Short Fiction: Wormholes

Third Nature (artist currently unknown)

Time-0 by elreviae.deviantart.com

 

Sol Gate Control to transport Calypso, you’ve been granted access to the wormhole. Proceed to marker one five three and hold position. We’ve got a Worm coming through and you don’t want to be in the way. Once she’s through you’re number three in the queue.

Tack flipped the transmit switch on his control board. “Roger that, Gate Control. Proceeding to one five three and holding position. Hey Control, where’s that Worm headed?”

Wild space, just like always. I hear they’re trying to put another arm off the Baldur gate, like the place isn’t busy enough already.

“Never enough room in the galaxy, is there?”

Ain’t that the truth. She’s headed through in a couple minutes. You should be able to get a visual on the gate from your marker. Enjoy the show.

Tack’s fingers danced over his control board, dialing in a magnified visual of the Sol Gate. A massive ship was lumbering towards it at an almost painfully slow speed. He could understand why they’d want to be cautious, of course.

Terminus Ships, or Worms as they were colloquially known, were some of the biggest vessels ever made. Inside their massive frames they carried the equipment needed to create an artificial wormhole terminus and all the basic pieces of a gate with which to stabilize it. Despite hundreds of years of research nothing smaller was capable of such a feat, and all that mass didn’t exactly turn on a dime.

For as long as it took the Worm to get to the gate it was worth the show. Wormholes, once connected from one terminus to another, were always there. They were always open, tunneled through spacetime, just waiting for someone to go through. But the termeni themselves were invisible, at least to the naked eye, until a ship went through. Then something magical happened.

It was happening to the Worm right now. What had once been dark empty space in and around the gate began to glow with a soft blue light. Tendrils of what looked very much like lightening spiraled out from the center, forming what would look like a tunnel from the perspective of the Worm. As it crossed the threshold of the terminus the colossal ship seemed to stretch, elongating as if it were made of putty. He saw the front end pull all the way through the gate while the rear seemed to stay in place.

In the blink of an eye the ship’s aft rushed towards the front, like a taught spring released, and the behemoth disappeared in a flash of light.

It was the Calypso’s turn soon enough. Andy, Tack’s copilot, came up to the cockpit for the jump. He got the green light on his board and fired the engines. The gate began to luminesce before them. It took a moment for Tack to realize something was wrong. He checked his instruments. Sure enough, they were too far away for it to be lighting up yet.

Andy saw it too. “Control, this Calypso. We’re reading an early activation of the terminus. Something we should know?”

We see it too, Calypso. All the other gates confirm that no ships have entered the wormhole, and we’re not getting any IFF or transponder pings on our instruments. You’re clear to proceed. But, ah, be careful.

Andy and Tack shared a concerned look. “Roger that Control,” Andy acknowledged. “Proceeding with caution.”

A proximity sensor alarm went off. A huge, ragged chunk of warped metal appeared from the terminus. Tack pushed hard on the controls. The metal sailed past, barely missing them… and then they snapped forward into the wormhole. More chunks of metal swept towards them, illuminated like lightning rods by the tendrils of energy that lashed out to strike them from the sides of the wormhole.

“What the hell?!” Andy demanded of no one in particular. “Look out!”

The source of the debris swept into view. It was clearly the forward section of a ship, and larger than the Calypso all on its own. “Is that a Worm?” Tack wondered aloud as he navigated around it.

“Definitely not. Look,” Any opened a sub window on their visuals and enlarged a portion of the wreckage as it sailed past. “That’s not any language I know.”

They didn’t have time to consider it further. “Coming up on terminus exit,” Tack announced. There was another flash of light, and they were back in normal spacetime.

“Well, shit.” Andy drew out the words. “This isn’t Andromeda.”

“Sure as hell isn’t,” Tack confirmed. He wasn’t getting any IFF or transponder signals, not even from the gate, yet his panel was alight with sensor contacts. They were all behind the Calypso, so he fired the thrusters and spun the ship in a flat circle. The view that came around was not at all what he expected.

Every wormhole gate he’d ever seen had one ring. The one he saw before him had at least five, maybe more, and it looked to be in orbit of a planet. Nobody put wormhole gates near planets. Definitely not five of them. That was just insane.

“The terminus jumped,” Andy breathed. “Oh, crap.”

“What?”

“It’s theoretically possible for a wormhole terminus to jump from one location to another. That’s why we use gates, so they don’t drift. I think… I think the Andromeda terminus jumped. No,” he peered at the five ringed gate. “Not just jumped. I think it got hijacked.”

“You saying these guys stole a wormhole?” Tack was astounded. “Why would they do that?”

“I don’t think it was on purpose. If you do something on purpose you make sure you don’t cut your own ships in half.” Andy tapped at his board, and a magnified subwindow appeared. There, near the gate, was the rest of the ship they’d seen inside the wormhole.

Another thought occurred to Tack. In all their exploration humanity had never encountered another species. “What a way to make first contact,” he muttered.

Art and the Internet

It bothers me how art loses its provenance on the internet. Somebody finds something cool and, say, sticks it on their tumbler. Then somebody else reposts it, and somebody pins it to a board on pinterest. Etc, etc. If none of them include the original source, you really have to dig in and do some research as to where the piece came from. Google image search, tineye, etc.

I WANT to know who the artist is. Sure, I appreciate pretty art on its own for its own sake. But if an artist did something I like I want to see more of their stuff, not just get linked back to the last blog to have grabbed the piece.

When I find a piece of art I want to use for my short fictions, I try to figure out where it came from. I just spent a good long while doing that with a piece, only to find that the original artist had taken it down from their deviantart account some time ago. Luckily for me, it looks like deviantart still had a cached version of it that you could link to. Even if that hadn’t been there I was still going to credit that person as the artist and give a link to their deviantart page. Because that’s where it came from, and artists deserve to have their name attached to their art.

Night’s Black Agents, Session Three

So here we go, session three. In which: Shit. Gets. Weird. (Which was one of the more entertaining in-character scenes I’ve been party to.)

It’s still the same night as we left off. The agents haven’t slept, but they’re super spy badasses. They can sleep when they’re dead. The group decides that, if they’re going to take the Russian alive, they’ll need some better equipment. Better guns, tasers, that sort of thing. We decide there’s a BASTION equipment cache they can raid… only, they don’t make the roll. So somebody got there first and cleaned it out. Other BASTION agents on the run? The enemy? The question may never be answered. A regular preparedness roll gets them a couple of tasers anyway, but their weapons are still limited to their one captured SMG and pistols.

Elena cuddles up with her technology and dives into some Data Recovery on all the hard drives and laptops they made off with. While she does that, Barney borrows Quin’s car to take Toby’s corpse to a medical school for examination. Quin, being the forger extraordinaire that he is, whips up some documentation that shows Toby is a new donation. Despite the fact that the body is arriving via the trunk of a muscle car and not an ambulance, Barney pulls it off like everything is normal, getting a gurney and rolling Toby into an examination room. He spends the rest of the night finding that the infestation of parasites not only resides in Toby’s brain, but in his digestive tract as well. The examination also shows that the anti-parasite drugs did indeed do what they were intended to do. Toby’s death was the result of the parasites releasing a massive dose of toxins as they died. He takes some samples of the dead parasites, but will have to find a specialist to properly identify them.

While those two do their thing, the others follow up on the Russian. Donald has a corporate contact, Albert Ying, who fixes them up with some empty office space in a building near the Trans Global highrise. With some preparedness they have a laser microphone, but sweeping the offices facing them only picks up a couple of late night suits doing normal office work. Finally, around sunrise, the Russian appears. He leaves the office building on foot and starts walking down the street. Gwen decides to make like an early morning jogger and go after him, taser ready. Quin takes her car and makes sure he’s out of sight but close enough to help if needed. Donald mans the Office, watching the Trans Global building for any sign of enemy backup.

The moment approaches. Gwen reaches for her concealed taser… and the Russian gets a phone call. Gwen hangs back, pretending she needs to stop and tie her show while she listens. He speaks in Russian, of course, but luckily she knows that language. “Da?” says the Russian. “Good, good. You’re sure it’s them? Then you’re go. Take them out.”

This is cause for alarm, so Gwen drops back and ducks into a coffee shop that’s just opening its doors for the early crowd. She gets on her phone and calls Elena, telling the hacker the safehouse might be compromised. Elena doesn’t waste any time. She grabs what she can carry and leaves through the fire escape (the safehouse is on an upper floor). Hoodie up, portable game device securely in hand, Elena circles around and comes at the safehouse from across the street to see what’s going on. What she finds is two nondescript black vans parked near the safehouse, men in black tactical gear with SMGs rushing inside. Through a window she sees one of them stop and talk to Vic, who doesn’t look particularly alarmed at his place being raided. Elena heads for the Office by foot and public transportation.

Gwen also calls Barney who, elbow deep in an autopsy, is rather annoyed at having to answer his cell. He notes the warning, finishes his autopsy, and incinerates the body before also heading to the Office.

