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Foo Fighters

Since she had half-anticipated the answer, Castine simply cocked her head as if mildly surprised.

“The one-time Secret Service agent?” she said, then added only, “I remember him,” since Naval Intelligence might not know about her history with Vickery . . . who was the only person she knew of who shared her echo-vision ability.

Lubitz asked, “When did you last see him?”

It’s vitally important that he be located and questioned. That didn’t sound good.

Castine whistled soundlessly and frowned past Lubitz at a map of California on the wall. The Transportation Utility Agency’s records had been purged in the summer of ’17 . . . but probably not completely; she must after all assume that Naval Intelligence knew about her association with Vickery earlier in that year—though there was no way they could know that the two of them had fallen right out of the world into a nightmare afterlife, and then managed to get back again, alive and incidentally able to see behind the moment of now.

And the ONI could hardly be aware of her having met him again a year later, when the visions of the abandoned house had eclipsed their echo-visions and they had got caught up in the bloody history of that old house, and several people had been killed. Vickery himself had killed two of them, and saved Castine’s life. Again.

“May, it would have been,” she said after only a reasonable pause, “yes, of 2017. Nearly three years ago. The west-coast TUA chief had gone badly rogue, if you recall, and decided that Woods, AKA Sebastian Vickery, and I were working against him, and that we had to be killed. Vickery and I were thrown together for a couple of days.”

“As I recall, that agency was trying to summon actual ghosts, to supplement motorcade security.”

Unable to think of a helpful reply, Castine just nodded. And we did make progress at it, she thought, till the chief decided to summon some kind of godawful Cthulhu thing instead, and opened a conduit to a Heironymus Bosch other-world hell . . . which Vickery and I fell into.

She covered a shudder by putting her hand over her mouth and yawning.

“Woods was charged with the murders of two TUA agents in 2013,” Lubitz went on, “while he was still a Secret Service agent, but the charges were dismissed.”

“That’s right,” said Castine; and it was self-defense, she added mentally. She wished she dared to peek at her watch. She’d had only about five hours of sleep in the last thirty-six, and she wanted to get out of this office, out of the Pentagon. A hot bath, she thought, a stiff drink, and ten hours in a hotel bed. Ponder all this unwelcome stuff tomorrow.

Lubitz rubbed his forehead, and it occurred to Castine that he too was very tired. “Excuse me,” he said, “but were you . . . intimate with Woods, during those days you were together in 2017?”

Castine frowned. “We were on the run from the bent TUA. We didn’t dare use credit cards, so we slept in a tomb at the Hollywood Cemetery one night, and in a taco truck the next—at that time Vickery worked for a woman who ran a fleet of them. But no, there was never any kind of romantic, sexual element in our relationship.” That was true, she reflected. “I was engaged to be married,” she went on, “so I wasn’t open to any such business. As for him, his wife committed suicide years before I met him. That may have . . . inhibited him, in that area.” That may be true too, she thought—reinforced by our traumatic meeting with his wife’s ghost, in that terrible afterlife world.

Lubitz slid a yellow file folder from under the keyboard. Castine could see the word printed on the front of it: PLEIADES, again.

Records of the Office of Naval Research disinformation operations in Wiltshire had been kept in orange files, which signified Top Secret; and she had had sometimes dealt with red files, which meant Secret, and blue ones for Confidential. She had never seen a yellow file.

Lubitz laid his hand on it. “Your security clearance,” he said, “is upgraded to TS/SCI, as of now.”

Castine knew that the Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance was the highest of the Top Secret levels, equivalent to the Department of Energy’s Q Clearance.

“That would require—” she began, then stopped. Of course, she thought.

Lubitz nodded. “A Single Scope Background Investigation, and yes, it’s been done already. In fact this assignment is largely a result of that investigation.”

A result of that investigation? thought Castine. Sne knew that such investigations were exhaustively thorough, and she wondered uneasily what they might have discovered.

Lubitz slid a photograph out of the file and held it out to her. “Do you recognize either of these men?”

Castine took it with a consciously steady hand, and squinted at it in the harsh light. The picture was not in perfect focus, but she could recognize the man she knew as Sebastian Vickery, wearing a denim jacket over a black T-shirt, standing with another man in a sunlit parking lot. They were looking at something on a cell phone the other man was holding. Vickery’s hair was still more dark than gray, and he had shaved off the beard he’d had when she’d last seen him. He’d be . . . thirty-nine or forty, now. The man beside him was older, bald and deeply tanned, and wore a scuffed brown leather jacket.

“Can you identify either of them?” Lubitz asked.

