The screaming alarm cut through the soothing hiss of the shower like a bucket of razor-sharp shards of glacial ice. Dana Kisaragi jumped, cursed, yanked the curtain aside while blinking through a trickling mask of stinging shampoo, grabbed a towel to get the worst of the water off one hand, and then snatched up the phone that—per regulations—had to be within ten feet of her person at all times. "Kisaragi."
"Conference with Central, five minutes," said the coldly anonymous voice of Directives. The line immediately went dead.
For several precious seconds, Dana stared uncomprehendingly at the phone. Five minutes? With Central?
Then the time limit registered and she cursed. She leapt back into the shower and scrubbed the suds out of her hair. Dammit, dammit, no time for conditioner really, just rinse off!
A minute and a half gone, and she was toweling herself furiously. Jesus. Central? The last time she'd been at OSC Central (formally, Obtain, Secure and Counter Central Control and Command) had been three, four years back, and aside from routine reports every month, she hadn't had—or expected—any communication with Central ever again. She was a local field agent and director; any assignments would come to her through her state, regional, or national offices—in that order.
Two minutes left. Hurry, hurry! You did not keep Central waiting. Not ever. And the idea that whatever it was had leapfrogged three full levels of control and command? To her? "I'm either winning the lottery, or I'm in it so deep I'll need goddamn scuba gear," she muttered as she yanked on a shirt and grabbed a suit coat. They'll only see me from about the stomach up . . . I hope. No time for anything fancy, she snatched up her pajama bottoms, pulled them on, and dashed for the basement.
She reached the blank wall, touched the fourth brick from the left and stared into what looked like an old nail hole. For an instant she thought the automatic ID system had crashed, and wouldn't that be just peachy, being locked out of the secure area so that she couldn't respond to an emergency alert? But then the hidden door unlocked, the wall slid back and aside, and she dashed in, sliding into her seat and slamming her hand down on the scanning pad that would verify her access to the system.
The screen lit up almost instantly, and she felt an inward shudder of trepidation. There were no fewer than five people looking at her, one of them Sir John Covenant, the Head, the Big Boss himself, and the other known members of the Board.
She tried to show no emotion. "Agent Dana Kisaragi, reporting as directed." The words came out slightly breathy; all that scrambling had left her just a bit winded.
"Agent Kisaragi." Covenant's photographs had shown the long, handsome, darkly-tanned face and graying black hair, but couldn't convey the sharp, deadly calm of his gaze. Dana felt as though she was being dissected as his eyes flicked from one point to another, surveying her image.
The controlled, expressionless face creased in a sudden smile so shocking that it was nearly as startling as the alarm had been. "So sorry to disturb you in the bath."
Well, I don't think he'd be saying anything so light if I was in trouble. "No problem, sir. I assume it is very urgent if Central is calling me."
The smile was gone. The other four shifted uneasily, looking at something out of frame; she could see Director Pitt biting her lip in unconscious worry, and that brought the fear back, though not for herself.
"Extremely urgent, Agent. You have a situation in your territory; a Class Seven manifestation, with a Breach Factor of at least seven."
She nodded, felt her mouth open and heard her voice say, "Details, sir? I will deploy at once but I need anything Central has," while inside she was wrestling with the implications of those words. Class SEVEN? There hadn't been a paranormal manifestation over five since she'd joined the OSC (or, more accurately, been recruited by them) twelve years ago. The scale only went to ten! And a BF of seven was terrible—it meant it might be uncontainable, multiple groups of witnesses, first responders on site, the whole nine yards.
Of course, now she understood why Central had called her. Class Seven meant something that posed a direct and grave threat to the public on a city-wide scale.
"Location is at Twin Pines Strip Mall, approximately seven miles from your current location," Covenant said. "As for details, all we have is what we have managed to glean from the ongoing local reports and some camera footage we could access due to our ongoing Omniscience initiative. Before you head into the field, I want you to watch this."
The screen flickered, shifted to a grayscale camera view of a mall parking lot, obviously from one of the increasingly ubiquitous security cameras. For a moment, nothing happened; then she saw the pavement buckling, rising in the center, and suddenly something tore its way free of the earth and rose, a writhing column of living stone a dozen feet across.
"Christ on a crutch," she murmured. "What the hell is that?"
"Dhole," answered the voice of Jacob Thorndyke. "From our older records—no recorded sightings of them in modern times, though Lumley referred to them as ‘chthonians.’ He presented a rather distorted version of them in a few of his stories. It's assumed they had subconscious contact through metawave entanglement, as with other similar correspondences between fiction and reality."
"Can it be dealt with by conventional means?"
"Generally, yes, though deploying appropriate firepower in an urban or suburban area is problematic. They're generally considered a Class Six to Seven threat by themselves."
"So, wait, the problem isn't the dhole?" Dana felt her train of thought derail. "Are you–"
"Watch," John Covenant said.
The giant rock-worm was turning and twisting, as though searching for something. Then, as it began moving towards one end of the parking lot, a brilliant light shone from the opposite side of the screen, and the creature halted and curled around.
"What. . . ?"
The light faded, and for a moment the rock-worm was still. Then without warning it lunged.
Something became visible then for an instant, jumping out of the way of the creature's attack, and again, as the monster slewed around, trying to catch the whatever-it-was. Dana had the general impression of a human figure, but one moving far too fast and leaping impossible distances.
The next sequence of events was unclear; whatever the newcomer was, it was out of the frame, high up or otherwise out of sight. Then the dhole was hammered down, armor shattering like glass under an impossibly powerful blow. It gave a mighty convulsion and juddered into stillness.
That tiny figure—too blurred and indistinct in the grainy security footage to make out in detail—stood atop the immense body, then appeared to give a bow or salute and . . . disappeared.
The screen blanked, and returned to the view of Central. For a moment, everyone was silent.
"What the hell did I just see?" Dana said finally.
Sir John Covenant's smile was chill, devoid of any but the slightest touch of humor. "That, Agent Kisaragi," he said quietly, "is what we want you to find out."
"Gilbert! Hughes! Talk to me!" she said, as she entered the office.
Warren Gilbert looked up from the multiple-screen displays on his desk, the glow from the screens emphasizing the premature gray at his temples; other than that, his hair was still solidly dark brown, just one shade darker than his skin. Alan Hughes, tall, slender, and distracted-looking behind his glasses, shook his head.
"It's a disaster," he said, a combination of relish and resignation in his voice. "Completely without precedent, at least in the files we have clear access to."
"I just finished a call from Central; they don't know anything about it either."
"Holy crap," Gilbert said. "Central? Seriously?"
"With Sir John C in the front seat."
"That'll get you up in the morning," Hughes said wryly, a glint of humor in his green eyes.
"Enough chit-chat, what are we dealing with?"
"Well, the worm-thing—dhole, if I searched the records right—is bad enough. There's no way to cover this one."
God, it's already worse than I thought. "No way at all? We've got full authority, if we have to we can go to air-dispersed amnesia and mnemorphic agents . . ."
"Absolutely none," Gilbert said flatly. "Twenty, thirty years ago, maybe, but today we've got the problem that everyone, everywhere, is connected. There's already at least four separate independent videos of most of the event, and two of those were up on video-sharing sites before we even got the full alert details. We can probably obscure some of the details of the event, including our real unknown, but even that's iffy."
Boy, I am not looking forward to my next debrief. "All right, enough of that, we're not going to waste time talking about what we can't do. What about the dhole? Did you get the wheels turning on that?"
"Josephine?" Hughes asked, looking at Agent Morales, who had just put down her phone.
Josephine gave a thumbs-up. "All under control, Agent Kisaragi," she said. "We've got authorization through our local assets in the military and intelligence communities, so we'll be able to take possession of the remains and get them sent to the nearest containment facility. Though it seems pretty dead."
"Seems could be the most important word there," Dana said, with an inward shudder. She'd seen more than one OSC agent torn apart by something that seemed dead. "Make sure the team on-site understands the priority is that it stays dead, or at least inactive, until it's contained. If they have to they're authorized to use any force necessary."
Josephine nodded and picked up the phone. Dana turned back to Gilbert. "All right, now, our 'real unknown' as you put it. Brief me. What are we dealing with?"
He and Hughes exchanged glances and despite the seriousness of the situation they were grinning. "Oh, chief, you are so going to love this one." He touched a button and swung one of his screens to face her.
