one human, one Nazzadi) raise their hands or nod in acknowledgement.
"For Kiev, we've evaluated the risks and our crew complement. Assignments are as follows. The Moore will be stationkeeping well outside of Kiev. It'll perform long-range monitoring. Ah, one shuttle will enter Kiev airspace and touch down near the lavra. Dr. Bowen will be in charge of the investigation. Mr. DeGroot, Mr. Tran, you will be primary and backup pilots. Mr. Latham, Ms. Solak, and Mr. Albez will assist him."
"Dr. Bowen, ah, speaks Russian fluently. For those that do not, translation software is available for your PCPUs and will be provided in realtime by the shuttle's computer."
Blake retakes center stage. "Standby crew on Moore:
Rice, Naza, Kova, Ebony, La, McTavish, Pierce,
"Are there any questions?"
One of the Nazzadi — Kova, or Frank according to his file — raises his hand and asks his question in crisply accented English. "Very well, what are the conditions in this Ukraine? It is near the border of Migou territory." Blake nods, stepping forward to address this. "The NEG is sending reinforcements to Europe. We've heard of heavy fighting on the Migou front but the line is holding. That's according to intelligence from two days ago. Our man doesn't expect that to change."
With no other questions, the conference dismisses.
The Jeremiah Moore is a winged craft 160 feet
in length, slightly shorter than the jet airliners
of a century ago but much thicker. Its wings are for stabilization,
not lift — the
The crew boards in ones and twos, a few waving to or hugging family and friends who've come to see them off. DeGroot and the other pilots divide themselves into two groups: one to check themselves out in the four-seat cockpit, the other to settle into their accommodations while they wait their turn. The controls are the familar ARINC 881 holographics and the Limited AI system performs flawlessly during preflight checks.
Fourteen cabins holding two people each, plus a briefing room, sickbay and cockpit provide living areas for the crew. The cabins are designed with rollaway soundproofed partitions that can be opened up to provide a commons area for meals and the like. Eight duty stations would be manned if the craft was at full capacity and on a wartime footing; as it stands, the watch rotation is pretty light, and the ship's LAI will automate several tasks.
"Lovely ship," DeGroot comments. "All the comforts of home, and armor-plated." He frowns, though, as he waves a hand through a hologram of the hull. "ALMOST armor-plated, anyway. So we'll run before we fight."
A flight plan has been filed: transit to Paris, scheduled to coincide with the New Earth Government's carrier Victory and her battlegroup heading to Europe. Once the Moore is in Paris, the crew will file another flight plan based on better local intelligence regarding Migou activity.
The launch is uneventful. Moore rendezvouses with several other crafted also intent on flying under the aegis of the formidable Victory. The NEG battlegroup flies just under the clouds, high enough to make spotting difficult from the sea and out of visual inspection from space. From their portholes, the crew can see the dim fires burning in the gutted remnants of Old New York's skyscrapers. Sometimes lines in the dark, brief flares of illumination, show the exchange of gunfire between buildings and on the streets. A pall of black smoke hangs over the city.
The American continent is gone almost too fast. Then comes the Atlantic Ocean — the endless stretches of black that occasionally sparkle with reflected moonlight. Sometimes there are phosphorescent glitters of light reminiscent of stars, but those take on a more worrisome cast when it's noted that the clouds are blocking the starlight from reaching such patches.
The battlegroup maintains radio silence. A few spotting drones fly well ahead, relaying their telemetry back via laser. The airships use signal lamps to speak to each other, and even that is done sparingly. But in due course, the French coastline is sighted.
Jamie stares out of the porthole, having never left the USA before. She tries to hide her excitement, but she's taking it all in, as if a vacation instead of the somber reminder of war.
The NEG and its civilian
Nathan has been feeling vaguely uneasy, and the feeling has only increased when landfall in Paris is announced. If anyone had asked him why, he would've waved it off as nervousness, or perhaps the perfectly reasonable dread of the Migou, but in fact those don't feel like the right answers. He can't put his finger on what the right answer is… and oddly enough, that doesn't worry him very much.
DeGroot feels the
Jamie looks up from her PCPU, and looks about, "Anyone know how long we're on the ground here?"
Albez and Tran are muttering at each other in French as the crew disembarks along the gangplank. Drs. Armitage and Bowen are similarly in quiet discussion, but in English. McTavish has lit up a joint and is casually smoking it as he hauls his bag. Dr. Short, hearing Jamie, speaks up. "We'll be talking to our guy here, a Mr. Kelvin. We'll probably be departing in two days' time. Stay ready to go."
Jamie drifts down the gangplank straggling a bit behind the others, vaguley following the crowd as she looks about herself. Her feet carry her to the edge of the private dock, and through the building.
DeGroot approaches Doctor Armitage. "You think you might want some backup?" He tries to put it casually; like academics always take armed thugs to meetings.
"Yes, by all means," agrees Armitage. "You should talk to Kelvin anyway."
Adrian Kelvin isn't at the Starkweather office — he's actually come down to the port to meet the Moore as it came in, and Armitage and the others find him in the terminal. They secure a private booth at the neon-lit local restaurant just outside the port, and Kelvin starts distributing data files.
Drinks are ordered, a few minutes of genial exchanges are passed around the table, but the crew can feel a distinct tension. Finally Kelvin gets down to business.
"Your approach. The Dnieper River flows from the Valdai Hills in Russia, through Belarus and south to the Ukraine. Ultimately it empties out into the Black Sea. There have been few reports of activity from the Esoteric Order of Dagon in the area. The waters of the Black Sea are anoxic at lower depths, limiting Deep One efforts at infiltration."
"I think for this reason that you should fly to a port on the Black Sea itself, then use the river to reach Kiev. This will avoid Migou flyovers, but also the NEG. There is something very strange going on with them."
"Strange?" DeGroot says. "You mean the NEG forces, or the civvies?"
Kelvin shrugs. "The New Earth Government forces are actually… not going to Ukraine, you see," he explains. "They are going to Belarus. They are going to Varna. But they are not going to where the fighting is supposed to be happening. And I have obtained, at some risk, various reports which say that the Engel Project has assigned some of its units, but I haven't seen any sign that they have come through Paris."
"So we're rushing in where the NEG fears to tread?" asks Nathan.
Kelvin fingers his coffee cup tepidly, starts to take a drink, hesitates. "The most probable explanation is that they are preparing a pincer movement for something on the Russian-Ukrainian border. That is what my sources believe. But they have not been told either."
Jamie thinks for a moment, "But, if the pincer succeeds… they'll be running right for us."
DeGroot takes this in, and looks around the table. Armitage is here, along with two of the archaeologists; that leaves military matters to DeGroot. He decides to bring up an idea he's had. "Mister Kelvin, the Moore is no battleship. If we get into a crossfire it will go badly for us. Can you point us at some ECM?"
"Our budget is 1.5 million, Mr. DeGroot," Armitage says quietly. Kelvin nods. "Weapons, stealth, I have computed this already. One of our systems would cost six times that amount. Nor can we easily account for it. However, the hangar you're in is equipped for refits. If you can secure something through ah, less official channels — and not through me, please — then I think we can install it."
"Probably easier to just get it from someone who doesn't need it anymore," mutters Nathan under his breath.
Kelvin smiles. "The good news is that your ah, special cargo compartments are being loaded with some interesting goodies. Please do not open until Christmas, or Doomsday."
Degroot grins; these kids are sharper than he expected. "Well. Let's see what we can find, then."
Jamie looks through her PCPU, and then glances up on the way back. "I think McTavish or Albez would, either one, be a good place to start." THe says, with little explination behind it…
Jamie adds, "Also Dr. Short was looking at the radios on the ship a lot during the flight…"
Armitage leaves this matter to the people who seem more knowledgeable about it — Messrs. DeGroot, Latham and Solak. And with that, they approach each of their fellow crewmates.
Dr. Short seems rather reluctant, but a bit of persuasion convinces her of the importance of the project. "I don't actually know where to find these supplies," the Nazzadi woman admits. "But I have some experience with their operation. So, if you are able to impregnate the ship with a device, I will do what I can do."
McTavish seems rather surly when asked. "Are you mad? These Parisian ponces wouldn't know a jammer from toast on jam. And I am sure as bloody Hades not raiding the NEG's supplies, no boy. I'm sorry but I don't think I can help with this. But good luck, and don't get your keisters blown off."
Albez gives the best early results. "I can find people. But it will take five days," is how his translator renders his husky French. "I can't install it. You need someone else's skills. Can we delay the launch for this?"
"Up to Armitage," DeGroot says. "But we can find installers. Get started on it."
In the end, Dr. Armitage doesn't veto the plan, but he does express some reservations. "This better be worth it," he says darkly, as he and DeGroot conclude their short conversation on the matter.
The next night, Albez has come back to report. "I have found a man," he says via translation. "One million Terranotes. He says it is energy gear." The software corrects itself after a moment. "N.E.G. It is functional but badly damaged. If we are hit, it will probably stop working after a short time."
DeGroot shakes his head. "I don't think the bosses will write the check for that. But it was worth a try. Let's move on."
Armitage consults with DeGroot. "Alright. Kiev it is. I'll depend on your discretion and judgement for the approach." And on small groups or singly the crew begin to filter back on board. A few items have disappeared from the ship's stores; a few new ones have unaccountably been brought aboard. Some alcohol and a few girls need to be excised from the crew cabins' bunkbeds and disposed of. And in due course, the Moore is ready to fly again.
DeGroot files his flight plan — Paris to Odessa. The Moore launches without incident. Eastern Europe awaits.
Odessa is already in sight when DeGroot springs his surprise. A reauthorization request that will have to be relayed back to Paris is attached to his latest message to air traffic control. The Moore is already submerged and winding its way up the Dnieper when the reply is processed. It's no longer a live radio channel, of course, just a general broadcast: "Jeremiah Moore, you are ordered to turn back and report to Varna, by order of New Earth Government military control."
"Oh, hell, already?" DeGroot mutters. "Alright. Get Doctor Armitage up here, he's got to know about this. Otherwise…" He loads the flight plan he's been working on for the last hour. "We're a hole in the water." The big ship descends and gets perceptibly quieter; DeGroot knows how to hide.
The response comes in from Paris, relayed from Odessa: "Odessa, this is Starkweather Solutions, Adrian Kelvin. Jeremiah Moore is en route to recover and remove an archaeological team that has been on site for quite some time." "Starkweather, Odessa copies. Our records don't show any previous flight plans filed from your company for that region." "Odessa, Starkweather — they arrived on another transport. I'll relay your request for records to our American headquarters, but they'll all be asleep now." "Starkweather, Odessa acknowledges. Moore is not responding to our calls. N.E.G. forces are authorized to shoot them down if they don't acknowledge a hail. Out."
Kiev is close. The Moore rises out of the water in a stately ascent; the river parts to admit it back into the sky, and rivulets pour back into the river water from the myriad nooks and crannies of the vessel.
DeGroot and Tran are on the duty roster for piloting; accordingly, the call to mobilize goes out. Siberia is prepped and ready in its hangar, a narrow cigar-shaped craft that clings to its mother vessel. Dr. Bowen, Latham, Solak, and Albez make up the rest of the six-seater's crew.
Jamie starts to get those assigned to the shuttle detail together, "You heard the captian, let's get loaded up so we can make a stately turd on the landscape as we're jettesoned out…" She rouses anyone from their cabins who may need it, helping make sure equipment was loaded corrrectly.
But as the Moore drifts over Kiev airspace, they see
something they didn't expect — that nobody expected.
The destroyed shells of high rises, the
DeGroot puts the dismal view up on the shuttle's holo. "That didn't happen in a day," He says. "So how long has it been like this? Doctor Bowen? Any ideas?"
Dr. Bowen, strapping himself in, shakes his head. His eyes are empty,
and his fingers fumble at the latches for a moment.
"No wonder the NEG ordered us to turn back," DeGroot says. "No way they'll belive this is an extraction." He straps himself into the control throne. "OK. Let's do this, and have it done with."
The Moore jettisons its shuttle well before the city boundary, and heads back for the river. A shuddering in the hull marks the unlocked clamps that held the two vessels, and a sudden queasiness in the stomach marks a change in course. The Siberia and its six passengers are on their own, flying low over a smoking and decimated shell of a city.
The crew lands in Kiev for some quick necromancy.
DeGroot opens a channel to the crew. "OK, the situation on the ground looks pretty bad, so listen up. Siberia is heading down momentarily. Rice, as soon as where away, get the Yukon ready to go; you and Naza will be our backup."
Jamie checks over the clip in her riffle, ensuring that she has it set, as she was taught to do. Handling the rifle better than someone who has just been shown such, it is still clear that she isn't an expert by any means. She shifts slightly, shiftign the skin of her armor around herself.
The destruction of Kiev wasn't uniform, but it was total. As the Siberia overflies some of the buildings on the western shore of the Dnieper, DeGroot studies the imagery being relayed from the shuttle's ventral cameras. The northern and eastern faces of the collapsed buildings tell the story: scorch marks from Migou lightning weapons. Most of the initial attacks must have come from that direction, and probably from the air. This isn't the work of the Rapine Storm, at least.
As the shuttle draws closer to its destination, signs of ground fighting become evident. A few destroyed Broadsword and Claymore units from the N.E.G.'s mecha squads are half a kilometer away from the monastery. Some of the biomechanical Migou mecha lie in bloody chunks around them. Two human corpses lie exposed near their vehicles, but are incomplete in certain ways. It may be said that there are still living creatures somewhere in the city and that those things must eat.
Smoke still hangs in the air over the city, mixing with
a heavy cloud cover and a fog from the river.
The streets are a gloomy maze of choking miasma,
shot through with the occasional spark of electrical
discharges or the faint guttering of fires. Here and there,
hastily-erected foamcrete barricades or
"They came out of the east," DeGroot comments. "Crossing the river — or out of it. Migou weapons and mecha — they must have marched right across town." He shudders involuntarily — he wasn't at Juneau, but he remembers the fall of Johannesburg. This is even worse. "Our contact won't be at home to introduce us. We could just walk up to the monastery and knock on the door?"
"We'll have to," Dr. Bowen answers. His hands are white at the knuckles, gripped to the armrests of the shuttle's seat. "That's… why we have Nathan along."
A few parts of the monastery's aboveground buildings received fire from whoever attacked the city. Near a collapsed section of wall, a swollen and blackened human forearm rises out of the rubble. The fingers of the hand are outstretched, held in place by rigor mortis, reaching up to a Heaven that refused to answer whatever prayers its owner may have uttered.
DeGroot quickly moves the camera to another part of the building. "Mostly intact. That must mean something." DeGroot picks a place to land not far from the wall breach. "Okay. Let's get on with it."
As the rest of the team suits up, Nathan leans over to Dr. Bowen. "Where do I come in? Just to convince the monks that we have legitimate archaeological interest in the remains?"
Dr. Bowen shakes his head. "You'll… you'll see," he mutters. "I'll explain… everything inside."
The shuttle sets down about half a kilometer away. DeGroot's military experience prompts him to find a half-collapsed building — structurally sound enough to not fall completely, but able to provide natural camouflage if someone overflies the site.
Five hundred meters through decimated urban terrain feels like longer. Perhaps it's being able to see your objective so clearly yet be unable to simply approach it. Regardless, nothing but the wind — and a few far-off clattering or scraping noises — can be heard, and nothing presents enough of a clear menace to the team to require full attention. The smog is thin enough that breathing is comfortable, and the air, if not clear, is at least devoid of Migou or other threats.
The cave entrance is undamaged. It's not lit, but the expedition has their Panoptics, plus a dozen Chrysalis Fireflies: a sort of putty-like sphere which produces light chemically. They can be carried about, molded into different shapes as needed, and stuck onto any surface after peeling off a thin plastic film. Dr. Bowen mumbles something at his PCPU. The team's HUDs come to life, superimposing augmented-reality data about the cave over the real thing. In one corner of the HUD, an overall map of the cave system flickers into view, including markers for the entrance and the team's objective.
Jamie takes up position by the shuttle bay, holding her rifle to the ready, ready for the doors to open, and to paint anything that might pop up… SHe blinks as her HUD comes active, her eyes taking in the new information.
Dr. Bowen now explains. "We're going to… to the objective marked on your HUDs. Once there, we're… going to examine the remains. Nathan, I'll talk to you once we're there."
The pregnant pauses do nothing to reassure Latham. He clutches his pistol with a white-knuckled grip. "I hate caves," he mutters as he ducks into the entryway.
"Don't consider me ungrateful," DeGroot asks Bowen, "But why didn't the Migou trash this place too?" He waves at the comparatively intact monastery.
"How should I know?" asks the doctor testily. He waves the group toward the cave entrance.
Jamie comments unde rher breath, "I think the good doctor wants to be here about as much as any of us."
Once inside the caves, the group feels much more comfortable using its abundant supply of light sources. Albez sticks a couple of his putty-lights near the entrance, and another at the first junction.
There's a natural breeze that gently circulates through the underground system; nobody runs short of air. Here and there, natural or artificial chimneys have been dug through the rock up to the surface. And niches in the walls show signs of use for everything from old books to religious paraphernalia to rotting wooden coffins.
Dr. Bowen holds up a hand at once such coffin. It's surrounded by jars and scroll-cases, a few of the eastern Orthodox tri-bar crosses, and other eikona.
Jamie looks around the room, trying to find the various exits and enterances. Anywhere they can be jumpped while doing their job.
DeGroot hangs back, splitting his attention between the coffin and the path back to the exit. "Looks more important than the others. Or better maintained, at least." He motions to Tran, signalling the other soldier to watch the other direction.
Jamie takes up position on the other side of the tunnel from Tran, aiming her rifle down the cave that leads here, watchign the shadows the glow putty makes along the wall.
Dr. Bowen has drawn a small thick book from his pocket and is thumbing through it to a well-worn and bookmarked section. He begins reading quietly. "Mother of all saints, preserve us," he whispers. Then, in a louder voice: "Everyone else out. Nathan, with me."
DeGroot can't conceal his shock, but obeys. "Don't get killed," he says evenly.
With the others gone, Bowen hands over his notebook to Nathan. "The ascending node," he says, tapping the leftmost of the two pages. "Read it aloud in a moment. It's a ritual invocation, you should be able to get the timing and pronounciation on the first try." With that said, he carefully lifts the wooden coffin lid aside and sets it upright against the cave wall.
Inside the coffin is nothing but old bones — human remains, clearly with some sort of degenerative damage from when their owner was living. Bowen uncaps one of the jars next to the coffin after staring at its Cyrillic label for a few seconds, and begins pouring out the contents — a fine crystalline dust — over the bones.
The notebook has been opened to two pages. On the
left, labeled "the ascending node": Y'AI
'NG'NGAH, YOG-SOTHOTH H'EE — L'GEB F'AI THRODOG UAAAH. And on the right, labeled "the descending
node": OGTHOROD AI'F GEB'
As the words roll off the tongue, a harsher wind rises in the caves. The lights dim for a moment, although they're electric — the wind itself couldn't possibly be responsible.
The dimming lights cause only the minutest of hesitations. "l'geb f'ai throdog uaaah," Nathan finishes, with consummate timing on the final long vowel.
The wind subsides. Dr. Bowen is staring intently at the coffin. His fingers are flying over the keys of his PCPU, though his gaze remains where it is. A holographic representation of the Carpathian mountains springs into the air, flickering in exactly the same way the lights do.
Nathan stares at the coffin too. Something about the invocation makes him feel a paralyzing sort of clarity. His muscles obey his control, but there's simply nothing else in his mind right now. He feels oddly calmed by chanting the ritual, and he still feels calm when a skeletal forearm and hand rises up over the edge of the coffin, gripping the wood.
Dr. Bowen seems on the verge of hysterics, but he retains enough of a grip on himself for the moment to complete his mission. He starts shouting in Ukrainian. Nathan's HUD helpfully provides subtitles. "The coffin! Where is the coffin? Show it to me!"
He thrusts the PCPU forward, putting the holographic map in reach. The skeleton hand moves, guided by what must be the remains inside the coffin. A fingerbone intersects the map at a particular point. The map automatically zooms in. The finger points again, striking a more specific part of the display. Again. Again.
"The descending node," whispers Dr. Bowen. Nathan is aware that the man is on the verge of losing it. "Say it now. Say it right now."
Within the coffin, other bones are stirring. It's starting to rise, attempting to raise itself up and out.
Nathan doesn't hesitate. "Ogthorod ai'f geb'l — ee'h Yog-Sothoth 'nah'ng ai'y zhro!" he barks.
With the last syllable spoken, the wind rises to a fevered pitch, then collapses suddenly — as does the skeleton itself. Bowen falls backward and collapses into a fevered ball of fear on the stony ground. "It shouldn't have been us," he mutters to himself, rocking slightly. "We shouldn't have had to say it. Shouldn't have been us…"
Nathan kneels beside Dr. Bowen, putting a trembling arm around
his shoulder. "
Bowen is still muttering. "Shouldn't have been us… shouldn't have been us…"
"Well, we'd better have," Nathan mutters. He whips out his own PCPU, and attempts to record the location given to them by the skeleton. Pocketing it, he grabs Dr. Bowen by the shoulders and tries to haul him up. "DeGroot!" he calls down the hallway, an edge of hysteria in his own voice. "Need a little help here!"
The doctor snaps out of it after several seconds. "Ah, sorry about that, gentlemen…" he mutters, shamefacedly. "Alright, we're done in Kiev."
DeGroot returns just in time to see Bowen picking himself up. The two scientists are shaken, but the scene looks unchanged. The pilot shakes his head. "That was it? We leave now?" They get pretty worked over nothing, these two…
"Yeah. We, we just stopped to — uh, to ask for directions," Nathan replies, nodding toward the remains.
DeGroot holds up a hand. "Don't explain. Let's just go." He waves back towards the entrance, instructing Tran to take the lead.
Two blocks away from the monastery and back into urbanized
Kiev's ruins, the group all catch the faint noise
of something — a buzzing or humming,
like a queerly
The shuttle is parked on the other side of the Sichnevogo Povstannya street. DeGroot casts about for a good hiding place, then waves the group toward it.
Jamie runs after DeGroot, keeping her rifle handy, but being as quiet as possible.
"Dig in. Keep it quiet. Nobody shoots before me," DeGroot instructs.
The group has taken shelter in the ruined outer edges of an abandoned building. It faces a plaza, at the center of which is a fallen statue. The statue is winged, bearing a shield with a cross insignia on it — recognizable from the mission briefing as the national symbol of the Ukraine.
A minute passes. Two. The buzzing noise gets louder. DeGroot looks up once or twice, and manages to catch an actual glimpse of something in the air. It must be a patrol, slowly circling the area, looking for signs. The patrol must know the shuttle and its crew are here, but not where they are exactly.
It's Jamie, however, who spots movement from under the angel statue. Something that might be humanoid is crouched in the shadows, also avoiding the Migou air patrol.
Jamie taps DeGroot on the shoulder, her keen eyes havign picked out the humanoid shape. After pointin gin the general direction, she takes her rifle up to her eye, keeping it within her sights.
Tran is doing the same. After a few seconds, he slings his rifle and begins signing with his hands. The others' video glasses, clearly able to see it, automatically kick in and begin supplying a subtitled translation. "A refugee. If it moves and is spotted, we are exposed. Shoot if it runs."
Jamie mutters a generic affirmative responce, holding her rifle steady to take aim on the subject.
Within his helmet, DeGroot grinds his teeth. He signals for Solak to lower her rifle, then raises his own. He takes aim at its thigh. I hope the son of a bitch is too scared to run.
Through his scope, DeGroot can see the human figure. He can see a mass of filthy hair. He can see the heavy breathing as it looks up and about, scanning the skies from its sheltering fallen angel. And as the buzzing grows as loud as it has been so far, he can see it preparing to scream.
Through their respective scopes, DeGroot and Jamie see the figure crumple silently. The patrol actually sweeps above the building the group is hiding under, then passes by.
Nathan turns his head away and closes his eyes, his knuckles white on the pistol grip — but his finger kept out of the trigger guard.
Another eight minutes of tense silence elapses. The buzzing noise recedes. The Migou have given up their search of this area. They cross the river, heading for the eastern sectors of the city — or at least that is where the sound is last heard from.
DeGroot waits an additional thirty seconds, then waves everybody up. "Shuttle. Now. We're going."
Jamie stands, still holding her rifle at the ready, moving along with the rest of the company.
The group moves under the best cover possible, approaching the hiding place of the shuttle. DeGroot and Tran notice it at the same time: muddy marks on the shuttle's doors and slight dents in the metal, as though someone tried to crowbar their way inside. But after looking around, neither man can spot any living human in sight.
DeGroot shakes his head. "We can't help these people," he says. Still, he opens the shuttle and removes the first aid kit and the survival kit. He leaves them nearby, hidden from the air but obvious from the street. "The survival of these people is up to fate. So let the poor bastard lucky enough to find this, survive a little longer."
Jamie silently files into the shuttle.
Siberia lifts off, spinning about and heading straight for the river. For once the abominable mist that blankets the city is a blessing, for thick enough patches of it should obscure sight of the shuttle.
Moore rises from its underwater refuge and the Siberia docks without incident. The crew crawl out of their seats, assisted by their fellows, and the robotic arm begins to unload their cargo. Dr. Bowen hands his PCPU over to DeGroot. "We're heading for the Carpathians. Relay our flight path to the piloting team, then let's all get some rest."
DeGroot is subdued, almost brooding. He accepts the data with only a nod, then waves Solak over.
"I only wanted to wing that guy," he says. "It would have kept him still and he might have lived."
Jamie looks at DeGroot. "Sorry sir. When your gun discharged, I shot in order to silence him, and avoid further attention we didn't need. Sir."
DeGroot waves it aside. "Not your fault. Not really." A pause. "Just saying, leave the deaths of innocents on my conscience. I've been killing them longer."
Jamie looks at DeGroot, and smiles slightly. "Sir."
The spot in question is several miles from a ruined castle, marked as the ancestral home of the Ferenczy family on the ship's maps. The Yukon is prepped and ready to go — shuttles are usually chosen according to their maintenance schedule, and Siberia is due for a checkup after the last flight. Nathan runs a series of diagnostics on the gleaming white computer console of the sifter in its cargo bay.
Nathan is the only vital member of this particular launch — everyone else is optional, although Dr. Armitage insists on going down himself.
"Let's do same drill," DeGroot announces. "We'll swap Ebony for Tran in the landing crew; Rice and Naza are still backup in the Amazon. With a battlesuit. Solak's volunteered to go, and I'll take us down and take responsibility for the dirty work." He doesn't elaborate on 'dirty work', but he does look over at Doctor Bowen. No mention has been made about shooting the refugee — and that seems to be fine with everyone involved.
Armitage vetoes; he will be replacing Bowen on the shuttle crew. Dr. Bowen has no objection, and Armitage has the final authority. With that matter settled, the Yukon launches. It touches down without incident. Ebony takes control of the shuttle's robotic cargo arm while DeGroot stays glued to the air sensors and the long-range radar feed from Moore, hovering nearby. The waldo system hauls the ponderous sifter out onto the ground. Per operational doctrine, the shuttle now parks itself a few hundred yards away.
DeGroot tunes one display to follow Latham's operation of the sifter; this is something he hasn't seen before, and he wants to know how it works.
Nathan has no trouble operating the sifter's controls. The principle is simple: a broad field of gravitational force is emitted. The sifter itself uses this to build up a map of the ground and what's under it, similar to how geologists measure earthquakes. Then the sifter begins to push: shoving dirt out of the way by emitting miniscule vibrational forces to shake it to the surface, and stronger forces at ground level to send the dirt rolling out to the boundaries of the dig site.
The process repeats itself. It's eerie to watch. The sifter, positioned at the center of a field of grass, causes a sort of undulating mirage over the green grass. Slowly but surely, a ring of green carries its way to the outer edges. It's replaced by the rich brown of topsoil. That, in turn, moves like an ocean wave to expose what's below.
The sifter stops. An alarm signal begins ringing — nothing serious. It's simply asking for confirmation. Nathan reviews the data; Armitage does as well on his slave console. He gives thumbs up. The process continues. What the sifter has found, and what it now begins to expose via targeted gravitational force, is a stone crypt. Within 30 minutes, several meters of earth have been moved aside. The entrance to it is open.
DeGroot works his own console. "I can move us right up to the rim of the dig," he says softly. "Park us right by the door, if you want, Doctor."
Armitage nods. The shuttle dusts off, with less than six inches of clearance from its landing feet to the ground, and gracefully eases itself to the edge. The landing doors open right onto the lip of the crater.
DeGroot focusses a camera on the crypt door, notes that the sifter has opened it. The other scanners show the Carpathian mountains in the distance, jagged and foreboding. "We're not expecting anything to come out of there… right?"
Jamie looks over at DeGroot, her rifle still at the ready, "WHo knows?"
"I hope not," Nathan says, eyeing the entrance and stroking the edge of the sifter console.
"Well, then." DeGroot opens the hatch. "Let's go get it."
Inside the crypt, Armitage holds up a hand. He points above the archway that leads further in. "The sign of Koth," he says, indicating a sigil that has been etched into the ancient stone. "Something's sealed away here. This must be it."
"The sign of who?" asks Nathan.
"It's not a who," Armitage explains. He makes a curious gesture with his left hand, somewhat resembling the sigil itself. This much Nathan recognizes — his studies into the Vatican's treasured Lopex archives have taught him a handful of guards and wards to bar the way against certain creatures, and the hand sign is known to him by another name.
The archaeologist walks further into the crypt. "It's a warning. 'If you come here, be aware that something is sealed inside.' And here it is." He stands before a large stone slab, and reads the inscriptions. Nathan recognizes the N'g'yeth, the ritual greeting in the eons-old Aklo language.
Nathan grimaces. "And so we're just going to go right in? Lovely," he says, eyeing the crypt's entrance with obvious unease.
Jamie shrugs, "What else is there in life?"
"So how do we open it?" DeGroot asks. "Setting aside whether that's a wise idea."
"We don't open it. What's written here is what we're after." Armitage smiles. From his pocket he withdraws an aerosol dispenser, and begins spraying it upon the walls. Where the mist falls, carven letters begin to appear. They don't glow, they simply weren't able to be seen. "Get your cameras, gentlemen. Photograph everything."
DeGroot takes up watch by the door, and leaves the archaeology to the archaeologists. He keeps a discreet eye on Solak, though. That girl's too cool to just be a digger.
On further inspection, the crypt does have two artifacts of interest: the remnants of a suit of ancient armor, which also reveal writing after Armitage's aerosol is administered, and a curiously shaped steel cup. Both are carefully tagged and set aside.
Nathan, relieved that a trip into yet another cave doesn't seem to be in the works today, busily sets about documenting the visual records of the hidden writing.
Jamie's job isn't to record. Her rifle is being aimed, searching the surroundings for any intruders. As far as you know, anyway.
Albez keeps himself occupied running fiber optic cable from the shuttle to the crypt. Armitage plugs in his PCPU, and the Moore has begun live optical character recognition on the group's visual data. At length the senior scientist smiles at his computer. "Yes, yes. Gentlemen, the N.E.G. will forget all about our trip to Kiev after they see this, I think. Let's wrap up and get back into the air."
Jamie spits inot the dirt at the side as she hears the NEG mentioned, bt she stands, and looks carefully at the artifacts.
Albez asks a question in French. His system translates. "Wait. They lied about Kiev. Cannot we bargain with them to keep that quiet?" Ebony's voice comes over the radio link in reply. "Hah, no. They'd just prosecute us for sedition. Carrots work, sticks don't."
"To be more precise," Nathan remarks, "sticks only work if you're the one with the bigger stick. That ain't us."
Jamie mutter, "Yet…"
"As far as I'm concerned," DeGroot says, "If anyone asks me, nothing happened in Kiev. At all. Boring place."
"Suits me fine," says Nathan wholeheartedly. "Though I do wonder exactly what it is we've found that's so wonderful…"
DeGroot says, "We supposed to fill in the hole when we leave?"
Armitage thinks. "The sifter wasn't actually designed to push dirt back into a hole," he says. "You know, given what we're digging up, that's probably a pretty serious oversight. Then again, we're not using it the way most customers would… " He turns to Nathan. "You think you can rig it?"
"I'll certainly give it a shot," Nathan says.
"There's a warning sign on the entrance that
only folks like you can read — I know I'll
be happier if we
With some basic adjustments to the mechanism, and some quick scripting work for the sifter's master program, Nathan has little difficulty. The downside is that the sifter needs to be positioned around the hole — it can't just pull dirt back in, but it can push it from the edges.
The Yukon loads the device back into its cargo bay. Armitage carefully stows away the artifacts and starts data replication to Moore's master computer, his own PCPU, and some offline storage. And the shuttle lifts off.
Jamie conducts some found artifacts to Rome.
Starkweather's corporate HQ has been busy. A buyer has been found for the armor and the cup, found at the Carpathian dig site. The buyer's name and an Italian office address have been sent to Jamie Solak via private communication aboard the Jeremiah Moore, along with an authorization for Jamie — and nobody else — to transport the artifacts to Rome.
An even more private communication from the Eldritch Society explains. The buyer is an import/export business that has dealt with Harold&Marks Ventures in the past, and will almost certainly deal with them now. As the Starkweather expedition is a private enterprise, they're free to sell any pieces they discover to anyone they like. The Ashcroft Foundation has standing purchase orders for such artifacts, of course. But the Ashcroft Foundation hasn't been implicated in a Migou black operation.
Jamie carefully adjusts her PCPU to make sure the Starkweather email is up and visible. She approaches Dr. Armitage, "Si- er Doctor. I will need to take these." She states, tersely.
A demolition bomb going off in the archaeologist's cabin couldn't have upset the man more, but he does manage to finish reading the message. "Well… ahh… we haven't finished even studying them! This is outrageous. I want you to call them back and confirm this. And CC me!"
Jamie looks down at the PCPU, then back up at the Doctor. "I'm am sure that the instructions are clear." Jamie looks around for Armitage's PCPU or computer or whatever, assuming the archaeologist would have recieved an email as well.
"Not here," Armitage replies testily, misinterpreting Jamie's interest. "In your own cabin. Now get out!"
Jamie hmms for a bit, looking at Armitage for a time, before shrugging, "I won't be gone long, I expect." She says. She steps out of the cabin, and lingers in the hallway, typing a terse message back to Starkweather, CCing Armitage as requested.
Adrian Kelvin, the company's man in Paris, comes back
with a short reply. "ATTN Armitage. Transfer
Jamie, who hasn't moved from outside the Cabin, is rapping back on the man's door almost as soon as the email comes back in. "Sir. Doctor. I need to fulfill this…"
Armitage has received his own copy. He lets out a long sigh. "Fine. Just be careful with them. They're priceless. Of course, whoever's buying probably disagrees with that assessment." He fixes Jamie with a long stare. "Have you ever been to our Japanese office?"
Jamie looks straight back at Dr. Armitage. "No sir." She says, shortly. She turns, to go collect the items, she turns back, "We should probably start heading for Italy." She purposfully walks back to her cabin.
"Italy's not on the destination," Armitage calls. "Use a shuttle."
Jamie pauses. "As you wish." She states, tersly. She heads back to her cabin, and quickly equips herself, leaving behind the HUD glasses, and any communication equipment, as it can surely be tracable. SHe heads over to the cargo hold, to collect the prize.
Jamie collects the items, and heads to a shuttle. She's seen these worked before. She tightly secures the two object in the aft, then climbs in, programming the comptuer to take her to the Rome spaceport.
The Limited AI system on board the shuttle understands such operations well enough. It transmits an automated clearance request to the Moore's bridge, attaching the original authorization message. The pilot on duty complies; the shuttle detaches from its parent craft. The nose eases over, and gently picks up speed.
Jamie's fingers roll inexpertly over the keypad of the shuttle's computer, trying to make heads or tails of the security and encyption equipment. Unfortunately, as with most of her training, it's all greek to her. She ponders for a second, and decides instead the fire off a short email in response to the second one she got, asking if she has a specific contact on the ground.
A response comes shortly. "Meeting will be arranged. Starkweather contact & buyer. Tail buyer away from meet site. Location & time to follow."
The shuttle rolls and pitches gently, steering its way through human-controlled airspace, following the invisible tendrils of navigational radio pulling it toward civilization's remaining hubs. Once during the flight, a burst of incoming audio is heard over the speakers. It's a droning, wordless series of raspy sounds that to Jamie's ears sound like a bass-enhanced voice. It lasts only twenty-three seconds and is not repeated.
Jamie quickly presses a few keys on the keyboard, trying to get the shuttle to record the message. She muses on this for a bit, while transfering the message to her PCPU.
The city of Rome has been rebuilt into something of an arcology — where once the seven hills of Rome dominated the city, now the seven defense towers do so, supporting a beautiful translucent shell whose multicolored hues form artistic patterns in the classical style.
Through the shell, the tall black bastions of the
Vatican are visible. The Holy See has become an impregnable
fortress. Their pointed spirals stretch to the very limits
of the city's dome. Jamie can see small specks floating
about them —
Entrance to Rome's airspace is permitted. Unlike Paris, where the arcology dome itself opened to admit the Moore, Rome allows flying craft in and out via a large airlock arrangement near the base of the city's dome. The shuttle lines itself up accordingly and flits through the security sweep. It sets down in the hangar assigned to it by air traffic control. The hatch opens, and Jamie is in Rome.
A few boring hours pass in the shuttle. Finally a message does arrive. "Cordoba Restaurant, 34 Fezi, Rome. 5pm." Two hours from now. "Items to be delivered in person to Starkweather office in Rome meanwhile — they are on will-call with the buyer."
Jamie first carefully packs up the items, and calls for a transport across town to the Starkweather office. Assuming that the items are safely delivered to Starkweather, and she has free reign, she will Take transport down near the resturaunt, and scope the general area out.
Rome's mass transit system is entirely under 'ground' — sandwiched between layers of the arcology's multilevel grandeur. This seems mostly an aesthetic choice, as getting from station to station is a bit cumbersome.
Jamie finds that her usual credentials have been associated with an all-day pass in the underground. There's no charge, and more importantly no convenient audit trail. As long as she isn't physically followed, everything is comfortably anonymous.
The Via Fazzi seems to be the street that Jamie wants. Whoever sent her the address needs to check their spelling. Nevertheless, there is indeed a small bistro at the address in question. Jamie secludes herself nearby, watching unobtrusively.
The street seems to just be picking up for dinner, and Jamie has yet more free time on her hands. She idly walks down the sidewalk, her eyes watching, shifting, waiting to see. She perks up in interest at anyone who stops at Cordoba, making mental notes of who gets out of what for the resturaunt.
Jamie finds a nice little clotheir next door, deciding that normal work clothes probably won't do. She buys herself a nice black, conservitively cut dress, and a small black clutch. Changing in the boutique, she'll stash her grubby clothes in the alley, and resume her vigil on the resturaunt.
The crowd begins to thicken as dusk approaches. Jamie's information was correct. Around five, she overhears a man asking for a reservation in the name of Starkweather. The maitre'd smiles unctuously and directs him to the back of the establishment.
Jamie wanders up to the maitre'd after a short time, "Is there a table open by the front? I've just got in to youre beautiful city, and I want to watch the street." She smiles brightly.
"Yes, I think we can accommodate you," the man replies after consulting his tables. "Follow me please." He leads the way to a small table with two seats, right near the fence that divides the establishment from the street.
Jamie smiles and looks down, "Yes, this will be perfect!" She exclaims, all the while playing the happy tourist. SHe sits down, her head craning around, getting a feel for the place.
Brightly-garbed tourists mingle with Rome's denizens. Here a Hasidic Jew is arguing with a computer repair salesman plying his trade out of a wooden cart. There a mother and her child stare at passersby as they thread their slow path from store to store, apparently soliciting work. Three monks — garbed and tonsured as they are, they can't be anything else — pass on the street. Their chanting is in a foreign tongue, but Jamie is quite confident that they aren't intoning prayers in Latin, nor quite to whom they direct their piety.
In due course a woman has come to the restaurant, and the maitre'd again directs her to the back. She's Nazzadi and attractive enough, wearing what for her species is a starkly conservative dress suit.
Jamie again makes note of the woman's appearence. She looks, even smiling, before looking back down at her salad, picking at the lettuce daintily, her eyes wandering over all the sights presented to her. She places a fingertip along teh rim of the plate as she hears the chanting.