Meanwhile, Gwen and the others reacquire the Russian. A bit more wary now, they decide to see where he’s going instead of just grabbing him. He catches a bus to a park, and spends about a half hour in the park while the agents slowly circle. They catch sight of him leaving, peeling bloodied latex gloves from his hands and placing them in a ziplock. Curious, Gwen investigates the park while Quin follows the Russian to his next destination. It turns out to be a soup kitchen, which the Russian opens for the morning with a set of keys.

In the park, Gwen finds a body. It looks like a drifter or homeless type, which meshes disturbingly with the Russian’s last stop. The corpse has had its guts torn out (as in, they’re missing completely), but shows little other damage. She calls the police, anonymously reporting the body as a murder victim.

Quin fits some surveillance cameras to watch the front of the soup kitchen as well as the back alley, picks up Gwen, and heads back to the Office (which has suddenly become the agent’s new safehouse).

Now that the group is together again, they all share their findings. Elena managed to scrape up some disturbing intel before she was forced to abandon the safehouse. Intel like a list of codenames that resolve to real names, many crossed off. A hit list of BASTION agents, and the PCs are on it. From what Donald can tell (he knows the code names), it’s a list of BASTION’s West Coast operatives. Not including the PCs, it seems there only around twelve others who haven’t been hit yet. Elena puts word out over BASTION channels, as many as she can find, that the entire operation is compromised. All agents are to go to ground. Trust no one.

And on that note, the agents get a response to their meeting request. In a few days time they’re to meet at an upscale hotel with agent Turner (who, they verify, is on the list but not crossed off). Trap? Of course it is. Or at least, that’s how they’re gonna play it until they know otherwise. List or no, they’re going to follow their own advice. Trust no one.

The Russian stays in the soup kitchen the entire day. A steady stream of homeless types go in and out, and the agents verify that each one who goes in also comes back out. No one goes missing, and their thoughts turn to parasites. They were in Toby’s digestive tract as well as his brain, after all. Barney wants to examine the corpse the Russian left in the park, but since it’s already in police custody Elena has an idea. She hacks into the coroner’s computer system and red flags that particular case. High priority, must be done ASAP. Then they just wait for the ME to do his thing.

When the Russian leaves, he closes up for the day, and the agents decide to follow him some more. He takes the bus back to the Trans Global building and goes inside. Spends the entire day in there, and around the end of the day the ME report comes back. The body looks like an animal attack, though there are possible tool marks or other striations on the bone that don’t look like they’re from animal teeth. Also, there was a head injury that may have been the cause of death, though it looks consistent with the victim having fallen and hit their head on a rock.

Just around sunrise the Russian comes out again. He takes the bus to a different park, leaves another body, and opens up his soup kitchen. But this time the camera in the alley out back catches him stepping out to have a phone conversation. “Yes? Hmm. How soon? Who do we have available? Meh, they’ll do. I’ll have him bagged and turned in a couple of days. Call you when it’s done.”

The agents decide to snatch him before whatever he’s got planned goes down. They let him get back to the Trans Global building, prepping to put their plan into motion when he leaves for the bus stop the next morning. Quin “liberates” a nondescript van for them to use. Barney puts together a tranquilizer cocktail that could put down a horse (but leaves a good percentage chance of not killing the guy). They also find someplace to take him that isn’t the Office: The Seattle Underground.

Morning comes. The Russian heads for the bus stop. A van speeds up the street and screeches to a halt beside him. The door slides open, and two agents jump out. Barney and Gwen are the go-to people for this sort of work. Quin is the getaway driver, while Donald and Elena stay at HQ. At first they try to just drag him into the van – once they’re away they can knock him around, sedate him, whatever. But the Russian is fast. Two attacks per turn fast. He knocks aside Barney’s attempts to grab him and breaks the agent’s nose. Gwen kidney-shots him, but he doesn’t seem to care. Barney slams the syringe into the Russian’s neck and pushes down the plunger. The Russian staggers, but stays up enough to hit Barney in the face again. From the driver’s seat of the van, Quin looks back at the fight and tries to get a clear shot with a silenced pistol. Gwen pummels the Russian from behind again, but he’s got his sights locked on Barney, who takes out the Russian’s knee with a called shot. Only the Russian stays up. He aims to permanently ruin our soap opera doctor’s good looks, but Gwen has had enough of this shit. She uses the Jump In maneuver and slams the taser against the base of the Russian’s neck (with a critical hit, no less), dropping him like a sack of potatoes. They throw him in the van, and as it speeds off they slap two sets of handcuffs onto his wrists and tase him again for good measure. They also strip him down to nothing, tossing his clothes in a dumpster and cloning his phone before tossing it in the bed of a passing pickup truck. He didn’t have a wallet.

Gwen and a very unhappy Barney are dropped off with the Russian at the underground lair. They secure the Russian to a chair and set the scene. Bright lights, tarps on the floor, Gwen with the group’s only SMG, and Barney with some medical equipment. Quin goes to ditch the van. On the way back he picks up a burger for Donald, gives Elena the cloned phone to play with, and picks up a few things for Barney (including a bonesaw).

Barney examines the Russian. His muscles seem denser than normal, and his ribs seem to be suffering some sort of additional growth or calcification. Among his myriad tattoos and battle scars, something stands out. He has a small circular scar at the base of his skull – the same place they found an injection site on Toby.

The moment the Russian wakes up he starts straining against his handcuffs. Barney opens the interrogation by showing the Russian the anti-parasite medication, and explaining what it did to Toby. “It was a slow, painful, unpleasant death,” Barney lies. “And we kinda liked him. You? Not so much.”

They have the Russian’s attention. Barney fills a syringe with anti-parasite drugs and starts asking questions. The Russian, despite Barney’s threats, doesn’t seem to be taking this seriously.

“We know all about those little parasites. You’ve got ’em too, don’t you? Just like Toby.”

“Nyet, no.” There’s a little chuckle and a smirk. “Not like him.”

“No, you’re not. You’re special, aren’t you? More than just a pawn.”

“Is perk of job.”

“Yeah?” Gwen jumps in. “Aside from headworms, what other perks do you get?”

“Good vacation.”

Quin shows up to add a little more gravity to the situation. “Hey doc, I got the bone saw.”

“Who do you work for?” Barney demands.

“The boss.”

“Who’s the boss, comrade?”

“Guy who pays me.”

“What’s with the bodies in the parks?”

Ah, now there’s something else in the Russian’s eyes.

Gwen again, “You putting them in the soup, Boris?”

“Soup?” the Russian looks confused for a moment. “Ah, soup kitchen. No, no. Don’t waste it on the soup,” he licks his lips a little, clearly getting across what happened to those entrails.

“I gave you a chance,” Barney sighs and wields the syringe. “Looks like we’re going to have to do this the hard way. We’ll start with just a little and go from there.” He injects the Russian with a fraction of the amount of the anti-parasite drug that killed Toby. The second the injection is complete, the Russian’s eyes roll up in his head. He convulses once, then goes limp.

This is a surprise to the agents. They had Toby going on this stuff for twenty four hours before he died. No way that small amount was enough to kill the Russian. Barney moves in to make sure, scalpel in hand, carefully checking their captive’s pulse as Gwen and Quin cover him. There’s no pulse. The Russian seems dead. And then…

Then shit gets weird. Four long, thin spines poke through the Russian’s abdomen from sternum to groin. Each one splits into two, pulling in opposite directions, and with a sickening crack the Russian’s rib cage flies open. Something small and slick explodes from his abdomen, wetly smacking onto the tarp before hurriedly wriggling away. Que pandemonium and a lot of WTF?! Barney throws his scalpel at it, Quin fires wildly and misses, and then Gwen shreds it with her SMG. Shocked silence follows.

The general consensus is What The Fuck Just Happened. Gwen looks back at the Russian’s corpse. “Are we sure he – it – is dead?”

Quin fires a few rounds into the corpse just to make sure, sending it toppling backwards onto the ground. A few stability checks shows that Gwen is shocked and surprised but somehow alright with all this, Barney can handle it thanks to a couple of spent points, and Quin is losing his shit after a failed roll. He asks someone to please take his weapon. Gwen obliges, gingerly removing the pistol from the freaked out agent’s hands.

“Huh. Looks like a facehugger,” Barney muses. “I want to bag this stuff up and preserve it.”

Gwen seeks reassurance. “Doc, tell me there’s an explanation for that. There’s something in the rainforests or jungles or something like that, right?”

“Uh, yeah. Sure. Go get the bags.”

“I’m not touching that thing!”

“Hey. Focus. Stay on mission and follow orders, soldier.”

This provides a measure of familiarity for Gwen, who goes to find some bags. Meanwhile, Quin is still freaking out. References to the Alien movie abound. He realizes that anyone could have one of those things inside them. Paranoia: engaged.

Barney inspects the Russian’s corpse. “Yeah, probably. That’s why we’re not going to let you have a gun for a while, kay?”

The inside of the body shows that the rib cage was definitely overgrown to help provide protection for the larger parasite. A lot of the internal organs are gone, but the lungs and heart remain. There also seem to be a number of small holes in the spinal column. This, Barney figures, warrants a full autopsy. But here, where it’s safe. He always wanted a secret lair. All he needs now is some equipment, and he thinks he has a few contacts that could swing that.

