There was a rhythm to the air, an ache and pain that waxed and waned, a mental pressure that set the teeth to vibrating in resonant harmony almost to snap the jaw in half. Kath clapped her hands to her ears, but it did nothing. It was in her bones, deep.
There was darkness all around, thick and strong as stone. But it could be felt, in the darkness, a presence so old and so deep—it was almost divine.
Kath felt it, this presence, another pressure on the mind, but different from the first, without pain. Two disparate chords.
"Who are you?" she asked.
No response came in any mortal tongue, or any tongue of any age.
"What are you?"
The pain increased, then, and Kath suddenly knew what this was; it was a communication from someone or some thing, trying to talk to her but unable to speak her language. It was there, so old and so strong it caused an echo in her mind, but it felt a pain as well, a deep pain like an eternally working poison, and that was the other she felt. The two pressures—one of just its existence, its age and wisdom and presence tuning her mind like a harpstring, the other a glimpse of the pain it was feeling, the agony, only a hundredth of its true strength.
Kath touched her temple. "You wished to show me this, didn’t you?"
"You’re trying to tell me…you’re trying to tell me that you’re there. That you are. But…I don’t know what you are…"
The pain increased fractionally, for a second, then subsided again.
Kath winced. "Your pain…I can feel it. You want me to feel it. What is it? Why are you in such pain?"
The darkness was quiet, but the presence grew stronger, more clear, in a way Kath found impossible to quantify, and she knew that it was trying to tell her why, that it was trying to answer but didn’t know how, and would never know how, and then a sound intruded, an insistent beeping, and it pulled and pulled at her, and then Kath woke up in a hotel in Denver.
She groaned, feeling the full effects of the real world on a mind immersed in dreams. She reached out and slapped the alarm clock, which read six a.m. in blinking digits.
What was that? Kath thought to herself. My head feels like a Ghallager prop…
Will, in the other bed, sat up slowly. "Oooh," he said. "This is why I don’t eat airline food past eleven."
Katherine turned toward Will. Will turned toward Kath.
* * *
"Okay," Kath said, drumming her fingers furiously on the windowpane of the taxi they were riding in, "we’ve both had dreams."
"Dreams where there’s something in the darkness, trying to tell us something." Will scratched his goatee, which had almost come of age. "And it’s in pain."
"Right. And we feel its pain. It’s telling us what hurts it. It wants us to know what hurts it."
Will shook his head and looked out at the scenery passing by. Denver had had an early snowfall, and now several inches coated much of the town, leaving a bitter gray coating to the world, interrupted only by brief flecks of motion where people walked or cars drove through the ash-dark snow.
Packing had been easy; one night in a hotel room means not much to unpack in the first place. Will had simply showered and thrown on a different shirt, and tossed his massive trunk in the back of the taxi. Kath had even less: a single backpack, with two changes of clothes, her petty cash, and a handful of toiletries. Neither one of them had any desire to be in the city past three days, and had packed accordingly.
"Why is it telling us this?" Will said. "I mean, why us in general? Why is this…thing talking to us?"
"Maybe it knows about our connection to the F.I.B. Maybe it knows we’ve had experience with the supernatural."
"Who said it was supernatural?"
"It came to us in our dreams, Will." Kath frowned. "Not counting Thack-level mind control, I can’t think of any human being able to do that. And it…it just felt supernatural. It felt old. Centuries old."
"I know what you mean. It felt…" Will searched for words. "It felt like a mountain might feel, or an ocean. Like it's always been there. Like it's always been part of the landscape…" He shook his head again and went back to the window.
The taxi stopped at the address they’d given. Kath paid the fare with the F.I.B. card, which posed no problems for the car’s reader, and they both stepped out.
The address of the storehouse was away from the residentials, down among old warehouses and defunct offices, boarded-up storefronts and nailed-over doors, dust a foot thick competing with the snow. It was a large and undistinguished building, squat and brown, with broken windows and padlocked doors. On appearances alone, no one had so much as looked its way in fifty years.
Kath went up to the main door, which had an old but extremely forbidding lock on it. Like Jones had said in his voicemail message, she reached to the left of the door for a single brick, darker than the rest, and pressed it.
The brick front swung back, revealing a hole behind. Kath set her hand on the plate inside, felt a tiny prick on her finger, and the door clicked open on smoothly oiled hinges. She waved Will inside theatrically.
The room inside was massive, stretching from wall to wall and then some. Lights hung on tracks from the ceiling, exposing dimly the space but leaving harsh shadows in the corners.
The walls were lined with something dull gray and very solid-looking—knowing the F.I.B., it could probably hold off a nuke strike, Kath thought. A table in one corner held an assortment of various dangerous and complicated objects that were extremely unidentifiable. In the back was something the general shape and size of a car, draped under a canvas sheet. Catwalks crisscrossed the space above their heads, moving along banks of computers, cabinets, arrays of equipment and racks of microchips.
In the corner opposite the entrance was a desk piled high with computers, screens, wiring, drives and boxy systems, all of them glowing with a faint numerical menace, giving only a bare echo of illumination to the area.
In front of the computers…
In front of the computers, spoiling the whole effect, was a very fat man in a Hawaiian shirt with a beard.
He waved to Kath and Will. "Hi," he said, "I'm Wally."
Wally came over to the pair and stuck out his hand, which Kath shook like it was something vaguely toxic, which it probably was. "Good day. Jones told us to come here…"
"Oh yeah, Jones told me about you. You're Kath, right?" He pointed at Will, who was wearing the expression he usually reserved for Tim. "And you're Will? Jones said you were coming by today. I'm supposed to give you the grand tour and arm you two."
"Arm?" said Will, a little suspiciously.
"Well, you're going to a terrorist base in the Rocky Mountains. I mean, you should probably have some guns or something." He waved his arms to indicate the entire room. "This is an F.I.B. storehouse, after all. We got every gun ever made here, plus all the gadgets and stuff you want."