Jamie conducts the usual business transaction with the waitress, asking with a polite smile, "Is there anywhere around to go dancing?" She smiles, waiting for a response before she stands, and takes back to the street.
Jamie taps some terse instructions in her PCPU as she is exited, 'SPec of buyer?' in response to the other email. At least this way she'll be shadowing the right person.
A response is quickly forthcoming. "Unknown. SW contact is male human." A photo is attached — the man who arrived first.
Jamie types a quick response. "Buyer is nazz female. Pic when avail."
Eventually the two businesspeople leave the restaurant. But they leave together, and they're still walking together — swaying ever so slightly, indicating a more than convivial consumption of alcohol — as they head for the underground station.
Jamie does make a note of the couple, having found a bench to loiter in. She's a little sad noone complimented her new dress, and thinks about taking it back before the couple emerges. She holds up her PCPU, and tries to snap a quick picture, before she starts off down the street. Walking to catch up just a a bit, heading for the tube.
It's easy enough to trace the pair through the underground. The Starkweather man shows a reckless chivalry to his companion, admitting her through the checkpoint with his own pass. It's a short ride to the Hotel Olympus — a monumental high-rise that dominates the southern skyline of the city. The couple enter together.
Jamie has pretty good luck following the pair through the tube system, and to the iconic hotel. She trapes up the stairs, but manages to get hung up ina throng of people as the pair goes on ahead. She presses her way through, trying not to make too much commotion, but she gets into the hotel too late, and the couple are already on their way to the lifts.
Jamie runs over, trying to make it into the same lift. She manages to stop just as the doors are closing. SHe watches the elevator goe up, making a note of what floor or floors it stops on.
Jamie's eyes follow the holographic indicator. The lift stops on three floors.
Jamie sighs, and takes a seat on one of the chairs in the lobby, facing the elevators. Her eyes dart from her PCPU to the elevators as she types out a message. "SW and Buyer in bed. Pic attached. One of these floors in the Hotel Olympus." ANd flings the message off.
A reply returns in due course. "Pics not of them in bed. Don't be so prude. Can you access hotel comm records? Incoming/outgoing calls?"
Jamie storms up to the front desk, frasslign her hair out as she does so. "Which room is he in?" She does her best to look mad as hell. "I sware to god I'm going to hurt someone today, and if I can't find him, I don't know who it will be." She looks at the poor guy behind the counter. "I wonder how long he's had this little number." She speaks out loud.
The clerk looks up. "Ma'am?" he asks, puzzled. "How may I be of assistance?" Notably, his voice is pitched at a lower volume, as a not so subtle hint.
Jamie isn't in the mood for subtile hints. She brings up the picture of the guy on her PCPU. "This guy just came in here with a 'friend.' She alsmost spits as she says this last. "I need to know what room they're in, or I just may do something crazy." Again, a pointed look at the clerk."
"I see." The clerk composes himself, smiling carefully. "Perhaps madam would like to speak to the manager." His smile holds itself pitch-perfect for a few moments, then begins to fade. Worry starts to creep onto his face. The manager is either busy, or something else has happened. "While he's on his way, perhaps… I can assist you."
Jamie smiles, and puts away the PCPU she had been weilding as if it could hurt someone. "Excellent." She says. Still not loosing the livid look.
There's a brief flash. The hotel's imaging system has captured the image that Jamie held up. "I will be happy to send a message to the gentleman's room on your behalf?"
Jamie shakes her head, "No no no. You don't understand. I've played nicey nice with this man for far too long." She sighs, "I'm really going to hurt him, this time." She shakes her head, and begins to storm off, then she turns back. Her knuckles whiten as she looks across at the poor kid, "Perhaps you could ring his room for me?"
"Ah — of course, madam." The clerk gestures to one wall. "Our courtesy phones. I'll connect you on #2 in a moment."
Jamie nods, and storms away to the bank of phones on the wall.
The clerk discreetly begins working on his console. Jamie knows she's been made. She got a number — room 1826 — but the clerk is on to her game.
Jamie shrugs, and waves to the clerk, "I hope he has fun." She shakes her head, and walks out of the building.
Jamie wanders off the the side of the building. They said in class that it was usually a grey box… There. She spots what might be her entry point.
Jamie swaps her clothes back into her 'normal' outfit, as she taps some keys on the telco box. "1 7 2 8…" she mutters to herself, the mantra they gave her in class. She pulls out her PCPU, and links the two, quickly tapping out some commands for the security system.
Jamie loiters around the outside of the hotel and manages to catch a small group entering the hotel. She slides up into the group, and walks her way in, not creaping like a theif, but rather strolling in, and over to the elevator cluster again.
"Hold that lift please!" calls the desk clerk from earlier — he's been wary since Jamie's tantrum, and now he's spotted her. But Jamie realizes something important. If he has to ask for the elevator to be stopped, he can't do it himself.
Jamie pushes the close button, holding it with a smile on her face. She finds the right button, and holds it in. She shrugs to the gentleman who got in the lift with her, "I don't think he meant us." And pushes the button for her floor.
The man tips his hat sardonically, his fine Egyptian features betraying a slight conspiratorial smirk at the remark.
As the doors open to her floor, she smiles, and nods at the man again… Exiting, she walks intently down the hall. Surely security will be after her again. But this will probably be her last chance to make it. She finds the room.
Jamie pulls out her PCPU again, and taps on the device, waving it past the lock on the door, to try and gain entry.
Jamie whispers a curse under her breath, and continues to walk down the hall, looking for a utility closet or something of that nature.
Jamie tries her little trick with her handheld again, and again to no avail. She curses again under her breath, and glances nerviously down the hall. She rolls her eyes, and makes her way to the other side of the building from where the room is, waiting for security to make their way there. She'll also page the elevator on her way by.
Jamie can see the lift already heading up — probably with a security man. She has maybe 15 more seconds.
Jamie darts out of the way, making for the wrong wing of the building, ducking into one of the side corridors, and listening for security to get off the lift.
A plainclothes man steps out. He glances about, then makes his way down the corridor. He stops at 1826 a moment, listens, then uses a pass-key to open the room next to it and steps in.
Jamie sees her chance, and doesn't want to miss it. She steps back out into the main hallway, and boards the elevator. She chooses floor 17, and patiently rides down.
There's probably more men on the way up. The lift continues down to the ground floor the moment Jamie steps out.
Jamie walks briskly down the corridor, and darts into one of the halls. SHe goes to the same place she found the utility closet before, and starts, again, to try and gain enterance.
Jamie pulls out her PCPU again, just trying to breech the closet. She fails once, but the second time she passes over the lock, it clicks slightly, and she manages to get in. She looks around, trying to find a lead into the system.
Time passes. Room 1826 makes an internal call for room service.
Around 2 a.m. the furor has died down. Jamie did intercept a call to 1828 — the next room over, where the security man stopped in. The desk clerk has called up. The security man reports nothing. "I looked her up," the clerk confides. "Some girl working for the same company as that fellow. Probably jealous that he's off boffing some darkie bint instead of her. Call it off."
Now, however, there's a call from 1826 itself.
The call is to Lisbon. The outgoing line includes voice and audio. The external feed is audio only. The Nazzadi woman is speaking her native language, but Jamie's PCPU translates. "The deal is sealed. His bloodstream is starting to show antibodies to the fairy dust, though. I'll bring a sample back with me."
The voice from Lisbon is deep, and also speaks Nazzadi — natively, if Jamie's ears judge correctly. "The Americans have dug up more dross. They are digging nowhere important. Just a ruined castle."
"It could be important." The woman frowns. "The report said their archaeologist used the Powder of Ibn Gazi. You don't waste that."
The voice from Lisbon stays silent for a few seconds. "Alright then. Your report has been excellent. It seems they will be flying to China yet. Arrange to be in the area, just in case."
"But—" A look of real fear spreads across the Nazzadi woman's face. The Lisbon voice cuts her off harshly. "He's in far more danger than you are, my dear," comes his rebuke. The call ends.
Jamie checks the recording on her phone. She sends it off with a short note to the same address she's been receivign instructions from. She's hang out a bit after to see what other instructions come online.
"Get out of Rome," is the only reply.
DeGroot and Nathan do some digging into Starkweather.
Nathan is in the midst of his his off-duty time; the senior scientist overrides this with his intraship comm call. "Drs. Bowen, Ling, Short, and Mr. Latham will join me in the conference room, please." The technician feels a slight shudder running through the hull of the Jeremiah Moore as it cruises over the Carpathians, almost a day after the initial discovery. A shuttle has detached itself.
"What the hell is this about?" Nathan thinks to himself. He can't recall any discussion of an additional shuttle sortie, and after the events of the past few days, unscheduled ops make him twitchy. On impulse, he pulls out his pill bottle to check its contents — yup, still plenty — before responding to the summons.
The archaeological staff are gathered together. Most of them shoot Nathan a series of unreadable looks, but Armitage's face is red and his veins bulge on his brow. Next to him is his PCPU, displaying his incoming email. Nathan can see two messages. The most recent reads "ATTN: Armitage…". The scientist quickly focuses on only one message, fumbling at the keypad of his mini-computer as he does so. Guilt?
The remaining message, then, is an order from the Starkweather corporate office: deliver the armor and the cup that were recovered to the company's Rome office for immediate sale. Jamie Solak is to escort the goods, alone. The buyer is even named: Selene Greyman Import/Export.
"But we only just got them yesterday!" exclaims Nathan. He spends a moment in thought — Jamie Solak, he's heard that name before — and then he remembers the woman who'd killed the refugee back in Kiev.
"Quite so," grumbles Armitage. "All this leaves us is the inscriptions, and all we know about them is that they were concealed by subtle art. Fortunately we have images of everything. That's… something."
Nathan rubs his forehead. "This makes my head hurt," he says. "Why'd I sign up for this gig, anyway?" He pats the vial he keeps close to his chest — he knows damn well why. "I guess we ought to study the hell out of what we do have, at least."
"Right. And there's something else." The senior man turns his PCPU around and thumbs through the display — almost cautious against someone else reading any of it. He pulls up another message and displays it.
The message is in fact a series of transmissions aggregated together by subject. It's mostly a communication between Adrian Kelvin, your man in Paris, and two representatives of the N.E.G. — Corporal Willis and Assistant Director Keeshon.
Willis fired the first salvo, a warning shot across the bow.
"Mr. Kelvin, Moore's probable entry into Kiev
airspace is highly irregular. We are formally notifying you that
your company is facing censure and possible criminal proceedings.
The information about a rescue expedition that you
sent looks, quite frankly, specious and
Kelvin's response had come within minutes. "As it turns out, our team has made a sigificant discovery and we were interested in speaking with the Ashcroft Foundation about turning over some of this material. Unfortunately our ground team did not survive whatever happened in Kiev itself." This is the point where Keeshon came into the thread: "Mr. Kelvin, on behalf of the Foundation I extend my sincere appreciation for your level tone. Allow me to express the condolences of the Foundation on the loss of your people…" The messages continue somewhat in this vein, but Nathan and the others get the idea: Starkweather is buying itself out of a fine with archaeological knowledge.
Armitage lets out a sigh. "Alright. This is how it stands. We have to turn over whatever we got. We still get copies, bless the stars for digital. Solak's already in flight. Any questions? I need to go talk to DeGroot."
"Just one," says Nathan. "More of a speculation really. If the Company's in such deep shit with the NEG, why'd we go sell off the physical artifacts to a private buyer? Did the agent even know the NEG was looking at us, or did these Selene Greyman folks effectively outbid the NEG itself?"
Ling nods in agreement. Armitage smirks a bit, then leans forward. "We can't surrender what we don't have, young man."
"Ah, I get it," says Nathan. "We're gonna lose 'em anyway, so why not make a buck on it." He's got a sense that Armitage was actually taken off guard by the whole thing, but 'why not make a buck' makes a good post-hoc rationalization, at least.
Nobody else has much to say. Armitage, sensing the directionless tone of the group, claps his hands. "Fine! We have data, now get to work on it!" The others smile appreciatively, moving back to their respective cabins. And Armitage himself stalks off to find DeGroot.
DeGroot isn't far away. In fact, he's right next door, in the galley, loitering over a brewing pot of coffee. He's heard most of the conversation, and nods respectfully as Armitage enters.
The senior scientist harrumphs. "Not a bit of privacy on this vessel, is there," he asks testily. "Well then I shan't repeat the whole business. Let me just say that we have our new destination, and we'll be departing once Solak is back aboard." He pauses a moment. "It's in China."
DeGroot frowns. "It's odd that they chose Solak to make the delivery. Are you sure you want to leave that business all to her?"
Nathan had been wandering to his quarters, but pauses as he overhears this, and returns to the galley for a cup of coffee of his own. He's gotten curious about this, and wants to listen — and doesn't want to have to pretend otherwise.
"There's, hm, extenuating circumstances," Armitage replies lamely. "One of our other guys makes the call on this."
"Well, someone made the call to sell off those artifacts in a big hurry," Nathan notes. "If there's more than Jamie than meets the eye, it makes sense to have her go deliver precious cargo to people who merit closer inspection. I just hope she's on our side." He pauses. "Whatever that means."
DeGroot ponders for a moment, then shrugs. "Not my business, then. Very well. On to China. Umm… the direct route goes through occupied territory. If we go around, it will take longer, but it will be safer, and we won't piss off the NEG further." DeGroot leaves out specifics about the dangers: there's worse things than Kiev to be seen in central Asia.
"Plot any course you like," Armitage replies. "These sites aren't going anywhere. It's conditions on the ground that we… that we worry about more." He turns, heading back to his cabin.
"Well, I'm still curious about this Rome business," Nathan remarks to DeGroot. "Sounds like we've got plenty of time till we get to our next destination. Time enough to do at least a little discreet snooping around through the data networks."
"You any good at that?" DeGroot asks.
"Depends," replies Nathan. "I'm not exactly gonna be able to hack into secure corporate nets, but I can at least check into the public records of these Selene Greyman people. See if I can find any signs of… well. Mostly of things not being there that I'd expect to be."
Selene Greyman Import/Export began life after the complete economic devastation of the First Arcanotech War. It rose out of the scavenged, sold or defaulted assets of a dozen other companies, thrown together by a group of venture capitalists who'd managed to hang onto gold and other hard assets and stashed them away in various secure locations throughout France, Germany and the continent.
The company has made a number of trips into orbit and beyond, and has a few space assets on file. Whether or not these things still stand is an open question. Its safety record is impeccable, ranked in the top ten safest companies for cross-Atlantic and cross-Pacific flights.
The company has its fair share of citations for misconduct from the NEG, but no notable arrests have ever been made. They keep their nose clean.
The executives and heavy hitters in the company are primarily human, with a few Nazzadi in the lower ranks. Most look to be Arabic or Indian; many are Sikh, by the turbans they traditionally wear. Broad smiles and happy faces predominate the PR photos, as usual.
Nathan presents his findings to DeGroot the next time the pilot is off duty. "So no solid information yet, as expected. If they're this safe on transoceanic flights, though, they've definitely got something going for them defensively. Based solely on the public record, I'd have to say that they're… well, that they're about as trustworthy as Starkweather is."
"So, the next question is, how did the sale come about in the first place," Nathan continues. "Apparently the approval came from the Japanese office. And this whole thing came about within a day of us getting the goods, remember. Which means that someone in the chain of command up from Armitage must've passed it along. Someone was probably interested in our expedition specifically. And why not — archaeology is serious business these days. There's probably a person or two in the company who're personally interested in every expedition."
DeGroot nods. "So they look legit. But who doesn't?" He points into a navigation hologram. "This is our route — through the Middle East, down India, into Australia, across the Philipines, and then Taipei. Over land, most of the way, and we've got good reason to stop in Taipei for a day or two before moving on." The pilot flicks his wrist and the map zooms across the Sea of Japan. "So if you have 'business' at the Japanese office, I think we can accomodate you."
"Fair enough," says Nathan. "I'm gonna look up
A few minutes suffice. Nathan stares at the data on his screen. The man has a plain-looking profile picture, a note saying that he is on vacation and currently unable to reply to email for the next two weeks, and a forward to his secretary — Tietta Martin, also in Japan. His full name is given in kanji; when westernized with family name last, it's Yuuno Hu.
He reports to the VP of EMEA — the European_Middle East_Asian market, who then reports directly to the CEO.
"Oh come on," Nathan mutters to himself as he reads. It isn't just the name, although that's the icing on the cake — who approves a major sale of valuable archaeological relics and then slinks off for a vacation? This one, Nathan decides, should be brought to DeGroot immediately.
DeGroot scowls. 'You-know-who'? How stupid do they think we are? The artifacts are none of my business, but I'm feeling insulted by association… you gonna tell Armitage?"
"I think I wasn't supposed to have read the mail in the first place," Nathan comments. "But yeah, I guess I should get over that. I have to think Armitage'll think this is a much bigger deal than me looking over his shoulder."
At the door of Armitage's cabin, Nathan knocks politely. "Dr. Armitage? Just wanted to talk to you about Yuuno Hu. Got a minute?"
There's a heavy sigh. The door opens. Armitage is behind it. "Fine. Get in here, you idiots," he mutters.
Nathan slips inside. "So yeah, sorry about reading over your shoulder. But this seemed important. The HR DB says he's only two steps removed from the CEO, so if this isn't an obvious alias, I figure he wouldn't exactly be a total unknown in the Company."
DeGroot follows, closing the door behind him. With three people, the cabin is suddenly feels conspiratorialy cramped. "More likely, the name 'Hu' is just there as a front when nobody else wants to take the blame. An inside joke known to employees." DeGroot looks at Armitage. "I don't need to know what happened, and you don't need to tell me… unless it affects our survival."
Armitage snaps on a small electronic device that hums a reassuring tone after a few seconds. The door closes behind both men. "Obviously it's an alias," he says wearily. "Now what do I have to say or do to get you boys to relax and do your jobs?"
"Honestly, Doctor," DeGroot says, "for my part, there's only one issue. Solak. I know her type, and someone put her here for a reason. If you know anything… well… we need to make sure she's pointed in the right direction when she goes off."
Armitage peers carefully at DeGroot. "'Her type', you say?"
"We saw a refugee, in Kiev," DeGroot says slowly. "He — she — hell, I don't even know — was going to break cover and bring the Migou down on our heads. I put one shot through her thigh to keep her still. Solak put three through her chest and upper spine." More softly, "It's bugging the hell out of me. But Solak… didn't even break a sweat."
"In other words she did the unfortunate but necessary thing?" Armitage peers at DeGroot some more.
DeGroot frowns. "The unfortunate thing should never be done lightly, Doctor."
"And because … this girl did not show, hm, adequate emotion to satisfy you? Adequate hesitation? You suspect her of being… uh, something or other?" Armitage clasps his hands in front of him. "Suppose I know something, and tell you that I know, and refuse to divulge details. What will you do, Mr. DeGroot?"
Nathan speaks up. "Dunno about Degroot, but for my part,
it's like I said earlier. I don't mind someone
with nerves of steel covering my ass, but I do
want to feel reassured that she's on my side,
is all. Same thing with
DeGroot scowls. "I'll fly the ship," he says evenly. "And I try to bring us home alive. If you want me to do that with incomplete information, that's up to you." He moves for the door. "The new course is ready. We can leave as soon as Solak gets back." The door clicks shut behind him.
"Idiot," mutters Armitage. He sighs. "Well, Mr. Latham,
since you are apparently a
"Fair enough," says Nathan, getting up. "Someone does, of course. But if that doesn't worry you — for whatever reason — then I won't worry about it either. I don't need something new to make me lose sleep — I've got enough trouble with that as it is."
The scientist shrugs. "Everyone aboard was vetted. That's good enough for me. That ought to be good enough for a man we pulled out of jail. Good-bye, sir."
The Moore heads to Kashgar and the second dig site.
An image of a book appears on the holographic screens of the Moore's control stations. Dr. Armitage begins to speak. "What you see here is the Liber Razielis Archangeli, also called the Sefer Raziel HaMalakh or the Book of Raziel the Angel. Written sometime around the 12th century, and compiled by Eleazer of Worms in its most recent form. It was suppressed as a work of black magic at the time."
"The inscriptions that we found in the burial site in the Carpathians invoke some of the same astrological principles mentioned in the Sefer Raziel. In particular, there is a heavy emphasis on the Hellenistic zodiac — the twelve signs which I'm sure most of you have heard of. The original program we were to follow involved ten dig sites. There were originally twelve, but two of those were in N.E.G. territory and are already underway by the Ashcroft Foundation. These sites have some correspondences to the zodiac signs, suggesting some form of planning or agreement over a large area."
"In other words, whoever Ilya Muromets really was, he was probably working in connection with others, and they knew something of what they were doing. They sealed something away at the Carpathian site. Later legend ascribed somewhat more mundane heroics to whatever had been done there."
"We've done quite a bit of translation on the inscriptions and cross-referenced it with the Sefer Raziel. Although the inscriptions don't mention the Aleph Midrashim by that name, they're quite clearly talking about the same thing — luckily we had some kabbalistic scholars back home working on this, and they noticed the connection early."
Armitage clears his throat. A text transcription appears on the holography, and he reads aloud from it. "'That which filtered down from the heavens has been embedded in the earth for all time. All and forever.'" He stops a moment. "This is complicated business, as simple as it sounds. The specific words that were chosen, along with their spacing, are ritualistic, like poetry with a mathematical element. The syllables and characters themselves each have a numerological meaning. Essentially the scribe is intent on giving his pronouncement mystic weight."
The reading continues. "'Turn the seasons quickly and do not dally, for time does not walk but stagger. Enter the right house and you will be a welcome guest, but enter the wrong one and it will be your doom.'" The archaeologist pauses again to explain. "This is akin to the notion of the sephirot — connected nodes on a graph through which there is a proper path. What this suggests to us is that the sites themselves are related, and that you are supposed to visit them in a specific order."
"The complication here is that the Ashcroft Foundation has already begun their digs. We're working through the rest of the inscriptions to ensure that things are done in the proper order, and we've sent guarded hints to a few of our high-level contacts in the Foundation. If we just came out and admitted what we're doing, of course, we'd be arrested. We weighed that against the unknown but not inconsiderable risk of disturbing these sites in the wrong order, along with the rewards of actually continuing with our program of excavation. You see, the Liber Razielis Archangeli and certain other works have true significance. Their knowledge is being unlocked by the clues given on these inscriptions."
Dr. Ling raises her hand and is recognized. "Dr. Armitage, I am understanding that our destination is… is China. Is this correct?"
Armitage nods solemnly. "The Tarim Basin, specifically." A diagram appears on the holographs. "North of the Tibetan plateau, and one of the old sites of the Silk Road. Much commerce took place between East and West in this desolation." He sighs quietly. "To answer the unspoken question many of you are thinking, yes. The Rapine Storm has been here. They do not seem to be active now but our timing is determined by the order of entry into the sites. This site is next."
McTavish speaks up next. "Sir, what be the orders of engagement if we should happen upon remnants of the Cult?"
Armitage looks troubled. "In the ideal case that won't come up at all." A few minor rumbles of dissent come from the pilots' contingent and Armitage raises his hands in recognitioin. "Alright. Assuming our luck doesn't hold out, you will follow the instructions of the senior pilot on site. If he is unavailable you will defer to the copilot. If they are both … unavailable, you should return to your shuttle and to the Moore with best possible speed."
The archaeologist continues. "The law we're breaking in this case is intrusion into forbidden territory. Nobody's going to levy charges of murder on you should you defend yourselves against the Cult. Just… be careful, and stay safe. Don't separate yourselves, stay as a group." Dr. Ling can be seen nodding in fervent agreement, though she says nothing.
Jamie's shuttle docks in due course with her parent ship, and Jamie disembarks. In due course, notification is transmitted to the flight deck.
Jamie's hands breeze across the control surfaces of the craft, finishing it's final docking. She breathes deeply. . o O ( This is going to be fun ) she thinks to herself, and dhe stands, and begins to exit the shuttle.
DeGroot notes the shuttle's return, and loads the Moore's new course. Through the Middle East, then India, then across the ocean to Australia, north through Indonesia and the Phillipines, China, then… whatever Armitage is hunting. NEG air superiority is good everywhere except over the ocean. He taps out a text message to Armitage, not wanting to speak to the scientist yet. Solak is back. Ready to go.
The answer is succinct. Proceed.
Jamie steps out of the shuttle, and looks around. Not teh welcome she was expecting. She quietly tries to make her way to her bunk without incident. She hangs her new dress in her bunk, and keeps to herself as much as she can.
The Moore rises between the jagged tips of the Carpathian mountains. The cockpit fills with comm traffic from the NEG's Bucharest air defense zone. Fortunately, the Moore is recognized as a friendly, and whatever skulduggery Starkweather is up to, it seems to have smoothed over any offenses for the intrusion into Kiev. The big ship angles south and quickly reaches a speed just below that of sound. Monitors on the ship wink on, displaying the route and the ETA: just under 18 hours.
The ship turns east and crosses the Bosporus Strait into Turkey. Night comes faster when flying east at almost 600 miles an hour, and the ground below turns into a dark, glassy plain, broken here and there by city lights, highways… and sometimes, fires. Things burning in the darkness. The lights disappear as the ship crosses into Iran. Rice and Ebony take the flight deck. Degroot retreats to his cabin and locks the door, napping until the crossing of the Indian ocean.
The signs of human civilization shine more brightly as the ship reaches the Arabian Sea; the coastlines of Iran and Pakistan are lit dimly but regularly by everything from fishing villages to NEG outposts. The brightest lights are from arcology domes under construction — welders working into the night to build new placesfor humanity to hide from the stars. Soon the Moore reaches Mumbai, a sprawling collection of domes that completely covers the banks of the Ulhas River. The cockpit comes to life again with interrogations and replies by automatic air defense systems; still the ship is allowed to pass.
During the flight, a fight almost breaks out between McTavish, Rice, Naza and Kova. The topic in question seems to be a bootlegged digital download of the movie 'Sangria' which one of the four — none of whom admit exactly who it was — transferred to the Moore's computer from outside. A few racial epithets are traded back and forth, but everyone settles down before it gets too far. Dr. Short is instrumental in restoring order.
The argument awakens DeGroot, who resumes control of the ship; Sri Lanka is just a few minutes away anyway, and here, if anywhere, the trip will get dicey…
The NEG has still coded Malaysia as an 'Amber Zone', which is a polite way of saying that the Rapine Storm turned it into a vision of Hell and has since moved on. The NEG has established a convoy route from Sri Lanka to Port Hedland, Australia, and patrols it heavily with air and watercraft. But the carnage of Kiev has made DeGroot less inclined to trust official guarantees of safety, and he keeps a sharp watch on the radar for every mile of the trip.
Warning indicators begin flashing on the pilot's board — not an attack, thankfully, just engine trouble. The Moore has enough levitative capacity to stay in the air, but repairs are called for.
"Oh, Hell," DeGroot mutters, and summons Nathan to the flight deck. "I'm not going to tell you to get everyone ready to bail," DeGroot tells him. "But we're over water and far from shore. If you've got anyone who can help us with the engines, please wake them up now."
Nathan is never easy to wake, but catches up on current
events quickly enough to grab a toolbox and head
belowdecks, into the guts of the Moore. Working
Fortunately, the problem proves to be relatively routine.
Some of the power couplings with the
DeGroot forces himself to relax. The freaking
The ship reaches Port Hedland and turns northeast. This used to be one of the most underpopulated areas of the world, but the light of the coming dawn illuminates dozens of NEG refugee camps all over the coast. Refugees from Malaysia are trying to piece together a life from the wreckage left by the Rapine Storm. The Moore soon leaves the sad scene behind. As the ship flies over Indonesia and the Phillipines, the light of day shows the deep blue waters and brilliant green islands, marred in places by grey domes, slablike city blocks, and the brown mires of polluted rivers. It was evening when the Moore left Romania, and it is approaching evening again as it docks in Taipei.
The layover is short — Latham's repairs are solid, if improvised. Spares are replaced and tanks topped off. DeGroot naps again, as the Moore heads inland into mainland China. One of the oldest continuing civilizations, is still the most mysterious. The site that Armitage has requested is uncomfortably close to both Migou-occupied space and territory raveged by the Rapine Storm. DeGroot resumes the bridge at 10pm, as the ship approaches the blinking green dot on the map. The last NEG air patrol is an hour behind them. Nobody has tried to arrest them… yet… but nobody is coming to help either.
Kashgar was an oasis, then a city. Now it is an ossuary. The bones of the dead lie strewn carelessly across the ruined brickwork of the Muslim city that once stood proudly here. Nobody wants too close a look. But surmounting the pointed spire of every mosque, the Rapine Storm has taken great pride in positioning a corpse to kneel in the direction of Mecca, impaled delicately on the needlepoint.
"'Within sight of the oasis lies he who shall…'" Armitage reads from his notes. "We are manning all four shuttles," he announces. "Pilots will stream live video back to the Moore. Cameras will look in all directions. We are looking for a particular feature of geography. When the computers find it, we will have our dig site. Gentlemen, make it so."
DeGroot arranges a duty roster — four shuttles,
four pilotschangeline. The heavier weapons are taken from
concealment, a pair of gauss rifles for each shuttle.
Of the three remaining pilots, one stays with the Moore,
and two don the heavy
DeGroot assigns himself to one of the shuttles, and hesitates before assigning Solak to the same shuttle. "Hell. Better to keep an eye on her."
Before launch, Armitage draws DeGroot aside and rests a hand lightly on his shoulder, leaning forward to whisper: "Thanks for giving her a chance, Mr. DeGroot. Listen, out here, there's nobody else we can count on but each other. We need to trust one another, and I wanted to tell you that I appreciate it."
DeGroot hides his surprise well. "I thought it over, Doctor. Everyone deserves a fair shake."
Jamie, for her part, is slightly oblivious to DeGroot, only keeping somewhat of an eye on Armitage. She checks out one of the Gauss rifles assigned to the shuttle. She takes a seat, the rifle locked in beside her.
The shuttles launch. Arcing in a graceful symmetrical spiral, they come about once sufficiently clear of the Moore itself. The search pattern has been computed and fed in; all the pilot needs to do is watch for the color red to appear on his board. They sweep outward, forming a swastika with the Moore at the center. Telemetry is relayed. The windswept desert is surveyed.
The first sign of warning is a loud proximity alarm.
The shuttle is approximately five miles away from the Moore and correspondingly far from its sister ships, so none of them
could be on a collision. DeGroot sees the holograph
flash to the front of his view, recognizes a simple
It's followed a moment later by a second, and DeGroot and pinpoint the source of the first attack. Someone has been waiting under the dunes. The second shot comes from another direction.
The proximity alarm is done buzzing, which means that DeGroot
is surprised indeed when an explosion rocks the shuttle.
The safety systems engage halfheartedly. The cabin fills with a cushioning foam that absorbs most of the damage, though all three passengers feel the air knocked out of their lungs on impact.
"We're been shot!" DeGroot shouts into his mike. He works to get free of the crash webbing. "We're bailing!"
Jamie reaches down and starts in on her straps, pulling the straps free, at least partially.
DeGroot frees himself, but doesn't stand yet. He hunches over the control panel and spends a valuable moment trying to get the lifter back on, to stop the sinking.
The crash foam solvent begins to spray through the compartment, neutralizing and breaking down the material that cushioned the crew on impact. Outside, the sand is starting to creep up the side of the shuttle — it's moving at about 2 feet per second.
The response to DeGroot's instructions to the
shuttle come back in the negative — the
Jamie opens a radio channel and begins speaking, "Mayday. We've been hit. I'm not sure by what. We are grounded."
DeGroot levers himself out of his seat. "We're not flying. Time to get out."
Nathan stands up and bangs on the side of the hatch, looking at the sand rising over the window. "Damn. Sealed in." He pauses for a moment. "The sifter!" He turns toward the cargo bay.
Something's missing — some noise. The quiet hum of the air circulator isn't running. Either it was damaged in the crash, or perhaps the computer shut it off since there's no longer air coming in from the vents to outside. But the shuttle is now on reserve air.
DeGroot grabs up one of the rifles. "Solak, follow the genius!"
There's another explosion, this time much more restrained. It rocks the shuttle for a moment. This time, however, DeGroot is paying attention and recognizes it. There was no missile hit. This was a grenade. And it came from inside.
It apparently came from aft — near the cargo section.
Hurrying back, the flight crew surveys the damage. The shuttle is entirely sunk and still descending through the sand. There is good news and bad news, however. The sifter itself is fine. What was destroyed were the cargo modules that held the group's supplies — including, most significantly, the air masks and tanks.
"Solak, I'm sorry I doubted you," DeGroot says flatly. "Obviously there's someone else who hates us more."
Nathan surveys the damage. "Lucky whoever it was that sabotaged us didn't finish thinking all the way through." He heads for the sifter, and pauses. "Unless… the timer hasn't gone off yet." He shakes his head, and resumes course. "Fuck it. If the sifter's bombed, we're dead anyway."
Jamie turns to look, being slightly late to teh party, having stopped to grab her own rifle. She shrugs, "Indeed." Is all she seems to offer for this. She looks, "It could be that the grenades set themselves off… It did blow up where they're normally kept."
"We'll look for any other surprises," DeGroot says. "You just dig us out."
While Nathan begins to compute, to somehow script into
the sifter's LAI the absurdly
"OK," says Nathan eventually. "It's tricky, but I think I can do it. Now…" he says, glaring at the cargo bay doors. "How do I get this thing in contact with the sand without smothering us?"
"While I'm thinking about that…" Nathan adds, turning to DeGroot as the pilot continues his inspection. "So how'd we come to crash, anyway? I heard the explosion…"
"I can check on that, at least," replies Nathan. "Or at least find out a reason I can't. With all our survival supplies gone, we could be up shit creek if we can't fly out of here."
DeGroot lays a hand on the sifter. "This thing is
Jamie slinks over to a computer terminal and taps some keys, trying to get the ship to tell us how much air we can expect to have.
The ship's computers flicker in and out twice before Jamie can get a reliable reading. But based on the volume of the shuttle and 3 adult passengers, the LAI spits out its best guess: 48 minutes.
"OK, hell with that," Nathan says, as the report comes
in. "Let's dig out first, and then we can worry
"This compartment will flood as soon as we open them," DeGroot points out. "We can lock ourselves in the cabin and open the cargo doors with the robot. But can you operate the sifter on remote?
"Yeah, that's a good idea," Nathan says. "Let's do it."
DeGroot readies the cargo arm. "The only other thing I can think of, is we strap ourselves to the outside of the Sifter and ride it to the surface, Doctor Strangelove style." One look from Nathan stops DeGroot from speculating further. "So we'll just get on with it, then."
"While I'm working on this," Nathan says, as his fingers fly across the terminal keyboard, "you two work on another way to get us out of this. It's gonna take me longer than I'd like to get this plan working, and we'll be cutting it close."
Jamie glances between Nathan and DeGroot as she thinks over something, fingers idly tapping at the terminal with the air estimate on it.
DeGroot moves over to the burned pallettes. "Alternatives.
Well. I'm no good as a mechanic, but I can try
to get the
Jamie looks between the two. "I'm…" She thinks, a hard choice, to be sure. She shakes her head, "At least, I think I can give us some more time…" She thinks this over. And looks, "I think I'm going to save your lives. Or at least, it will help. This will probably bring questions. Let's get out of this before that happens." She looks levely at the other two, waiting for some sort of ascent.
Something in Jamie's demeanor makes Nathan pause in his work. "What are you talking about?" he says, furrowing his brow.
DeGroot stops what he's doing, and looks up from a tangle of half-burned power cables. "I can keep anyone's secrets. Even yours."
Jamie furrows, "It's… complicated?" She walks meteredly to the forward part of the cabin, "I'm going to hide myself from your site. I ask that for your own sake you don't come look, but I probably cannot stop you. This should give us much more time for everyone to finish… whatever's going to happen here. At very least make you you hook everything up before you peek." She looks levelly at the two, trying to impart seriousness as she squirrels herself up next to a seat, as hidden from view as she can be… before she changes.
DeGroot gives Latham a hard look. "I know you're a scientist, but don't think about it. Don't try to understand what she said. Just understand the sifter." He tosses down the mess of power cables. "No hope for these. I'm going to try to bleed us some air out of the pneumatics. If there are any."
Nathan nods. "I'll say what I said before: if I don't need to know about it, I'm not going to ask." He returns to his work on the sifter programming.
It is said that the change takes each person seperately, as she shifts from her natural form into the natural form of something… altogether unnatural. Her limbs twist in impossible spirals, forearms and claves twisting theselves somehow into darkness. Her height seems to grow, even as she takes up no more room. Were any to lay eyes on her, the sight seems to want to slip off her dark, shadowing pale that takes it's toll on her snin. Her legs, curled up twist, her fingers shaping into horrible claws. Her head elongates and blackens, as one might see sticking out of the ground from a burned out forest. She has a face, if it can be called that, but the darkened midnight of her stare is not one to meet casually. Her form trails black smoke off of the… thing, as the change takes form, some of which can probably be seen by the pilot and the engineer.
Nathan spends a moment thinking of the sounds that just came from behind him. They were soft, indistinct… and yet they make the hair stand up on the back of his neck. Jamie warned us not to peek… he remembers. He had started to wonder why not… and now suddenly he seriously, desperately does not want to know. He buries his face in the terminal, careful not to look too closely at the monitor for fear that it might reflect something behind him.
DeGroot does his best not to look towards the cockpit. It's a little easier than he thought; he's seen a lot of horrible things, and he hopes to see many more before he's done. But the suspicion of Solak has been gnawing at him… now that he stops to think about it, it was just two days ago, that she shot that poor bastard in Kiev. And he can't help but see, out of the corner of his excellent pilot's eyes, something moving in the front of the ship. Something inky and dark that has nothing to do with the poor lighting or the sand sliding over the hull. DeGroot grinds his teeth, knowing that in a few minutes he's going to have to go in there and fact it. Or he can stay here and die. It's the kind of choice that he hates, more than all the times he's been shot at.
On the monitor, the 'air remaining' countdown timer sits at 45 minutes. The seconds click down. At 45:00, the timer flashes. And it reads 1:06:59.
Ambush in the deserts of China. The Moore is grounded in Rome.
The shuttle's descent into the sands of the Chinese desert has slowed enough for the sifter to be put to use.
Latham is hunched over the Sifter terminal, trying to hack a way out; There's not much for DeGroot to do. Solak is in the cockpit… DeGroot shudders. He's not going to wait there. This moment in time has no use for him; he can only cast his attention forward, to what might happen if they reach the surface, or back, to how the shuttle was sabotaged. The pilot digs his way into the charred remains of the cargo lockers again. "He did it with our own grenades, for sure… and probably by remote control… so…" All he can hope for is that the mole made some mistake; it's hard to get evidence out of the ruined mess.
Jamie listens to the men in her Tager form. She wraps the darkness that seems to flow around herself like a warm pillow or comfortable sweater. Much like Winter's icy grip pulling around Summer's halcyon days, Jamie's Tager form was missed, for it's icy grip on the younger girl's form. She smiles, trying to force herself not to interfere with the two men in back. Her darkened fingers stroke along the length of the rifle in her hap carefully, the Tager relishing the delicious implement of death so close…
Meanwhile, Nathan's fingers dance over the sifter terminal. He doesn't know much about the geology of the area, but if they've stopped sinking, he knows most of what he needs to know — namely, that there's a bunch of sand above them that has to get out of the way, and not much place to put it except sideways. And he knows one other thing, which he tries his hardest to keep from thinking about too hard: whatever Jamie did, she isn't breathing anymore. He hopes he doesn't have to find out why… or at least, that he can postpone the knowledge until he has time to deal with it.
DeGroot didn't manage to find much, but after about twenty
minutes of searching, along with cross-references to the
shuttle's wounded computer and his own PCPU,
he establishes something else. The first grenade was wedged
next to one of the bulkheads. Its explosion severed
the power conduits and control lines to the
Not only was the grenade well-placed, but some of the lines were actually rerouted to make the sabotage possible.
"This took time," DeGroot mutters. "Time and skill. He didn't throw this together an hour ago." Suddenly he's pissed off; a little casual sabotage he can understand… but premeditation makes it so much more personal.
In the cockpit, Nathan's urge to look over his shoulder has been steadily increasing — his imagination populating the almost complete silence behind him. But as with the catacombs under Kiev, Nathan pushes his fear from his mind long enough to enter the last few lines of code — and he makes some mental notes for improvements to the sifter scripting language. "There. This… should work," he says, wiping the cold sweat form his brow. "All we need to do… is push the button." He calls out. "DeGroot! We're ready!"