Castine nodded. “The one on the left is Vickery. Woods.”

“Ah. We weren’t reliably certain. The other fellow is a UAP fanatic named Pierce Plowman.” Castine recalled that UAP stood for Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, a term adopted by the Navy to replace the embarrassing old Unidentified Flying Objects acronym.

Lubitz went on, “Naval Intelligence has been monitoring Plowman for years, but in this last week we’ve moved him, and any close associates of his, from the problematic eccentric category to, uh, hig-priority acquire. We retrieved this photo and ran facial recognition software on his companion, and at first we got nothing. Too blurry. Then we ran it through the new FR system at the Air Weapons Station at China Lake—and even with their system we only got possibles, no positive. One of the possibles was in the old Secret Service personnel files, of all places—Herbert Woods—but the file photograph was eight years old, and the FR algorithm gets very dicey after six.”

Castine handed the photo back. ONI evidently didn’t know that Vickery had adopted a new identity sometime after their trip to hell in 2017, and taken the name . . . what was it? . . . Bill Ardmore. And, as Ardmore, Vickery had adopted the pose of a “UFOlogist” to explain his frequent solo trips out into the Mojave Desert. Actually, Castine recalled, he had set up a sort of nest under a desert freeway bridge, to consult ghosts. She tried to imagine explaining that to Lubitz.

“Was Woods interested in UAPs?” Lubitz asked.

Castine shrugged. “Not as of 2017, as far as I know.” True enough, she told herself defensively; he didn’t adopt the UFOlogist role until early 2018. And here’s damned Sebastian Vickery back in my life again, making me deceive the U.S. government! What do I owe him? Well, besides my life.

She took a deep breath. “My assignment has to do with him?”

“We want you to definitively identify him. We think we know where he’s going to be, and we’ll provide you with a cover story for being there too.”

“A cover story? Is he to be arrested?”

Lubitz sat back and stared at her speculatively. “Did you know him well?”

Hard to say, Castine thought. “Reasonably. We were only together a couple of days.”

“He’ll be detained.” Lubitz spread the fingers of one hand, then made a fist. “If he is present, we’d like you to engage him in casual conversation, after you’ve identified him. Ask him about his current activities, and so forth. When you’ve learned as much as you can, you make an excuse to step away—say you’ve left something in your vehicle, or, I don’t know, need to visit the ladies’ room, or Porta Potty, or whatever might be there.”

At which point you arrest him and interrogate him, Castine thought. What on earth has Sebastian blundered into now? And what sort of place is it that’s got Porta Potties?

“Does his . . . ‘highly sensitive aberant information’ concern UAPs?” she asked.

“That’s not an immediate concern of yours, at this time. Secure compartmented information,” Lubitz reminded her.

Castine made herself concentrate. If I do find Vickery, she thought, I’m afraid I’ll have to warn him off somehow, God help me. After what the two of us have been through together, I can’t genuinely participate in getting him . . . arrested, interrogated, very likely incarcerated!

Lubitz had a cell phone in his hand now, and he swiped the screen and then tapped it. “I’m assigning you a partner,” he said, laying it down on the desk. “She knows the procedures for reporting in and receiving any further instructions. A car will pick you up at the DoubleTree at 3 AM. At 4 AM the two of you will board a flight out of Andrews on a C37A that will be waiting for you—that’s a Gulfstream jet—and you’ll arrive at the Yucca Valley Airport in California at about 6:30, California time.”

Now Castine couldn’t help throwing a dismayed glance at her watch. It was already well past eleven. “Three this morning,” she said, just to be sure.

“You can sleep on the plane, it’s a five-hour flight.” Castine thought he sounded envious of her getting an opportunity to sleep.

The door behind Castine clicked and the air shifted perceptibly.

She swiveled her chair around and stood up. The Asian woman she had seen a few minutes ago by echo-vision had stepped into the room; she nodded past Castine at Lubitz, then looked at Castine and held out her hand. “I’m Rayette Yoneda,” she said.

No specified rank or job description? thought Castine. This whole enterprise reeks of off-paper.

Able now to see the woman in color, not just by the muted coppery light of echo-vision, Castine saw that her jacket and slacks were light green cotton, and the hair framing her narrow pale face was raven black. Castine clasped the extended hand.

“And you are Special Agent Castine,” Yoneda said, releasing Castine’s hand after one shake. She turned to Lubitz and raised her eyebrows.

“It’s definitely Woods,” Lubitz told her.

