AFX Neuromancer

Grace had just put the baby to bed and settled down on the couch next to him to watch the Texaco Star Theatre when the phone rang. She set aside the crochet hooks and yarn she was shaping into a hat and went to the kitchen to answer it. For a moment Bruce entertained the idea of telling her to relax and remain seated, it was probably for him anyway, but the host of Texaco, Milton Berle, was introducing an act that somehow involved spinning plates and poodles. He really wanted to see how that worked.

"Bruce, it's for you."

He sighed and took a sip of scotch and water. The poodles were wearing pink skirts and tiaras.

"Bruce!" called Grace.

Swearing under his breath, Bruce peeled himself from the television and stamped into the kitchen. Grace was waiting next to the refrigerator, the phone extended in her hand. "Well?" he said. "Who is it?"

He glanced at his wristwatch. It was a quarter to nine.

"It's Leonard."

Of course. Who else would it be?

His face remained impassive while a cold shiver, like a static-electric shock, made the hairs on his forearms bristle. He fumbled the exchange of the phone and managed to snag the cord between his fingers. The line went taut with the receiver dangling an inch from the linoleum. It swung like a pendulum as he reeled it back in.

Grace believed that Leonard was his primary contact for a department store looking to expand their brand to the east coast, and that his firm was spearheading the launch of the company's upcoming fall campaign. And while it wasn't unusual for him to receive business calls at night, Leonard had recently gotten into the habit of calling sometimes as late as two or three in the morning, and Grace had quickly developed a distaste for the man. Bruce didn't blame her, and wished he could confide in her that he felt the exact same way.

She watched, partially turned away from him with her arms crossed.

He pinned the phone between his shoulder and ear and shooed Grace out of the kitchen. "Lenny," he said, the manufactured pleasure in his voice concealing his unease. "What can I do for you?"

I should never have gotten involved with them, Bruce thought to himself. But it was too late to back out now, and as a consultant on retainer they paid him four thousand dollars a year. He knew people who didn't make that much from their full-time jobs.

What am I going to do in the fall? I told Grace we were going to saturate all three media markets, blitz the radio stations, television and print with advertisements. He'd even gone so far as to show her fake mock-ups of ads he claimed to be working on. Will they be willing to fabricate all that just to placate my wife? But he already knew the answer, and didn't want to think about it too long. When the time came he'd just have to invent another lie.

"Mr. Hand," said the voice on the other end. It was a powerful baritone. Bruce had come to loath it, and he involuntarily winced at the sound. "Dr. Keller believes it's time for a face-to-face. We have a plane standing by at North Beach Airport. A car will arrive at your residence in one hour to take you."

"What? No, that's not going to work. I have a meeting tomorrow morning with the people from Randolph, and then I'm taking my family to Lake Winnipesaukee for the weekend. Maybe next week I could—"

"Perhaps you misunderstood me," Leonard interrupted. "It was not a request. You will be on the flight. You will be ready to depart in one hour."

Bruce's temper flared, emboldened by three glasses of single-malt. "Wait one goddamn second. Now you listen to me. I—"

The line went dead. He slowly hung the phone back on its cradle.

What the hell excuse can I sell Grace this time? he wondered.

Bruce inched his way back to the living room and peeked around the corner. His wife was on the sofa. He heard the soft, soothing clicks of the crochet hooks as she knitted, and on the television set, Texaco Star Theater was breaking to a commercial. He'd missed the damn poodles and plates.

1

The jeep tore across the hardpan, kicking up a rooster tail of dust in its wake.

The radio on the dash crackled. "Man Eaters, hang back!" shouted a tinny voice. "You're entering the Chimney Sweep blast zone! Stop! For fuck's sake stop!"

Irvine slammed on the brakes. The other jeeps following behind him in a wedge formation did likewise, fishtailing in the sand before sliding to a halt. Echo Unit exited the vehicles and fanned out, careful not to bunch too close together. Irvine climbed the scree of a hillock. He hefted a pair of binoculars slung around his neck and raised them to his eyes. Some of the other soldiers produced binoculars of their own, and Corporal Anderson began rolling with a 16 mm camera.

A klick ahead the land funneled into a natural bottleneck formed between a butte and a spur of the Shoshone Mountains. For the past two days Foundation engineering and demolition teams had worked around the clock to wire the narrow corridor with more than ten tons of Composition C, burying it in the ground and planting it in bores drilled into the slopes. Helicopters circled in the sky high above.

"Can you see it, Lieutenant?" Kontos, his sergeant, asked.

"I can see it," Irvine said around a Winston tucked into the corner of his mouth.

Rapidly approaching the corridor was their target, codename: Wintermute. From this distance it didn't look like much, the eye couldn't distinguish the individuals that made up its whole, and so it all blurred into what may have been a giant, fleshy worm careering across the desert.

"You really think this will work?" somebody else said. It might have been Martinez.

Irvine didn't know who was being addressed, and didn't want to lower the binoculars to find out, so refrained from sharing his opinion. He thought it would work. It had to work. He hadn't slept in over thirty-six hours, probably had enough gas left in the tank to go another day or two, but by then the skip would reach Vegas and there'd be no opportunity for rest.

A butterfly stirred in his stomach. Through the magnification of the lenses it appeared as if the target was veering slightly from its southeast heading, and could potentially pass north of the butte instead of through the forecasted route. The change — if there was any change at all— was only by several degrees, and may have been distorted by the perspective angle or a trick of the setting sun.

Irvine dropped the binoculars to spare a glance at his men. One look at their faces was enough to convince him it wasn't his imagination. They'd noticed it too.

"Can you get the Chimney Sweep team on the line?" he asked Boyle, his radio operator.

"I think so, sir. They hailed us with the warning. I'll have to—"

The handheld squawked as Boyle reached for it: "Mercury for Man-Eaters. Mercury for Man-Eaters. Come in."

Irvine motioned for the walk-talkie. It was shaped like a telephone on steroids with a whip antenna. A thick cord ran from a socket beneath the mouthpiece to a transmitter that Boyle carried on his back like a rucksack.

"This is Eaters-actual, over," Irvine said.

"Eaters, we've just received word from Chimney Sweep that Wintermute has moved off course. Please confirm, over."

"Roger, Mercury. Target is off course."

Mercury was the Foundation's forward operating base located on the Jackass Flats of Nevada, east of Yucca Mountain. It consisted of a dirt airstrip set between hangers and Quonset huts.

"Copy that, Eaters. We'll get back to you with updated orders. In the meantime you're to continue pursuit."

The response generated groans and hushed protests from a majority of the squad.

Irvine said, "Mercury, you still got some of my men chaperoning the demolition team?"

"That's an affirmative."

"Well, I believe Sergeant Pangborn has an M2 with him. Have him open up with that, see if it draws Wintermute's attention."

"Copy, standby."

A moment later they heard the purr of a heavy machine gun echoing through the defile. Irvine lifted the binoculars. Come on. Come on, you bastard. Take the bait. Take the fucking bait.

But it was too late. The target had skirted around the butte, and was already exiting the M2's field of view, shielded now by the butte's sandstone caprock.

It didn't make any sense. There was nothing in that direction for miles and miles except long-abandoned towns the Foundation had already confirmed were clear.

Had Wintermute anticipated the trap laid for it? Was that even possible?

Irvine returned the walkie-talkie to Boyle, who immediately began relaying the failure to Mercury.

"Saddle up," Irvine hollered, flicking the butt of his cigarette into the sand. "We're riding out."