"We probably won't be needing many weapons," Kath replied. "As I understand it, our mission requires us to simply sneak in and retrieve what data we can. I don't really wish to go in spraying lead…"
"Okay, so you just get the standard sidearm. Here." He walked them over to the table and picked up a large matte-black gun which looked evilly complex.
"This is the standard-issue F.I.B. weapon, the G-12 ordnance delivery system. Handheld, with palmprint identification in the grip so no civilians can fire it." Wally held up a clip. "Clips are lightweight, can be restocked on the fly with mixed ammunition types. Ammo includes standard projectile, blunt-force gel shots, explosive, penetrating, and chemical delivery. Chemical round charges include smoke cloud, tear gas, holy water, and acid. All rounds use special gunpowder which produces less flash and no lingering smell, and an internal silencer muffles most of the noise. Most rounds can also be fired with magnetics, similar to a rail gun, meaning no sound or flash at all, with higher velocity. Also functions underwater." Wally handed the gun to Kath and an identical one to Will. "You're not going to be facing any paranormals, so you'll just want the regular ammunition."
Will hefted the weapon in his hand and tried sighting down the barrel. "What about sighting?" he asked.
"Laser sight, just flick the switch on the handgrip. But the gun also has multiple built-in vision enhancements—ultraviolet scanning, infrared, magnetic anomaly, ultrasound."
"And how do we use those?"
"Well, they connect to these." Wally held up a pair of dark black glasses. "Short-range signal transmitted to the glasses gives you access to the sighting data."
Kath took the pair of glasses carefully. "And we are supposed to wear these?"
"Standard issue for all F.I.B. personnel. They give tactical data, allow two-way radio contact, contain a homing signal, carry an explosive charge as a last resort—"
Kath snapped the glasses in half and threw the pieces on the table. "Call me old-fashioned, but I'd rather die than wear these."
Wally gaped for a second. "Uh, well, okay. You—you can just live without the glasses, then?"
Kath stared back stonily. Wally squirmed.
Will watched for a moment, then tossed the gun on the table. "All right, Wally," he said, jerking the man away from Kath's death stare, "what else do we have?"
Wally shook his head nervously. "Uh, there's the scanner here." He held up a small wand with small antennae spoking off and a handle at one end. "It'll scan for any security devices—heat-based, magnetics, cameras, anything, and send it back here, where I can analyze and tell you what's there. You can use it if you find the, uh, the base. In the mountains."
Wally indicated a black full-body jumpsuit draped over the edge of the table. "This is our infiltration suit. Made from ballistic polylatex and Kevlar-based fabrics. Outer surface is covered with layers of systems to foil any security. There's heat-trap, to counter the infrareds, a magnetic field simulator, sound mufflers, and a basic visual cloak, a holographic lattice to give false depth and image of the background, based off internal camera telemetry. Works on cameras to thirty feet, and human guards to about a hundred. Closer at night. I got one for each of you, in your sizes."
Kath picked up the suit and scanner and tucked them under her arm. "Is that it?"
"Doesn't seem like a lot."
"Well, you're not using any of the larger weapons, or the specialty systems."
"Sure. Paranormal ordnances. We got a lot of those. For werewolves, your basic silver bullets. For vampires, there's stake-bullets or holy water capsules, and for elders there's a spray delivery system made of equal parts holy water, essence of garlic, and a silver compound. For zombies, there's an aerosol system that sprays salt all through the area. For the large humanoids—trolls, giants, cyclopes—there's oversized netguns and restraints. We got flamethrowers, since fire still scares off most of your average creatures, especially the yeti, migou, or Bigfoot. Plus they got other uses—we tried it on a golem once and baked it solid. For gods we got multiple systems—a formula we call anti-Sa, to take away the immortality factor, a dimensional field to pull them fully into this reality, or a basic matter-antimatter projector to freeze them in one form. For fairies, pixies, elves, anything of the Fae, we use cold iron, in bullets or in handheld weapons. For—"
Kath held up a hand. "Don't. That's more than enough. Is there anything else, or can we call the taxi to Chevette?"
"You don't need a taxi." Wally went into the back and whipped away the canvas sheet, revealing a sleekly trimmed silver car that looked more like a fish than anything else, reflecting like a mirror and so aerodynamic it looked ready to evaporate at any moment. "This is the F.I.B. vehicle of choice—the Percival 8000."
Will ran his hands over the hood. "Wally, this is a stealth mission. We're supposed to be stealthy. We're supposed to blend in. And you give us a car where even the wheels look like UFOs?"
"Don't worry. The Percival's got the same holographics in your suits built into the outer skin—lets you change the paint job, add dents, or cover the thing in rust with the touch of a button." He knocked on the roof. "The skin's an aluminum-titanium-classified alloy—makes tempered steel look like tinfoil. Plus it's light as a feather; we actually had to add weights to make sure it stayed on the road. Handles like a dream. Gaso-lectric hybrid; 300 miles to the gallon. Tires are made from a weave of triple-bonded long-chain polymers, shocks are coiled nanofiber tubules. Windows are monomolecular crystals with an internal diamond-thread weave, can turn one-way mirror instantly. GPS locator, encrypted radio, map displays, all voice-activated. Room for four, plus ordnance."
"Let me guess—the missiles are behind the headlights?"
"Actually, it doesn't have any built-in weaponry."
"The logic is that if you're up against something large enough to warrant vehicle-mounted systems, you're already out of your league. It does have a few defensive systems, though—you can run enough volts through the surface to cook chicken, and of course you couldn't break in anyway with anything less than a rocket launcher." Wally scratched his head for a second. "Maybe two rocket launchers."
Kath opened the door and sat in the driver's seat. It was indeed both comfortable and stylish, with leather battling chrome for dominance all over the interior. The dashboard was a glossy black, with no indicators at all, and a fingerprint reader as the ignition. She threw the equipment in the back seat and started the car with barely a whisper from the engine. The dash lit up with an array of dials and gauges, which Katherine only glanced at. A door opened in front of the car; it was still Denver outside.