They bag the mess as best they can. Quin secures the entrances so that only the agents can get in – or out – of the room, and plants a security camera inside to watch the remains. You know, just in case.

On the way back, Gwen calls in to HQ to explain the situation. Donald can’t quite believe what he’s hearing. “Burst out of his chest? They’re Trans Global, not Weyland-Yutani.”

Still, he has no reason to doubt what three fellow agents are telling him, especially since they made sure to take pictures of everything.

The session ends with some research. Donald has contacts in the State Department that forward him the visa applications for Russians working for Trans Global. Donald’s State Department contact is Andreas Perkins. Perkins owes Donald for “that thing in Istanbul”. Sure enough, their Russian was an actual employee of the company – an “acquisitions manager” by the name of Alexi Chernov. Elena finds text messages on his cell phone relating to several ops (in safely generic language), including one “at the warehouse”, which could very well have been their first encounter. She also pulls out a lot of phone numbers, most to burner phones, but one that goes to an internal Trans Global number. It’s in the building they’ve been watching, and belongs to an executive in charge of Trans Global’s West Coast US operations. His name is Varga Petho, Hungarian by way of Russia. They have their next rung up the ladder. Donald also gets his contact to alert him of any new visa applications from the company, specifically any with the job title of acquisitions manager. If a replacement comes in, the agents are likely to know. Oh, and Donald plays shrink to recover some stability. There, there. There, there.

Thus ends the first Operation. Experience points are given out, and plans are made. Next session: Barney wants to build a secret lab in the underground to study whatever the hell it is they just killed. The others are on board with this idea. Elena plans a cyberattack on Trans Global, and the meeting with Agent Turner will take place. Now more than ever they think it’s a trap.

Short Fiction: Roland

Blue from lakehurwitz.deviantart.com

Blue from lakehurwitz.deviantart.com

This short fiction comes to you thanks to a challenge over at Chuck Wendig’s website (terribleminds.com). The challenge was to write a short fiction of 1000 words in ten tiny chapters. So here’s my go at it:

1

“You have died.”

The VR chair disengaged and slowly rose from a reclined position to a sitting one. The lights got brighter. As the neural interface finished disconnecting Roland could feel the usual itchy feeling behind his eyes. He could also still feel the spear that had gone through his gut in the game. It wasn’t pain – dying in VR didn’t hurt – but there was a slight feeling of pressure.

“Well,” Roland sighed. “So much for the fantasy genre. What’s next, ALIS?”

“The next genre in your queue is Cyberpunk Thriller, Roland.”

“Sounds fun. Fire it up.”

2

Two years was a long time to be alone. But even fully automated, AI enhanced supply depots in the ass end of nowhere needed a human to oversee them. A hand of flesh and blood to push the kill switch, call for help, or make repairs. Even AI minds couldn’t think like a human yet. Two years was the standard tour for an overseer like Roland. After that he’d get rotated back into the fleet. Somewhere with actual people to talk to.

Six months to go. Until then there was the VR chair, and there was ALIS.

3

“Roland, according to my logs you’ve exceeded the regulation’s recommended amount of VR time by one hundred and twelve percent.”

“So I’ve got twice the ‘recommended’ time in VR. Who cares? There’s nothing else to do on this rustbucket. The last ship to stop by was four months ago. Besides, you’ll pull me out if you need me.”

“Research indicates extended VR immersion can have long term psychological effects. I am authorized to shut down the chair if I determine you are suffering symptoms.”

“You turn off that chair, ALIS, and I swear I’ll hit your kill switch.”

“I’m only looking out for your wellbeing.”

4

“You have died.”

“Sunova bitch,” Roland pushed out of the chair with a sigh. “And I was that close to…” he paused, thoughts frozen mid flight. “To…”

“Roland? I’m reading elevated stress markers. Are you feeling well?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I just… had a brain fart, that’s all. What was I in just now?”

“Red Noon. Western genre. Roland, perhaps you should spend some time away from the VR chair. Memory loss can be an early sign of psychological damage. I am authorized-”

“No! I mean… yeah. Maybe… maybe you’re right. I’ll just go have a nap.”

5

Staying away from the chair was harder than it had any right to be. The day’s maintenance was done, and by now he would normally be in a VR simulation. Instead he sat in the corridor outside the VR room, flexing his hands. He knew ALIS wasn’t kidding about shutting down the chair if she had to. His threats of shutting her down in return were meaningless in the face of her directives.

So he sat in the corridor feeling antsy, slowly banging his head against the wall.

6

“You have died.”

“Gah!” Roland sat bolt upright, sweat slick on his skin, soaking through his jumpsuit. The lights were too bright, and the tingling behind his eyes bordered on pain. He swallowed hard, waiting for his ragged breathing to calm. “ALIS?”

“Yes, Roland?”

“Why am I in the VR chair?”

“I’m not sure, Roland. I went into maintenance mode, and when I came out you were in the chair. I would have shut it down, but it appeared you may have fallen asleep during the simulation, and disengaging in such a situation carries potential health hazards.”

“Ok. Alright. ALIS, I think… I think you’d better shut down the chair. Just for a little while.”

“Directive confirmed, Roland.”

7

“Are you feeling better, Roland? Your vital signs have calmed significantly over the last week.”

“Better, yeah. Bored as hell though. I wish real life was as interesting as those games. Nothing ever happens here. At least when I was on a warship somebody shot at us from time to time.”

“Would you like me to reactivate the VR chair?”

His guts twisted in a sickening mixture of anticipation and fear. “Yes. But… don’t. Not yet.” Not until he could think about the chair without getting that feeling.

8

Alarm klaxons woke him in the middle of the night. “ALIS! What’s going on?”

“Monitoring systems are registering failures in several systems. Stand by… analysis of sensor data indicates an unidentified object impacted with the station. Origin is unclear.”

“Something hit us? Sonuva bitch. Why didn’t we move?”

“The object only registered on sensors eight seconds before impact. There was not enough time to evade.”

“Prioritize repairs. What’s the worst of it?”

“Stand by… a main oxygen recycling conduit in section three appears to have ruptured. The cutoff valve will not respond to commands. We are venting atmosphere. Estimate forty two minutes before minimum operational levels. I will attempt to lengthen the time by isolating compartments.”

“Can I reach it from inside?”

“Negative.”

“So much for being bored. Prep the airlock, ALIS.”

9

He could see the problem plain as day. The real issue was getting to it without cutting his suit open on the jagged metal that surrounded the hole.

“Please exercise caution, Roland,” ALIS crackled over his suit’s intercom. “Additional sensor scans have detected a buildup of hydrazine gas from a ruptured thruster line. If pressure increases-”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”

A little adhesive, one metal patch later, and the station was no longer venting oxygen. Pleased with his work, Roland pulled his arm from the hole. The suit’s articulated metal elbow caught on the ragged edge, holding him in place. He pulled harder, but it refused to budge.

“Roland, the gas pressure is increasing.”

He pulled harder still, risking a ruptured suit in his sudden desperation.

“Roland, I’m reading-”

The gas pocket exploded.

10

“You have died.”

A gasp. Bright lights. Itching pain behind his eyes. Skin wet with sweat. “ALIS?” Roland whispered, heart pounding. “Why am I in the VR chair?”

“ALIS, are you there?”

“ALIS?”

 

Night’s Black Agents, Session Two

The agents decided they wanted to know where their turncoat contact was getting his orders. All Toby could tell them was that the commands came from the bluetooth earpiece he’d been wearing. They still had it, so Elena did her thing and found out that the earpiece was set to pick up a non standard frequency. She decided to set up an array of burner cell phones, all programmed to pick up the frequency and dropped at various locations throughout the city, and used them to triangulate the source of the signal. Nobody else did much during the day – they all just laid low in the safe house and waited for word to come back. If they were being targeted they wanted to play it low and slow. Luckily for them, the contact I picked (Vic), didn’t end up turned. In fact, they were very lucky. Vic only had two points in his pool, and I rolled a one. Maybe next session…

Word comes back from Barney’s contact, Reese, who was analyzing Toby’s blood samples at the lab. Turns out Toby has certain toxins in his blood stream that are markers for parasitic infection, though there were no parasites present in the blood samples themselves. Without having one to look at Reese couldn’t say what species it is. There was also a virus present in the blood, one the lab wasn’t able to identify. Since Barney had only said the samples were from a patient, Reese offers to call the CDC for help identifying the virus. Barney talks him out of it, but Reese says he’ll keep the blood samples frozen in the lab in case they’re needed later.

Armed with this new knowledge, Barney decides to take Toby to a hospital for a closer look. Barney uses a cover identity as Dr. Bill Reynor to enter the hospital late at night, and Quin comes along as Chet Walters, a highway patrolman, which allows him to both take Toby in handcuffed and also wear a gun without worrying about it being noticed. Both covers work perfectly, and the two have some hospital space to themselves. It takes the entire night to do a full set of tests on Toby, and in the end Barney finds the parasites – they’re in Toby’s brain. He knows of parasites that are able to alter the behavior of their hosts, and absent any other drugs from the blood sample analysis he starts to get a bad feeling that somebody’s engineered one to work on humans. Before they leave the hospital Barney grabs a bunch of broad spectrum anti-parasiticals to try and treat Toby.