They piled back into the jeeps and raced across the desert like a convoy of rum runners breaking for the state line. MTF soldiers on motorcycles retrofitted for the terrain covered the rear and flanks of the formation, weaving between the larger vehicles.

Two days. Two days of meticulous planning and preparation, and in less than a minute all of it extinguished, knocked down like a flimsy house of cards. Irvine white-knuckled the steering wheel and threw the jeep into second, gathering speed as they chased down the anomaly. He didn't know what they could do now. Was there even a failsafe for Chimney Sweep? If there was they hadn't deemed to share it with him, and right now it seemed like nothing could stop it.

2

Bruce fell asleep on the plane, lulled by the constant hum of the prop engines. He woke when his ears popped during the descent, and when he looked at his watch he saw only bare wrist. There was a loose pin in the butterfly clasp that sometimes caused it to fall off. He hitched up his pant legs and knelt on the floor, prospecting the carpet with his hands and scolding himself for not getting it fixed already.

It wasn't there. The pin he could see losing, it was small, but not the actual watch, and he was sure he was wearing it because he remembered checking the time when the aircraft took off. It was still dark outside the plane's rounded windows, and for all he knew he could've been asleep for an hour or ten, although it felt closer to the former.

Did someone steal it?

But there was no one else on the plane to ask or confront, and it shortly touched down on the tarmac. From there Bruce was escorted into the back of a Lincoln parked between two runway landing lights. There was a partition separating him from the driver.

They glided over a paved road that wound furtively through a wooded area. The road was wide, and Bruce guessed it could've accommodated four or five lanes, except there were no markings, and he saw neither a road sign or a house before they arrived at his apparent destination: a large compound that sprang up in the middle of the forest like something out of a fairytale. Bruce felt both overwhelmed and uneasy as the Lincoln was waved through by a guard at a gatehouse. The guard was dressed in a starched military uniform without insignia, and armed with a rifle.

The compound was an impressive example of the Art Deco architecture that had been popular a decade prior, with streamlined features and a façade of chrome, stucco, and Vitrolite. It reminded Bruce of several trainstations he'd passed through, although it lacked the ornamentation he usually associated with the style.

The compound disappeared as the livery car slipped down a ramp into an underground parking garage. They went down a further two levels before stopping in front of a door marked as maintenance access, its corrugated steel shutter currently rolled up. A tall man wearing slacks and suspenders, the sleeves of his checkered shirt pushed past his elbows, leaned next to the door. Bruce's mouth went dry and he forced himself to swallow. He didn't want to get out of the Lincoln, but the tall man didn't offer him any choice and opened the rear passenger door.

"Mr. Hand," he said, and Bruce immediately recognized the voice. "I'm Leonard. Nice to finally meet you."

He'd never met either Dr. Keller or Leonard before tonight, at least not in person. His handler had originally been an avuncular old man by the name of Dennis who had a head of thick white hair and a penchant for tweed jackets. Their interactions had been limited to brief conversations, usually conducted over the phone, once or twice a month. The topics had varied but had always been related to market communication. About six months ago he'd been passed to a new handler identifying himself as Leonard, and initially everything had gone as expected, but over the past few days the phone calls had ballooned to the point of harassment, and the discussions had abruptly shifted to subjects in which Bruce had no experience. He was frequently asked bizarre and hypothetical questions, such as how he would conceal the death of thousands of American civilians from the general public, or what he would do if he was the only person to know that a nearby volcano was about to erupt.

"Please follow me," Leonard said.

Bruce grabbed his suitcase and allowed himself to be led through a painfully bright hallway, up three flights in an elevator, past a waiting area with a receptionist desk — deserted at this late hour — and through a series of rooms marked with biohazard and radioactive trefoil warnings. Down a flight of stairs. Left turn. Right turn. He began to suspect the layout was purposefully confusing and intended to disorient. They arrived at another door, this one with a Judas window, and a guard on the other side had to buzz them through.

They entered what appeared to be a dormitory, with tiled floors and fluorescent lighting. Numbered doors were evenly spaced along a hall that stretched the length of half a city block. All of the doors they passed were closed, the cadence of heavy breathing heard behind a few of them. At door number 306 Leonard stopped. He opened the door and flicked on the light.

Bruce's assumption of a dorm was accurate, although one he'd expect to find in a prison or state-run hospital. The floor was bare; walls cinderblocks with a coat of white paint slapped on. There wasn't even a window or desk, just a locker at the foot of the bed. At the sight of the thin mattress with its cheap motel sheets Bruce's anger and resentment flared, escalated by the shame he felt toward his own fear. This wasn't what he'd agreed to at all when he'd first met Dennis and signed his name on the dotted line.

"Hey, what the hell is this?" he said, backing out of the room. "I'm not sleeping in here. If you don't want to pay for it I'll spring for a goddamn hotel room myself."

He glanced over his shoulder, back down the hallway. The guard sat in a chair reading a newspaper and picking his nose, and Bruce had the disturbing revelation that he wasn't there to keep people out.

He was there to keep people in.

Leonard said, "The nearest hotel is more than fifty miles away, and there're no roads leading from the facility, other than the one you took to get here from the airport, of course. No, the only way in or out is on foot, by air, or by sea. We do have a dock, but there're no boats berthed tonight, and I'm afraid the current would be fighting against you. Are you a good swimmer, Mr. Hand?"

"No roads? Where is this place?" He'd been wondering this for quite some time, but hadn't had an opportunity to ask since departure. When he'd inquired about his destination to anyone back in New York they'd all responded that they didn't know.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Hand, I'm not authorized to disclose that information."

Bruce laughed. It was either that or scream. He would've strangled Leonard if he didn't have to crane his neck just to look him in the eye. The bastard reminded him of the character Lurch.

"Am I a prisoner?" he forced himself to ask. He didn't really want to know the answer, but the uncertainty was even worse.

"No, you're not. If you'd like to leave right now we won't physically stop you. We'd certainly try to convince you otherwise, and I personally advise against it. We hope to have the matter that necessitated this meeting resolved within a day or two, and after that you'll be returned home, along with a sizable gratuity based on your performance. Your cooperation, of course, is expected and could further expedite that resolution."

Leonard spoke monotonously, and yet there was an implacable strength projected through his stoic and infuriatingly polite mien. He would've made a great butler, and again Bruce was reminded of the mute Lurch from the Addams Family cartoons he used to read in the New Yorker.

Bruce said, "I never consented to this CIA covert bullshit, okay? I'm an American citizen, I'm a taxpayer. You can't treat me like this. If you don't take me to your supervisor immediately I'll contact my lawyer."

"Mr. Hand, we are not the CIA."

"What? Who the hell are you, then? FBI?"

"No." And as if that settled the matter Leonard directed his attention back to the room. "This is where you will be staying while you're here with us. Number three-oh-six. Remember it. There're no locks on the outside, but inside you'll find there is a deadbolt if you're so inclined. I do apologize for the lack of amenities."

Oh God, thought Bruce, have I been working for the KGB this whole time without knowing it? That would certainly explain the room's austere décor. Is he going to address me as comrade and tell me that if I don't play along they'll report me as a traitor? A vivid image flashed in Bruce's mind. In it he hanged from a gibbet, his pants dripping with urine, face bloated and purple, tongue lolling on his lips like a dead fish left out in the sun, dried and pebbled. A crowd of people cheered and waved American flags.

"Who are you?" he repeated, voice reduced to a whisper.