DeGroot wastes no time. He retreats to the cockpit, pointedly not looking at Solak's hiding place. The cabin had seemed pretty roomy before, with only the three of them, but now… he sighs. "OK. Do it, Latham."
Latham operates the robot arm via the computer. Already damaged by the attack, the shuttle's system is not going to be good for much longer — but it should last long enough to bring in some air, and hopefully to lift off.
There's a grinding noise as the arm forces the door outward against the press of sand, making room for the sifter's gravitational beam. Abruptly the shuttle lists to one side. The occupants are secure enough — this was expected — but it slightly complicates the program Nathan had to write. Fortunately, this too was expected.
On the other side of the barrier keeping the three
occupants from the desert sand, they hear the hum of the
sifter as it's slowly entombed. But it fights back.
Minutes pass. The timer showing available air ticks inexorably downward.
Gradually Latham's PCPU display shows something promising. The sifter is angling its beam upward, to the limit of its reach — any more and it would start pressing against the ceiling and probably tear off the top of the shuttle. But this means that the sand has been pushed away. The sifter's carving a tunnel upwards. To the surface.
Twelve minutes of air remain. The sifter's managed part of an impression in the sand, enough that air could start to filter down if the sifter's own pressor beam weren't constantly pushing outward to fend off the sand.
At this point, Latham and DeGroot have a brief, whispered conference. If the sifter is allowed to traverse upward — in other words, tear off the shuttle's roof with its pressor effect — then the hole can be dug faster. It completely compromises life support and ruins the shuttle in the long term, but none of that matters. The question is: will it get them back to the Moore? And failing that, in the air long enough to get help?
"Do it," DeGroot says. "I'll take my chances flying anything, compared to… everything else."
All that Nathan need do is disable the overrides he set up. It's a simple matter.
The hellish tearing and grinding, on the other hand, is not so easy. The shuttle rocks itself as the sifter inexorably tears off a chunk of it. The devil's own knife can be heard making a rent in the metal, and even some of the structural members in the cockpit start to give way. But after tense seconds, the noise abates. On the computer, the sifter's sensors conclude that there's no further obstruction. It pours on the power.
Eight minutes pass. The noise winds down. The sifter has completed its assigned task and gone into standby.
"Sensors say we're done. I think," Nathan says, his voice quavering. "And we aren't going to last much longer. Let's get it over with."
"Seconded," DeGroot says. He reaches for the latch, and slowly draws it back.
Jamie still tries to stay curled up in her corner, but she, too, is feeling slightly light headed, though probably not as bad as the other men.
A bit of sand pours in. But not much — just a small pile that had accumulated against the door. Beyond, the sudden light is brighter than expected. The air is fresh, but dry and hot and papery. The shuttle's roof has been torn up, but the rest of it looks intact.
The shuttle now rests in a deep depression, whose slopes
are just shallow enough that sand doesn't begin to tumble
back into it. It's a few stories deep, and climbing
will be a challenge if it comes to that. But with luck,
DeGroot breathes deeply, and considers the enormity of the new problem. "Latham. Can you get the shuttle back in the air? And how long will it take?"
"Don't know yet. I need to have a closer look at the damage first. I didn't have time before," Nathan adds with a strained grin. "It'll be easier if I can cannibalize the sifter. Man, this sortie's getting more expensive by the minute."
DeGroot considers this. "We owe you our lives. We need to ask more of you. We have to assume our allies have departed and our enemies are still here. So we need to run, and fast. Gut the sifter. Get us airborne, for however long."
Jamie feels the oxygen rush over her form, and sighs deeply. It seems to be over. She closes her eyes, and begins to change back. THe light-bending darkness that was surrounding her inky black form pulls into her extremeties, her arms and legs shortening, her presence becoming more in line with normality. She curls herself up into a ball on the chair for a second, having lost contact with her Tager self, she whimpers audibly, then stances, and starts to stand, making to enter the rear of the shuttle again.
Clambering out into the cabin, Nathan winces at the ragged-eged
roof, then gets to work. Patting the sifter's
hull gently in thanks, he pulls off the back cover,
carefully shifts the
When he's all done, Nathan alights on the cargo deck, dusting his hands off and grinning. "Good as new," he says. "Well, at least as far as the drive goes. I wouldn't redline it, or you'll finish the job the sifter started," he says, nodding to the roof. "But the actual lifters themselves will do whatever you ask of them."
"Lovely," DeGroot breathes. "Alright. Everyone button
up and strap in. We're running." The pilot
settles into the command chair again and forces himself
to relax. The
Jamie, unassumingy, not even sure where to start trying to talk to them, avoids the issue by pulling up one of the shuttle's compure displays, "Seems like they can't hear us." SHe says, to anyone that'll listen, "Probably the only way to get found is going to be to be seen."
"Then keep it quiet," DeGroot replies. "The enemy has radios too, I'm sure."
Nathan watches the relaxation routine, and grins. Oh, don't worry, DeGroot, he thinks to himself. If you aren't nervous, the
The failing computers deceive DeGroot at least once: they
point him northwest, when he wants northeast. The sensors
are active, but the software to interpret them is now
fully offline. It takes visual sighting, then, to make out
the silhouette of the Jeremiah Moore, stationkeeping
on its powerful
Docking in the usual hangar is out of the question: the software that normally automates this task is offline. But the Moore is broad enough that DeGroot could set the shuttle down on top of it.
"Take it easy," Nathan says, still twitchy. "If we aren't getting a response on the radio, the problem's on our end. We need to not make them too nervous about not responding to their hails."
"Really?" DeGroot says skeptically. "I don't like it. She's just sitting there. No other shuttles up. No comm chatter. There's only two things they should be doing: looking for us, or bugging out. I wonder if the saboteur fucked the shuttle comms? Somebody try their suit radio." DeGroot looks for a place to set down — near the Moore, but not on it. "The last thing we need is for them to think we're the Rapine Storm."
Jamie chimes in, "Yeah. I'm with DeGroot on this one. How close do you really think they would let us get if they thought we were some sort of threat." She taps a few keys on the control panel, "At least it's still in the air. Maybe whoever tried to do us in had a mutiny…"
"A shuttle with its roof blown out is hardly a threat," Nathan says. "Unless it tries to suicide. And if the Moore's been taken over, we're dead, plain and simple." He turns on his suit radio. "Amazon to Moore. This is Nathan Latham from what's left of the Amazon calling the Jeremiah Moore, over."
DeGroot comes to a decision. "Screw it. Mutiny or not, inside that thing is still the safest place for two hundred miles." Using only his eyes and a muttered prayer, he aims the shuttle for a flat piece of the Moore's back deck, as close to a loading hatch as possible. "When we hit, get out, and get below. Solak, keep that rifle close."
Jamie nods, "I'll do you one better." She says, and gets up out of her steat, and takes a position at the rear of the shuttle crouching near one of the walls, and holding her rifle in a position ready to fire, aiming out the back of the shuttle.
"If we go in on a war footing, they will think we're attacking," Nathan says. "Someone needs to go out there with their hands up. I volunteer."
Jamie shrugs, "I'm willing to risk tense moments of misunderstanding for a ready battlefield position. Sir."
DeGroot says, "Then, Miss Solak, you aren't half as crazy as I thought."
The dorsal hatch slides open, admitting the three — carefully. Inside, the lights are on. Someone is yelling something. Solak descends, then covers the corridors carefully with a gauss rifle while DeGroot and Latham follow. All three arm themselves as best they can.
The shouting gets louder. From the bridge area, the three see the same sight at the same time: Dr. Ling, with a gauss rifle cradled unsteadily in her arms. She shrieks. Her face is red with exertion, and her eyes bulge with a mad intensity. Her hair is disheveled. Her clothes are spattered with blood — not the seepage one sees when injured, but the marks that one has been near a victim of violence.
She starts to raise her weapon. She screams.
Jamie is going to make herself as small a target as possible while still keeping the good doctor in her sights, crouching behind any available cover, but not actually retreating or loosing visual contact.
As the survivors duck out of the way, Dr. Ling opens fire. She laughs and laughs, unloading the gauss rifle indiscriminantly into bulkhead.
"I think Jamie's going to have to end this," mutters Nathan. Aloud, he yells, "Dr. Ling! What are you doing?"
The woman's response, such as it is, consists of a shrieked set of syllables which Nathan surmises is Chinese.
The gunfire stops. The fact that hard targets protect softer ones seems to have reached her awareness.
Jamie reaches her gauss rifle over the bulkhead that she took cover behild, pointing the rangefinder down at her hands.
Nathan calls out in the ancient version of Dr. Ling's tongue. "Would your ancestors smile on murder?" He keeps it simple — the woman's frame of mind isn't up for translating anything unusual.
Dr. Ling's only response is more screaming. Nathan has no idea if she even processed anything he said.
Jamie takes the extra time to tru and get Dr Ling's trigger hand in teh rangefinder, concentrating as long as she usefully can on that hand.
The scientist shakes his head. "No good!" He knows his voice is giving away his position, but it's not as if that were a great secret. "We aren't gonna get anything out of her unless she's sedated!" He'll leave it to the more military minded of his companions to decide if it's worth the risk.
DeGroot grimaces and considers his pistol. He can't fire it without exposing himself. He looks over at Solak, hoping to catch the woman's attention.
Jamie sees her opportunity even as DeGroot tries to catch her eye. She decides she needs to take her shot, and fires off a full auto shot at Dr. Ling's hand, shots seeingly strike true.
Dr. Ling's scream takes on a new tenor and character as her weapon hand is shredded by Jamie's shot. A high-pitched keening noise replaces the babble of mad Chinese, and she slumps down to the ground.
DeGroot rushes forward and kicks Ling's rifle away, noticing with some numbness that a lot of her hand goes with it. For a split-second her face is overlaid with that of the girl that Solak shot in Kiev… but this one might live, he thinks. He reaches down and pulls the woman up bodily, applying pressure to the arteries in her wrist. "Latham! Tourniquet! Now!"
Jamie runs over behind the others, rifle still out, and pointed at Dr. Ling… She nods to Nathan as he moves to bring the first aid kit. She watches carefully the doctor's movements, "I hope she makes it." She says, with a tone suggesting that she might be trying to convince herself.
With a bit of effort, DeGroot manages to staunch some of the bleeding using one of the ship's first aid kits, fetched by Nathan. The Moore was once used for military purposes and has a sickbay well suited for such injuries, and Dr. Ling looks safe enough to move — but it must be done quickly.
"That was a nice shot," DeGroot says flatly. "Let's go to sick bay. Solak, you lead, in case any of our 'friends' are still aboard."
Jamie nods, which is what she was going to suggest anyway, "Most of the time the best restraints are in the medical bay." She notes, idly, as she leads the way, looking down the corridors for the signs of what actually happened.
While Dr. Ling is carried by the two men, Jamie takes a moment to peek in on the bridge. There she finds La, one of the duty pilots. His head is mostly shot out with the gauss rifle and he's still strapped in. The control boards are stained red, with queer flickerings in the holographics where their emitters have been covered over.
DeGroot hands his sidearm to Latham. "Stay here with her. Try to keep her from bleeding out." The pilot picks up Ling's own rifle. He continues as he replaces the magazine. "I'm going looking for the others." He notices Solak coming back from the bridge… alone. "And I'm guessing that means, if they're here, they're back that way."
Jamie shakes her head, and looks at DeGroot, "If you're going to go, I'll make an announcement…" She pauses, "If you think we've neutralized all threats…"
DeGroot pauses, lowers his rifle. "No. Probably not." He moves over to the intercom terminal. "Let's see what the cameras can tell us."
A crew was left behind on the Moore while the shuttles launched. The archaeologists stayed, along with one other pilot: Kova. They're found, bound and gagged, on the bunks of their cabins.
"I think maybe Dr. Ling is as much a victim as any of us," says Nathan enigmatically.
After a tense examination of the captured members of the Moore's crew, DeGroot cuts them loose, one by one. Armitage immediately begins attending to Dr. Ling. The others, meanwhile, relate more or less what happened.
Dr. Ling lost it, rather abruptly. She took Armitage hostage, used him to force the others to surrender, and had La tie them up. Nobody's sure what happened once they were shut away in their cabins, but they all remember hearing the gauss rifle firing, along with some shouting.
It seems that the good doctor was ranting about the Rapine Storm, how they were coming to get everyone. She attempted mutiny. But rather than give her control of the ship, La locked the controls. She most likely shot him for it.
"So where are the other shuttle crews?" DeGroot asks. "Did anyone else come back?"
Nobody's sure. DeGroot's private key unlocks the ship's controls. He finds that the radio transceiver's been taken offline for routine maintenance — or at least that's the reason filed in the log.
The shuttles respond. They were told via a burst message, in text only, to fly clear of the Moore — the message hints at Rapine Storm activity and mention the loss of the Amazon, suggesting the others get whatever cover they could get and hold tight.
In a short amount of time most of the other pilots and some of the techs are back on board. There's been only one loss: La. But without his sacrifice, there's no doubt the shuttles would probably have been stranded from their mothership, easy pickings for whoever did come along.
There's a private chat. DeGroot and Latham lay out what they found, and what they saw. Without this new information, it looks more or less like a woman with a past history of stress went crazy, while some of the crew nearly became the victims of elements of the Rapine Storm. With it, events take on a more sinister cast.
At the end of it, looking haggard, Armitage publically announces a decision. The archaeological work is to be suspended temporarily. Upon immediate protest, he assures everyone that their contracts will still be honored and that he intends to continue. He orders DeGroot to set a course for Rome, where Dr. Ling will be remanded into N.E.G. custody for examination.
This, too, provokes some murmurs. Starkweather is known for taking care of its own. But to this argument Armitage simply shakes his head.
The Moore is to be grounded in Rome for a week. During this time, Armitage privately assures DeGroot and Latham that corporate HQ is going to be very carefully reviewing its personnel records. He'll risk no further danger to these people if there's a saboteur aboard.
As the craft settles into its berth, and the shaken crew disembark, they're met by a woman. A girl, really. She's dressed all in white, but more than that: she is white. Not simply Caucasian, or Aryan, or pale, but white — shockingly, starkly devoid of coloration. Eyes, hair, everything. She's a Nazzadi Xenomix: a White.
She watches dispassionately while people file past, but she reaches out to intercept Nathan and draw him aside. "You're him," she announces flatly. "We need to talk."
"I'm who now?" asks Nathan nervously.
"The sorcerer," the woman answers. "I know why I'm replacing Dr. Ling. I'll be your new archaeologist. I'm Lisa Lazarus."
DeGroot has been watching the crew, hoping the saboteur will give himself away, but the appearance of Lisa Lazarus throws his concentration. Sorceror? What the hell? He looks around for Armitage; maybe the Doctor can make sense of it.
"So why do you need to talk to me specifically?" Nathan asks guardedly.
"Because I can still smell the magic they used," explains Ms. Lazarus. "You didn't ward against it, because you didn't know to. You'll need to start setting up regular barriers on the ship, around the ship, around yourselves when you land."
"We're not stupid," Nathan says defensively. "We did have the standard ritual wards. Obviously they weren't enough, so obviously we need more. I assume we aren't just going to be fighting the last war, though."
"Wait," DeGroot approaches, voice even. "What magic? Is that how they… got to… Ling? Can you tell who did it?"
Lisa smiles. She's actually sort of attractive, once she does so. "We'll get into specifics later. But I'm glad of one thing. You noticed it too."
Jamie stares at DeGroot. She is not terribly happy with the new arrival. Not happy at all. Fortunately, she left he rifle on the ship this time. FOr now, all she does to temper her anger is stare cold daggers at the woman.
DeGroot isn't sure what she means, and doesn't try to guess. "It was a bad day for us," he says simply. "I'll be at your disposal." He turns and heads up the ramp, the saboteur forgotten for the moment.
"We'll discuss it later," Nathan says, his hackles lowering slightly. "But I'll be glad of the help. That sort of thing isn't my field. Or at least… it wasn't, up until now."
"Of course. Pozegnanie wielu," says the White girl, and waves as she strolls off.
Nathan visits the Vatican's Lopex archive and performs a ritual.
While the others go about their own business in Rome — with the tacit understanding that everyone is going to be discreetly surveilled by both N.E.G. authorities and a few local men hired by Starkweather — Lisa Lazarus invites Nathan Latham on a private tour of the Vatican's Lopex archives. While he has been through the holographic representation of them in his studies as a sorcerer, he's never visited the real thing.
Like many cities, Rome has been surrounded by the translucent shell of an arcology. But if Rome itself is secure, nestled within its seven hills, the Holy See is an impregnable fortress even to the city. Tall, jet-black spires of some faux-organic cyberalloy have replaced the ancient basilicas. They reach for the sky like the legs of a hungry spider. Upon them the builders of this place have made unto themselves many a graven image indeed. On every tower, statuary — of the saints, of angelic figures and of other things — decorate every level. Their hands reach out in supplication to onlookers.
The beautific apostles and the ecstatic martyrs gaze down from their storied heights. Their obsidian eyes watch as the air-taxi carrying Nathan and Lisa slowly approaches the checkpoint. They give witness to the holy mystery that is the security scan. The air-taxi locks itself into a parking slot, and a docking chevron extends to allow the pair to walk into the Vatican proper.
Within the city proper, the ominous black spires outside have given way to a universe of sacred light. Holographic displays of every size, shape and color cover every surface. Nathan watches as he seems to walk on water — the corridor through which he and Lisa travel ripples with convincing liquidity under his feet. It opens to a grander thoroughfare, wherein portraits and grand art of all descriptions project themselves into the air.
The grand aesthetic of Catholic history are preserved here. It's breathtakingly beautiful, and silent, and dry, and empty somehow as Nathan looks at it all. "The Stendhal syndrome," whispers Lisa beside him, looking at the display. "Insanity through beauty."
"Stendhal syndrome?" asks Nathan, his brow furrowed.
"Hyperkulturemia," answers Lisa absently, studying the holographics. "It's psychosomatic condition that may afflict observers exposed to aesthetic efforts. Artwork, sculptures, and the like. Anything beautiful. It's… not unique to Italy, but it's always been most common here."
Nathan isn't sure how to react. "I… suppose too much of anything can overwhelm us humans' little minds," he manages, with just a touch of irony.
There are others who travel with the pair through this labyrinth. They move in groups of twos and threes, nodding politely as they pass. Nathan sees men in priestly vestment, women wearing the new style of priestess' garb that's entered use in the last half-century, a half dozen varieties of nun's habit, men with carefully tonsured haircuts and simple robes, and even a few figures who go entirely robed and masked, with elaborate headdresses. He finds himself subtly unsure of how exactly it is that they see.
Ramps and silent self-operating lifts provide transportation throughout the multi-level complex. At one point the pair board a platform which elevates itself at least two hundred feet in a single go. Along the ascent they are treated to a stories-high holographic image of the Virgin Mary, and Nathan sees her blink at him as they reach the top. A single tear forms in one eye and begins to roll down her cheek — a thing as tall itself as he is.
"We're here," says Lisa at last, crossing a wide thoroughfare and gesturing at a building. It's a short, sprawling complex of interconnected squares, and a door which bears an anachronistically handwritten note: FRA ANGELO WISNIEWSKI. Lisa knocks at the door. A few seconds are enough for an elderly-looking man to open it, squint at the guests, and wave them inside.
A voice comes from further in. "Show them in, Serge." The old man bows his head in the direction of the voice, and escorts Nathan and Lisa through a claustrophobic series of corridors to a study. At the high oak desk that dominates this room sits an intense-looking man of maybe forty years of age. He smiles broadly, rising from his work. "Dr. Lazarus. And Mr. Latham, is it sir? Good to have you, good to have you."
Nathan is still somewhat overwhelmed by the outer museum halls, but manages a smile. "Pleased to meet you, sir," he says politely, before stepping back. He'd rather expected Lisa to be driving the meeting, since she seems to know what she's doing.
Wisniewski begins walking, gesturing at the two to follow. He leads the way into a series of other rooms — libraries, all of them, packed from floor to ceiling with books, scrolls, globes, maps and other such matters. "As you must know, sir, this archive began with notes collected by Antonio Pigafetta, published in 1598. His family's tomb is in Veneto, you know. A remarkable achievement of scholarship, and led to several other expeditions into the Congo. Henry Stanley, Sir Wade Jermyn, and other notable explorers made some rather daring trips into the African interior…"
The man is reciting, lecturing, teaching — whether his audience knows these facts already, or even cares, is of no relevance. "'This constant tale of woes and death', as Stanley put it," he finally remarks, arriving at a locked door. "Well. What the Europeans discovered was a civilization — a fallen, lost civilization, mind you — that had predated the then-savage African tribes by thousands of years. In our modern African history, we recognize that early European colonial efforts into the interior of the continent more or less disregarded, if not outright vandalized, any artifacts of African cultural superiority. Advances in mathematics, astronomy, agronomy and other fields that had been made by people of darker skin were, well, inconvenient obstacles in the ideological er, crusades of the Great Powers…"
Wisniewski fits key to lock. The door opens. "Some of the great undiscovered secrets. Things which ought not to see the light of day. They were found there, yes. Allow me, sir, to present to you the Verhaegen room."
Lisa reaches out to touch Nathan's arm lightly. "The cost will be high," she says quietly, looking at him with her white eyes. "Don't hesitate. Do what you must do."
Nathan is sobered. Quietly he says, "I'd hoped never to see things mortal men should not see, ever again. I guess this world doesn't allow us such luxuries." He swallows, and turns to follow Wisniewski.
DeGroot regains consciousness. Things are foggy, and over the next several seconds the pieces of his mind struggle to reassemble themselves. How did he get here? He can't remember.
He's bound, hand and foot. He's on his back, on something cold. It's black. Whatever he's lying on is cold, like stone. His throat burns. What happened?
DeGroot tests his bonds, and finds that not only is he restrained, but the restraints are keeping him pinned down. He's apparently someone's captive, and can't remember how he got here. It occurs to DeGroot that this happens to him far too often. He swallows a few times to get his throat working, and asks, "Anybody there?" It comes out as a shaky croak… less brave than he'd hoped.
"Yes," says a soft voice behind him. There is a rustle of fabric, and a white-robed figure moves into view around him. Long sleeves and a deep hood which hides the man's face… until he reaches up to pull back the hood. It is Nathan Latham.
DeGroot feels a rush of fear, and chokes it back. "A stolen face," he says, "or we'd have died in Kashgar." He pauses. "What do you want?"
From one of the long sleeves, Nathan pulls a wavy-bladed dagger. The tip seems to glitter in the flickering light that comes from behind DeGroot, an orange light that casts Nathan's robed shadow on the back wall. "If only it were so," says the voice. "I want… what is best for all of us." Nathan steps beside the slab on which DeGroot is lying, and raises the knife.
"Goodbye, Angelo DeGroot," says Nathan. The shadow on the wall raises its knife in a double-handed grip… and plunges down. DeGroot feels the cold steel pierce his chest, and a terrible pain. As the pilot's vision begins to swim, he sees the knife rise up again, in shaking hands, to stab him in the abdomen. There is a burning sensation in his gut… and then, there is nothing but blackness.
DeGroot's perceptions shift abruptly. His eyes, fixated on the knife entering his chest, blur and water a bit. He's somewhere else. The colors resolve thselves after a second. He's in a bed, in a hotel near the dock. He's in a room. His chest hurts — his heart is pounding, and won't slow down. His skin feels cold and dry and hungry, somehow. He feels like he's shifted through space somehow — teleported. He didn't wake up from a dream, that's for sure.
DeGroot finds himself unable to move for several seconds, and it feels wrong for him to still be alive. Fifty heartbeats later — DeGroot realizes that he's been counting — he leaps out of the bed. The last thing he wants right now is to be flat on his back. He's genuinely afraid — more afraid than he was in the shuttle crash, more afraid than the Johannesburg was overrun. He hates being afraid, and he hates being manipulated. He paces the floor, seething in a fugue between terror and rage.
A few minutes later, DeGroot's phone rings. It is Nathan. "Hello," says the shaky voice. "How are you feeling?"
"Latham," DeGroot snarls. "You got any reason to believe I'm unwell?"
"Like you just did?" DeGroot shouts. "Fuck!" He tightens his grip on the phone handset, and it hurts his hand more than the phone. "What is with you people?"
"Do you know how hypnosis works?" Nathan replies. "It's by bringing the person's dream-self into the conscious world. In our dreams, we can be led to believe almost anything. And magic can make the process even more potent." A brief pause. "But now, your dream-self can't hear any voices from outside. Do you understand?"
"Understand?" DeGroot barks. "Are you fucking kidding me? Of course I don't understand!" He puts his hand to his chest, making sure it's still in one piece. "Stay out of my head, and I'll keep my fist out of your face!" The pilot slams the phone down, hurting his wrist. He curses again, shakes his hand angrily, and looks for his clothes. Someone in this town is selling a bottle of whiskey with my name on it.
Nathan finds Jamie in a crowded, anonymous shopping mall in Rome. The food court is brightly lit and banal, and the teeming throngs of Italy are facelessly jabbering at each other. "There's something I want you to read," Nathan says. He slides an open book across a table for Jamie to inspect, then stands and points to a particular section of the text.
Jamie looks up at Nathan. She smiles, and stands, "Like the new blouse?" She smiles, and turns for him, in a white button up blouse. She sits down, no matter what he says, and reads the indicated text.
The text looks familiar. And Jamie recognizes it after a moment. It looks like part of the Ta'ge manuscripts — the text has been burned into Jamie's memory ever since that night. And it's enthralling enough to read that she doesn't notice quite quickly enough when Nathan steps behind her to run a sharp knife across her throat.
Jamie's nerves are stung for combat, and so as she feels the blade touch her throat, she reaches down automatically, fo rthe sidearm she has. SHe feels the blade cut into her throat as Nathan runs the knife across her throat, she is already standing and turning, drips of red ichor drips across her gus and she tries to bring it to bear, the metal chair tumbling out from under her as she falls to the gound, her life cut from her body.
Without interruption, Jamie finds herself lying in bed. She's in her hotel room. Her heart is pounding and she feels like she's choking on something. Gorge is rising in her throat.
Jamie shutters, she grabs the sheets as she feels her reaction. She looks, wild-eyes around her room, tugging and stretching her sheets, as she fights off her demons, both Nathan and … others…
In the midst of all this, Jamie's phone rings. As with DeGroot, Nathan's first words are, "How are you feeling?"
Jamie doesn't answer immediately, the black smoke, as nefore, starts to steam off. Oddly, it seems the phone is what grounds teh demon back down into reality, and as she answers on the third ring, only a brief overtone of death covers her voice as she answers, with aboslute certaintyl, "I've had worse."
"I'm glad to hear it," comes Nathan's voice. "On the bright side, it'll be several months before anyone will be able to do anything like that to you again. Which is the point, of course."
Jamie gets herself slightly calmed, but the death, dark overtones in her voice are replaced by a slight bit of panic, "Wh… What did you do…" As she comes to a bit more rapidly, remembering why she was in the throws…
"It might be easier if you don't know… oh hell with it, I've probably told you too much already," replies Nathan. "I've killed your dream-self. The part of your mind that would otherwise go wandering when you sleep, and come back with god alone knows what. Like Ling's did."
"My dreams…" She pauses. Perhaps that's why she's not quite as shaken. "I suppose that's… Good?" She's still pretty shaken up, and doesn't quite understand. There's so many things inside of her that are dangeroud now…"
"There's much worse than dying that can happen to your dream-self," says Nathan. "So… it's not so much good as less worse."
Jamie's hand lowers with the phone, her finger on the hang up switch. She falls back into bed.
Latham might feel better, or worse, if he knew that Jamie's dream-self dwelt not in the staid shallows of Earth's dreamlands, but walked instead under the mighty shadow of Aldebaran. It has always been so ever since the mortal called Jamie Solak was consumed by the creature which came for her — a creature who shares with her a kinship in the higher spatial dimensions, another alien Jamie from a far-off world. Imprinted upon it was her mind and her whole self, and given to it was the gift of assuming her form. But its dream-self once strode among the vistas of another world and stood amidst the ultraviolet ambience of the Gardens of Honath-Lit. And there it will walk again in time, when this puppet called Jamie Solak perishes from the earth.
Nathan hangs up. He turns to look at Lisa Lazarus, who has been helping to supervise the rituals. She smiles, hesitantly.
"Listen, Nathan. You're going to forget this, but I need to tell you. You see—"
There's a brief moment of disorientation. And Nathan Latham sees a strange robed man plunge a knife into his heart. He lets out a long, final sigh of surprise.
The team interviews Carlo and learns about Rasael Ward.
After a fitful night of sleep, one in which Nathan didn't come back to the ship, the crew who has chosen to remain onboard as their home awaken to the Rome sunrise. The yellow sun is oranged through the hazy dusty glow as the sunlight filters through the protective dome of the ancient city. Their landing pad is light on activity, but even at this early hour, ships can be seen coming and going periodically.
Jamie starts awake, her fingers finding her rifle, and stroking her fingertips down it's barrel, her eyes dazed for a but. A smokey blackness can almost be seen around her, drifting off of her bed as she wakes up to face the day. After taking care of her daily ablutions , Jamie sets off to the port authority.
Jamie notes Nathan coming the opposite way from her, presumable back to the ship. She takes the opportunity to stare daggers at the man. (No, not literally) As the pass. She does wave him over, her cold stare not leaving his face.
Nathan is visibly cowed, especially because the bags under his
eyes suggest that he too did not sleep well the previous
Jamie's expression changes almost instantly as the man draws near. She looks him over, "That's what you get spending all night out with strange women, yes?" She smiles, and points to the landing authority, "Come on, we have some work to get done. No sleep for the wicked." She says, this last with just a bit of edge to it.
"Right," Nathan says, recovering slightly. "I hope that applies to the bad guys too. I'd hate to think we were at a disadvantage."
Jamie looks back at Nathan, "Are you sure we're the good guys?" She asks, sincerely. She drops the subject however, as they make their way into the port authority station. "Sensei always said, always do your homework before you start breaking eggs." She beams a smile at Nathan, and then steps up to one of the public use terminals. "Or something like that. He was hard to understand sometimes."
Jamie looks through the list, "Nathan, can nothing be easy?" she says, without looking away from the screen. No matter. She pulls her PDA out of her coat, and presses it up agains the transfer plate, while pressing a few keys. The information is dumped into her computer. She performs a few other functions, such as checking the weather, and looking for departures, before clicking a few buttons and closing the terminal, "More work." She frowns, and wanders out, with Nathan in tow.
Jamie sighs. Probably the safest place to talk is back near the aircraft. She tows Nathan back there and explains. "When I was away in Lisbon, the buyer of the artifacts that I was ordered to sell was from a company called Selene Greyman Import/Export. She seemed to be assigned to follow us. She knew alot about you. More then I knew." Her eyes shift and look over Nathan.
Nathan grimaces. "I'd guess whoever's pulling the strings knows a lot about all of us." He flexes his fingers. "DeGroot and I did a little poking into Selene-Grayman before we left for China. They looked at least as legit as Starkweather." He half-smiles at his little joke. "Under the circumstances, I think that must mean either they're really good at burying the bodies, or that someone else is pulling their strings. Whoever's after us does seem to be good at that."
"If you attract the best competition, then you must be doing something right, yes?" She smirks, "So." She pulls out her PDA, and points to the list, "She's probably on one of these. How do we find her. Only thing I got is that she's Nazzadi." She holds up her PDA, and shows Nathan, "Here's what she looks like. At least, when I last saw her."
"Huh. Never seen her before," Nathan remarks. "I bet she learned about me, and the rest of us, from our traitor, whoever they are." He rubs his chin. "Not much to go on, I'm afraid. If we took it to the NEG I bet they could do a face search, but well."
Jamie inhales sharply as the NEG is mentioned. "No." She says, flatly. She's not even kidding. "Have you ever met the OIS?" SHe seeths through her teeth. Is this a threat? She's certainyl not joking. "We need to find this corpse…" She sighs, "I mean person." She grips her nose between her fingers.
Jamie stares at the picture for a few more moments. "Wait… Maybe we don't have to know who she is…" She points to the gentleman who was with him. "Surely we have access to our own company records. You think we can find him? Maybe convince him to reveal her identity. Especially if she's some sort of spy." She gestures to Nathan.
Nathan cracks his knuckles. "Okay, now we're getting somewhere. I come in pieces, take me to your terminal."
It doesn't take long. Nathan writes a short script to extract biographical data from the company database, then run the attached photos against a transform of Jamie's amateur photography, looking for high-probability matches. It's faster and less error-prone than manually staring at one photo after another, and it brings up a match. A man named Carlo Colonessi, living and working right here in Rome.
Jamie looks at Nathan, "So the question remains, I suppose. Is it a better idea to go and have an informal chat with our friend. Or might we have more leverage if we go through the company. Starkweather would probably be interested in any moles that are burried in their company, or that they have regular contact with…" She thinks, "It's not like we don't have … information…"
"Well, you weren't just acting as a seller's agent when you made a point of snapping a pic of the buyer, I assume," Nathan says. "I think if we went to the company, they'd ask questions about why you did that."
Jamie nods, "Plus we probably don't want too many people knowing, lest word get out, yes? I suppose we have a lunch date, then." She smiles, "I'll get to wear my dress again."
Jamie taps her lips, "I liked that Cafe…" She smiles, and moves to a terminal, typing out a sort message to Mr. Colonessi. "We're in town, let's grab a bite and talk: Cordoba Restaurant, 34 Fezi Say 1:00?"
It doesn't take long for a reply to come back. "Busy at that time. Perhaps you can come visit me in my office."
Jamie taps out a quick reply, "That will have to do." She looks to Nathan, "I guess we're visiting corporate."
"So much for the dress then, I suppose," Nathan replies, smiling. "Unless it counts as business casual."
Jamie smirks, "It's better then what I usually wear when we're on the job, right?"
The pair quickly make their way to Starkweather Rome, or at least, one of our leased offices. A quick flash of their ID gets them into what looks to be a typical office building. Pretty non descript, full of eager mena nd women all pushing data around, as one might a factory job with no heavy lifting. A brief look at the directory, and some directions from a secretary land Jamie and Nathan outside of Mr. Colonessi's office. Jamie knocks, "Hello?"
The man inside is exactly who Jamie expected him to be. He's smiling, but it's a lie. Something else sits very near, lurking behind the smile, just waiting for the office door to close before it reveals itself.
Jamie and Nathan walk in… Jamie is wary, but when walking into a trap, at least it's good to know that it's a trap.
Once the door closes, the man looks at his watch briefly, then laces his fingers together and rests his hands on the desk. He looks from Nathan to Jamie. The smile vanishes like magic. A look of deadly seriousness springs onto his face, having waited until this very moment. "Explain yourselves," he says coldly.
Jamie's face also gets serious. She remains standing, and steps to the other side of his desk, "I'm assuming you aren't stupid. We need information on one of your buyers. It's vitally important to the company." She looks him in the eye, "Also, you are probably in danger you are not aware of." She adds, as if this isn't really her main concern.
Carlo blinks. He looks to be considering this carefully. He reaches into his desk and withdraws a small, elegant-looking pistol. And he points it at Jamie. "Really?" he asks. "I'm in danger?"
Jamie shrugs, "If you think that a gun is the answer to anything that can threaten you, then yes, you are probably in more danger than I originally thought." She looks at the man, "In any case, why shouldn't you help us. We're all on the same side, yes?"
"Help you what? Follow me around? That was none of your business. I never go there except for one client," Carlo snaps.
Nathan went pale when the gun came out. It's not pointed at him, but that's hardly a consolation. He's currently attempting to be as motionless and unthreatening as possible. How did I get myself into this mess, anyway? he asks himself. Why couldn't I just have stayed home?
Jamie visibly relaxes. She isn't out of the woods yet, but if this is all he's worried about, then this might go smoother than she thought. "If all you want is me out of your life, just tell me who the client is, and who you think the client works for." She looks down at the gun, "If you want to protect yourself and possibly get out of danger, I'll be more then happy to help you with that, too."
"Why would I do that?" Carlo demands flatly.
As Nathan watches this exchange, a thought surfaces from the panic: Jamie doesn't look scared. There's a gun pointing at her, and she doesn't look scared. And he remembers the shuttle, and how Jamie mysteriously stopped breathing for almost an hour. Suddenly the gun doesn't seem like the most frightening thing in the room anymore.
"You want proof? You want to know what's happening? Let's go to the lab and have your bloodwork done. It comes back clean, I'll leave, and you can run off and tell your client that we've been asking after. You know, if you haven't already. If it doesn't, you'll at least begin to believe me?" Jamie proffers.
"Blood work?" This seems to have snapped Carlo out of his initial assumptions. The gun wavers. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Jamie gives Carlo a look, "Even if I tell you, are you going to believe me? I think it's pretty clear what I'm implying, but you're the one with a gun here."
"It's not clear at all, you psychopath." Carlo scowls. "I have no idea what the hell you are trying to imply."
Jamie snarls back, "I think you're being poisoned or drugged in some way, capiche?" She looks down at the gun, "Now, we going to get you checked out?"
Carlo lets out a long sigh. "Fine." The gun goes away. "And after this I'll be speaking with your management."
The trio go down to one of the onsite blood labs that Starweather, like most companies, keep on hand for all sorts of reasons. Cooperative is a relative term, and Jamie talks to one of the lab techs, asking them to keep a close eye out for antibodies to things that are unknown or rare, and then any traces of poison or other drugs in his system. Then it is only time to await the results.
The report comes back. Carlo is the only recipient. He scans through the report on his PCPU, eyes stony and blank. Finally he extends it for inspection.
The report summarizes a few positive findings. Carlo has antibodies in his system that don't match the profile of Rome's citizens. Closer inspection reveals that his cells show some sign of infection. Viral DNA has overwritten some of Carlo's cells.
The net effect is that some of Carlo's cells have been repurposed to produce a drug, apparently triggered by something. What that drug could be is not at all clear for now.
Jamie looks at Carlo, "So? You at least want to hear me out now?" She asks Carlo, almost fearing the response.
"Her name is Rasael," Carlo says quietly. "Rasael Ward. She's an employee of Selene Greyman. She's the only possible source."
Jamie looks at Carlo, and shrugs, "I would have that checked out as soon as possible. At a hospital or something." And then the idea springs into her head. Kill him. Jamie looks down at the man. He's only a liability, right? I mean, He's poisoned. If you had a toenail that was rotten, you'd have it removed, right? It's no different. She looks at him, impassively, "Any other info you have would be helpful, even if you suspect it to be false." She twitches a bit.
"We do regular business together," Carlo says quietly. "How badly do you want to tip her off?" Somehow he seems to have guessed Jamie's thought.
Jamie looks at Carlo, trying to imitate that cold stare he attempted to adopt when he pulld the gun on her. "I actually suspect that there is nothing I can do now to prevent that. If you see her, she'll know for sure. I am convinced of that much, at least." You are of no more use, and your contiued existance is only liability. \No. We cannot.\ What is one less human. \One less Human.\
"I agree. Even if you don't get treated, it's not easy to hide the fact that you know something you didn't know before," says Nathan. It occurs to the archaeologist that Carlo might be better at that than he himself is, but he presses on: "What do you think we should do?"
"I don't know what you were doing before," the man retorts testily.
"Just digging stuff up for you to sell, it seems." She taps the screen of the PCPU a few times, "If you want any further help I'm going to need a copy of these results." She says, as she is sending the information to her own device. "Or do you honestly think you'll be left alive after she has no further use for you?" She hands the PCPU back, "Nathan, I'm not sure what else we have to do here…" And she starts to leave.
Nathan glances at Jamie's retreating back, and sighs. "If you must know, Carlo… the reason we're talking to you has to do with an attempt on our own lives. Jamie's right — you're in real danger once this Rasael suspects you've caught on."
Carlo just smiles.
First thing's first. She sends the bio report off the her contact for her rea job with a short note explaining that this was the seller of the good, and that the buyer is dangerous. And maybe this would help.
Jamie looks at Nathan. "Well, we have a name, and a copany. Plus, how many labs do you think could engineer something like this?" She says, bouncing the ideas popping through her head off of Nathan as they make their way, by default, back to the shuttle. "Time to find out more about her, yes?" She grins.
"Could be dangerous," Nathan says. "If her or her friends catch us, I don't think they'll stop at drawing the gun." He looks into the sky. "Of course, it's dangerous if we don't, too."
Jamie looks at Nathan, "If they wanted us dead, we would be dead. They must want something from us, as well." She ponders her next move.
