Advancer: Asset 08 (Part 1)
Advancer: Asset 08
by Bek D Corbin
Desperation can make you do strange things. And I was pretty desperate. I was 53 years old, and I hadn’t made a name for myself in a field where you either make your mark by the time you’re 50, or you’re toast. And ‘a solid, honest researcher’ is not the kind of reputation that gets grants. Flashy crap that you can package to the Discovery Channel gets grants. Going on 30 years in the field, and even my meager rep for honesty got trashed by the crud that idiot Frayne pulled in Ohio. People, I’m living in my freaking VAN!
I needed to make a real find, one that wasn’t greened-out footage of kids being freaked out in a haunted house, yet something that got headlines. ‘Cause my skills just don’t translate very well to any other job. I mean, how many careers are there, where a detailed knowledge of the true facts of the Amityville haunting, the exact layout of the Winchester Mansion, or having spent time in the Borley Rectory are assets?
Still, a strange opportunity had dropped into my lap. The Kentucky Serial Arsonist had just struck in Stanford. If I’m right, then he - or at least something - would show up at the Purvis warehouse in Richmond within the next three nights. Don’t ask me why. The Purvis warehouse has been ‘repurposed’ no less than twelve times in the past 20 years, and there have been five different buildings on that site in the past 80 years, all of which burned down, beginning with the Haslett Orphanage, which burned down during the Depression. The Kentucky Serial Arsonist has struck six times in the past three years, and each time, there had been reports of strange lights and sounds at the Purvis Warehouse. No signs of any breaking and entering, nothing moved around, no signs of vandalism, nothing stolen. And from the reports, the lights would appear at precisely one hour and seven minutes before solar midnight. I think that there may be something in the phase of the moon regarding the timing of the arsons, but there are too many unknown factors. If I’m right, then the ‘strange lights and noises’ will appear tonight, and I’m on record with the Kentucky State Police with my theory. They think that I’m a crank, but I’m on record, that’s the important thing. That and the fact that I have iron-clad alibis for five of the eight fires.
I had digital and film cameras set up in my van, which I had parked in an inconspicuous place on the edge of the woods near the Purvis warehouse, trained on the suspect windows. I had a hi-fi recorder trained there as well. I’d acquired (don’t ask) a key to the door and I knew the security code to the alarm. I had portable digital image and analog recorders and a good old-fashioned film camera with a low-light lens. Ghost-hunter’s tip #381: film images carry a ton more weight with skeptics and scientific review boards than digital images. Everybody and their cousin Bubba have Photoshop.
The Kid was ready.
Then, at 10:42 and 14 seconds EST precisely, there was the sound of a rattling scream, and the sound recorder kicked in, triggering all the other recording equipment. Being right is better than sex. I was out of the van and hot-footing it the second that I was sure that all the equipment was running. I got to the door, keyed in the security code, and was through it in a grand total of 45 seconds. If I got anything, the people who owned the Purvis warehouse would drop any trespassing charges. I turned on my portable recorder, and put my digital camera on auto-snap. When I was in, I called out, saying that I was responding to the strange sounds, in case anyone was injured. Nothing like a mercy mission to sell to a local cop (or in a worst case scenario, judge). I went up past the second floor, and then onto the third floor. Then a boy in a cheap nightshirt ran past me.
His nightshirt was on fire.
He paused at a door - there wasn’t a door there before. He battered at the door. The first thing that popped into my mind was that I was seeing a Death Trauma, from the Haslett Orphanage Fire. The boy battered down the door, and there was a cramped room past it, with a few meager bits of furniture and two bunks beds. There was a small screaming figure on one of the beds. The beds were on fire and so was the boy? Girl? Who knows? The boy ran into the fire and tried to save- his brother or sister? Then the bunks collapsed on them both. The pyre burned for a second and then a skeletal burning figure struggled out of the wreckage. I was furiously snapping away at the scene, when it occurred to me that the burning figure was looking right at ME.
Now, this is the part where I SHOULD scream like a little girl and hightail it the fuck OUT of there. Yeah, that would be the SANE thing to do. But I have been kicking around for the better part of 30 years, tracking down creaky boards, gaps in insulation, faulty wiring, bleed-over from relay towers, listening to cranks, weirdos, flakes, con artists and self-proclaimed ‘mystics’, and here I am now, looking at a God’s honest GHOST! Run away? HAH!
I was clicking away, trying every conceivable combination of shutter speed and aperture diameter possible, hoping that I got at least ONE combination that would mean a picture that actually developed on film!
Then it burned me.
You know how they say that nobody ever got hurt by a ghost? Bullshit.
It reached into me and managed to simultaneously freeze and burn me. It tore out something inside me that had nothing to do with flesh and blood. I tried to get away, but it was on me like a heavy sweat. It sank its claws deeper into me, and it was screaming in my ears, and I felt something give. Desperate, I reached in and managed to find the strength to drag its claws out of me. It screamed in even greater rage and tried again. I stopped thinking, and my brain erupted in this sort of ‘white thought’ and I threw it away from me. My entire body was flooded with a rush of pure energy. The screamer seemed to be even more interested in eviscerating me. Do NOT ask me why, but some unnamable instinct made me put my camera up to my eye and hit the shutter.
The screamer reached its claw in through the lens, past the camera and tried to climb in through a gate in my face (if that makes any sense). But I’d come to capture the thing with my camera, and I did just that. Okay, it wasn’t exactly what you’d call rational, but that what was going through my mind, such as it was, at the time. The idea that people used to be worried that cameras stole their soul flickered through my mind, and I did just that. I trapped the screamer in my camera.
And that was it.
I just stood there for a moment, wrapping my head around the fact that I had a fucking GHOST in my camera. Not a picture of a ghost, but an actual fucking GHOST. I stood there trembling, and then I was suddenly very aware that something was wrong with me. Well, not wrong, as in I was hurt or anything, just very, very different. Like my entire body was on fire, but not burning, just… supercharged…
I knew that I had to get out of there. I knew that I had to get some place safe. I had no idea what I’d be safe from, or how I’d get there. I ran out of the warehouse, back to my van. I packed away all my AV equipment and roared off into the woods. I knew that I had to get someplace safe and… what? I just drove, trying to think of some place, any place that was safe. Finally, I knew that there wasn’t any place that was really safe, and I was getting tired, so very bone-deep tired, which was weird, ‘cause I was wired like I on the caffeine high of all time with a cocaine chaser. My skin was crawling, my hands were shaking, my eyes couldn’t keep focused, and I swear that I could feel each and every bump on my tongue, and for some reason, a Hunter S. Thompson monologue was going through my head.
I pulled over on a country road, and pulled tarps over all my gear in the back. Then I pulled a thick blanket around myself, and turned the radio to the one classical music station in the area. If I was going to die, then my death was at least going to have a decent sound track. I faded out to the sounds of a Mozart string quartet.
I was shaken awake to the mixed sounds of Rachmaninoff and the gruff voice of a county sheriff’s deputy telling me that I had to get my piece of shit van moving before he ran me in for vagrancy and general mopery. I was as stiff as a board, and I had to run the engine for ten minutes to get the battery charged to the point where I could get the hell out of there. The deputy gave me the look you give especially noxious bums, and I do not blame him, ‘cause even I could tell that I was seven different kinds of FUNKY!
I drove with the windows down to clear out the stink and I had to drive to what had to be the skankiest motel in Kentucky to find a place low-down enough to let me rent a room. I shelled myself out of my funk-encrusted clothes and put them in a plastic bag to throw away. I wouldn’t wish those clothes on anyone! I started to step into the shower when my bowels made themselves known. I made it to the toilet just in time to let loose with the foulest, rankest, most toxic borderline acidic flow of filth that I have ever experienced. I had to flush three times to keep it from overwhelming the bowl. A half-hour later, feeling pounds lighter and significantly cleaner (at least inside), I stepped into the shower. The clean water felt SO GOOD on my skin…
The good feeling left when I rubbed my face and my face came off. The skin just came off like a leather mask. I felt my face, and I was vastly relieved to feel that there was skin. New skin, tender skin, but still skin. Hair came out by the hank in my hands, and skin sloughed off my body in sheets. But all that wasn’t shit compared to what I felt when my dick came off in my hand.
That’s right, it just came off in my hand, balls and all.
And then something sick-looking started draining out of my pussy.
Yeah, took me a good long while to really wrap my head around that.
I’ll spare you the rest of my little journey of self-discovery.
To sum up, when I looked in the ratty long mirror that was that motel room’s sole luxury, what I saw looked like a 18-year-old meth addict. Emaciated, sunken featured, with scraggly two-inch long black hair. I figured that I’d somehow lost five inches and at least a hundred pounds. I had nails five inches long on my fingers and toes. The only signs of any kind of health were my skin, which while stretched tightly over my bones, glowed with health, my teeth, and my large almond-shaped sapphire blue eyes.
Aside from being brilliant blue, when my eyes had been muddy brown before, there was the fact that I was looking at myself with what seemed to be 20/20 vision, when I’ve needed glasses since I was 10. The teeth bothered me too. Especially since I found my old teeth littering the floor of the driver’s seat in the van. I tagged and bagged my teeth, the ‘skin mask’, some hanks of hair, my drawers and a pair of socks, the nail clippings, and yes, dearly beloved, the cast-off husk of my own genitalia. I put them in chemically neutral plastic bags, vacuum-sealed them, put them all in a plastic box, sealed it with tape, and did my level best to forget about them. I tried to put it all down in my Procedural Log in nice, neat, objective, Scientifically Correct terms, but HEY, you try and be objective about what just happened!
My main problem was that while I had clean clothes, none of them really fit. I put together an outfit, but I looked as if I’d raided a Salvation Army donation box. But then, I wound up raiding a Salvation Army box anyway, and I still looked like a runaway with a really bad jones. I lived for the next two weeks on those disgusting protein powder shakes that body builders love so much. Still, as yucky as they were, they did my body a world of good. Every morning when I woke up in the van, I was less and less a skeleton. It wasn’t quite like a dry sponge filling out, but I still was filling out a lot faster than I had any real right to. At the end of those two weeks, I’d occasionally catch sight of this really cute, sleek, young brunette babe with large blue eyes, kittenish face and one of THOSE bodies, walking around with a bad haircut and sloppy clothes. Then I’d realize that she was me.
My problems were that I didn’t have anywhere to go, anything to do, any money to do anything WITH, and no history as to get a job. And even living in my van on protein shakes still required gas money. I was stuck sort of floating around at rock bottom with nowhere to go and no way to get there. The only thing that I really had was that stupid ghost trapped in my camera. But who could I go to with it? Who’d listen to me?
The solution to one problem sort of dropped into my lap. I was hanging around in the rougher part of Lexington, not wanting to risk taking the van onto the interstate and maybe getting pulled over by the Kentucky State Police. Y’know how every so often, you’ll see things sort of dash past you in the corner of your eye, but when you focus on it, there’s nothing there? Somehow, I was quicker than that, and every so often, I saw… things… that sort of had shapes, but didn’t really. I was trying to shadow one of these shadows down this one street. It seemed to be keeping an eye on this one poor junkie. Suddenly, this tall guy wearing a denim jacket with the sleeves pulled up to show off prison tats comes up my blind side. “Hey sweet thing,” he said in a tone that said ‘shut up, bitch’, and grabbed my arm. “You look like your man ain’t takin’ good care of you.”
“Piss off,” I told him in a disgusted voice, and pulled my arm back from him.
He grabbed my arm again, and said in a firmer tone, “Now is that any way to talk to someone who’s just being friendly? Hey, honey, you get with me, and you won’t have to walk around in rags like that.”
“What, you don’t recognize a fashion statement when you see it?” By the way, do people talk about ‘fashion statements’ anymore?
“Let me persuade you,” he dragged me into an alley and warmed up with a practiced bitch-slap, which didn’t even faze me. Okay, all in all, I think that I’ve done a kick-ass job of adjusting to being a girl. I had the two-day meltdown and got over it, and I was even getting used to the idea that I was good looking. But the idea of being a whore - and for a two-bit piece of grits-grubbing trailer trash like this yutz - just tapped into a piece of pure white-hot rage that had been bugging me, but I’d done a good job of ignoring so far. The whole world seemed to slow down, and I rammed a fist into his gut. Which with a guy this hard, should have been a poor joke. Instead, he doubled over in slow-mo. I slammed the flat of my other hand against his head, sending him sprawling. He tried to get up, but he did it so slowly that I had all the time I needed to give him a kick like I was trying to make a field goal with his head. The gun that he was going for went flying, and I grabbed the arm that he was waving in the air trying to balance himself with from behind, and leveraged it against my knee, dislocating his shoulder. Then I pounded his head against the wall until he completely slumped. I helped myself to his wallet and money clip. He had three grand in his money clip, and four major credit cards. Why is it that slimedogs like this can walk around with this kind of money on them, and honest ghost hunters who are trying to answer a crucial question of the Ages have to go begging for funding?
Still, he was wearing a counterfeit Rolex, so I felt a little better.
Still, he had a point about how I was dressed. I used his credit cards first at a thrift shop, and then the mall. Now, wasn’t that NICE of him, to let me use his credit cards while he was laid up in the hospital?
Besides solving my immediate wardrobe and cash-flow issues, the incident also gave me a few other benefits. That buzz that I’d felt just after I bagged the ghost was back. It faded, but I had a sense that I could call it back any time I wanted. I was a little tired, but not tired in the way you’re normally tired, it was like my battery was a little low. And when I got back to the van with my new stuff, my hand sort of went for that camera all on its own. And when I grabbed the camera, it was like drinking an energy drink with my hand.
So, I could sort of ‘recharge’ with the camera. There was that ghost still trapped inside the camera. Strange, you wouldn’t think that you’d forget having a pyromaniac ghost trapped in a camera, but all the other must-deal-with-now weirdness sort of forced it onto the back burner.
I studied the camera with this new energy sense. I could feel the ghost still trapped inside. I could also tell that it was weaker. Would it recharge, if I let it alone for a while? Or would it get weaker and weaker, every time I recharged off of it? Could I eventually kill it by draining off its energy? And remembering that the ‘Kentucky Serial Arsonist’ had killed four people over the past three years, and God only knows how many before that, is that really such a BAD thing?