She stuck Wally's equipment in the back seat as Will shoveled himself into the passenger seat, which had obviously been designed for the medium-size secret agent.
Kath leaned out of the window. "Is this all, Wally, or do you still have to show us the grappling hook watch?"
"No, that's it. There's a kit with the basics in the glove compartment; it's got tracers, long-range mikes, flashlights, restraints, first ai—"
Kath rammed the accelerator and shot onto the road, leaving Wally in a cloud of what she hoped was horribly allergenic dust.
Will examined his gun with a professional eye. "That was the least cordial I've ever seen you. And I've seen you at gaming conventions."
"I have a particular hatred of techies, Will; it's why I make a point of walking upwind of Tim." Kath looked out the window. They were already on the outskirts of town, the mountains and high hills rising up around them, growing higher and wider, sweeping up at the sky, their edges blurring at the boundary of earth and sky.
"What was it you said, Will? It felt like a mountain?"
Will looked up, a little surprised. "Yeah. Like it's something natural. Something huge." He turned back to the gun. "What are you thinking about?"
"I think…" Kath shook her head. "I'm not really sure what to think. Do we even need to know what this thing was? Maybe it was just the airline food."
Will brought up the gun and sighted along its lines at the peak of a mountain, framing it and aiming it. "I doubt that. I've gotten a feeling about this trip—for this past week I've had it. No, longer—ever since that…that thing at the Renaissance Festival…" He dropped the gun to his lap. "Something's coming, Kath. Too much is happening. Too much. Alisin's in hospital, Rikk's changed, something's wrong at the F.I.B., Rumi's—the alien came back, even that box of Tim's…"
"And terrorists. Yeah."
Kath checked her speed; they were already coming up on Chevette. "And it's all coming together."
"And the Club is right in the middle of it all." Will grinned. "What a time to be a fan."
* * *
Rumy's hands crumpled the paper, flung it violently to the other end of the room, among the thousand others. Rumy's teeth gnawed her pencil.
Rumy sat on her bed, knees curled to her chest, drawing. Rumy's eyes were red.
There was a knock at the door, a single sharp rap. Rumy tried to speak and couldn't. She cleared her throat.
"Go away," she said, hoarsely.
The door opened, pushing aside the heaps of crumpled paper, and Rikk came in. Rumy's eyes lowered to the pad again, and she curled up further.
"Rumy?" Rikk said softly.
"Privacy—I want to be private. Please."
Rikk pulled the chair away from her drawing desk and sat facing Rumi. "You must feel terrible."
"How would you know?" she replied, swallowing a sob as she did so. She'd had practice at swallowing sobs; she'd been doing it all night.
"Your English degenerates the worse you feel." Rikk smiled awkwardly. "Back when we were at the vampire convention, you actually forgot everything and went back to Japanese."
"I have since tried to forget everything about that night," Rumiko said stiffly. "There is not a single part of it worth remembering."
The two of them stared across an infinite distance, an unfathomable divide. Rikk noticed Rumy's eyes, saw the thin streaks down her face from long-evaporated tears. Rumiko saw Rikk's eyes, saw the distant and bewildered sheen they always wore, obscured now with a purposeful light, a burning gleam…
Rikk smiled and ducked his head, breaking the stare. "Okay," he said sheepishly, "Alisin. I get it."
"No. You do not get it. You do not understand it at all."
Rikk raised his head. "What do you mean?"
Rumiko looked back at her sketch pad, began drawing again. "Never mind. It…is not important."
Rikk reached over and gently held her wrist, stopped the pencil. "It is important, Rumy. I do know what you're talking about."
Rumiko looked up slowly, cautious and skeptical but with hope yet. Is he? Does he?
Rikk released her hand. "I know what you think of Alisin. I know what you think about me…and her…" He looked down, and for a moment the shy little boy was back again, the nervous kid who still bit his fingernails in times of crisis…
Rumiko's heart stopped.
Rikk looked up again, and he was again what he was before, a moment before; he was steel now, and tough and old and no longer a kid in anyone's eyes. "I know what you think of us, but it doesn't matter. I don't want you to feel unloved, or to martyr yourself. You're among friends, Rumiko; you have all of us to help and to hold you. All of us. Alisin as well."
Rumiko's eyes narrowed. "How will she help me from a hospital bed?"
Rikk stood up, pushed the chair back under the desk, closed the door behind him. Rumiko went back to the picture.
She pencilled a line, another, another.
She crumpled the page and threw it among the others.
To look among the pictures on her floor is to see a mammoth collage, a tapestry of pencil lead, a picture composed of fractions of a thousand other pictures, a brilliantly woven design that conveys both despair and hope, wishing and wanting, an upswelling of pity and self-hatred, replaced by a fear and horror of someone changed, a two-note waltz of love and love lost, composed of three faces: a chalk-white death's head, a shining red rectangle, and a boy's face, or a man's, showing a progression of age and maturity, and a progression of something else as well, something darker and more horrible, that recalls the face of a man who hides his eyes behind blank glass squares.
* * *
Kath pulled off the road, moving into the light piles of snow and slush covering the world outside the highway. She turned off the engine but left the battery running.
"What now?" said Will.
"I'd like to get a disguise in order before we hit town." Kath carefully examined the buttons on the dashboard. "Wally said something about a holographics system in here…"
Will watched her poke the buttons more or less at random for a moment, then said loudly and clearly, "Holographic matrix selection."
A flat semi-opaque panel slid out of the top of the dash and displayed a model of the car, spinning in space. A color palette, body selection, and list of car manufacturers were among the small icons at the bottom of the display.
Kath looked at Will. "How did you know to do that?"
Will shrugged. "I figured, would the F.I.B. go for simplicity and give us a clearly marked button, or would they reward laziness?" He turned to the display. "Station wagon, generic model." The image changed; the sleek silver fish was now boxy and angular.