Leonard ignored him and pointed to the end of the hall, opposite of where the guard idly thumbed through the sports section. "Down there you'll find the bathrooms. Why don't you go there now and freshen up? Shave, shower, do what you need to do. I'll meet you back at your room in half an hour and we'll begin."

"Begin what?"

"Your orientation. Welcome to the Foundation, Mr. Hand."

3

The moon was rising, had reached halfway to its zenith, when Echo Unit from the Mobile Task Force "Man-Eaters" arrived at Silver Creek. At the tail end of the last century, following the discovery of a silver vein, the town had experienced a moderate surge in immigration. But by the middle of the roaring twenties the lode had been exhausted, the mine was shut, and the population dwindled until the post office eventually closed in 1948.

Irvine parked the M38 next to a tar paper shack behind what had probably served as the town's church, community center, and town hall, all rolled into one. He hopped out, and to the pair of jeeps pulling up along side of him said: "Tsavo and Bruin, you men continue the chase. We'll meet up with you in a couple of minutes. Good hunting." The rear tires spun in the sand before catching, and the two vehicles drove off to the east.

"Leslie," Irvine called. He thumbed the flint-wheel of his Zippo and cupped his hands protectively around the flame, lighting a Winston and snapping the lid shut with a satisfying clink. "Go around and lower the PSI in the tires by another two or three pounds. They're still sinking."

All of the men in the task force were expected to serve in a secondary capacity. Leslie — whose real name was Lesniewksi — pulled double-duty as the unit's mechanic.

"I'm on it," Leslie said and notched a salute.

Irvine strolled to the edge of the Silver Creek cemetery and swept his eyes over the grounds, trying to solve this new puzzle. The cemetery was illuminated by the jeep's headlights, a half acre of land overgrown with weeds and scrub, enclosed by a split-rail fence.

Sergeant Kontos approached a section of fence that had been knocked down and pounded into splinters. "Our target definitely came through here," he said, stating the obvious. Behind him Anderson began rolling with his camera.

Irvine nodded. He entered the cemetery through a small gap that had once been a gate — he could still see the rusted hinges screwed into the post on the left — and threaded his way between the plots. Brambles and Arizona thistle snagged at his boot laces and pants. Far away a group of coyotes yipped and howled in the night, while a cold wind combed the desert and drove the top layer of sand across the flat like a rushing blanket of mist.

He counted fifty freshly exhumed graves, coffins torn open from the inside and the bodies missing. It was as if they'd suddenly been resurrected and clawed their way out.

"That must be why she zigged when we needed her to zag," Martinez said, jettisoning a wad of snuff from the pocket of his cheek. "Smelled the fuckin' corpses."

"They don't need to be…y'know, alive?" Boyle asked.

"See for yourself," said Martinez, indicating the shallow holes.

The Foundation had scoured the surrounding land for any human within a fifty mile radius of the Chimney Sweep corridor. They'd closed highways and mandated the evacuation of towns under the pretense of impending tornados. After airlifting two men from a broken down International Harvester on Route 32 and a group of paleontologists digging up fossils outside the town of Charlton, the Reconnaissance and Survey department had announced the area was clear except for the presence of limited Foundation personnel.

Irvine hunkered down next to one of the pits. He removed his hat — a black Resistol — and scooped up a handful of the disinterred earth, inhaling the rich clay scent. The dirt was cool and damp; it hadn't been exposed long enough for the air to dry it out yet.

"You think Martinez is right, sir?" Boyle said.

He tipped his hand and let the soil spill like a cataract from his spaded fingertips, hollowly pattering against the lid of the empty casket. On an impulse Irvine pulled off the ivy that covered the grave's marker, a flat piece of granite with a horseshoe engraved in one corner. The marker had been split into four fragments. The epitaph was worn but — when combining all pieces — still legible. It belonged to a veteran of the Spanish-American war.

Irvine exhaled twin contrails of blue cigarette smoke from his nose. "Yeah. Yeah, it seems Mr. Martinez is right."

A splash of red caught his eye among a patch of Indian tea. He plucked it from the leaves, turned it over in his hand, and immediately dropped it.

Kontos said, "What? What was it?"

"Nothing," he said, rubbing his hands on his pants.

What he'd mistaken for a ball was actually a small head lacquered in blood, like a candied shell around a rotten apple. A millipede crept across its cheek. The lips were missing, and its milk teeth were just starting to come in through the gums. Irvine should've known better than to touch it. He told himself that even if Chimney Sweep had been successful it wouldn't have made the baby any less dead. Death didn't work on a sliding scale.

He sighed, put his hat back on and stood up. Nobody said anything. The Foundation was apparently unaware that dead bodies were affected by the phenomenon. They'd only searched for living people, and had performed a cursory examination of the Silver Creek ghost town before declaring it empty. Now the anomaly was off course, and tonight, instead of celebrating a successful mission over a couple of pints, Man-Eater was stuck wandering around the desert in the dark.

"So how come it didn't take all of them?" Kontos said.

It was a good question, one that Irvine had been mulling over. Almost half the plots had been left unscathed. And although most of the headstones had been toppled from their plinths and laid smashed to gravel among the weeds, there were a few that he could still make out. He compared the surviving stones on some of the undisturbed graves to the ones that'd been exhumed.

He said, "Most of the ones it left alone are older. A lot older. Look, this one's death is dated 1876. Maybe they're too far gone for it."

"It likes the fresh meat," Martinez said.

Irvine shrugged. "I don't think taste has anything to do with it. Boyle."

"Yes sir?"

"Get on the horn with Mercury. Tell them the news, and that it seems to be dependent on the state of decay." Anticipating the base's response, Irvine added, "And no, we don't know at what point in the decomposition process they become…ah, inedible. Inconsumable."

He could see it unfold if he closed his eyes — the skip battering its way through the graveyard, plucking the corpses from the ground like so many rows of ripened crops.

"Leslie!" he shouted.

"What?" came the reply as Leslie returned from the jeeps, wiping grease off his hands with a rag.

"You finished deflating those tires?"

"Yes sir. Also topped off the fluids, fixed Damnatio's headlights, and replaced the fan belt on Mugger. If you guys continued this circle-jerk much longer I probably could've gotten a fresh coat of wax on 'em."

"All right. No one likes a show off."

Leslie stuffed the rag in his back pocket. "Roger wilco. We do have one problem though, sir."

"Just one?" he said. "Well, that comes as good news to me. Come on, spit it out."

"We're low on fuel."

Irvine frowned beneath the brim of his cowboy hat. "How could that happen?" he said.

"It's Chimney Sweep again. We didn't plan on having to drive beyond the corridor."

"So how much gas do we have?"

Leslie said, "After refueling I've only got about ten gallons left."

"And where will that get us?"

"Thirty miles."

"Thirty miles?" Irvine repeated. "How does that work out?"

Leslie, confident in the simple calculations, shared his math. It was elementary level arithmetic, although he could see some of the soldiers struggle to follow along in their heads. "Ten gallons. The M38s get about fifteen miles to the gallon in this terrain. We've got five of them… Thirty miles."

"And how far will the gas in our tanks get us?"

"Full tanks, you're looking at two hundred and twenty five," Leslie said.

Bringing their grand total to two hundred and fifty five, assuming the remaining gas was divided equally. They might make it on that. Then again they might not. There was no way for them to condense the number of M38s to four, nevermind three, to try and save on fuel. There were sixteen members of Man-Eaters in the unit, and what little space in the jeeps they didn't occupy was packed tight with their supplies, gear, equipment and ammo. The rear seat of the jeep that Lesniewski drove had been removed specifically so that extra canisters of gasoline could fit.