A video came on, this one in full color, though shaky. "Wow, I've never been in an earthquake before," came the high-pitched voice of the owner, a girl from the sound of it. "That was a—whoa!"
Another jolt caused the camera to swing wildly, but even in the blurred images Dana Kisaragi could see the pavement of the parking lot buckling. "What . . . Oh my GOD!"
The rock-worm erupted from the lot as in the prior video. What most impressed Dana was that the girl who owned the phone kept filming. Really, did people have no sense of self-preservation? Dana was damn sure she would have been running for shelter as soon as the monster popped up. Apparently the immortality of youth was just as insulating today as it had been when she was young.
But this time, unlike the prior grainy footage from the security camera, the camera swung around to look at the blaze of light. A figure appeared—jumped? Ran? Stepped? The light didn't make it possible to tell how it had gotten there—and Dana found herself gaping, even as the shaky cam view steadied and zeroed in.
It was a girl—no more than sixteen, maybe younger—dressed in one of the most outlandish outfits Dana had ever seen, something like a cross between a suit of armor and a wedding gown, if both the gown and armor had been designed by a fantasy artist with a love for cheesecake.
"STOP!" the girl shouted, in a voice so loud that it drowned out the grinding noise of the rock-worm and silenced the screams throughout the mall. She extended her hand and pointed at the dhole. "I am the one you seek, monster! Mystic Galaxy Defender, Apocalypse Maiden the First, Princess Holy Aura, reborn as sword and shield, weapon and wielder, mistress of souls and stars! You have threatened innocents and brought fear to this world," she continued, "and for that, this Apocalypse Maiden says that you," the extended hand pointed, and then turned to a fist with the thumb outthrust, turning until it pointed to the ground, "are going down!"
"Pause," Dana heard herself say. She stared at the screen in disbelief. "I did not just hear that. I am not seeing this. I am going to close my eyes, and then I will wake up, and I will be at home."
But when she opened her eyes, the same enigma—impossibly beautiful and equally incomprehensible—glowed on the screen before her.
"I know how you feel, Agent," Hughes said. "Believe me, when we first saw this vid we did a full search for movie companies, pranksters, any way this could possibly be fake, but it's real."
"Can you lock down all the good video?"
"Maybe. We're trying, Agent, don't think we waited for you, but hell, you know how easy it is for someone to download something and copy it. Even if we think it's locked down, it might pop up again a week later."
"Do the best you can. All right, show me the rest."
The girl—"Princess Holy Aura", and who the hell comes up with a name like that?—leapt aside as the rock-worm charged, jumped with superhuman speed and strength that allowed her to easily evade the creature's strikes. Then there was another glow of light, and something materialized in the girl's hands.
"Pause." Dana studied the image. "Naginata, or with that design might be called a bisento. Interesting. Continue."
The ending was as abrupt in this video as in the first, except this time it was clear that the girl had—somehow—delivered a single blow hard enough to take the creature down. Jesus, how strong would you have to be to hit something that hard?
"That's pretty much it," Gilbert said. "She does that little salute, as you see, and then just zips off."
"Track her. I want to know where she went. We don't know how she got there, but if she ran off, even that fast, someone will have seen where she went."
"Already on it. We're tapped into the local police, got special agents out looking. That'll take a little time, though, since a lot of our witnesses might have seen nothing more than a blur or movement; she's going way too fast for anyone to get a good look at, and she's bouncing over rooftops in the last few frames, so most security cameras haven't got a prayer of catching her."
She nodded, frowning. "Thoughts?"
"Well . . . she's clearly trying to help, not menace, the population. At least so far," Hughes said.
"Yeah, but the whole thing could be a setup," Gilbert countered. "Remember the 1982 San Diego Vampire case."
"You mean she, or her associates, could have set up the dhole situation as a way of making this Princess character look good," Dana said. "Very possible. There's a lot more examples than 1982 in the files. One of the more common gambits of high-level threats, in fact; most of them aren't stupid, they'd rather have the society protecting them rather than attacking them, at least until they're ready to strike. Anything else?"
"She wasn't as confident as she looked," Josephine said from her desk.
"Run it back and watch. Her hand shakes a little when she's doing her monologue and gesture, and when that weapon pops into her hand, her body language shows she's pretty startled. And she doesn't strike her pose and bow right after taking the worm down; if you watch, she's clearly startled by how fast it fell."
"Well," said Hughes, "That'd kinda fit if this is her first outing. You said even Central didn't know what was going on, right?"
"Either they don't, or they want everyone to think they don't," Dana said. She was quite conscious of just how far Central might go to manipulate things. "But for what it's worth, no, I don't think they've got any more clue than we do."
"Crap," said Owen Marsters, the fourth member of her team; he'd been quietly working on something in the corner. "Then that means we're dealing with complete unknowns. Which means if she doesn't make another appearance on her own, we've got jack-all chance of finding her, unless someone recognizes her from the vids. But the right wig and makeup, you can change a lot."
"That's more than just makeup, though," Hughes said. "There's something about her, even in video. I wonder what it was like, seeing all that in person?"
Dana Kisaragi shrugged, then took a breath. "Well, we may not be able to see that ourselves, at least not yet," she said, "but we'd better get on the scene. Gilbert, Hughes, come with me."
She looked at the screen. "Time to do a postmortem on an abomination."
The giant rock-worm's corpse stank already, though not merely of ordinary decay; there was a sulfurous, metallic reek that emanated from it and sent creeping shivers up Dana Kisaragi's spine. She tried to push the memories it triggered back down into the past where they belonged. This had better not have any connection to . . . that.
But that smell, and the eerie sense of wrongness that pervaded the entire area around the thing, argued otherwise. She might have to go back and ask . . .
She repressed a shudder. No. This is not even close to bad enough to justify that.
She focused on the activity around them. The major problem was that the thing was just too big. It wasn't going to fit on a flatbed trailer; hell, it was so big that even if they could get it to a train they'd need special variances just to transport it. "We're going to need a dispensation from Central," she said to Hughes.
"Don't see any way around it, Agent," he said, nose wrinkled but otherwise acting as nonchalantly as though he was looking at nothing more than a rather large boulder. "Unless they're willing to take the specimen in pieces. I figure we could transport it in about eight, ten sections."
"I'll find out what they want. I'll recommend we go that route, though Thorndyke will undoubtedly scream about it. He wants his samples as intact as possible."
"Then he'll need to pull one of our little miracles out, and you know the rest of Central won't like that."
"I'm glad it won't be my decision on that." She went towards the scaffolding that had been hastily erected around the body and went up the ladder to the top. "Gilbert, Marsters, you got anything?"
The two investigators were wearing full-coverage body suits with padded feet, to minimize their effect on, or exposure to, the dhole corpse. Gilbert, hearing her question, rose carefully from his position near the bottom of the craterlike wound in the thing's head, and made his way up to her before pushing back his helmet.
"Well, we have something," he said, "but nothing that will lead us directly to our pretty little enigma." He gestured at the wound. "The implement doing the damage was an edged weapon, as we saw. But."
She repressed a roll of her eyes. Warren Gilbert liked his dramatics, and that was a flaw she could tolerate as long as he got the job done—which, so far, he had. "But?" she asked, as he obviously expected.
"But look at this wound. It's an impact wound, though there's definite signs of that blade cutting into the thing at the bottom. Still, if it was just the blade doing the job, you'd expect that she'd have just stabbed that oversized spear right into the thing, doing a regular Ahab on it. Right?"
The implications were frightening. "Instead it hit more like . . . what, a wrecking ball?"
"A wrecking ball with an edge, yes. An immaterial wrecking ball, based on the visuals. You could get something like this if you had just the right kind of detonation at the point of near-impact, but then I'd expect more fracturing over the interior surface than I'm seeing. Right, Owen?"
"Best as I can make out, yeah," Owen replied, his voice somewhat muffled by the suit. "That little girl didn't just smack it with her silver stick; somehow she hit it as though she had a fist the size of a minivan."
"You got any trace from the wound?"
"A little. A very little. But yeah, some, Agent. I think it's actually silver, which again doesn't make much sense. Silver's a really great metal for a lot of things, but as a weapon? It sucks balls."
"Make sure you put that down in your report," Kisaragi said. "I'm sure Central will be impressed with your technical description."