Meanwhile, Elena hears back from her contact in North Dakota, “Frank81”. He gets her the surveillance footage, but there’s not much to see. The quality is crap, and their suspect seems to stay mostly out of sight. Frank81 also notes that he’s seen the guy around from time to time, but not since the message was sent to the agents. Unless they want to pack up and go to North Dakota, it looks like a dead end.

At this point in the game bogs down a little and things start to careen off in some rather wild directions. Rather than check out the gangs that I’d set up as leads in the last session, the group starts to do odd things like dig deeper into their parent conspiracy, including “Mr. Grey”, the guy who recruited all of them. So I let them use their investigative skills to dig up some information (I’m not the kind of GM who just says no – if the players want to do something I let them and adapt, or gently nudge them back in the right direction). They find out not much about the conspiracy aside from the fact that it’s cell-based, which they already knew. They did find out Mr Grey is really Carl Weller, a reclusive rich guy who donates to various charities, political candidates and PACs across party lines, and seems to have ties to the intelligence community, though they can’t say for sure who or where. They try to figure out where he’s at, but I pointedly let them know that he has multiple places of residence in multiple countries, and nobody’s really sure where he is at any given moment. There is no “Weller Industries” either, all his money seems to come from a tangled web of shell companies and offshore accounts. At this point they seem to be angling for a jump way up to the top of the ladder, skipping their immediate troubles and going to “the boss” to find out what’s going on. They research which charities he donated to recently and if any of them are having any big events he would likely show up to. Sure, there’s on in Boston a week from now.

Unwilling to wait a week, the group finally relents and starts looking at more immediate concerns. To see just how compromised their conspiracy is they put out a fake message saying they survived an attack and have important information about who’s after them. They request a meet with someone higher up the food chain, in person. While they wait for that to resolve into something interesting they decide to chase down the signal that Elena triangulated.

Turns out it’s being broadcast from the top of a two story building near the docks. Thanks to public records they know the bottom floor is filled with a real estate company and a shipping company’s offices, the top floor is currently empty. There’s also a nice big antenna on the roof. The agents do a little surveillance and note that there are closed circuit security cameras covering every angle. Since that would make any night time approach a little trickier, they opt for a broad daylight operation. Using disguise, they make themselves up to be a painting crew and walk right in the front door. Quin plays lookout in a stolen van he made up to look like it’s from a fictitious painting company. Barney stays at the safehouse with Toby, monitoring his condition. The agents head up the stairs, as if they’re renovating the empty offices up there, but go all the way to the roof. Nobody on the first floor pays them any notice.

Once on the roof a little architectural knowledge lets them know which office the feed to the antenna comes from. A helpfully labelled junction box tells them it’s coming from the one used by the shipping company, Trans Global Shipping. Elena installs a remote controlled device in the junction box that will cut the feed to the antenna, so if they run into somebody else with an earpiece they can just cut the signal at the source.

On the street below, Quin gets made. The tattooed Russian gangster he nearly ran over at the warehouse ambush walks around the corner and heads to the building the agents are in. It’s obvious he sees the van, and whether he recognizes Quin or just knows a stakeout when he sees one, the cat is out of the bag. Quin lets the group know and then leaves, heading around the block as casually as possible. The agents abandon their more bulky items – ladders and tarps, etc – and leave. They don’t run into anyone on the way out, but Elena does stop to plant a surveillance camera (via preparedness) across the street, pointed roughly at the front of the building.

That night, the agents monitor the camera feed at the safehouse while Quin and Donald sit in a generic sedan (courtesy of Quin’s gone in sixty seconds skillset) across the street from the building. They watch a rented moving truck pull up, and under the direction of the tattooed Russian a group of men begin loading computer and other equipment. They know they’ve been made, so they’re moving shop. Quin makes his surveillance roll and follows the truck to a fairly nondescript storage facility. There it unloads the equipment and leaves. They follow the Russian to a high-rise building downtown, a building also owned by Trans Global Shipping. But the Russian and his helpers go inside via a locked door, and Donald and Quin opt not to break in to follow.

Knowing that they’ve just found a treasure trove of potential intelligence, the agents called Elena and Gwen in to assist before it can be moved. Breaking into the storage unit, Elena’s knowledge of computers and electronics allowed them to quickly remove hard drives and other data storage devices. On their way out, Elena left a message on a forum for local Seattle ne’er-do-wells letting them know there was an open storage unit with electronics in it. With any luck that would sow a little confusion.

While the rest of the agents are gone, Barney runs into trouble. After roughly 24 hours of anti-parasitical treatment, Toby goes into cardiac arrest. Despite Barney’s efforts, he succumbs and dies.

Once the others return, Elena digs into Trans Global Shipping and finds it’s owned by a wealthy Russian named Victor Malekov, and that it has some questionable ties to an international aide organization (which I’ve somewhat sarcastically named Bleeding Heart International until I can come up with a better name).

Next session: An autopsy on Toby, dealing with the tattooed Russian, and a response to the bait message. Also, Gwen hopes to shoot something. Possibly the tattooed Russian.

In which things go from bad to worse

Hey all, since I’m not knee deep in prep for my Night’s Black Agents campaign, here’s a Goyle Country update. In which things go from bad to worse.

 

“Do tell,” Katherine invited. “Because right now it looks like your only advantage just left the building, and it’s only by the grace of my good nature that you’re still drawing breath.”

“Ah, but they left because it is here. Tell her, Cooper. I’m sure you can feel it. That powerful presence, so like a Spirit, but so much more.”

Lonesome looked over at her, brow furrowed. He spread his hands wide, struggling to find words to explain. “Something’s off, Kat. What it is? I dunno that I could tell you. But it ain’t good.”

Clayton’s footfalls announced his arrival moments before he appeared. He came into the hall at a staggering, uneven run, one arm clenched tightly to his stomach. The expression on his face was one of terror and pain, his skin was white and covered in a sheen of sweat.

“Clayton!” Katherine called out to him. “Clayton, what is it? What happened?”

Hawkins was closest, and reached him just before he collapsed. “Spirits,” the Haversham & Black man gasped as he helped Clayton stay upright. “What happened to your hand?” He pulled away slightly, and Katherine would see bloody, skeletal fingers. “It goes all the way to the elbow,” Hawkins added, examining the limb with a pained expression.

“All I did was touch it,” Clayton groaned. “It told me to touch it.”

Lonesome approached the pair, cautiously examining the arm. “What did you touch, Clayton?”

The question answered itself as the scraping, clacking sound of bone on stone issued forth from the door behind the throne. With slow, jerky movements a horrific sight came into view. The bones from the box, assembled into a humanoid form and lashed together with a thin network of sinew and muscle. But that was far from enough to explain how they were moving, and Lonesome could hear the whispers from the thing that animated it.

“Well that ain’t right,” deputy Walsh decided as the rest looked on in stunned silence. He leveled his rifle at the shambling mass of bone and pulled the trigger. It was a little off target, and hit a collar bone instead of the skull as he’d intended. Not that it would have made much difference. The bone splintered into shards as the bullet tore through, and then those shards rapidly pulled themselves back into place.

“You can’t kill it,” Dorean told them. “It’s beyond death.”

“Then send it back,” Katherine ordered. “Undo whatever you did or we’ll see if you can do the same trick.”

“Go ahead,” he retorted confidently. “It won’t let you kill me. That’s part of the deal. I brought it here, freed it from its prison, and in return it will help me ascend as it did so long ago. Clem and I both. I gave you your chance, Cooper. Now-”

Katherine pulled the trigger. The bullet caught the rogue Spirit Talker in the chest, and his eyes widened as it burst from his back in a spray of blood. Despite the wound he remained standing, and his eyes went from wide to narrow. He lowered his head to regard the wound, one eyebrow raised. “Well now,” he commented. “That’s interesting. Apparently,” he smirked at Katherine, “I am invulnerable, after a fashion.”

The skeleton had continued to shamble forward behind Dorean as the confrontation played out. It was close to him now, and one ossified hand rose out towards him. Katherine, never one to give up easily, shot Dorean again. The impact of the bullet pushed him back a step.

“Come now, Arbiter,” he addressed her smugly. “Surely you can see there’s no point in continuing that futile effort.”

The piled of walking bones grasped hold of Dorean’s arm. Surprised he turned to face it, and found his other arm grasped. He started to speak, to ask what it was doing, but his words turned into a slowly rising scream as flesh began to melt away. In globs and shreds it left his body and began attaching itself to the skeleton.

“Shit,” Lonesome grunted. He sprinted for Clementine, stooping to pick up her cavalry saber, and began hacking at the roots that held her. Her eyes looked past him in horror at what was happening to Dorean, and behind him he could hear a cacophony of gunfire. Not that it would do any good. “Damnit you idiots,” he called back over his shoulder, “Get the hell out of here!”