The team raids a cult hive in Rome while following clues.*
DeGroot leaves the hotel and catches a cab to the Starkweather docks. After Latham's little 'experiment', he's been having trouble sleeping, and digging into the sabotage problem is at least something he can do to aid his own fate.
He makes his way to the Moore's wardroom with a PCPU and a pile of empty data disks. Prior to the crash, all the survey data was streaming into the archaeologist's computers so they could find the dig site; but that same data may have captured an image of the attackers.
Poring over camera data seems to be part of DeGroot's usual routine, for everything from counterinsurgency to finding nests of Migou in sattelite data. The data wasn't made for surveillance purposes, so it takes longer than usual; but that's not a bad thing. Sleeping or idly sitting by is the last thing he wants to do right now.
The data DeGroot wants isn't on the Moore's system. But he can easily tell why. The video stream was chunking itself behind the scenes; the shuttle's feed wasn't absolutely real-time. The last several seconds will be on the shuttle's unreliable main computer.
The N.E.G. has been doing a forensic analysis of the shuttle — something Starkweather couldn't exactly refuse them. Checking, DeGroot finds out that the quantogram backups of the shuttle's computer are privately available in Rome's N.E.G. nexus. All he needs to do is sign on with his Starkweather credentials and start the download.
DeGroot stares at the screen for a moment. Something about this feels wrong. The NEG is unlikely to cause trouble here, but low levels of government beauracracy are notoriously open to infiltration… he waves through a message to Solak, Latham, and Lisa. Better to have them around if anything goes wrong. While waiting for them to arrive, he heads down to the weapons locker. Someone stole those grenades. It can't hurt to have a look around.
Jamie is hanging around the ship, musing over the results of her foray into forensic investication. She reaches out, noting DeGroot's note on her PCPU. Under her breath she curses teh NEG, but sits up and head over to where DeGroot is doing his examination.
A quick inventory reveals only that the two grenades are missing. Every other piece of gear is accounted for, down to the last sliver in the rifle magazines. DeGroot shakes his head. They could have hacked the manifest, too. Maybe I should keep these things on paper from now on… His thoughts are interrupted by the ship's announcement of the others' arrival.
With Jamie watching, DeGroot keys in his credentials. The N.E.G. city computer system acknowledges him, talking to the local echo of Starkweather's authorization services. He pages through "recent activity", finding the shuttle's computer image. And he starts the download, with little fanfare.
Jamie glances over at DeGroot, "Just remember who you're getting this from. We have no evidence that the NEG was involved, but at the same time…" Her eyes shift around, "At least, I'm pretty sure they don't much like us."
"Our problems are internal," DeGroot replies. "To the NEG we're just another pack of miscreant flyboys."
DeGroot folds his arms as he ponders. "Gotta wonder about that, though. The delivery you made… to Selene Greyman, was it? And the guy who authorized the sale. It would be nice and neat if it turns out to be the same people who tried to get us killed."
Jamie glances at DeGroot, "Things are never simple."
DeGroot doesn't reply. The computer soon chimes, and the distorted, chunky footage of the shuttle's cameras pops up on screen. The moments before the crash, frozen and deadpan. DeGroot shudders. "This is going to be worse than a trip to the dentist. Here, give me a hand. Four eyes are better than two."
The job now involves loading the backup into the Moore's own computer, then salvaging whatever footage can be pulled from its depths.
It's fortunate that DeGroot was one of the first people to view the footage. It cuts down on the time required to recognize a face. What he finds are three men in desert fatigues appearing out of the sand, leveling two rocket launchers in the direction of the shuttle. The third is operating a PCPU or other sort of computing device — probably to detonate the grenades in the shuttle. Just before the first missile fires, one of the men gives a distinctive "bang bang" gesture with his thumb and forefinger, grinning widely. DeGroot recognizes him immediately. He hasn't seen that in awhile.
"Oh, Hell," DeGroot groans. "Matt Spence." He hauls himself up from the terminal. "Guy who was on the other side in another bullshit war. I cost him a payday." He paces the narrow aisle down the center of the room "The list of people who want payback out of me is getting way too long."
Jamie blinks and looks over at DeGroot. "So, the question remains… is this freelance revenge, or bankrolled…"
DeGroot stops suddenly and grabs the terminal, pointing at the man with the PCPU. "But you still couldn't hit me in a standup fight, you trigger happy dipshit. You had to put a bomb in the hold. Which means it's still an inside job, at least in part. And that means it's bankrolled."
"We've got another lead, though," notes Latham. "Albeit a harder one to follow. It's not like he works for Starkweather himself."
Jamie looks at DeGroot, "You probably know better than I, but, are we 100% sure someone inside our organization had to plant the bomb?" She thinks for a second, "Perhaps someone from the outside broke in at some point?"
Lisa Lazarus has been accompanying Nathan since the Moore landed. Now, with her expressionless white stare, she fixes DeGroot in her gaze. "The Moon and Sixpence," she says. "Is it supposed to be funny?"
DeGroot just gives a dumb look for a few seconds. "Oh… Selene… the moon." He shrugs. "They're just names. It would be very convenient if we found out that Selene-Greyman paid for the hit. Anyway, I'm sure we can get a an arrest warrant for Spence. He had no more right to be out in the Uygur than we did."
"It's a book. He gave it to you," Lisa says quietly. "I didn't catch who, you were all thinking when you got off the ship."
"A book?" DeGroot looks at Latham and Solak, but they don't seem to know more than he does. "Miss Lazarus, I apologize for being slow on the uptake, but you're confusing me."
The girl sighs. "It's a book," she explains with painful patience. "The Moon and Sixpence. Someone was thinking about it when they disembarked, when you all landed in Rome and got off together. They thought it was the funniest thing in the world."
Nathan glances around at the others. He'd heard that Xenomixes all had para-psychic powers of some sort; it's clear, at lesat in part, how some of Lazarus' heritage manifested itself. "Never heard of the book before. But I have a feeling we all need to know more about it, now."
Jamie blinks, "I, for one, would be more insterested in finding out who was thinking this." She looks at Lisa.
DeGroot is suddenly quite alert. "I get it. The only reason anyone would have to think of that, was if they knew about both Selene-Greyman and Spence… and they knew his alias is Sixpence. So that's our mole." He waves at the terminal and brings up a crew roster. "Any chance you know the face?"
Lisa shakes her head. "But this should be easy, right? Who gave you a book? He gave it to you."
"What if it was just an email?" DeGroot asks. "That would have gone through ship, right?"
Jamie nods at DeGroot, "Plus the ship should be able to be coerced into finding out who did it."
Jamie pulls out her PCPU, and starts to check through her things.
It doesn't take long. DeGroot finds three traces. First and most recently on the shuttle. Someone transmitted an electronic copy of the text to the shuttle's computer system. The text itself is long gone, dumped when the computer burned itself out, but the record remains. The transmission is recorded likewise on the Moore's own system. The saboteur wasn't quick-thinking enough to erase this, or perhaps simply not capable of breaking past the computer's own defenses to do so.
And once the second trace is found, the third turns up logically enough. The assistant called Pierce, a British national, sent the text to the shuttle. And he downloaded it himself remotely, a few minutes after receiving a series of unassuming photographs by email from an outside email address.
"Photographs indeed," says Nathan. "There's an ancient trick called steganography. Most picture encoding formats have a few loose bits, and you can put your own data in them and the picture looks exactly the same, or close enough." He rubs his chin. "Which leaves you two problems: finding the message bytes, and presumably decrypting the message, because I assume our adversaries aren't morons."
Jamie looks at Nathan, "Or." She says, in a dark voice, as if repeating an inner command, "We could always just attack the wetware…"
"As much as I try not to take it personally," DeGroot says evenly, "I say that I like that plan. It's been a bad week. I'm in the mood to rough someone up."
"Besides, maybe we can all have a laugh when someone threatens me with a pistol again." Jamie comments.
"Modern encryption techniques are next to impossible to crack without the key," Nathan acknowledges. "Rubber-hose cryptanalysis is as old as the field itself." He grins feebly at Jamie. "Hah, yeah, that was such a good joke the first time," he says, his voice warbling.
"Do I understand that you intend to employ physical violence against this man Pierce?" asks Lisa, deadpan.
DeGroot looks carefully at Lisa. So… she can read minds? Suddenly that doesn't sound like a gift. "We're not always the best people. But… no. Tempting as it is to take it out on this guy, the greater good is served by a clean capture. Now… do you believe me?"
"No. I think you're going to beat him up, probably shoot him," she replies. "Either way, enjoy yourselves. I'll be doing some reading."
Jamie shrugs, "I'd like to avoid having to shoot him."
DeGroot frowns. He knows somewhere inside that he's just failed a test he didn't see coming. "We can't wait too long to tell Armitage and the NEG. So whatever we're going to do, we have to do it now. Let's make our choice and get it over with."
Lisa waves and heads off, apparently intending to make good on her announcement.
DeGroot taps out an inquiry on the terminal. "Where's Pierce? Where did he tell Starkweather he'd be staying while ashore?
There's a forwarding address in Starkweather's records. It looks like he will be staying at an apartment complex in the lower depths of the Rome arcology for the duration of the stay. The address is out of the way, and disreputable. Odd, since DeGroot's few memories of talking to the man placed him in the middle or upper class of British society — an affectation he adopted, presumably.
DeGroot, Latham, and Solak leave Lisa behind on the ship. The three take lightweight body armor, sidearms, and imaging goggles; all the kind of thing that can be hidden easily on the streets of Rome. DeGroot composes an email with their findings and instructs both the ship and his hotel computer to send it to Armitage in exactly 24 hours.
Jamie nudges DeGroot. "You know… This isn't the sort of place that our 'friend' Pierce is likely to stay." She looks at the building. "Definately not. There's probably… something else. Or possibly someone else here."
The three approach cautiously, from different directions, and meet in the lobby. DeGroot asks a few of the neighbors if they've seen Pierce lately. He tells part of the truth; that he's the pilot of Pierce's ship, and that Starkweather is checking up on everyone since the accident. He leaves interrogration of the building network to Solak, and signs of sorcerous trouble to Latham. After twenty minutes of discreet inquiries, the three meet to compare notes in the fire stairwell, one floor down from Pierce's alleged address.
"Just one thing bothers me," Nathan says. "I've got a bad feeling about this place. For some reason, I just don't want to be here. And it has nothing to do with what we have in mind to do here — I wouldn't want to be here even if we were just coming over to watch the game."
"So, it's out of character to be here, Latham doesn't like the surroundings. I vote bail. This isn't high enough stakes yet for any sort of heroics." Jamie looks at DeGroot. "We will get this asshole. But this might not be the time or place."
In the distance, DeGroot hears a noise. People moving. He hears the distinctive noise of bolts being drawn on guns.
DeGroot's eyes widen suddenly. "Out. Now. Quietly." He leads the way down the stairs.
The apartment building is eight stories high, built from the reinforced successors to steel and wood that made construction convenient in the mid-21st century. Though nowhere near as resilient or intelligent as the computer-embedded organic-technological emulatives that modern arcology buildings feature, it's tougher than the old plaster and wood of the last century.
Pierce's forwarding address placed him on the fifth floor. Aside from this, every floor appears to follow a uniform plan: rooms in the same places, utility closets and fiber-optic trunks taking the same directions. The idea was to neatly stack a building together, then graft it in place.
The staircases are stovepipe affairs,
The stairwells are open, giving limited visibility from the ground to the top. DeGroot, Solak and Latham all clatter their way down three floors' worth of staircases. All the while they can hear activity behind the doors they pass.
With Jamie ready to shoot anything that should try to come through, DeGroot tries a trick. Drawing his gun, he briefly confirms the short-range wireless connection to his Panoptics. The radio isn't powerful enough to give away the trio's position. But it does mean he can 'look down the barrel' around corners, using the gun's own miniature camera.
The door opens just a crack. DeGroot edges the barrel into the gap. But as he opens it further, just enough to wedge the gun through to get a good view, there's a bouncing noise near his feet. Something hit the door, something with a rubbery texture. Something was thrown from outside the stairwell.
Nathan looks down, automatically attracted by the noise. He sees a tiny disc-shaped object with rubber around its edges, and a strange blinking indicator on the tip. Vents are visible on the dorsal side.
The grenade bursts. A multicolored mist blossoms into the air around it. This same stuff has sometimes been seen on television before, very briefly. It's the police paralysis gas used by law enforcement and the FSB to quell large-scale rioting. It need not be breathed; it works its way right through the skin, leaving the victim motionless for minutes. The two slump down in the stairwell. Only Nathan finds himself still capable of moving, as he dashed just outside of the radius of the stuff.
Nathan attains the second floor landing. He listens for a precious moment, managing to convince himself that he hasn't heard anything behind the door.
Yanking the door open, he finds a hallway. At the far end of it, two gunmen are stationed. They're ready, but still distant.
The men are in civilian attire, using the sleek black submachine guns typical of military or paramilitary forces. They're swarthy of face and dark of hair, with a menacing air — Nathan would guess North African. Neither wear anything that looks like a unit insignia or flag of any kind.
"Shit!" yells Nathan, as the two men open fire. He raises his own gun in slightly shaking hands and takes a pot-shot back at them, dropping to a crouch as he looks frantically for an exit. Back the way he came? No, these are the best odds he's likely to get today.
The gunmen at the other end of the hall react in an orderly fashion. One starts to sprint toward Nathan's position, while the other braces his weapon against the wall and starts shooting. Neither are able to score a hit on the compact mechanic.
Latham bursts into one of the unlocked apartments —
either side should have a fire escape, but he was conscientious
enough to think to go for the one facing the street.
The room inside is filthy beyond conception, a degraded
dive into the repulsive recesses of backward evolution.
Food, flesh, and stranger things lie untended in every
corner. Signs and sigils of occult significance have
faded into the wood of the walls, partially masked
Latham thinks for a moment that he's stepped over, or onto, human remains as he dashes for the window. He doesn't want to think about it. Behind him, the two gunmen are dashing for his position.
Gunfire follows the mechanic out the window. His pistol is stowed safely inside his SentryTech garb. The skin of his hands burns as he slides at maximum speed down the fire escape ladder, and he lands on his back as he loses control and falls. But then he's up, and running, out into the infinite urban abysses of Rome.
The FSB rescues prisoners. Armitage is outed.
Solak and DeGroot watch through frozen eyes as armed figures in environment suits and gas masks pile through the stairwell door, guns out and at the ready. Two men enter first, covering the others. These aren't just cultists, they're a professional paramilitary force.
The paralysis gas in the air begins to dissipate. Two of the cultists produce handcuffs and snap them closed around the wrists and ankles of their captives. DeGroot and Solak are hauled to their feet and mercilessly manhandled up the stairs, still frozen in place. They're shoved into one of the apartments, then into a filthy closet in the tiny bedroom. Everything is pitch dark.
Jamie strugles against the gas taking her movement. Testing her arms, her legs, and finally her voice. Her eyes widen with panic as she realises she has no control, her brain sends futile signals up and down her spine, struggling fiercely against the chemical resistance. She gulps, as she feels another choice try and make itself known.
DeGroot reviews the events of the last few minutes in his head. He'd expected, at worst, crazies or gang-bangers… not a trained professional response. The lack of foresight may have gotten him killed, and probably Latham as well. It doesn't occur to him to worry about Solak. Now that the shooting is over and he's in the dark and unable to move, he has a few minutes to understand how bad the situation is… and to fight down a rising panic.
The gas has begun to wear off. The two captives feel their mobility start to return, along with a deep sense of nausea — if not from panic at their current condition, then from the aftereffects of the gas.
DeGroot tests his bonds and realizes that he's not going anywhere. His sidearm is gone, but their captors didn't bother to take the other gear — armor, PCPU, or goggles. Except he doesn't have hands to use them.
It might be the panic, it might be a reaction, or maybe it is tactical advantage, but Jamie begins to shift, her Symbiote taking control. Her libs curl and tear themselves into a new shape, a sense of dread and death filling the closet… Liek one might feel from a full moon over a cemetary. While note immediately helpful, she speaks in a low tone. "Let's not open the door this time, yet." She begins to shift her position, as much as possible.
During her moving about, Jamie discovers something. The closet seems to be bigger than she thinks it ought to be. Perhaps it extends back into another room, or a gap between rooms, and there's a curious sense of open space behind her.
Outside in the apartment, the faint noise of human voices suggest something is happening.
Jamie whispers low to DeGroot, "There's space behind us… see if you can get over there, I'll cover teh door." Her voice still has the spooky, low, hollow quality, and she's barking commands more than making requests.
DeGroot will take anything over sitting still, waiting to die, and quietly tries to do as Solak instructs.
DeGroot finds himself rolling over something quite bumpy and rough, with a peculiar texture to it. Another body? But there's no smell of death here. He discovers the back wall of the closet with a quiet thump and comes to a stop.
"That's it," he whispers. "As far as it goes."
Outside, a conversation is happening. The first voice the captives recognize is Pierce; his highborne English accent has fallen away, with the rough vernacular of Britain's working class shouting at someone else. "didn't know they'd come here!" he's saying.
There's another voice. Urbane, cultured, a hint of accent whose origin is unclear. "Pierce, Pierce, Pierce, my good man. My dear friend. You really are an idiot. The moment you'd discovered the survival of those two, you should have made other arrangements."
DeGroot freezes. The voice obviously belongs to someone in charge. He doesn't expect to recognize it, but he doubts he'll ever forget it.
Pierce protests. "They shouldn't have been able to figure it out! The plan was perfect!" The other voice cuts him off: "The plan was well-designed, Pierce. It was poorly executed. Perfection doesn't enter into any struggle with an intelligent enemy."
The other man continues. "Now the N.E.G. is no doubt en route. One of them got away. Lucky little blighter will probably call in the cavalry. Since I have no wish to undergo interrogation, I'll be using our other arrangements." There's a pause. "Oh, and Pierce. Have you anything to say in your defense?"
Pierce's voice raises to a shout. "Yes, I—" It's cut off without preamble by a brief hail of gunfire. Something hard hits the door of the closet.
"That was indefensible. Fool to the last," sneers the other voice. "Throw him in with the captives. Any stragglers are to use them as hostages if the N.E.G. arrives. We're going."
Jamie hears them move to open the door, and she attempts to scoot to the back with DeGroot. What DeGroot thinks of this she doesn't care, right now she'd rather avoid detection.
It's hard to avoid notice when one is in a closet, but the room outside is quite dark as well. Two silhouettes, backed by a third, throw what must be whatever's left of Pierce roughly into the closet. During the brief flash of vision, both Jamie and DeGroot can make out the automatic weapons the men carry. Then all is dark again.
Jamie listens. Outside, there's a click, what must be the apartment's own door being shut by the gunmen.
The body lays sprawled across both surviving captives. And beneath them, Jamie and DeGroot feel movement. Whatever they're resting on inside this closet is shifting itself about.
Jamie starts as she feels the assumed dead form under her move. She tries to move and stand, at the other end of the closet, the one near the door.
Something snags Jamie's calf. Unable to keep her balance, already precariously held despite the handcuffs around her ankles, she falls.
DeGroot fares a little better. He's able to get himself to his knees, and thinks he can work his way to his feet by using the walls of the closet.
The body of Pierce is moving as well. Both captives can hear something sliding, and feel the still-warm extremities moving across their own bodies on their way to… somewhere. It's not moving as a human would move. It's being pulled.
Jamie screams, a low, metereed howl, and she tries to kick at whatever is grapping her, "DeGroot, it has me…" She calls. And she tries to pull herself up on the wall.
Jamie achieves something akin to a standing position. Although she can't kick with just one foot, a shin works well enough on the way up. On his side, DeGroot feels something pawing at his own leg. It's far too lumpy to be a human hand, and the mutations necessary to produce the feel of so many distinct fingers would be an unpleasant sight — were there any light to see by.
DeGroot doesn't know which part is worse… Jamie's voice, or the implications of what she's saying. All he can think to do is to throw his weight against the closet door, hoping that the flimsy construction of the place will yield under the combined weight of himself, his armor, and paniced adrenaline.
The closet door quickly gives way, pitching DeGroot forward into the apartment. He falls to the floor, one of his eyes inches away from a hypodermic needle laying discarded there.
The rest of the apartment seems cluttered with drug paraphernilia as well. It's filthy, disordered, a den of vice admitting no law of society nor pretention of culture.
Jamie starts as she sees the light pour in from teh open door, her black, almost ethereal looking form exposed now. She hobbles, grasping and dragging herself along the way, trying to get out of the open door and away from that… thing.
Scrambling out, the former captives spare a glance back into the closet. The lump is gone; only the floorboards remain intact. However much of Pierce went into the little closet, only a booted foot severed below the knee remains.
No more than a block away from that apartment complex, Nathan is scrambling for his PCPU to dial the emergency number. He's not sure what the N.E.G. will make of the misadventures of himself and his allies, but DeGroot and Solak have better odds with the cops than they do with their present captors.
The call is taken; the operator's neutral, calming, programmed voice asks Nathan to relax. Using an LAI for such duty is more convenient than relying on a human, who might worry or spread rumors about such calls, after all.
The low droning hum of an
"Wow, that was fast," Nathan says weakly. The adrenaline of his initial panicked flight is starting to wear off, and he almost staggers toward the hover-van.
Inside the transport are two rows of benches, each featuring a seat with safety harnesses for an FSB storm trooper. Most of the seats feature armored troopers, each armed with a rifle, attached to the ship via a harness. At one end of the benches, sitting in lotus on one of the seats, is Lisa Lazarus. She seems engrossed in her PCPU, but waves absently — not even looking up — as Nathan is ushered inside and practically pushed into the chair opposite her.
"Oh. Hi." Nathan says. He's had a lot of shocks today, and he's finding it increasingly difficult to roll with them. "I…" He trails off, feeling awkward trying to talk to Lisa at this point, and eventually decides to put on whatever seatbelts he can figure out and just speak when spoken to.
"I've been reading it, you know," the girl says conversationally. "The Moon and Sixpence. It's interesting. Did you know that the author, Somerset Maugham, was an intelligence operative?"
"Never really read much of twentieth century lit," Nathan admits. "Too late for ancient history, too early for arcanotech." A pause. "That is interesting, though. Wonder if he knew."
"Said he could have stopped the Bolshevik revolution in Russia if he'd had six months more," Lisa says absently. "By the way. You guys were incredibly brave. You probably didn't realize it at the time."
"That's… a nice way of putting it," Nathan says, shifting uncomfortably. "Thank you."
The transport has attained a high altitude — its pilot was scrupulously careful to avoid being in line of sight of the apartment complex. Now it descends with a sickening speed. The floor snaps into sections and seems to retract, opening to reveal the apartment complex below. The occupied seats tip forward, and the FSB's best men slide down a set of cables. They land on the fire escapes, swung and maneuvered into place by expert computer guidance. They shoot through or knock out the windows. Without hesitation they leap inside.
Through the suit cameras and the fiber-optic connections embedded in the cables, the controllers inside the troop transport are able to watch what happens below. Suit cameras, positioning data, and other inputs all feed into a single holographic "fly's eyes" display, projected into a tank near the pilot's station. Nathan can watch everything — the storm troopers as they open fire on the cultists that swarm out of the apartments, the men and women who oppose them, and the rooms through which they advance.
Jamie closes her eyes. Being found by anyone like this would be bad, especially anyone who might rescue her. She focuses, and takes control back from the spectre of shadow, her limbs twisting and turning back into their normal shape, the smell and presence of death no longer emitate from her, and she resumes her normal voice. As she changes back, a thin malyer of sweat is over her body, and she is gasping for breath.
DeGroot has been behind the trigger on an operation like this often enough. He knows that the best way to survive, short of not being there in the first place, is to look harmless and not make sudden moves. "Stay still!" he shouts at Solak. "Look normal!" For his part, DeGroot tries only to roll onto his side, with his face pointed more or less in the direction of the apartment door.
Gunfire can be heard throughout the complex, along with men screaming as bullets, shells and rounds rive away flesh or mortally injure the human machinery of life.
The apartment door is tested carefully, opened — DeGroot can see hints of a gun barrel. One man enters, dressed in FSB armor. He's a cop, raiding this place. "Freeze!" he bellows. After a second's inspection, the two can hear him calling it in on the radio. "Face rec IDs missing Starkweather personnel." Slinging his rifle, he kneels down. "Sir, ma'am, I'm going to escort you out of here—"
Behind him, one of the cultists has come to the doorway. He's armed. He sees the cop.
"Behind you!" DeGroot shouts, eyes wide with shock.
Jamie looks at the cop, and starts to nod. Her eyes glance to the cultist, "Cover!" She yells, trying to roll out of the way, clumsily pushing against to floor to roll herself.
The cop dives for it. The cultist unloads with his gun. The FSB man makes it to the ground, rolling onto his back and grabbing for his own weapon.
Jamie rolls again, yelling loudly, glancing around the room for any weapon that may have been left behind.
The cultist goes down as the FSB stormtrooper returns fire, breathing heavily. "Alright. Sir, ma'am, new plan." He reaches for the thigh pocket of his armor, withdrawing a small pair of cutters. Holding DeGroot still first, then Jamie, he snips through the chain links of the hand cuffs binding their hands. A few seconds more are enough for their ankles.
Jamie looks at DeGroot, "I think we need some of those."
"I hope we don't," DeGroot replies. "Orders, sir?"
Jamie is still patting herself down, checking damage, presumably. The NEG might be useful, but they still get her hair up.
The trooper moves to leave. "Alright, we're going to escort you outta here. Grab that guy's—" This time he's not so lucky. A grenade rolled down the hall detonates at the doorway, sending carnage across the floor of the room. What's left of the man's body is hurled to the ground, near the dead cultist.
And from the closet, both Jamie and DeGroot hear something moving.
Jamie looks to DeGroot, "At least it only seems interested in dead bodies." Her eyes look to the open window. Then to the splattered stormtrooper. She sprints over, and grabs one of the weapons. "We can probably get evac on the roof." She says, nodding to the window.
DeGroot spares only a moment for the dead cop. "Thanks." He takes the remaining gun and heads for the fire escape.
Jamie looks at DeGroot, up. I'll cover." SHe takes a position by the window, trainign the gun on teh doorway.
Arming themselves, the captives open the window — one covering, the other lifting. The fire escape outside is easily attained. Since down leads to a fenced off yard and a N.E.G. troop transport is clearly hovering above the building, 'up' seems indicated.
On the sixth floor, the pair happen to look in the window at the same time one of the cultists is looking out. He has a shotgun. He starts to raise it, a surprised look on his face.
DeGroot fires first. The SMG chatters, sending a hail of bullets at near-point-blank range. The man crumples and falls.
The pair continue to climb. They attain the roof, only to have three searchlights swivel about and converge on their position. "Drop the weapons," comes a voice over the public address speakers.
Jamie very slowly places the gun on the ground, the shows her hands as she stands slowly back up.
DeGroot happily lets the SMG fall and raises his empty hands. He almost grins… but the memory of the dead cop is too fresh in his mind. Along with Pierce, the bloodbath in the cockpit of the Moore, and the sand trap. He simply waits and listens.
A few moments of silence ensue. The transport noses down slightly, and a hatch opens. A steel ladder extends from the open doorway, and both escapees can see a pair of figures appear, gesturing at them to come aboard. One is a man in the FSB uniform, wearing body armor. The other is Lisa Lazarus.
Jamie mutters under her breath about being frisks so heavily upon rescue. She comes into the main cabin, simply nodding an acknowledgement to Lisa as she sits down, "Well, I'd say that went pretty poorly." She states simply. She looks at one of the troopers, "I don't suppose I could get a gun to hold. It would make me feel better."
"Oh thank god, Jamie, you're alive!" calls Nathan's voice from deeper inside the troop carrier, sounding tremendously relieved. "DeGroot? You there too?"
DeGroot comes up the ladder behind Solak. He pretends he didn't hear what she said, but he does hear Latham calling from the back of the transport. He makes his way over to the scholar. "Jesus, Latham. That's twice we've made you save us." DeGroot straps himself into the seat across the aisle. "I don't know what to say… except that it's a bad habit."
"Well, I think we can probably thank Lisa for saving you two, actually," Nathan says. "I'd only just made the call when these guys came to pick me up. I think it was already en route."
"You should thank Dr. Armitage," Lisa explains. "He knows something of what you've been up to. Did you do something to make him suspicious?"
Jamie gratefully takes the pistol, and cradles it in her hands, the barrel is pointing down at the floor. Her shaking hands calm as they wrap calmly around the bistol. Her eyes soften, and she looks up at Lisa. "Have we done anything to not make him suspicious?" She says, her voice calm, cynisism returning.
For a moment, DeGroot looks confused. But in a certain light, their miraculous survival in Kashgar… Solak's errand to Selene-Grayman… and DeGroot's own accusation of Solak, for the shooting in Kiev… He frowns and settles back into his seat. "We're in a dirty business, Armitage included. Trust is a limited resource."
"Mr. DeGroot." It's Armitage's voice, but he's not present. He's on the transport's radio. "Although I disapprove of your methods, I approve of your results. I'll be meeting you at the FSB HQ."
Jamie looks at Nathan, "I wonder if our escapades at Headquarters have raised some questions…" She ponders, "Well, I haven't seen anything eat dead bodies at Headquarters. At least, not yet." She shivers.
"They had things living under the floorboards in that place," DeGroot mutters… He wonders if there's any implications to Armitage's statement, if he's something more than a corporate academic. Almost certainly. "Yes, sir," he states impassively, and speaks no more until spoken to.
The Federal Security Bureau headquarters in Rome is an expansive crystalline pyramid. The troop transport docks with it. As the men detach themselves from their tethers, the Starkweather employees' eyes are drawn to those tethers which were retracted without a trooper attached, and to those seats which remain empty.
Armitage is waiting, along with a night-skinned Nazzadi man wearing a conservatively-cut suit and tie. He has a brief interchange in Italian with the troop transport's commander as he disembarks, and the two shake hands. Then he salutes DeGroot and Jamie. "Congratulations on your success," he says with a smile.
Armitage is less cheerful than the Nazzadi cop. "I've made a deal with the devil," he mutters. "Before they debrief you, you need to hear this. Deserve to hear it." And he steers the foursome off to a side hallway.
"My lads and lasses, this is how things stand." The senior archaeologist rubs the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. "We are working for the Ashcroft Foundation now. This expedition, probably all of Starkweather. Think of this as a friendly acquisition. In reality, someone at my old alma mater has probably taken an interest in what we're digging for and pressured their colleagues and Ashcroft to see to our welfare."
Armitage smiles thinly. "The good news, then. We disrupted a nest of Death's Shadow cultists in Rome — probably their nerve center. We uncovered the conspirator aboard the Moore. Really, I ought to say you lot, because you did the hard work. Quite good, if I say so myself."
Jamie looks at Armitage. "You'll have to escuse me, Doctor, if this doesn't seem like much of a victory right now." She pauses, and pats her chest where her gun is. "But, thank you sir." She bows to Armitage.
"Solak is right, sir," DeGroot continues. "A lot of people died. Their leaders killed Pierce and fled the scene. Our survival in Kashgar, and the encounter here, was only dumb luck. Most of it bad."
"When you've nothing else, Mr. DeGroot, luck will suffice." Armitage stares hard at the pilot. "I'll take what good luck I have."
"This was messier than I like." Solak states.
"I'm alive," Nathan says. "We're all alive. And if the guys who tried to kill us haven't been shut down, at least they're short a lot of their grunts. I think I'll have to agree with Armitage and call that a victory."
DeGroot shrugs. "So will I, then. What do you want us to do?"
"Stay here for a few hours. Get debriefed. Tell them everything — we've nothing to hold back now and we need friends." Armitage lets out a long sigh. "I'll be back by the time you're done."
The debriefing is formal, but friendly enough. Nobody asks anything untoward of the group, and those not being debriefed are allowed to observe those who are.
Armitage returns. "The executive you lot interviewed, the one who'd been seeing Rasael Ward? A thorough sweep of the apartment complex revealed boxes of chemicals. A designer drug whose profile matched up with what you'd found." He seems pleased. "It was a sort of viral infection, causing Carlo's own cells to manufacture a mind-altering drug upon exposure to certain, ah, pheromones."
"Oooh, that's nasty," says Nathan, shuddering as he grasps the implications. "And fits perfectly with the Death's Shadow M.O."
Armitage lets out another sigh, but this one seems less unhappy, more wistful. "I thought I was out of this sort of business. I thought I could make a go of it with real archaeology again, not this skullduggery, all this cloak-and-dagger business."
Jamie looks at Armitage, "How is Carlo now? Is he recovered? Does he still have contact with Rasael?"
Armitage laughs. "Of course not," he replies with a snort. "You should trust Carlo. He's, ah, he's quite good at solving problems like this. He was just taken by surprise at someone who played the game better."
"One moment, sir," asks Nathan. "If, uh, if you don't mind me asking, Dr. Armitage, what did you used to do?"
"Well that's a very good question, Mr. Latham," smiles Armitage. But like many good questions, this one doesn't seem to have much of an answer.
This seems to warm the older man up a bit. He addresses the group now, looking not just at Lisa but at each of the others in turn. "Starkweather Solutions, at the end of the day, is a pragmatic company. Each of you has secrets you'd like to hush up, old stories you'd rather not hear again, training that sets you aside. But the world needs people like us."
Nathan raises an eyebrow, and then sighs slightly himself. That he gets no more answer than that is an answer in and of itself. And, for now, all the answer he needs.
Lisa, who has heretofore remained quiet, stares up at the scientist. "Is your entire company riddled with spies, terrorists and mercenaries?" she asks quietly. Armitage chuckles quietly in response, but also lets this one by. "If so," she continues, "why hire me?"
Jamie looks, "As long as we're all on the right side of it."
"Now come on." Armitage produces a set of tickets from a pocket and extends them. "I've reserved you lot seats at the One World Holographic Orchestra. Performers from around the globe playing in concert. Celebration is in order, wouldn't you say? Time off, all that sort of thing."
The One World orchestra consists of holographic projections of performing musicians from around the world, linked into an audio-visual whole. As this is to be a musical performance, higher fidelity and bandwidth are allotted to the audio connection than the video. This is evident to the audience as they watch the glowing performers take their seats and begin to tune their instruments. While the people periodically flicker or fall out of sync, even the initial humming of the orchestra sounds crystal clear.
Armitage has ensured that his guests are dressed well. Nathan and DeGroot have been fitted for suits which manage to wear well on them no matter how uncomfortable they might feel about the notion. Jamie's dress is tasteful and understated, drawing the eye without seeming to, like a magician's sleight of hand. Lisa, on the other hand, has opted for something from contemporary Nazzadi fashion which leaves one under the impression she's going sunbathing rather than attending a concert. Still, what must be covered is covered.
As the noise of tuning up fades, and the orchestra gets ready to start, DeGroot leans over to Lisa. "They hired you to remind us to be decent human beings. And why we'd want to." He gestures towards the orchestra. "These people do that, too." The pilot settles back into his seat, grateful for a few moments where he can forget his own age, and the age he lives in.
The conductor approaches the podium. The musical LAI comes online, preparing a three-dimensional visualization of the music as it plays that will appear over the heads of the performers. None of them will see it, of course — this is strictly for the audience, and a subtle one at that. The focus is on the music.
And what music! The symphonies and compositions of Ludwig van Beethoven have been acknowledged throughout the world as works of genius. And the role of the conductor is to take that genius and perform his own alchemy upon it, transmuting it through the catalyst of his orchestra into something greater.
What music! The power of it. The beauty. A handful of notes organized into the barest scaffolding of structure, parallelized across a set of analog acoustic instruments. The vibration of Earth's atmosphere, propelled by fingers and lungs through simple mechanical contraptions and to the ears. But the music! A thousand buried instincts are roused by it. Love, jealousy, longing, wistfulness, regret, amazement. Vibration, transmuted into emotion, is present here in this hall.
During the performance, one corner of the orchestra has been glancing about nervously. Their instruments are sometimes curiously muted, as though the signal from their location wasn't holding steady. And during the Ninth Symphony, it happens.
There is a scream — from the holograms, or rather from the people in that far off place. Their images are reflected in perfect fidelity to Rome's audience as they shriek in terror, holding their hands aloft to shield themselves. From above the camera's perspective, masonry and rubble collapse. A block of static quickly replaces an entire eighth of the performance's personnel.
The audience rises to its feet in a muttering panic. A man quickly strides out of the shadows near the projection pit and takes a microphone. "I ah, I want to ask that everyone, ah, everyone calm down and return to your seats. There seems to be some ah, technical difficulty. We will resume this performance as soon as possible…"
Seattle is attacked; Starkweather joins the Ashcroft Foundation.
Voices start to clamor in the audience of the One World Orchestra. The practiced parade-ground rasp of a military man speaking to a crowd immediately cuts in on the sound system. The holographics add a spotlight of sorts to the speaker, who's standing up from the audience and turning to address them now.
"Attention. This performance is now over. Patrons will now exit this establishment in an orderly fashion. Ticket prices will be fully refunded. Under orders of the New Earth Government, you are requested to depart. Transportation will be arranged for you if necessary."
There's a stunned silence, broken by murmuring and whispering from all quarters, but the audience begins slowly to fragment and disintegrate into packs of people, all following the floating exit signs which indicate the doors.
Jamie sighs and stands, her fingers running along the bottong of her dress, smoothing it out over her legs as she gets on her feet. She mumbles, loud enough to be heard by her immediate surroundings, "The NEG, is there anything they can't spoil?" She sighs whistfully. She liked this dress, too.
DeGroot hasn't moved. His military upbringing won't let him slump, but he suddenly feels numb. He wonders where the missing eighth of the orchestra was. He thinks how it must have been in Kiev, and Juneau. Decent human beings, he remembers telling Lisa, less than an hour ago. God, what a bad joke.
It doesn't take much thought to remember the flyer. The section that was hit was from Seattle. Just down the coastline from Juneau.
Jamie turns to Dr Armitage, "Back to the ship, one assumes?"
"Won't be our ship anymore," Armitage mutters. "We'll be contacted any moment now. Find a cafe' that's open and we'll wait for the call."
DeGroot pulls himself out of his chair, still looking down into the orchestra pit where the Seattle section used to be. "Can we win?" he asks simply, flatly, of nobody in particular.
It's a good question for nobody. Nobody seems to have an answer.
Blandot's is open all night. It's not the usual hang-out for patrons of the arts, which makes it ideal for the Starkweather personnel who've come to attend the show. Armitage, Lisa, Nathan, DeGroot and Jamie have coffee and coffeecake and silence in abundance.
As Armitage is ordering, his phone rings.
He spends a minute or so mostly listening, sometimes acknowledging. "Yes, yes, I'll tell them," is the last he says to it. And he sits down.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he says wryly. "We are now a full and cooperating 'partner' of the Ashcroft Foundation. As a part of the Moscone Agreement of 2082 this means that we have also been immediately nationalized as a civilian contractor to the New Earth Government under the 'special provisional needs' clause." He pulls out his PCPU, flicking digital copies of what must be the document in question to each of his fellow mission members.
Jamie pulls out her PCPU as well, as she feels the familiar vibration on her hip. She taps a few buttons, sending it off to her EC contact, thatn slots the thing down in her pocket again, "That's it boys, we're goin to war?" She asks, in a bit of a sing song voice, but not a light tone.
DeGroot keenly studies the document on his own handheld. It's an odd mish-mash of contracts he's seen as a merc and military regulation. He remains expressionless at Solak's remark; the woman has her own ways of dealing with stress… and he'll take bad jokes over monsters any day.
A thought strikes Jamie, "So, Dr. Armitage. What's special about Seattle, vs. some of the other places we've seen that are no longer there?"
"It's the next stop after Juneau," the professor answers hollowly, and takes a drink from his coffee.
"Out of curiosity… if things had gone as before, where was the next stop on our tour?" asks Nathan.
"He means that the Migou flattened Juneau, now they've erased Seattle," DeGroot says. "And when they finish reloading, they'll go for the next one on their list. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Edmonton, Chicago… take your pick." He sips at his coffee. "We were at war already, Solak. But I think a lot of us didn't know it yet."
Jamie looks at DeGroot, "Maybe it's just the difference between being at war, and being IN war…"
Armitage looks carefully at his PCPU during the conversation. "And there we go," he says after a few moments. "Orders to mobilize. We're going back to China. Under the protection of the Dreadnaught."
"That sounds impressive, at least." Jamie quips.