"Sorry, Agent. I know, be proper and formal whenever possible. This is just such a crazy situation . . ."
"Understood. Just make sure you write this all up right. We've got no chance of containment—seeing this site pretty much put the nail in that coffin—so we've absolutely got to convince Central that we're doing the best we can otherwise."
Gilbert and Marsters nodded soberly. Gilbert glanced around cautiously, then said in a very low voice, "Is it . . . true? What they say about what they do with the really bad failures?"
It's not true . . . in some ways it's worse. But you're not going to hear that from me. "The really bad failures don't usually get a chance to find out what Central will do with them," she said casually. "Anyway, get those samples analyzed ASAP. I need anything and everything we can get out of—what is it?"
Investigator Marsters had stiffened, staring at something. Then he slowly straightened up, and she could see his grin even through the foggy faceplate. He pointed down.
At first she just saw an expanse of cracked stonelike exoskeleton, covered and blotched with multicolored ichor from within the thing. But then she became aware there was a pattern within the material, two patches that looked different.
"Well hello there," Gilbert said. "Our friend left some footprints, it looks like."
"Yes. That's about where the video seemed to show her standing. Can we get a cast of that, or just photos?"
"I think I can spray-cast them pretty well; she landed with a fair force, looks like," Marsters said.
A motion caught her eye. Looking down, she saw Josephine Morales waving at her. "Sounds good. Keep at it. It'll be a bit before we get the word on how they're going to remove this thing."
She slid down the ladder, using her hands to control the drop. "What've you got, Investigator?"
"Made some progress on the tracing," Morales said. She hooked a thumb at one of the patrol cars behind her. "Local police had the same idea, and they got lucky. Several witnesses saw something going by over the rooftops, really fast. Eventually the sightings drop off, but they were generally in a straight line." She held up her phone, which displayed a dotted line extending from the strip mall. "I'm guessing since the sightings ended, that our mysterious friend lives somewhere in this area, a couple miles from the mall." She tapped a several-block region of the city.
Dana repressed a sigh. This was, after all, considerable progress. "Start working on that area immediately. We need to find reasonable candidates for this . . . Princess Holy Aura."
"Exclude commercial stuff?"
"No," said Dana, after a moment's consideration. "I know that would make it a lot easier, but I have to presume that she could be either using a commercial setting as a base of operations, or could actually have a direct connection to one of the commercial enterprises present."
"It'll be quicker if I can use full authority to force my way in and check things out, and then just memwipe them afterwards if it's needed," Morales pointed out.
"I really don't like doing that . . . but we do have full authority." Dana considered pros and cons. Ultimately, speed won out. This was a hot trail, and it wasn't going to get any warmer if they took too long. "Do it if you have to. Try more conventional approaches first."
A faint buzzing noise became audible. She looked around, then glanced up.
A small object was drifting around in the sky, circling the site. Remote-controlled drone?
She swore. "Take that goddamned thing down!" She was tempted to shoot it herself, but it had been a while since she'd been to the range, and missing in the middle of a heavily inhabited area could have all sorts of not-fun consequences.
One of the black-armored locals—a riot cop, she thought—raised their modified shotgun and fired. Struck by the "beanbag" round, one rotor of the drone shattered and the craft spiraled down to crash on the blacktop a short distance away.
"Morales, get that drone and track it. I want to know who was sticking their nose in." She turned to the cop and nodded. "The drone must have been almost fifty feet up. That was a hell of a shot with a beanbag, Officer . . . Rogers?"
He smiled from under his helmet. "Thank you, ma'am. Done a lot of practice with it."
"Paid off, obviously. Good work."
Inside, she was less cheerful. Technology's advancement kept throwing curveballs at anyone trying to control the spread of information. First it was radio, then it was television, then the Internet, and now independent, high-resolution camera drones affordable by the man on the street. Ah well, we'd already accepted this wasn't really containable.
Things seemed as well under control as she could have expected, and getting answers was going to take time. She took out her phone and dialed a secret and very secure number.
Time to find out just how Central wanted their giant rock-worm shipped.
Dana leaned back in her chair, feeling a combination of relief and frustration. "So, in summary, we've got nothing."
Hughes shrugged. "Not nothing. The dhole was shipped without incident. We actually managed to obscure the more detailed information about our unknown. We narrowed Holy Aura's last-seen location to within several blocks. We verified that the metawave spike seen by the local monitors coincided with that flare of light and Holy Aura's appearance. We've got a really good description of her from the various videos and some idea of her capabilities."
He raised his hand placatingly as she began to speak. "But yes, nothing new. It's been a couple of months. The trail's pretty much cold now."
"We had three possible matches to Holy Aura," Josephine said. "But none of them panned out."
Dana nodded. They'd actually interrogated the three girls, then used combined amnesia and mnemorphic treatments to make them forget the interrogation and replace the time with more mundane memories. None of them had had the faintest idea of who Holy Aura was, and all their movements before, during, and after the event were accounted for.
"There have been a few minor metawave spikes in the region since, but they've been way down compared to the first, and they haven't lasted long enough to localize," Gilbert said, touching a couple of charts. "And nowhere near enough of them to get a signature that we can compare, so we don't even know if these spikes have anything to do with our sparkly enigma."
"Anyone else have ideas? Central seems to have accepted we couldn't possibly have managed containment, but I still hate coming back to them for the two-month report and saying that we've gotten effectively nowhere."
Her team looked at each other, then Marsters shrugged, spreading his hands. "Sorry, boss, but there's only so much we can do without new data. Last time a dhole showed up was like a hundred and fourteen years ago, so if it takes something like that to get our Princess to show up, we've got a lot longer than a few months to—"
The alert chime rang, loud enough to make them all jump. "Metawave spike," the calm, automated voice said. "Current metawave reading five thousand, two hundred twenty seven and rising."
Christ Almighty, Dana thought. The automated alert's threshold was only twelve hundred, and the manifestation two months ago had peaked at less than two thousand five hundred. "Speak of the devil. Gilbert, Hughes, talk to me, can we get a bearing and location?"
The two had leapt up from the table and dashed to their stations. "If it keeps up, we'll have it nailed down," Gilbert said with certainty. "Amplitude graphing now. Hughes, I'm getting a concentration in Block Twelve, do you match?"
"Twelve, roger. Getting vectors with the tuned antennas . . ."
"Got it," said Josephine Morales. "Emergency calls are spiking from Palonia Mall."
"Verified," Hughes said. "Palonia Mall's near the center of Block Twelve, and the vectors intersect there."
"Grab and go, people, grab and go!" Dana snatched up her field case and sprinted for the door. "Maybe we can catch this one before it ends!"
"Stand back!" Dana made sure both her people and the locals were clear, then took the proper stance and fired three times at the clear glass door.
The bullets did not ricochet, but nor did they do what they should have, which was blow the door to a mass of safety-glass cubes. Instead, Dana saw three faintly-smoking blobs lying just before the door; the slugs had been simply stopped, as though they'd hit three feet of ballistic gel compressed into an inch.
She stepped forward, then jumped back with a curse. She heard her people swear, and actual screams from a couple of the locals.
For just an instant, something had plastered itself to the entire glass front of Palonia Mall's entrance, something huge and glistening and black. Evilly-glinting eyes, venomous green or blood-red or gangrene-yellow, opened across the surface, accompanied by a myriad of drooling, fanged mouths that leered and champed and gnawed at the glass, leaving white-scraped marks on the smooth windows before whipping back into the depths of the Mall.
"Holy Jesus. Hughes, did you get that?"
"Got it. Not sure I wanted to, but got it. Transmitting over secured line now."
"What the hell was that?" Masters demanded, voice shaking. "The metawave meter went nuts."
"I don't know," Dana admitted, trying not to look as frightened as she felt. The sheer malevolence of that momentary appearance was terrifying. "Have we got confirmation of Holy Aura?"
There was a concussion that shook the ground, making the glass ripple across the mall front. "Confirmed," Morales said. "Images sent match our prior manifestation."
"Holy shit," Masters said, staring at his portable instruments. "Metawave readings are nine thousand twenty!"
Dana almost said that was impossible; only one manifestation in the modern era had ever reached that level.
But she'd never heard of anything like this, either.