Remembering how I’d moved, I was strongly reminded of descriptions of qi, the energy that martial artists and other Asian mystics were always going on about. I remembered that it’s possible for a person who’s ‘quickened’ his qi to burn out. I didn’t recall anything about quickening your qi by facing a ghost, but then I never really studied the matter. And given the drastic effect that this whole thing has had on my metabolism, I thought that I definitely needed to learn more about qi and other such matters. And qi is not the sort of thing that you study in freaking Kentucky. I could be wrong, but as I remember, the Dalai Lama and Falung Gong and most of the other Asian type weirdoes tend to set up shop in California. With that in mind, I decided to load up the truck and move to Beverlee… Hills that is. Swimmin’ pools… Movie Stars…
Okay, I had a something to do, a someplace to go, and a way of getting there. One good thing about pimps: there are a lot of them, they have cash, and by and large, people don’t get upset if you kick the shit out of them.
Of course, trying to get there in the van was ridiculous. Driving there on the Interstate was just asking to get pulled over. And getting pulled over automatically meant five-to-ten for GTA. And trying to get there on county roads would take months at only slightly lower levels of risk, with a higher real-time chance of the same results. Okay, I’d have to dump the van and fly to sunny Cal-i-for-ni-ay. And, while ditching the van wouldn’t be that great a hardship, there was the none-too-minor issue of 50 grand’s worth of scientific-research caliber AV equipment. I mean, I could just leave it with the van, but that kind of gear just left there might raise questions. Also, there’s the fact that I went into serious debt for that gear, and just walking away from it goes against the grain. But, I knew a guy in Chicago, who I happened to know would be willing to turn a blind eye to high-grade gear without official provenance. Which is to say, hot. I knew this, ‘cause he’s where I got a bunch of this stuff in the first place, which is why I could afford $50K worth of AV gear. I’d get pennies on the dollar, but hey, it’d pay for the plane ticket without having to beat up another pimp.
Not that that will stop me from shaking down a pimp. Hey, money’s money, people, and it’s not like they really DO anything to earn it.
Taking side roads and like that to avoid the County Mounties involves a lot of getting sidetracked and flat-out lost, especially in those sprawling generic burb-tracts that are chewing up the farmland. I mean, one shopping center looks exactly like the next! So, I tried to stay out in the rural areas whenever I could. There, at least every so often I could stop, stretch my legs, buy some farm fresh fruit and veggies, and every so often practice those weird ‘move really fast, hit a lot harder than a scrawny chick has any right to’ powers I had. But I quickly learned that using them used up energy. Sometimes, I could recharge all on my own. Others, I needed to tap off the Screaming Ghost in my camera. After about a week of this, I got the distinct sense that Screamer just wasn’t in there anymore. Not that I’d miss it, but it meant that I’d have to be a lot more careful when I practiced.
OR, that I’d have to find another spook to feed off of.
Remembering what I’d seen in Lexington, I figured that finding another spook wouldn’t be that hard. But finding one that would last as long as Screamer would be hard. But then, that might just mean that I’d have to just keep hunting small fry, until I managed to bag something major, and work from there. The spooks in Lexington seemed to like slums and poor folks. Or, maybe people were just packed in more closely in poor housing, and they quickly learned to not pay that much attention to things that ain’t happening to them personally. Either way, I decided to head to the nearest big city, Indianapolis.
Indianapolis could damn near be the poster child for Urban Blight, with pricey State Government buildings and attendant businesses just a few blocks away from abject poverty and squalor. It struck me that I could split the difference, and combine spook-hunting with trawling for a fresh cash infusion from a nice juicy pimp. I parked the van in a garage and googled the net for ‘Indianapolis’ and ‘Prostitution’. It seemed that the East District had a problem with that. Now, when I’d gone shopping with Lyle Metzger’s credit card (that was the pimp wannabee that I jacked up), I’d decided on a more or less ‘Macho Chick’ look - bomber jackets, leather jeans, Doc Marten boots, cammy t-shirts, like that - for the simple reasons that it was an easy look to pull off, easy to maintain, it fit my short hair, and it didn’t set off any alarms with the remnants of my besieged male identity. So, all I hadda do was perk it up with some lipstick and too much eye shadow, and any self-respecting pimp would look at me and see ‘money!’
And, wouldn’t you know it? Indianapolis was cracking down on hookers! There was, like, NOTHING on the street in every part of town that I checked. Typical! Fucking Typical! When you don’t want them, you can’t get shuck of them! But when you need to find a pimp, NADA! I was about to give it up and find a hotel room for the night (sleeping in the van had been getting very, very old, even before the Purvis warehouse), when I spotted a rat. Or a nightmare vision of a rat the size of a beagle, midnight black fur, metallic claws and teeth, and glowing red eyes. It was skulking towards a junkie in the back of an alley who had settled in for the night with his fix, and was numb to the pains of the world.
I unlimbered my camera, and pulled the pouch of rock salt, and got ready to get to work. I had no idea as to whether the rock salt would work, but it’s based on tons of legit folklore, and whatthehell, it can’t hurt. I focused on being sneaky and moved in quietly. I started spreading the salt around in a circle, cutting the rat off from the mouth of the alley, and then any places that it could sneak through. For some reason, the rat just didn’t seem to notice me, until I finished and pulled out my camera. It backed up against the junkie, as though it were protecting him, and snarled at me. “Okay, Pretty Boy…” I crooned, “Just sit still and let me take this one li’l picture, okay?” Hoping that I knew what the fuck I was doing, I poked the lens past the line of salt, sighted it in the viewer, and started clicking.
Yep, the rat took the bait and jumped right into the camera, probably thinking that it could just flow right through the lens and claw my face off. No such luck, Mickey! I could feel it in my camera, raging, trying to get out. It felt different from the Screamer, but then, it would.
I was feeling very good, when I was tackled from my blind side, and knocked off my feet. I tried to recover as best I could, and I sped up. But whoever had jumped me was just as fast as I was. Faster. I took a couple of quick knee-kicks to the ribs, got slammed back and forth against the alley walls a couple of times, and got my teeth rattled for me. Then whoever it was picked me up off my feet and pressed me against the alley wall. I felt something reach into me and latch onto my energy, the way the Screamer had. On pure reflex, I lashed out with the only thing that I had - my camera. I sort of pushed a burst of energy from the rat out of the camera right into whatever was holding me.
I heard a snarl, and I fell to my feet. Despite the darkness, I got a brief look at the guy who jumped me, and promptly wished that I hadn’t. He was dressed in your basic homeless lifer-wear, with a ratty, greasy long coat that was way too warm for this late in spring. But it wasn’t the way that he was dressed that freaked me out - it was his face. He looked like he was the star replacing Max Shreck in the remake of Nosferatu, the first Vampire movie. His face was long, narrow, and totally hairless under the watch cap, pale as a fish belly, sunken in close to the bone, and his eyes were hollow. His teeth were jagged, but the worst thing was this automatic and very disturbing sense of intense familiarity.
He lunged at me and got my camera away from me. I went for my hand shocker (what? You thought I’d be fool enough to go after a presumably well-armed pimp, with only my weirdo powers? Sh’yeah, RIGHT!), and jumped him right back. I jabbed the shocker past his coat, close to his ribs and gave him a squirt of 100,000v deterrent.
Nada. He didn’t even blink.
He backhanded me with enough force to throw me back against the wall, and jumped me again. That sense that he was reaching into me and trying to rip something out happened again. I was fighting it with everything I had. It was close. We were both giving it our all, and I got a definite sense about it. He was stronger than I was, but he was tired and ‘hungry’; I was weaker, but fresh. I figured that I just had to outlast him, not let him WIN, in order to walk away. But he knew that too, and he wasn’t about to let it happen. He threw everything, and I do mean everything he had into it.
Then there were three sharp noises from above. ‘Max’ flinched. There were three more sharp noises, and he collapsed, letting go in all senses of the word. Max’s energies came flowing into me, supercharging me again.
Then there were three more sharp noises, and I felt something punch me like Mike Tyson three times in the chest. I couldn’t cope with it all and fell to the alley floor, passing out.
I slowly crawled back to consciousness with the sound of an electronic beeping in my ears. Things came back, bit by bit, starting with why I had the sensation of tits on my chest. I had an IV in my arm. I was cathetered. There was a breather under my nose. My arms and legs were strapped down. Okay, and what does all this mean, class? Oh. Right. Hospital. I’m in the hospital. I fished around, and-
JESUS FUCK! I GOT SHOT!
My eyes popped wide open, and I looked around. The tempo of the beeping changed. I was strapped to a hospital bed, surrounded by the usual Intensive Care gear, and curtained off. I couldn’t move, but I was suddenly aware of straps across my chest, arms and legs. And, most of all, my situation had suddenly changed drastically. Y’know, that worried me more than the idea of three slugs in me? After a long while, a nurse came in, checked my vital stats, and asked the usual idiot questions that they ask someone who’s just come out of it. After blinding me by shining a pen light in my eyes, she ignored my questions and made the usual noncommittal deferments to a nonspecific higher authority.
A couple of hours of mixed terror and boredom later, a middle-aged woman in a white lab coat came in and did the usual doctor stuff, as well as checking some sensor pads that I hadn’t noticed. “Don’t ask me,” she said in a disinterested voice, “ask him.”
A man stepped past the curtain. He was youngish, in his mid-20s or so, and wore an Army haircut. He was tall (from what I could tell from my position laying down), athletic, and blandly handsome. He looked like the star of a TV Action/Adventure show. He was dressed in a short leather jacket and turtleneck (couldn’t see his pants from where I was), but from the way he held himself and that haircut, I’d say that he was military, at least an officer, probably went to an academy, and more than likely was a career officer. “Good afternoon,” he said with professional courtesy.
“Okay, I’ll bite,” I said weakly. “The obvious question: where am I?”
“You’re at Fort Dix, New Jersey,” he said with unexpected directness.
“Why am I at an Army base?”
He nodded, accepting my point. “A valid question. One that I’m afraid requires a bit of a foundation. First, let me tell you something about yourself. Your name is Gregory Maslin. Despite appearances, you are - or at least WERE - a 53-year-old man with a Masters degree in Engineering from the University of Chicago, which you used to become a Parapsychologist, focusing more on the ‘hard science’ of the weird than the squishier stuff. Your specialty was ‘ghost hunting’. You worked at the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory, the Institute of Noetic Sciences, the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at Edinburgh, and other reputable research groups. You developed a firm but not very spectacular reputation for sound procedure, and you had a good record with finding the mundane explanations for various phenomena, while not siding with the debunkers. Then you got caught up in the backlash when Dr. Grover Frayne wittingly abetted a fraud in order to secure funding for the group that you were working with at the time. Suddenly, after some thirty years of good sound work, you were unemployable.” From there, he went on to spell out that he had a pretty good idea as to what happened in the warehouse, and a distressingly accurate description of what happened to me.
“Okay,” I allowed, “from all that, I can deduce that you found my parking garage stub, and that you took my fingerprints. But how did you know that I changed? Okay, you read my notes, that much is obvious, but you’d have to know something else, or you’d discard it as the scribbling of a psycho. What do you know about it? And who was that creep who jumped me, and why did you SHOOT me?”
“We have a good idea as to what you went through, because you’re not the first person to go through it. Far from it. It’s hardly common, of course, but we’ve gathered bits and pieces of evidence that suggest that there are a number of Advancers like you out there.”
“That’s the term that’s been applied to people like us.”
Sleep well, America! The government’s got a WORD for it. Hey, wait a minute… “Did I hear an inclusive plural in there?”
He straightened and smiled. “Indeed you did. I’m an Advancer as well.
“And what exactly IS the Army’s definition of an ‘Advancer’?”
“Well, the wording that we’ve given our Senate Oversight Panel is that an ‘Advancer’ is a person who, for reasons not yet known, taps into an energy of still unknown nature. This energy has correlations across the world, with terms ranging from Actinic Energy to ‘The Zone’, though the best known version would be the various forms of ‘Chi’, as it’s known in China. But this energy, which we’ve termed ‘Quintessence’, doesn’t really seem to fit the classical Taoist model for Chi. Now, there have been thousands of examples of people who have ‘reached deep within themselves’ to find the power to perform remarkable feats, such as the classic example of Angela Cavallo, who lifted a 1964 Chevrolet Impala off her teenage son in 1982, though this was mostly a matter of ignoring incredible pain. But people are only able to do these things inconsistently, either with great training and discipline, or under incredible stress. Advancers, however, appear to be able to tap into this Quintessence force regularly to achieve remarkable, borderline-superhuman effects. Common effects include fantastic speed, remarkable resistance to injury, near-superhuman strength, an ability to heal from otherwise crippling injuries-” he paused and gave me a significant look, “-and after the initial manifestation, falling into a profound sleep, lasting anywhere from several days to a month, where the person undergoes a remarkable metamorphosis, which often includes rejuvenation to some stage of their physical prime.”
”Oooohhh-KAAAYYY…” I said, seeing his point, “And how often do they change sex?”
“You’re the first. That we know of.”
“Okay, and what’s the Army interested in ME for? And what does any of this have to do with that freak that attacked me?”
He shook his head. “Not the Army. I represent a branch of the Federal Government that you are only cleared to know as ‘The Agency’.”
“The Agency,” I sighed, “How John LeCarré.”
“The Agency was originally an ad hoc task force created to investigate strange sabotage against Federal Property. The damage was eventually tracked down to a strange preternatural event that was dubbed a ‘Goblin’.”
“A… Goblin…” I drawled, raising an eyebrow.
“And what would YOU call that rat-thing you caught in that alley?”
“Point,” I conceded. “Continue.”
“The task force learned enough from the Goblin incident that it connected up other strange incidents, and re-investigated them. They kept learning things about Goblins, and the more they learned, the better they were able to investigate, and the more they investigated, the more they learned.”