"Age: fifteen years," Kath said, getting the hang of it. Patches of paint vanished, a splay of rust came over the wheel housings. "Exterior, main body: green." The color changed. "Er—apply."
The hood rippled suddenly, as a rock thrown in a still pond, and then the car melted and softened into the image onscreen, changing the shape of the hood, the doors, the texture. Inside, the seats deflated slightly, going from untouched leather to ice-cream-stained vinyl; the dashboard became less like NORAD; the steering wheel was patched and uneven. In the back, the illusion of a trunk space appeared, complete with a few bags, for looks.
Will grinned. "Very nice."
"Very nice, indeed. This ought to be enough to get us through town at least." Katherine restarted the engine and swung back onto the road. Towards Chevette.
Chevette was dying, perhaps even dead already.
The town was painfully small: a few main streets lined with dingy stucco facades, bright splashes of flickering neon signs, on even in daylight, motels with empty lots, one-story cookie-cutter houses, and in the center, one uninspiringly filthy and overgrown park. Separate from and attached to the living half was the rest of town: the meat-packing plants, some still alive and working, but many more simply ghostly and dead.
Kath and Will watched through the windows.
The store Jones had told them about was a general store, halfway down Main Street, which was inappropriately named. The few parking spaces painted near the curb were all empty, which meant that they'd come here early enough. Kath pulled in, shut off the car, and gathered up the suit she'd gotten at the storehouse under her arm. "Assuming they follow schedule, we've still got about fifteen minutes. Let's get the suits on and rendezvous back here."
They split up, Will going into the drugstore next door, and Kath going to the general store itself. The store was disappointingly like what she'd expected; a few racks of snack foods and bottled water, a few more of flour, sugar and so forth, and a surly-looking woman behind the counter reading a magazine about fishing that Kath had never heard of, which was not surprising. Kath walked up to this last with a completely fake smile on her face.
"Morning," she said. "Can I use the bathroom?"
The woman barely glanced up, and jerked her thumb to a door in the back. Kath took this as an indicator of her importance relative to the magazine, and departed accordingly.
The bathroom was much of the same. Dirty and badly lit. Fusebox over the toilet. Kath locked the door, prayed for a recent fumigation, and started pulling off her clothes. She'd gotten down to her underwear and was about to go further when she realized just how easy it would be for Wally to put cameras on the inside of the suit, and stopped where she was.
She held up the suit. It was indeed light, and yet with a subtle toughness that told her just how strong it was. In a firefight—if there was a firefight, which was hopefully unlikely—it would probably be her best friend.
Kath looked closer. Interwoven in the fabric were microscopically thin wires of gold and silver, stitched together in a pattern that looked very much like a circuit board, connecting and separating and moving together in an amazingly complex system. At the touch of her finger she could perceive a faint echo of a hum, a subconscious electric tingle, running through the wires.
She stepped into the suit, slipping her legs through, pulling up the top half and putting it over her arms and shoulders, leaving a long slice down the front. Kath searched for a fastener or button, but as she brought the two halves together they simply stitched themselves up, leaving nothing, not even a seam.
Feeling a bit disturbed, she threw on the rest of her clothes and left the store to find Will leaning on the hood. "Any trouble?" she asked.
"Nope. Except that this suit is binding in all the wrong places."
"I think it's supposed to do that."
"Another reason why I hate working with the F.I.B. What next, fearless leader?"
Kath scanned the street. "Once they get here, we have to be able to follow them back out. Jones said that the bugs they planted disappeared, so we'll have to simply tail them…"
Will shook his head. "I don't think we have to go quite so far. If we can get a few bugs planted where they'll never find them, that should be enough."
"In that case, let's try it like this: I'll wait outside, in the car, with the trucks I'm looking for up onscreen. You wait inside, and I call you when they arrive. You act as lookout. I plant the bugs, you warn me when they're coming out, I jump back in the car. Quick and simple."
Kath nodded. It was a good plan. "All right, we'll try it your way. Get a few trackers ready—Wally said they were in the glove compartment. And give me one of those two-way earpieces."
Will opened the glove compartment; every piece of equipment was assiduously labeled. He pulled out two earpieces—flesh-pink dollops of plastic—and a handful of trackers, each the size of an aspirin tablet and carrying a radio tag with its frequency, for easy sorting.
Kath put in the earpiece, which was a highly disconcerting experience, and pulled up her jacket against a sudden wind. Will slid into the driver's seat, pulled out a newspaper he'd bought and pretended to read.
* * *
Tim leaned back in his chair, his eyes red and bleary and his head no better, and surveyed the results of his work so far.
It had come to him suddenly, as if in a dream: this box was connected to the crashes two days ago. A flash of intuition he couldn't quite place or trust, but that somehow seemed right.
So he checked up on it. Few of the crashed sites were back up yet; only those with offline storage had anything to put back up. But those servers which were down were still connected; they just didn't have anything there. Jumbled bits of code, fragments and strings beyond recovery, still drifting about in the memory banks. Tim reconstructed what he could, with Guth's help, and eventually they were able to piece together a faint echo of an address.
It was, naturally, black-box with three flavors of impenetrable, but Tim and Guth coaxed out a real-world address.
And, of course, it was the Virginia branch of QuanTech Industries.
Then Guth noted something he'd mentioned earlier in a similar flash of insight.
"The system seems incomplete without its program," he'd said. "But with that program it caused these crashes. Therefore, might it not have left some traces of the program necessary in the temporary upload buffers of the memory banks of the servers?"
Tim had agreed, and immediately they got back down to work. They scoured as many of the crashed servers as they could find, sifting through the random bits of trash left in the buffers to find any leftover echoes, any piece of this program that had been uploaded a second before the crash.
They had found thousands of pieces, the biggest of them only a few kilobytes and most much smaller. They appeared to be part of a formula, a mathematical computation of some sort.