"Come on," Irvine said, "I don't know about you but I've had enough of this place. Let's get the hell out of here and catch up with Tsavo and Bruin."

The wind would've long erased the tread marks left by Tsavo and Bruin. Not that it mattered. The skip itself wasn't hard to find.

All you had to do was follow the trail of the dead.

4

Bruce was ushered into a large office, with bay windows providing a vista of the forest outside and polished furniture made from Brazilian rosewood. He felt a pang of jealousy at its luxury and understated opulence. It was nicer than his own Lower Manhattan office. The scent of tobacco and lemon lingered in the room. Sitting behind a massive desk, like a defending soldier ensconced behind the walls of a fortress, was a man with more salt than pepper in his hair. Thick bifocals hung from a lanyard around his neck.

He stood when Bruce entered and held out his hand.

"Mr. Hand," he said. Bruce shook the proffered hand. "So good to finally meet you. I'm Dr. Keller. Please sit down, sit down."

Bruce sat in a Morris chair with fluted woodwork.

Dr. Keller waited politely before taking his own seat. He stared intently at Bruce while his hands explored the topography of the desk, probing until they found what they were looking for: an antique meerschaum pipe. He removed a pinch of tobacco from a nearby tin, packed the chamber and sparked a match, all the while his hooded eyes remained focused on Bruce. He took several drags from the pipe and shook the match out. "Hand, Hand, Hand," he said. His gaze finally broke when a cloud of smoke occluded his face. There was a not entirely unpleasant aroma to the tobacco smoke, hinting at Asian spices and cloves and citrus. "Hand. That's an interesting surname. I don't think I'm familiar with it. May I inquire about the origins?"

Bruce crossed his legs. "It's Jewish. It was Handelsman but was shortened when my family emigrated to America." He was tired, had gotten only four or five hours of sleep after orientation, and the coffee he'd drank earlier that morning had long since worn off. "And yours, doctor? What is the origin of Keller?"

"Ah. I believe I've put my proverbial foot in it."

"I think you mean you've put your foot in your mouth."

"Yes, probably. I've never quite grasped American idioms. But before we get off on the wrong track — or, if we already have, please allow me the opportunity to steer us back onto the right one. My name is German, as I'm sure you're aware. I left Düsseldorf in nineteen-twenty and came to the United States, probably for many of the same reasons as your own family, if I can be so bold as to presume. I have a passing interest in genealogy, which is the only reason I asked the question. My maternal grandfather is of Jewish descent, and I assure you there is no ulterior motive regarding eugenics, and certainly not the Übermensch or any other nonsensical tripe preached by the Third Reich." He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers over his paunch. The leather made a dull sound as he shifted, like crumpling a paper bag. "There. Does that…clear the air?"

Maybe the doctor was telling the truth. It was undeniable that he spoke English fluently, albeit with an accent. But after everything Bruce had learned in the past twelve hours about the Foundation, he wouldn't put it past the shadow organization to forge immigration documents in order to get a Nazi scientist on the payroll. He tried to remember what he knew about Dr. Keller. What was he a doctor of? Bruce racked his brain. He'd known it at one time.

It came to him like the metaphorical lightbulb going off above his head — psychology.

And what would the Foundation want with a German psychologist?

The explanation was obvious: manipulation. Influence. Propaganda. Indoctrination. Proselytization. He could go on and on. They'd practically invented the field, although if you asked him it was more of a pseudoscience.

"Did I use that correctly? Clear the air?"

Before he could respond Dr. Keller raised his index finger, silently requesting that Bruce wait a moment. He then leaned over and rifled through the contents of a desk drawer. "That reminds me, the cleaning crew found this on the airplane. I believe it's yours?"

He pulled out Bruce's silver Breitling watch and gave it to him. "Thank you," Bruce said, nonplussed. He hadn't expected to ever see it again. The time on the watch matched the clocks in the building, (Or was it the other way around?) implying that he'd remained in the same time zone.

Doubtful. He'd left New York in the middle of January. Looking out Dr. Keller's office windows, evergreen trees soared until their saw-toothed crowns were lost in clouds the color of pewter. The ground was hidden under a shag rug of moss and lichen. That same moss bearded tree trunks; it draped like shawls from branches and bent saplings under its weight.

It didn't look like anyplace Bruce had ever seen. It looked prehistoric. Primordial.

He inspected the clasp on the band of the watch, and to no surprise found that the loose pin was still secured in place. That meant they were either an incredibly thorough cleaning crew, to find it and put it back, or it hadn't fallen off in the first place.

He realized that the doctor had been speaking to him. He slid the watch onto his wrist, fastened the band and looked up. "I'm sorry? I didn't catch that."

"I was just saying that Leonard told me he's caught you up with our current predicament."

"Yes. I mean, as much as possible. It's a lot to take in, and I'm not really sure what I can do to help. I'm an account executive with an advertising firm."

"It's quite simple: we need your expertise, Bruce. May I call you Bruce?"

He nodded his acquiescence.

"Good. And please, call me Felix. We don't have time for the trappings of formalities. We've got work to do." Dr. Keller retrieved a manila folder from a cabinet, opened it and thumbed through several pages, then slid a sheet of paper over to Bruce. "That came in a couple of hours ago."

Bruce picked it up and read it.

STATUS REPORT

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DEPARTMENT OF STRATEGIC OPPERATIONS AND COMMAND

Foundation Base Camp Mercury, Nevada

CLASSIFICATION: Top Secret

MEMORANDUM FOR: Operation Ranger

Date: 01/25/1951

From: Robert O'Neill, Col USAF (Ret)
L4 FD Senior Field Coordinator

To: Wesley Peebles, S.O.W, C.S.D.,
L4 FD Div Operations and Strategy

Target: Wintermute is ACTIVE. At current rate it will reach LAS VEGAS (POP 50000) no later than 01/29/1951, and possibly as soon as 01/26/1951.

Impact: SEVERE. Civilian casualties continue to climb and are currently estimated at 75,000 with expected fatality rate higher than 99%. DEFENSE CONDITION 3. Potential for K-CLASS scenario is SLIGHT to MODERATE.

Resources Deployed: MTF Gamma-5 ("Red Herrings") is currently ENGAGED. MTF Epsilon-4 ("Slanted and Enchanted") is MIA and PRESUMED DEAD.

Artillery strike success is VERY LOW. SUPERFORTRESS aerial incendiary bombardment SUPERFLAMER and BLOCKBUSTER met with LOW success. HIGH EXPLOSIVE bombardment was also VERY LOW. Target Wintermute is highly mobile and evasive.

Project CHIMNEY SWEEP is a COMPLETE and UTTER FAILURE. Target Wintermute failed to arrive at predicted location. Schedule unlikely to allow for second attempt but CHIMNEY SWEEP II has been implemented and is currently underway.

Project ENKIDU has been implemented and is currently underway.

Project TOPEKA moderate success and continues.

Resource Update: MTF Eta-8 ("Man-Eaters") has replaced MTF Epsilon-4 ("Slanted and Enchanted").

Acquisition Request: IMMEDIATE deployment and discretionary approval for package ABLE.

Finished reading, Bruce frowned and tried to figure out what it all meant. As far as he was concerned it might as well have been written in a foreign language.

He returned the sheet to the desk. "I'm sorry Dr. Keller — excuse me, Felix — but I still don't see why I'm involved."