Yoneda rocked her head impatiently, and it was clear that Lubitz would not have called her in if Castine had not made the identification. “So we go,” she said. She took a step forward and turned the computer monitor sideways, then sat down in the other chair. Castine resumed her own seat, kicking aside a stray golf ball on the carpet.

Lubitz pressed his fingertips together again, and Castine thought it looked as if he were praying. “Your only concern in this,” he said to Castine, “is to recognize Herbert Woods, let Agent Yoneda know who he is, and chat with him, if possible, for as long as may be informative. She will convey his identity to a team of Sensitive Assignment Specialists we’ll have standing by. At that point the two of you make your exit.”

Yoneda spoke up. “And if Plowman is there too?”

Lubitz waved dismissively. “The specialists will be watching for him. Your assignment is Woods.”

“Where in California is it we’re going?” asked Castine.

“It’s a site we’ve prepared,” said Lubitz. “It involves a sort of work you’re familiar with, as it happens. Disinformation.” He paused, frowning, as if trying to remember what he had been saying.

“Disinformation?” Castine prompted.

Lubitz blinked at her, and nodded irritably. “You know it’s an ongoing policy to discredit all claims of aberrant events.” He waved at the shelves behin him. “Planting fraudulent artifacts at reported UAP crash sites, disseminating convincing videos that can later be exposed as trick photography—alien autopsies, plausible accounts of abductions, cattle mutilations. Over the last several years we’ve contracted with private labs to synthesize fragments of unlikely alloys, which we’ve planted near military bases—uh, but for this operation—”

“To deceive whom?” asked Castine. “The military?”

Lubitz blinked and cleared his throat. “For this operation,” he went on more strongly, “we had DARPA construct a dummy vehicle, I suppose you’d have to call it, that conformed to the most authoritative reports of UAPs—it was a translucent sphere four meters in diameter with an aluminum cube fixed inside it. Our sphere was made of AION, aluminum oxynitride, which should be exotic enough to intrigue the amateur UAP hunters.” He shrugged. “At least until we examine it and find indications that it’s a Russian fake.”

Castine knew that DARPA was the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and she thought she saw where Lubitz was going with this, but she was too tired to be sure of her own extrapolations. She gestured for him to go on.

“Last night,” said Lubitz, “we logged a flight report from the pilot of an F/A-18 Super Hornet, describing the sphere flying erratically—of course there was no such flight, really—and at the same time we had a Gremlin drone drop the sphere in the vicinity of a big boulder known as Giant Rock, near Landers in the Mojave Desert.”

Castine nodded. “It’s a fake flying saucer. Sorry, UAP. Like our crop circles in Wiltshire.”

“Yes. And we’ve put notices of the flight report and crash on a couple of private online chat groups. It’ll draw the UAP amateurs—the very well informed ones first.”

Castine thought of the genuine crop circles that her Office of Naval Research team had salted with discrediting litter. “Should we expect any aberrant phenomena?”

“No no, this is entirely mundane.”

Yoneda laughed softly. “Aberrant phenomena!” And when Castine turned toward her she rolled her eyes and added, “Foo fighters!”

Castine believed that was the name of a Seattle rock group. Before she could ask Yoneda what she meant, Lubitz pushed his chair back and stood up; the briefing seemed to be coming to a startlingly quick end.

“This should be very simple,” Lubitz said, “especially if Woods doesn’t even appear. But it must not go off the rails. It will not. That being so, you don’t even need to think about the consequences if it were to.”

He stood back and raised his eyebrows, inviting questions.

And Castine’s mind was whirling with them. “Vickery, Woods, he knows I’ve been working for Naval Intelligence,” she began. “What will he think —”

Lubitz’s eyebrows lowered. “But you weren’t, in 2017.”

That’s right, Castine thought with a wave of alarm; why didn’t I admit from the start that I met Vickery again in August of 2018, and told him about my reassignment?

“That’s right,” she said out loud, with a carefully casual nod of acknowledgment. “The Transportation Utility Agency hadn’t been shut down yet. Sorry, I haven’t had much sleep. Okay, but he knows I was working for a government agency, at least. Won’t he—if he’s there, won’t he assume I’m there because of this dangerous classified knowledge he’s picked up?”

Lubitz cocked his head, and peripherally Castine could see that Yoneda was facing her. “I told you,” Lubitz said, “that we have a cover story to explain your presence at the site. You’re to be a journalist. There’ll probably be jounalists there.”

Castine exhaled and shook her head. “He won’t believe that. That stinks of a trap, excuse me.”

“Very well,” said Lubitz impatiently, “you and he were both fugitives from that agency in ’17. You could pretend you’ve gone rogue again. What he says to you then might be particularly relevant.”