Without warning, brilliant white light erupted from within Palonia Mall, so bright and pure that it erased color, leaving only sketches in charcoal and mist. For an instant—just an instant—Dana thought she heard a note of music, inexpressibly vibrant, triumphant, joyous, and felt a thrill go down her spine. It was light and music that eradicated the horror and vileness of the prior manifestation, that denied that monstrous power and stood against it, that called to a part of her that desperately needed to hear that Song, to embrace that Light.
Then it was gone; the Mall was once again just a structure of glass and steel and concrete, filled neither with terror nor transcendence. There was a click, and the doors burst open, people stumbling, fleeing outward, crying or staring in wonder or horror.
Her training said they needed to control the exodus, get the people into proper debriefing conditions. Even if there was no way to contain this breach, understanding what had happened here required that they interview everyone they could.
But this was a flood. Normally a breach might have one, two, or up to half a dozen witnesses. How many people were in a mall like this at peak? Thousands? She had five, including herself, plus the local first responders. OSC had sent her reinforcements after the first incident, but they'd left after a month. Look for key witnesses and get hard data, she decided. This was beyond normal practices.
"Listen up, everyone," she said, gathering her people to the side of the exodus. "We're never going to get interviews with everyone. Hughes, Morales, I want you to get security camera footage from every angle you can, plus anything our witnesses upload to the Net. Marsters, Gilbert, you come with me." She looked at the mass of terrified people and shook her head. "This is not going to be fun."
Dana cradled her head in her hands. God, I'm exhausted.
The aroma of hot, fresh coffee wafted to her. She looked up to see Hughes standing there, holding out a cup.
"Hughes, I could marry you."
"Marie would probably object," he said with a smile. The circles under his eyes showed that he wasn't really any better off than she was. "Though we'd probably see more of each other than Marie and I do."
She took a sip, then another, and sighed. "OSC and marriage isn't usually a great combo unless both of you are in the same division."
He shrugged. "I didn't have much of a choice. You?"
She looked around. Gilbert was hunched over, studying a screen with bloodshot eyes. Owen Marsters was still seated at his desk, but his head had lolled back and he was snoring. Josephine was in the interview room with the who-knew-how-manyth interviewee.
"No," she said finally. "I was . . ." She snorted. "I was a would-be private investigator. Stuck my nose into something that looked interesting and damn near lost my head. And I can't talk details because no one but me's cleared for what happened."
"Tell me about it. Or rather, don't, because same here. Well, I was a cop myself, but other than that, yeah."
She gestured for him to sit; his glasses flashed opaquely as he did. "So what've we got, anything?"
"Central's being damn quiet, for one thing. We sent them the initial data and I haven't heard a peep out of them in, what, sixteen hours?"
That wasn't good. They should at least have gotten info on whether that thing they'd seen had been in the database or not. "Great. I'm betting they're sending in State or even Regional forces now. Take over the whole thing."
"Heh. I say let them have this one. It's wayyy too hot for us." He glanced down at his notes. "That thing we saw was huge. Witnesses are unreliable and all, but combining the testimony we're looking at something that had to be whale-sized or bigger, but with no fixed shape. Fully sapient, it spoke, and every single witness agrees the thing wasn't just threatening physically; they all felt the thing's hostility."
"Residual metawave survey get anything?"
"We got some signatures out of it, since we were on-scene, but like I said, Central's given us zip-squat."
"That 'Princess Holy Aura' beat it?"
"As far as anyone can tell. Witnesses say she led it quite a running battle, then seemed to get caught—and then blew it into mist with pure light."
"Timing fit with the high metawave spike, right?"
"Yep. The spike peaked at ten thousand four hundred twenty-seven, averaged among the three meters we have."
"Ten thousand. Mother of . . . I don't think we have any readings in the modern era that went that high." Except one, but he's not cleared for that.
"None that I know of, anyway. Though we both could be not-cleared for anything like that."
"She must have been on-site. Did anyone get anything out of the security cams?"
"No dice," Gilbert's voice said. He plopped into another chair, running a hand shakily through his curly hair. "Well, I can say that she appeared somewhere in the north wing of the mall, because she didn't show up from the others. But something blew all the monitor cameras in the north wing and even scrambled the data for up to an hour before the manifestation."
"What? Are you saying it was deliberate?"
"Based on timing, it happened no more than a couple of minutes after that black thing first showed up, and only affected cameras and their storage. So yeah, deliberate."
She frowned. "So this Princess Holy Aura—or, possibly, an ally of hers—is capable of delicate manipulation of metawave forces? Was there a metawave spike linked to that event?"
"Good guess, Agent. A small one, would've been impossible to pull out of the noise if we didn't have good timing data to work from. Maybe two, three hundred."
"That's not all that small, Gilbert," Hughes said.
"Well, no, not for our normal stuff, but compared to the rock-worm, our magical princess, or that monster, it's way down in the noise."
"Interesting. Can you show me a profile of all the spikes?"
"Here, let's take a look at them on your terminal." He brought up the graphs. "As you can see—"
Her phone buzzed; her hand yanked it out automatically. "Kisaragi."
"Agent Kisaragi," came John Covenant's cultured, even tones, and she straightened to ramrod stiffness, eyes widening. He's calling me direct? What the hell?
"We have a . . . situation."
"A . . . situation, sir?"
"Yes. At the time you experienced your latest incident, multiple of our secure lockdowns simultaneously attempted containment breach. That is why we have not had time to respond to your queries."
Lord. That can't be coincidence. "Understood, sir."
"However, that's a minor issue."
"Multiple simultaneous breach attempts are a minor issue?" She was so stunned by this that she omitted the usually-reflexive "sir" at the end.
"In this case . . . yes." Covenant's voice was grim. "He wishes to speak with you."
It felt as though a vise of spiked ice had just enclosed her chest. "Him? You mean—"
She swallowed. She was vaguely aware that both Gilbert and Hughes were staring at her with concern. "I . . . no, Sir John, I will not."
John Covenant did not reply for a moment. It was possible, she thought, that it had been literally years since anyone had so bluntly refused an obvious request.
When he did speak, his voice was sympathetic . . . but edged in iron. "Agent Kisaragi, I understand your reluctance. I, myself, would prefer not to have any contact with 2197, nor allow anyone else to do so. But he insists that it is vital. And he will speak with no one else."
"Did you ask to whom it was vital, sir?"
"I'm afraid we did, yes. His response was 'oh, to her, of course. And perhaps a few billion others.'"
She swallowed. "It will take me—"
"We're authorizing special transport. You'll be here at Central within the hour."
As she lowered the phone, Gilbert touched her shoulder. "Agent? Dana, you look terrible. Are you all right?"
"Central's sending special transport," she whispered. "For me."
"What? Oh, crap, they can't be blaming you for—"
"Blaming?" She stared at them, and suddenly realized what they were thinking. "Oh, no, I'm not in trouble. No. Or . . . well, I am, but not like that." She took a breath, then picked up the cup of coffee and drained it. "I'm just suddenly in much more demand."
Hughes' glasses glinted again, the eyes narrowed, and he suddenly nodded. "Something happened at Central. Something you're cleared for and we aren't."
"Got it in one."
"Son of a . . ." Gilbert grimaced. "So we proceed without you?"
"And hope I come back. This might not be safe." It won't be. It never is.
"You'll come back. This group of misfits would never work for anyone else," Gilbert said; she could see the worry in the fine lines between his brows.
"I'll try. Look, just keep up the investigation. No matter what happens at Central, we still need answers. See if anyone saw Holy Aura depart, see if we can trace her. I'm a little more convinced she's on the side of the angels, but that doesn't change the mission. She's an unknown and we need info."
"Count on us, Agent."
"Now I'd better go down and get ready. Special transport doesn't wait."
"This is far as we come with you, Agent," Captain Eneru of Special Containment Force 6 said.
She stared up at the huge black metal door. It was composed of an alloy that only OSC knew how to manufacture, and was emblazoned with a series of warning symbols that, if she hadn't known what lay beyond the door, would have looked like someone had simply thrown every possible hazard up at random, from the radiation trefoil to the eye-in-triangle that indicated metawave-mediated telepathic threats.
Then the words penetrated. "What? But no one's allowed inside containment alone—"
"Sir John's orders, Agent." Eneru's long face seemed to lengthen with disapproval under his visor. "I protested, ma'am, but he refused to change the directives. We're to stand guard outside and be ready to act if something untoward occurs."