Dr. Keller handed him a second slip of paper. Bruce sighed but indulged the doctor once more. At least it was shorter than the last one.

Notes: The below transcript was broadcasted throughout the state of Nevada in violation of FCC regulations.

Source: NOAA Weather Radio

Project Codename: TOPEKA, Operation Ranger

Original Broadcast Date: 01/25/1951

Voice Message:

…THIS IS THE NEVADA WEATHER SERVICE…

…THIS IS NOT A TEST…

…THE NEVADA WEATHER SERVICE HAS ISSUED A TORNADO EMERGENCY FOR…

LANDER COUNTY, CENTRAL NEVADA.

HAZARD…DEADLY TORNADO.

AT 245 PM CDT…NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE ACQUIRED VISUAL CONFIRMATION OF AN EXTREMELY LARGE AND DEADLY TORNADO ON THE GROUND IN THE TOWN OF RIVELL, MOVING SOUTHEAST TOWARD PRISCILLA CITY, LANDER COUNTY…THIS IS AN EMERGENCY SITUATION. SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY!

…THE NEVADA STATE EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT DEPARTMENT HAS ISSUED MANDATORY EVACUATIONS FOR…
ABBINGTON, LANDER COUNTY
PRISCILLA CITY, LANDER COUNTY
SANDY SPRINGS, LANDER COUNTY

…RESIDENTS OF THESE TOWNSHIPS ARE ORDERED TO VACATE THEIR HOMES AND GO DIRECTLY TO THE NEAREST MUNICIPAL BUILDING. THE NATIONAL GUARD AND NEVADA STATE DEFENSE FORCE HAVE BEEN DEPLOYED AND WILL TRANSPORT YOU TO A SAFE LOCATION. THIS IS NOT A TEST. YOU ARE IN IMMEDIATE AND DEADLY PERIL! MOVE DIRECTLY TO THE NEAREST MUNICIPAL BUILDING IN YOUR TOWN FOR EVACUATION. YOUR LIFE IS AT RISK…YOU ARE IN MORTAL DANGER!

…THIS MESSAGE WILL REPEAT IN FIFTEEN SECONDS…

Topeka, he thought. God, they must think they're so clever. He admittedly felt a bit like Dorothy himself, a stranger in a strange land. Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

He said, "Okay, so I think I'm starting to figure this out."

During a recent phone conversation with Leonard, Bruce's answer to a random question about what he'd do to conceal the death of thousands of Americans had been to fault a natural disaster. Like an earthquake or a flood. Or a tornado. He'd rationalized that you couldn't blame anyone or anything for a tornado, except maybe Mother Nature or God. The voice out of the whirlwind and all that.

Based on the two documents they'd taken his speculative, off-the-cuff remark and applied it to the real-world. Real people. Real people who were really dead.

Suddenly Bruce didn't feel so good.

He still couldn't comprehend what the Foundation expected from him, despite Dr. Keller glossing over it with generic flattery. His expertise? What the hell was he an expert in that would be remotely applicable, that would make him in any way qualified? Didn't they realize that he dealt with client acquisition and juggling the management of accounts? He spent most of his days triaging deadlines and finding work-arounds for budgetary constraints.

"Look, I think you've got the wrong guy. I'm an account exec, which means—"

"We know exactly what it means. We also know that you didn't start off as an account executive. You graduated with a bachelors in design arts. I won't detail the highlights of your career — I'm sure you're already familiar with them — and in return I'd ask that you don't sit there and tell me with a straight face that you're not the right man for the job."

Bruce clenched his teeth. "What do you want from me?"

Dr. Keller placed his pipe on the desk and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. "I'm asking for your help, Bruce. I'm asking for your help coming up with a story to protect the public from this threat. You've already given me one successful cover, which is the reason you're sitting across from me today. But we're not out of the woods yet. If this thing reaches Las Vegas, we need to be prepared."

"Why didn't you stop it when you could?" Bruce blurted. "Why didn't you stop it when it was still young and small, instead of waiting until it got so close to Vegas."

"We tried," Dr. Keller said, grimacing. "We didn't have much information to go on. We still don't, but we tried. We thought — based on certain properties — that it may be the Gerasene demon, commonly referred to as 'Legion' from the New Testament. You may not be familiar with the story, but it's no longer relevant. It was believed it had to be that or a similar Judaic-Christian entity. The Tower of Babel, although not an entity, was also conjectured. We deployed a task force to the impacted area, call-sign Slanted and Enchanted, which specialized in theological phenomena.

"The task force was dispatched to exorcise it if containment proved inviable. A Catholic priest was part of the team, and we flew in pigs so he could cast the demon into their bodies — don't laugh, it's worked before. Obviously it didn't this time, and so we resorted to burning plants and animals, even gave it wine and gold as an offering." Dr. Keller paused and again tweezed the bridge of his nose as if it pained him. "They're all dead now. Slanted and Enchanted, that is. You saw the report. We didn't…we didn't know about the area of effect it had. After that aerial and ground bombardment commenced, but it was already too late."

They were interrupted by a knock at the door. "Come in," said Dr. Keller.

A young man with a buzz cut, dressed in a uniform similar to the one Bruce had seen the guard at the gatehouse wearing last night, stepped into the office. He didn't carry a rifle, but a pistol was holstered on his hip. He crossed the room in four swift strides and handed a letter to Dr. Keller, then turned and left without uttering a word.

Dr. Keller tamped his pipe and lit another match. He produced a letter opener and sliced the envelope open in a single, practiced stroke and unfolded the two pages contained within, holding them at arm's length instead of putting on his glasses.

"What?" Bruce said. "What is it?"

Dr. Keller handed the pages over to Bruce. ""We know what it is," he said.

5

The anomaly shed body parts like a molting snake sheds its skin. Arms and legs, heads and genitals — never a complete body, just the parts.

Vultures and buzzards orbited in thick clouds, gliding on thermal pockets of air. Irvine couldn't see them; sunrise was still an hour or so off, but he knew they were there all the same. They were always there. It was a goddamn feast for scavengers and carrion eaters, and its stench wafted for miles downwind. Everyone was answering the dinner bell. Not just the usual suspects of coyotes, raccoons and birds either; he'd also seen wolves and weasels and once he thought he'd glimpsed a mountain lion with its cubs. Their eyes reflected the headlights in green pinpoints as they moved sluggishly out of the path of the jeeps, indolent from gorging, bellies swollen with human flesh.

In addition to the body parts the skip also left behind a residue as it passed, a fetid discharge of body fluids and tissue that was the consistency of watered-down porridge. Yeah, a porridge made from blood and piss and feces and vomit and tears, thought Irvine and he shuddered. Flies buzzed and crawled on the residue trail's tacky surface in a pulsating matt. A musk hog, perched by the edge, lapped up clotted strands as if taking a sip of water along a riverbank.

Irvine, driving the M38 nicknamed Panar, was once again in the lead position, flanked by Bruin and Mugger. They were under strict orders not to get within one hundred meters of the anomaly, and he followed as close as possible without disobeying. From this distance the skip sounded like a baseball stadium right after the home team wins with a walk-off homerun. It wasn't until you got closer that the ear was able to discern tonal cues of anguish and pain and terror.