“Hold on!” I interrupted, “I may be living in my van, but I still subscribe to all the legit parapsychology newsgroups! There hasn’t been a PEEP about this! And if there had, it would’a been all over the news, world-wide!”
“Which is why the Agency was created,” he said in a flat voice. “The political decision was made to suppress the news, until such time that it could be released in a way that wouldn’t cause wide-spread panic and confusion.”
Okay, this HAD to have gone down during W’s administration. This has Dick Cheney written ALL OVER it. I should be thanking my lucky stars that I’m at Fort Dix, and not Gitmo.
“During the Agency’s investigation of Goblins, they discovered the Advancer phenomenon, and decided that it was all too likely that they were in some way connected. So, Advancers and Advancer activity were added to the Agency’s charter.”
“Advancer ‘activity’?” I asked, suddenly seeing myself in olive drab, lugging a very large gun into an Iraqi bunker. “You hunt down Advancers?”
“Our brief is to investigate Advancers, Goblins, Demons, Ghosts and other related phenomena, to try and figure out what’s really going on, so that the Government can arrive at an intelligent, balanced, informed policy regarding all of it, without having to respond prematurely to a public hysteria.”
The government’s trying to form an intelligent, balanced, informed policy? The world IS coming to an end…
“However, we DO try to track down suspected Advancers and confirm or deny their… Advanced status. Sometimes, we observe them breaking the law, or behaving in ways that suggest to us that they pose a danger to themselves and others.”
“And exactly HOW do you determine that they’re a danger to themselves or others?”
“They attack people. Which is how we came across YOU. We were tracking down Subject 438-”
“You’re not cleared to know his real name. He’d been attacking people in the Indianapolis area, using his Advancer powers to achieve a form of Psychic Vampirism to augment his quintessence reserves. Maslin, I have some bad news for you. The Advancer state isn’t entirely stable. If you over-use your quintessence without allowing it to regenerate, you start feeding on your own body. This causes a sort of degeneration that affects both the mind and the body. We have reason to believe that Subject 438 attacked two people that we believe were Advancers, and literally ripped their quintessence from them. Subject 438 was trying to stabilize his energies - that is, if he was rational enough to cogently think of it that way - by stealing them from others. Ironically, we think that this may have only aggravated his degeneration.”
“Oh?” I peeped, my eyes widening at the thought of the big jolt of energy that I’d gotten right after they shot ‘Subject 438’.
“You’re still stable,” he reassured me. “We’re reasonably sure of that. That’s why you’re here. Aside from patching up your wounds. And as for your last question, yes, shooting you wasn’t strictly called for, and the operative who shot you has been reprimanded. Still, think about what Subject 438 was like… and you were glowing pretty brightly. If you were in our shoes, I think that you’d have pulled the trigger as well.”
I gave him the evil eye. “All right, you’re not here to try and talk me into signing a release form. What do you want?”
He perked up a tad. “Actually, Maslin, I’m here to offer you a job!” Here it comes. ‘The Agency. It’s not a job; it’s a James Bond Movie!’ “As you guessed, we read through your journals. And we are VERY impressed. By the way, the Forensics people are very excited about the samples of your castoffs that you collected. They’d be happier if they were fresher, but then lab guys are never totally happy about anything. But, back to the point: Maslin, even if you weren’t an Advancer, we’d want someone like you working for us. You are an intelligent, detailed, methodical, scrupulous, multi-disciplinary field investigator with a detailed knowledge of some very arcane fields. And, best of all, you KNOW that Goblins and Advancers exist, from personal experience. Part of our problem is finding qualified researchers who’ll take this seriously, without compromising Security. We could really use a High-Energy Physicist, but everyone we’ve talked to walked out in the ground-laying stage of the talks.”
A job. They’re offering me a job. While I’m bound hand and foot, a de facto prisoner on an Army base. Okay, they’re starting out making nice-nice. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have the Bad Cop waiting in the wings, ready to crack some skulls if he has to. While the whole ‘research in secret to avoid complicating public reaction’ had its points, I could see all sorts of inevitable compromise, the sort of slippery slope that Somerset Maugham and Eric Ambler knew all about. Even if - and I stress IF - they’re on the up and up now, who knows how things will develop as we find things out? Power and Unaccountability are the two primary ingredients in corruption, and harsh necessity breeds very bad habits. I can see the Agency turning out to be a draconian secret police, in a hundred different ways.
Now, if I was a kid, I’d tell this guy to shove it. But then, kids are notoriously stupid. What Captain Action here said about degeneration struck me as all too likely. Hey, something happened to ‘Subject 438’, after all. As it is, I’m operating from a position of almost perfect weakness: I’m captive, broke, and totally ignorant of the players, rules, grounds, and even the real nature of the game itself. If I play along, I have a much better chance at making intelligent moves later on, when I actually know things. Okay, I’ll play their game for the moment. I’ll even get my hands dirty, which will probably be their first move, to compromise me. But when the time comes, I WILL be shuck of these people!
“Job? Using my skills? I’m not a cop.”
“We’re a research outfit,” he assured me. “A weird research outfit, but a research outfit. Okay, we get a little cloak-and-dagger every so often, but I’m sure that you understand the necessity of uncompromised data.”
“Okay, what’s the pay?”
“Seventy-five thousand a year to begin, a fifty thousand signing bonus, a new identity with a clean credit rating courtesy of the Federal Witness Protection program, free training in what Advancer techniques we’ve perfected so far and any that we develop, free martial arts, weapons and special techniques training, weapons and other necessary equipment paid for by the Agency, and paid transportation.”
“And the benefits and retirement package?”
“Standard Federal Employee benefits package, and the retirement package assumes that you’re the age we provide you with in your new identity. You’ll be 21, by the way, so you’ll have a LONG wait for retirement.”
The Standard Federal Employee benefits package? I know guys in the Parapsychology racket who’d kill just for the beginning scale wage and the standard benefits package from Uncle Sugar! I shot Captain Action a harsh look. “And what sort of confidentiality agreement will I have to sign?”
He nodded. “You WILL have to sign an employment contract with the Government. And, yes, there WILL be confidentiality clauses, which will basically say that you’ll be bound to abide by reasonable security measures, until such time as the pertinent authorities decide to declassify all this.”
In other words, I’ll be legally bound to keep my mouth shut until the Twelfth of Never. “I wanna see the contract first.” I figure that they’d find me snapping to attention and saying ‘Three Bags Full, Sir!’ suspicious. What they give me to look over will have a few obvious objectionable clauses that I can refuse to sign, so I can have the illusion of still being my own man - or girl - or whatever. Clauses they can toss while letting the clauses that really bind me hand and foot slip by under the radar. Of course, when I go AWOL, I fully intend to go AWOL all the way, and screw the legalities!
Captain Action sent for the contract, and while the nurse undid the straps, he explained that the restraints were there because they couldn’t be sure what state of mind that I’d be in when I came to. “And why did you have to SHOOT me?”
“Same reason. You’d just, ah, ‘ingested’ a big glop of Subject 438’s primary quintessence. Your base-level power is higher now. We had NO way of knowing how you’d react to it, AND you’d just come out of a very nasty fight.”
“So, you decided to hospitalize me for two months?”
“So, who says that you’ll be in here for two months?”
“You SHOT me in the CHEST three times!”
“One cracked rib and a punctured lung, to be precise.”
“Make it THREE months, and at least a month before I’ll be up for physical therapy!”
“The doctors say that you’ll be able to walk out of here this afternoon. Advancers heal a lot better than norms do. You were unconscious for five days, and you spent most of that time assimilating that new energy that you got from Subject 438. You’re good to go.”
“aaahh… And what about Subject 438? How’s he doing?”
“Still unconscious. You handed him his ass, he took SIX bullets, and he lost a big lump of his quintessence to you. He’s gonna be out of it for a while.”
“And when he wakes up?”
“He’ll be placed in psychiatric observation, and there’s a 99% chance that the shrinks will decide that he’s not safe to be running around.” He gave me an apologetic look. “Hey, it really IS for his own good. The guy isn’t right upstairs.” He tapped his temple.
GOD, I do not like the idea of these guys having their own pet shrinks on tap, who can rubberstamp anyone they don’t like as ‘a danger to themselves and others’. By this time, the contract had arrived, and my hands were free. I scanned through the document - and, even if I have to say so myself, picked up a lot more than I expected to! - ticking off the expected objections. “Are you kidding? No way! What? As if! Oh Please! What, you want my First Born Child, maybe?” I handed him the parts that I objected do. We haggled over it for a bit - y’know, I think I actually struck off a few of the things they were trying to slide past me? - and Captain Action went off to have it amended. A couple of excruciatingly boring hours later and we went through the same thing all over again. The third time, he came back with a contract that had enough hooks in it that they’d feel that they had me over a barrel, but I’d made enough of a ruckus that they’d think that I felt that I’d gotten one over on them. I signed off on it, and Captain Action shook my hand and welcomed me to the Agency. I still wasn’t cleared to know what it was fucking called.
It was well past 9, so I was moved to a room in the women’s BOQ. I was given my clothing, some of my books, and a modicum of privacy. I watched an hour or so of what passed for TV in the middle of New Jersey, and then willed myself to go to sleep. Amazingly, that worked.
In the morning, they stood me in front of a colored screen and took DMV-type pictures, changing the color of the backdrop a couple of times. By the time that I finished breakfast with Captain Action and the doctor, they came back with quickie New York driver’s license and Columbia University Student ID for Grace Merlin, age 21. “Oh wow, I can, like drive and get drunk and smoke and junk!” I said in a giddy voice. They also had a photo ID with ‘Asset 08’ in white lettering on a green strip along one side. “’Asset 08’?”
“For security reasons, the use of personal names will be kept to a minimum,” Captain Action explained. “In reports, you and other Agency personnel will be referred to by case file designators. For broadcast communications, you will be given a call sign. The man who attacked you in Indianapolis is ‘Subject 438’. You are ‘Asset 08’. You will be given a call sign before it becomes an issue. I am ‘Asset 01’, and my call sign is ‘Hunter’. She-” he indicated the doctor, “-is ‘Control 05’, and her call sign is ‘Bones’.”
“Call me ‘Bones’ and die,” the doctor muttered, not looking up from the file she was reading. “I didn’t go through eight years of college to be a Star Trek joke. I’m Dr. Forrest.” She flicked an annoyed look up. “And I don’t have a lot of patience with this ‘Control Number’ nonsense, either.”
After breakfast, Dr. Forrest, ‘Hunter’ and I were put into one of two limos with smoked windows, and drove north. As we drove, Dr. Forrest finally got tired of the file she was reading and gave me a dry smile. “So, I understand that you’re a ghostbuster.”
“I’m a Parapsychologist with an Engineering Degree,” I responded in a ‘don’t give me shit, I’m as much of a scientist as you are’ way. “I try to verify the facts in incidents that are reported as hauntings, ghost sightings, cryptid encounters, and other such matters.”
“Have you ever actually SEEN a ghost?”
“ONCE,” I said significantly.
She leaned forward intently, the gleam of curiosity in her eyes. “How did it feel, when it touched you?”
“Like burning and freezing, all at the same time.”
“Can you be sure that it was a ghost, and not a goblin?”
“Insufficient data. I’ve only really seen three ghosts or goblins or whatever they are, and I’ve only really come into contact with two of them. As a matter of fact, aside from a lot of posturing gibberish, no one’s really come up with any really objective criteria or terminology for intangible entities.” I raised an eyebrow at her. “That is, unless you’ve done some of that?”
Forrest leaned back, scowled and grunted, “Nah. It’s too early, the information we’ve got is a jumble, too much is subjective and unconfirmed, and nobody wants to go on record as being wrong.”
“Sounds like every other research project that I’ve been on,” I sighed. I gave Hunter a sharp look. “By the way, now that I’ve signed on, exactly what IS the Agency’s charter?”
Hunter cleared his throat. “The original charter was to investigate strange damage to Federal property being done by persons or phenomena unknown, to prevent further damage to Federal property, protect both civilians and Federal employees, and if possible, to bring the perpetrators to justice. When the nature of the beings that were damaging the installations was discovered, the charter was extended to investigating, researching, and whenever possible, neutralizing any threats posed by the beings known as ‘Goblins’. The definition of ‘Goblins’ was expanded to include ‘Demons’, ‘Ghosts’, ‘Possessor Spirits’, ‘Haunts’ and other beings and phenomena of a Vis-based nature. When Advancers were discovered and confirmed, they were added to the Agency’s charter.”
Okay, that was suitably oblique and Bureaucratically Correct.
As we drove through the urban blight that was northern New Jersey, Hunter said, “Here’s your first and most important piece of Agency-issue gear.” He handed me a cell phone.
“Ooohh! An iPhone! Does this mean that I can download my favorite music videos and video games and stuff?”
“Among other things, that can record up to six hours of continuous footage with its camera, it has low-light, IR, UV, Starlight, and GPS capability, and more importantly, it’s your passkey to Agency HQ-NYC.”
“The location of our headquarters is strictly secret. The very nature of what we investigate requires that we assume that at some time someone or something hostile will try to ‘follow us home’. When you wish to enter HQ, you are to phone ahead. This phone has a time-sensitive pseudo-random telephone number selector, and a similar message scrambler. You will be instructed as to which of several different covert entrances you are to use that time, and the entry protocol. There are ‘hard entry’ protocols as well, for if you lose your cell phone, or you think that you’re being tailed, or in any other way been compromised.”
“Merlin, we cope with Advancers, people with remarkable abilities, some of whom may not like the idea that we’re looking over their shoulders. And with Goblins, some of which are very smart, very sneaky and quite vicious. These measures ARE necessary.”
He took the iPhone from me, switched it on and hit a speed dial number. “Reception? This is Hunter. We’re back from Fort Dix, we have our new recruit. Add one for my entrance. Low-to-median chance of a follow. I want separate entrances for both units. Right.” He handed me back the phone and hit the intercom to the driver. “Use the 101st Street parking garage.” The driver took us off the Parkway into Manhattan and to the West Side. He pulled into a shabby 1970s-vintage parking garage, and went into the car elevator. But instead of going up, the elevator went down at least five stories. When the door opened, he drove through a narrow tunnel, waited for a green light at one point, and entered a wider tunnel. He went about a mile, pulled into an entrance that slid open just as we arrived and drove into another car elevator. We went up three stories, and pulled into a large underground parking lot with a variety of cars, vans, trucks and so on sitting there. Most of them had no distinctive markings, but a few of the cars were tricked out as taxis with blank roof markers, and a few looked like City Services trucks, only with generic door markers.