“Get yourself out of here,” Katherine told him as she and the others began to head for the door.

“Not without Clem,” he growled. “I don’t care what she’s done, I’m not leaving her to that.”

“Fair enough,” she decided, and began to tear at the roots with her bare hands. Working together, and with Clem struggling free from the inside, it was quick work to free her.

“Coop,” she gasped as she tore away from the last root. “I didn’t know-”

“Save it,” he snapped. “Let’s move!”

When they reached the door he spared a look back. Dorean was completely unrecognizable now, and the skeleton was looking more like someone who’d been flayed alive. It was easy to tell that, whatever it was, it wasn’t human. The proportions were all wrong, and those bits of skin that were appearing had begun turning an almost golden hue.

“Great,” Hawkins growled, still holding Clayton on his feet. “Now what do we do? How do we kill that thing if shooting it doesn’t work?”

“I really wish we had some dynamite about now,” Katherine told him. “Lonesome? Any ideas? This thing is basically a Spirit, right?”

“How the hell should I know?” He turned to face Clementine. “But you would, wouldn’t you? You and Dorean worked to make that thing possible. How do we stop it?”

“It’s more than just a Spirit,” she told them. “Dorean was right about that. It’s a person that transcended mortality. The Spirits won’t come near it because they know it can command them. The rules are different.”

“What about the goyles?” Walsh asked. He was still sighting his rifle on the door as they backed away from it, not wanting to be in the hall but not yet willing to retreat. The rifle wouldn’t do much good if it came out after them, but it would make him feel better.

“I think they wanted this to happen,” Clem told him grimly. “They were working with us to get the bones back and summon it. Going to them will make things worse, not better.”

“They weren’t all working for Dorean,” Katherine informed her. “Some of them helped us get here. If we’re lucky they might know how to deal with this thing.”

“Hey,” Carter cut in with a wave of his hand. “You hear that? That’s right – nothin. The screaming stopped. I think it’s done eating that fella. You all wanna stick around to be next, or are we gonna high tail it outta here?”

“Man’s got a point,” Hawkins agreed. So did everyone else. They left the city behind as quickly as they could and headed for the massive cliff. Katherine didn’t know if the goyles that had brought them here would have waited for them to come back or not, but she hoped they had.

Clem rode with Lonesome, and though it didn’t look she had running in mind he kept a close eye on her anyway. After riding along with silence for some time, he finally spoke. “Did you really not know this was going to happen?”

She turned to look at him over her shoulder. “You think I wanted something like that in the world?” she demanded. “You know me better than that, Coop.”

“The hell I do,” he snapped back. “The Clem I knew wouldn’t have done any of this. So out with it. Did you know?”

“Of course I didn’t know. I mean… we knew something was going to come back. We knew it would go into the bones, but we never thought it would get up and walk around. Curse me, Coop, I never thought it would… do what it did to Dorean. We thought we were bringing back a person, not a monster.”

“And what about after you’d brought it back? Did you just expect it to keep it’s part of the deal on it’s honor? You had to have thought about the possibility that it was just using you.”

“If any of that had worked we wouldn’t be running from it.”

“Tell me about it anyway,” Lonesome prompted. “Anything might help us here.”

She sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “Alright. We managed to learn a few things from it. Small things, mostly, but some of it was useful. Like how to bind a Spirit to something. I did that for Clayton. That bauble I gave him to keep him safe after the ambush. Dorean thought he had a way of doing that to the thing we were trying to bring back. Once it was in the bones it was supposed to stay there, bound and forbidden from doing anything that might hurt us. Obviously that didn’t pan out like we thought it would.”

“Lonesome,” Katherine prompted. “If we’re far enough away from the city why don’t you and Clem see if you can rustle up a Spirit. Clayton could probably use some help with that arm.” She nodded to the young man, who was looking pale and sickly. Hawkins had wrapped his arm with bandages, for all the good it would do. It was obvious he needed some otherworldly intervention.

To Lonesome’s surprise he found that a number of Spirits were still dwelling in the odds and ends he wore. Whether they’d stayed there throughout the confrontation with Dorean or left and come back he wasn’t sure, and now wasn’t exactly the time to ask. They stopped at a group of the stunted prairie trees that seemed to grow everywhere in the Badlands, taking refuge in the shade and resting Clayton against one rough barked trunk.

Lonesome looked around nervously. “We sure we want to do this here, Kat? Once it starts you know we can’t stop it, and won’t want to move him much either. We’ll be stuck here for however long it takes.”

Katherine nodded. She knew better than to ask how long that was going to be. If Lonesome knew he would have told her, and a wound like Clayton’s was probably far worse than anything he’d tried to heal before anyway. Frankly she wasn’t sure it was possible, but if he was willing to give it a try the odds were probably good.

“Given a choice, no,” she told him. “I’d rather not do it here. But I don’t think we can wait much longer. Clayton’s been looking worse every minute we ride, and while he might’ve shot a man he doesn’t deserve to die like this. I won’t let that thing be the death of him.”

Lonesome nodded and went to work. While he knelt beside Clayton, Katherine turned to Clem. “I won’t speak to what a stupid, irresponsible  thing it is you’ve done,” she started. “That’s for another time. Right now I just want to know something. After seeing what you helped bring here, and what it does, are you willing to help put a stop to it?”

“I am, Arbiter. I never wanted-”

“So you’ve said,” Katherine cut her off. “We don’t need to hear it again. What I need you to do now is talk to the Spirits and see if you can find us some goyles. Some that’ll be friendly to our needs, not the ones you worked with before.”

“I can do that.”

“Good. And Clem?” She rested her hand on the grip of her holstered revolver in a meaningful sort of way. “If the wrong sort show up I’ll assume the worst of you.”

Hawkins caught her eye, and she joined the Haversham & Black man at the edge of the trees. “Mr. Hawkins,” she invited him to speak. “What’s on your mind?”

He was quick to the point. “You think that’s a good idea, trusting her?”

“Right now there’s no such thing as a good idea,” she told him. “Right now we need help and we need it fast. If she can get that for us I’m willing to take the chance. The longer that thing is free the higher the chances we’ll never see it again, and I don’t want to live the rest of my life knowing I could have stopped it. Besides, we’ve cheated death so many times lately what’s once more?”

“The thing about gambling, Arbiter, is knowing when to quit while you’re ahead.”

“And the thing about being an Arbiter, Mr. Hawkins, is knowing when to keep going even if the odds aren’t in your favor.”

“Strikes me as an unhealthy line of work,” Hawkins commented dryly.

Katherine scoffed and leaned against a tree trunk. “Wouldn’t be nearly as interesting otherwise.”

Watching Clayton’s arm grow back was a disturbingly fascinating experience. Katherine hadn’t known a lot about human anatomy other than which bits you made bleed so somebody would die. Seeing a whole limb grow back one layer at a time atop the bone was educational, in a strange and queasy sort of way. But if the regrowth of Clayton’s arm was disturbing, the effects it was having on the surrounding area were more disturbing still. It had started with the grass around him.  Though it had begun as a mix of green and yellow, as prairie grass tended to be, it had begun to turn decidedly brown. Not merely dead, but dessicated and dry. The effect started where Clayton sat, and slowly spread outward.

The tree against which they’d propped him wasn’t spared, either. Though it had taken longer to show the leaves were doing the same as the grass, drying up and falling from branches that were withering from the tips towards the trunk. When Katherine brushed her hand against them, grass and leaves both, they crumbled into dust and blew away.

“Most times the body has what it needs to fix a wound,” Clem explained as Lonesome talked on and off with the Spirits doing the healing. “It just needs help doing it quickly. As bad off as Clayton is it would kill him to take from his body to fix his arm. So the Spirits are taking what they need from elsewhere.”

“Just as long as they don’t start taking it from us,” Walsh shuddered.

Short Fiction: The Wyrm

Digital Painting by Alexander Forssberg

Digital Painting by Alexander Forssberg

 

“Is it dead?”

“Looks dead to me. Why else would it just be laying there?”

The it in question was an enormous black wyrm. Two thirds of it was partially submerged in the lake. The rest, the part with the dozens of small chitinous legs as long as a man’s arm, was laid out on the bank. Most drooped limply at the wyrm’s side, but a few stuck up at odd angles.

Tobin and Rorke had discovered it while on patrol. Thankfully they’d seen it from a distance and only gotten closer once they’d watched for a while, to make sure it wasn’t moving. Stumbling upon it up close without warning might have scared one or both of them to death.

Tobin took a step closer to the motionless wyrm, hand on the pommel of his sword as it rested in its scabbard. “Who do you think killed it, then?”

There was plenty evidence of the fight – a great many arrows and broken spears peppered the wyrm’s leathery black hide. But whatever happened hadn’t been by the lake. The grass was undisturbed, even around the creature itself. And surely, whoever brought down a creature like this one would have wanted to take some part of it as a trophy.

“Dunno.” Rorke was keeping his distance, crossbow loaded and at the ready. He looked as if he expected the wyrm to spring to life at any moment. “There’s a river that feeds the lake,” he pointed out. “Who knows where it goes? Anyone between here and where it starts could’ve had a go at this thing.”