Its shape was amorphous and mercurial. Irvine had seen it sprout into a skyscraper to try and swat a helicopter out of the air, and in order to bridge a box cannon it had cambered into a block with dozens of pylon legs, each roughly the size of a telephone pole. At a trailer park it changed to a spiral galaxy, spinning around its axis, protoplasmic arms cracking open trailers like they were tin cans and devouring the occupants inside. Most of the time though it seemed to prefer a tubular shape, its motion similar to caterpillar tracks. The people that made up the tread were the lucky ones — they died quickly, their bodies crushed into paste with each revolution.

The anomaly was people. Just people. A sea of bodies, thousands and thousands of them, seething and writhing, stacked on top of each other at impossible angles and staggering, vertigo-inducing heights. Stampeding. Trampling and routing and contorting. When Irvine had first seen the instance it triggered an old memory he didn't even realize he still had. In it he was a boy of ten, maybe eleven, and his family was vacationing in Maine. They'd taken a day trip away from the beach in Wells to visit Camden Hills state park. Irvine, following a strange noise, had wandered off one of the paths. It sounded like there was a malfunctioning electrical transformer right smack in the middle of the woods. What he found instead was a massive colony of honeybees. The hive must've recently swarmed; they had temporarily relocated onto the branch of a beech tree. He'd watched the insects (he couldn't remember for how long, maybe hours, probably until his parents hollered for him) mesmerized by their sheer numbers and constant, frenetic turbulence.

The skip was the swarming beehive all over again, only now it was in human form. Gravity held no influence on it, and although basic logic told Irvine it couldn't move, couldn't do anything except collapse and disperse, what he witnessed was a different story.

It moved. It moved faster than a quarter horse when it wanted.

Its migration pattern implied awareness, as it typically sought out the nearest human while ignoring all other life forms, which remained unaffected by its phenomena. Praise the Lord for small mercies. Like most people Irvine was an animal lover, had two shepherds waiting for him back at home, and he couldn't imagine how much worse — how much larger — the instance would be if it included animals.

Early into the containment mission the skip had targeted Foundation personnel and vehicles, but quickly learned what was too fast for it to catch and gave up, intimating sentience, if of a single-minded variety. Standard possession had already been ruled out by Slanted and Enchanted, so it remained unclear what motivated the phenomenon or how it functioned.

The "Man-eaters" unit specialized in the capture and neutralization of both anomalous and non-anomalous humanoids, but Irvine wasn't sure this skip qualified. While it was certainly made of humans, that was about as far as the similarities went, and he couldn't recall ever having been assigned to such a strange case.

He again thought of the bees on the beech tree — of swarm intelligence, a decentralized global system dictating behavior and interactions with the environment. It naturally occurred in flocks of birds and schools of fish. Was that what was happening here? A new emergent behavior causing people to steer toward a random center of mass and form cohesion?

No, that wasn't it, Irvine told himself as he lit another cigarette — there was only one left in the pack. He knew this wasn't just another neural aberration because the skip had an area of effect that extended spherically about twenty feet from its surface, pulling people into it. It was like a tractor beam he'd read about once in a Buck Rogers pulp magazine. The humans trapped in it wailed and cried out for help, but that same tractor beam kept them rooted in place and adhered to one another.

Irvine grabbed the radio mic hooked to the dashboard. "Hey Martinez, what's our location?"

Martinez responded by rattling off longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates that meant absolutely nothing to Irvine. Boyle, riding shotgun in the passenger seat, jotted them down in a notebook. He would need to relay it soon to Mercury. Aerial bombardment was scheduled to recommence shortly after daybreak.

"Okay, got it. So where does that put us?"

Martinez read back the same coordinates.

Irvine said, "You keep that up and I'll bust your ass down to private so fast you'll be picking your balls out of your teeth."

"Well Lieutenant, that's gonna be a little tough considering I'm already a PFC."

He could hear the smile in Martinez's voice. "That's right," Irvine said. "Just wanted to remind you. So now that you're aware of where you stand in the command structure of this unit, I'm ordering you to shut the fuck up and give me our position. In layman's."

Martinez said, "Sir, those orders are contradictory, over."

"What?"

"I mean which one is it. Do you want me to shut the fuck up or give you the location? Over."

"Martinez…" It was fine for the men to fool around when the unit was alone. Irvine even encouraged it as he recognized its benefits for both bonding and as a release. He wasn't in the habit of pulling rank either, not often. He knew that when things got serious he could trust any and all of the men with his life. They wouldn't be in the squad if he thought otherwise. But Irvine's patience had worn thin and Martinez should've known how far to take the joke.

"Okay, okay," Martinez said over the radio. "Ahh…we're on a southeast header, of course. Always southeast. We're 'bout ninety klicks north of Mercury and two hundred klicks northwest of Vegas. Target Wintermute moving at average speed of fifteen klicks an hour."

At that pace they'd reach Vegas around 1700 local time. Irvine was curious as to why the skip appeared to be ignoring the Mercury forwarding base, which was closer. Maybe it somehow knew most of the facilities were underground and unreachable, or that they had aircraft standing by in case of evacuation. The entire staff could be up in the air in under half an hour. If the anomaly did advance on Mercury there'd be nothing for it to consume by the time it arrived.

"Don't ever make me ask you for something three times again, Martinez."

"Yes — yes sir."

Boyle's walkie-talkie chirped, signaling an inbound call from Mercury. The radios on the dash were fine for communicating with other members of Man-Eaters within the formation, but at Mercury's distance they needed the extra boost provided by the transmitter.

"Man-Eaters. Yes…copy that. Sir, I think you're going to want to take this," Boyle said, extending the receiver to Irvine.

"Uh-huh, and why's that?"

"It's Mercury sir."

"Yeah, I kind of figured that."

"They say they have positive identification on the skip."

6

After sharing dinner with Dr. Keller, Bruce was allowed some privacy to place a phone call to his wife, assuring Grace that he'd be home soon. He'd concocted an excuse that the department store was getting cold feet, threatening to pull out of the firm's advertising proposal, and as the broker of the contract Bruce had been forced to drop everything and fly to Chicago to try and salvage the deal. Leonard's frequent calls had lent credence to the lie.

He was then escorted back to the dormitory. In his room, good ole' number thirty-aught-six, he stared at the blank white walls. A stack of boxes and documents that hadn't been there this morning crowded one corner, reaching halfway to the drop ceiling and all pertaining to the skip and the Foundation as a whole. The top file, as thick as a phonebook, was titled A Comprehensive Analysis of Amnestics A-D and stamped in red as Top Secret. Even if he had two weeks to spare he'd never get through it all.

Bruce had no motivation to read; he was already suffering from an overdose of information and didn't have any vacancy left for more. When he'd read the SCP file he'd blanked out on the object classification, and had been too embarrassed to ask Dr. Keller for clarification. Keter? What'd that even mean? It was naggingly familiar, and he thought Leonard might have gone over it with him during orientation, but if he had Bruce had already forgotten the definition.

The containment procedures — skeletal in their brevity — hadn't been much help either, and had essentially amounted to stay the fuck away from it. Bruce wasn't sure why they'd bothered.

He laid his head down on the scratchy pillow, not caring enough to turn out the light. The springs in the cot dug into his back through the mattress, but he felt so exhausted he didn't think it would matter. He could've slept standing up with his eyes taped open.

"How come it took you guys so long to identify it?" he'd asked after reading over the file for a second time.

Dr. Keller had answered, "The man that wrote that has been dead for more than twenty years. There have been only five verifiable incidents, and three of them took place last century. Now I admit our filing system could use a bit of streamlining, but I hope you can understand the delay."