Meaning that if I come out and they have the slightest doubt about me in any way, they'll gun me down with everything they have. She noted with trepidation that SCF-6 wasn't armed solely with conventional or even super-advanced weaponry; one of them, Sergeant Collins if she remembered right, was holding the unmistakable silvery blowdryer-crossed-with bazooka shape of OSC-SE-231, a squat handled globe with cooling ports on the side and a massive barrel. SE-231 was the most powerful hand-carried weapon OSC had ever recovered and put back into service; she had no real idea where it came from, but she did know she'd seen a practice firing of it a few years ago. She wasn't even sure the isolation barrier she was facing would stand up to it.
Oddly, the sight of it was a tiny bit more reassuring than it was terrifying. They're taking this seriously.
But still . . . "Sir John?" she spoke to empty air. "Are you certain about this?"
John Covenant's voice answered immediately from the grille near the isolation barrier; the associated small screen showed his image clearly. "Agent Kisaragi, I sincerely wish I was not. However, 2197 has initiated contact only three times previously, as you know, and the one time his request was refused we lost Installation Seventeen—with no survivors. I understand we cannot trust anything he says or does—"
"No, you're right," she said, feeling her mouth going dry even as she said it. "You're right."
"He said he must speak to you alone. No witnesses. No recordings of any kind by OSC. He permits you to bring your phone in and did not forbid you from making a record of your visit." The lean, dark face was tense, and she thought he somehow looked older than he had even two months ago, when this had all started. "I will not order you to do so. I will leave that to your discretion. Just remember what you are facing."
"I have never forgotten that, sir. I don't think I ever will."
His eyes met hers, and for a moment she felt a true shock of understanding in that gaze. "No, Agent; we never do." He nodded. "Carry on, Agent."
She nodded, and turned.
There was a hum and a rumbling clank as the door seals disengaged. The immense doors slid open with the heavy deliberation of armor plate, leaving a space just wide enough for her to walk through. She entered, passing the two-meter thickness of the doors, into the five-foot wide gap between the inner and outer isolation doors. Only when the outer doors had completely shut and the massive lock had re-engaged did the inner seal release and allow the inner isolation door—fully as thick as the outer—to open.
Even now, she hesitated. With that door open, she could sense something ahead of her, a presence that was already alert to her own.
"Please, Miss Kisaragi, come in. You have nothing to fear," a calm, low voice said from the dimness beyond. "I'm so glad you've come."
Hearing that voice again sent a chill down her entire body. She remembered the scene again . . . the distorted, half-destroyed bodies, the warped beams and floor, the sulfurous, metallic tang in the air…
With a tremendous effort, Dana Kisaragi took hold of her fear and controlled it, stepping briskly through the inner portal, halting a few feet past to allow it, too, to seal. It would not open now until she directed it to in the appropriate fashion.
He was seated in a massive chair, almost a throne, behind the triple-layered isolation crystal. His voice could not pass directly through those layers; it was transmitted through a series of microphones and speakers, with multiple types of filters—regular and metawave-based—between the source and the output. The isolation crystal had defenses built into it as well. Within the enclosure, which was a full hundred feet across inside, were various amenities from a high-end bathroom to a well-stocked kitchen . . . all with completely transparent walls.
She did not look directly at him; she didn't need to to know what she would see. Subject 10-2197 was humanoid—very humanoid—but not human, standing well over seven feet tall, built like a superlative swimmer—deep chest, strong arms, straight, lean contours—with a semi-tamed mane of white hair partially covering a crest or crown of red-striped white horns with seven points; his skin was smooth, shiny, and deeply tanned with a faint gray or purplish undertone, and from direct experience she knew was slightly warmer than human . . . and despite its apparent softness and flexibility could shrug off high-caliber rifle rounds without damage.
2197 rose with the precision of a machine as she approached, and gave a bow. "Welcome to my home, Miss Kisaragi," he said. There was the slightest of shifts in the way he said the word home, and she shuddered. In that minuscule delay and emphasis she could sense a rage and hostility that might have matched the malevolence of the black thing at the mall. "How kind of you to answer my summons so quickly."
"Sir John arranged it, not me."
"Yes, he's been wise thus far. Only one serious mistake, and it cost him a mere two hundred fifty-seven lives, plus a few hundred disposables."
His head tilted, and he smiled. The smile was not comforting; it was the sort of smile you might expect on a robot that had seen the expression but had no idea of what it was supposed to convey. "Ah. So little you know of your own allies, Miss Kisaragi. And yet you chose them over me, though you knew at least as much about me."
She shook her head; that voice was in her head again, even with the filters. She concentrated and let the nonsense mantras flow through her head; the pressure slowly ebbed. "What I knew about you was enough. Stop trying to mess with me or I'm walking out no matter what you say."
This smile wasn't robotic, but it was no more comforting. "How quickly you have learned, Miss Kisaragi. Though that puerile method of mental protection would do you little good against any opponent of substance."
"I have others. And I am Agent Kisaragi, 2197."
"Tsk, tsk. You insist on a specific form of address and give me a number?"
"I'm not saying your name."
"No." He was somber for a moment. "No, you would not do that. You are no fool. More's the pity."
"What did you want me for?"
A glint of actual humor. "Oh, dear, Dana, that could be taken so amiss."
"If I'd wanted that I could have had it," she said, deciding to throw caution to the wind. She was sick of this fencing, and sick of being afraid of this . . . thing.
He gave a laugh, a quick barking sound that ended almost as it began. "Ha! Yes, you could. But instead you proved more than I had expected. Do you realize how fortunate the OSC was that day, Miss . . . Agent Kisaragi? How few people could have done what you did? I suspect Sir John does. That's why you've never been promoted, after all."
"What? That makes no sense."
"It makes all the sense in the world, Agent. Oh, all the sense in the world. You are necessary for him. To hold me." He extended his hand, and the inner barrier trembled. "Oh, you are not quite what you were, but not quite not what you were. Letting you become an Agent was a terrible risk for dear John, but he had little choice. He's running out of time."
What the hell is he . . . She shoved the question out of her mind with difficulty. This was how 2197 worked. That damnable voice—and if he was out, something much worse—wormed into your head, made you question everything around you, listen to him more, and pretty soon black was white and night was day. "Back on topic. Last warning. You said this was vital."
"Ahh." He sighed then sank back into his chair and steepled his fingers. "Business, then. About eighteen or nineteen of your hours ago, I sensed . . . something. There was a manifestation of considerable power, yes?"
She considered, but if she didn't go along to some extent her visit was wasted. "Yes. Considerable."
"And what was this manifestation?"
"I think you already know," she said. "Or why demand I come?"
He considered that. "Fair enough as a guess, Agent Kisaragi. Not quite to the mark, but fair. I have an idea of . . . shall we say, the type, or nature, of this manifestation but I know, at least now, nothing of the specifics and I need some sort of objective point to start with. Have you any data—any at all—you could share with me that might allow me to recognize this manifestation?"
She glanced at him. "All right." With a few touches on her phone, she accessed the presentation screen. "Here."
The screen lit up and played the stored clip of the monstrosity in the mall.
Breath hissed from 2197, a sibilant sound of tension and revelation.
"Sounds like you know something."
"A shoggoth," he said finally. "That was a shoggoth."
"Oh, yes, 'a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming,' as Lovecraft once said?" The mouth sneered, revealing sharp fangs. "Human minds touching upon the terror-filled Infinite, brushing the edges of horrors so alien to their world that their very presence can deform and twist nature to their needs, and you think they could even grasp the words necessary to describe this? That is the reality of a shoggoth, the living darkness that watches and hungers, the reason all life that has ever reached sapience throughout your plenum fears the shadows."
His head came up. "But you survived this sight. You were there, Agent. Something stopped the Night-hunger. Something . . . unexpected, yes? A girl-child, not even of an age for a profession or wedding, yes?"
How . . . ?
Her expression must have given it away. He nodded. "Oh, my, my, my. I was right. Agent, you are in grave danger. As is everyone else on this world."
He chuckled. "Oh, no, no. I assure you, just because I am something you think of as an adversary, do not make the mistake of thinking that means that all adversaries are my friends. Or that those which might be your allies or enemies would be either to me."