Guth was, unfortunately, called away before the compiling of these fragments could begin. And now Tim was left to do what he could.
On first glance, he could make out very little: it was certainly a formula, or more accurately an algorithm, and when complete it would doubtless be huge. In a text compression like the one used, ten pages of densely packed mathematics would be barely a kilobyte, and the total so far was well over a megabyte. Following the intricate equations as best he could, Tim knew it was a probability function of some kind, based on whatever input it was given. But what was it meant to find the probability of?
This algorithm was the key to making this little black box work. Assuming it worked the way Tim supposed it to, it would perform whatever simple mathematics were needed, and then build everything else—programs, a system shell, whatever—off of those calculations. Just like a normal computer.
But normal computers didn't require a base algorithm to perform calculations. They simply worked it out in binary transistors, a physical computation. This one needed to be told the odds on whether two plus two would equal four.
What was so special about this box?
Tim started up a program Guth had given him. It would scan through the formulae and put it together at any logical breaks. It would, however, take a while to run, perhaps forty minutes to look through all the fragments. Tim grabbed another Pippu and glanced at the clock. Six-thirty.
Will, with the display up and showing the car types, naturally kept checking the road every ten seconds for approaching cars. None yet had matched the models Jones had sent them, and he was beginning to wonder about this information, when a blue pickup truck, exactly like the one onscreen, came down the street. "Heads up," he whispered.
"How many in the car?" Kath's voice came softly over the earpiece.
Will strained his eyes. They were still a fair pace off, going well under the speed limit, not breaking any laws or taking any chances. "Looks like two. No—one in the back. All men, maybe in their…late thirties. Two with mustaches. Wearing…coveralls."
"All right. I'll be watching."
The car pulled up, right next to Will, who buried his nose in the Sports section. The men were silent, very serious, thick boots and gloves and fur hats, even thought it was warm enough not to need them. They entered the store.
Will leapt out and dove behind the truck. By sheer luck, the grocery store had only one window facing the cars, and that was blocked by a display. He immediately began searching through the tracers in his pockets. Each one had a small paper tab attached to it, with its encrypted frequency patterned on it. Will tore this off and examined the device. A small light blinked red three times, then green, then shut off.
"I'm here." There was adhesive siding on the tracker, covered with small peel-off sections. He fumbled with these for a moment, got them off.
"Don't worry. You've got fifteen minutes."
"How do you know?"
"Jones' data. Average time spent inside. Very comprehensive stuff he sent us."
"How nice." Will reached over the tailgate and stuck the tracker behind a small pile of fishing tackle boxes.
Fishing? he thought, but there wasn't any time to think. He moved up to the cab.
Kath looked at the three men. They were going to different sections, getting what they needed. It was a routine, a very carefully timed routine.
Very careful indeed, Kath thought. Whoever's running this knows that this is their only contact with the outside world, and thus their weakest point. So they take every precaution…
"Will," Kath subvocalized. "How's it going?"
"I need to get more on," he replied. "I've got one in the back, one in the wheel housing, one in the front bumper…"
"It doesn't matter how many we've got on the car if they can block them. You remember what Jones said."
"Well, where else can we put them?"
Kath clenched her teeth. "You want me to put some in their hats? We need to think of something, Will."
Will leaned against the door, paused. "How much time do we have?"
"Maybe five minutes." Kath looked over the shelves. "They're almost done. One's at the register."
"Stall them somehow."
"I—" Kath bit her lip. "All right."
Will peeled the backing off another tracker…
A second man came up to the register. Kath dashed into the bathroom, and right over the toilet was the fusebox, with a dangling padlock.
Kath took a deep breath, grabbed the lock, and pulled. Like she'd counted on, it snapped in her hand. Silently thanking the deity of Lax Maintenance, Kath threw open the box. One fuse was labeled 'front counter'.
Kath flipped it and slipped outside, locking the door from inside as she did so. "Will?"
All three men were at the register. One handed over some bills…
The woman shook her head and tapped at the keys. She slapped the thing on its side.
"Done!" Will crowed through the earpiece.
Kath grinned and left before anyone could notice.
Will was waiting in the passenger seat. Kath started up the engine, backed out, began wandering around the blocks. Will tapped a few keys on the dash and brought up the tracker screen. He fed the paper tags he'd torn out into a slot, and the trackers appeared one by one on an overhead map of the area, a satellite image. They were all clustered over one spot, the car.
Then the trackers began to move, heading back out west the way they'd come in.
"Should we follow right away?" Kath asked.
"I think we can wait a minute or two."
The satellite zoomed out, showing a wider area. The car was nearing the mountains already, heading for a swath of trees several miles in every direction—the spot where they'd disappeared before.
Kath pulled out of town, following west. Mountains rose around them. The car was still approaching the trees, not quite there yet.
Now the road became bumpier, filled with small stones and gravel pieces. Up ahead, the road they were on turned up among the mountains, following between boulders and patches of sky, turning amidst the massive things.
But here Kath jumped off-road, heading for the trees.
On the display, the other car hit the trees, and all the trackers vanished at an instant.
No—not all. One kept moving, through the trees. Kath looked at Will.
"Tell you when we get there," he said, and cleared his throat. "Camouflage, heavy trees with exposed rock. Apply."
The car's surface rippled again, now a pixelated melange of tree-colors and rock-colors, twisting the eye into thinking nothing was there. The windows probably showed the same thing, on the outside. They entered the trees, thick heavy woods with little underbrush, rough uneven rock underfoot. Kath slowed. So did the truck, onscreen.
The truck was now visible just up ahead. Now the men were talking, laughing, not checking behind them for strange ripples and motion in the trees.
They came to an open space in the trees, naturally formed, few of the mighty giants but still plenty of overhead cover. The truck stopped; Kath did likewise. Will detached the display from the dash. The two dove behind a nearby tree and paused.
"Well?" said Kath. "How're we doing?"