Bruce rolled onto his side, his knees curled up. He didn't want to think about it. Less than a day ago he'd been going about his life, blissfully ignorant of the supernatural, and now his world had been tipped upside down. Although Leonard, outside of the Wintermute target, hadn't provided specifics regarding any other anomalies the Foundation contained, the implications were clear. Bruce had learned that not only was everything he'd believed a lie, that the bedrock of his sanity was built on nothing more than sand and straw, but that reality was purposefully being twisted and concealed by a global cabal.

He grabbed the side of the cot and peered over the edge. No monsters under his bed. But now that he knew it wasn't a ridiculous fear, was he expected to check for the rest of his life?

I'll start going to shul again, he told himself. That's what I'll do. And not just on Shabbat or the holidays, but everyday. Twice a day.

He tossed and turned. As worn-out as his body was his mind was racing and he couldn't shut it off. After an hour he decided to take a shower. Sometimes that helped him fall asleep.

Bruce shuffled out of the room and down the corridor to the communal bathroom; he disrobed and slipped into one of the shower stalls. He ran the water as hot as he could stand. Still his thoughts refused to slow down, and he began musing on the anomaly's file again. It'd been the description that he'd found interesting, and he tried to recall it as the water streamed down his head and body.

…a phenomenon in which at least two Homo sapien (human being) torsos enter a state of physical attraction to one another. This attraction is comparable in strength to a magnetic field intensity estimated at 12 Teslas, or 12 Wb/m 2, causing the torsos to adhere to each other at points of contact. The phenomenon is communicable, spreading to any human torso which comes within a 5m spherical radius of an instance.

It is currently unknown what causes an event to trigger or end.

Directional movement appears to be based on human population size, density and proximity, regardless of distance or line of sight. Vectors have displayed a preference for the nearest and most concentrated populaces. Aberrations in this directional pattern have been observed at a rate of approximately 35%. The variables which cause these aberrations are currently unknown, although evidence supports both inaccessibility and velocity of targeted humans as factors.

While movement appears to be motivated by growth, instances exhibit no collective or group consciousness, and interviews with affected survivors have substantiated a lack of anomalous changes in cognitive function. Participants describe having no control over their movement, and instances display little to no self-preservation. It is also unknown how instances are able to generate and maintain locomotion, as the cessation of human life has no impact on the speed of an instance, and the highest speed has been recorded at 50 kilometers per hour, beyond the range of human capabilities.

That wasn't it, he was paraphrasing and it wasn't exactly word-for-word, but it was pretty damn close. During his briefing Leonard had shown him black-and-white footage of the skip rampaging through a small town, shot by the Foundation several days prior. The film was grainy and frequently swam out of focus — that, combined with its shaky handheld quality, hadn't made much of an impression on Bruce. It looked fake, the special effects for the people and houses way worse than the stop-motion miniatures in King Kong, and for a split second he'd wondered if someone was playing the most expensive and elaborate prank in history on him.

He still couldn't wrap his head around the concept. Tens of thousands of people in motion, packed like sardines in a tin can, stacked like cordwood. His imagination wouldn't permit the image, and the closest he could conjure was a crowd of people, which was about as far off from the truth as you could get while still being in the same neighborhood.

Bruce turned the faucet of the shower off, fingers pruned and skin flushed, and stepped out into the locker room, grabbing a clean towel from a rack. The bathroom was empty save for himself. In fact, he hadn't seen another resident of the dorms during his short stay, not even in passing. He cinched the towel around his waist and returned to his room.

He flopped onto the bed. Again, he didn't bother with the light. He told himself it was just out of laziness, but he knew it was really because he was afraid. Afraid of the dark. Afraid to go to sleep. Afraid of whatever might be lurking behind the fabric-thin swaddling cloth of reality, trying to wrench itself free.

7

They were approaching the point of no return — once they crossed that invisible threshold nuclear detonation would have a greater likelihood of irradiating Vegas, flash-searing cameos into the walls of the Fabulous Flamingo casino. Already they were close enough that, depending on the wind, it could potentially bathe the city and the surrounding suburbs in radioactive fallout.

Irvine waited for the helicopter to land, shielding his eyes as the rotors stirred the sand around him. New orders had been handed down from Mercury: he was going to rendezvous with the bird, while the rest of the convoy was headed back to the forwarding base. Conventional aerial bombardment had once again failed to stop the skip. If they'd had more time they could've coordinated another bombing run, but if they waited any longer it would shelve the nuclear option.

Command had decided to go with the latter.

According to its file — which Mercury had read off to him over the radio — the longest recorded instance of the anomaly had lasted less than five hours before inexplicably dissipating. This instance had already lasted over five days, and showed no indication of stopping. They couldn't sit back and hope that it would somehow terminate between now and when it was scheduled to reach Vegas.

They'd waited too long, spent too much time on futile containment attempts, wasted two whole days on the Chimney Sweep debacle. When the instance had crossed into Nevada from Oklahoma, they'd tried to corral it in an enclosure, the walls of which were built from shipping containers, trailers and even the caboose of a train. What part hadn't poured over it simply smashed through, ripping steel apart like it was tissue paper. By the time the Foundation had finally issued the order for termination it had already passed through half the state, and the MTF was left scrambling for heavier firepower.

The skids of the helicopter touched down. Irvine climbed in through the passenger door.

"Lieutenant," acknowledged the pilot. His name was King. He was one of Man-Eater's own, their Naval ensign, and Irvine felt relieved at the sight of his familiar face.

He saluted his men as the bird took off across the desert, the helicopter's shadow playing on the flat below. Everyone in the unit had volunteered for this last stretch of the mission, and a few of them may have even been more qualified for the job than Irvine, but he'd refused to shift the responsibility to anyone else. He was the commanding officer and was determined to see it through, not sit on the sidelines and fret while one of his men continued on without him. Besides, now that he knew they were all safe, were returning to base for some hot food and much-deserved rest, he could finally let go of the paternal anxiety that always weighed heavily on him while leading troops in combat.

King indicated for him to put on a pair of headphones and take a blue tablet wrapped in cellophane. Irvine obliged, fitting the cans over his head beneath his Resistol. He heard communication chatter sandwiched between layers of white noise and static. The tablet was resting on the console, and upon closer inspection he saw that it was iodine, used to protect the thyroid from absorption of radioactive isotopes. He swallowed it down with a chaser from his canteen.

Target Wintermute wasn't far, only two klicks ahead, biting and clawing its nebulous mass toward Las Vegas. The city was a little over a hundred kilometers to the southeast. The skip was accelerating as it drew closer, travelling at more than twenty kilometers per hour now, and that number was expected to keep rising.

Irvine was to mark the target and supply coordinates to the B-29 that'd be delivering the package "Able", a one kiloton-yield nuclear bomb.

It'd be the first nuclear detonation in the continental US since the Manhattan Project conducted Trinity in New Mexico.

The B-29 plane would make its approach at an altitude of around seven miles, and it would take the bomb a full minute to descend. At that height the bombardier probably wouldn't be able to spot the skip, despite its immense size. That was where Irvine came in. The boys back at the lab had cooked up a high-frequency beacon that would transmit its location to the B-29's firing mechanism. All they had to do was hone in on it and the payload would automatically release.

That was if the beacon worked. Mercury had been evasive when Irvine had inquired about the efficacy of its range. It seemed doubtful that the thing could squirt an accurate broadcast seven miles out. The device was a reflective cylinder weighing in at twenty pounds with multiple telescopic antennae.