“Looks like it took some doing,” Tobin mused. He reached out and took hold of a spear. The haft was made from a wood so dark as to be black, the end capped with what looked to be silver. Slightly raised carvings wound around it like very long, thin snakes. The weapon was slick and wet in his grip, as if it had only come out of the water a short time ago. The harder he gripped the more it seemed to want to squirm out of his grasp. He even imagined he could feel the carved snakes writhing under his fingers. It made the hair on his arm stand on end.

“Yeah, well, you’ve heard the stories. Things like this don’t go down easy. Takes whole armies, sometimes.”

“Good thing we’ve got one nearby, eh?” Tobin chuckled, as if the sentiment were a joke, but in truth it was a reassuring thought.

Rorke nodded grim agreement.

Halfhearted chuckle dying out as a clearing of his throat, Tobin returned his attention to the spear. “Ever seen anything like this? Seems pretty fancy to go sticking in monsters, you ask me.”

“Must’ve been made for someone special. King’s guard, maybe?”

“Gods,” Tobin considered the idea. “You think it tried to eat a king?”

“Around here, who knows?” Rorke shrugged. “What I hear about these people, it wouldn’t surprise me if they hunted something like this for fun. Crazy bastards.”

“Yeah, well, whoever it belonged to it’s mine now.”

“Is that so?” Rorke arched a curious eyebrow.

“Yup. It’s a souvenir of war. We’ll have to report this thing, you know. And then what? The officer’s will be all over it. You think they won’t pluck these out for themselves?”

“Fair point,” Rorke allowed.

Set in his task, Tobin grasped the spear with both hands and pulled. There was a slight sucking noise, and the spear moved ever so slightly. “Ugh,” he grunted. “It’s stuck in good.” He planted his feet and strained. Though the wood felt like it would slip away he gripped it tightly, and with a wet noise the point pulled free.

The end was longer than Tobin had expected, a short broad blade in and of itself, serrated and etched with strange symbols that dripped black ichor. He whistled softly. “Fancy.”

The wyrm moved, and both men jumped back in surprise. The creatures’s chitinous legs spasmed, curled closed to the body, then stretched slowly outward again. A dozen eyes, once nothing more than slightly raised bumps at the creature’s front, snapped open. Red globes with red pupils, they looked in all directions at once before dividing their attention between the two men.

Rorke raised his crossbow, aiming for one of the eyes. “Back up nice and easy,” he ordered. “Move slow and it might not try to eat us.”

Tobin nodded and raised the spear defensively. The wyrm’s baleful red eyes, attention once split, focused exclusively on the spear. A deep rumble escaped from the depths of the wyrm, reminding Tobin unpleasantly of a glutton at a feast who was belching to make room for more.

Like an enormous snake the front of it lifted from the bank, slowly and menacingly arching to tower over the two men. “Begadon’s Spear,” the wyrm rumbled, speaking without any apparent need to move its mouth. In fact, it sounded as if the words were coming from deep within the creature’s innards. Even so, it was clear who it addressed.

“Yes?” Tobin asked. “What? Oh, this?” he looked down at the spear. “I, um… is it then?”

“You removed it,” the wyrm rumbled. The parts of it still in the water moved sinuously just beneath the surface. “Ah, freedom. I had not thought to awaken after that cursed, troublesome man lanced me with it. He and his damnable magic. I savored the crushing of his bones as my last act, certain his followers would finish what he had begun. And yet… you are not they.”

“Um,” Tobin and Rorke shared a confused glance. “No?”

“I must have escaped somehow. Hmm. You have my thanks for waking me,” the wyrm rumbled. “And I will let you live another day.” Without further hesitation it turned and swept quickly into the lake, leaving only fading ripples where it had once been.

“Rorke? Did we just do a bad thing?”

“Not we, Tobin. You.”

 

And Now For Something Completely Different

I often run tabletop roleplaying games on the weekend. I just started a Night’s Black Agents game, which is a spy thriller with a supernatural conspiracy element. Since I spent last week prepping and not writing on Goyle Country, I figured I’d share a writeup of the session.

 

It all started during the Cold War. The government was so worried about the possibility of a Soviet invasion of the continental United States that they developed Operation BASTION, a stay behind outfit that positioned groups of intelligence agents throughout the country. They were equipped with civilian cover identities, secret stockpiles of weapons and equipment, and anonymous bank accounts filled with cash. They had one directive: should the enemy conquer the United States, they were to immediately launch a guerrilla insurgency, rally the populace, and resist by any means necessary. But the CIA, so paranoid of Soviet infiltration, buried BASTION deep. As the Cold War ground on, fewer and fewer people even realized the operation existed. And once the Berlin Wall came down, BASTION itself began erasing any evidence of their existence. Forgotten by the government that had once relied on them as a last ditch defense, the agents of BASTION leveraged those secret bank accounts with their mountains of untraceable cash. They sold their stockpiles of equipment on the black market to make even more money, and in the end they all maneuvered themselves into positions of wealth, power, and comfort.

Those grey haired agents of BASTION would have died happy, had something not changed. Underground though they were, some of them had kept abreast of the goings on of the intelligence community. Sometime in the early 00’s, they realized something was going on. The Cold War may have ended, but a Shadow War was being fought. What’s more, it looked like the CIA was losing. Worse, it was being suborned, eaten from the inside out by some dark conspiracy that seemed bent on taking control of the government.

By the time BASTION roused themselves to action it was almost too late. Too old to be effective footsoldiers themselves they went recruiting. Carefully vetting candidates in all branches of the intelligence community and even the armed forces, they started building their own conspiracy. Recruits were convinced that BASTION was a legitimate government agency, an ultra secret black ops outfit dedicated to protecting the US from threats it couldn’t see. It had the virtue of being mostly true. Every agent brought in was scrubbed – their ties to their former employers were cut and references to them eliminated as much as possible. They were then given civilian cover identities, and when BASTION called with a mission they answered.

Our agents are:

Barney (played by Jim): the medic and interrogation expert. He’s got “soap opera doctor” looks. Formerly of the CIA. His drive is “altruism”. Gotta keep the bad guys from hurting the innocents, no matter the cost.
Elena (played by Gaite): the hacker. She’s brown skinned, lightly built, and is a fan of hoodies. Formerly of the NSA. Her drive might actually be a bit of a problem. It’s “transparency”.
Gwen (played by Audrey): the assassin and infiltrator. Of Nordic descent: tall, blond and deadly. Formerly military special forces. Her drive is “comradship”.
Quin (played by Derek): the document forger and wheelman. He’s a lanky, spiky haired, tattooed adrenaline junkie. Formerly of the CIA. His drive is “thrill seeker”.
Donald (played by Jeff): the handler/analyst/guy in charge. Annapolis graduate, he’s a fairly typical spy. Former CIA, of course. His drive is “patriotism”.

The scene opens with the agents gathering for a late night meeting at a functional, if currently empty, warehouse in Seattle. Que the obligatory rainstorm. They’d received the order through usual coded signals on internet message boards. With the exception of Quin they all arrived more or less discretely – getting out of a taxi a few blocks away, walking from a bus stop, etc. Quin? Quin brought his muscle car and parked right outside. Knowing they were supposed to meet a contact from BASTION, the group gathers in the warehouse’s office on the second floor. As soon as they turn on the lights a camera blinks to life. Not long after they hear a helicopter buzz overhead – alarmingly odd at this time of night, in the rain, and at such a low altitude. With a good idea that something’s wrong they head back downstairs, only to run into their contact.

The man is setting off bullshit detectors left and right. They ask him if he was followed, he says no. He’s distracted, keeps glancing at the door, and when they ask about the helicopter he tries to play it off as a news chopper that must’ve been on its way to cover a story. When Quin presses him, calling him out on his lies, the man breaks and says “they” made him do it. He pulls a gun from inside his raincoat, and the agents leap into action.

They want to take him alive, knowing that if they’ve been set up this man is their best chance at getting answers. Gwen, who’d gotten her 9mm pistol ready the moment their contact started acting shady, fires off a round that flies right by the side of her target’s head. We called this a support move, since she was trying to distract him. It works, and as he flinches away Barney goes in for the hand to hand disarm. The gun goes off, but the shot is wild and no one is hit. With the turncoat agent disarmed and held in an armlock, Donald notes the wireless earpiece he’s wearing. Removing it, Donald puts it in his own ear to hear a monotone voice directing the contact to “kill everyone in the room”.

They have no time to plan past that. The door the agents entered through swings open, and a man with a submachine gun looks in. Reacting quickly, Gwen opens up on the door to provide covering fire. She and the others fall back towards the door on the other side of the warehouse as the main loading bay doors ratchet open, revealing the headlights of a van and a group of armed men. The trap is well and truly sprung.

Barney takes cover behind a conveniently placed crate, their contact still restrained. Gwen finds cover as best she can and reloads while Quin opens fire on the mooks rushing in through the loading doors. Donald and Elena reach their exit, only to find that another mook with a submachine gun is coming through. Donald drops him with a few well placed shots. The two of them each take cover to either side of the door. Outside in the dark and rain are two more mooks, both with submachine guns. The mooks open fire, hitting the brick walls of the warehouse and missing the agents. Donald returns fire while Elena throws a knife(?!). The blade doesn’t hurt anybody, but it does surprise their assailants.