"Do we have an answer to Latham's question," DeGroot asks. "Where we'd go after China… or… do we only find out at each site?"
Jamie says, "Something tells me the NEG isn't going to plan too far ahead. Probably a lot of wasted effort."
Armitage nods. "We already know. Or rather we already know the general details. The specifics of each site are always different, you see. For Kiev we knew a who, for example, but not a where."
"Solak… it isn't in their hands anymore," DeGroot says quietly. "It's in ours. Try to remember that."
Jamie gives DeGroot a look, but thinks to herself. That's a reassuring way to look at it, at least. I just wish I had that optimism.
Jamie's contacts apparently keep up on the news as well. She receives a private message on her own PCPU in a moment. "There's something relevant to the dig sites themselves, we've found. Ask your sorcerer to examine the wards. Good work, we've uncovered the pipeline."
Jamie peers at the PCPU with inward glee. I think I just got a promotion. She keeps herself composed, and looks up at Nathan, trying to make it seem like this was something she just thought of, "Did you examine the wards at the last site we were at, Nathan?"
Nathan shakes his head. "Not closely. I got as far as 'Bad juju, no go in' and decided I didn't really want to know that much more at the moment."
Jamie arches an eyebrow at Nathan, "Might be something to keep in mind…"
"Do we need to go back there?" DeGroot asks. "I imagine that we'll be going to China in a hurry. But we could just fit in a trip to old Carpathia if we needed to."
"We holographed everything, you know," Armitage mentions. "Nathan, if you're curious about it, you can always go review the records."
"Well, Jamie seems to have a hunch," Nathan says, eyeing Jamie curiously. "It can't hurt to have a closer look at the holos while we're rushing our way back to where angels fear to tread."
Nathan studies the holographic recordings, along with his fellow conspirators. He consults, he analyzes, he cross-references, occasionally bringing other holograms to life from different sources and overlaying them on the text he sees.
After a few minutes, he realises that there's something here. But it's going to take awhile.
After three hours, he's sure he's onto something.
And after three days, he… gives up. Coffee and take-out boxes litter the holograph chamber. People have come and gone, and only Lisa sits in one of the observation chairs, calmly reading The Moon and Sixpence. Finally she looks up.
"It's something you've blanked out," she says. "You're suppressing a memory you need for this. That's all I can tell you."
Nathan blinks at Lisa. "I… don't know what you're talking about," he says leadenly; the way he says it, you don't need to be a parapsychic to know that he's lying. Absently, he pulls out the bottle of the pills he's been taking, rolling it around in his hand.
"Stop taking 'em," the girl suggests absently, eyes on the glowing text before her.
"I know," Nathan says glumly. "Have you seen Jamie lately?"
Lisa shakes her head. "Nope. Try her phone."
Nathan punches in Jamie's ID and waits for a response. "Jamie? I've almost made a breakthrough on the problem, but there's something I need to do before I can make any further progress, and I need to talk to you about it."
Jamie's voice comes back, uncertain and wavering, "Me? Why me…?"
"Because you're the one who got the idea for this little project," Nathan says. "And in order to make any further progress, I'll have to go off my medication."
Jamies tone turns to be a bit, harsh, "And again I ask, what does this have to do with me?"
Nathan sighs. "At first, I thought it was just a random hunch," he says. "Now I know just enough to know it's serious business. How did you know? Was it really just a hunch? Women's intuition?" His own tone, normally placid and unassuming, is growing increasingly urgent.
Jamie panics just a bit. She says into the phone, "Call it women's intuition? Or a little bird told me?" Jamie begins to walk to wherever Nathan is. She's going to need to be there sooner or later anyway.
Jamie walks into the room, she glances at Lisa, then looks at Nathan, "Well, I'm here." She states simply and looks expectantly at Nathan.
"I'm sorry to put you on the spot, Jamie," Nathan says, not sounding very sorry. "But this is important to me. My sanity is on the line here. These," he says, holding up the pill bottle, "are what keeps me from remembering the Dreams. The nightmares." He sighs, dropping his hands into his lap and looking at them. "I suppose after the nightmares I've given you, it may seem a little selfish. But that… was something we vitally needed. I just want to know if this will be worth it as well."
Jamie tosses another glance to Lisa before looking at Nathan, her fury … barely contained compared to what you could suspect happens. "You think that your little daydream gave me pause? Do you even understand what it's like keeping something like I have at bay? Do you? I don't get pills to help me. In my world, you're the lucky one." She sighs, and pulls back a bit. As she is yelling, you can see some of the light-collecting black mist pour off of her legs, for jsut a moment. But the light seem to brighten as she regains her composure. "The little birdy is never wrong, Nathan. Do what you will with that information." She turns, and makes to leave.
Nathan looks at the pill bottle one last time. "That's a good enough answer for me," Nathan says, as he carefully places it behind the holo console.
Nathan finds himself falling through the spaces between galaxies. He knows it's a dream, knows it, and yet…
He feels another presence with him. Lisa? Or something else? It feels familiar. And there, somehow 'ahead' of him, a gloating voice begins to speak.
"You have come far, even further than that young man with his army of ghouls and nightgaunts. What have you come to see, I wonder? Will you even recognize it when you do?"
"I don't know," Nathan says. He's never been good at snappy comebacks, and so he takes refuge in the one mode of response that's ever worked out for him: frankness. "I don't even know what I'm looking for in the first place. All I know is that it's important. To me."
"Then by all means search for the unknown. Dance on your strings to a tune you cannot even hear. For I am both piper and puppet master." The voice is gone, though it never had a presence to start with, and somehow Nathan knows that it's simply withdrawn.
Nathan falls and falls and falls for what seems like forever. He does not suffocate, though he does feel a harrowing closeness, a tightening of something about him. The galaxies shift and jump in their places.
Here — a continent. He is both standing on the rocky plateau of some forgotten supercontinent of an Earth-like planet, and hovering in space over that same planet watching events. If this is Earth, then, it must be in the remote past or perhaps an unthinkable future. The water is blue, the clouds are white, but the outline of the continents has shifted dramatically.
With his blurred, fragmented awareness, he somehow sees shapes rising from the water. Octopi with ambulatory limbs, creatures not from earth and denied her blessing. They are the heralds, he knows, and in a moment of horror he knows what they herald.
The priest of the Great Old Ones, He who for a time lay dead in His city. Great Cthulhu has risen from the waves. Like a moving mountain, His vast and flabby bulk emerges and moves, sometimes more flowing than walking across the stone.
And before him, across an area counted in square miles, the clouds of the sky begin to coalesce into the outlines of a human face. And Nathan knows they are speaking to each other, silently. All that is exchanged is thought.
Dreams are not just the random firings of the brain, like the pre-arcanotech scientist thought. Nathan knows this, from his education as a sorcerer. Dreams are, or at least can be, manifestations of real things, though what constitutes 'real' is beyond human imagination at times. This is one of those times. Nathan is horrified, terrified… and yet, the terrible curiosity which led him into the Pyrenees all those years ago is driving him on again. Pushing closer to the behemoths of land and sky, as if to eavesdrop on their conversation.
The colloquy is impossible to put into words. Nathan understands only concepts, ideas, vague notions rather than the specifics. He peers into a deep ocean, seeing the surface and only those fish which flit about at the shallower depths. But he knows that beneath that surface lies unthinkable complexity.
The two forces present here exchange thoughts as equals. One is Cthulhu, without a doubt from Nathan's occult studies. But the other? Humanity. Or some massed avatar of humanity, or some creature representing itself as such. These two entities, then, are exchanging information. Ritual prayers, knowledge of the universe, places and times and beings which quickly threaten to overwhelm the scholar.
Sometimes even Nathan's curiosity has its limits. Besieged by information, by knowledge beyond his ken, Nathan tries to filter the torrent of wisdom. He is not Humanity; he is only one lone human. The gloating voice in the darkness called him a puppet; and he would not have denied that, even if he'd been given the chance to respond. But even a puppet might seek to know who is pulling his strings. Even a puppet might wish to learn the script of the puppet show — but, perhaps, only the section containing his own lines.
The dream pulls back abruptly. Nathan wakes up. Something about that dream — something he missed. Something about the wards themselves.
Nathan comes to a start in his bed. It's the wards.
Most of the knowledge of how to bind, summon and otherwise control otherworldly beings has come from antiquity, its true origins lost. These wards didn't. These were invented, here. They have no scholarly antecedent.
Nathan wipes the sweat from his brow. "I've been using sorcery other people created all my life," he murmurs. "Whoever bound that tomb… came up with it. By themselves. Drawing from… what? What source of power?" He pulls off the bedcovers, begins pacing around the room. "Incredible. Does this mean… the real treasure of that tomb wasn't the armor or the cup at all? The real treasure was those wards — and what they imply?"
The Scooby Gang talks to Field Marshal Vreta.
Orders are coming down. Armitage gathers Nathan, Jamie and Lisa to briefly discuss them.
"Most of our people are undergoing security review," Armitage explains glumly. "Including DeGroot. They're talking about giving us a different crew. I'm pushing back. So are the senior board members."
Jamie looks at Lisa than at Nathan, "It's not like a new crew is going to be any less suseptable to going crazy…"
"Well, you've got to admit that our previous screening procedures let Pierce through," Nathan says. "I don't know what problem they think they have with DeGroot, though I suppose I'm biased in the matter, being as how he's saved my life and all."
Armitage shakes his head. "It's… it's not really that," he explains slowly. "We're supposed to be loyal to our guys. That's the lesson I internalized. You know, if you think about it, loyalty's been at the center of the First Arcanotech War. It's what made mutually hostile nations band together into the NUN, then later the NEG."
Jamie just shakes her head, "It would be nice of people to just band together." She looks back up, "Anyway, how much longer till they're released?"
"That makes sense," Nathan acknowledges. "I guess that's the whole problem with this new… partnership, really. To the Ashcroft Foundation, we aren't their guys. Not yet."
"I don't know," admits Armitage. He pauses. "I don't know." This time, he seems uncertain of more than just a release date. He sits down, covers his face with his hands. And he starts crying.
"Um," says Nathan. He looks around awkwardly, at Jamie, at Lisa, at the wall, and fidgets in his seat. "Is…" he begins, then trails off again, at a loss to help Armitage, or even to know (beyond a very general sense) what the problem even is.
Jamie blinks. ANd then blinks again. For a time, Jamie is uncertain even how to react. She looks at Nathan, and then, rather more pointedly, at Lisa, before turning to Armitage. "Er…"
"We risked our lives and lost people for a cup and a suit of armor. A cup. And we sold it." Armitage is sobbing. "It's useless. There really is no stopping them, is there." In the wake of Seattle's fate, there's no need to elaborate on who 'them' must be.
Jamie looks at Armitage. "Shouldn't you be giving us these lectures? The good of the many? The tyrany of democracy? They knew what they were in for?" She looks harder at Armitage, "You talk like they're all not coming back…"
"No, sir," says Nathan straightening in his seat. "Not the cup, or the armor. The most important thing we found in the Carpathians was information. The wards on the tomb, sir. You know something about such things. Where did those wards come from?"
Armitage remains silent for several seconds. "What about the wards, Latham?" he finally asks, composing himself.
"They have no antecedents, sir," Nathan says. "They appear to have been invented at the Carpathian site. Or at least that's the first place they became known to humans. They're subtly unlike any other sorcery we know."
In whatever mental state he's presently in, this doesn't seem to register with the man. "And?"
"Isn't that exactly the sort of thing this project was supposed to be looking for, sir?" Nathan says patiently. "A new source of knowledge. A new way of working with reality. And we know that it's effective against powers from Outside, because that's what it's doing." He shakes his head. "The Carpathian site alone isn't much of a weapon. But it points to something larger." Nathan scratches his head. "So. I don't know why you wanted to go to China next… but you're definitely onto something."
Lisa looks up. "… We need to talk to someone," she announces abruptly.
Jamie looks, "Someone specific? Or will just anyone do?"
The girl nods. "Field Marshal Vreta."
Continuing the inappropriate sarcasm, Jamie quips, "Oh, yeah. We'll just go walk into his office. I'm sure he won't mind or suspect anything…"
Nathan glares briefly at Jamie, then asks Lisa, "How? I mean, I wouldn't even know how to get on his calendar…"
"Lie," says Armitage at last. "We lie." He fishes in his pocket, pulling a card out of his wallet. "I'll make some calls in the morning."
The group reconvenes in the morning, in the Rome apartment where Armitage is staying. The archaeologist is already on a video-terminal, talking to a woman whose hair is tightly packed into a bun, and whose severe eyes burn through rectangular glasses at him. "I'm really not pleased with this turn of events," she's saying, but Armitage waves a dismissive hand at the screen. "Just make it happen," he says firmly.
About twenty seconds after the call disconnects, another one comes in. It's audio only, at first. "Vreta will speak with you in a moment, Dr. Frost," a strange voice says. "This matter is urgent, and we will be following up with our other teams to verify what you say."
The screen flashes. It's filled with a face that everyone in the room has seen. An old face now, black as night, with fanged teeth and red eyes. Met in a dark alley, one might think he'd been accosted by a vampire of particularly distinguished appearance. The background is a soothing computer-generated blur, meant to masquerade whatever details might be present.
"Dr. Frost," the old Nazzadi says. "I'm surprised to hear from someone of your history, sir. Perhaps you'd be good enough to explain what this is about?"
Armitage nods, then gestures quickly at Nathan, pointing him to the video screen.
Nathan almost panics. It's one thing to talk about his findings to Dr. Armitage — or is it Dr. Frost? but that mystery is best saved for later — but to speak to one of the most powerful humans in the world is something else entirely. He swallows, finds his voice. "Our archaelogical expedition, sir, found a tomb. In the Carpathians. The tomb was sealed with wards of a kind that have no precedent in any other known sorcery. We think they may be a fundamentally new kind of magick."
Vreta glances down. Nathan knows from experience that the man is reading text off a HUD. "I see. And this is why your, uh, expedition fell under attack?"
"I don't know, sir," replies Nathan. "But it could be. Whoever attacked us certainly thought we were onto something and didn't want us to have any more of it. I can't guess what they thought they knew."
"Sir…" Lisa begins hesitantly. Vreta looks up, a bit startled. She continues regardless. "Sir, there's only one other… group… that we know drove back the Migou on Earth."
Vreta takes a deep breath and sucks for a moment on his teeth, considering this. "I'm retired, miss…" His eyes dart to the invisible text on his end of the screen. "Miss Lazarus. I can't authorize an Antarctic expedition. Your own company's founders should know very well what's down there. If I follow your logic, you hope to examine the old ruins, see if anything there aligns with Mr. Latham's findings?" Lisa nods.
Jamie looks at Dr. Armitage. "Surely this is something we need to do? If the wards were worth finding… isn't it worth finding more?" She ignores the unknown part about 'What they found in Antarctica'. Questions for later.
"Antarctica?" Nathan says, suddenly sitting straight in his seat. He looks at Lisa nervously. "I… I mean…" He coughs. "I… I guess I hadn't fully thought through the implications of my work," he says weakly.
"Field Marshal, I've read everything you've ever written," Lisa says softly. "Even some of your unpublished letters." Vreta scowls a bit, but lets this pass silently. "Sir, you once said that the Migou are afraid of us. Isn't… isn't this what they have to be afraid of?"
Vreta considers this silently.
Nathan settles back into his chair, looking off into the distance. The brief period without his medication was deeply disturbing enough — but Antarctica! That's almost like encountering such things in the waking world. Contemplating an expedition there fills his heart with a nameless dread. Still, he reflects, what weight does his own sanity carry when the survival of humanity hangs in the balance opposite it?
"They won against the Migou," concedes Vreta. "And what they lost against may still be down there. But I'll make some calls. The Dreadnaught won't be at your discretion, but if there's enough sympathetic officers on board, you can at least see what they have to say."
Jamie nods to the screen. "Thank you, sir." SHe's not sure where she's going, but it seems appropriate.
Vreta nods. "Come see me after this is all over, Frost," he says at last. "I'd enjoy meeting you one of these days." And the screen goes dark.
Jamie looks directly at Nathan, "So. What is down there? How likely are we going to die?" She asks, pointedly.
Nathan shakes his head. "Dying isn't what I'm afraid of." He smiles thinly. "Though from what you told me the other day, I'm not worried about it happening to you." He glances at Armitage. "I'm not expecting an answer, but I'd never live with myself if I didn't at least ask: Dr. Frost?"
"It's not my real name," Armitage answers calmly. "Then again, my real name's not even my real name."
"Right," Nathan says. "That sounds like a rabbit hole a bit too deep for me." He looks nervously to the south. "Of course, the one we're talking about jumping into is pretty damn deep, too."
Jamie returns Nathan's thin smile, "Oh, I'm sure that there's still horrible things that can happen to me." She just nods silently at this last.
Armitage shrugs. "Nathan, have you ever played a role so long you started to live it? Irresponsible bachelor to dutiful husband. Pacifist to military man. Atheist to Christian, or vice versa? If not, I'm not sure if I can ever explain it."
Jamie looks at Dr. Armitage, "Any part we play. Any role we take ultimately becomes part of us. Sometimes the hiding is the real thing."
Nathan shakes his head. "Not really, sir. Closest I come is being an archaeologist pretending to be an arcanotech."
Armitage shrugs. "Well. I suppose it's decided then. We'll keep doing our digs. And we'll see if an opportunity presents itself."
The crew visit the city of the Old Ones.
DeGroot has been taken aside by agents of the Federal Security Bureau. What men of the FSB want with him shouldn't be hard to guess: he's to undergo a security screening now that Starkweather has fallen under the aegis of the Ashcroft Foundation and the NEG itself.
They review his dossier and his history in his presence, ask him questions while connected to a biomonitor and psych-screener, and make calls to third parties, speaking in hushed tones and mentioning names or places. Some of these are familiar to DeGroot from his past; others are not.
DeGroot tries to keep his cool through the whole thing. He gives complete answers to questions he's asked, and nothing else. He doesn't ask any questions of his own. He doesn't try to hide his discomfort from the machines. From experience, DeGroot knows that there's no fooling them — and it will only give the spooks a reason to keep him there longer. Besides, desk-jockeys are used to a banker's schedule; so there's no reason to worry unless he's there longer than eight hours. DeGroot has spent longer in tiny cockpits, getting shot at. And the crash in the desert sure felt longer than eight hours, he recalls with a mild shudder.
At length a man comes in, asks DeGroot to stand, shakes his hand, and transfers a file to his PCPU before leaving. DeGroot reviews the file. Whatever's going on here must be big. Or things are desperate. It's a government pension which will last for the rest of his life. However long the NEG thinks that'll be.
DeGroot quickly digests the contract, and it's implications. He should be happy; usually you have to serve forty years in someone's uniform before getting this kind of deal. And who knows; he might live long enough to collect. But his enthusiasm is muted by the knowledge that someone has to save the world before that can happen, and that's a long shot, at best. He pockets his battered handheld with a shrug and asks to be shown the door.
Most of the Moore's crew passed security muster immediately. A few days' worth of calls between Armitage and some of his contacts finally suffice to get the other survivors transferred back in as well.
Jamie is missing, but Armitage assures those few who do ask that she's fine. McTavish adds that she was escorted from Rome by a strange man, and Albez makes him as an agent of the Office of Internal Security. "Yes, I know," Armitage replies. "It's fine. She'll be back with us shortly."
Orders come across the pilot board. "Jeremiah Moore is to disembark and rendezvous outside Rome airspace with NEG carrier Dreadnought. Flight plan will be transmitted to Moore at that time."
DeGroot straps into the pilot's chair and secures the bridge. The sound of the magnetic bolts sliding home is somewhat comforting; after the last mission, he's not taking any chances. He pours over every available sensor, looking for any anomoly, and finding none, he taps out a response. They'll head straight for the Dreadnought, as ordered.
The Dreadnought is a massive ship, compared to the Moore. It could carry a small village in it — houses, shops, roads. It hangs above the Italian plains in silent disregard for such trifles as gravity. As the Moore approaches, the pilot's board flickers to life again. Text only — how polite. "Flight plan incoming." A stream of data begins flowing next to the output. "Moore will accompany Dreadnought to previous dig site in China. To avoid Migou patrols, we are taking a detour."
It's a hell of a detour. Right over the south pole. Vreta came through.
DeGroot opens a conference window and invites the core team — Armitage, Solak, Latham, and Lazarus. "We've been granted an opportunity," he begins. "Tell me how to make the most of it."
Nathan's eyes flick offscreen for a moment, and then widen. "We're really going to do it…" he breathes. "I…" He swallows, then smiles faintly. "I suppose it's fate."
"Try not to think of why," DeGroot mutters. "Think of what we need to do. We're going to be there in less than ten hours, and we'll have only a few hours of loiter time."
Nathan nods. "I'll start uploading data digests into my PCPU.
And double-check my access level for some of the
restricted files. There's a lot about this
site that's on a
"Nathan, come by my quarters for a copy of the Dyer report, and Mr. Starkweather's final report as well. We have everything we need." Armitage shakes his head. "All those sacrifices won't go to waste."
When Nathan arrives, Armitage surprises him. What he hands over is paper — no digital records. "The narrative of Professor William Dyer," he explains, holding up one sheaf. "And the official report of the Starkweather-Moore Antarctic expedition. The one that founded our company, incidentally."
Nathan takes the sheaf solemnly. "I can tell I've got a lot of reading to do," he says. He turns, and taps the bulkhead lightly. "And thus Starkweather and the Moore return once more from whence they came."
"A mere philosophical point," adds Armitage. "If Dyer's report hadn't been suppressed at the time, that expedition may never have happened. Would we be better or worse for it? But enough about that."
"Well, were it not for that expedition, we may never have known to go on thos one," Latham observes. "I guess we'll soon find out whether or not we'll be better for it. Anything else?"
DeGroot pings Lisa a few moments later. He's still up on the bridge; she's down in her cabin, with her piles of books, new and old. "Jeremiah Moore — or at least his namesake — is returning to the place of his downfall. The heirs of his best friend are here for a second chance." He pauses. "I know squat about magic, but I read Joseph Campbell once. Do we get any points for retracing the steps of a fallen hero?"
"Not if it leads off a cliff," is Lisa's laconic reply.
DeGroot sighs, and logs off. He sets up a duty roster for the Antarctic overflight — three shuttles in the air, scanning; the fourth back on the Moore, with Latham and the sifter, ready to go as soon as they find something worth digging up. Risky, but viable. He sets to work on the details.
The Starkweather-Moore report is daunting reading. What was originally intended to be a routine geological survey on the Antarctic continent instead uncovered a vast mountain range where none was expected to be. And even that in itself would be unremarkable, were it not for the signs that the mountain range was artificial — and at the same time, far older than human civilization.
A small group investigated the mountains further; it is their report that forms the bulk of the survivors' findings. Beyond the mountain range were the unmistakable ruins of a vast city or metropolis of unmistakably non-human construction. Only stone had survived the vast aeons since the city's abandonment, but carvings, mosaics, and alien lettering told the hints of an alien race that had lived and thrived in the days before humanity, and had manipulated the evolution of life on Earth, possibly even that of humanity itself. And of a war with deadly foes, both from beyond the stars and from Earth itself.
Armitage chimes in once Nathan concludes. "Whatever … might be left down there, was once controlled by a sort of hypnotic suggestion by these Old Ones. The Old Ones are described as tremendously advanced in their evolution, but so little change seems indicated during their tenure on Earth. It's possible that their creations are similarly atavistic. If so…" He glances at Lisa.
The girl sighs. "Glad to know it wasn't just my archaeological qualifications that got me on board. Have you been planning this from the start?"
Armitage shakes his head. "The discovery that led us down here didn't happen until after you were confirmed, Miss Lazarus. Relax yourself." Lisa bites her lip, but doesn't say anything else.
The Miskatonic Expedition's original camp was long since destroyed. The Starkweather-Moore Expedition reportedly took shelter in a cave. From the sightings taken against the nearby terrain, both Moore and Dreadnought concur that they've arrived. The godless white expanse of the Antarctic greeted them, and memories of previous visits here — from the Miskatonic's fateful trip to the famous Endurance and Shackleton's heroic crew, paralleled half a century later by the Apollo 13 mission.
The cameras train themselves on the nearby mountains. It doesn't take long to establish the next course to take. Across a pass, into a high plateau nestled between these southern mountains and their further cousins — what Dyer described as "mountains of madness".
The Moore threads a gap between titan peaks at 23,000 feet. Some of the spires sport incongruous, blocklike shapes near their tops, half-hidden behind thin sheets of stratospheric clouds. Once beyond the pass, the mountains fall quickly to a vast plateau, and the Moore confronts an otherworldy landscape. In ancient times these lands may have been lush and fertile, but they are now a vast desert of rocky grey plains dominated by a giant frozen river.
But the magnificent desolation is only impressive for a moment, for the plateau is dominated by a vast assemblage of buildings assembled from massive cubes of stone, like the toy blocks of a child who would himself have to be a mile tall. The ancient city goes on for miles — filling the 'lowlands' of the ancient basin, although even the lowest point can't be at an altitude of less than eight thousand feet. Bigger than modern rome, thousands of times older, and utterly devoid of any sign of habitation. Just looking upon the thing is staring deeply into an abyss of time, as empty and inhuman as the space it inhabits.
The Moore makes a slow circle of the city, while the Dreadnought takes up a covering position near the pass. The massive battleship is barely in scale with the city, but in stark contrast to its ancientness. Everyone who sees the two objects in perspective, through the deck cameras on the Moore, is left with the impression that the city tolerates these ultramodern intruders only grudgingly.
"They made us," murmurs Armitage, almost to himself. "If Dyer's report is right, they are our creators. No wonder the Church wanted his narrative suppressed."
"We think our creators used to live in these caves," Nathan murmurs, his voice quavering. He doesn't know quite why he said that, nor why the words fill him with dread.
Dreadnought's security officer sent a mail to Armitage. Now the scientist reads it aloud. "'We have some recon arachnoids that should be compatible with your systems. Fairly expendable. No need to send a human down. Signal if you want us to deploy a nest of them.'"
Armitage closes the mail. "This sounds wise to me. Mr. DeGroot, will you make the arrangements?"
DeGroot nods an affirmative and taps out a reply. It seems odd that all the communications with the battleship are by text only; either someone's got a serious bug about security, or… something weird is going on. He pauses briefly and thumps the control panel. "Bloody hell. This is going to make a crazy man out of me." He tasks a fraction of his HUD to monitoring comm traffic and sets an expert system to work on it; no getting caught off guard, like last time.
From the Moore, the launch is a subtle thing.
Armitage selects a few images from the videostream, gesturing and flicking them about. "We'll want to set up some LAIs to process these images," he says, indicating one example. It features what look to be tentacled vegetables manipulating a set of boxes. "The LAI should sort by activity category. Then we'll know just where we want to focus."
It takes half an hour to do the work. The spiders continue their relentless observation. By this time most of the city has been mapped out in rough detail. It didn't take long to set them to focus on the cartouches that decorate almost every wall in every building.
"We've fed in a rough profile of the Migou," Armitage says at last. "We'll be looking for anything that matches them to start with."
The signal finally chimes after two hours. Per the program, the holographics switch from the overall city view to a side-scrolling two dimensional view of the carvings. The LAI has attempted to arrange them in chronological order by laser-scanning the stone and analyzing its age, but that's not perfect.
Both Nathan and DeGroot arrive at the same conclusion via different disciplines. What Dyer described as "filtering down from the stars on membranous wings" seems to be a metaphor. The Old Ones, like the Migou, are described as arriving on the Earth via an exactingly specific set of geometric diagrams. Angles and lines are depicted as converging on a specific set of values. They are the rotation of the Earth around its axis, its rotation around the Sun, and its axial tilt.
"There are witch cults said to have traveled to meet the Devil via various angles," muses Armitage. "As though the right geometry could actually shift you through space and time."
"But…" DeGroot hazards. "Isn't that what
Nathan would be the natural man to answer a question of that sort. Anyone expecting an answer from him, however, would be disappointed, as the man appears to be staring blankly into space, slack-jawed.
Lisa stares at Nathan silently.
After a few seconds, Nathan staggers forward, bracing himself on the back of a chair. He turns sluggishly to DeGroot, blinking. "You're… more right than you know…" he mumbles, before shaking his head. His voice steadies, as if he's forcing himself to be calm with great effort. "There was a device. In my apartment. I… I'm pretty sure I constructed it, though I don't remember doing so. It had no electricity. No power source. Just a very specific set of measurements and angles. But… when I left the room and came back… it was gone."
"Wait," DeGroot says. "Are you saying that you build
Nathan shakes his head. "It wasn't a
DeGroot chooses not to pursue the point. Instead, he looks at Armitage, on the far side of the hologram. "This doesn't sound like it's telling us where to dig — or even if we need to."
"We're not digging up anything, except metaphorically," Armitage answers softly. "But the Old Ones defeated the Migou. They drove the Migou away, came to terms with them. Instead of just exterminating them… so they had the power. But why? It all ended so comparatively peacefully."
"Maybe that's a different mural," DeGroot suggests. "Some later point in time, with different iconography."
"Refuted by the continued existence of this city," the scholar replies absently, staring at the images hanging in space. "If the Migou had attacked later, they'd attack here. But we know what overcame this place."
DeGroot takes up station again, leaving the analysis to the scholars. His priority now is to watch the skies… But a minute later, he splits the HUD again, displaying the 'descent of the Old Ones'. Man only ever went ankle-deep into cosmic space, and DeGroot was one of the lucky few to do so. He can't resist the implication of the mural. A means to visit other stars? And Latham built one, maybe?
The Migou trap the Moore's crew. Nathan takes a desperate escape route.
The crew is examining data feeding back from the epochs-old city of the Old Ones. Millennia? Too short by far. Ten thousand years is sufficient to record the history of humanity's latest gasp of civilization, and this maze of hewn stone has stood for orders of magnitude beyond that.
Whole geological ages have come and gone, and its builders must have adapted, changed it or themselves somehow. Their ancestors — or perhaps they themselves, if they were long-lived enough — might have recorded the coming and going of mountains, or oceans. It's almost an obscenity to contemplate.
Klaxons sound. This is the alert communication channel, and a screen from Dreadnought opens immediately. "Migou, incoming on five points," the comm officer of that war vessel reports tersely. "Converging directly on our position. We'll be boxed in within twenty seconds."
The crew catch hints of shouting from the Dreadnought's bridge; the channel stayed open. "How did they get here so fucking fast?" demands the captain.
Jamie looks around. "I guess that's what they do…" She says. She's trying to keep it a bit cool, but this has put her on edge a bit.
DeGroot snarls and hunches over the Moore's control console, looking for a way out. "Bloody inevitable. Maybe they were already here."
Vital seconds pass. "We couldn't run anyway," admits the captain over comm. "Moore please shelter yourselves under our hull. If they open fire, we'll try to draw their attention."
"I can't imagine fate intends for us to just die at the hands of the Migou," says Nathan — quietly, so as not to distract the pilots. "No, there's got to be something far more interesting in store for us."
DeGroot does as instructed. The smaller ship hurtles over the rubble-strewn glacier with a frantic speed that might match the pilot's own mood. "Button up, everyone," DeGroot instructs. "It's gonna get heavy."
The Moore's sensor board shows five discrete clusters; groups of Migou attack ships. They take up a precisely geometric position around the Dreadnought and her fledgeling. And then… nothing. They hang there in space, motionless. No weapons vomit forth lightning or emit the peculiar destructive rays previously observed. Apertures and barrels can be seen through magnification as aiming at the Dreadnought, but… nothing.
Visual inspection counts something close to twenty-eight vessels. The Migou ECM is in full effect.
Jamie runs to grab her rifle. She then sits down, and straps herself in, gripping her instrument of long range death in her hands.
Jamie looks at Nathan, "What are they waiting for?"
Through the bridge holograms of the Moore, DeGroot can practically count the bulbous, squamous protrusions that count for weapons among Migou spacecraft. "What indeed," he mutters. "Is this a trick?" He scans the ground beneath the paired vessels, looking for the jab to go with the feint. "Maybe they think they can take us alive…"
"Not interested," the captain of the Dreadnought replies firmly.
"Maybe they're afraid we already found what we were looking for," Nathan murmurs. "They know there's something here that called them to account before…"
Jamie nods, "Something is up. THis hardly seems like a normal excersize…"
"Maybe they don't want to damage the Old Ones city. Or maybe they're afraid that we've already found something. In any case…" DeGroot looks at the map, acutely aware that he should have been dead thirty seconds ago. He opens a channel to the Dreadnought. "This big round area, in the middle. We could try moving towards it, it would at least give us some cover."
"Something's up, all right," Nathan says, eyes widening, as he turns to DeGroot. "You've got it right, DeGroot. This city is untouched by anything except time. It's a holy place to the Old Ones. And even untold aeons after they left, the Migou have not dared to touch it. They've come here after us, but even now… they don't dare open fire?"
"For the Old Ones, the Migou, and other such beings, there really is only one religion," Armitage murmurs.
Jamie shrugs, "We're all shadows anyway…" She mutters to herself, "Some more than others…"
Nathan looks sharply at Armitage, and visibly shudders.
Dreadnought slowly begins to move, transmitting real-time deltas of its position to Moore's navigation system in the process. The Migou do not visibly react.
"Then what counts as sanctuary for them?" DeGroot asks. "What's the most holy place in this city? That nutter, Danforth, said that this was where they first came to Earth. So where on this map did they first put boots to soil?"
Jamie looks, "I say go down. Ultimately the choices we make are between death now and death later."
Nathan watches the holotank, with the Migou positions marked. "Spectators," he says. "That's what the Migou remind me of, right now. They're watching, to see how this turns out." He bites his lip, shaking his head. "Maybe I'm just being jumpy."
Jamie smiles, "Oh, so you're an optimist."
Armitage hums. "You know that has to be it," he says finally. "They can't be afraid of… well, whatever's in that lake, any more so than people in helicopters would be afraid of an island full of tyrannosaurs. As long as you're smart enough not to land there…"
"We're not that smart," DeGroot says simply. "If we run, they'll blow us to hell. Maybe our best move is to land and… try to find one… for Lisa to work on."
Jamie looks at DeGroot. She jumps from her seat, held down only by the restraints. Her hand clutches aroudn the foreward grip of her rifle, "You want to do… What?"
Armitage blinks. "Are you mad?" he asks calmly.
DeGroot turns in his seat, and looks Armitage straight in the eye. "Not yet."
"You are either joking or stupid," the archaeologist replies firmly. "You are asking one telepath to try and engage with one such mind. There were enough such creatures to destroy a powerful civilization. Say that Lisa manages to hold one, a feat I'm not really inclined to demand of her. What happens when the second one shows up? The third? The twentieth?"
Nathan shakes his head. "Let's just file that one next to 'take our chances with the Migou' and keep thinking, everyone." He scratches his head.
"Maybe… we can escape," Nathan murmurs, his voice hesitant and quavering. "Those… geometric diagrams that brought the Old Ones here. Maybe we can find a geometry that takes us to somewhere not surrounded by Migou." He takes a shuddering breath. "Of course, if we do it almost right, it might take us to somewhere far worse."
Jamie looks slowly at Nathan… "Far worse… than… this?"
Nathan turns to Jamie and nods. "There are worse things in the universe than Migou," he says with quiet intensity.
"Is that what we came here to find?" DeGroot asks. He waves a hand through the playback window, and recalls the chart, the carving that looked like an astrogation diagram. "Not a device or a monster, but this… spell?"
"We came here to find any hint of what might stop the Migou," Armitage answers thoughtfully. "You know we may have found one thing, in a sense. They are here, and not shooting at us."
"For example…" continues Nathan. "Did
you know that a
Nathan swallows, and shakes his head. "If only I knew where that box in my apartment went to, I'd… feel better about this idea."
Jamie looks at Nathan, "There's no way. It's just a day…" However, Jamie sounds unsure, herself. Of course, she's sees… things, too…
DeGroot considers Nathan's words, and shakes his head. "It makes no sense." He points at the scanner traces of the Migou task force outside. "But neither does that. So. What do we do now?" The paired ships have moved; the Migou task force have failed to respond. "Does it matter that they're in five groups? Is that part of anyone's geometry?"
Jamie looks around, "Is there anythign about being here, now, that makes this… thing you do, easier?" THis question is addressed to Nathan.
Nathan nods to Jamie. "Yes, actually. For one thing, this place might be privileged in the cosmic geometry — it might be the reason why the Old Ones landed here, rather than somewhere else. And for another, we might be able to find some clues about sacred geometry here."
"You've saved our ass before," DeGroot replies. "Do you have enough to try it with just what we've seen? Or do we need to find more? Because as long as the bugs aren't shooting, we might as well get the probes back to work."
Nathan shakes his head. "We need more. With what I know right now, if I made a box, we'd be lucky if it went nowhere."
Once more, the probes are dispatched to comb over the city that is in itself a definition of ancient mystery. Most of the crew pours carefully over the flood of sensor data coming back from the swarm, venturing into places no human feet have ever trod… and perhaps where they never should. DeGroot keeps an eye on the Migou, and transmits a summary of the plan to the Dreadnought. "They're afraid of what we'll find," he explains. "The diggers here say, let's find it." And hope it's not worse, he thinks.
The Moore's holographics flash with a sucession
of images and analysis in every possible spectrum —
visible, topographic, ultrasound,
As Nathan reviews the frescoes, another flash of memory illuminates his brain like a lightning stroke — passages from the Pnakotic Manuscripts, which also discussed the Old Ones and, he now understands, their modes of travel. The implications are so disturbing that he is unable to speak for a moment, before saying thickly, "I get it. God help me, I get it."
The key, he explains, is not just a matter of geometry but mind. The ritual of traveling requires everyone involved to cast their frame of mind into a very specific manner of thinking. "And I don't think I know a way to explain it," he says, looking at Lisa. "I'll need your help, if anyone else is to travel. But if the ritual works — whoever participates, and does so properly, can slip through the cracks of spacetime."
The returning memories are no comfort. While they offer a solution, one suggestion in particular is unnerving. For the sorcerer acquainted with travel via higher-dimensional shifting such as Nathan proposes, there is no safeguard, no gate barring him from thinking in the manner required. An errant thought or troublesome dream would be enough to dislodge a sorcerer from his accustomed hearth, and staying on the planet Earth in his own time — and perhaps in his own body — stops being an unbreakable assumption of existence. It becomes an act of will.
"There was an old saying: 'Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions,'" Nathan adds. "In this case, that's not a comforting thought."
DeGroot silences his mike for a moment. "What about the Dreadnought?" he asks. "If we disappear what happens to them?"
Nathan shakes his head. "This is a means of transporting people, DeGroot. The Moore will go nowhere. And only a few people can travel this way — as many as Lisa can keep in sync with the sorcerer."
"And if I get it wrong…" Nathan blanches. "There are worse things than death. Or even madness."
Nathan explains further: the choice of destination is defined by the particular set of esoteric angles. The catch that if you don't already know the specific angles for a destination, you can end up literally anywhere. "Most of the space we know is the vacuum between galaxies. Apart from being instantly deadly, it has nothing useful to us."
"We know the angles for the place where the Old Ones came from," Nathan continues. "And the Pnakotic Manuscripts mention a few other choices of angles… but say nothing else about those places beyond a name."
DeGroot considers this. "The Old Ones aren't here anymore. Maybe they aren't there anymore, in the place where they came from. It seems about as likely to be hospitable as any other place we only know by name."
Nathan bites his lip. "With the Old Ones, it could be not so much a matter of where they are, as when. Still… what you say has merit. We know the Old Ones had whatever it was that forced the Migou to terms. The thing that worries me is that barging in there uninvited might be considered blasphemous."
Jamie looks, "Of course, we are in sort of the type of spot that instantly dead might be an attractive option." Then she turns to DeGroot, "One should not put on a steak costume and walk into the lion's den." She turns to Nathan, "I vote Nathan picks one of the manuscript destinations…"
"It seems you have to be involved," DeGroot says to Lisa. "Where do you want to go?"
The girl frowns a bit. "I… I don't know," she admits, and shivers a bit. It's the strongest sign of fear anyone's ever seen from her. "But, the Old Ones held back the Migou. That's who we need right now."
Nathan stares off into space. "I'm afraid of visiting the home of the Old Ones," he says distantly. "But I was also afraid of what we would find here. I wonder if is my destiny to go into the places that terrify me most."
Jamie nods. "In these times, it is everyone's destiny to face fear."