We got out and walked to a mirrored window. “Four to enter. She’s new.” He showed his ID badge to a sensor. “We walk through, one at a time. Flash your badge at this sensor.” Then he walked through the door. A light turned red. When the light turned green again, I flashed my badge and walked through the door. There was a corridor, and I had to walk through a series of security gates. Between each gate, I was required to touch a hand-plate, then look into a visor (where I was briefly blinded by a light), step onto a scale, punch in a code that I saw on a screen, and then finally speak a code phrase that was again provided by a screen next to the test. Forrest and the driver each followed in turn. When the driver cleared, we stepped into passenger elevator. “It’s annoying, but necessary,” Hunter said.
“Shouldn’t you wait until the Cone of Silence is down to say that?”
The elevator opened up into a large if understaffed operations room: there was the usual collection of desks and computers, case boards, and SitRep maps for New York’s five boroughs (including Long Island and northern New Jersey), Philadelphia/Baltimore/Washington, Atlanta, the Atlantic Seaboard, the Chicago area, the Great Lakes, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Greater Los Angeles area, Seattle-Tacoma, and the Pacific Coast. “This is the general area,” Hunter continued. “Personal offices are on the floor above. The armory and training areas are on the floor below, and the labs and secure containment cells are one floor below that.”
I paused. “Well, color me impressed! I was under the impression that the Agency has only been around for a few years. The government must put a pretty high priority on this, to build such elaborate security arrangements. To be honest, I was expecting something that was just a suite of offices with a bogus name on the door.”
Hunter gave a pained smile. “Actually, this place was built back in the 1960s for an organization that required absolute secrecy. That operation shut down in the early ‘70s, and they just open it up every so often for groups like ours, that need a place to operate out of for a while in total secrecy. The holding company that owns this building is owned in turn by the NSA, and it also operates several of the businesses that act as fronts covering the entrances. The holding company also runs a wide range of businesses across the country and the world, that provide raw intelligence, discreet transportation and supply and other crucial services, launders money to individuals and groups, and so forth. They’re also surprisingly profitable, and they provide a lot of the ‘unsourced’ funding for operations like ours.”
“Let me guess: Congress doesn’t know a thing about the holding company.”
“And YOU are never to mention it.”
“Exactly.” Keep in mind, while he did tell me this ‘big secret’, ‘holding companies’ were a stock bit of the Cloak & Dagger scene back in the 1950s through 70s. There were several of them back then, and I’d be amazed if this was the last one still in business. Also, he didn’t tell me its incorporated name, or where the fuck we WERE, or anything really useful. But I was supposed to feel all ‘in the know’.
“Well! Let’s get you introduced.” He led the doctor and me into a room that was rigged as a conference or briefing room, with a long table, a coffee center and a monitor at one end. Seated around the table were three women and seven men. Two of the women and three of the men looked young enough to be in college, while the others were routinely well past their thirties. I didn’t need the badges to tell the ‘Assets’ from the ‘Controls’.
As he said, Hunter was ‘Asset 01’; ‘Asset 02’ looked like he could play the ‘hardass young Injun brave’ in an old Western. His handle was ‘Enforcer’. Oh yeah, real subtle. Asset 03 went by the handle ‘Sherlock’, and looked like the ‘brainy but cute’ love interest in a romantic comedy; y’know, the kind of movie where the cloistered computer jock has six-pack abs?
Asset 04 was his ‘bubbly but brainy blonde’ counterpart in the same movie. Her handle was ‘Oracle’. Asset 05 was another hardass, dark but ethnically non-specific. He had the very fitting label ‘Bad boy’. Asset 06 was a light skinned black chick with narrow Arabic features, with the handle ‘Witch’. Remembering that I was ‘Asset 08’, I asked, “Where’s Asset 07?”
“There is no ‘Asset 07’,” one of the Controls, 02 to be specific, said. “You Advancers are weird enough as it is; we don’t need anyone with a James Bond kink screwing things up.” Control 02 was the Executive Officer, which I guess was a militaristic way of saying that he was the guy who actually ran the place while the boss (Control 01, y’think?) sits in his office being important. The other Controls were the head of personnel, the head of tactical support (whatever that is), the Security Officer, and the Head of the Research Section. The research head was the only one of the Controls who actually seemed interested in meeting me. I asked,
“And who’s in control of the Training?”
“That would be ME,” ‘Enforcer’ said, jerking his thumb at himself. Why do I see Boot Camp in my immediate future?
I made the usual nobody’s being fooled, per forma glad-to-meet-you noises.
“Now, Miss Maslin,” the research head started eagerly.
“’Asset 08’,” Control 02 said primly. “Let’s keep it professional.” Why do I suddenly have the urge to do my Patrick MacGoohan impression? ‘I am not a number, I am a FREE MAN! Or whatever…’
“Ah, yes… ‘Asset 08’- I read your procedural journals. I’m very impressed to learn while you’re a professional Parapsychologist, you have an Engineering Degree?”
“Yeah,” I said, trying to be casual about it. “With all the New Age flakiness, hucksterism, and borderline psychosis in the field, any serious investigation into ghosts and other unexplained phenomena needs people who don’t go off into the fifth dimension at the drop of a hat.”
“What did you do?”
“For the most part, I ran the sensors and recording equipment. I also checked the scene for environmental effects and the usual tricks of the fraudulent spiritualist and mediums’ trades. Hoaxers have a pretty set bag of tricks, but every so often someone comes up with something new, especially with the advances in Light and Sound Imaging.”
He asked a few questions about my current qualifications, how good I was at setting up surveillance (damn good, by the way) and a few other things before he finally got down to what he really wanted to talk about. Namely, my camera. “From the footage that the Assets took, you actually used a common camera to capture the rat goblin in that alley? You actually restrained the goblin in a camera?”
He went on for a bit. It seems that while they had developed their own version of a Ghostbusters trap, it was rather large and clumsy. The idea of being able to hold a goblin in anything as small as a camera, let alone be able to tap into its power, as I’ve been doing, was a major turn-on for them. He practically dragged me down to the next level. Enforcer, Sherlock, Witch and Dr. Forrest went with us, but the others had more interesting things to do. Bad boy muttered something about Woody Woodpecker. After you got past the bank vault-like security door, the next level was a pretty straightforward sample examination area. That is, except for the odd collection of objects kept in thick Lucite cylinders: a plain wooden box bound with multi-colored strings, a steamer trunk, a department store manikin, a geode, a thick book, an old TV set, a policeman’s badge, a Russian Orthodox icon of the Madonna and Christ Child, a big chunk of quartz, a machete, a human skull, a .357 long-barreled revolver, an old-fashioned ‘cathedral’ radio, a ball-peen hammer, a deck of playing cards and a Raggedy Ann with reddish brown stains on the hands and smiling embroidery mouth. But the thing that gave me the real creeps was a simple wooden desk, the kind they used to have in schools, where the chair and desk were built as a single unit. Don’t ask me why, but looking at it just gave me the willies.
They had been examining my camera in something that suspiciously resembled a MRI scanner. The readout had energy bands, and patterns and all that jazz; what they didn’t have was any idea as to what it all meant. They had me dress up in this very tight-fitting body stocking with sensors over the place, and tap into the power inside the camera, which also had sensors draping from it. I looked at the very clingy outfit and said, “Okay, I’ll do it. But if I find pictures of me in this on the internet, I’ll know who to come gunning for!”
After an hour or so of futzing around - and believe me, Science is 95% futzing around, getting everything just right - they let me get dressed again. Sherlock and Dr. Forrest asked me a bunch of questions about how I drew the energy from the camera. “How do you breathe?” I answered. “I just do it. Now, let me ask YOU a question. Did you examine the, ah, ‘discards’ that I tagged and bagged?”
Dr. Forrest started to bitch and moan about the poor condition of the samples - please, I have yet to meet a forensics rat who didn’t snark about the condition of the samples that they were examining. It’s the lab rat version of Scotty doubling the estimated time of repairs to Captain Kirk, to make himself look better when it was done in ‘half’ the time. I waved her rant down. “NOT the point. My question is: I look like I’m 17 or 18 - but what genetic age am I? Can I expect to be a 60-year-old woman in seven years?”
Dr. Forrest went on and on about how it’s impossible to determine things like age from a DNA sample, especially one as badly corrupted, yada yada yada - then she admitted that there was a significant lack of aging-associated disruptions in the chains of the samples they took from me directly, the telomeres were the proper length, and tests show that I’m displaying most of the healing-and-repair associated functions that get turned off as we age. “Our operating theory is that whatever it is that causes the rejuvenation affect effectively ‘re-weaves’ the DNA back to optimum configuration. Unfortunately, this ‘reweave’ isn’t always a perfect replication. In your case, it ‘rewove’ every XY chromosome pair into a XX set. Well, it could have been a lot worse. We’ve got Advancers on ice who came down with faux-elephantiasis, schizophrenia and worse.” Elephantiasis? Schizophrenia? I don’t even wanna think about what ‘worse’ covers! “But, as for your question - well, from what we know-” and the way she said ‘what we know’ implied that they didn’t know jack, “-you will either age normally for a physically 17-year-old girl, or maybe even more slowly - if you don’t overtax your energy supply; Quintessence seems to resist damage on the genetic, cellular, organ and systemic levels.”
“Did… did you look for anything else, while you were doing all that?”
“Maslin, you were out for four days - we did TONS of tests. Barring the possibility that your vis is masking something, you are disgustingly healthy.”
“Vis is a little-used term for the kind of vitalism energy that we’re talking about. When we write it up for the Senate Oversight Panel, it’s ‘quintessence’; when we talk about it here, it’s vis. It’s easier to say, and you don’t feel like you’re in a bad vampire romance novel.”
“Is there any other kind?” then something occurred to me. “What are the chances that there’s some sort of unconscious influence on physical effect? I mean, not to brag or anything, but when I look in the mirror - whooo baby! And none of the other ‘assets’ are exactly hard to look at, y’know? I mean, it’s like one of those cheesy ‘superspy’ shows, where all the ‘top-notch covert operatives’ just happen to also be fitness models.”
Forrest, a reasonably attractive woman in her late 40’s to early 50’s, gave me a pained smile. “Yes, I have rather noticed that. Well, it’s a definite theory, and one that we have discussed on occasion. Unfortunately, there’s no way to test it without irresponsibly endangering the life of one of you Advancers.”
“Why not put Sherlock or Oracle on it?”
“Well, on the first part, neither Oracle nor I have any real scientific training,” Sherlock said with a pettish undertone. “For the second part, even if we did, or a Savant with a biology or other related degree dropped into our laps, we couldn’t use him.”
“Policy,” Forrest said with an annoyed grunt. “Advancers aren’t supposed to conduct the experiments, just in case they’re somehow influencing the outcome.”
“I handle field investigations and Oracle does computer research,” Sherlock explained.
“Hold it - what’s a ‘Savant’? At least in the way that you were just using it?”
Sherlock gave a wry grin. “Well, in keeping with the bureaucratic love of pigeonholes, one of the first things that they looked for was neat little boxes to shove us into. They found some as soon as three distinctly different Advancers were brought into the fold. Colonel Hunter, or ‘Asset 01’ is - what else? - a Hunter. His gifts seem to focus on seeking things out. Besides being able to notice things and track them down like a bloodhound, he does that weird ‘invisibility’ thing that you do. Oh yes, and from all the data collected so far, we think you’re our second ‘Hunter’.”
“Yeah…” Sherlock said uncertainly, raising one eyebrow.
“You’re goofing me.”
“Nope! When we were tracking Subject 438, we didn’t know what he was after, until you popped out of nowhere to bag that goblin.”
“I was invisible?”
“Yeah… you didn’t know that?”
“Well, I knew that I was being sneaky, but I didn’t know that I was invisible! How do you turn it on?”
“You’re asking me?”
“You don’t know how to do it?”
“Haven’t a clue. And you have no idea how much that pisses me off.”
“Yeah,” Sherlock said dyspeptically. “Anyway, Enforcer, the second advancer to enter the fold, was noticeably different. He’s more oriented towards tactical effectiveness. No one can handle close-quarters combat like the Enforcer. And Oracle and I are called ‘Savants’. We’re the puzzle-solvers and observers and deductive reasoners. You know, the real brainwork.”
“Oh, you can solve the New York Times crossword puzzle in pen, in five minutes,” Enforcer sneered. “I am SO jealous.”
Counting off the Advancers I’d met, I asked, “So, what are Bad Boy and Witch?”
“Bad Boy’s a ‘Combatant’, like me,” Enforcer said. “And Witch is a Mediator. She’s the only one we’ve found so far. Most of the other Advancers we’ve come across have either been Combatants or Hunters, or so messed up that we couldn’t figure out what their original bias was. Or, they’ve managed to stay under our radar.”
“My gig is that I’m a wheeler-dealer,” Witch stepped up. “Basically, I get social situations and personal interactions, the way that the Brain Trust,” she nodded at Sherlock, “gets impersonal patterns and like that. Or, if you want, I have a black belt in social combat. I was a buyer for a chain of department stores, back when I actually had a life. These days? I could walk into the same company as a perfume girl, and wind up the CEO within a year.”
“She scares the hell out of our Senate Oversight Panel,” Forrest said with a touch of amusement.
“Damn STRAIGHT I do!”
“Good to know,” I said. “So, when will I get my camera back?”
“BACK?” ‘Control 04’, the research head bleated.
“Yeah,” I insisted. “Back. As in, there was absolutely NADA in my contract about personal property being confiscated.”
“But it’s UNIQUE! We HAVE to study it!”