He leaned forward in his thronelike chair. "Agent Kisaragi, you must be exceedingly careful. Far more careful than you have been, more than you imagine. The wrong move—in either direction—could spell the literal end."
She was taken aback, a twist of her gut sending acid nausea through her. I think he means it. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that your OSC itself can be a terrible factor in your own world's destruction. It has a mission, and one that it views as good. Perhaps, even, it is good, in some ways, though your judgments of good and evil would rather differ from mine." He smiled again briefly, a true if cynical expression. "But if you simply proceed as their ideal Agent, Miss Kisaragi, you will risk not just you, not just me, not just your team or the OSC, but the entirety of this world."
"Why should I believe you, of all people? You don't even care about this world!"
"Oh, not true, not true. I care a great deal about this world, for reasons you do not yet comprehend—and I have at the moment no need to reveal them to you. But more importantly, I care about myself quite a bit, thank you. Your OSC has, I absolutely confess, managed a superlative job with this little containment facility. It suppresses me rather effectively. Which, if you can follow, means that it makes me defenseless against any threat that is of any significance."
"You mean, if this . . . force you're worried about shows up, even if it broke the OSC, you might not recover fast enough to save yourself."
"Precisely, Agent." He leaned forward, and while his voice was intense and earnest, she—to her surprise—heard none of the usual semi-hypnotic undertones. He was simply speaking to her, with no attempt to influence. "Miss Kisaragi, you are . . . not unique in the world, but possibly so in the OSC. You are the right person in the right position, but you know so little of what you face, or could face. You will be forced to decide how to deal with these forces, and what you do may tip the balance . . . and the obvious actions, or those that come Agency-recommended, may not be the right ones."
"What the hell am I dealing with?"
He closed his eyes and gave a faint smile. "Agent, I have my own agenda here, and of course I can be served by your own actions as well. So there are things I simply won't tell you. But I assure you that what I have said is literally true, and that if you turn this over to other Agents—if you let dear Sir John out there assign someone with more, shall we say, seniority over you? There is not the slightest chance that your world will survive."
Dana Kisaragi met that eerie glowing gaze momentarily, and the chill through her body intensified. He was using none of his powers, overt or subtle; he was talking to her, not playing, and that meant . . . "You really mean it. The whole world. We're dealing with a Class Ten threat."
The head came up, and he looked down at her as though she were a child. "You are dealing with magic, Agent. Let us dispense with the voodoo comfort of your 'metawave' terminology, your belief that since you have found a way to measure it, and to a minuscule extent contain it, you understand it. You understand nothing. This is magic, ancient and powerful beyond your knowledge, and there is Something coming for your world. The girl-child and her adversaries are only the beginning."
"For people who understand nothing we've done well enough securing and countering you."
2197 shook his head. "Because magic is so weak here, yes. The only manifestations you have seen are those supportable by the remaining . . . ambient field, I suppose you might say, or those—like myself—who carry our power within, at least until we can create a link to the world we have entered and draw upon what strength it has."
"That's why we can contain you?"
"Certainly. You—by good procedure, no little talent, and a quite startling amount of luck—prevented me from establishing that link, and thus this," he gestured about him," can restrain me, turn my power back, prevent me from reaching beyond these walls except in the most trivial ways.
"What is coming may throw the gates wide, Agent. Magic may flood back into your world like a destroying cataract, and even if not, the beings that are coming are already linked to a world, one whispered only in your most ancient legends and secret nightmares. It has tried this before; it was one of those attempts, indeed, that made it possible for me to have the potential to manifest.
"But it is not my ally, nor that of any other."
"So you're saying we should be helping the other one. The girl."
"The girl? Ah, yes, Prinkípissa Ierí Ávra, Gōngzhǔ Shèngjié Guānghuán, Alii Pomaikai Uhane, the Ruler-Child of the Sacred Spirit. Or, perhaps, the Child who Rules the Sacred Spirit—translations are so difficult, are they not? Help her, you say? Perhaps, but you know not how delicate the situation is. There is a way of these things, Agent, and if you attempt to change it—in either direction—you could cause the very cataclysm you seek to prevent."
She heard her own frustrated snort. "So what? Are you saying do nothing?"
"Have you not been listening, Agent? I have given you the advice you need. I advocate neither a given action nor inaction. I have counseled you to use wisdom and caution—and given you some quite specific warnings." He leaned slowly back in the chair. "And that, Agent Kisaragi, is all you need to know."
"Dammit, no! What are these forces that are coming? Why are they so powerful they would threaten you? Who's this Princess Holy Aura, and where'd she come from? You can't just . . ."
But 2197 was simply sitting there, eyes closed, the faintest of smiles playing about his lips as she shouted at him. She knew he was quite capable of sitting exactly like that for hours.
With a curse she wheeled around and marched towards the exit. She wasn't sure if the low, mocking laugh echoed from behind her, or only in her head, but she refused to look back.
It was a genuine relief to face the entirety of SCF-6 pointing every possible weapon of destruction at her as the exterior door opened. Eneru was studying readouts as she stood, absolutely frozen, on the threshold.
"Clear," he said, finally, and the whispering sound of collectively released breaths sighed through the corridor. "Come through, Agent. Sir John said you were to be brought to him immediately after the interview, if all went well."
She knew that "well" meant "if Agent Kisaragi was not killed or suborned," not anything about what she might have learned. "Lead on, Captain."
Sir John stood as she entered, and then came around to shake her hand. "Agent, thank you. I know how difficult that must have been for you."
She nodded, studying him. She had never been in Sir John Covenant's physical presence before, and she was struck by the strange mixture of predatory confidence and empathy he radiated. He was probably older than he looked, and he looked to be a good fifty-five to sixty, though still very fit—slender, strong, graying-black hair that showed no sign of thinning, with one lock that seemed difficult for him to control just over his forehead. That dangerous, dissecting gaze from piercingly blue eyes both attracted and chilled her.
"Please, sit down. A drink, perhaps?"
"I'm on duty, Sir John."
"Humph. In my day that made no difference. And this isn't a mission at the moment, more a debrief."
She found herself accepting a martini, poured from the shaker by John Covenant himself before he sat down with his own. Dana took a sip and raised her eyebrow. "That's . . . good. Different than any I've had before, somehow. Bitter, but not in a bad way."
He nodded. "You have excellent senses. Not unusual in an agent, of course. Cocchi Aperitivo Americano added to the mix; many decades back it would have been Kina Lillet, but that's been gone a long time. It's the quinine, mostly." He gazed at her across the glass rim. "This could be quite quick, Agent; is there anything you're willing to tell me? Any recordings? Or will we finish our drinks and return to our duties, with myself none the wiser?"
"Just like that?"
"Exactly like that, yes. Highly against procedure and regs, of course, but anything touching on 2197 lies somewhat beyond the pale. So?"
She hesitated. But if she was going to work for the OSC at all, Sir John at least deserved something. "I made a recording. I'll be keeping it sealed for a while, though. In case."
"Your privilege, Agent. But I am gratified you made one. Anything else?"
Agent Kisaragi, you must be exceedingly careful, the voice whispered from memory. She weighed her options. "He wasn't joking or tricking us. He sincerely believes we're dealing with a Class Ten threat."
Sir John sucked in his breath with a hiss that was unpleasantly reminiscent of the being she'd just left. "Indeed. That's most unwelcome news."
"And he says I am . . . somehow . . . involved. I have to be careful, he says." She saw Sir John's steady gaze and decided to be straightforward. "He said . . . if I act as the ideal Agent, I could cause the disaster."
He pursed his lips, gazing at her, then granted her the narrowest of smiles. "You're facing a Class Ten threat and he thinks I'd be unwise to send in larger and more experienced teams, leaving it to a local Agent and her small response force. No, more; leaving it to the judgment and decisions of one person. The one that caught him."
"I didn't catch him. I just helped."
"Really." The word was filled with dry doubt and curiosity. "Well, we can discuss that another time." He leaned back, sipping at his drink; she took one of her own and waited.
Finally he smiled, with a sad edge to the expression. "He gave no guarantees."
"No. Not even many specifics. He knows a lot about what's happening but he's hoping to make use of it. I think he wants me to save the world for him, though."