DeGroot points at the tactical display again. "To hell with destiny," he says. "It's either this way, or that way."
Nathan turns to Jamie. "The general consensus seems to be to visit the home of the Old Ones. But there's still time to consider. Can you think of a reason why we absolutely shouldn't go there?"
Jamie shakes her head, "It is honestly not my choice, but I have no previously-unstated reason not to go." She nods.
DeGroot turns the conn over to Ebony and heads down to the weapons locker. He returns with five complete outfits — body armor with environmental seals, sensor masks, and radios. A trio of sidearms for the scholars and a rifle for himself. Spare magazines, power cells, and ration packs. "Christ," he shakes his head. "Like a trip to the beach. In hell." He returns to the wardroom and hands out the gear.
Lisa begins her work — connecting mind to mind, placing each one in a faint hypnotic state. Nathan can feel her tension. This is something she hasn't attempted before, and she's working under considerable pressure. Still, she has a sort of… detachment, or serenity, that he finds difficult to imagine. Is it true that all White xenomixes are like this?
Nathan visualizes the angles necessary. The three-dimensional world and its axis of time are not a complete description of reality — there are higher dimensions, some having a spatial quality, others with stranger properties. The aware mind can guide the total entity that is a human being through these dimensions along certain indicative angles, and the three-dimensional body will follow.
The transition is abrupt. The five travelers find themselves in a seething abyss of noise and night. It quickly threatens to overwhelm their sense of place or time or connection, and the others can feel Lisa struggling hard to hold on. And in the next second, they land.
The group is transported to an alien planet and encounter the Elder Things.
Light is the first thing — bright, incredibly bright light. A moment later, as the body draws in breath, are the smells. Vivid smells, smells not of the planet, alien molecules borne on alien winds, odors which scream to the body's instincts in a mindless cacophony. Peculiar sounds reach the ears.
The eyes adjust after a moment. The five travelers have come together to some other place. But where? Beneath their feet they feel what resembles sun-baked stone or concrete. Around them they see tall walls, but no roof. Three suns rise in the sky above them, and the color thereof is no earthly blue.
The chamber in which they've arrived is open to the sky, maybe thirty yards in rough diameter, but not perfectly round. Nor any other simple geometric shape; there's an unevenness which slyly implies significance.
Jamie looks around, nose and eyes taking in the new, unworldly sights and sounds. She covers her ears, and looks about the place, "It seems we made it, at least." She pauses, "Or, possibly not." She looks about in the circle.
DeGroot stares up into the sky, and around the chamber. "So… this is what I've always wanted. Well." He slings his rifle. "Here we are." He walks carefully towards the ovoid wall. "Lisa, how do you feel?"
"Oh, we made it all right," Nathan says quietly to Jamie, his spine tingling. "Everything about this plaza screams Old Ones." He chews his lip. "Let's not rush around. Everything here could be vitally important."
"Dizzy," the girl responds after a quiet moment. She wobbles in place, then flops down and pulls her knees to her chest.
Armitage peers about him. "Resembles stone, but no signs of wear," he announces, staring at the floor and walls. Reaching down, he brushes his fingertips along the material. "Seems to be well maintained."
Jamie pulls her hands carefully off of her ears, and nods, "Though, monochrome concrete walls don't seem like they'd indicate… anything." Jamie start to slowly, cautiously move in the direction of one wall. She might get there in a minute or two at this rate, just slowly walking, checking the air.
DeGroot nods. "No dust. So… they might still be here."
"They are here," mutters Lisa. "They are here."
DeGroot looks at Lisa again. "Is she talking to them?" He fingers his rifle sling nervously.
Lisa raises a finger and points in one direction, to the left of party as they had been facing on arrival. "They're coming."
Nathan turns in the indicated direction. "They know we're here?" It's a question, not a statement — though he believes he already knows the answer.
"Let's get out of the middle of the room," DeGroot says. "Stand against that wall -" he points in the opposite direction, "and guard Lisa. But don't point a weapon at any of them."
Jamie nods, "Such wouldn't be unrealistic." Jamie backpedals back to the group, er eyes gazing wildly in the direction indicated, as if the stone itself were going to move. She looks at DeGroot, "I don't expect that small unit tactics will be of much help."
Moments pass. A hole rives itself in the wall to the left, but not violently. The stonework of it seems to crumble into sand or dust, but as it does it pours neatly into two piles — left and right. The wall isn't collapsing. It's becoming an archway.
Jamie blinks and watches with facination. "Wow…" is all she can manage.
Dyer's narrative prepared its readers for what was to come. But the sight itself is still shocking. Five monstrous vegetables given life and animation, waddling blemishes against earthly nature, make their way through the resulting arch. A persistently five-pointed symmetry dominates their features, and their colorations are a grotesque melange from the visible spectrum.
Tentacles, folded wings, pseudopodia, pulsating ridges and other freaks of biology are all exhibited here. These creatures followed not the simple evolutionary pathways of Earth, but are a queer and horrible blend of many such developments. And they approach.
"Caves…" Nathan breathes, his face pale. His eyes roll up into his head and he slumps to the ground like a rag doll.
Armitage peers at the approaching aliens. "Oh blimey," he whispers hoarsely, then drops to one knee and disgorges the contents of his stomach over the alien stone.
Jamie doesn't fare much better, but at least her transition to unconsciousness is quieter than Nathan's. Lisa watches the two collapse, then stares up at the creatures with white eyes.
DeGroot watches his companions falling apart around him; even the stalwart Armitage is affected. DeGroot can barely stand to watch, looking into the glassy red orbs that might be eyes, and the writing cilia 'hair' that might be sense organs no human can fathom. But he reminds himself of the Dyer account. Alien as these things are, they are not inherently evil… perhaps the Migou aren't either, come to that; but the Old Ones aren't currently extirpating mankind. Lisa's dialog with these things might be all that stands between humanity and death; and he's all that stands between them and Lisa. He forces himself to look them in the eyes.
A high-pitched musical piping arises between the aliens, and DeGroot realizes that this is what he has been hearing faintly in the background. There must be more of these creatures elsewhere, and the sound of them is coming over the wall. They split apart, each moving in the direction of one of the party.
DeGroot puts an arm around Lisa and hoists her upright. "If we fight, we die. Do I fight them?" he asks quickly.
Lisa shakes her head quickly. "No, no… I think… I think they want to study us," she whispers.
"No worse than what the Migou would do to us, then," DeGroot replies… and waits. It is out of his hands now.
The creatures extend their tendrils or tentacles. One takes hold of Nathan, another Jamie. A third seizes Armitage, who offers a meek token of resistance before being grappled. The fourth and fifth extend their tentacles to take hold of DeGroot and Lisa by the wrists.
The group's final destination is about ten minutes away. Jamie awakens midway through to find herself quite securely grabbed by a mass of tentacles; they are extraordinarily strong and supple, holding onto her with care but quite muscular enough to resist any struggle. However, she can also appreciate the view that DeGroot and Lisa have been seeing since their departure from the ovoid room.
That room, it seems, was at the very pinnacle of a tall, dangerously narrow tower which seems to stretch thousands of feet from the ground below. Around it are other such spiraling structures, connected by delicate stone bridges. Taller and narrower than Earthly skyscrapers, radiating an infinite variety of colors from the three suns in the sky, the sight could be called beautiful — if inhuman.
Regular cube-like constructions bud themselves from the sides of these towers, apparently serving as the rooms or apartments of what must be an important city. More such construction can be seen at all altitudes, all the way to the ground. And beyond the extent of this massive alien metropolis, distant mountains rise and brush against azure clouds.
Jamie wakes up, and her hands wrap around the tentacles that have her restrained, pulling and tugging. She yells out, "HELP!" as loud as she can, pushing against the very tight grip that has her caught. She closes here eye, then opens them, too scared to see, but too scared not too…
"Hush, girl!" hisses Armitage. "We're all in this now."
The group files into one of the cube-like buildings, rather large — at least fifty yards across. The center of the room is dominated by a hemisphere filled with what looks like water, and the party is unceremoniously dumped into it.
The building is occupied by other such creatures, who seem busy consulting some of the illustrations which run in a band around the walls of the room. A few cluster together, piping musically at each other.
As he hits the water, Nathan awakens in a flurry of flailing, splashing limbs. "Buh! Wha, no…" he sputters as he manages to get upright with his head above water. Shaking his head, he rubs his face with one hand. "Wha… where are we?"
"Alive," barks DeGroot. "For now."
Jamie dips a hand into the liquid, adn tries to spread
her hands through it… "Do you think we can breathe
this?" She notes, remembering
Armitage sputters about before regaining his composure. He treads water, looking about him. "Scientists," he whispers. "They're scientists. We have to tell them! Tell them who we are, Lisa! They shan't dissect us!" He sounds a little closer to panic than is comfortable.
Nathan nods mutely, his eyes slowly focusing as he stares around the room. "Wow… this is no cave," he says. His gaze alights on one of the aliens and he shudders — the initial shock has passed, but they still disturb him deeply. A thought occurs from the muddled mess of his brain. "Wow… do you think we look ugly to them?"
Jamie shrugs, "I don't think they passed out…"
DeGroot ignores Latham and Solak; his focus is on what Armitage has just said to Lisa, and however the White girl shall answer. And to think I was worried about the Nazzadi being more fit to survive than me. Well. No need for that anymore.
Lisa nods hesitantly. "Here goes nothing," she whispers. Focusing her gaze on one of the nearby creatures, she starts to mumble to herself.
The creature pauses, halting its strange song with its fellows. It wriggles on its pseudopodia toward the water pool, and begins singing another series of notes. It sounds somehow familiar.
A few minutes pass. Lisa is sweating, and needs to be supported in the water; a trickle of blood emerges from her nose, and her body trembles. But the effort seems to be bearing fruit. Finally the Elder Thing makes a most unexpected sound indeed.
"Thou art from the holy place," comes a voice. A deeply and disturbingly inhuman voice, but quite clearly words in English. And it comes from the thing.
Jamie looks up, and presses against the side of the glass. "That sounds reassuring, at least…"
Nathan has had some time to recover. "The, the holy
place?" he asks. "
"Silence, cur," the voice replies, and a tentacle comes down heavily against the stone next to the pool. "Thou art servitor material, if I appraise thee true. Thou hast developed exceedingly satisfactorily. Indeed, if not for thy deficiencies, thee might supplant the shoggoths in due time."
Nathan's jaw snaps shut, and his eyes are wide as saucers.
"Yes, yes, we are," answers Armitage hurriedly. "Listen, we came from Earth, we found—" The tentacle smashes down again, and the piping pseudo-voice comes at a higher volume. "Know thy place! Thou shalt be examined. Thou shalt answer such questions as are put to thee."
Jamie thinks to herself, . o O ( Well, the order of 'examine then answer questions' seems positive… we'll be able to answer questions after they're done examining… )
The Elder Thing draws back, wrapping its tentacles around each other in what might be the equivalent of folded arms for a human. "Tell me verily, white one. For what good cause hath those of us in that sacred place sent chattel back here?"
"Uh…" Nathan begins, then closes his mouth again, looking at Lisa.
"They… they didn't," Lisa says softly. "They're dead. They're all dead. The shoggoths… your, uh, your other servitors. They rose up in rebellion. They … decapitated your people on Earth."
DeGroot moves next to Lisa, in case this draw the wrath of the Elder Thing. They're putting everything on her; if his last role is bullet-sink, so be it.
The answer comes from the Elder Thing after almost a minute of silence. "Victuals shall be supplied to thee. This matter shall be heard." Without saying more, it wriggles away, toward its fellows, and begins to sing in its native language.
Jamie splashes around a bit in the fluid, moving closer to her companions. She does, however keep her mouth shut.
Nathan sidles over to Lisa. In a hoarse whisper, he asks, "Is it a good or bad thing if they know how we did get here?"
The girl shakes her head and sighs. Responding to sensation, she wipes her nose with one hand; it comes away stained red with her blood. "At least I don't have to open my mind to them any more."
DeGroot finds a place to wait, in the shallows of the pool. "We may have traded servitude to the Migou for servitude to these guys," he murmurs to Armitage. "What would Vreta do in the face of that?"
Armitage faces DeGroot. His face shows signs of desperation and worry. "He'd probably say that the best a soldier can ask for is a good chain of command."
"We did what we thought we had to," he replies. "If we did, and this is all we can squeeze out of this Universe… then to hell with it and everything in it."
Jamie blinks, and thinks about the future… "So, if we get back. Who do we tell what?"
"It depends on what they do about us," Nathan says, glancing at one of the scientist creatures. "If they come back with us, anything we say will be moot. And even if they send us back alone, I'm sure they'll do so with some specific intent in mind."
Lisa winces. Something seems to be discomfiting her, even injuring her in some fashion, but nothing apparent can be identified as the source. "Jerusalem," she whispers. "Old Jerusalem…"
The girl looks about her. "Burning," she manages through rapid breaths. "Parapsychic burn… I can feel them all… it hurts… it hurts." She puts a hand to her chest, staring from face to face in the closest thing anyone's ever seen to fear from her. "I can't stop. Please help me."
DeGroot rummages through the field kit, finding an an autoinjector and ampoules of sedative. He loads it and passes it over to Latham. "Got a feeling you'd know this better than me."
Jamie kneels down and looks eye to eye with Lisa, "What do you need to stop? Can Nathan help? Can any of us?" She looks up at the boys preparing the other option.
"Knock me out," the girl whispers. "Unconsciousness. Hurry…"
"I'm not a trained medic," Nathan says, but nevertheless assembles the autoinjector — field medkits are designed to be usable by less trained personnel after all — and administers the sedative to Lisa.
Lisa slumps over, letting out a sigh. Nathan can tell that she'd started to develop a fever, but fortunately the lukewarm water in which the party's been thrown will help mitigate that.
The Elder Thing returns in time. Lisa is still unconscious.
"Explain what hath stricken the white creature," it commands, directing a tentacle in DeGroot's direction. "Speak."
"She's a para-psychic," DeGroot says. "The presence of so many inhuman minds pains her." He looks Lisa over, recalls the fever she was developing. "In time, this place will kill her."
"I know not this word which you speak," the Thing answers. "But I take thy meaning. It is the speech of the mind and not the —" and here he makes a truly incomprehensible noise. "The gates of the mind swing wide, and what wills it may enter easily from either direction."
"She said she couldn't stop," agrees Nathan. Questions burn in his mind, but after being rebuked once, he's more than content to let the Old Ones drive the conversation.
DeGroot nods, noting that the thing hasn't invited him to speak further. Nevertheless, he keeps his gaze level.
"Thou speakest truly," says the Elder Thing, directing a tentacle at Nathan. "It is the considered opinion of my learned brethren that this matter hath something akin to the tale which was told of the shoggoths. That allowing such as yourselves to advent upon the holy place would pervert and diminish your bodies and minds. The alignments of that place are truly too much to the walpurgis-rhythm to safely permit such creatures to emerge."
"It was an act of desperation," DeGroot hazards. "An old enemy of yours is now seeking to exterminate us."
"Thou speakest of the shoggoths?" the Thing asks. "Pray do not hold your tongue, but tell me now this tale. Thou art of considerable interest to the physick of my brethren."
Nathan attempts to explain about the Migou invasion. In the process of the discussion, he discovers that the Thing's archaic English dialect is no mere affectation; its vocabulary in English only dates to the 1800s; to discuss anything more recent, he must draw from his linguistic training to construct analogies. He does, at least, manage to convey that, as far as any human knows, the shoggoths remain confined to the 'holy city'.
During the dialogue, Nathan and the others learn something. It seems almost an off-handed thing, something the Elder Thing seems to regard as universally understood. The 'walpurgis-rhythm' that he spoke of is known as an occult concept — it is the noise of the universe that calls the sensitive or the pagan to worship on the sacred days — the solstice, the equinox, May Eve and other such sacred times.
But that's just it. It is a universal force, and yet it aligns with the Earthly calendar. The secret is this: it is simply an emergent property of the Earth's rotation, both about its own axis and about its sun. Nathan comes to realize with a shock that any planet circling any star at similar rates would be similarly aligned with cosmic forces.
"It's like the anthropic principle," Nathan murmurs. "The old cosmologists said that we observed the Earth to be in a particular orbit, and therefore temperature, because if it weren't we couldn't have lived on it. We never dreamed that there could be an occult connection as well as a mere physical one."
"We risked much to come here," DeGroot adds. "We may be the first of our kind to do so under our own power. We've done all we can for our people. Even were we to die now, there is honor in that. But… now I beg to know what you intend to do with us."
"Thou shalt return with us to the holy place," replies the Elder Thing. "There thou shalt be our voice to thine own kind."
The expedition returns with the Elder Things in tow.
Jamie has stompped around in the water, pretty much afraid to say anything, both because she's not sure what would happen, and in particular because she has a reason to try and go unnoticed, as unlikely as that is. She spends some time trying to determine what the liquid they're in the tube with is without actually poisoning herself, and some careful watching of the Elder Ones.
Jamie finally takes a sip of what will turn out to be water, "I wonder why they put us in water…"
DeGroot tests the fluid as well, going to far as to taste it. "They were going to dissect us… maybe this is their… tool. You saw what they did to the stone, right? When they came to get us? It just dissolved." He stirs the pool a bit. "Maybe they can control water the same way. I thought it might have been nanotech, but that seems… too crude, for them. I wonder if they ever had nukes, or if atomic technology is beneath them."
DeGroot checks Lisa's vitals… still unconscious, but not getting worse, at least. "Maybe they do everything with sorcery. They called Earth 'the Holy Place', and they talk about this rhythm that depends on the length of the day and the length of the year. But there's lots of planets like that, right? So what happens if the length of a day changes? Like, how the day was shorter in the time of the dinosaurs? Does that make Earth less 'holy'? Or does the cosmic rhythm change to match it?"
Nathan's eyes widen. "It's not something that occult scholars really thought about much. All the old books of lore more or less assume a certain number of hours per day, days per year, and so on. But… yes, changing the length of the day would change things. The length of the year even more so."
"So if we had a hundred million year old magic book, we might be able to tell if Earth is a holy place, or the Holiest Place." DeGroot shrugs, and goes back to monitoring Lisa. "I just hope that the Elders don't thik we're desecrating it. Like rats in the walls of Solomon's Temple, or something."
"There's the Pnakotic Manuscripts themselves," Nathan says. "They certainly go back that far. If we have time when we get back, we can look into it."
Lisa comes round about the time the Elder Thing returns, with what amounts to an armed escort party. They carry peculiar devices of fluted metal attached to bladders filled with a liquid which seems to hum when it sloshes about.
"Thou art prepared for the journey?" the Elder Thing asks. "Thou shalt recall thyselves to the holy place in the manner in which thou arrived here. We shall follow thee."
"I hope you're feeling better, Lisa," Nathan says. "I know this wasn't easy for you the first time." His PDA flickers as he studies the ritual coordinates, mentally rehearsing crucial parts of the spell.
Deactivating the PDA again, Nathan turns to the others. "All right. Calm yourselves, just like before." He takes a deep breath; he knows that this works now, but every trip is a new set of angles, and a subtly different mindset. He begins the chanting, with careful, precise gestures in the prescribed directions.
The return trip is just as abrupt as the original. This time, however, the group find themselves in the frozen antarctic city itself. Not in any of the buildings — standing in a vast open space between the forgotten stone structures.
In a circle around them, twelve of the Elder Things likewise materialize without preamble. Their membranous wings are stretched to their limits, and seem to be glowing for a moment as the sorcerous act completes itself.
DeGroot glances around frantically at the cold, immense arena, catching sight of the Dreadnought several miles away. "Oh, hell, of course. You come in at the gate, not the baggage claim."
Jamie shoots a look over to DeGroot and Armigate as they land, "Radio the ship… Oh wait." Jamie's arms wrap around herself.
The Things take stock of their situation; a few move into closer proximity to the human team, while others point with their tentacles or sing their strange piping song to each other. "This is the holy city?" asks the Elder Thing which spoke earlier. "This city hath lain in ruins for much time."
"It has. Since before our species learned the power of speech, as far as we can tell," says Nathan.
Some of the Things sing to each other, and the cilia atop the English-speaking Thing's head writhe in some peculiar acknowledgement. "Three of us will accompany thee to thy refuge," it announces. "If thou hast a means of transport, invoke it presently."
"Make sure to warn the Moore and Dreadnought that we have company," Nathan points out to DeGroot. "They will need to clear the deck when we arrive." He shudders, remembering his own reaction to the Old Ones' first appearance.
Jamie looks to Nathan, "I'm frankly more worried about the company we had when we left." She darts a glance to the Elder One, then up to the sky.
Nathan shakes his head at Jamie. "If they didn't interfere with us before, they won't now. Especially now."
DeGroot calls the Dreadnought first, and warns them about their 'guests'. He obtains permission to evacuate the Moore's remaining crew, to spare them the shock of contact with the Elder Things… and to remove the risk of someone going mad and assaulting them. The crew of the Moore is ordered to evacuate in one shuttle, and send another down on LAI pilot.
The shuttles are soon visible as specks in the distance, moving between the small shadow of the Jeremiah Moore and the huge bulk of the Dreadnought, though both look trivial compared to the crumbling Elder architecture. DeGroot turns to the Elder Thing that seemed most interested in the humans, though for all he knows, it's a completely different individual. "I suspect you have not visited us in some time," he begins. "Though I am sure you will still find them crude, we have become skilled with machines in your absence. The Migou have chosen to fight us with similar machines."
"I hath not visited the holy place," the Thing answers. "Nor hath other expeditions made the journey. We shall learn what our kin hath rendered upon the stone of their homes and profit from its instruction."
"Then allow us to aid you," DeGroot continues. "The smaller vessel is a research craft. We have devices aboard for remote imaging. They may speed your search." He neglects to mention how much of the city has already been imaged.
The Thing speaks after a moment. Its tone of voice is just as even as usual; whatever emotions it may feel seem not to enter into its pronounciation of English. "We have perceived that thy senses are woefully limited. Thy apprehension of the records may likewise be incomplete. Thine offer of assistance is … appreciated."
"You may still need to inspect the city in person, then," Nathan notes. "Our machines' senses are more acute and varied than our own, but they're most likely still limited by your standards."
DeGroot nods in acknowledgement, but doesn't speak further. Like children. Or worse, pets… or cattle. He shakes his head. Space travel. Shit. I should have been a football coach.
The shuttle touches down. The crew board. The Moore's shuttles have limited seating but plenty of cargo, and no passenger facilities aboard any of the human craft seem adequate to the Things' physiology.
The return flight to the Moore is quiet. Human breathing is a distinct sound, but easily ignored once you get used to it — you hear it your whole life, and tend to disregard it when heard from other people. What the Things are doing is something else entirely. They do seem to respirate, but the noise is unlike anything the five travelers have heard from earthly animals.
The shuttle docks. The group makes its way to the bridge. "We hath perceived that thine enemies are present and hath still respected the old taboos," the Thing mentions to DeGroot. "Invoke thy means of speaking to them that we may settle this matter."
DeGroot settles into the control pod. "They don't often answer," he says. Still, the NEG has worked out a few communication protocols, usually used only in the vain hope of surrender or for defiant last words. He finds one of them, a sporadic buzzing carrier. "It's transmitting. Speak and they will hear you."
The Thing begins to 'speak' in its wide-ranged musical piping. After a few moments, something else happens. There's a response. It's not even an audio signal, simply a coded acknowledgement in the NEG's own scheme.
"This device transmits the sense of sight, does it not?" the Thing asks.
DeGroot raises an eyebrow. The Migou want to speak to the Things? That's new. He wordlessly enables the camera and points. "That thing has about the same sensitivity as our own eyes." Limited as I'm sure you'll say that is.
The Thing directs its attention to the camera and makes a queer curling gesture with some of its tentacles. Nathan recognizes it as a variant of the Voorish Sign, but with something else added; Armitage lets out a low gasp, indicating that he too recognizes the significance.
The sensor board begins registering movement. DeGroot double-checks his readings. But what he sees is the case: the Migou ships are retreating from this airspace.
"What the hell goes on over there?" comes a new audio stream — the captain of the Dreadnought.
DeGroot can hardly believe it himself; he's been staring slack-jawed at the radar projection. "Sir, the Elder Things just asked the Migou to leave. And they did." After a moment, he adds, "Call Vreta, if you can. He needs to know."
"I… alright, whatever." This is a little over the captain's pay grade. "My orders still stand, however. Escort you to the Chinese dig site."
Jamie looks at DeGroot, "I would say that Vreta is probably our next stop. After they look at the city, of course."
DeGroot looks at Armitage. "Does that matter anymore?"
Armitage in turn defers to the Thing. "Can you make them leave us alone no matter where we go?" he asks.
Jamie looks, "Hopefully without them retaliating elsewhere…"
"I reminded thy foes of what hath been observed to sleep beyond the mountains and that thy death would be a small price for the eradication of their people within this sun's realm. So chastened, they seem reluctant to test our resolve. However, do not consider us a talisman against their malice."
Jamie ponders, thinking about the one passage . o O ( a small price )
DeGroot says, "Why would they care if we live or die?" DeGroot asks, with obvious surprise. "They've been doing a pretty good job of making us extinct so far."
"If thy kind should die by the hand of that which sleeps beyond, we should be quite inconvenienced," the Thing explains.
DeGroot ican almost look the Thing in one of its eyes many eyes. "Because it will desecrate the Holy Place? Or does that thing, that even you fear, make this the Holy Place?"
The Thing's tendrils writhe briefly. "It would require that we find a new world. For this one could nevermore be visited."
DeGroot pales, and slumps back into his seat. "Someone tell me where we're going."
"China," says Armitage firmly. "This is still our fight to win."
The journey to the deserts of China is surreal. The group remembers its time here before. Now, with a heavily armored battleship of the NEG escorting them, and representatives of the Elder Things aboard, it's not clear whether to feel more safe, or less.
The original plan to digitally scan the terrain is assisted by the Dreadnought and its own shuttles and sensors. In time the correct location is found, and a shuttle bearing a sifter is dispatched.
In under an hour, sand has been cleared away from the ruins. A team of NEG marines remains in the air aboard one of Dreadnought's troop transports, while another is hot and ready to go in the launch bay. The Moore crew are on the ground, along with the three Things which accompanied them.
The tomb, or temple, or whatever it is, seems similar in nature to that found in the Carpathians. The ritual incantations are different in their specifics, but there are too many general similarities to dismiss a connection.
One of the Things sings to its fellows, indicating sections of the stone, and the English-speaking creature accosts the archaeologists. "By whom was this built?" it asks.
"We don't know exactly," replies Nathan. "A little under three thousand years ago. By humans native to this part of the world, most likely."
"Thine handiwork hath impressed me," the Thing says after a moment. "Shall I tell thee the significance of what my fellows hath remarked upon?"
Nathan is nonplused. "Uh… yes. Please," he says bashfully.
"Thy world sits balanced upon the forces which revolve it and which in turn cause it to revolve about its sun. These must necessarily decay over time." The Thing gestures with a tentacle. "Engraved upon these walls is the tale of what my kinsmen did upon discovering this holy place. They made supplication to the great powers of the world. That which shall have the power to hold the stars and the celestial bodies in place, or as Great Cthulhu and others of His kind shall decree, to call them to other places and times."
"This supplication bound these powers in part to this world, causing that its revolution shall not cease, nor that its speed shall ever slacken. In this manner its attunement to the Walpurgis rhythm would stay perfected forevermore."
Nathan is slackjawed. "Holy sh-" he begins, then checks himself, turning to DeGroot. "Well, there's your answer to orbital decay," he says faintly. "The cosmic powers of the Universe hold the Earth in its orbit."
The Thing continues. "What we remark upon is this. Thy kin hath altered the terms of this binding, hath thought to control it to a greater or lesser degree. Like Great Cthulhu, they seem to propose to drag this world to some other place or time upon the right occasion."
Jamie can't help herself and looks at the thing, what she thinks of as the leader, "The right occasion?" She asks.
"Wait," DeGroot says. "Humans did that? Three thousand years ago?"
The Thing wriggles. "Verily. Upon the observance of the correct ritual, it shall be so."
Jamie mutters, "Well, at least it's not a time bomb."
"Wow," Nathan says. "Talk about meddling with powers beyond our comprehension. Or did they know about the Walpurgis-rhythm?" He shakes his head. "But… what would we accomplish by doing that?"
"Get away from the fucking Migou, for one," DeGroot mutters.
"I think I see why," whispers Armitage. "Don't you get it? Cthulhu. The Migou. The Elder Things. It's—"
Lisa speaks up. She hasn't said anything since the return. "Jerusalem. It's the holy city. Holy to everyone, even enemies of each other."
The girl goes on. "But us, we don't care about it being Jerusalem. We don't need a holy city. We just need a place. So… we were prepared to take away the holy place from everyone else."
Nathan shakes his head. "Holding our own planet hostage," he says, numbly.
"Thou would have faced strenuous objection in this matter from my kin," the Elder Thing states flatly. "However, given the destructive and corrupting forces I have witnessed so proximate to the Walpurgis flow, I now cannot wholly affirm that such a decision would be for the worst. Perhaps such sacred worlds are not meant to be."
"One last thing," DeGroot asks. "How much of this was written in ancient Chinese, and how much of it extrasensory encoding? Much of the writing at the previous dig site was only visible when… umm… Latham and Armitage did some…" he trails off. "I don't know what the hell they did."
"The Powder of Ibn Ghazi," Nathan remarks. "A magical dust that reveals the arcane to human eyes."
"We know not thy tongue," the Thing says, gesturing with a tentacle up into the heavens. "Thy limited apprehension be a burden, I wager. See thou not the pillar yonder?"
Nathan shakes his head. "See it we do not," he confirms.
Jamie shakes her head, "I'm afraid we dont, no."
"How thou came upon such a matter I shall not deign to guess," the Thing says in what could be heard as disappointment.
Nathan seems to awaken from his stupor of astonishment. "These… 'destructive and corrupting forces'. You mentioned them before, when you first met us. What are you referring to? What effects do they have?"
The Thing regards Nathan. "Consider thine own self, as a matter of instruction. Thou art sadly limited in all particulars, with faculties of the larger world so gravely impaired that even the children of mine own kin would surpass thy great thinkers. Thou art composed of no mean matter, but being the product of this place thou art burned and deformed by the presence of the cosmic forces which seethe below thy aware mind."
"Consider then a flame. It burns brightly and hath many useful properties, but place something combustible too close to it and it shall wither and scorch. Thou art such a thing. By thy proximity thou art warped out of true."
"Extremophile bacteria," DeGroot says. "You can find them everywhere — volcanos, acid caves, hell, they even find things living in the sludge at Chernobyl. But they're always simple, unorganized life-forms." He can't help but chuckle. "Maybe we only lasted this long out of our pig-ignorance, our lack of senses for such things."
"Moths to a flame," murmurs Lisa. And Armitage nods to DeGroot. "I think you're right. Human senses accommodate a continual input by ignoring that input. Too loud a sound, and we tune it out. We must be doing the same with these cosmic forces."
"And yet, we gained some ability to manipulate them,
after all," says Nathan. "The
Back aboard the Moore, Jamie receives a private message. The ship is preparing to return to North American airspace on an emergency flight plan, and her message seems relevant. It's from a contact in the Society.
Jamie checks around, to make sure there's not many onlookers, then pulls out her PDA and reads the message.
"OIS arrested high-level NEG personnel for buying dangerous magical artifacts from the Arcane Underground. Complication is that they're the ones Starkweather sold off. Info comes via contacts within GIA. Starkweather likely to be investigated, maybe implicated."
"Arrested personnel involved in investigation of project codename FUTILE OCTAVE. More information available — it seems Vreta's on your side. Ask him for clearance to brief the others."
Jamie reads then. Then again… Then a third time, her knuckles turning white with how hard she is gripping the screen. She breathes. One, twice. Then stands, concientiously putting the PDA away, when marches purposfully to Armitage, wherever he might be. "Vreta. How can I call him. Now." She is looking at the ground, noticably upset, and is spoken more like an order than an request.
Going through channels courtesy of the Dreadnought's commander, whose orders came indirectly from the field marshal anyway, Jamie gets ahold of the elder Nazzadi man in under thirty minutes.
Jamie breathes deeply, trying to sink and bury her rage for another moment, one that may soon come. "The OIC. What do they want, how long do we have, and more importantly, can I tell the others?"
"What are you talking about?" Vreta asks calmly.
Jamie looks at the monitor. She had, foolishly, assumed he'd know. "The OIC is making some arrests in connection with objects which we found previously. They're likely to come after us soon, and I'm assuming they won't like what they find." She pauses for a second, "They were working on FUTILE OCTIVE." She says, gravely.
This is something Vreta seems to recognize. "We'll share, then," he says after a moment. "Once I know how you heard this name, I'll tell you what I can."
Jamie stops for a second, and looks at the screen. She would probably be amazed at how much he knows. Still, caution is best. "I admit I have only heard the term a few times. This time it came to me through an aquantiance with some contacts at the GIA."
"An acquaintance that Frost… er, Armitage will vouch for?" asks Vreta calmly.
Jamie pauses again, "An acquauntance that at least knew of your interest in our expeditions." She looks down, then back up.
"You're being too vague for my taste, young lady," Vreta answers. "Dr. Frost and I go back a long ways. But you… I don't know you. I need more than that." He leans forward on the screen, clasping his fingers together.
Jamie sighs, "I apologize. Armitage probably doesn't know my contact. He is with the Eldritch Society."
Vreta swallows. This seems to have impressed him. "Are you one of them?" he asks at last. "If so, show me. I've seen worse, I assure you."
Jamie closes her eyes and concentrates. A thick black smoke ALMOST seems to roll off of Jamie as she changes, but if one were to look closely, you could see that it's actually being collected from the latent death that surrounds her, skin, bugs, ehat have you are all drawm to the dark, tall, gangley form that Jamie's arms twist themselves into as the lets the beast inside of her out once more. He face is masked in almost perpetual shadow as she looks at the screen, her voice taking on a deep, definitive quality, "I'm sure you have. And I no doubt you will see more." Her voice seeths with distain and death.
Vreta watches. He's calm, but Jamie knows that it doesn't come without effort. Finally he speaks.
"Well. FUTILE OCTAVE is the NEG codename for a Migou weapon system, or proposed weapon system. Something that according to intelligence would wipe out all human life on earth, and probably wipe out the Deep Ones as well. Something non-nuclear in its applications. I was consulted on the project because of my past experience with Migou technology, and I can tell you conclusively that they had no such weapons system before coming here."
"Now you'd asked about the OIS. I hope that you'll tell me more."
Jamie's form visibly twitches at the mention, her hands clench, the needle pods flexing on her arms as she speaks, "The OIS seems to have intercepted the artifacts that we found on our first dig that WE arranged to have sold to a private bidder. The artifacts wern't dangerous enough to warrant this arrest, and I suspect that this is a cover for interference in FUTILE OCTIVE. That or they needed the information on them for some reason." She looks at the door, then back at Vreta, "More pressingly, and urgently, it is reasonable to suspect that we will be their next targets. We won't get along with the OIS much."
Vreta takes this in calmly. "I see," he says finally. "Plant some recovered archaeological relics of legitimate occult significance, label them as dangerous, arrest the parties you wanted to arrest with a convenient pretext… Such things have been done before."
Jamie nods. This seems like the sum total of the OIS' playbook to her.
Jamie looks back at Vreta, "I seek permission to brief the rest of the crew here about this. We need to be prepared, and they should know what's going on. Sir." Her arsm start to move at their sides, eyes glancing around the room.
Vreta considers this, hands still clasped before him. "Get the
Jamie nods at Vreta. "Thank you Sir." She says, it almost sounds painful being pulled from her mouth. "I must… go now." She manages, and turns away.
Back on Earth, the Moore's crew present their guest to NEG high command.
Jamie breathes for a moment, after shedding her second skin, as it were, after her little demonstration for Vreta. She regains her composure for a precious few moments, then goes and finds Armitage. She looks at him, "Vreta gave me permission, we have urgent news to discuss…" She looks grin, even without the horrific outer crust. "We should probably assemble the key players…" She begins.
The crew, as it were, is gatherer into a meeting room, and Jamie tells them about the OIS. How the OIS are now most likely coming after us, as the agents involved in the sale of the pervious pieces were all arrested on pretty trumped up charges. She pauses for a moment, then looks around the table. She also explains about FUTILE OCTIVE, the weapon the the Migou were developing that could not only kill human life on Earth, but possibly wipe out the Deep Ones as well.
Jamie finishes, "I assume the OIS knows where we are, anywhere we might normally land, and will come after us." Her fist clenches…
Nathan sighs and presses his hand to his face. "You know, it's almost a bit of a letdown. To go all the way to Antarctica, and then to another world… and then we get back and a bunch of corrupt cops want to put us away."
"Yeah, typical," DeGroot mutters. "Besides, one look at the 'Ambassador' and they'll think we really have been consorting with demons. So what are our options? We can go to the next dig, because I doubt they'll follow us into any of these hellholes. Or we can try to deal with these guys before they catch up to us.
"The Dreadnought will be following us," points out Nathan. "And their orders can reach the Dreadnought."
Jamie looks at Nathan, "Of course, we don't ultimately know if they'll be followed. Vreta is, or was NEG, and didn't arrest me immediately." She looks, "I would like to …" She doesn't finish her thought, though, simply looking down.
Nathan rubs his chin. "Well, we can't make people not be foolish, so we'll need to pursue a different approach. Even if it did let us escape their reach, I'd just as soon not spend the rest of my life lurking in the most dangerous corners of the world."
"So what can we do about this?" Nathan continues. "I have no idea how the process is supposed to work, or how — or even whether — there's any sort of check on the OIS getting it wrong."
Armitage speaks up. "The best thing you can do right now is to try and change the game. Give them the Elder Things to worry about. Give them what we've learned about the dig site."
Jamie looks at Nathan, "In my experence, TRUTH or getting it wrong doesn't matter to the OIS. Obviosuly resistance if proof of guilt. Besides, It's not as if we're innocent…"
Armitage just smiles. "There are no innocents. Only sacrifices in our war against the Migou. Some more willing than others."
Nathan scratches his head. "Leads me to wonder where those artifacts were, after Selene Grayman bought them but before they turned up in NEG hands. Hell, who knows, maybe the OIS is just honestly trying to root out the Death's Shadow contacts. Stranger things have happened."
Jamie shrugs, "It's not likely." She ponders, "Unless we actually have contacts in the OIS, I doubt there's much we can solidly do."
DeGroot says, "The OIS is a large organization. Perhaps we can find a faction within it who will be sympathetic to our cause."
Jamie blinks, "We're half magicians and other assorted lots, I'm sure the OIS would greet us with open arms."
Jamie looks, "So we go to America, and present the Elder Ones we found?"
Armitage nods. "Not just exhibit them like a circus show. I don't think they'd permit that, regardless. No, more than that — make the case that these creatures can help us win the war, because that will trump almost anything else the OIS can say at this time."
"It makes about as much sense as anything else," DeGroot mentions. "The NEG would want to normalize diplomatic relations with them anyway. For whatever sense that will make to the Elder Ones."
"So who do we say this to?" Nathan asks. "That's the crucial question. I doubt the OIS personnel who book us will be interested. It's not as if I know anyone in high places — or even know anyone who knows anyone in high places, except for you, Dr. Armitage."
The scientist drums his fingers against his forearms. "I think we've imposed on Field Marshal Vreta quite enough at this time," he concludes. "We'll go through corporate. Bear in mind, ladies and gentlemen, that your new employer is a defense contractor and regularly deals with the military at a high level."
"Besides," he adds with a smile. "This sort of archaeology — if it doesn't get us arrested or fired — is worth a very, very substantial bonus."
"Let's do it, then," DeGroot says. "The sooner we get this done, the sooner we get back to digging. Who wants to ask our guest?"
Jamie looks at Nathan. "They seem most familiar with you, anyway…"
Nathan grimaces. "Thanks a lot, Jamie. Need I remind you which of us passed out just from seeing them, and didn't wake up again until he was dunked into a pool of water?"
Jamie says, "I seem to remember that was both of us…""
"I wouldn't know — you woke up earlier than I did." Nathan grins uneasily. "Fine, fine, I'll do it. I'm just not sure how I'm going to explain to them how politics works amongst us stunted beings — or why they should care."