"I'd think pretty well, so far. Makes me wonder just how inept the F.I.B. agents really are."
"So where's the tracker bug?"
Kath peeked out from behind the tree. The three men were getting out of the car, leaving it where it was and walking along a little further. She turned back and took the display. The tracker was still moving, in the same direction as the men.
Will was grinning, pleased with himself. "I put it on the seat, sticky-side-up. When the driver sat down, he got it on his overalls."
"Clever." Kath pulled off her jacket, followed by the shirt and pants, exposing the deep black suit beneath. "Now I suggest we follow them."
Will stripped down to the suit. The suits had a built-in hood, covering all but the eyes and the bridge of the nose. Kath left this open for now. There was a small tab on the sleeve; Kath pulled it.
The suit's fabric melted and shifted, breaking down into a camouflage similar to the one on the car. Kath looked at Will. She could barely make out the outline of his body against the background.
"Come on," she said, "there's got to be an entrance up ahead." They left the cover of the tree and followed the tracker signal.
They didn't have far to go. Less than fifty feet from the truck, they saw the three men entering a opening in the rock, obviously artificial. They didn't even bother to look back at the truck.
Kath moved forward, heading for the opening, when there was a sudden grinding noise—and a slab of rock, perfectly fitting, slid into place and sealed it off. Not even a seam.
Kath was about to rush up and try to shoot the thing open until she remembered Jones' words about surveillance devices. "Frell," she said, with feeling.
"Ditto," said Will. "Well, at least we've got the position of an entrance."
"We can call Jones about it later. Right now I want to find out how they got those trackers." Kath headed back to the truck.
There they were, just where Will had put them—one in the back, one on the wheel housing, one on the bumper. But all of them were blackened, broken up. Fried by some sort of massive electric pulse.
Inside the cab was a small black box on the dash, with one switch and a light. Will checked through the wiring. "That's how they did it," he said. "See the rubber floormats and seat covers? They just ran electricity through the whole outer skin."
"Sophisticated," Kath said. "They were expecting precisely this situation."
"Obviously." Will scratched his chin again. "But if you've done so much work on a truck like this, why just leave it out in the middle of—"
Will didn't get any further in his sentence, because the ground began rumbling strangely, and then the truck started sinking into the ground.
"What the zark?" Will commented.
Kath looked down. It wasn't just the truck that was sinking—"It's an elevator! They're bringing it down!" She jumped underneath the truck and pulled Will with her.
A section of rock, maybe twelve feet on a side, was being drawn downwards, into a large open space. Kath couldn't make out much from under the truck, but it was definitely man-made. The walls were some kind of reflective metal, massive bolts holding them together.
The platform stopped. To either side, Kath could see wheels and axles.
"It's a garage," Will breathed. Kath shushed him; she could hear voices.
In the back, behind them, someone said something indistinct. Another voice laughed. Two sets of footsteps clacked on the metal floor, a door closed. The room was silent.
The light started dimming. They were closing off the hole in the ceiling.
When the room was entirely dark, Kath pulled out the scanner wand Wally had given her. She tapped the earpiece. "Wally? Can you hear me?"
The earpiece crackled for a moment, then Wally's voice came through, slightly fuzzy, "Receiving. Where are you?"
"Inside the—the base. We tagged their entrance. Trace our position."
Kath flicked the switch on the wand's handle. "What kind of security are you picking up?"
"I'm getting…just a pair of nightvision cameras."
"Can the suits get us by?"
Kath nudged Will. "Come on," she said.
The room was much larger than it had seemed from under the truck. It was, as Will had guessed, a garage. Four other cars shared the interior, two of them on Jones' list. The other two were sports cars, and in much better shape. Even with five large vehicles in the space, there was still lots of room—from the dim illumination around the edges of the door, Kath couldn't see the walls.
Will went up to the door and tried the handle. It turned. He opened it a fraction and looked through. All he could see was a hallway, carved straight from the rock, walls and ceiling still rough. A few small lights were strung along the sides. Ten feet forward the hall became a T-junction.
"Kath," he whispered. "I think it's clear."
They slipped through the door, guns drawn, eyes everywhere. Silence in the hallway.
Kath tapped the earpiece again. "Get me Jones."
* * *
The Unconscious Collective is divided into wings based on the nature of those paranormals captured.
For example, there is a wing for gods and demons, one for beastials, one for nocturnals, where the inmates are free during the day but put back in an hour before the sun sets. There is a wing for the Fae, cells with bars of cold iron. There is a wing for extraterrestrials, cells filled with helium or ammonium or methane or bromine.
And there is a wing for those things which are already dead.
Here there are cells containing ghosts as most people imagine them—shapeless mist-things, no face or eyes, only a voice. There are zombies as most know them, great shambling decayed beings, unable to look any living man in the eye.
There are the vampires that people know, spotlessly clean and kept forever counting grains of sand in their rooms. They are all immaculately dressed—coat, tie, cummerbund—except for the intriguing fact that none of them wear a left sock. No wood is allowed within a hundred feet, ever since one of their number committed suicide last year using a toothpick.
Then there are other beings, from other corners of the world. There is a cell full of pretas, naked man-shapes filled with anger. There is a cell containing an acheri, singing constantly in her torn robes, walls of the cell painted all in red. There is a cell of revenants, kept in through the simple expedient of crosses hung on the walls. There is a k'uei, kept in a square room with an open door down a twisted hallway that it is unable to enter.
There is a duppy, kept forever silent with its mouth and eyes bound, in a ring of tobacco seed, changed daily. There is a gaggle of rusalki, northern and southern species both, kept in a pool of imported water ringed with wormwood. They sing constantly, but the door is bolted on both sides, and no sound comes through.
The great poltergeist Quicksilver has a room of her own, filled with small toys and objects to be played with. Sometimes, passing by, one may see her filled with a rage and hurling these things against the wall over and over and over.