"What was it from some recent movie . . . ah yes, can't the world stay saved for, oh, ten minutes?" He chuckled, looking into a distance she couldn't see. "You'd be amazed how often the world—at least as we ordinary humans understand it—is in peril."
She swallowed. The OSC existed to protect the world, and she'd heard hints that it was much older than ordinary intelligence agencies, but the way Sir John was talking, she suspected the agency's history was even grimmer than she'd guessed . . . and she'd guessed an awful lot.
"One special Agent to save the world, eh?" Sir John went on, smiling. "Or destroy it, if she guesses wrong. And on the word of a monster trying to protect itself from another monster."
"Something like that, I guess." She squirmed inwardly at the thought of saving the world. It was too big a responsibility. Too big a thought.
Again Sir John sat quietly, gazing into his glass. "I was not so different from you, Agent Kisaragi. Well, yes. I was. But we had the same . . . eye-opening experience, entering a case expecting that we knew what we were dealing with, and suddenly seeing the world as we knew it erased forever, replaced with something . . . awful and terrifying and wondrous and monstrous. Then using all the pathetic skills we had and finding that it was, perhaps, just barely enough. This time. And then being recruited. Yes, I remember that myself, though it was years ago."
"He said I didn't really know the OSC," she said, with a thrill of trepidation.
Sir John sighed. "In many ways, no, you do not. It has not been necessary. May not be, even now." He tossed back the last of his martini and stood. "Very well, Agent. I'm sending you back. I'll get you more resources to work with, but I will leave you in charge."
She felt a rising sense of both elation and panic at this gesture, and took his hand. "Thank you, Sir John."
"Not at all. Just try not to get the entire planet killed." He smiled coldly. "Won't look good on your annual review."
"Agent Kisaragi! You're back!"
She found herself unexpectedly warmed by the looks of relief and welcome on all four of her team—Hughes, Gilbert, Morales, Marsters. All of them had stood, smiling, taking a step or two towards her as she entered. I guess working together, especially on this case, has connected us more than I'd expected.
That was of course something not always to be encouraged; the more you were connected to people, the more you were likely to make choices based, not on the mission and rationality, but on the value you placed on those people. The OSC preferred to keep things rational and professional.
Screw that. I don't have time to worry about being professional when I'm dealing with a Class Ten. She smiled back. "Yes, I am, and in one piece."
"So? Anything you can tell us, or is all of it 'die before thinking' kind of stuff?" Morales asked.
"There's a lot of hush-hush, but I can say that Central's sending out ten response teams—and they'll be under our direction, not the other way around."
"WELL now," Hughes said in an impressed voice. "You must have knocked them dead on your visit; that's a promotion for sure."
She displayed her ID case. "Crisis Directorship, full Regional authority, no less."
"Holy crap." Gilbert's salt-and-pepper beard quivered then showed the white of teeth. "And we're your Directorial staff? Promotions all around!"
"Which will last about five minutes if we don’t get results," she reminded them. "They took me out of here on the fast transport but I came back the regular way, so what've you learned in the last day or so?"
The smiles faded. Owen Marsters sighed. "Not much, boss. Agent. That Holy Aura girl zipped out of the mall real fast, and she went high. Not many security cams on the top of the building and most of them were out anyway. Can say that she wasn't going the same direction that she was on her prior appearance."
"So either no stable base of operations, or she's smart enough to never take a direct route."
"I'm betting on the second."
"Safest that way. Anything else at all?"
"Thing was definitely after our Princess," Hughes said. "Witnesses and what recordings we have agree on that. And she worked hard to keep its attention, so there were no civilian casualties—at least no physical ones."
"Psychological damage? Or something else?"
Gilbert pointed to a stack of thumb drives. "Data on there says it's both. I mean, being the witness to a manifestation on that scale is trauma, no matter how you slice it, and the metawave effects . . . that thing was radiating in the psychoaffective bands a lot. We figure two, three hundred cases of metawave-mediated PTSD, at least, and at least a few of those are going to be untreatable in the short term, maybe in the long term."
Dana cursed under her breath. "So a true horror; Lovecraft-type mental damage."
"Makes sense; while you were on your way back, Central tentatively identified that thing as a shoggoth, though it's sure not what I thought a shoggoth was supposed to be like."
She nodded, sat down and sipped at the coffee she'd picked up on the way in. At least Central knew that much. Finally she looked up at the four, who were watching her expectantly. "Thoughts?"
They looked at each other. Finally, Hughes shrugged. "I'm more convinced that this Princess is a potential ally. Sure, it could still be a trick, but . . . hell, if that thing was a throwaway trick, what kind of a disaster are we being set up for?"
She held a quick internal debate. "I can answer you that, anyway. We've got good information that whatever's behind all this rates a Class Ten."
Even Josephine Morales' face went pale; the others looked like ghosts for a moment. "Ten?"
"Fuck me," Owen said distinctly. "And we're the point on this?"
"Holy Blessed Mother of God."
After a moment of silence, Hughes shook himself. "Well, then, we'd better get to work. Orders, Agent?"
She'd been thinking about that for a while. "Two manifestations within a few miles of each other, both extremely high power and connected by the Princess—that argues that at least for the moment there is a local connection. Concur?"
The others looked thoughtful, then nodded. "Works as a hypothesis," Morales said. "There's an awful lot more of the country they could have appeared in."
"Right. And we were seeing small metawave spikes in the interim, yes?"
"Several, but they were very short and hard to pull out of the noise." Gilbert gave an apologetic shrug. "Without a signature on them we can't even guarantee they're connected, though."
"I'm willing to bet that they are, or most of them are. There wasn't much activity in this area at all until this whole thing started."
Hughes looked up. "Ahh, I see your idea. Since we're getting all the extra teams—"
"Yes. We'll distribute the response teams through the entire local district. Assume the next manifestation's going to happen somewhere close by—maybe another shopping area, a store, a school, something like that." She paused, and thought. "In fact, I've got a real good idea where to concentrate. More on that later. I'll requisition more metawave sensors and we'll saturate the area with them, as much as we can. That way if and when something happens we'll have bearing and distance, at least."
"What about defenses?" Owen asked. "Either of those monsters would've wiped out our entire group if they'd come after us. Can't bet that our princess would get there first."
"Well, the response teams are already well armed and protected. But I'll also requisition some combat-level metawave shielding matrices and anything else you think we need. Give me a list ASAP."
She looked out the window; the summer sun shone, deceptively peaceful. "Next time our monsters poke their noses out of the darkness, we'll have a god-damned spotlight for them!"
Dana looked up from her desk as her new office door opened. The fact that it had opened without a knock told her who it had to be, and her gut was already tightening with annoyance before she actually saw the well-trimmed blond hair and square-jawed face of Agent John T. Miller, Special Response Team Commander, multiply-decorated Agent, and major pain in her ass.
"Agent Kisaragi—" he began, with the subtly-impatient drawl that he seemed to feel made him sound both reasonable and superior.
"Agent Miller, are you incapable of knocking when entering your Director's office?" she cut him off.
His lips tightened. "My apologies . . . Director Kisaragi."
"Better." She repressed a sigh. "What can I do for you, Miller?"
"My teams are getting restless, Director. We haven't gotten a decent response alert in all the weeks we've been here."
This isn't really his concern. He's just using this as a lead-up to something much more important. "Miller, the interval between our first manifestation and the second was months. We have to assume it could be the same with the third. We assume there will be a third. There are still metawave spikes seen in the area—but we can't localize them."
"Yes. There's a reason for that, Director."
Ouch. If he knows something and my team hasn't caught it . . . "And that is?"
"Well, to keep my teams from being completely bored, I've had them doing on-the-ground metawave scans—covert, of course—and they started noticing some odd patterns." He gestured at her terminal. "If the Director permits?"
She nodded and stood up; Miller spun the chair out, sat in it, and rolled back to the desk in one smooth economic motion. He quickly accessed a project folder under his team command and pulled up a graphic. "See anything, Director?"
She studied the image. It was an overlay of metawave survey scans on the city surrounding their assumed target area. At first glance, she saw nothing amiss; there were areas of higher and lower metawave concentration, though none of them of any significant level, scattered through the city. This was normal, since there was always a "background radiation level" of metawave energies, usually somewhat higher in heavily-populated areas, and it wasn't evenly distributed, for reasons that the theoreticians were still arguing over.