DeGroot can't help but grin; he stayed on his feet. But it fades quickly. It was a near thing, and if not for Lisa, they'd all be dead. Or worse. "C'mon, guys. We're little more than yapping dogs to them anyway. Still…" He pauses. "I have to wonder what kind of people, could alter the… I dunno, 'spell', I guess… that keeps the Earth at this length of day and year. Guys like Svygotar, you know, from the tomb in the Carpathians… What would they have thought of him?"
The English-speaking Elder Thing and his two companions have tended to gravitate to the Moore's central section. They seem to prefer open spaces and tend to move about aimlessly when not otherwise engaged.
Nathan swallows and braces himself before entering the section. To say that he's 'accustomed' to their presence is overstating the case — he's merely reached the point where he doesn't pass out, vomit, or have panic attacks just from looking at them. Steeling himself, he enters, and asks, "Sirs, I would speak with you. I bear questions, and news."
"As thou hast sought, we are here. Dread not to speak," replies the Elder Thing calmly, while its two companions sing quietly to each other.
As the creature speaks, Nathan's immediate concerns are overtaken by another thought. "Actually… I'm curious about something. Why do you speak English in… well, I'd have to call it an archaic fashion? English speakers haven't used words like 'thou' or 'thee' in centuries. How did you learn our language?"
"Thou art not the first to come to us," the Thing answers. "In thy world's past time, a thing present indeed when considered by our loremasters, the witches and warlocks of thy world would be taught the secrets of the transportation by which thee came upon our abode. Many fled from persecution by their own number, either giving great offense or receiving it, and some would treat with us for further knowledge." The Thing's cilia wave gently. "We found it profitable to learn of this place to which our kin had adjourned and amused ourselves with the practice of it."
"Hah," says Nathan quietly. "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Somewhat more firmly, he continues: "I've received news that myself and my companions are soon to face similar persecution." He explains, briefly, about the decidedly non-occult armor and artifacts found in the Carpathians, and that the OIS — "those whose nominal mission it is to protect our weak spirits from the occult" — are tracking down anyone who had anything to do with the artifacts.
"We aren't sure why the OIS is really investigating this," Nathan continues. "It is true that the artifacts were, at one point, sold to a group of people that we call Death's Shadows — a particularly vicious band of cultists. But if things continue in this fashion, it seems likely that myself and my companions will not be able to continue our investigations, or to speak with you."
The Elder Thing listens, but its alien body language is beyond unreadable. At least, for Nathan's peace of mind, it doesn't seem to move around that much. "A shame. When you retreat from this world as other witches have done, then, may you find the fortune they enjoyed," the thing replies at last.
"We're trying to avoid that option," DeGroot says. "Human lawgivers are fractious, and come and go quickly. We believe that, if you will consent to dialog with a few of them, that the others will stay their hand. Or at least, confusion will result, and provide an opportunity to continue our mission. Will you allow it?"
The Thing confers with its colleagues for a few moments. Finally it speaks intelligibly again. "Thou hast until our fellows in the southern city hath concluded their investigation, then," it announces. "But that matter hath greater weight with us than treating with thy kind."
"I figured," DeGroot says. "Personally, I can't stand our rulers either. How long do you expect we have?"
"It hinges on what else must be done. They will avoid the shoggoths beneath the depths until more is known." The Thing sings again to its fellows. "Perhaps a turn of this world around its star will be enough to fully learn this tale."
"A year, then," Nathan says, putting it in terms that he's more accustomed to. "Well, that's more than enough, I should think. I doubt it'll take anywhere near that long for the OIS to deal with us, or vice versa."
"Or the Migou," DeGroot adds.
Armitage, as the senior authority aboard with regard to Starkweather, makes the call. The others can hear him talking, sometimes shouting, from within his private quarters aboard the Moore. Finally he opens the door.
"Alright," he says, mopping his brow with a hankerchief. "The board is on hold. Get your friend over here. And stay quiet."
The video screen lights up. The board of directors of Starkweather come into view. The Elder Thing wriggles forward. The immediate, visceral fear is clear. Even fully warned of what they were to see, probably with photos ahead of time, the Thing's influence is powerful.
"Dr… Armitage… is that… " begins one of them. Armitage clears his throat. "Ah, yessir." Another member of the board leans forward, looking past Armitage on the screen — he seems to address himself to the Thing. "We've been briefed, sir, on your species and its history on Earth. The board has approved some prepared remarks." Consulting a glowing screen before him, he begins to read.
"First, we do not speak for the entirety of our species, only ourselves. Given that, we wish to extend our full cooperation to you and your kind. In return, however, we are extremely interested in the preservation of our homeworld and people against the attacks of the Migou, with whom you have had some previous dealings."
"Second, it is imperative that we exert effort to ensuring your safety in the light of recent events, and against the Migou or Deep Ones who may attack the craft on which you travel. To that end we ask that you continue to accompany them to North America, at which point we'll—"
He's interrupted by someone else on the board. "
"Shit on toast," breathes one member of the Council. "We're fully caught up, Starkweather," announces one of the Field Marshals brusquely. "Thanks for the feed."
More conversation happens between the two parties. "Bob, listen—" "—need to appraise—" "—the antarctic disappearances—" Finally the Security Council's chairman gavels them into silence. "Moore, does your… guest have a name?" he asks calmly.
The Elder Thing, who has been watching and listening, now speaks. "Thou canst not sing, it seems," it explains. "My trade within mine own kin is the learner of tongues and student of travelers and animals. If thou needst a name by which to distinguish me from this rabble, then, I am 'Mister Singer'."
The Security Council takes this pretty well in stride. The chairman speaks again. "Very well. Mr. Singer. A pleasure to meet you, ah… " He shrugs it off and continues. "If I understand this correctly, your people visited our world in our distant past. We'd like to speak to you now and make you welcome. We can help you answer questions. But we need you to come with that crew there to Chicago. Will you do this?"
Singer pipes musically at his fellows for a few moments. He speaks again. "It will be done."
Jamie 's face is slightly impassive at the verious news. She looks up at Mr. Singer, and simply keeps her mouth shut. What a day she has ad…
The Security Council dismisses the Moore — but not the Starkweather board. There's a few seconds of chatter that comes through while the Moore disconnects, apparently the beginnings of a heated discussion between the two. A moment later the flight authorization comes in — orders for the Moore to proceed directly to Chicago under escort of the Dreadnought. No deviations permitted.
The Moore's crew returns to Chicago and find themselves ambushed.
The Dreadnought and Moore make their wary trip across the ocean. They fly high, at minimal power, with only passive sensors operating to escape detection from whatever might lurk in the watery abysses beneath. Two hushed stars darting across the canopy of endless night.
The northern approach is no good. Dreadnought's navigator plots a zig-zag that will take the two craft up past the Baja peninsula, past the still-glowing wreckage of Tijuana, well past the Nevada Zone, then north to Chicago.
The radio receives the expected signal. A lifeless, monotonic voice droning out its death sentence: "Entrance to Nevada Zone airspace prohibited. Violators are sentenced to summary execution. Entrance to Nevada Zone airspace prohibited. Violators are sentenced to summary execution. Entrance to Nevada Zone airspace prohibited…"
The night contains only two other broadcasts. First, a short sharp series of clicks which Moore's computer identifies as a NEG cipher but cannot interpret. The second is an all-night radio program broadcasting from somewhere in Texas or Oklahoma. "They're coming for us all, man!" the MC announces. "It starts in the vertebrae, the fungal tendrils growing out of the spine, seeping up into the brain, into your brain…"
The two ships receive clearance for Chicago airspace, and both settle into the berths at the military dock. A squad of soldiers, guns at the ready, are standing by to receive the crew as they disembark. A special tunnel, made of metal support struts and covered in tarp, is quickly being erected between a waiting hovertruck and the Moore's airlock. Someone doesn't want someone being seen.
Jamie stands verviously, her breathing labored still… She looks at their, special guests, holding herself with as much confidence as she can muster. She looks at DeGroot and Nathan.
Nathan chews his lip and studies the covered walkway. A sensible precaution, he thinks to himself. Not for the first time, he wonders if asking the Old Ones to speak to the NEG was a good idea — even though being 'disappeared' by the OIS was the likely alternative.
DeGroot stays close to the speaking Elder Thing, the one who identified itself as 'Mister Singer'. It's not easy — he recalls a movie monster from when he was a kid. 'Triffids'. But if Singer dies, so might the rest of them. Singer says nothing by way of reply, but DeGroot wonders if some of those cilia can taste the balance of fear and adrenaline.
The NEG troops herd their charges into the truck. It's a civilian vehicle for hauling cargo, fitted with steel chairs and seatbelts. The soldiers even made some halting accommodations for securing an Elder Thing, a courtesy Mr. Singer partakes of without comment.
"Sir, our orders are to escort you to the Defense Dome and debrief you and your crew," one of the soldiers explains to Armitage, who nods impatiently. People secure themselves, and the truck lifts off.
The conference room inside the Defense Dome is a sprawling affair, seemingly open to the sky, but that's a lie. The Chicago skyline and simulated sunlight are intense and realistic, but every so often there's a minor glitch in the holographics that gives it all away. Still, it's a comforting illusion.
Represented are members of the Security Council: two
One of the OIS personnel — identifiable as such from the badge he wears around his neck — steps forward after some of the small talk has died down. "This is not a trial," he announces frankly. "You're not entitled to one. This is us deciding what to do about that." He points an accusing finger at Mr. Singer. "And at this shitstorm you've decided to excavate for us. My office is tasked with regulating all nonterrestrial entities, which very definitely includes this guy. We're running this show and I expect full complaince from every one of you."
Jamie , standing by Nathan, looks at the pompus ass carrying on as if our friend couldn't kill everyone in this room with a thought. She can't help but smirk at the thought. She leans over and whispers to Nathan, who's behind her, "It takes some balls to yell at God, eh?"
Nathan shakes his head quietly. He isn't much interested in drawing any more attention from the OIS than strictly necessary, but he does think that Mister Singer can take care of himself. And speak for himself. And that if he thinks the NEG officials are getting out of line, they'll find out very quickly.
DeGroot keeps his face neutral. It would be premature to assume the OIS man is short-sighted; these are the guys that have to keep Death's Hand and Deep One infiltrators in line. But if the crew of the Moore is no more than lap-dogs to Singer, then this guy must look like he's rabid. This won't go well.
The agent isn't deaf. "You. Jamie Solak, yeah? You're on our shit list already. The only reason you're here alive at all is because of your family situation, so be grateful." He clears his throat. "I'm Special Agent Schroeder. I know all of you already. The humans anyway."
Jamie shrugs at the agent. On the OIS' shit list? She's quaking in her boots. She gives Mister Schroeder a winning smile.
Schroeder goes on. "Since you are all ass-deep in FUTILE OCTAVE anyway, and since everyone else here is actually, y'know, cleared for it, we're gonna talk about that."
"Ever since the early 20th century, our predecessors in law enforcement have been coordinating with each other on information about the Cthulhu cult and other enemies of humanity. Earlier contacts were sporadic, but more importantly, communication infrastructure was too low-bandwidth for them to trade data on what basically sounded too crazy to care about. If we'd not been so blind back then, the Arcane Underground might not be the thriving pit of vipers it is today. But that's another story."
"Creatures like Cthulhu, and its followers, and other beings like Yog-Sothoth, have sometimes been associated with plans to, uh, carry the Earth off somewhere. This was usually pretty vague — our problem is that the people implementing these plans didn't have a clue what they were doing. All they got were scraps of information."
"Well it seems that your dig sites are temples to Yog-Sothoth's lesser, uh, manifestations or sub-selves or something. The Migou learned about this. They apparently started planning to use this to move the planet out of the habitable band around the star. Without the Sun keeping it warm, the Earth would freeze, the oceans would freeze, and everyone would be fucked all around. You with me?"
Jamie simply nods her head. SHe had only really heard or figured out half of this, so she listens to what the Agent says.
DeGroot maintains his silence. Singer also said that ancient humans once used the temples to fix Earth in the habitable band in the first place; but if the OIS man doesn't know that, he's not going to want to find out now.
Schroeder goes on. "Thing is, they only came up with this plan — or started putting it into action, either way — after Ashcroft came across the first site. That's when your boy Armitage, or whatever he calls himself these days, got approval to go off and dig up the others. Migou blanks were found infiltrating Ashcroft's dig teams. They were pretty interested these sites and any relics from these sites. So we figure they had to have heard about it from someone. Someone like you guys. Someone like a spy already planted in Ashcroft. See where this is going?"
DeGroot takes the interrogative as permission to speak. "Sir, with respect, is the conclusion the Migou are using us as pawns to enact FUTILE OCTAVE? To do their digging for them?"
Schroeder smiles. He's got teeth like a shark when he does. "Yeah. That's exactly it, Mr. DeGroot."
Jamie peers. "They certainly shot at us a lot for people doing their work for them." She says. I mean, they can't be right, can they? They're the OIS. She clenches her fist beside herself as she remembers…
DeGroot nods. "But if that's true, it's had an unintended consequence." He hooks a thumb over his shoulder at Mister Singer. "Insofar as the Migou are frightened of anything, they're frightened of them. They won't touch the… uh…" He stops, and shrugs; whether he's cleared for this or not isn't going to affect their survival. "The Antarctic ruins. Or, I suspect, any ground where the Elder Things choose to stand."
"Well nobody's plans have gone exactly to spec this year, have they?" replies Schroeder curtly. "And that's why you're here instead of up against the wall. Because we need data that you can provide. But I know this. Not one of you motherfuckers is clean." He gestures in Jamie's direction. "Take her for example. Her brother was an inhuman monster wearing human skin. So was her dad. Her adopted dad — that's why we left her alone. Mr. Latham here is poppin' pills to keep himself from remembering something. That something could be orders from his handlers, or something else. And let's not even get started on you, Armitage."
Jamie glares at Schroeder, Stamping her food, "My Brother Was Not a Monster!" She screams. She feels something welling up inside of her, that she tries to push down. Visions before her eyes af the Agent sprawled out, red ichor leaking from his body, lying there. She swallows, and closes her eyes, trying to fight the urge back down. Not here. Not now. No… Death. No… kill…
Schroeder smirks. "We still got him. You want to see?"
Jamie's eyes slit open, and look at Schroeder, She grits her teeth, and speaks slowly, as if the words pain her, "I don't think that would be healthy for either of us right now." She shakes her head, still trying to fight herself from making a … fatal mistake.
"If we're dirty, is this act meant to prove you're 'clean', Agent Schroeder?" DeGroot interrupts, putting a restraining arm in front of Solak. "You're OIS. You've stared into just as many abysses as us. You know what that does to someone."
"Yeah, we know. And we have protocols to keep it controlled,"
Schroeder responds calmly. "That's why we're in charge
of security for the whole planet, and you're
piloting a half-assed crew transport full of
Armitage finally speaks up. "Ladies and gentlemen of Starkweather. Attend closely. This is what interrogation looks like. If he gets you angry and you lash out, he's got you. Calm yourselves. We're on the same side. This isn't the true face of Special Agent Schroeder. It's a mask he wears, it's his job to rile you."
Jamie smiles as she hears this from Armitage, "I guess it's important to do what you love."
DeGroot shrugs. "I've done his job. So, sir," he turns back to Schroeder, " If you tell me what you're fishing for, I'll give it to you. If you want to hang us, then please get on with it. Either way. Professional courtesy."
"Myself, I've nothing to hide," says Nathan. "Or rather… nothing I want to hide. Agent Schroeder, you'll be interested to know that I stopped taking my medication shortly before we reached Antarctica. Let's find out together what I didn't want to remember."
Schroeder shrugs. Armitage seems to have called his bluff. "All right then."
The story as told takes a few hours, with little repetition. Schroeder, and the specialists from other teams who join him in the questioning, are experts at questioning and note-taking.
Special Agent Schroeder tabulates and cross-references in the last few minutes. Finally he speaks. "So basically we have you for violating NEG restricted airspace, conspiracy, distribution of restricted artifacts, a few other charges that'll get you killed five or six times each. But since you so graciously agreed to join our big happy family, none of that probably matters."
"By the sound of it, it's this fellow in Lisbon, the one working with Selene Greyman's woman Ward, that's the next link in the chain. There's really no reason you would have found out about that if you hadn't snuck off."
"Did the same guy also hire Spence to screw us over in Mongolia?" DeGroot asks. "Or was that just bad luck?""
"Funny thing about that," Schroeder answers. "That was apparently the Children of Chaos tryin' to put a hit on you. Probably because of your involvement in FUTILE OCTAVE. Based on what you said, Sal here thinks that the Cult wants the Earth to stay where it is so their master's plans can come to fruition. So they'd of course be opposed to FUTILE OCTAVE succeeding. They came to the same conclusion we did, that you were being used to make it happen."
DeGroot doesn't ask further. Sometimes they all really are out to get you.
Jamie just shakes her head, and looks at the special agent. "So? Were we?"
Schroeder shrugs. "Indirectly, probably. You had one spy on board, but he's with the Children. We ran the rest of your guys from the Moore that you offloaded to Dreadnought, probably for the best when all's said and done." He glances at the Elder Thing, still quietly observing. "Anyway, none of them show any traces of being blanks."
"At this point," Nathan says, "I wonder just how many of our problems would be solved if we did move the Earth. To somewhere habitable, but in the 'wrong' alignment. I for one am sick of the Earth being the center of the universe."
Schroeder smirks a bit. "That remains to be seen. Our immediate next move is the arrest of every member of Starkweather who has access to your flight plans and data. Any one of them could be a Migou blank, reporting on the locations of the dig sites. Let's stop them from moving the planet before we talk about doing so."
Jamie looks up at Schroeder, "Are you still going to show me my brother?"
The Special Agent pauses. "Yeah. Yeah, we can arrange that."
Jamie just nods. That should do nicely.
Schroeder is still working through the larger issues brought to the NEG's attention. He details Special Agent Tim Sutherland to escort Jamie.
Jamie looks at Tim. "What did. HE" She stresses the work, clearly she wanted to use others, "…mean about my father?"
Sutherland's called for a car. As the group waits, he calls up information on his PCPU and reads it intently. "Your, ah, your father and brother are listed as dangerous extraterrestrial creatures. Human rights revoked by court order, ah, a few years ago, immediately after their individual arrests. Brother taken first, father picked up two weeks later attempting to fly to the Caribbean."
This susprises even DeGroot. "Damn, man. I've never even heard of that happening to anyone."
Jamie looks sidelong at Sutherland, "Dangerous. Extraterrestrial. Creatures.?" She looks, "That… not…" She almost breaks out in tears, "What sort? What does that even MEAN." She starts to yell again.
"It, uh, it means just what it sounds like, Miss Solak," the agent answers, peering down at his PCPU again. "Creatures which are not human in biological or psychological terms."
The Agent turns to DeGroot. "It, ah, it's more common than you think. Unfortunately. We try to avoid scaring people."
"Yeah, I see that," DeGroot says softly, trying to put a hand on Solak's shoulder… gently. "Maybe we should just go see the guy, and leave the bad news until there's whiskey around."
"Sounds ominous," Nathan comments as he hurries up. Glancing apologetically at Jamie, he adds, "Mind if I join you? I don't think I'm much use to anyone's investigation until I start remembering something."
"Yes, I'm aware of that. I'm also, recently violently, aware that…" She assumes a lecturer's tone. "Extraterrestiral creatures come in many shapes sizes, original, etcetera." She pauses, "I'm asking of what nature you BELIEVE my brother and father TO BE." She nods absently to Nathan.
The car pulls up. Sutherland ushers everyone inside. He follows, signalling to the driver — a human male, present mainly to add security that an LAI navigation system couldn't — to pull away. "Well, ah, it's an inherited condition which we've come to learn about and catalog. They're called dhohanoids."
Jamie's head whips around when she hears this. She looks, "You said… Dhohanoid?" She looks, and repeats… "Dhohanoid…" She looks down at her hands. "You don't say…" She shakes her head, "Can't be true… can't be…" She says, but weakly. She will, of course, find out soon enough.
Sutherland signs the group in through security at the Ministry of Order, the OIS headquarters in Chicago. He has a biometrically-secured keycard that directs the elevator into one of the sub-basements.
The doors open and Sutherland leads the way out. "You know I don't ah, I don't talk to them, myself. The dhohanoids I mean. But you'll find the security chief for this section just down the hall." He points the way. "He'll call when you're ready to be escorted back up." And he steps back into the elevator. "Compartmentalization, you know."
Jamie can hardly walk, really, and is more or less being lead around in a daze. She smiles weakly as she hears this last, "Oh, right. You partner said. THe watchword and all that…" She tries to mock, but finds herself falling short.
At the end of the hall, a man in NEG uniform buzzes the group through a security door. "First office to your left," he mumbles.
Waiting in the first office to the left is a handful of men and women. But Jamie recognizes one of them immediately. It's Sasha. "Imagine my surprise," he says with a warm smile.
Jamie blinks, and looks up. "Wait…" She pauses, "YOU?" She looks at him, the tears in her eyes, "You… You are here? What in the hell are you doing?" She shakes her head, tears in her eyes, starting to stream down her cheeks.
Sasha grins. "Some mutual friends told me you were heading down here. I thought I'd see what was going on." He withdraws a GIA badge from his pocket and presents it.
Nathan looks between the two, feeling an urge to intervene. "Excuse me," he says. "What is a dhohanoid, anyway?" he says, looking straight at Sasha.
Jamie's face is still covered in tears, "So you knew?" She asks. "I mean, assuming those pigfuckers are correct… and YOU KNEW?" THis last is a scream. She hardly looks at the badge as it's presented to her.
Sasha's face composes itself into a more neutral mask. "I'm here to find the truth, same as you." He glances at Nathan. "A dhohanoid is a creature of darkness, a very evil and wicked thing. Think of it like the ascended form of a cultist, like an extraterrestrial werewolf."
DeGroot stands behind Nathan, looking nervously towards the door, ready to pull them both through it if Solak … or this Sasha… gets violent. Boy doesn't know when to stop asking questions.
The OIS staff here have been printing out security badges, and now present them to Sasha and the Moore's crew. "Authorized for 30 minutes. Please proceed down the hall," one says.
Jamie looks up at Sasha, so far ignoring their companions, "So are they all clean?" She nods at the other people in the room apart from Sasha. She tries to compose herself, sniffing back her tears a bit. She rips the badge out of the officials hand, and shoves the tethers at the others, "Let's walk…"
Nathan accepts his badge absently, still casting wary looks at Sasha. "You seem awfully amused by the situation," he mutters under his breath. Under the circumstances, he finds that extremely suspicious.
This area turns out to be a prison complex. But these aren't conventional prison cells. After inspecting the first couple of chambers, the nature of the incarceration becomes clear. The people here — or former people — are being held in a sort of cryogenic suspension. DeGroot recognizes the technology. It's a spinoff from the early days of intersystem space exploration.
The group, along with their escort, arrives at two adjacent cells. There's already a man waiting here. As the OIS escort steps away, the man turns around and smiles. And Jamie recognizes him, too, but not by name. Nor should he be here at all. He is the Egyptian-looking man who she encountered briefly in the hotel in Rome, when she was trailing Rasael Ward. Why is he here?
Jamie's eyes look over the man… She lifts an eyebrow, looking over the man's form. "Wait… YOU!" She looks back to Sasha, "Another surprise for me? Today is just full of surprises. First I find out that my life is a lie, and now some random guy in an elevator returns to…" She turns back to the egyptian looking man, "Do what, one questions…"
Sasha's eyes are wide as saucers. This was apparently not in his program either.
DeGroot has one eye on Solak's exchange, and the other on the cryocells around them. This is just like the old legends about Roswell and the Nevada Zone, when it was called Area 51; frozen alien corpses… and other things that don't die… he's reminded of Mister Singer, and the Dyer Report… he shudders, puts his back to the things, and pays more attention to Solak and the short man.
"You don't recognize me," the Egyptian says smoothly. "Understandable. I'm the Director of the Chrysalis Corporation. It's a pleasure to meet you all."
Jamie takes a step backwards, and flanks next to Sasha. She takes a step sideways, then smiles, "I'm sorry, I've never had the pleasure." She nods, cutly, "Isn't this a little low rent for you?" She reassumes her sarcastic personallity, it's always safe to stick with that you know. She is, of course, scared out of her mind.
"I'm on an inspection tour," the Director answers. "We manufacture the cryo-pods the OIS uses. So of course I'm quite interested in their operation, especially given how unsafe the contents could be."
Jamie looks to Sasha, then stats up a little straighter. "It would, of course, be unfortunate for any of them to fail in an untimley fashion." She smiles, "Or fail to keep their contents in… prestine condition." She says, simply talking. Talking is good. No death.
"Ah, let me give you my card," the Director offers. He extends a business card. On it is his name. "I should be off."
Jamie scoffs, and pulls a hanky out of her pocket. She smiles, why she carefully takes the card, with the hanky wrapped around it, "Sorry about that. I have a bit of a germ phobia. Never know what you can catch from it."
The Director waves casually. He's nearly to the other end of the hall when he speaks again. "Best of luck with that prison break, by the way. We did build in a remote release system. Probably a mistake." Jamie looks down. Wrapped in her hanky is a small electronic device. It has one button. Her thumb is already depressing it.
The party is trapped in the OIS's prison complex.
Jamie looks down at her hand. The electronic device, trapped there where a business card could be. Her thumb, firmly pressed down on the button. But not releasing it, not yet, not yet.
DeGroot stares intently at the device in Solak's hand in exactly the same way he'd pay attention to a live grenade. No alarms have yet sounded, nor have any eldritch horrors swarmed down the hall with murder in their eyes. He can only imagine what the OIS will do to him, though, should any of that happen. "Don't… release that switch…"
Jamie nods, fighting her first impulse at the surprise of being handed the item to let go, she keeps the button clampped down hard. She looks at Sasha, then at DeGroot and Nathan. "We should." She begins, "Probably check those pods. And soon."
Your father and brother. This is the only way you'll ever see them. The voice is quiet, but insinuating, and can be heard only in Jamie's mind.
"Alright," DeGroot replies. He looks around for an intercom. "If we can, we call for help. In either case, we back out of here, slowly. If the shit hits the fan, we might as well lock ourselves in an empty pod and save OIS the trouble."
You'll never see them again. You'll never know, the voice whispers.
Rows and rows of cylindrical pods surround the group. Each of them makes a noise as it operates. But what would be the sound of a pod opening? And what would emerge?
Should I even want to know? At this point, who is there to believe? Jamie asks, using the same facility, she assumes, as the voice is coming from. Obviously no one has been totally up front with me. Jamie gives no sign as well, but she walks over to the pods, the investigate what is actually happening, that button still pressed down.
If there's nobody to believe in and nothing to hold onto, then… why do you fight? the voice remarks sardonically.
DeGroot says, "Hey. Solak. Don't get too close to those," DeGroot says. "We gotta leave. Back to that checkpoint we passed getting in here." He points back the way they came. The old soldier knows he doesn't sound nervous, but he also knows it's a total front. Even if this is just a sick joke, perpetrated down here, it can still kill them."
So I just trade one false flag for another? She asks. She looks over at DeGroot, "You can depart if you like. I think I must know…" She says, uncertainty wavering into her voice.
A sudden stab of pain sweeps through Jamie's arm. Her hand briefly goes numb, then starts to throb. The device she's holding onto is generating some sort of painful electric shock.
Jamie starts as her hand stings from the pain… She looks down, as the device, whatever it is, is released from her hand. "Damnit, that thing bit me!" She screams. It starts to slip out of her hand…
DeGroot leaps forward and wraps his hands around Solak's, finding his finger now on the proverbial button. "Shit," he mutters.
DeGroot looks straight at Solak. "It's still going," he mutters. "I'm giving you ten seconds to decide where your loyalties lie. If your brother is down here, he will still be down here in a week, or a month, or a year. However, if we stay here to see him, then… very likely… several of us will die. Which is it going to be?"
Jamie looks at DeGroot, "It's going to burn our hands off if we don't put it down." She says, still screaming in pain, her hand trapped between DeGroot's and the item. She slows. "I will never get this chance again. You expect me to give up what I have been working for before I even met you or joined the crew?"
DeGroot takes the device from Jamie, wincing as it shocks him again. "I'm taking this back to the checkpoint. Then I'm locking the door, and dropping it in the nearest bin. Come with me if you don't want to know what happens in here after that." He walks off towards the exit, quickening his pace after a few steps.
Sasha hesitates. He's been staring worriedly at the pods. Now he looks instead at Jamie. "Make the right choice," he says quietly, but it doesn't seem clear what he thinks that is.
Jamie starts as the item is shook from her grasp… She looks defiantly at DeGroot. "I will see you later then." She says, with utmost certainty. And she walks over to the pods that were indicated.
"I hope so," DeGroot calls. "Sincerely." He speeds up to a trot. He doesn't think the smell of cooking meat is imaginary."
DeGroot reaches the first checkpoint — and discovers that the heavy security door is already closed, and locked, and there is nobody else on this side. "Oh… shit." He glances back towards Solak and the cryocells, then down at the thing in his hand. "We may have to go through with it after all."
"Someone is having way too much fun with his plot," Nathan says bitterly. It's the first thing he's said aloud since the CEO of the Chrysalis Corporation left Jamie with the switch.
"Recriminations later," DeGroot grunts. "Can you see any way to kill this thing?" He holds up the box. "It's shocking me, so it's powered. So… ow… where's the battery?""
"Damn good question," Nathan mutters, patting his pockets instinctively for the pocket tools he knew were taken from him at the first checkpoint. "Wish me luck getting the damn open using my thumbnail as a microscrewdriver."
DeGroot glares at Latham, but bites back any gruff reply. Literally.
Nathan is saved by an incredible stroke of luck — one of the microscrews is already loose, and although his thumbnail won't fit the screw drive, he is able to use pressure on a thumb to unscrew it, shocking himself several times in the process. Once he finally gets the screw out, he can then use the head of that screw as a makeshift screwdriver to undo the rest.
DeGroot slumps to the ground as Latham removes the device from his hand. He glances at his palm — second degree burns on his right palm and third-degree burns on his left. Every muscle in his left arm feels like it's been massaged with a hammer. Adrenaline and fear has kept him from passing out, but with the pressure off, it's all he can do to stay conscious. He sits still, folds his arms across his chest, and breathes deeply. "This had better fucking be worth it for Solak," he groans.
Doing fine work on a live electrical device is still not easy —
the pulses of current raised hell with muscle tone —
but after a lot of sweating (and some pained curses
from DeGroot as the damnable thing continues to fry
his hand off), Nathan finally managed to pry open the case.
"What in the name of glory is this?"
he says, using a corner of the lid to pry out
a tiny marble. "It looks like… a
DeGroot carefully removes his jacket, intending to improvise a sling for his left arm. The right one still seems to work. "Lovely. Did they hide any morphine in it?"
Nathan massages his right hand with his left — several
of the fingers are still numb. "I'm surprised
they hid a
After a few moments, DeGroot levers himself upright, left arm snugly wrapped across his chest. "Not yet. But let's find an exit before it gets worse."
Jamie looks at the two as they come back, and shakes her head as she's filled in. She looks into the cells with the pods in them. She inspects the one presumably belonging to her brother.
The pods' contents are obscured; all that Jamie has to go on are prisoner numbers and names. SOLAK, D. And another one nearby that looks like it also says "Solak" on it. The pods have a computer console attached to them. But like any good lock, there is a key. The terminals want a password, along with some other credentials.
Solak. Jamie gasps as she sees the name, hand against the cold pod. She shakes her head, tears once again welling up in her eyes. She shakes her head, "It just can't be true…" She mumbles, but she's more trying to convince her self, her previous conviction gone… She walks over to the terminal, and looks. Given these people's perverse sense of humor, she'll try her credentials and password first.
DeGroot stares at the terminal for a long moment. "They said they'd leave us down here for thirty minutes," he says. "Reckon we've still got about twenty-five. Me, I'm for finding or making a door."
Jamie looks back at DeGroot, "I doubt they'll be coming back for us at all." She says, as a matter of factly. She glares over at Sasha, "I don't suppose you can open this?" She snarls at her 'friend.'
Sasha purses his lips. "GIA doesn't have any authorization. I'll try a few things I've picked up…" He steps forward, working on the terminal for a few minutes.
"The staff at the checkpoint was gone," Nathan says. "What we were told is inapplicable anymore. We have no idea how much time it'll be before someone finally realizes something and blows the whole place up, or whatever their emergency protocol is for a jailbreak."
Jamie looks at Sasha, "Well, if that's what your plan is, I can at least help." She moves to the terminal, and watches what Sasha is doing… lending assistance if she can.
DeGroot leans against the wall, mostly keeping watch, though sparing a moment here and there to review the choices that brought him here, trying to find which one was a forseeable tactical blunder. Everything always seems like a good idea at the time.
The man finally takes a step back. Nothing has worked. "It's a two-factor authentication," Sasha explains. "I think… I think the whole purpose of this dark joke was to get you to use the device. If you could fence this pod off from the others electromagnetically, make it so radio can't get through to any of the others, I'd say reactivate it. But I don't see how to do that."
Sasha glances around. "That many failed attempts. They have to know we're here. They must know. They just don't care. So… being trapped down here is their plan."
Jamie nods, "If they didn't want us touching the thing, they would have been flagged when I tried."
"It had a
Sasha shakes his head. "This is definitely their system software."
Jamie looks around at the cell, "Maybe there's some
way we could use the
"Then maybe that little guy was trying to help us," DeGroot continues. "In some perverse way. The OIS didn't give us both keys, so we can't do anything. So he gives us a master key, which would likely get us killed. Very cute."
Jamie shakes her head, "I'm assuming the OIS was in this the whole time." She looks at the pod, "Honestly, for all I know, it's all a front, and this thing is empty." She looks around the cell block, "I somehow doubt they are ALL empty, however."
"And possibly release a plague of dhohanoids on Chicago," Nathan points out. "This is bigger than just us. We're just the setup to a much bigger punchline."
Jamie looks at Nathan, "You know the guy who gave us that? He was the head Dhohanoid, you know. In charge of them all." SHe looks to Sasha, "At least, something like that. I wouldn't be surprised if this entire thing is just a front." She shakes her head, and kicks the pod frustratedly.
"Interesting, that. Chrysalis Corporation," DeGroot says. "They designed these to freeze you for space travel." He levers himself upright and shuffles towards a pod. "For slower-than-light trips to Kuiper Belt objects or other stars. So…" He inspects a pod more carefully. "They aren't prison hardware. Their failure cases will open the pod, rather than locking it down."
Nathan rolls the miniature
"If he's the leader of the Dhoanoids," DeGroot says, "then I can see why he'd want them all released. But that doesn't incline me to do him the favor."
"In any case…" continues Nathan. "I doubt
we can just smash the pod with a hammer. To destroy
the locking mechanism would take something more than that.
At minimum…" He holds up the
Jamie has been looking at the case, trying to figure out how to move it, or find where the power comes in. She looks up as Nathan says this. "Can you do it?" She asks, pointedly.
One power source. Ahh, but two captives, the voice whispers in Jamie's mind.
My Father is unimportant now. I want to see Dale. Jamie responds, briefly.
"Maybe," Nathan says. "I still don't have
any proper tools. And these things weren't really designed
to be tampered with. I can try to plug the
Sasha sighs and shakes his head no.
"I'll tell you what I know," DeGroot says. "What the hell, it's not like it will make it worse."
Nathan nods to DeGroot, then turns to Jamie. "One last thing. If I'm lucky, this could be the key to your brother's pod," he says, holding up the miniature device. "It could also, with just as much luck, be the key out of here. I'm not sure if there's enough luck in the world for it to be both."
Jamie hesitates as she hears Nathan speak. "I need to see my brother." SHe says, her cheeks stained with tears, having been quite the emotional day for her. "I ask that you open this for me." She said, faltering and stumbling over her words. "I… I must know… For sure…" She says.
"Then…" DeGroot replies. "Let's open it."
Nathan glances at the pod, then at the
Nathan fiddles with the meager tools at his disposal. A computer terminal, hooked into a medical suspended-animation unit rigged for incarceration. Improvised tools against repurposed technology. But at bottom, it's a machine designed with contingencies for failure, and introducing failure into a machine is so very, very easy.
As electricity arcs into the sealant lines, the login screen locks itself; in place there's a red display indicating that the pod's life support capabilities are being compromised. Emergency revivification is commencing. Whoever — or whatever — is inside that pod is about to be let free.
Jamie finds her lost brother Dale.
The lights flicker uncertainly in the barren, unadorned Cell. Jamie stands by, her eyes glued to the pod, as it enters it's final unlock sequence. Is it going to be her brother? Or something else? Just what will be here?
The damaged pod continues its revivication procedure. The implications of this sink in: if whatever's in here was best left imprisoned, it will now be more difficult to put away again.
DeGroot edges back from the opening pod. With his arm in a sling, he's not ready for a fight. Like it would succumb to fists anyway… He tugs Latham with him; he got one door open, he might be necessary for the others.
With a groan, the seals unlock themselves and the computer shuts down. Power is systematically being diverted away from any surviving systems, to prevent a fire or electrical arc. The pod can be opened manually at this point — if not by someone outside, then by the occupant.
Jamie waits. Perhaps scared of what she'll find… perhaps worried about what she's done. That sinking feeling at the pit of her stomach betrays the doubt she maintains. The myriad of possibilities runs through her head, all slightly worse than the last.
The hatch begins to push itself outward. A cloud of steam follows. And a shaky humanoid figure stands within it. There's some sort of physical transformation happening — the outlines of that figure are not their normal selves. But what resolves itself is a young human being whose eyes are black orbs, dark as the depths of space themselves. Tears are running down his cheeks from those obsidian wells. It's Dale, as she remembers him.
Tears well up in Jamie's eyes as she sees Dale. Well, what is probably Dale, anyway… Those eyes though. She's been turned so many ways at this point she's not even sure what to feel. It looks like Dale, at least. She asks, looking at the crying boy, "Dale?" She looks at him, to scared to run to him or away.
DeGroot keeps one eye on this 'Dale' and one on the nearby pods. This would be a bad time for someone else to show up.
"Jamie?" The boy's voice trembles — just like she remembers it did, that day so long ago before the hospital visit, or when the bad men came. "Is that you?"
Jamie nods, and takes a step forward, looking at Dale. Easily within arm's length of Dale, but not reaching out, her own tears start pouring down her own cheeks, smiling. "Yes. It's me." She looks the boy over, "H-…" How have you been?" She says, lamely.
"They took me away, Jamie. They took me away," Dale says softly. "I'm sorry, I said I wouldn't get lost again, I promised, I'm so sorry… "
Jamie takes a step back. "I know Dale." She looks at him, "It is you…" She says, and runs to him, her fingers caressing his cheek. "Do you remember what happened?" She asks, looking over her brother.
Dale stiffens. "Two agents of the OIS, one male, one female. Four additional figures in composite body armor appeared shortly after," he says. His voice has taken on a monotonic quality, more like a computer reciting data than a scared little boy. "Agents' names were not provided. Agents presented credentials which were accepted. Dale Solak charged with loss of human status and to be placed under arrest per OIS guidelines. Dale Solak remanded to cryogenic custody following standard battery of human verification examinations with 100% failure rate. Indefinite incarceration to follow." He seems to snap out of it, and looks up again with those black eyes at Jamie.
Jamie's hand zips back at Dale stiffens. "Dale…" She says, a little weirded by his mode of speech. "When was Mom's birthday?" She asks, a little wary now, taking a step back.
The boy takes on his strange condition again. "August 27, 2032," he recites. "Born 6:13 a.m. in Chicago General Hospital, 7 pounds 4 ounces."
DeGroot frowns, almost scowling. "He's still in there, but he's not alone."
"What… what is he?" Nathan murmurs, eyes wide, as he edges slowly away. The boy seems to be 'Dale' some of the time, but other times… Nathan still isn't clear on what a dhohanoid is, but this seems to be something else.
Jamie frowns as the supernatural sense comes over her, "He is this THING… This FILTH. I don't believe he ever was, but he is." She stares at the pod screaming, "You aren't Dale. Not anymore." She screams, and starts to attempt to close the pod.
"Wait!" Dale cries. "Wait! You said you were Jamie, even though you look like that! Why can't you accept me?"
Jamie pauses. "This? What I'VE done." She stares at him. "THIS was for YOU. I came here to rescue you, and find out that you are THIS?" She shakes her head, "How could you do this? WHY Dale… WHY…" She cries.
"But you're a monster!" Dale exclaims. "You're all black and insectile and… well just look at yourself! But somehow I can tell that you're Jamie too, so… can't… can't we…?"