“I didn’t go rogue,” Castine reminded him, keeping her voice level; “the TUA did. I was one of the few agents in it who weren’t dismissed or prosecuted.”

“If you don’t think you can pull it off,” said Lubitz, sounding almost peevish, “then try not to let him see you. If you recognize him, just point him out to Ms. Yoneda and scurry back to your vehicle.”

“Wing it,” advised Yoneda drily.

The harsh light was giving Castine a headache. She closed her eyes and shook her head. “Okay, sure, I’ll see how it feels when the time comes.” She opened her eyes to squint at Lubitz. “So how long are we going to be in California?”

He spread his hands. “Hours only. The plane will wait at Yucca Valley Airport, and you’ll be back in D.C. tomorrow night.”

“We report to you for debriefing?”

“Ms. Yoneda will make the report. You’ll be flying directly back to England. This is Saturday—you should be at your usual assignment in Southampton by Monday.”

Lubitz was looking away as he spoke, and Castine was suddenly sure that he was lying, or at least leaving out something important.

“Right,” she said, fervently hoping that Vickery would not somehow show up at this Giant Rock place, and that she would, as Lubitz claimed, be back in England in two days and could forget about this whole disquieting interlude. Just to seem unquestioningly on board, she added, “Will my new security clearance get me different work there?”

Lubitz’s smile was perfunctory. “I imagine it will.” He turned to Yoneda. “Questions?”

“Just one. Will either or both of us be armed?”

The woman seemed to recite the question, and Castine guessed that she already knew the answer Lubitz would give, and had been instructed to ask, for Castine’s benefit. Castine decided not to mention the small can of Fox Labs pepper spray in her pocket.

“No,” Lubitz said. “You two will have left the area before our team moves in, and it’ll be a very quiet apprehension in any case. In addition to your usual Common Access cards, you’ll both have Field Researcher IDs, which should be enough to get you cooperation from local authorities, if that should unwisely become necessary.”

“It won’t,” said Yoneda. Her voice was firm, and she pushed her chair back and stood up.

“There’s a car for you at the River Entrance,” Lubitz said. “Now—” He waved wearily, “ go, go.”

Castine was mildly surprised at the effort it took for her to get to her feet, and she looked forward to slepping on the flight to California. She followed Yoneda throught the small waiting room out to the corridor.

Overhead fluorescents gleamed in the polished floor as the two of them walked between the wainscoted walls and closed doors. Castine had to take long steps to keep up with the other woman. When they rounded the first corner she asked quietly, “Foo fighters?”

“And crop circles,” Yoneda said, “and things with hands like steam shovels, and all that aberrant crap. Foo fighters was what pilots called UFOs in World War Two.”

“I didn’t see any steam shovel monster,” said Castine. I didn’t see it in real time, at least, she thought. And when did you hear about that?

“Carl Jung, do you know the name?”

“Sure,” said Castine, a bit breathlessly. “Archetypees.”

“Very good. He knew all that applesauce was just hallucinations, projections. People used to see angels and gods in the sky, but in a technological age they see . . . extraterrestrial hubcaps and waffle irons. And steam shovel monsters! The Army finally closed down their Stargate Project twenty-some years ago—” She glanced at Castine. “That was remote viewing, a spy in a bunk at Fort Meade trying to see Soviet missile emplacements in Kiev or someplace. But now the Navy wants to check out UFOs.”

Castine stopped and leaned against a wall to catch her breath. “UAPs.”

Yoneda stopped too. “You knew the guy, this Herbert Woods?” When Castine nodded, she went on, “Are you sure you’re down with fingering him?”

Castine pushed a stray lock of hair back from her forehead and gave Yoneda a tired smile. “Orders is orders.”

“So you weren’t all that close with him?”

“I was on the run with him for about three days, back in 2017. It didn’t . . . turn into anything.” True, she thought.

“He was some kind of hobo, right, after he went AWOL from the Secret Service?”

“Sometimes. And sometimes he worked in those taco trucks you see all over L.A.”

And sometimes, she thought, he was a driver for a very useful supernatural-evasion car service. And sometimes he was a freeway-side gypsy, charting the expanded possibility fields generated by free wills moving rapidly along the freeway lanes . . . and sometimes he had to deal with the ghosts that were able to manifest themselves in those fields.

Yoneda nodded and resumed walking toward the next bend in the corridor. “Well,” she said breezily over her shoulder, “he’ll be lucky if he ever sees a taco again.”

Castine pushed away from the wall and followed her. Oh, Sebastian, she thought, don’t be there tomorrow.

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