I responded that they’d had it for four days, so what did they have to show for that? This set off a nasty spat, which ended with Forrest taking the toy away from both of us, so nobody got to play with it. She said that she’d kick the issue up to ‘Hardy’, who the research head referred to as ‘Number One’.
“And what am I going to do when I need to recharge?” I snapped. “I was promised training, and I’m going to have to spend energy, or quintessence or vis or whatever you call it to do that!”
“Simple,” Enforcer said sternly. “You’ll learn to use your energy better.”
“And how do you learn how to do THAT?”
”The hard way - you practice. Speaking of which, your first training session is NOW. C’mon, time to meet the mat.” He crooked his finger and walked out of the labs.
I looked around, made a few quick decisions, and ran to catch up with him at the stairs. “Hey, wait up!”
“First lesson, Oh-Eight. I am the trainer. You are on MY dime, understand?”
A smart remark rose to my lips, but I pushed it down. If this hardass could teach me how to use my essence better, so I didn’t turn out like Subject 438, then I’d damn well put up with his ‘tood. “You’re the sensei.”
“Damn skippy I am.” He marched through a few more doors into a pretty standard gymnasium-cum-martial arts dojo, with exercise equipment on one side of the large open area, gymnastics gear stashed against one wall, four mats, a wall of mirrors on one side with a ballet bar, a rack of practice weapons, and some punching practice figures. He shucked off his jacket and shoes and stepped onto the mat. As I did likewise, he gave me the onceover. “So, rocking the Joan Jett look. You got any fighting moves to back it up?”
“Nope,” I admitted without a shred of shame. “I got into the usual number of fights in school, but aside from that scene in the alley and one other set-to down in Kentucky, I haven’t been in a real fight in thirty years.”
“Then why you working the Macho Chick look?”
“The look works for me, it’s low maintenance, and it lets me ease into the fact that I’m gonna be female for the rest of my life.”
He raised his eyebrows and nodded. “Sensible. Okay, you’ve got the good sense to know that you don’t know how to fight. That makes things a LOT simpler. You don’t have any Jet Li fantasies to unlearn. What was this ‘set-to’ down in Kentucky you were talking about?” I described smacking the pimp down. He then had me describe my ‘training regimen’ that I’d been using so far. He nodded again. “Sensible. WRONG, but sensible. Now show me your best moves.”
I focused myself and made myself get faster and stronger. I threw a few what I thought were lightning fast punches at him, which he effortlessly dodged. Those he couldn’t dodge, he simply slapped away from his head. And he knew instantly which he could and couldn’t dodge. Then he caught one fist in his hand. “Enough! Okay, I see how you’re working…”
From there, he taught me a few very basic centering and focusing techniques, and, son of a bitch, not only was I faster, and not only could I get into the speeded up state of mind more easily, but it really didn’t take as much out of me. Then he threw me around the mat for a while in very fast forward.
When I got up for about the thousandth time, I groaned, “Isn’t there a way to learn this without getting beaten up? Like Yoga, or meditation or Gregorian chanting or something?”
“There is,” he admitted. “But I don’t know that stuff. Besides, what’re you gonna do when you’re in an alley and some degenerate like Subject 438 comes at you? Wow him with your Gregorian chanting?”
“Isn’t that what GUNS are for?”
“Guns won’t get you to focus and apply your vis reflexively, which is what you need. BUT! Since you bring it up!” He walked off the mat, stepped into his shoes and walked out the door. I got my shoes and followed him as best I could. I somehow managed to track him to a gun nut’s wet dream. It was a combination armory and shooting range with four lanes. As he put me through the obligatory protocols, I let him know that I knew the rock-bottom basics of a gun: assume it’s loaded at all times, check the weapon first thing, keep your finger off the trigger until you intend to shoot, don’t point it at anyone you don’t fully intend to kill, don’t start firing until told to begin, and stop when the klaxon goes off. I didn’t shoot, but you run into a lot of very gunny guys in my line of work. You pick things up. Then I admitted that I was fully aware that I did NOT know how to shoot.
“Which you WILL pick up, I assure you.” He gave me a very generic looking automatic. “This is a Glock 22. It is a rather mediocre weapon in most respects, but it does have ONE redeeming feature: namely, over 80% of the Police departments in the US and Canada issue G22s. And since we can’t spare the time to find each and every spent cartridge, it helps that all Ballistics will be able to tell anyone is that the shell came from a Glock. And a Glock is a Glock is a Glock. So, the casing gets lost in among all the other Glock casings that they have to deal with. I’d prefer a caseless round, but guns that take caseless would be too memorable. Remember Oh-Eight, anonymity is the Agency’s best friend.”
“Scuze me? I know that the Agency isn’t big on personal names, but the ‘Asset Number’ bit is getting a little old. I keep expecting Don Adams to start talking into his shoe. If you’re not going to use my name, at least give me that Call Sign that everyone’s got.”
“You’ll be given a call sign when you need one.”
I showed exactly how little I knew about shooting for about a half hour. Then Enforcer tapped me on the shoulder, and gestured for me to take my ear protectors off. He took my pistol and screwed an odd attachment to it. It was a triangular tube of sorts with venting holes along the beveled corners of the tube, and some sort of circular membranes dotting the flats of the tube. He pointed the gun at the target and let off a clip in ‘bursts’ of five rounds, with a three-count between bursts. All that came from the barrel was a simple *pfit!* My jaw hit the floor. “You’re fucking KIDDING me! I always thought that that Hollywood bit about silencers was total BULLSHIT!”
“It is,” Enforcer said, unscrewing the silencer. “The thing is, there are tons of things that we CAN do, but don’t because it simply isn’t practical or economical. Like extracting gold from seawater. They can do it, but the process is so expensive that it costs more to extract the gold than the metal’s worth, even with current prices. This silencer,” he held it up, “can’t be mass produced. It involves a very complex system of baffles, and it literally has to be hand-made. This silencer costs three grand, right here in my hand, and it has a limited life, because of gunpowder residue getting into the baffles and clogging them. There’s no way of reliably washing them out, so at an estimated 50 shots per unit, you’re paying $60 a pop for silence. Of course, when you need silence, you NEED silence. You will NOT train with this. You’ll be issued one of these, and you’ll PAY $60 a shot every time you use it. Oh, and we DO have ways of keeping track.”
“Then WHY did you show me this thing?”
“To drive home the point that accuracy and discretion are vital parts of our mission. Just hitting isn’t enough. We don’t do ‘Spray and Pray’. HIT your target the first time. The fewer shots you use, the better.” Then Enforcer gave me a couple of hand-and-wrist bracers and told me to put them on.
“Why? I may not be Wonder Woman, but I’m a lot stronger than I look.”
“Just put them on.” Then he handed me a large, odd-looking overbuilt handgun. It felt like it weighed at least 15 pounds. “Here, take a shot with this.” I put my ear protectors back on and carefully hefted the gun up in line for the target. I made sure of the safety and squeezed the trigger.
I didn’t even come close to hitting the board, let alone the bullseye. The roar of the gun was deafening, even through the ear protectors, and the recoil knocked me on my ass, even as it knocked the gun out of my hands. Grasping my aching wrists, I snapped, “WHAT? The FUCK! Was THAT?”
With a mild smirk on his face, Enforcer picked up the gun. “This is what we call the ‘Stopper’. It’s a specially built rig for firing a single .460 Weatherby Magnum round at close ranges.”
“.460 Weatherby Magnum round?” As I said, I’m not a gun nut, but that ticked off a memory. “That’s an ELEPHANT GUN round!”
“One of the most powerful cartridges made.”
“What kind of MANIAC puts an Elephant Gun round in a handgun?”
“The kind of maniac that faces off against things that can only be taken down with an elephant gun, in situations where you can’t take a rifle.”
“Couldn’t you build some kind of recoil suppression system into that?”
“We did,” he said as he broke open the chamber and pulled out the large brass cartridge. “This is actually a very simple gun mechanism. Two-thirds of its mass is devoted to coping with the recoil. You should have seen the bench tests, as we figured out how much baffling was acceptable.”
“I’ll never be able to fire that gun!”
“We don’t really expect you to,” Enforcer said equitably.
“Then what was the POINT of all that?”
He stepped up into my face and looked me straight in the eye. “The POINT, Merlin, is to drive home the fact that the things we deal with AREN’T NORMAL! The entire reason that we designed the Stopper is that we’ve NEEDED it in the past! And things are only going to get weirder.”
“We’ve recently come up with a couple of new techniques for tracking Goblin and Advancer activity. I won’t go into details just at the moment. The point being, when we ran the raw data we’ve got for the past year through these new procedures, they turned up evidence that there were at least a hundred goblin incidents and a dozen advancer incidents that we never even guessed were there.”
“So… this whole Advancer weirdness is bigger than you thought?”
“YEAH. And those are just the ones that we’ve picked up with those new techniques. Hunter says that there are more of them. He’s sure of it. On a gut level. And I trust Hunter’s gut instincts a lot more than I trust computer analysis.”
That brought something into focus something that had been rumbling around the back of my mind ever since ‘Hunter’ put me into the limo. “Hey, Enforcer, or Oh-Two, or whatever… How come the media isn’t all over this? I mean, I went through the change way out on a back road in Kentucky, but if there are a lot more Advancers out there, wouldn’t they do the same thing in, say, hospital IC wards? Why haven’t hospitals been reporting these bizarre developments? Why isn’t the CDC all over this? Hell, why isn’t the National Enquirer all over this?”
Enforcer finished cleaning the ‘Stopper’ and looked me in the eye. “Well, first, there’s what we’re calling the ‘chrysalis reflex’. When most people begin to undergo the transformation, they instinctively head off by themselves and hide as best they can before they lose consciousness. It’s a reflex, like what you did. You didn’t think about it, you just did it.” Then his gaze changed. “BUT, you’re right: even with that reflex, a big chunk of Advancers should end up in ERs. But they don’t. OR, they don’t get reported. This has occurred to us. We don’t know. Yet. But we are trying to find out.”
“You think that someone else knows about Advancers, and they’re hiding them or something?”
“Hiding them. Or something.”
‘Witch’ walked up and said, “Well, if you’ve got that over, Cornell wants to talk to you.”
“‘Control 02.” She crooked her finger for me to follow, and I went back up the stairs to the offices.
Control 02’s office was a pretty standard low-to-mid-level box, a step up from a cubicle, with the barest signs of bureaucratic success: a wooden desk, a rug on the floor, a few personal items. Whatever they were spending the budget on, it wasn’t personal fripperies. Which meant something. I wasn’t sure exactly what just yet. He even had ‘Control 02’ on his door. Which suggested that he took the whole ‘Control/Asset’ thing pretty seriously. Cornell himself was just as drab and nondescript as his office. But not ineffectual. No, he didn’t have that look of mild trepidation mixed with boredom that I associate with most bureaucrats. Rather, he had the hard look mixed with mild disdain that I associate with parole officers and other officials who have to regularly work with the unwilling. “Very well, Asset Oh-Eight. You’ve seen the place, and you’ve gotten an idea of what’s going on. So? Any problems, comments, suggestions, like that?”
“Just one: I don’t like being called ‘Asset Oh-Eight.” I folded my arms across my chest and raised an eyebrow.
Cornell gave me the look of nearly-exhausted patience. “You’re not gonna quote ‘The Prisoner’ at me, are you?”
“Are you telling me that I’m a prisoner? ‘Cause I signed on as a Federal Employee.”
“Look Maslin,” well, at least he called me by my real name, that’s something. “You were a spook-hunter back before you turned back the clock, right? Now, how many of your investigations got screwed up seven ways to Sunday because some flake got involved, or some reporter on a slow news days decided to turn whatever it was into the Amityville Horror, or just because rubberneckers got in the way? Now, Goblins and all that were enough that Congress decided that a lid had to be kept on it, so that they could come to an intelligent and informed decision on things like how goblins impacted on both Foreign and Domestic policy and like that. Then you Advancers came along. Maslin, you Advancers are a game-changer! Well, you could be a game-changer. Or, you lot could be a fluke, something that happens every so often, and we just never noticed before. Hey, weirder things have happened, ask any reporter. You could be the signal for a weather change in the entire human race. You could be the forward guard of a new minority. Advancers may never be more than one-in-a-million. We may figure out how the Advancement process works - or we might not. But, no matter how it turns out, when the General Population hears about this, they are going to go NUTS! The rejuvenation aspect of this alone is going to bring out the absolute worst in some people! We, and by ‘we’ I mean ‘We The People’ through our elected representatives in both houses of Congress, have to figure out how we’re going to handle this. Depending on what we here in the Agency learn, Congress may have to draft a whole new slate of laws - or a Constitutional Amendment - they may have to convene a third Constitutional Convention and draft another Constitution! - to deal with the ramifications of what we’re investigating! In order to do that, Congress needs FACTS, clear, concise, proven, unbiased FACTS. Facts that we will not get if this hits the mass media! It’ll turn into a freaking CIRCUS! The power will shift over to the demagogues and whackos and hysterics, and we can kiss anything even LIKE a sensible policy goodbye!”
“Very stirring,” I said in as blasé a voice as I could muster. “What’s it got to do with the fact that I don’t like being referred to as an ‘Asset’?”
“The whole point of the ‘Asset’ business is to drive home to everyone that this is NOT business as usual. The same way that soldiers and sailors accept that their usual democratic rights don’t apply in the field or at sea, you ‘Assets’ are going to have to wrap your heads around the fact that many of the rights that you took for granted simply don’t apply in this situation.” Oh, he was definitely a Bush appointee. “Secrecy is ESSENTIAL. Beyond the general population, if Advancers learned about the Agency, our job would be a thousand times harder. As it is, they lay low; if they knew about us, paranoia would drive them freaking underground. Necessity would force us to employ increasingly draconian measures to get anything done at all. So, in order to avoid that mess, we’re making sure that it doesn’t become an issue. You’ll answer to your Asset number, until such time as a call-sign is given to you, or you prove that you’re a reliable team player.” He broke off and sighed. “Look. Maslin. Will you at least give me your word that you won’t just run off the second that you think the coast is clear, you’ll abide by your contract and give me the best effort you’ve got, so we can get the information we need, and we can end this nonsense?” He stuck out his hand.