There is even, obtained at great cost, one of the many forms of the great Baron Samedi kept in a room walled with iron, lead, silver, every metal known to work on such beings. The true god is, of course, still at large, but this one form, used three decades ago in Haiti, is still kept as a trophy. A white top hat perched on a pile of rotting flesh, still with the barest spark of life in its eyes.
It is to this wing that Jones finds himself wandering, most days.
He stood on a catwalk, one of a thousand spanning the distance between the Collective and the rest of the world, and he watched these things, these corpses-yet-not-corpses lurching or drifting or sliding around in their cages.
It's a sight to contemplate, it is.
One of a forest of miniature parabolic dishes attached to the wall, like satellite hookups, turned suddenly towards Jones' head. "Mr. Jones," came a voice in his ear, perfectly oriented so that no one else could hear the sound.
"What?" he said, into the microphone woven into his collar.
"Agents Smit and Erixon have penetrated the base, sir. They're on-link now."
"Patch them through."
There was a splatter of static across his ear, and then came Kath's voice, "Jones? You there?"
"Yes, Katherine. I hear you've gotten yourself inside."
"We did, Jones, and the 'inside' is turning out to be quite a find," Will spoke. "This place—they can't have built it in six months. There's a whole network of tunnels under here, according to Wally's echo scans. This place was carved out from under the mountains, and it's big. Miles big."
Jones felt his mouth go dry. "Carved out?"
"That's what it looks like," replied Kath. "If the operation's as small as you told us, then they must've been here for years, Jones."
Jones gripped the catwalk railing. "Carved out—my God—"
There was a noise, above and behind him. Jones turned his head.
Above him, on another catwalk, perched Mr. White.
* * *
"Jones?' Will tapped the earpiece. "Jones!"
"What happened? Is he off?"
"I'm not sure—I think he just stopped talking. Wally?"
"He shut down his end of the link. Got more important stuff going on, maybe."
"Great." Kath re-re-checked her gun. It was still loaded and had made no sudden moves. She put her head around the corner. No one in either direction. The hallway stretched about a hundred feet in either direction from this little niche, and then both turned. A few doors studded the walls. "Wally. Find the biggest heat source in this place."
"I'll try. I can use the scanner wand to look, but not much else…"
"Just find it." Kath re-re-re-checked the gun, and waved the scanner in her free hand. Time ticked by.
"Got it. Assuming the tunnels are linear, you'll want to head to…your right."
Will nodded to Kath, and they slipped into the corridor as silently as shadows—which, according to the suits, they were.
Kath checked the doors as she passed. They were all extremely large and heavy-looking, with iron bolts in an X shape. They all had old-fashioned tumbler locks, no doubt with matching iron witch-toothed keys.
They came to the turn in the hall. "Okay," said Wally, "continue along the passage."
Their steps echoed very softly in the hall, despite their best efforts. The air was heavy and cold, even with the suits' insulation. Condensation freckled the walls.
"It's coming up on your right."
Kath looked to the wall. There was one door, even bigger than the others, with the same lock as the rest, which no doubt would've been effective had the door been closed. She held up the wand to the crack in the frame. "Any people inside?"
"If there are, they're either dead or wrapped in tinfoil."
Will hefted the gun and backed up to the doorframe. He held his gun outward, sweeping the hall in both directions. All he needed was a badge and a uniform in blue. Kath nudged the door open.
The gentle hum of machinery caught her first, followed by a wave of heat, both preceding her entrance into a darkened cave filled with the blinking lights and lined eyes of a room full of computers and security monitors.
"Nuts," said Kath.
"You were hoping to find the weapon?" Will crept inside and closed the door behind him, quietly.
"Well, yeah. I wanted this to be over as fast as possible. The longer I spend down here, the more I feel like an earthworm."
"This won't be over even after we find the weapon."
Kath looked at him. "What?"
"You were thinking that once we find out what this is—a bomb, a virus, fairy dust, whatever—we'd just write it down and leave?" Will snorted, not unkindly. "Jones gave us that whole speech about not having any assets down here for a reason. And I think that reason is: we're not just pathfinders, we're the defusing squad as well."
Kath's arms drooped to her sides. He was right, she realized. It would be just like Jones not to give them the second half of their marching orders until it was too late to back out of them…
"Drat," she said, with feeling.
"That's two four-letter words you've used, Kath. I don't appreciate such language." Will set his gun on a stack of unused monitors. He flexed his fingers and started typing on a keyboard. Commands flashed up.
"What're you doing?"
"This is obviously some sort of command post, right? If it has the location of the weapon, we can save ourselves all sorts of time." He brought up a map of the base. It looked like a sideways ant farm.
"There," Kath tapped the screen, "in that section. 'Primary Asset'. Where is that?"
"I'm getting the directions," Will said. "First left, second right, down all the way, turn right…" He was scribbling on a clipboard left in the corner. "Got it."
"Right," said Kath, "then let's go."
* * *
The computer beeped, and Tim sprang forward. The program had worked quite well, from appearances—no leftover, unaccountable fragments. The entire algorithm was neatly sewn together in a single text file.
Well, nearly so. There were a few breaks and gaps in the thing, where a piece was missing and the program couldn't make the logical jump necessary. Tim checked the file. Seven spots.
The first one was simple, a previously noted symbol that needed to be added in. The second proved to be a larger gap; a necessary 'if then' statement was missing, and some of the following formulae. The third had a corrupted file portion, which meant that some of the equation was incorrect, and it had to be based on the preceding formula…
Tim scoured the algorithm's code for an hour, reconstructing where he could and guessing where he couldn't. He had to trim and transplant, rerouting portions of code back into themselves, providing ending statements that were probably only halfway right, a bonsai gardener of 1s and 0s.
Then it was complete, truly complete. It was a thing of beauty, but still Tim knew he only grasped a bare fraction of its true purpose, of the complexity of code he was working with.