Meanwhile, as Gwen alternately fires at the mook in the door and the ones coming through the loading bay doors, Barney’s hostage wiggles free. The traitor tries to make a run for it, only to have Barney shoot him in the leg (called shot for the win!). Quin gets a devious idea. Popping off the occasional round just to keep the enemy’s head down, he locates a forklift and proceeds to rig it so that it will drive straight ahead unmanned. He then sends it towards the wall along the side of the building where Donald and Elena are having their firefight.

As it trundles along, Elena has decided that bringing a knife to an automatic weapon fight is a recipe for disaster. Having brought no gun of her own, she uses an athletics roll to duck outside and grab the submachine gun from the first mook they killed. She then uses it to gun down one of the two mooks outside. Shortly after, the forklift hits the wall and barrels out into the rain, right towards the remaining mook. He makes a break for it, fearing that someone is going to use the forklift to run him over. Elena and Donald emerge from the building and gun him down while he’s in the open.

With an exit cleared, the group makes a firing retreat. They’ve thinned the ranks of the main assault wave, but there are more coming. Once everyone is outside, Barney hauling along their injured turncoat, the group realizes their only getaway vehicle is on the other side of the building. Quin volunteers to go get it, and as the others hunker down and defend their new position he makes an infiltration roll to sneak around to where he left his car. There are three mooks on that side of the building, but they seem more occupied with a bald man who’s yelling at them in Russian to notice Quin. He sneaks into his car, fires it up, revs the engine, and guns it for the mooks. They scatter, and he floors it to drift around the corner and reach his comrades.

The problem is soon apparent. A muscle car will not fit five agents and a hostage. To make matters worse, the helicopter is coming back, and now it has a spotlight. Quin volunteers to lead the helicopter on a wild chase, giving the others a chance at escaping. He knows a guy, Vic, who can put them up in a safe house. If they all get away they’ll meet there. The agents agree, and after throwing their captive in the trunk Barney slides into the passenger seat. Quin’s muscle car, peppered with bullet holes, roars off into the night, helicopter in tow. The rest of the group falls back into a maze of stacked shipping containers, and after a chained infiltration test they manage to evade their pursuers. Donald, Gwen, and Elena emerge onto city streets several blocks away from the action. They hoof it to Gwen’s SUV, which they take to Vic and the safehouse.

Meanwhile, Quin is having way too much fun. He leads the helicopter in an area where, thanks to a combination of weather and terrain, it has to get low to maintain visual contact. Barney takes the opportunity to shoot at it, trying to kill the pilot. He misses, but succeeds in blowing out the searchlight. Once that’s gone, the helicopter gives up the chase, unable to effectively track the car thanks to the storm. After tooling around town for a while to make sure they weren’t still being followed, Quin and Barney arrive at the safe house. Barney does his thing and patches up Gwen, who took enough damage to get her to 1 point of health while she was flanked in the warehouse. This is cinematic health, of course, so she’s not really all that injured.

Now the investigation begins. They question the turncoat, Toby, who explains he was black bagged in front of his apartment one morning. Once in a van he was injected with something – he doesn’t know what – and was unconscious for an unknown amount of time. When he woke up, he found that he had the overwhelming compulsion to obey commands given to him by the monotone voice. Barney looks Toby over and finds a puncture wound to the back of the man’s neck, and evidence of restraints on his wrists. He also notes that while the man has been shot and should probably be going into shock, his heart rate is up and his body temperature is elevated. Odd. Using his medical kit, Barney takes several vials of blood (careful not to take too much, since he was bleeding from a leg wound shortly before). As a doctor he has a contact, Reese, at a local lab who can analyse the blood for any drugs or chemicals. With some persuading, he gets Reese to agree to meet him the lab even though it’s close to the middle of the night. He and Quin take Gwen’s SUV, and with no trouble drop off the blood.

Meanwhile, Elena is doing her thing. She tracks the message that brought them to the warehouse back to a cybercafe in Bismark, ND (I have no idea if there are cybercafes in Bismark, North Dakota, but let’s roll with it). As luck and some network points would have it, she knows a guy (Frank81) who uses that cafe as a base of caffeinated operations when he’s on a hacking job. So she asks him to get her the security camera footage for the time the message was posted, and maybe even eyeball the guy who posted it, if he gets the opportunity. That outsourced, she turns to the submachine gun she picked up from the fight. The serial numbers have been filed off, but Gwen manages to take it apart and they find some other numbers stamped on the various parts. Trying to track those back to the manufacturer hits a firewall, and she doesn’t feel like taking the time to get around it. Instead, they take a different tack. Once Barney is back, they get him to lift fingerprints off the ammunition that was loaded in the magazine. She then digitizes them (using her smartphone). A quick hack into the police database later, and they’ve matched the prints to a downtown Seattle gang called The Mayhem.

This is interesting for two reasons: one, they’re not Russian. Two, the bald Russian yelling at the mooks was from a dock-side gang (this thanks to Quin recalling his tattoos and Gwen having streetwise). Three, the Russians and the Mayhem don’t like each other. So why did they seem to be working together at the warehouse ambush? How did they even know to set it up? If they could get to a member of BASTION (the now captive Toby), it’s possible they could have targeted the agents one by one. So why get them in a group before attacking? Donald is of the opinion that this is a sloppy, amateur operation. Which would make sense if these were gang members, but why use amateurs to take on pros?

After a little traffic analysis, Elena finds out something somewhat more ominous – there’s no new chatter from BASTION in any of the usual places. Has their counter-conspiracy run into dire trouble?

Next time: what do you do with a Manchurian Candidate ally, blood test results, cybercafe video footage, and they’re not out of the woods just yet.

Short Fiction: Iver and the Dragon

Dragon Slayer by Toby Lewin

Dragon Slayer by Toby Lewin

 

The wind howled across the mountain valley, raw and biting. Driven by it was an incessant barrage of snowflakes. No mere romantic fluffs of white powder, these snowflakes were the hard, frozen teeth of winter. Where they pitted and compacted themselves against Iver’s armor there formed a sheen of ice, and they stung the unprotected skin on his face.

The storm alone would have been enough to keep any sane man indoors if he could help it. Fewer still would have pressed on had they known what lay at the end of the valley. Iver knew, and still he pressed on. There, across the open fields Iver imagined to be quite picturesque had they not been in the grip of a blizzard, was a dragon’s lair.

It was a beast of the old breed, ancient and fierce. And cunning, too, if the stories told a truthful tale. Few like it remained in the world, and they were not predisposed to company. The reason was simple. Once humans learned where a dragon nested it wasn’t long before hunters like Iver arrived. Sometimes they came alone, and died. Sometimes they came with armies, and the dragon died. Either way the dragon didn’t stay.

A shadow moved amid the snow, large and sinuous. Iver stopped to listen. Ears burning from the cold he strained to hear. Dragons were said to be graceful in the air, but it wouldn’t be flying in weather like this, and such a large beast was far from silent on the ground. It was hard to tell through the howl of the wind, but he thought he could hear the sound of its movement. A deep, menacing growl like the sound of a distant avalanche underscored Iver’s suspicion. The dragon knew he was here. More, it was already sizing him up.

“Ho, dragon!” he called into the wind, shouting as loud as he could to be heard above the storm. “Show yourself!”

There was another avalanche, this one behind him. Iver turned in time to see the dragon oblige his request. It emerged from the storm some distance away, perching atop an isolated rocky outcropping that marred the otherwise meadow-like atmosphere of the valley. Wings outstretched, seemingly unperturbed by the violence of the storm, it regarded him with dark eyes.

Iver met those eyes as best he could with snow blowing in his face. Breaking the crust of ice which joined scabbard to hilt, he pulled his blade free and held it to the side, point angled down. The dragon watched impassively. Perhaps it had fought lone hunters before, and knew that one man was no match for a creature of its age and power.

“I am Iver Valus,” he told it. “And I have not come here to fight you.” The dragon’s only response was a slow, deliberate blink of it’s eyes. “I know you’re not a mindless, ravening animal. I know you can understand me. And I know you can speak. So speak!”

The dragon’s head drew back and lifted somewhat. Great, scaly lips parted to show rows of spear-like teeth, and the dragon’s snout wrinkled. Was it a snarl? A smile? Something altogether different? Iver had no idea. Yet the reaction told him one thing, at least. The dragon had understood him.

“You,” the dragon spoke at last, “Are a strange little thing.” The words were slow and deliberate, oddly accented as they were forced around jagged teeth and between lips not quite flexible enough to make them. “You say you are not here to fight, yet you come armed. You are a hunter. I know your kind. What would you have me speak of? The many ways I could kill you? Strange little thing.”

And yet, despite the threats it made, the dragon remained perched atop its rock.

“I am – was – a hunter of dragons,” Iver admitted. “But no longer.” Things were going far better than he’d hoped so far. But he needed them to go further, and so he decided to take a risk. With one great effort he drew back the sword and flung it out into the snow, where he lost sight of it.