Hey, why not? “Okay, you have my word on it.” Sucker. I took his hand and pumped it.
Then ‘Witch’ slapped her hand on top of mine and his, and I felt a sort of ‘spark’.
“What? The Hell? Was THAT?” I yelped.
“Sorry about that,” Witch said, sounding genuinely sorry. “But I was under orders.”
“Orders to do WHAT?”
Cornell leaned back in his chair with a nasty smile on his face. “Orders to make sure that you don’t break your word the second the coast is clear and run for the boarder. Y’see, the reason that we call Asset 05 here ‘Witch’ is that she has some interesting abilities. For instance, she can speak and understand any language - not read or write it, and she can’t understand anything spoken on TV or over the phone; just what she hears directly from the speaker. But the real kicker is that she can ‘sanctify pacts’.”
“Sanctify pacts?” I echoed, feeling a brick dropping in my stomach.
“Yeah,” Cornell drawled with obvious satisfaction. “Somehow, don’t ask me how, ‘cause I don’t know, even after two years of experiments and testing, when she lays her blessing on a promise made, the people who make the promise become compulsively obligated to keep the promise. Even if they had no intention of keeping the promise when they made it.”
“Yeah. As long as they keep their promise, they’re fine. But the second that they start thinking about breaking it, they get all anxious and fretful. Doing things becomes hard, and doing anything sneaky becomes almost impossible. And if they DO somehow manage to force themselves to break the promise, they’re wracked with guilt about it. The only way to get rid of that guilt is to make good on the promise somehow.” Cornell grinned. “Go ahead! TRY to go over the hill! I’d like to see you do it! In the mean time, Maslin, give your heart and soul to America ‘cause your ASS belongs to ME!”
“This is real?” I asked ‘Witch’, cradling the hand that had just betrayed me.
“Yeah,” she sighed. “We sort of tested it out on Bad Boy. Hey, it’s the only reason that he’s still here, and not somewhere out in the boonies, playing Lord Jim. If it means anything to you, they nailed me the same way; I’m just as bound by my word as you are. I’ve got to obey orders; I don’t really have a choice in the matter.”
“Buck up, Oh-Eight,” Cornell said. “You got off easy. The conditions that we laid on Bad Boy and the Witch?” <whew!> he gave a low whistle. “I should be ashamed of myself.” But the wide grin of satisfaction on his face put the lie to his words.
“Okay, enough of this,” Witch said like a third grade teacher. “Let’s get you out of here before you realize that there’s nothing in your contract that prevents you from breaking ‘Mister Tact’s’ neck.” She steered me out of the office as Cornell went back to his paperwork.
I snarled at the ‘Control 02’ on Cornell’s door and then gave out a long sigh. “Okay, what now?”
“Now, something nice,” she smiled at me. “Hey, don’t let the asshole get you down. There ARE some benefits to this job. First, we get your stuff, then we get you moved into your new place.”
“Oh, wonderful, barracks life.”
“Are you kidding?” Witch said. “Okay, this place is pretty dire, but it’s not THAT dire. Proving that they have some common sense, the brass has realized that staying in this jumped-up hamster cage would drive even normal people around the bend. So, we have apartments off-base, and even cover jobs, at least for those of us Advancers who don’t have regular cases that they work on, like Sherlock and Oracle. That way, we’re not always in the office, being bored and getting on everyone’s nerves.”
“Even Bad Boy?”
“Hey, Bad Boy is just that, and a hardass and an asshole, but he’s still smart enough to come when they whistle. Besides, not having us come in every day helps Site Security.”
Witch got my luggage - which was too clean and well packed to have not been gone through with a fine-toothed comb - from Site Security. She also gave me a couple of essentials - a purse and a wallet with four credit cards in it. She took me through the exit procedure, and we left through a parking garage for an office building, and got one of those ‘zip cars’. Once we were out of the parking garage, I asked, “By the way, now that Big Brother isn’t listening in, what the heck is your name? I mean, I feel silly calling you ‘Witch’ in public.”
“What makes you think he’s not listening? Nah, forget about it. Call me Meg.”
“Meg? Mad Meg?”
“Y’know, ‘Grace’, you’re presuming on an all-too recent acquaintance here…”
She started heading uptown. “We try to keep the apartments in Manhattan, with a reasonable access to our cover jobs. Your cover is that you’re a coed at Columbia, so we got you a place that’s a few blocks away from campus.”
“Columbia? I’m not gonna have to take classes again, am I?”
“Don’t worry, Suzy Coed, we have put a little thought into this. You’re going to be attached to Dr. Benjamin Hatch, at Columbia’s Paranormal Research project.”
“Like, WHOAW!” I said in my ‘giddy bimbo’ voice, “I’m, like, gonna work for the Ghostbusters?”
“You’d better watch it - how many girls ‘your age’ even know who the Ghostbusters were, let alone that scenes were shot at Columbia?”
“Hell, most girls ‘my age’ think that Columbia University is where cocaine comes from.”
“Ooohhh… there’s a BITTER old fogey under that cutie-pie exterior!”
“Who is this ‘Skippy’, and why do people keep damning him?”
“He was a secondary character on the ‘Family Ties’ sit-com. He was emblematic of the docile, accommodating victim persona that everyone is afraid they really are. Hence, he is damned at every turn, thus in turn we damn our own weaknesses.”
Meg gave me a wary look. “That was a very well thought-out response to a glib question.”
“Hey, 90% of Paranormal Research is very boring grunt work. I’ve had weirder conversations than this on a good night. Does Hatch know about the Agency?”
“Yes and No. He’s listed as a ‘Secondary Asset’. He knows about Goblins, and he’s our primary outside source on them in the Five Boroughs. But it’s very much at arm’s length. He doesn’t know about HQ, he’s only met a few Agency people face-to-face, AND - this is very important - he does NOT know about Advancers. And you are NOT to tell him about us, capisce?”
“And what about his assistants and grad students?”
“Ah. Gotcha.” Keep them in the dark and feed them bullshit.
Meg pulled up in front of some buildings a few blocks away from the Columbia campus. She led me to the alleyway access door to one of the pricey brownstones and gave me three keys. The keys got me into the alley and up a concealed staircase, and into the topmost flat of the brownstone. And once we got in, my jaw hit the floor. The hardwood floor matched the skyline windows, the marble fireplace and the high ceilings of the apartment. The furniture was rosewood Queen Anne, and ducking my head into the kitchen, my fears were confirmed; it was stainless steel. The bathroom was fully equipped with both a clawfoot tub and a shower, and the bedroom had a queen-sized bed in it. The place looked like a spread out of Architectural Digest. “THIS? Is MY apartment?”
Meg made a dismissive noise. <psshht!> “This? Please! You should see Hunter’s apartment!”
“Are you fucking KIDDING me? The living room is bigger than my old apartment! What IS this, the set of a sitcom? This is Morningside Heights! In New York! Tenured professors at Columbia have to wait for years to get an apartment the size of that bedroom in Morningside Heights!”
Meg smiled. “What can I say? In New York, it’s less about who you are, than who you know.”
“How the HELL am I supposed to afford an apartment like this on what I make?”
“What afford? You’re getting this apartment courtesy of the holding company.”
“The holding company?”
“Yeah, they own this building, along with a bunch of other ones in New York. Check it out-” Meg grinned. “This is government housing…”
“You mean… I get to LIVE… here… for FREE…?”
“Yeah, the Agency’s theory seems to be that if you’re going to keep an eagle in a gilded cage, you’d better make it a very NICE gilded cage. Oh, a couple of tips? First, don’t try to order takeout or get a pizza delivered. This place doesn’t exist on the City Register. Don’t try to make friends with the neighbors; this apartment isn’t supposed to be here. And don’t invite people over; they’ll just ask a lot of inconvenient questions about how you can afford a place like this at your age.”
“Just… tell me that there’s maid service…”
“Oh Yeah, the holding company provides that too. They’ll also deliver food here. There’s a card for the website on the fridge.”
“But… this place isn’t supposed to exist…”
“Well, THEY know it’s here. Oh, and one last little bit of advice. Don’t bring any, ah, ‘dates’ back here.”
“Dates?” Meg just answered by handing me a card to a bar called ‘Hildy’s’. “What’s this?”
“THAT is a coupon for one free drink at Hildy’s, hands-down THE best Lesbian bar in Manhattan. At least, this season.”
“Grace, I know what you used to be. That changes things, but not that much. Honey, take it from me, of all the gifts that Advancement brings you, one of the sneakier ones is the barrage of hormones that you thought you parted company with years ago. Every Advancer I’ve met has been as horny as a toad. BUT, between the cutie-pie treatment and the perspective of more years than we look, getting laid is usually more a matter of just trying than luck. Honey, do everyone involved a favor, and go get your ashes hauled!” She paused and considered. “Just… go to HER place. And remember that you’ve got an appointment with Dr. Hatch at Columbia at 10 in the morning. After you see Hatch, let’s see how you handle getting into HQ by yourself.”
Meg may have had a point about those hormones; after she left, I damn near broke the sound barrier getting to Hildy’s down in Chelsea. Now, New York bars have a nasty tendency to try to trendify themselves into the upper price brackets, especially those that target the Gay community. Hildy’s, on the other hand, took the tack that they were a simple neighborhood watering hole - that catered to lesbians.
I managed to get in during that sweet spot between ‘where IS everyone?’ and ‘OMG, I can’t breathe, it’s so packed in here!’ I strolled in and looked around. Not bad! There were about sixteen or so women sitting around in a way that was mostly social, while leaving the door pointedly open for a little meat-market action. Four of them were being diesel dykes as only New York lesbians could be, three of them looked like lawyers bucking for partner in their firm, and the rest were reasonably attractive women who looked like they worked in offices or shops. I walked up to the bar, flashed my ID to prove that I was old enough to drink, and ordered a Steamhead in the bottle. I knocked back my first beer in the better part of a month, and was ridiculously happy to confirm that my Advancement hadn’t spoiled one of life’s simple pleasures after all.
Now, I had absolutely NO idea as to how lesbians picked each other up. So, I just strolled over to the jukebox - or whatever they call the music selection these days - and looked through the menu to see if they still carried any Eurythmics. Then a hand landed on the plate, blocking my view. One of the dykes from over by the bar had come over and was trying to be badass. “So… let me guess… you wanna play ‘I love rock & roll’, right?”
“Right era, wrong artist,” I said, trying to not rise to the bait. “I’m more in the mood for some Annie Lennox…”
“So… rocking the Joan Jett look…”
“Actually, from what I hear, Joan’s rocking the Billy Idol look these days…”
“Look, you can’t just walk in here-”
I said, “Yes, I can! It’s a PUBLIC drinking establishment. That’s why they call them ‘pubs’ in England.”
The dyke was maybe three inches taller than I was, noticeably stockier, and obviously looking to prove that she was the big bulldagger on the block. She wasn’t liking the way that I wasn’t playing into her Bee-Ess, while not giving her an excuse to take it to the next level. She kept trying to push, and I kept ducking her games, and finally, she lost her patience. She gave me a pop on the jaw that barely even registered.
Three seconds later, she was face-down on the floor, wondering WTF happened. Three minutes later, I was out the door with the cutest of the lipstick lesbians in hand, with every intention of having my wicked way with her.
From the dazed look on Milly’s face when I left the next morning, I think that I made an impression.
Over the next three weeks, I got to know the gay scene in New York a lot better than I thought I ever would, and I hear that I’ve developed a rep as the butchest baby dyke in the five boroughs. Hey, it’s not like I tried.
My job, which I went to between sessions at ‘the Section’ (as that ‘Man from UNCLE’ headquarters that the Agency uses is known) was being a general assistant to Dr. Benjamin Hatch, who’s heading the University’s research project on ghosts, hauntings and like that in the greater New York metropolitan area. Fortunately, Hatch has a sense of humor, and has a picture of himself with Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis. So far most of my stuff is pretty basic office work, and skimming through reports of sightings for any sign of indicative details. Lucky for me, I seem to have picked up the skill of speed-reading somewhere along the line, so reading reports is like eating peanuts for me. I had a much more challenging read in front of me at the moment. It was an overview of the various theories that the scientists that the Agency had on tap, as regards goblins and their abilities.
Hunter was right: they need a High Energy Physics specialist, bad.
My reading was interrupted when someone dropped a three-foot high stack of papers on my desk. Looking up, I saw a five-foot, four-inch, 145-pound pile of curdled Politically Correct milk glowering at me. “Grade these essays. I need them graded by 3 o’clock, Wednesday,” Dr. Silvia Krause said in a ‘Make it so’ tone of voice.
“I don’t work for you,” I replied in an ‘I ain’t putting up with this shit’ tone of voice.
“This needs to be done by Wednesday,” she counter-replied in a ‘how dare you talk back to me, you under-graduate nonentity, I am a DOCTOR!’ tone of voice.
“Then get someone to do it,” I picked up the essays and handed them back to her in a ‘get someone ELSE to do it’ way.
“This is DEPARTMENT business!” she shoved the papers back at me in a ‘do this or I’ll have you FIRED!’ way.
“Your department is Sociology, this is Paranormal Research. See the sign on the door? Take a good look at it - on your way out.” I turned her around and led her out into the corridor, leaving her there. Okay, I know that that sounds cold, but bear with me. Paranormal Research notwithstanding, Columbia is still an enclave of professional academics, an Ivory Tower with all the incestuous Byzantine politics that goes with that. And, in Academia, there are three things that there’s never enough of: Money, Credit and Office Help. Academic careers are built on getting as much of those three as you can. Stellar academic careers are built on Mongol-like raids on other people’s reserves of those three, while resisting raids on your own reserves at all costs.