However, the not-quite-concealed smirk on Miller's face told her there was something out of the ordinary in this image. After a few more moments, she thought she had it. "These areas. Here, here, here, others like them. It's . . . smoother distribution. Looks superficially the same taken in isolation . . ."
"Right," Miller said. "If you had just one or two guys walking around doing a survey, or even if you were a class four or five metawave manifestation looking around for targets, you'd probably never notice anything. The combination of us having installed a huge network of metawave sensors and my having a large number of agents doing active survey sweeps so we could track the shifts is the reason we could catch this."
She noticed the date on the image. Two weeks ago. The son of a bitch has been sitting on this for two weeks? Probably working out what it meant. Probably in his own reports and not in mine, making me look out of touch.
A part of her was grinning at her cynically, saying oh, you expected this kind of politics to stop just because the world might be in danger? The rest of her was just coldly angry.
But expressing that anger wouldn't help right now; she'd deal with Miller's clumsy maneuvering later. "Do we have any idea what it means?"
Miller grinned, the self-satisfied expression of someone getting to show off. "Metawave shielding. Very, very sophisticated, subtle metawave shielding."
"You mean like our wards?"
"Asked Keldering the same question—you know Keldering, he's my resident big brain on metawave stuff?" At her nod, he went on, "anyway, Keldering laughed at that. Seems that our stuff is pretty straightforward, blunt-instrument. Way he put it, we build big walls and cover them with guns, but these things are more like someone built a giant maze and no matter where you enter, you just come out the other side without ever finding the center."
She thought about that a moment. "You mean if there's a metawave spike inside one of those, it's . . . spread out. Distributed over a larger area."
"And maybe even to other separated areas like this, that were built by the same people. So you'll pick up a general metawave spike over the whole region, but it'll be so defocused that you can't localize it."
"I see." She gestured for him to get out of her chair, and sat down when he had done so. Then she looked up at him and let her face go cold. "And you've known this for two weeks?"
"You just had us on standby, Director. You didn't give us this assignment. We did it on our own—"
"I am the Crisis Director for this entire situation, Agent Miller." She rose slowly and glared into his eyes—which were on a level with her own. "We are dealing with a threat of at least Class Seven, and we have reason to believe a Class TEN is behind this. Any information of substance is to be given to the Crisis Director immediately upon receipt of that information."
Miller's expression wasn't apologetic—he wasn't even showing the oh crap that someone should when they'd been caught out. He looked defiant.
"What, Miller? You thought if you came to me with this, I'd be so happy to see some kind of progress that I wouldn't notice? Or I'd leave it aside because I didn't want to get in a pissing contest with you and whoever your supporters up the line are?"
"Your people haven't found anything, Director. Mine, who you just had sitting around on their thumbs, were able to figure this out."
"You know, I'll give you that one point. I should have asked what other things I could have them do, but honestly? The last thing I would have wanted to do is break them up and spread them out doing this kind of work. What if we had had a manifestation while your teams were playing survey crew?"
He opened his mouth and she cut him off with a savage slash of her hand. "But the rest of it? That's pure office-politics bullshit, Miller, and you're playing with this when the world could end up burning? What was the worst thing you ever faced, Agent? Class three? Four? Maybe even a Five? I've had two Sevens, maybe a Seven and Eight, right here, and I don't have time for your crap."
Now his expression was ugly—there was a hint of fear there, awareness that he might have gone too far, but there was also defiance and arrogance and contempt. "What? Listen, Kisaragi, I've been out there face-to-face with things that'd suck your brain out of your eye sockets, psychoactive threats that'd turn you into an automaton, metawave manifestations that didn't even have a physical body to shoot at. I've seen your file, and I know –"
"Shut the hell up." She said it quietly but with such vehemence that Miller cut off. "You haven't seen my whole file, and you're not cleared for that. You haven't the faintest idea of what I've seen 'out there,' so just shut up. You've been going around subtly dismissing me ever since you got here, Miller, and I've had it. You're going to straighten up and fly right, starting right now, or I am picking up that phone and so help me God I will call Sir John Covenant direct about you."
It was interesting to see the shifts in expression that passed over Miller's face. But to his credit, it took only a moment before he had it under control, and there was now very little sign of anger or contempt. "Sir John? Seriously?"
"He put you under my command explicitly, Agent Miller. He wants me in charge. I'm not sure I want it, but I have it, and I'll be damned if people who are supposed to be on my side are going to be a problem. Are you going to be a problem, Agent Miller?"
He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, opened them. "No, ma'am. No, Director Kisaragi, I will not be a problem. My apologies, Director."
She nodded. He's still pissed, probably doesn't really respect me much, but he does respect Sir John Covenant, and if he's smart he's probably scared of him. Time to see if I can make this work out better. "Good. I'll ignore the delay, then. Thank you for bringing this to my attention now. This is very good work. I'll note that in my report and give you and your team credit. Anyone besides you and Keldering I should single out?"
A flicker of his eyes showed a hint of surprise, but Miller then switched to a thoughtful expression. "Umm . . . Maybe Agent Harshaw; she noticed the blurring first."
"Think about it and get back to me if there's any others; my next report goes out in, um, two days, so there's a little time. Do you have any more on this? How many places are affected? Anything on their distribution?"
"We're working on that . . . I'll send all the data to your people so they can help out; maybe they'll have some ideas." It was an obvious concession, a peace offering. Not much of one, of course, because she would've just ordered that kind of sharing, but still, he was being proactive.
"But . . . we think it's still ongoing. We're pretty sure that there were new areas added in the last couple of weeks."
Ah. "Damn. Someone involved is going around and deliberately making it difficult to impossible to localize them. They're thinking way ahead."
"Either that," Miller said, "Or they already knew they had an adversary that might track them down."
"You're probably right. Okay, Agent, I—"
The scream of the metawave alert sent her out her door and into the main office without a pause. "Talk to me, everyone, what've we got?"
"Major spike, Director!" Owen Marsters was bent over the computer. "Backtracking shows there was a slow rise to high metawave readings preceding it, but then it really took off just now. Metawave sensors pinpoint it at Target One!" He looked up, as did the others, and they were grinning.
"Well, hot damn, Director," Hughes said. "You nailed it!"
"Grab up your stuff and go, people!" she said, but felt her own smile spreading. "That means it's just a couple hundred yards from our door!"
As she dragged her field kit out, Miller asked, "What's Target One, and what did they mean by 'nailing' it?"
"I made a guess—gut instinct, I guess you'd call it. Our 'Princess Holy Aura' is a mid-teen, near as we can tell. The two prior manifestations were shopping malls—one outdoor strip mall, one indoor." She yanked on the armor, made sure the metaseals were secure as she locked it in place.
"So I guessed that Holy Aura was going to be at the center, near most of these manifestations. And now that we're into the fall, where are you going to find a fifteen or sixteen year old girl most often?"
Miller was not slow; Agents couldn't afford to be. "A school," he said almost instantly, and his smile held a new note of appreciation. "Thus where you chose your new headquarters."
"We are a couple of hundred yards from Whitney High School, which was the closest high school to Twin Pines and one of two close to Palonia Mall."
She checked her sidearm, then strode towards the door. "Maybe—just maybe—we'll get to catch our target!"
The alarm howled again. "Holy shit," Owen said. "Second spike, as big as the first, and the levels are holding."
"What's the level at?"
"Total metawave levels at . . . holy crap . . . twenty-two thousand."
Miller's eyes were wide as they met hers.
"I'll have my teams there pronto," he said, and his cell was in his hand even before he sprinted out the door.
Her own team was frozen for a moment, staring at her.
She took a breath and waved them forward. "Come on, people," she said. "It's time for us to save the world!"
The End (for now…)
Copyright © 2017 Ryk E. Spoor
Ryk E. Spoor is the coauthor, with New York Times best seller Eric Flint, of the popular Threshold series of science fiction novels, including Castaway Odyssey . Spoor's solo novels for Baen include Paradigms Lost , the Grand Central Arena series, with latest entry Challenges of the Deeps , and epic fantasy Balanced Sword trilogy, with latest entry Phoenix Ascendant “On-Site for the Apocalypse” is set within the world of Ryk’s comic, serious and wonderful “nice-guy-gamer-geek-turned-magical-girl” novel Princess Holy Aura, out in December 2017. Ryk’s website can be found here.