Jamie looks down. "I'm how I usually look Dale. What about my friends? What do THEY look like?" She demands, thrusting the pod lid back open, and gesturing to the rest of the assembled crew.
"They look human, they look okay, like normal, y'know?" Dale pleads. "But even though you've changed, I accept you, sis. It's okay, so please, please don't leave me here."
"What are we, some kind of non-human rights campaign?" Nathan mumbles to himself, glancing between Jamie and Dale. Maybe the Old Ones could make sense of this for him — and he boggles at himself that he considers that a reasonable and sane option.
"I don't know. I just don't know!" She shakes her head, and backs off. "I don't even know who you are Dale. Who you've become!" She gestures to the pod, "Maybe we'll just stay here, beside eachother… when they come to find us…"
The boy tentatively tests the pod doors to see if Jamie's still trying to shut him back in. "Hey. Um, where are we anyway? Still in the prison?"
Jamie isn't pressing at this time, and has backed a good few feet away from the pod. "Have you seen this place before?"
Dale steps out, peering around. "Ohhh. Yes, yes, this is still the prison." He peers at Jamie next. "So um, how did you get in here?"
Jamie looks at Dale, still in violent disbelief, "They let us in. Well, sort of." She says, looking to the others with a warning look.
Dale bobs his head. This seems good enough for him. Sasha speaks up, making an opportunity of the brief silence. "Dale, explain your purpose to Jamie please."
Again Dale stiffens. "Computational and observational dhohanoid, second generation. Observe, record, and integrate intelligence data." Sasha steps back, a quirky smile playing over his face. "A jendervan," he explains to Jamie. "Not a combat type. But he's a dhohanoid not because of the Rite — he's one because of your father."
Jamie affixes a glare at Sasha, "I'm assuming you knew this?" She shakes her head, "You." She just can't believe it. She looks around, "Well, Dale doesn't seem to be killing us right now. Even though the OIS was RIGHT." She grinds this through her teeth, as if it pains her to even say. She glares at Dale again, and sighs. "It is nice to see you. Brother."
"Wait," DeGroot interrupts. "So if Dale inherited
it from their father, why didn't Solak also inherit? Is
"I'm adopted. Apperantly. THe day is just full of surprises, it seems." Jamie mutters.
Nathan swallows. "And what are you, Jamie?" he asks. He's not sure he wants to know the answer, but he just can't live with an elephant this big in the room.
Jamie looks at Dale. "I'm a Tager. So, basically, Dale and I are moral enemies." She looks at her brother, "Isn't that right, bro?"
While Dale fidgets, Sasha speaks up. "Jamie. I know what a jendervan is because I'm the man at the GIA who's expected to know. It's my department. And that's why I gave you, well, the job referral I did. What I don't know is anything beyond that, as far as your case goes. If you think you need to have something out with me, you should speak up."
Jamie looks at Sasha. "Sorry, Friend. I've had a day. Clearly my suspicion should make sense…"
Sasha smiles. Somehow it doesn't look happy. "I know. Jamie, I did what I did because when we met, you felt helpless. You were trapped by circumstances you couldn't understand, because of the public policy that exists to spare the public this sort of knowledge. I felt that if you could look behind that veil, and were well equipped to deal with what you saw there, that you might feel empowered again. That you could come to this day, this moment, understanding what really happened and having a choice in the matter."
Jamie looks at Sasha again. "Choice? What kind of a choice is this? Between a brother and an enemy? I had more choice than him, clearly…"
Sasha goes on. "Things happened. But here you are. Your brother — or someone who answers to the name and recalls what your brother should — is out of prison. Your choice is clear. 'What do I do now?' 'What do I do about this?' But you have more information and more tools."
DeGroot rolls his eyes. "Are you fucking kidding me? We're still in prison! And both of them are still aliens to the NEG. What abyss have you been starting into that makes you think this is better?"
Jamie says, "I'm not even sure what next steps really are in any real way." She looks at DeGroot and Nathan. "THank you. For letting me have this." She looks back at Dale. "What do you want, brother?""
Dale rubs his black eyes and thinks about it for a minute. "I wanna go home," he says finally.
Jamie turns to DeGroot first, "Well. I do have my brother. I could have been miserable my whole life, but now…" She smiles at Dale, "I'm not sure that's an option." She says, "Home can never be the same…"
DeGroot shivers, shifting his improvised sling. "Well. He doesn't seem inclined to kill us. So let's look for a way out, before someone shows up who does." He turns and walks slowly down the hall. "Great. Another hole in the ground. Starkweather should have hired coal miners."
Jamie quirks her head. "Dale. How can we get out of here?" She looks at her brother.
Dale stiffens again. "Dale Solak was placed in temporary sensory deprivation during incarceration proceedings. Required situational data is unavailable. Recommendation: reconnaissance."
"Yes, sir," DeGroot replies, saluting with his off hand.
"You know, if all dhohanoids were merely weird like this, people wouldn't be so afraid," Nathan remarks, as he starts walking behind DeGroot, looking for things his companion might have missed. "Maybe that was the Director's big plan — or at least his plan B. Get us used to the idea."
"I'm going to do some experiments with the empty pods," Sasha announces. "Maybe there's something we can do with them when their terminals aren't locked down."
"Actually, maybe I can give you a hand with that," says Nathan.
"Who the hell was that guy, anyway," DeGroot mutters. "Chrysalis Corporation? Really? Why would a suit come down here himself?""
Time passes. The party has fanned out through the facility. DeGroot with his training and Dale with his endlessly empty eyes probe the walls, floor, pods and exit for any signs of weakness. Jamie follows, substituting weary paranoia for battlefield experience. Nathan and Sasha study the cryopods and the available options their software presents.
Jamie stops short. "Well, it's worth a shot anyway. " She smiles, "Okay. I'm going to go into another one of these cells, and try and find some help, too. Please don't come visit me." She looks at Dale, "Especially you, Dale." She says, and walks into one of the cells.
The pods seem well-designed for their use. The necessary power connectors are buried in effectively unbreakable armorcrete. The terminals to the computer are durable enough to resist casual breakage for parts. They have some basic online documentation for the user, enough that Nathan and Sasha can work out the process of freezing and unfreezing a subject.
The group do find an assortment of hatches and vents, all closed off and well-sealed, that seem to be responsible for circulating atmosphere here. Others seem to have no immediate clear purpose, but they still exist. DeGroot can make out what appear to be fire suppression systems.
DeGroot inspects the fire extinguishers. "Well. The failure mode for the pods was to open in an emergency. So I have to wonder what will happen to the doors, if they think there's a fire down here."
After examining the air system, DeGroot comes to the conclusion that air is filtered into the prison system selectively, through a series of microscopically spaced holes in the ceiling. He's seen systems like this before in the space program, and he's reminded that the pods too were spinoffs of aerospace technology. The idea is simple: if you have creatures who can conceivably change their shape, become smaller, then even an air duct is a danger. Nothing larger than a gas molecule should be allowed in or out.
DeGroot says, "I know the principle. Bloody hell they were thorough."
Jamie looks around her cell. She sighs, and clenches her fist. The change isn't hard now, her beast barely kept at bay through this whole thing. The form takes over quicker than it usually does. She gasps as she changes, her form hidden in the cell as her limbs twist into her shadow shape. Taking a break to find her breath, she calls out, to see who's around…
The tager mindlink is a peculiar mode of mental communication. It has a definite range limit, and yet it seems to bypass conventional barriers easily enough. And Jamie receives a reply immediately. Solak? It's Francois. Francois Clement. Here investigating reports of a bloody Elder Thing in Chicago.
Francois. Hi. Yeah, I know about the Elder Thing. He's pretty well spoken. We're kind of trapped at the bottom of an OIS prison here. And there's … other complications. Jamie thinks.
Jamie sighs. So, I'm down here after my brother. But it turns out he's a Dhohanoid. Yeah. That.
OIS is pretty bad news, Francois answers silently. This must be serious. Need evacuation?
Yes. All of us. She answers, flatly.
Wilco. I'll contact the Eldritch Society for a team, Francois acknowledges. This must be the one under their facilities, the cryoprison right? I'll be your contact. We'll be there soon.
Thank you, Francois.
Jamie yells down the hall, in a dark voice familiar at least to DeGroot and Nathan. "Evac is coming, guys. Hold tight." This is all jamie is willing to empart.
The crew escapes from the OIS.
The man sitting at the desk has a natural air of authority. Even while orchestrating a disaster, he seems in command of himself and his responsibilities. Special agent Schroeder remains nearby, waiting for orders.
Finally a call comes in. The man answers. "Huxley here. … Yes, go ahead." He beams at Shroeder. "Good work, by the way." He presses a button and begins speaking into the air, dictating a message for immediate delivery.
"To all OIS personnel. New orders. Capture and incarceration of Starkweather Solutions personnel top priority. Arrest all personnel associated with the Ashcroft Foundation's work on FUTILE OCTAVE. Charges may be fabricated per Special Order 23. Detain all military or government personnel associated with the project. Personnel list to be attached." Huxley manipulates data on his computer.
"Sir, isn't that a bit much?" Schroeder ventures. "We're not even sure—"
Huxley shows off more of his winning smile as he cuts the agent off. "You're a good cop, Schroeder. You're just what this organization has needed." A shot is fired. Schroeder staggers for a moment, putting his hands to his torso in disbelief. The hidden gun retracts itself back into Huxley's desk, and the man himself clasps his hands together. "We're past that now, of course. I hope your god promised you eternal life. Mine did."
Promised reinforcements are not long in coming. Much before that, though, Jamie's mental contact has a warning for her: Tell your people that some dhohanoids may be freed during the attack and to protect themselves accordingly.
Jamie calls from in her current Cell, "We're probably going to have company. Also, they'll probably start freeing Dhohanoids. Or at least, other ones." Her voice is still dark as midnight, and sounds uncomfortable.
Nathan rubs his chin as Jamie briefs her companions. "Well, I can erect a ward against dhohanoids. That'll help to a certain extent — though there's a practical consideration." He glances at Dale. "We'll need a different way to keep your brother protected. Or possibly isolated. If he's inside the perimeter, I can't erect the wards."
Dale pauses. "Dhohanoid internecine strife computed at 0%. I can safely remain outside without difficulty. To heighten the deception, recommendation is that I menace your group from that position," he states flatly.
Nathan purses his lips. But he admitted to being a dhohanoid when asked. "Just to confirm, Dale — you won't align with the other dhohanoids?"
Jamie pauses as she thinks about this, "Well, the field isn't going to protect from everyone, clearly." She starts to peek her head down the hallway, but then thinks better of it, "Just make sure you don't get yourself hurt in the process please, brother." She states, flatly, her voice not carrying must emotion at all.
Again Dale replies in his monotone. "I have no existing mission parameters involving dhohanoid cooperation." But his human voice reasserts itself. "I won't leave sis."
"Fair enough," Nathan says, still sounding skeptical. "Like your sister said, take care of yourself, okay?" He stands up straight, entering a light trance to bring the relevant grimoires to recall. "Wish I had some chalk."
Jamie calls back to Nathan, "I will probably have to join you back there eventually. You should probably let me know when everyone is … prepared."
For all his academic talent, Nathan has never been entirely comfortable with the fact that sorcery so often involves pitting one inhuman force against another. But the fact of the matter is that there's little choice — humans themselves are so very weak in the direct application of sorcerous energy. It is little comfort that Nathan now knows why that is.
Still, knowledge is power — and in this case, the knowledge that for all their immense power, the Great Ones are constrained in what they will do. And a skilled sorcerer, with the right sigils and the right incantations, can exploit that knowledge. In this case, the greatest difficulty is in actually drawing sigils — but there is a solution at hand.
The remains of the dismantled stasis-deactivation trap includes an access panel. With sharp edges. Nathan does not dare use very much blood, especially given the circumstances, but there is little other choice — and a fingertip cut ensures that only the very smallest amount of 'ink' is used to trace the wards.
The reddish-brown smear forms the last part of the pentagram, and Nathan begins the intoned paean to Yog-Sothoth. The guttural syllables of Aramaic ring through the sterile halls of the OIS prison, and the texture of the air changes, ever so subtly. It is not a hospitable environment to humans — but it is now impassable to dhohanoids. Up to a point.
When Nathan is done laying out the wards, Jamie gets another message Jamie Solak? We're going to blast our way in. You should probably stay back.
As Jamie hears this, a fierce knocking is heard at the door. "DUCK AND CLEAR!" A voice, familiar with this kind of command. Some clanging is heard, and then a single, solitary beep goes off as the device gets ready to breech the door. In everyone's mind you can almost heard the countdown as it happens.
3… 2… 1…
As the last beep does off, the entire wing is filled with a frightening, explosive sound, the heavy steel door is literally blown off of it's hinges, and is sent flying down the corridor, ricocheting off of a wall, and blaring sparks off of the floor. It sparks and skits it's way down, stopping just inches from the wards that Nathan has set up.
As the blast settles, a team of Tagers piles in the door. THe lead a pulsing, writhing mass of tissue and flesh, looking around Jamie? as they enter the door, storming into the wing.
"The attack is right behind us." The lead gnarls out as they storm in the door, his voice sounding like what one might expect from an animal, sharp and guttural. "We'll have company at any moment."
The creatures aren't even remotely human. What distinguishes the sight is the variety of horrors present. Distended limbs, multiple eyes, things which bear only a passing and superficial resemblance to living organs or textured flesh — all this and more are present.
They are armed, without exception, sometimes wielding multiple rifles in the two or four or six arms they have, or perhaps the more flexible appendages possessed by some. They move with a purpose and an organization, but the effect is not one of a disciplined unit of soldiers. It is a seething ocean which defiles all that it touches.
And here in this place they are the masters of their enemies. They don't even try to unlock the pods. They simply destroy them, using explosive charges, multiple rifle rounds, grenades, or in some cases raw physical force.
Several dhohanoids have already escaped from their own damaged pods; these are scythed down without remorse or hesitation.
Dale is not left out of this, as many identify him as such, someone, having just taken down a dhohanoid which swipes across his side, sets his sites on Dale. Jamie runs beside her brother as the Tager lays an hand across Dale, laying the boy out on the floor. "HEY! That's my brother, man. Hands off!" She glares, staring at the other Tager, still in her dark, shadowed form.
As the inhuman monstronsities roll past, leaving the severed and demolished remains of the other inhuman monstrosities in their wake, Nathan cowers behind his wards… with a smile quirking his lips. "Well… thank goodness for that then," he murmurs, his eyes twinkling as he nods in Dale's direction.
By the time Sasha and DeGroot regain consciousness, the Tagers have resumed human form. The crew is aboard a high-speed flying craft, a gravity van or some sort of cargo hauler, and a squad of Tagers — mercifully in human form — are armed and guarding them. Dale is under heavy guard, and watched warily by those that aren't involved in driving, but nobody has taken hostile action. Yet.
"We're out in the open," one of them remarks gruffly to Jamie. "Nobody told you about this. But you should all know." There's a second Migou hive ship on its way to Earth now."
Jamie looks back at the Tager, having positioned herself as close to Dale as she possibly can get. "So, it really is happening, isn't it?" She shakes her head.
"Oh, Hell," DeGroot mutters. He's barely regained consciousness; he doesn't bother to get up off the floor. "Then the NEG knows it's over. It's just working out who gets to die last."
"People will die if this gets out. People will commit suicide just because of the news," the Tager operative replies.
Nathan, for his part turns pale. Then he speaks. "Well, there's no choice, then," he says with a quavering voice. "We need to find the rest of the sites, and fast. The only way humanity is going to get out of this one is to flee."
Jamie looks at Nathan, "So FUTILE OCTIVE? That's what this is all about? ANd even if we can leave… where are we going?"
"We have to get Singer, then," DeGroot says. "An Lisa, and the Moore crew, for preference, if the OIS hasn't already buried them in another deep hole."
Nathan nods. "Jamie, can you ask your friends to get in touch
with Armitage and company? If the OIS hasn't buried them yet, they're probably on the
way. You know better than anyone how OIS handles
Sasha has come round, and starts to consult his PCPU. "So… there's a warrant out. For all of you," he says quietly. "Facilitating a prison break from the OIS."
Jamie nods at Sasha, "Clearly. But, in all honestly, does that even matter?" She shrugs, and wraps an arm around her brother. "Just means we should like, avoid the police station for a while."
"We can hardly deny it, can we," Nathan says quietly. "What are we going to say? The OIS set us up? It's not like anyone would believe us, even if they bothered to ask."
"Typical," DeGroot mutters. "And the rest of Starkweather? How far up is it going?"
The GIA man looks closer. "All of Starkweather. Probably people in the Ashcroft Foundation too."
"Well, at least they have plausable deniability. But honestly, that's not signifigantly different than when we started." She looks at Sasha, "I think we were wanted before this. Something about stealing magic artifacts…"
Jamie looks up at the Tager that initially spoke, "So, how long do we have until the second ship gets here?"
"Don't know," the operative answers gruffly.
"Triangulation from another astronomical source hasn't
come in yet — or our sources didn't
hear of it. Transit from Pluto is estimated at
DeGroot looks hard at Sasha. "They'll be after you, too. You know how deep we're all in. We can invoke FUTILE OCTAVE ourselves, or die trying. What's our best chance for resuming the dig?"
Sasha shrugs. "Pirate a ship, outrun the Migou patrols?" he guesses aloud. "Official sources are out of the question."
Jamie shrugs, "Who do we need? Where's Lisa?" She asks, and looks back up at the Tagers, "Any official reaction yet? I mean official from us, that is."
Sasha smiles at that. "Well, anyone in a position to speak for Starkweather will be under arrest by now…" He taps his chin. "If you have colleagues, we can try to track 'em down, maybe intercept the OIS…"
Jamie shrugs, "Lisa doesn't seem like the sort to get captured easily. Besides, we've already almost survived one hostage rescue."
DeGroot says, "Our odds will be a lot better with Lisa, Armitage, and Singer. I'd prefer the whole ship and crew… but we need at least one shuttle with a Sifter. Can we at least get a position on those four things?"
Nathan nods. "We need Armitage. He's our link to the other sites. And… if I've read between the lines, he'll be better than usual at not being arrested. But we'd better hurry. Even he can't dodge the OIS forever."
The Eldritch Society's units have fanned out across Chicago, trying to capture high-value Starkweather or Ashcroft targets before the OIS does. The call comes back to the Moore's surviving crew that two such targets have been found, and the grav-van changes course.
The craft lands to the sight of half a dozen armed men in security vests, standing outside the smoking ruins of a building that has suffered a heavy assault.
"One survivor," announces a security man as the crew disembark. He leads the way inside the rubble, where a few wounded men in the same armor are being treated by their fellows.
Jamie looks about, "The OIS did this? Of course, what am I saying, I shouldn't be surprised…"
Beyond them, Lisa Lazarus is cradling the bloodied body of Dr. Armitage in her arms. He's entirely motionless; some bandaging was started, but it's clear from its incomplete status that Armitage is well beyond first aid.
Lisa looks up as the crew approaches, and speaks — but Lisa does not normally speak with a British accent, nor with the measured assurance of age. "Nathan. DeGroot. Jamie. I'm afraid I've let you down."
Jamie raises an eyebrow as she hears Lisa's voice. She tries to put it out of her mind, and looks down, "I'm not exactly sure how any series of events can be constructed where you have let us down…" She starts.
Nathan sags to his knees. "We're doomed…" he begins, seeing Armitage's body — and then stops when Lisa speaks. "A…Armitage?"
DeGroot nods, once. Somehow this doesn't surprise me. "Looks like we didn't do so well for you either, chum. But I think we still need you to tell us where to go."
"You have me for three days," Lisa announces. "After that, either Lisa Lazarus goes, or I do. She … she absorbed my ego, as a last-minute act. I'm afraid it's killing her, and rather more quickly than I'd like."
"Well, that's fortunate," Nathan says, and his ghastly rictus was probably meant to be a grin. "That's about how long we have until the second hive-ship arrives."
Jamie perks up, "Well, Three days might be more than anyone needs, anyway."
Lisa nods. "Yes, well." She clears her throat. "Nathan, I'm afraid I'm going to lay rather a burden on you. Since I'm gone, I'm naming you the new Dr. Armitage. It's something of a code name, you see — I wasn't the first and I won't be the last. In your duties you will be called upon to pass this along in time."
"Um. Wow," Nathan says. It's been a long day, and it doesn't look like it's anywhere near over yet. "Well… I'm not sure I'm qualified, sir, but I'll do my best."
"Right. I think it's time we evacuate." Lisa looks about. "I can't really feel it so I'm not sure if Lisa's wounded. Helps us out, there's a sport."
The Tagers have one more piece of news. As Lisa limps back to the grav-van, the operative they spoke to before. "Some NEG captain wants to talk to you," he announces.
The call comes in. "Orders have come in, gentlemen. The orders are, frankly, bullshit. The Dreadnought is at your disposal, ladies and gentlemen."
The final fate of the Earth in FUTILE OCTAVE.
The Tagers' armored van whines to a stop, its gravitics keening at the savage stresses the driver places on them. Here at the port, Dreadnought is waiting.
The battleship lifts off, not even bothering to ask Chicago for clearances. As the Starkweather personnel settle into cramped seats on the observation ring of the bridge, they feel the ship shudder slightly. "Damage aft, cap'n," one officer reports crisply. "Return fire?"
"Negative," the captain answers without hesitation. "Best speed north, over the Pole."
Lisa has been given a wheelchair. Just standing up has proven too taxing for her, and the ship's doctor is setting up an intravenous feed. But she — or rather, Armitage's ghost lingering in her mind — insists on talking to Nathan.
And talk she does. What follows is a history of the universe, from its dark beginnings to its believed uttermost end. It is the barest outline, the glimpse of a mere few millennia of human investigation from one infinitesimally small corner of the cosmos. But it is unsettling, and consistent.
It is the knowledge Nathan will need to continue on as the new Armitage, the information that the ghost inherited from his predecessors in the position. It is not the intelligence one would have when fighting an enemy. It is the lore of a very large, very dangerous jungle that a single inhabitant must know to simply survive.
The discussion must be paused — the immediate goal of the Dreadnought and her people is still the dig sites, and a sifter is necessary.
Instinctively Nathan senses that, with a delicate and dangerous task at hand, it's vital that he not hear too much about how the world really works, just yet. Instead, he pours his not-inconsiderable mental resources into the task of creating a sifter from scratch.
After the adventure in China, when he'd repurposed
a sifter to dig himself and his companions out
of deep sand, Nathan probably knows as much about the sifter
and its operation as its designers do —
more, in some ways. Nevertheless, there was a whole
team of them, and only one of him —
though a few of the Dreadnought's engineers
reduce that burden somewhat. Moreover, they were able to choose
the particular model and specs of the
Still, he persists. And the primary problems posed by the
nonstandard parts represent alterations to the software,
which must calculate the strength of the pressor fields
differently based on the altered
China. The dig site that sent the expedition off course. This time, the Dreadnought sends out its own scouts and probes. And no mercenary with a rocket launcher will easily deal with them.
There's no sign of the Migou, nor of any cultists. Whatever the Children of Hastur were planning, and whatever the OIS may be doing, they haven't invested this site with any of their forces. "We should bury it," states Lisa/Armitage. "We don't need it exposed for this to work, just the data inside."
Dreadnought deploys a few Broadsword-class mecha and a demo team. Carefully the site is covered up again, and the visual landmarks that were previously useful in finding it are systematically erased.
Other sites, other locations. Armitage's ghost lays out the clues and the data that he's uncovered. India. Africa. The northern part of the Asian continent, on the Kara Sea. A grid of places. As the team watches them assemble on the holographic globe, the Dreadnought's XO taps out some data on the controls. Fault lines, tectonic plates and other geological data overlay themselves onto the display. "Hell of a thing," he breathes.
"There's two good reasons to have the sites at such places," says Nathan, looking over the XO's shoulder. "One — they're much less likely to be disrupted by an earthquake or other cataclysm. And two — if you want to pick up the entire planet by its crust, those are the spots you want to hold it by."
DeGroot winces involuntarily at Latham's description, Imagining an entire continental plate, peeled off the surface of the earth, like the skin of an orange… it's unreasonably horrible, even with all that's happened recently. "Several of these are also at poles of isolation," he adds, covering his unease. "The literal middle of fucking nowhere."
The XO does a bit more manipulation. The geological data slides off, replaced with strategic projections, troop positions and Migou forces. "This is what I'm worried about," he says frankly.
DeGroot leans toward the hologram, relieved to be dealing with a familiar problem… even one this big. "They're everywhere," he says. "But not covering the dig sites in particular. Lisa…" he hesitates. "Doctor… does it matter where we go next? Or can we just pick any of these?"
"I reviewed our original notes in light of what Singer said," Lisa/Armitage answers. "Originally I'd assumed that there was a specific dig order, something akin to charting a path through the Jewish Sephirot. That's not the case. There's… there's some other significance to it. A coordinate system, I think — each site seems aligned with both a planetary and a celestial location. But to answer your question, it doesn't seem to matter."
"Then… it all depends on staying away from the main force," DeGroot continues. A plan is coming to him. He spends several minutes flicking through sattelite imagery and sensor data, and collars the XO and CAG for an impromptu conference. When it's over they're all back at the main hologram; DeGroot calls up his proposed course, a zig-zagging red line through occupied territories and contested space… avoiding cities and Migou fleets alike. "It's difficult," he says. "But not totally bleak. And it puts us… here."
The end of the trace is in central Africa; in an area that has managed to stay wilderness for the entire span of human history. "No idea what's there… it's a lot further north than anywhere I've lived. But the Migou aren't going there either."
Most of the people on the Dreadnought know or can guess the current fate of the world. Faces are stony, without much external emotion. Most of the crew goes about it's functions robotically. No real hope remains here, in spite of the enthusiasm that is projecting from the aft section. The airspace from China to the middle of Germany is pretty uneventful, and the sifter is deployed on the wooded countryside. Though routine, the items are retrieved, information cataloged, then buried with any identifying marks wiped out, as like in China.
Over the airspace flying to the desert in Australia, The Migou attack. The ships almost come out of nowhere, and lay some heat into them. The encounter is brief, but the soldiers onboard the ship, having looked death in the eye before, just speed to their destination. The Migou move on, after removing a non insignificant section of the starboard hull of the ship.
There are a few more encounters with the Migou as the ship moves around on it's task. In all, 7 crew members are dead. They are put aside, in a room designated for that purpose. A few mutters along the crew mention that Smith, Johnson, Cedric, Garret, Mong, Patel and Chen may actually have been the lucky ones. The Sahara appears on the viewscreen, the sandy wastes reflecting the mood of the crew, as the last artifact is approached.
Armitage has been busy — both briefing Nathan, and in assembling the available evidence. The strain of keeping the man's mind alive, though, is visible to anyone who looks at Lisa. She's anemic, unable to keep down food, and experiences shortness of breath and other symptoms from time to time.
"I understand now," the ghost announces finally. "It's… a tension system, binding elements of Yog-Sothoth, lesser or subsidiary portions, to parts of the physical planet. The elements of tension connect to, well, the rest of the universe — like tying the planet directly to the constellations of the Zodiac."
"And it needs a pilot." Lisa turns to DeGroot. "You're going to be an astronaut without ever leaving Earth. Because we need to leave, right now."
DeGroot nods. "I'm game." And I should probably be terrified. But what the hell. If this is how I get taken out, then so be it.
Lisa passes Nathan a PCPU containing Armitage's assembled notes. "The ritual was encoded across the dig sites. It's now complete. Put DeGroot in a circle, etch some control runes onto his skin, complete the ritual. It's all there." The girl coughs briefly, convulsively. "Gentlemen, I think I've worn out my welcome."
Jamie looks, "That as you have, ours will continue." She says, solemly.
"Farewell, Armitage," Nathan says gravely. "And thank you… for everything."
"If anyone lives to hear of it," DeGroot says, "we'll make sure they know what you did for them."
Lisa smiles. "See you on the other side," she whispers. And then she passes out.
The time has come to attempt the Ritual of Translocation. As the surviving Starkweather sorcerer — and the new Armitage — it falls to Nathan to make the necessary preparations. The Dreadnought's ritual space is well-designed for the purpose — spartan, but immaculately clean, with a marker circle laser-etched into the metal floor with a precision that the eighteenth-century ritualists would have killed for.
DeGroot stalks in behind Latham. "Out of curiosity, is there any chance that this won't kill me?"
"Shush," says Nathan. "I'm working." Not all of the runes are to be etched onto DeGroot — and since ritual markings are as much a matter of the mind of the ritualist as they are the physical pattern, Nathan must draw the markings personally. They are far more complicated than any he has drawn before — and as he draws them, he finds his mind wandering in familiar patterns. Disturbingly familiar — for they resemble the ones he used in Antarctica to translocate himself and his allies to the planet of the Old Ones.
As Nathan takes a breather to work out the cramps in his hands, he says. "The odds of it killing you are remote. Or rather, the odds of it killing your body. The odds of it killing Angelo DeGroot the mind… rather higher, I'm afraid." He gives DeGroot a rictus grin. "Of course, this won't be the first time you and I have gone through something like that."
DeGroot scowls. "I've decided to forgive you for that, since it seems we have to be the men who save the world. Anyway. Who else do we need here?"
Nathan picks up the pen again to finish the floor markings. "Just you," he says. "If anyone else is in here when you do the ritual, it'll distort the occult pattern. We do not want that," he adds in deadpan understatement. "You're washed thoroughly? You must be absolutely clean, or this won't work."
DeGroot goes through the required ablutions — medical-grade decontamination showers make one so clean it's literally painful. Somehow, DeGroot has managed to get through a lifetime of military service without a single tattoo, which simplifies the preparation for the etching of sigils… along with a few painkillers.
Nathan went through the cleaning before he even came in — even though he's not directly handling the ritual, he's used to avoiding anything that might contaminate the ritual space. He directs DeGroot to a nearby table — which resembles the military's idea of an altar — and picks up a tattoo pen. "I believe tradition calls for you to have something to bite down on," he says, producing a bullet from his pocket. "The analgesics will help, but you do need to hold absolutely still for this."
Drawing designs on living flesh is quite different than drawing them on an unyielding floor, especially when it's a good friend. "Just think of the stories you'll be able to tell when anyone sees these," Nathan says, grinning, as he works. "But make sure they're cleared first. Even when we're done, most people won't want to know. I know I don't."
DeGroot says, "One last question. Where am I taking us?"
"That's a good question," Nathan says, placing his PCPU on the bench. "We've got a few possibilities, though. All main sequence stars, and solitaries — binary stars are remarkably common in the galaxy. Alpha Centauri is right out, for example — it's a trinary, though the dwarf companion hardly counts. But you're the one who wanted to be an astronaut — I assume you've got a decent astronomy background."
DeGroot keeps a few candidates in mind. Tau Ceti might work, but it's only 12 light years away… too close to home. There's a few others DeGroot has heard of; like Gliese-436, once thought to have a planet in the habitable band. For some reason, his attention sticks on 55 Cancri… at fifty light years away, it might be far enough, and it has exoplanets…
Ultimately, who knows? DeGroot suspects that any hypothesis he has
will be invalidated by the experience of the ritual.
He selects a nameless
It is dangerous to speak the words of the ritual aloud unless you are performing it — even relatively short snippets can distort the ylem. Thus, Nathan has left, on the lectern, a grimoire with the pronunciation carefully marked. He did rehearse with DeGroot on the pronunciation of some of the more obscure phonemes, particularly the glottal stops unknown in English, or the guttural rasps unknown in any tongue humans ever concocted for communicating amongst themselves.
DeGroot picks up the spell, steps into the center of the room, and with as much gravitas as he can muster, commences to recite it.
Something about sorcerous syllables lends its own gravitas. Sorcery consists of speaking, not to any human mind, but to the very forces of the cosmos. Humans never evolved to speak to such beings, and the language for communicating with Them inevitably sounds grandiose and alien to human ears. As DeGroot speaks them, he can hear echoes in his mind — not precise echoes, actually. More like responses… whispers of Yog-Sothoth whose name DeGroot repeatedly invokes, and of other, still more alien forces.
DeGroot's first repetition produces nothing more than a tip of vertigo at the end. He hangs on, resumes, in what he hopes is the right way. Something more happens on the second repetition… a feeling of falling. By the third reading, DeGroot can't feel the room around him. By the fourth, he can feel something more… something bigger…
The biggest thing DeGroot has ever flown is the Moore.
It's the same feeling, connecting to a
And as the ritual continues, DeGroot sees the Earth in his mind from a new perspective — not the familiar globe of continents that he's familiar with, but the Earth as Yog-Sothoth sees it. A miniscule grain of sand on the beach of the cosmos, but with its own peculiar texture — and glowing and resonating with the walpurgis-rhythm granted it by the orbit it was carefully placed in by the Ancients that sought to make it a temple. The very glow that has caused Earth to be a casus belli for forces beyond human comprehension, and beyond anything humans can directly resist. The glow that DeGroot seeks to cleanse from the planet.
Those ancient heroes were men of a different order, to be able to stare the cosmic scale in the face, and demand a place in it for mankind. DeGroot feels shabby compared to them, and tiny compared to the cosmic scale he's been thrust before. He can see the light of distant stars and hear a dull, drumming noise that seems to echo between them. It sounds loudly in DeGroot's skull, threatening to drown out his own voice . But he holds on. This is the last chance; this is all that anyone on Earth has left. Millions of people around the world literally can't stand to look at the night sky. Time, he thinks, to find a new sky.
He recognizes the nearby stars — Alpha Centauri,
Tau Ceti, and dozens of dim brown dwarfs in the
kuiper belt. Several more distant stars have a rhythm he
recognizes — the pulsars he memorized minutes
ago. The intersection of lines between them picks out
a nameless, modest point of light. If this were a
DeGroot's course takes the Earth up, out of the plane of the ecliptic. The cloud of orbital sattelites, derilects, and debris is left behind, orbits bent into a chaotic mess. DeGroot feels a twinge when he remembers that a few thousand people still live in space. But it's already too late. Everything that isn't nailed down — including the Migou hiveship, still three days away — is getting left behind.
And that's only the beginning, feeding just enough juice to the engine to wake it up. Within minutes, the whole planet is moving a hundred thousand miles per hour, four times faster than the long-dead rockets of the 20th century. The Migou can't possibly follow — but they're trying. DeGroot might take some satisfaction in evading them — but he can't even remember his own name. All he is, right now, is the steersman of the machine that's turned his world into a starship.
They're picking up speed. The trip to the world of the Elder Things was an eyeblink, a moment of disorientation between two convenient points in space. This is something else. They're going to be aware of the whole trip and every step in between. The night sky smears towards the horizon, compresses, becomes indistinct, smearing into a rainbow. Tehey've just crossed the light barrier.
And it doesn't stop. Even at this speed, it will take thousands of years to reach their new home. Faster, DeGroot thinks. He can hear things now. They've attracted the attention of… something. Things worse than the Migou. The drumming sound, he now knows to be a prayer, of sorts, to Yog-Sothoth, a prayer spoken by the very planets as they inscribe their orbits. The Earth is falling through the sky, outrunning things DeGroot dares not see. He now understand the real challenge of the ritual: not to steer the Earth through this alien space; that's easy. But he must not cross the jaws of the things that already live here.
If one knows how to ask, the primal forces of the Universe will grant you a speed one million times that of light. But it's an offense to fate, a violation of laws of probability and possibility that only make sense under reasonable conditions. One cannot afford to slip for even a moment. DeGroot manages to keep up the balancing act for nearly three hours… then he feels a new rhythm. A place in space, a stable orbit around a new star. A place man might again hide from the hostile things that live in and beyond mortal spacetime. The Earth slows; the starbow expands and becomes discrete stars; the chanting fades.
The Dreadnought is very quiet. But in time Lisa limps out of the infirmary and seeks out Jamie. "You need to change," she says quietly.
Jamie looks at Lisa. "Oh? I wasn't even sure that… I would still be able too… after…" Jamie is at a loss for words. But Lisa is usually to be trusted. She nods, and runs to her room. In order to change. Back into the form that brings both hatred and securty…
The Tager mindlink has always been limited to a mile or so — on Earth. Out in this void, though — away from the burning intensity of cosmic power in which the planet rested — it's almost infinite. And Jamie can hear her fellows. Come to us, they say. We will give you all a home.
_Us? A home? I thought we had already found a home. _
Your planet is still in danger. The Old Ones who still live there. Their servants. You will have to fight. We can help.
Jamie considers for a bit. Of course, they aren't exactly in a position to be choosy. How do I find you?
Link minds with whoever is guiding you.
Jamie ponders on this for a second. Of course, the voice must be referring to Lisa. She sends a thought over to Lisa. I know it's been a hell of a week, Lisa… But I need your help. They want to talk to DeGroot. Lisa wordlessly complies. And Jamie can feel Lisa's presence… then a tunnel into DeGroot's mind, so that the Them can talk directly to their pilot, Jamie's mind filled with chatter and bandwidth. Jamie sits on her bed, her midnight black head held in her smoky black tendrils.
DeGroot feels a new presence. Lisa. Then Jamie — or whatever it is that Jamie is now. They're 'here' — where 'here' is the planet, and its surrounding space. And around them, and beyond them, thousands of minds. Millions of minds.
The Earth spins in place. It moves. Its atmosphere absorbs a few more hours of thermal buffer — enough for its frail inhabitants to survive the transition of deep space.
And DeGroot's vision is now shared by the network of orbital optics being patched into Dreadnought's control board, and displayed to Nathan and the others on deck. Jamie can see it as well — but from another vantage point.
It is a trinary star system. A system of planets lie perfectly aligned around it, each in their own biozone. Many form rosettes with each other, spinning about the stars with mathematical precision despite the varying gravitational forces that each exerts.
And through the link, thousands of sentients welcome their brethren to this sanctuary. The Tager symbiotes are only one of many.
We are the waypoint in your evolutionary pathway, a gestalt voice calls out. You will become many things. As we did. As we will.
Aboard the Dreadnought, a man steps out of thin air in front of Nathan. He looks, in fact, exactly like Nathan himself. "Dr. Armitage," he says, holding out his hand.
Nathan blinks, studying the apparition in noncomprehension. "Um… yes?" he says in confusion — but takes the hand, out of politeness.
The other shakes in return. "The Great Race of Yith are… my ancestors. In that phase of their evolution, they abducted human beings from all points in time on Earth to study them. It wasn't an alien race examining other species, doctor. It was archaeology. They were studying their own past. And they studied you, in particular."
"Good heavens," Nathan — or is it Dr. Armitage? — replies. "I suppose I can understand, after a fashion. It'd be so much easier to understand the Lascaux paintings if you could interview the painter."
"You can. Or rather, I will." The stranger smiles. "In time, you will die, after a lifetime of studying your fellow sentient beings — those that escaped the Great Old Ones, and came to this place. In time you will be resurrected by beings inconceivably in advance of humanity's present state. And you will meet yourself, as I am doing now."
"So…" Nathan says. "You're… who I'll be after that resurrection, then?"
The other nods. "You're safe now. You're all safe. Tell the world." And with a wave, he's gone.
Jamie shifts back, after being the conduit between worlds. She watches her hands pull in front eh smokey black tendrils of death to her slender, orange-tinted peach fingers, used to touch, to caress. SHe ponders, Will she need her other form again. What will become of her. She smiles, and wanders next door, finding her brother, probably in the same predicament. She wraps an arm around his waist, and smiles at him. "Welcome home, Bro."
Nathan waits for his companions outside the ritual space. "Don't worry, everyone… we're safe. I told myself so," he mumbles, with a crooked grin. It somehow seems so unbelievable. And then it occurs to him — the part he really has a hard time believing isn't having talked to his future self from uncounted millenia in the future. The thing he's having a hard time believing… is that humanity is safe. After having spent what seems like an eternity in an unwinnable war with the Migou, the Deep Ones, the servants of Nyarlathotep… the idea that humanity is, at long last, safe — it's hard to fathom.
DeGroot walks unsteadily out of the summoning room. He's put on a flight suit and wrapped himself in a heavy emergency blanket. His face looks pale and drawn, his breathing is labored, but he's grinning. "I think we're there. And to think the first hop was the short one." He steadies himself against the wall. "Did they make contact? The ones who led us here? Did we really do it?"
Sixteen figures materialize. They are barely bipedal, and all look exactly alike. Wings, tendrils and other limbs, multiple eyes, and talons or claws adorn some of their manipulators. It is alright now, says a voice in the minds of the bridge crew. And they advance.