Alas, Krause didn’t get her Ph.D. by being a wimp. Five minutes later, Dora Trabbald, the Office Manager, came up to my desk, with Krause following her, a ‘See what power I have?’ smirk on her face. Trabbald asked me why I wasn’t working on Krause’s essays. I politely but firmly pointed out that Dr. Krause taught Sociology, and I wasn’t trained in Sociological discipline (*hee!* ‘Sociology!’ ‘Discipline!’ *HAW!* I crack myself up), so I couldn’t honestly grade essays on a topic that I wasn’t familiar with. Trabbald came back that it wouldn’t be that much of a bother (60 essays of 25 pages each, ‘not much of a bother’; someone either has a strange notion of bother, or a twisted sense of humor). We verbally fenced for a while, with me having the ace-in-the-hole that while my cover was a Columbia coed, I was an outside resource directly attached to Dr. Hatch, and didn’t work for the University.
Trabbald stood there, and started blithering about ‘harmonious working conditions’ and stuff like that. Okay, she was breaking out the sniveling tactic; dirty pool. Okay, two can play that game. I offered to do the papers, on the understanding that this was a one-time thing only. Krause walked off with a prance that suggested that she thought that she’d won, and that she’d be back when she had more paperwork now that she had another office drone that wasn’t out of her budget.
As for me? I speed-read the essays and gave them the grades they deserved: Ds. It took me maybe fifteen minutes. Well, except for five of them that actually had decent topics, good research, sound statistics and reasonable conclusions. I scanned them and sent them over to Oracle at the Section. She got back to me ten minutes later, and said that three of them were word-for-word copies of theses that could be bought online ‘for research purposes’. Two of them were honest. I gave those two As, and gave the three plagiarists Fs and nasty handwritten notes regarding Copyright Infringement.
And THAT, Class, is how you get an office mooch off your back.
I’d finished with that bit of office dramedy, and was getting back to the overview that I’d been plowing through when Krause came along, when Dr. Hatch came in. “Grace! We managed to get the Lemke Estate company to investigate the occurrences at the East Fifth Street property.”
“Be still, my beating heart. So, you want me to alert the four stooges and warm up Ecto-one?”
Hatch started burbling about East 5th, which is in ‘Alphabet City’, a part of Greenwich Village that is having an identity crisis, due to the yuppies pushing out the beatniks - or whatever those weirdoes call themselves these days. The property had been one of those ratty buildings that artsy types love so much, on the theory that living there counts as suffering for your art - without actually having to, y’know, suffer. Then, about a year and a half ago, the building started having problems with the electrical system. And, well, suffering for Art was one thing, but being inconvenienced was another! The artsoids started moving out, and the building started going to the dogs very quickly. Junkies started moving into vacant apartments - yes, vacant apartments in New York, I know, I know… - and junkies are like roaches; if you get one, it’s only a matter of time before there’s a thousand of them. The remaining straight tenants starting making weird complaints that were put down as random acts of junkies.
So, the landlord decided to take the money and run, and sold the building to a redeveloper, who’d gut it and turn it into a yuppitorium for a huge profit. They evicted everyone and sent in the contractors. The electrical problems came back with a vengeance, and equipment started disappearing. The construction workers started complaining, and then they started walking off the job. And then they started finding dead junkies in the morning. Which was pretty standard for NYC; except for the fact that the junkies hadn’t died of overdoses or stab wounds or dehydration or overexposure, or any of the usual causes of deaths for crack-heads.
When they were asked as to why they walked off the job, those construction workers who were willing to answer said that they were being spied on by strange men in the building. These men never said anything, and they never stayed around long enough for the workers to talk to them. Or even confront them. And the mysterious ‘dark men’ always seemed to leave (and arrive) without anyone seeing where they left or arrived.
There had been other phenomena noted: strange lights, odd sounds, off smells, unexplained movement of objects, and like that. Not enough for one of the major Paranormal Research outfits to take seriously, but more than enough for Hatch to jump onto as to justify his project’s existence.
Now, suddenly becoming young again, whether as a college kid, or a teenager or a child, is a favorite middle-aged fantasy. ‘Oh, to know then, what I know now’, and all that crap. What they sort of gloss over is that you’ll be a kid again, and have to put up with all the kid crap that you hated when you were a kid. Not the least of which is having people blithely push you over to the kiddy table, and having to cope with kids. Yes, kids are great; the problem is that they think that they invented everything, when they’re just discovering shit that you found out all about decades ago. Having to listen to sophomore psychology or sociology was bad enough when I was a post-grad. Now, it’s just about fucking torture.
Meg is right: there IS a bitter old fogey under this cutie-pie exterior.
But worst of all is the ‘new kid’ rigmarole. I look like a freshman, so Hatch’s assistants and grad students are dumping all the scut work on me. Now, ‘paying your dues’ is all very well and good, but unfortunately, if you let them set the payment rate on ‘your dues’ there are people who will keep pushing the goal back indefinitely. Hey, there are jerks who like having a designated scut-mule. Piechowski, Noble, Morse and Irwin were there already setting up the camera observation system. The minute that Adam Piechowski saw me, he said, “Oh good. There’s a mess down in the alleyway. Go get a mop and clean it out, it’s fucking disgusting.”
I let out a sharp whistle and said loudly. “This is the second time today this has come up: I work for HIM, not you.”
Hatch hemmed and hawed a bit, not wanting to upset his grad students, but all too aware that I was not the perky little frosh those four thought I was. He wasn’t quite sure what I was, just that I was connected with the Agency, and that is a good thing. He dissembled about ‘seniority’.
Piechowski jumped on that. “Well, then. I’m the one with the Bachelors and the most hours towards a Masters-”
“The Masters, which I’ve already GOT,” I cut him off.
“MASTERS?” Morse bleated, outraged (he was being passed over completely!) “In WHAT?”
“Engineering,” I said, folding my arms across my chest and looking him square in the eye, daring him to call me a liar. There was some more squabbling, but eventually Hatch decided that staying in charge and getting the job done was more important than being immediately popular, and put his foot down. They’d agreed that seniority mattered when they thought I didn’t have any, so seniority was the rule- get used to it.
I then demonstrated that I actually DID have a Masters in Engineering by tearing down the camera observation array and doing it RIGHT, and pointing out why it was right as I did it. Hey, I’ve been doing this longer than any of those little pukes have been alive. Mind you, the rest of being rejuvenated rocks like Clapton in ’66 (well aside from being female and all), but that whole ‘dealing with juveniles as equals’ thing IS a pisser.
After the initial drama, we faced the greatest threat to Paranormal Investigation there is: boredom. Believe me, Paranormal Research is 90% total tedium, 9.99% utter confusion and 00.01% abject terror. There are reasons why ‘ghost hunters’ start seeing and hearing things that aren’t there - your mind starts making up shit, just so’s there’s something to do. Sitting around in ratty old buildings listening to rats in the walls is NOT what mega-blockbuster movies are made of.
At 2:11 and change, we were honing one of a paranormal researcher’s most crucial skills: playing Gin Rummy. Playing cards is a great way of staving off boredom, while staying even semi-sharp. Cindy Irwin glanced at a monitor and said, “We have activity.”
We all dropped our cards and clustered around the monitor. There were fuzzies (‘fuzzies’ being a terribly technical term for blurry images on a photo or screen image) scuttling along the anterior service stairwell of the building. Very carefully, we edged to the stairwell and looked down from the top floor. From what the others were saying, they were seeing vague glimpses of some things moving about, scuttling from cover to cover. Hey, for a paranormal researcher with any time in the field? That’s HUGE. But as for me, I was seeing what was going on very clearly. While they were still fuzzy, I could make out things that looked vaguely like dark horseshoe crabs about the size of a terrier with multiple glowing ‘eyes’ and tendrils that edged out from their fringes. They were interacting with each other, and going in and out through a single point in one wall.
As the kids clustered around the stairwell and snapped pictures as quickly as they could, I stepped well back and pulled out my Agency-issue smartphone, hit the speed-dial for ‘need backup NOW!’ and waited with bated breath for it to clear the bullshit security measures. When ‘Control 18’ finally got on the line, I gave him my best ‘Adam-12’ rundown, with my Asset number, the location, Hatch’s Asset number, the situation, and the fact that not only were four civilians on site, but they were watching everything with rapt attention and taking pictures.
Now, either 2 in the AM is a hot time for the Agency, or Control 18 does not deserve to be stuck with such a dog of a duty slot, ‘cause he was on the ball. He informed me that a Rapid Response asset was on his way and that a better prepared Sure Response team was being assembled. Good News, New York! The Agency has you covered! If you’re outside the Five Boroughs, you’re on a priority waiting list, though. Then Control 18 told me to check my Agency-issue ‘ready kit’. The ready kit looked like a funky old vintage 1970s cassette deck tape recorder, which actually recorded things, but was also a cache for special Agency stuff. 18 asked me if there was coffee there (of course, there was), and told me to spike the coffee with units from dispenser that looked like a butane cigarette lighter, and get the civvies to drink it. Once I’d done that, I was to wait for five minutes, and induce them to take whiffs off an inhaler (also provided). I was also supposed to load a camera with a special roll of film (neon orange canister) and take pictures. I was also supposed to assemble a ‘Trod Detector’, with looked a bit like a small disposable flashlight with two CO2 cartridges attached. Once the civvies had been ‘prepped’ (given the inhaler), I was supposed to get as close to the bogies and get as many pictures as I could before the civilians scared them off - or something worse happened. The site was too compromised for a proper examination, so they’d just have to ‘clean’ the site, and I was supposed to get as much Agency-level data as I could before the mop brigade showed up.
I did NOT have a good feeling about this. It was just a little too ‘1970s paranoia thriller’ for me, with ‘cleaner’ crews removing all evidence of something that by all rights should come to light. Still, I foisted the coffee off on Piechowski, Noble, Morse and Irwin, and they were so busy snapping pictures (that probably wouldn’t take) that they accepted it without thinking and gulped it down. Y’know, maybe there IS something to this ‘all the vigor and resilience of youth and (almost) none of the dumb’ business. I killed the five minute wait with snapping pictures (that would take) along with the kids. I got Morse and Irwin to take the snort without a problem. Noble, I managed to glare into it. But with Piechowski, I had to practically shove it up his nose. That done, I put in a new roll of film, readied my camera and ‘Trod Detector’ and carefully went down the stairwell.
“What do you think you are doing?” Piechowski hissed.
“Hatch’s orders. I’m supposed to get some close up pictures with this special light.”
“Orders? When did Hatch give you these orders?”
“Just now. I called him, and he told me to make sure that you were up and awake, and to get these pictures.”
“Why did you call him?”
“Because, it’s SOP, idiot.”
“Why are you going down?”
“Because, I’m the senior man on the site, and it’s my responsibility. Get with the program, Piechowski!”
“Look, you can’t-”
“Piechowski, don’t make me hurt you. I’d probably enjoy it too much.” I carefully picked my way down the staircase, taking single snaps as I went down. I was on the last flight when the scuttlers noticed me. A few immediately fled, on general principles. A few darted back and forth, seeming to be trying to make up their minds. And a few clustered around the bottom of the stair in a semicircle. I stopped on the last stair and crouched down and got the lens almost touching one of the scuttlers. I took several point-blank pictures of it. Then I got a good close-up look at it myself. While I referred to it as being like a horseshoe crab, that was just its general overall shape. I couldn’t make out any carapace on it - or any real surface, for that matter. Then tendrils sort of poked out of it and wavered, without any sense of segmentation or articulation. Then I noticed that the different scuttlers had different numbers and configurations and sizes of eyes. I spared a moment to wonder what that meant. Then I took pictures of each of them, so that other people could be as baffled as I was.
There was no way that I was stepping down into that. Especially with the way that more and more of them were joining the crowd. I could make out that they were touching tendrils for some reason, and I had the general impression of a crowd trying to make up its collective mind as to what to do.
Then they started to merge.
It was like watching beads of oil collect and form a puddle. The collection of ‘eyes’ (for want of a better word) grew. It managed to keep its general overall shape, but it grew, and hunched, and it grew two large lobster-like claws that had eye-clusters on the main tine of the claws. It reared up and I had a pretty good impression that it was getting ready to go into ass-kicking mode.
Score one for the kid’s instincts. The super-scuttler raised up one claw and brought it down hard. Fortunately, its aim wasn’t that good, and I managed to get out of its way before it cracked open my skull the way it cracked the step under my feet. I ducked behind it, but ‘behind’ didn’t really seem to be a factor for this thing. It didn’t so much turn around as simply switch perspective and swung with the other claw. Okay, screw the witnesses, if I was going to get out of this in one piece, I had to pull out the stops. Using the techniques that Enforcer had taught me, I ‘sped’ up and gave Crabby McLobster a hard fast punch in the arm that it was raising to give me another swipe. My hand sank into the mass, and there was a horrible cold, clammy, draining feeling. I managed to leverage the thing into a lift and threw it off me onto the floor. It sort of went squish, lost definition for a moment, and then it started to rise again.
I noticed that it had a big cluster of ‘eyes’ had formed and was starting to focus on me. So, I beat it to the punch, and gave it a haymaker, right in the eye-cluster.
This time, it went all over the place, and instead of pulling together immediately, the scuttlers raced around for a bit, with a bunch of them went running off wherever. Then the remaining scuttlers merged again. But this time, instead of the upright form with the claws, it was more snake-like, with the ‘head’ rising up on a slender ‘neck’ and swaying as though it was getting ready to strike like a cobra.
Feeling a vague sense of déjà vu, I brought up my camera and put it to my eye. Okay, I hadn’t captured a goblin with this camera, but hey, no guts, no glory, right?
Of course, it was harder this time. The scuttle-snake was quicker and better grounded than the rat-thing had been. It pegged me a couple of times on the shoulder and raised nasty welts where it hit. But I managed to lure it into striking right into the lens of the camera, and son of a bitch, if I didn’t catch it!
Okay, it felt different this time - again. This time, I had to sort of ‘hold it’ for want of a better term inside the camera, and ‘digest’ it until it settled down. The ‘tail end’ of the ‘snake’ was sticking out the lens, thrashing like a motherfucker, trying to get loose or something, but I reeled it into the camera, and had to sort of ‘digest’ that too.
“What?” Piechowski bleated from the top floor, “The Fuck? Was? All THAT?”
“Damned good question,” I hedged. “I want to hear Hatch’s explanation for all this, myself.” Hey, when on shaky ground, pass the buck.