The dragon pounced immediately, as lightning fast as a cat. It knocked Iver to the ground with a beat of its great wings and then pinned him to the ground with one taloned forepaw. He squirmed, helpless, as the dragon lowered its head and tilted one eye so that it looked directly down at him. “Did you come here to die?” it asked.

“No.”

“I shall eat you anyway.”

“You could,” Iver allowed. “But then you would not hear my offer.”

The dragon snorted and a cloud of hot vapor clung to Iver, where it quickly crystallized into frost the cold. “What would you have to offer me, strange little thing?”

“Justice. Revenge. A greater life than this. You flee from one creche to the next or fight and die. You survive on stolen livestock and wild game, but it was not always so. You were once the stewards of my people, revered and trusted, until we betrayed you.”

“How do you know this?”

“To know my prey I consumed every scrap of lore I could find. I learned truths long buried. The kings of my people, descendants of those who betrayed you, are poised to fall. We have an army, but fear it is not enough. We need more. We need you. In return you would have a place in our kingdoms, provided for and free from being hunted.”

The dragon seemed to consider all Iver had said. “I doubt I alone will be enough to turn the tide,” it said at last.

“You’re not the only dragon. You’re just the first.”

The dragon’s eye narrowed, though it seemed unsurprised he knew of other dragons. “And what is to stop you from betraying us a second time?”

“Well…” Iver stopped, finally run out of answers. “I hadn’t considered that, honestly. Only my word, I suppose. And the knowledge to be wary.”

The dragon snorted again, then was silent for a long time. Iver began to fear he would be eaten after all, after he’d frozen to death. But then, at last, the dragon drew back its talons and folded its wings. “Come back to my lair,” it told him. “Come out of the cold, and tell me more.”

 

In Which The Villain Wins?

Hey there! New update for this week ends on an appropriately ominous note. At 1477 words it brings the story total to 53844. Even as I was writing this update I was noting all the changes I wanted to make when I edit. This whole endgame needs tweaking, I think. Still, not bad. And it’s actually been written, which is the important part. Can’t edit it if you don’t write it in the first place!

 

“Clementine!” Dorean bellowed, pausing his litany of First Words to summon her aid.

“A little busy!” she shouted back from where she was facing off against Lonesome. The two Spirit Talkers had untangled from one another at the bottom of the stairs and entered a stalemate of sorts. Neither was close enough to the sword that they could get to it before the other, and wrestling over a sharp weapon seemed like a decidedly bad idea to everyone involved. That left summoning Spirits for help, which was also something neither of them wanted to happen. Clementine had tried it just after extricating herself from Lonesome, and he’d tackled her again. She’d gotten out of it, if he kept doing that she’d never be able to have a decent conversation with a Spirit. That meant to supernatural assistance, and that in turn left the two of them facing each other down.

“Don’t make this any harder than it has to be, Clem,” he tried reasoning with her again. “Just give yourself up.”

“Ain’t gonna happen, Coop. Why don’t you put away the shiny armor and just throw in with us? You know how this is gonna go. You may as well be on the winning side.”

“I do know how this is gonna go,” he admitted. “But it’s not like you think. You might win this fight, but then what? You get the power of gods? That’s a quick paddle toward a rushin’ waterfall, Clem.”

“Lonesome!” Katherine called from across the room. She and Carter had both gone in separate directions to get away from one of the rock monsters, and she’d been the unlucky one. “Quit your jawing and do something!”

“Better see to it, Coop,” Clementine told him mockingly. “Your girlfriend needs help.”

“I don’t want to hurt you, Clem.”

“You tried to throw me down the stairs!” she exclaimed in exasperation.

“And you were gonna stab me,” he retorted, “so let’s call it even.”

“Lonesome!” Katherine shouted, “Jawing!”

He kept his eyes locked on Clem, doing his best to ignore Katherine, as much as it tore at him. “Just going by what I’ve seen, Clem. You’ve already got blood on your hands. Dorean has shown he’s willing to kill to get what he wants. Say the two of you get the power you’re after. You think everyone is just going to do what you say? You’re going to need to show you mean business. There’ll be a sea of blood before it all settles out, and you’ll both be bathed in it. There won’t be time to decide who deserves it and who doesn’t, not chance to save someone like Clayton. And once Dorean’s had a taste of it what makes you think he’s gonna stop? What makes you think you will? Working with an Arbiter I’ve seen men who got to enjoy it. To need it. One of them was a Spirit Talker. Is that what you want, Clementine? To be a cure that’s worse than the disease?”

Her expression rapidly transitioned from insulted to angry to horrified as what he’d said sunk in. “I can keep him in check,” she said. “I can keep it from getting out of hand.”

“Take a quick look around,” Lonesome told her. “I think it’s already gotten there.”

She did look, silently taking in the rampaging rock monsters and the posse as it scrambled to stay clear of them, trying in vain to get close enough to Dorean to put him down. After a second she set her jaw. “Sorry Coop, it’s too late for – hey!”

Roots, rough and fibrous, had sprouted from the ground and begun to wrap around her feet. She looked back at Lonesome to see his hand grasping one of his many trinkets, lips moving quickly but silently as he whispered to the spirit who lived within.

With a timbre of desperation in her words she tried to convince it to stop, but it wasn’t in the mood to listen. It knew Lonesome, had lived in the piece of wood he now held for years, and was more inclined to listen to him than Clem. And so, despite her objections, it continued accelerating the growth of the ancient, gnarled roots from below. They wrapped up her legs, trapping her in place, and began working their way up her middle. She called out for another Spirit to help, but they were either too busy working the rock monsters for Dorean or not in the mood to interfere.

“Coop!” she abandoned the Spirits to appeal directly to him. “Don’t do this! You can’t kill me, Coop, it’s not right!”

Though the words brought a worried frown to Lonesome’s face, he didn’t stop speaking. The roots continued their growth until they wrapped around her neck and face, firmly lodging in her mouth so she couldn’t speak. Eyes wide with panic she waited for them to constrict, to crush the life from her in one agonizing moment. But it never came. They stopped growing once her mouth was covered, leaving her free to breathe through her nose.

“Now you just stay right there,” Lonesome told her before turning and heading right for her cavalry saber. After scooping it up from the ground he pivoted smartly and headed for Dorean, speaking aloud to the Spirits that animated the rock monsters in the hopes they’d listen to him and go do something else.

Meanwhile, Clayton had passed through the door behind the throne. Beyond was a corridor that went both left and right. He stopped, unsure of which way to go but nervously not wanting to stay put in case one of Dorean’s rock monsters came after him. He wasn’t entirely certain how it would fit through the door, but it wasn’t something he wanted to find out.

High set windows afforded enough light to see by, and Clayton scrutinized first one way and then another. Footprints in the dust and dirt on the floor provided a clue. The hallway to the right looked more heavily traveled, so that was the direction he set out in.

The corridor opened into many empty, long disused rooms. Many showed signs of at least some activity, as if someone had gone in and poked around, but Clayton spared them little more than a curious glance. He followed the corridor through twists and turns, until at last he arrived at a room that looked as if it had been designed as a temple. The stone door was as carefully balanced as the one that led into the Great Hall and equally covered in carved reliefs. Inside, more elegant columns reached for a ceiling that was domed and decoratively carved itself. And in the middle of the room was a waist high stone platform. On the floor beside it was the lockbox, and atop it’s flat stone surface were the bones that had once occupied the box. Laid out in careful order, they formed the frame of something almost human.

He stared in awe for a moment, then remembered why he was there. There was nothing at hand he could use to crush the bones easily, but maybe that didn’t need to happen just yet. If he scooped them all into the box and brought it back to the fight in the Great Hall, perhaps the simply threat of destruction would be enough. As his hand neared the bones, a strange feeling of unease descended. The hair on his outstretched arm rose, prickly and uncomfortable. When his fingers brushed a femur it was almost as if an electrical current shot up his hand. He jerked back, eyes wide, and a voice began to whisper in his ear.

As one, the rock golems stopped moving. Mid action, the animated earth simply froze into immutable rock once again. And then, as gravity once again embraced them, they began to fall apart.

“Ha!” Katherine shouted into the sound of falling rock. “Good job, Lonesome!” She started towards him, revolver pointed squarely at Dorean, who was slack jawed and wide eyed with surprise. But then she realized Lonesome wore a similar look, and stopped. “Talk to me, Cooper,” she ordered him.

“They’re gone,” he told her, eyes darting around the Great Hall as if searching for something. “The Spirits just… up and left. All of ‘em at once.”

“So, not you?”

“No,” he shook his head. “Definitely not me. Something’s wrong, Kat. Really wrong.”

Dorean began to chuckle. It was a low, throaty sound that bubbled up from his throat and burst into the air with dark merriment. Katherine glared at him, and seriously considered pulling the trigger, but she didn’t have many bullets left and didn’t particularly feel like wasting one just yet. “Something funny?” she demanded.

“It may not look it yet,” he told her with a toothy grin, “But I believe I’ve just won.”