But what he had, he had. He uploaded a copy onto a second hard drive, then rewired the box, replacing jacks and fiddling with spiderwebs of cords.
He uploaded the algorithm onto the box.
* * *
Mr. Jones looked at Mr. White. The men smiled at each other, in the darkness of the Collective with dead things watching.
"Good morning, Mr. Jones," he said.
"Not on this hemisphere, Mr. White," he replied.
"My mistake," he said, grinning.
"Nothing at all," he said, blank-faced.
"Do you remember what I said at our last meeting, Mr. Jones?" he asked.
"What?" he questioned.
"I said that my day would come, Mr. Jones. And I do believe it has."
Jones saw the gun leave White's holster a second before it happened, knew the bullet coming. He dodged. The railing shattered.
His own gun leapt from its holster and answered White's. A shower of sparks from the catwalk's wiring, nothing else.
He raced down the catwalk, into the Collective.
The eyes of dead things watched him.
* * *
They came out of the doorway as professional as could be, both training their guns where the guards would be.
Problem was, the guards were there.
Kath was stunned that anyone would actually have the audacity to do something like this. She was so stunned the man had time to shout a warning, pull his gun, and would have fired at a range of ten feet had she not then kicked him in the knee.
The man fell, screaming. Kath raised her gun, suddenly calm again, though she had no right to be.
"Will!" she remembered to shout.
"I'm fine," he said. "No one in this direction. But they heard the shouts. We need to move."
She nodded, and raced down the hall after him. Adrenaline practically dripped from her earlobes.
Someone burst out of a doorway to check on the sound; Will kicked her back through the door and shot the lock, shattering it (he hoped).
"Which way?" Kath shouted.
They went left.
* * *
The algorithm was loaded onto the box. Not that there was any way for it to be read, Tim reminded himself. But he always felt better if he had something to upload. He put down the phone, still dialing Rikk's voice mail.
The box hummed to itself momentarily, then blinked a series of green lights that weren't even visible before. Tim was surprised. Maybe it had worked after all. He switched the I/O over to the box.
2, he typed.
2, it replied.
"Input, output," he said to himself.
2+2, he typed.
The box hummed again.
In the depths of the monitor, something glowed. Something bright, something beautiful. Something almost…
* * *
Jones jumped off the catwalk just as two more shots punctured holes in it. "Seven, eight," he panted as he landed in an interior corridor. He was in the main body of the Collective now; this corridor had a thousand doors leading off into the cells.
His arm swiveled out around the corner of its own volition and snapped off three rounds. "Six, seven, eight," he said. Both their clips were half empty. But his gun was a custom model—a battery in the handgrip gave it laser power equivalent to the Thack models.
And there other options as well, in this gun…
Another shot rang past. "Nine." He ran further down the corridor, out of White's range. He'd either have to jump down to the same level or take the stairs from above, now.
White lowered his gun. "Nine," he said, and ran along the catwalk, towards the stairs.
* * *
"Second right, down all the way," Will panted. Now shouts came from behind them and in front. Kath could hear the click of metal on metal on gunpowder. Move fast or get trapped.
The door was just up ahead. Flanked by a pair of guards.
Without thinking, Kath aimed the gun and fired a round straight into one man's chest.
He flew backwards, into the wall, and rebounded on his face. But he was still moving.
Will shot the other man in the ribs, and through the bullet hole Kath could see a patch of Kevlar, or something similar. He also dropped.
The door was much like the others, but it had one crucial difference: in place of the standard lock there was a slot, the size of a—
"Keycard," Kath said, and dropped down to one of the guards. In the front pocket of his jacket (Kevlar jacket, ammo clips, dark black but no camouflage, a part of her noted) was a rectangle of plastic. Will got the one from the other man. Kath rammed it into the slot (the shouts were getting louder), the door clicked and was open.
They ran through and Will immediately spun around, slammed the door closed, and fired three times into the lock from this side. It sputtered and died.
They both breathed hugely.
It echoed strangely in the room.
* * *
The light spun, scintillating, coruscating, tracing webs of its own light, dancing in ever-widening spirals, glimmering and glittering.
Tim watched as the monitor displayed colors it was never meant to show, and, for that matter, didn't even exist.
The light continued to grow, filling the monitor from side to side to top to bottom, making it a window into the heart of the sun itself—
—just for a moment, the light collected, solidified, and in that moment, obscenely, it showed a brilliantly glowing 4—
—and then the light was brighter than ever, glowing with radioactive fury, a nuclear storm—
—and then it died.
Tim slowly drooped, sagged, and then fell to the floor.
* * *
Kath looked at the door. The lock was well and truly jammed now, but locks work two ways—and to be stuck in a room with some kind of superweapon was not exactly her idea of fun…
"Kath," Will whispered.
She turned around.
The room was a cavern, immensely huge, impossibly large. A few pale lights illuminated a bare fraction of the room.
And in those lights…
Kath craned her neck upwards.
"My God," she said, but her mouth was too dry to speak.
There was the weapon.
* * *
"Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen," Jones said as the bullets whistled by his ear. He fired back in the direction of the flashes.
"Fourteen, fifteen," counted White, and then lazily raised his gun and returned fire, just as Jones pulled his trigger as well.
"Sixteen," they both counted, as both bullets merely hit the walls and ricocheted away.
Jones and White stared at each other, now both visible in the darkness.
Neither one lowered their guns, though the clips were empty.
Jones smiled, and then flicked a switch on the handgrip, from bullet to laser mode. He raised it, put White's head in the sights.
White's thumb moved, almost convulsively, along the handgrip. In a mirror image of Jones'.
Jones looked White in the eye, and both knew that neither one was truly out of ammunition.
In the deep quiet of the Unconscious Collective, it wasn't easy to hear the two simultaneous clicks of two triggers being pulled back—
—because they were partly obscured by the immediately following sounds of two laser beams splitting the air simultaneously—
—and completely lost in the sound of one body hitting the floor.
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