“WHY would HATCH have to explain why you were moving like fucking JET LI?” Piechowski wasn’t buying it. “And what’s that bit with the fucking CAMERA?”
Fucking Piechowski had me so busy digging around in my bag of bullshit to get him off my case that I wasn’t paying attention to what was going down at the bottom of the stairs, where I was. Something came out from behind me and sent me sprawling with a clout to the back of my head that had me seeing stars. I dropped the camera, and someone stepped up to get it. I shook the stars out of my aching head, just as he stooped to get it, but I still managed to move fast enough to get it away from him. “Who’s HE?” Piechowski demanded from the top (not bothering to move his stumps to HELP, I note).
Still, it was a damned good question. The guy, whoever he was, looked like any of a thousand New York junkies, with a wardrobe that had one foot in hipsterdom and the other among the homeless. Okay, he looked like he was a lot further along the long road to the final nod-off than most, but to be honest, my big question was ‘what the fuck was he doing here?’
Then I noticed his eyes. They were glazed over. The way that a junkie’s are only when they’re tripping way too hard to actually get up and be a problem. Or when they’re dead. And then I noticed the tiny scuttlers scampering all over him, like roaches in a tenement at one in the morning.
He lunged at me, and I sent him flying back with a kick to his midsection. He hit the wall hard enough to crack the plaster, but he got right back up again, like I’d barely tapped him. I kept sending him back, and he kept getting up like he was just getting started. He couldn’t fight worth shit, but then, he didn’t really need to. All he really had to do was wear me down.
I was getting to the point where I was thinking ‘Discretion is the better part of Valor’ thoughts, and trying to figure out how to get the hell out of there without leaving the kids twisting in the wind. Then a dark blur zipped out of the shadows and blindsided the zombie. It was moving so fast, kicking the back of the zombie’s knees, dislocating the zombie’s arms, breaking the zombie’s jaw, that I could barely get a look at it. It was a man in a black leather blazer, dark pants, with dark slicked back hair and mirrored shades. “BAD BOY?” I bleated. “What are YOU doing here?”
“Hey, not MY idea,” he grunted as he put the zombie down and started pounding into its gut. “Control called, said you was havin’ problems and made me your backup.” Scuttlers started leaving the zombie’s body like rats. Bad Boy started stomping on them.
“What are you doing?” I asked, befuddled.
“Stompin’ grapes,” he replied in a ‘what do you THINK I’m doing’ tone of voice.
“Who the hell is HE?” Piechowski asked, as he and the rest of the kids finally came down stairs, as Bad Boy seemed to have squished all the scuttlers.
“You wanna handle this?” I asked Bad Boy.
“Nah,” he said, lighting a cigarette, trying to look as Steven Seagal as he could without having a ponytail. “Let the Sure Response team handle ‘em.” He pointed a finger at the kids and said, “Don’t go anywhere.”
“WHAT?” Piechowski bleated, “YOU are telling US to not go anywhere?” He stepped up into Bad Boy’s personal space in a way that suggested that he had had a nice sheltered upbringing and he’d never really interacted with a genuine hardass before.
“YEAH,” Bad Boy sneered, and squared himself in a way that suggested that he had interacted with snotty-assed college boys before, and wasn’t worried.
“Chill out, both of you” I said, trying to establish some calm reason into the situation. “Bad Boy, keep them off this floor. I’m going to use the Trod Detector, and see if I can find out what these scuttlers were all so excited about.”
“What would YOU call them?”
The Trod Detector is a dingus that the Agency’s put together that I hadn’t had a chance to use before that, as per the name, detected Trods. ‘Trod’ being the generally accepted term for the ‘paths’ that various entities both leave and follow as they move along, sort of like ants leaving those chemical trails behind them. Goblins, spirits and so forth are supposed to find traveling along these paths easier, hence the traditions of ‘fairy roads’, and vampires following the same paths to and from their graves when they go hunting. The theory was that the chemical that it sprayed interacted with lingering traces of vis that are the actual trods, and light causes the chemical to glow when it is so affected.
I wasn’t really expecting anything as I sprayed the walls and floor as Piechowski kept asking what the fuck was going on in a way that really tempted me to sic Bad Boy on him. Then I got an actual look at the walls and then the floor. “Whooaaa… hey, Bad Boy… you ever see anything like this before?”
“Hey, bee-yotch, how would *I* know about… hey, what the fuck is THAT shit?” Bad Boy stopped bitching as I played the Trod Detector light over the wall. There, etched in the silvery lines like snail-tracks, were complex mandala-like designs, mostly curved and flowing, but there were a lot of straight lines. No right angles, for which blessings we are duly grateful, Lord.
“You’ve never seen anything like it?” He shook his head. “Well, I have.” I looked over at Piechowski. “Your report mentioned that you spotted some weird graffiti in the building that was suspiciously like various cultic patterns. Does this remind you of anything, Piechowski?”
Piechowski, acting like a scholar for a change, stifled his indignant questions and peered at the design. “Why… YES! It’s the same as the designs that we’ve been finding in the building.”
“Mostly at doors, stairwells and exits, right?”
“Yes, what’s THAT got to-”
“They’re channeling the flow of vis through the building,” I mused closely examining the diagram. “Whether they do it intentionally or instinctively, I have NO idea… Bad Boy, you got any more rolls of that special film?”
“Yeah,” he said, not getting it.
“Get one of their cameras, load it with the special film and get a few shots of this. I want pictures of all this on film that will take.”
“What’s the matter with what you got around yer neck?”
“Full? Full of WHAT? Shit?”
“Those scuttling things!” Dawn Irwin blurted out. “Those little creepy things that you squished, they formed this big monster thing and she squashed it and then this huge snake thing and she captured it inside that camera how the hell did she DO that?”
Bad Boy looked at me, surprised and impressed. “You can DO that?”
“Yeah,” I said defiantly. “And you’d KNOW that, if you came to briefings, instead of watching WOODY WOODPECKER.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Bad Boy muttered as he took a camera away from a loudly complaining Morse, loaded it and started taking pictures. “Bitch, bitch, bitch, why don’cha…”
As Piechowski and Morse yapped at us about what we thought we were doing, they’d been working on this for weeks, and all that, I was examining the marks, and I’d found a common point of reference for the trails. Bad Boy had finished up taking pictures, and I was showing him what I thought I’d found when the ‘Sure Response’ team - namely, Hunter, Witch, Dr. Forrest, and three ‘Control Agents’ - showed up. As Bad Boy, Hunter and a couple of the Control Agents handled them, Dr. Forrest injected each of the kids in the base of the spine with an expertise that suggested considerable practice.
As Witch and the Control Agents took the kids upstairs to the project base, Forrest explained, “I just injected them with a mild amnesiac. They’ll sleep for a couple of hours, during which time their minds will translate their memories of this into dreams. You gave them the prep agent and the inhalant? Good. That prevented them from passing what they’d seen from Short Term to Long Term memory. Witch will plant a suggestion they fell asleep on the job and had weird dreams.” She looked around the stairwell intently. “So! What do we have here?”
“Oh-Eight thinks that there’s a door here,” Bad Boy said, stealing my thunder.
“I don’t know about a door,” I hedged. “But all these tracks converge at this point. I assume that the scuttlers - well, what would YOU call them? - pass through this wall, but there’s the question WHY?” I prodded at the nexus point of the various lines, I felt something, well, odd, and then it was like something grabbed me by the finger and I was yanked in.
I landed in a rather… indefinite… chamber, all blurry white without any real sense of size or limit, radiating out from a tall fire - or was it a tree? - of mind-numbing white. It was gorgeous and terrible, and looking at it was the closest that I’ve ever come to a religious experience.
I approached the radiant - whatever it was - and I could just make out its shape, and the distinction between the main… entity?... and the smaller golden shapes, like fruit on a tree. The ‘fruit’ was, if anything, even more enticing than the ‘tree’. Reflexively, I reached out for one of them.
And just as reflexively, I snatched my hand back as a serpentine head reached out and snapped at it. “Aaahhh… guys?” I called out. “Bad Boy? Hunter? Somebody? A little help here?”
But, naturally, I got nothing in response. The serpent reared its head and gave me a warning hiss. And then it raised another head and that one hissed as well. Okay, in retrospect, the symbolism was obvious as hell; but believe me, when you’re there with your personal ass on the line, Comparative Theology and Cultural Anthropology are the last thing on your mind.
The snakes and I started slugging it out, and now I have nothing but respect for what Hercules must have gone through. I kept punching its heads, but they were small and quick, and even on those times when I did connect, they went all mooshy for a moment and then came back as TWO heads. The heads kept hitting me and BITING the hell out of me, and you do NOT want to know what the venom felt like. I was getting my ass handed to me in a picnic basket. I finally lashed out with the only weapon that I had that I hadn’t used yet - I let out a bolt of energy from my camera, the same way that I had with Subject 438. BOOM. It didn’t kill the snake, but it lost a bunch of heads that way. They re-grew as a single head, and it gave me a break and a chance to think. Well, as much as the venom burning in my blood would let me.
I thought briefly about doing the Hercules thing, but I quickly nixed that when I realized that I didn’t have a burning branch on hand - or a convenient nephew named Iolaus (or even Freddy, for that matter) around. That triggered a strange recollection about a crab that was supposed to have been the Hydra’s backup (hey, I was free-associating like crazy, gimme a break), I looked at the roots of the tree, and I noticed that the Hydra’s tail (or whatever, its far end) was embedded in the ground near the roots of the tree. On the principle that it couldn’t hurt, and if nothing else, it might slow the damn thing down while I came up with something else, I zapped the point where the ‘tail’ connected with the earth.
The result wasn’t quite what I’d been expecting. The zap sheared the connection between the Hydra and the ground, but that just freed it up to wrap itself around me, and start crushing me. I grabbed the reforming head and tried to keep it from biting me, but it just budded off another head and reared to strike. Lacking anything better to do, I raised my camera, fixed the damned thing in the viewfinder and let it strike. The striking Hydra head flowed into my camera, and the thing stripped in two, with one half going into the camera, and the other staying in my right hand. Not bothering to think it out (hey, would YOU?), I zotzed the remaining half with my camera.
Again, the result wasn’t quite what I’d been expecting, but this time, I hadn’t hopped from the frying pan into the fire. The remaining Hydra went all blobby, but it latched onto my hand. This time, when it reformed it was still a snake, but smaller this time, and, best of all, it wasn’t trying to kill me. If anything, it was as intently curious about me as a friendly puppy. Indeed, I felt a genuine connection with it. It wasn’t thinking thoughts as we know them, but I felt and understood its… impressions, for want of a better term. It was smaller, and it wrapped itself around me in a gentler way and looked at me. Do NOT ask me why, I don’t like snakes, but I found myself bonding with the legless stinker. As it sort of settled in - and yes, I was all too aware of the implications of that - I returned my attentions to the Tree of Flames.
It was like standing in front of the ultimate Christmas tree, with edible ornaments.
Gingerly, reverently, I plucked one of the ‘fruit’ from the tree. It flickered in my hand without burning me. On the purest reflex, I swallowed it. It was good. It was good the way that you think that a pretty new candy will taste good when you’re a kid. I ate as many of the fruit as I could, until I felt that I couldn’t eat any more. The snake ate a few as well. But of course, there was always later. I picked one and put it in my camera. Then I picked one for each hand, and the snake took a fruit and kept it in its mouth. Don’t ask me what we were gonna do with them later, or how we’d keep them, we were operating on pure reflex.
And, again on pure reflex, I stepped back through the… whatever… to the stairwell, where I faced a wall of guns. “HEY!”
“Don’t move, Oh-Eight,” Hunter said grimly, aiming the gun at the snake. Okay, uncanny snake draped over my shoulders, flames in my hands, I can see how this wouldn’t look good…
“Chill out,” I said flatly. “I’m in charge here.”
“And who are YOU?” Witch asked suspiciously.
“Meg,” I said in a flat, slightly disgusted tone, “I’m Grace Merlin, ‘Asset 08’, whatever…” I explained what had happened inside. “I won,” I finished up.
“Yeah, but that’s what the devil would be saying, isn’t it?” Hunter asked, never taking the gun off me.
“Hunter, you’re asking me to prove a negative,” I pointed out.
Then Bad Boy lunged at my right hand and tried to grab the ‘fruit’ from my hand. “HEY!” I said, pulling back and managing to keep him from getting it. “Get your OWN, asshole!”
There was a brief scuffle as three of the Control goons kept Bad Boy from getting the ‘fruit’ until Hunter snapped a sharp order that, to my amazement, Bad Boy obeyed. He obeyed with a look on his face that put me in the mind of a junkyard dog on a choke chain, but he obeyed.
Witch was looking at me in an odd way. “uhm, Grace? Would you hand me one of those… things?” As my reasoning processes went back online bit by bit, it occurred to me that I couldn’t just walk around with these things in my hands, so I handed one of the fruit off to Meg. She looked at it as it burned in her hand like a flame. Then, clearly working on pure instinct as I had, she put it in her mouth. Her eyes popped open wide, and a delighted expression washed over her face. She reached out for the other one, but I pulled back again. As the others looked at her curiously, she summed it up as, “It’s like… the first time you drink Drambuie!” She looked at me eagerly. “Are there any MORE of these?”
Knowing exactly what she was on about, I told her that there were a few still on the tree. She tried to go in, but for some reason, she couldn’t go through the ‘door’. Hunter tried, and he started to go in. Forrest stopped him, and handed him a camera. “Take pictures first. THEN pick.” Then she looked at me. “You, put those things in one of the containment units.”
“Couldn’t I get another one?” Meg asked like a little girl.
“NO,” Forrest answered like a stern mom. “You shouldn’t have eaten that one; we have no way of knowing how it will affect you.” They brought out their containment units, which looked sort of like beer kegs for a Star Trek series. Reluctantly, I placed the ‘fruit’ in my left hand in the receptacle, watched it get stashed away, and then the snake did likewise.
Then Hunter came hurrying through the portal. “The Tree! It’s GONE!”
to be continued