The helicopter glided over the anomaly, careful to stay out of its considerable reach. The bombardment earlier that morning had set it ablaze, a column of smoke rising into the atmosphere. Maybe it would aid the B-29 in locating it. The skip's surface was scorched and bubbled, resembling a crisped marshmallow. Greasy flames licked its edges, and rivers of molten fat sluiced off its sides and dripped like melted candle wax. By now most of it was dead, but it kept rolling on. The bodies — it was easier to think of them that way, instead of actual people with lives and families — were naked, clothes rubbed away by friction. Their skin, where it wasn't broken or charred, was fire-engine red, baked by the Nevada sun. Besides the few that still clung to life, the ones that hadn't died in the bombing had perished from suffocation and blunt-force trauma.

According to its file, which Mercury had read to him over the radio, the only confirmed way to halt an instance was the complete incineration of the torsos. But even at a thousand degrees centigrade it could take an hour to thoroughly burn a human body. And there were so many of them that Irvine wasn't totally convinced that even Wintermute would do the trick. It would cremate some of them, most of them, sure, but it might just scatter the rest, and instead of a single anomaly they'd be left with multiple radioactive skips.

As he stared Irvine saw a woman gnawing on a hand, lips frothing as she worked her mouth around a stubborn finger bone. It was impossible to tell whose hand it belonged to. Maybe it was her own.

Then she was gone, replaced by a new set of faces, spinning like the reels of a slot machine.

Even high up he could smell it, a broth of human secretions and putrid flesh, now with the added aroma of cooking meat. If he closed his eyes it reminded of him of being back in the third battalion, of the stink on the way to liberate Dachau.

Irvine resisted the urge to retch, salivary glands working overtime. He shook out a Winston from the pack. It was his last. He lit it, hissing as he inhaled deeply and exhaled through his nose, trying to block out the stench.

They were now hovering directly over the skip. It roared beneath them, that stadium cheer, rah-rah, only now he could make out individual voices in the rabble. They begged to be killed, pleaded for help, for God, for their mother. Someone kept repeating the name Donald over and over again. Others just howled like a pack of rabid dogs, and buried under it all was the porcine squeal of an infant bawling.

Irvine gripped the beacon and leaned out the door, his right boot balanced on the skid. He screwed his eyes shut, hair whipping and tears streaming at his temples.

It's just the wind and the sun. Don't listen to them. Don't listen…

He couldn't help it, though. But Slanted and Enchanted is down there, somewhere, he thought. The whole goddamn unit, trapped in that abomination, that living obscenity. And they're not just another face in the crowd you can ignore and forget. You knew them. Hell, some of them were even your friends. Do you remember Lee?

He swung the beacon up and out, releasing it at the apogee of its arc. It was the only thing he could do now to try and help Slanted and Enchanted. He knew if their positions were reversed he'd pray for the release of death. The beacon spun ass over tea kettle, down, down, until it was swallowed by the instance.

"Beacon away," King announced, and yanked on the cyclic control while his feet played with pedals. The bird responded, dipping its nose and yawing before banking to the west, away from the anomaly.

"Roger that," Mercury replied on the other end. "Able is green. Man-Eater, what is your location?"

Irvine returned to his seat. He was surprised at how calm and in control his own voice sounded. "Man-Eater actual. We are…three-six-point-four-niner-three-two north and one-one-five-point-niner-five-eight-eight-three west." He repeated the location for verification.

"Mercury this is Poundstone," crackled a new voice in the headphones. "Currently cruising at thirty-one thousand feet. Bomb is armed and prime."

Poundstone was the name of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber. Irvine tried looking for it through the windscreen; it would probably be coming from the base's airstrip to the south, but he couldn't see it.

"Copy, Poundstone. You're green from Mercury."

"Roger that. Green for Able. Poundstone closing in on target, ETA two minutes."

"Man-eaters, you're to reach safe distance and then maintain position for visual confirmation of detonation."

"Copy Mercury," replied King, still throttling the joystick. Minimum safe distance was one mile from ground-zero.

8

Dr. Keller hung up the phone and passed a shaking hand over his face. "They did it. They actually did it," he said. "Sohn einer Hündin! They dropped a nuclear bomb."

"What?" Bruce said. "When?"

"Ten minutes ago."

"On Vegas?" he asked.

"No," Dr. Keller said. "About fifty miles from it."

"You have…you have access to that sort of thing?"

"Who do you think invented it?"

Bruce sat back, stunned. "Could they see it?" he managed to finally say.

"See it? They could feel it."

The desk was covered in a drift of newspapers from across the country. All of the front pages featured banner headlines about the worst natural disaster to hit the United States, accompanied by photographs of destroyed towns in Nevada. The death toll was in the tens of thousands and expected to climb. Initial estimates reported damages above one hundred million dollars.

"Did it work?"

Dr. Keller took a nervous draw from his pipe. "It hasn't been confirmed, since the site is still hot. Preliminary reports indicate success, but personnel are also hesitant to go into the area in case it wasn't one hundred percent effective. If the instance is still active, and someone gets within range…" He pinched the bridge of his nose in a gesture Bruce had come to recognize as an involuntary reaction to stress. He didn't think Dr. Keller was aware of the tic. "…If someone gets within range they'd be feeding it a new torso, and the process would start all over again."

"These amnesiac drugs you told me about…" said Bruce.

"Amnestics."

"Right, amnestics. What if we put it in the Vegas water supply?"

"Lake Mead?" Dr. Keller stroked the stubble on his chin. "No, that won't work."

"Why not?"

"I'm just guessing, but Lake Mead must have billions of gallons of water." He counted the reasons off on his finger as he went along. "Even if we had enough water soluble amnestics — which we don't — there would be no way to control the administration. You'd be giving children the same dosage strength as an adult. People would be showering and cooking with it. Watering their lawns. Giving it to their pets. And Lake Mead isn't just the water supply for Vegas. It also feeds into most of Arizona and even parts of California. No, no it won't work."

"What about air dispersal?"

"There's a prototype, but you run into the same problem. Quantity and administration. No, I don't see any way of erasing their memories. Even if we were able to, a nuclear explosion leaves behind physical evidence. Most of the isotopes have a half life of only a couple of days, but there are others that last for centuries. Fallout is being blown into Utah. And if the Soviets don't already know about the detonation, they will soon."

"You're telling me there's no way to hide the fact that we just dropped a nuke," Bruce said.

Dr. Keller sighed. "I don't see any."

"If we can't hide it then we can't deny it."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean we have to admit we dropped it. You said it yourself that we can't hide it and we can't erase their memories. What option does that leave us? We need to come out ahead of this thing. Tell the public we dropped a nuclear bomb."

"Ha!" Dr. Keller snorted. "In the backyard of a major population center? While we're at it why don't we tell them there weren't any tornados."

"You got any better suggestions?" snapped Bruce. He had barely slept and wasn't in the mood to trade barbs. If they wanted his advice on how to spin this he'd give it the old college try, especially if it meant he got to go home sooner, but they needed to listen. "We tell them it was a scheduled test, that it was planned far in advanced and perfectly executed."

"With no prior warning to the community."

Bruce waved the comment off. For the first time in days he felt in control; there was no more fear, no more anxiety. "There was plenty of communication preceding the detonation. How many people do you have like me, that work for the Foundation, living in Nevada?"

"I don't know for sure, I'd have to check. Not many. Probably fifty, maybe a hundred. No more than that."

"It's not enough. You may have to pay some people off to say that they knew about the test. Prominent figures. We'll put handbills in past newspapers, say two weeks ago. You're going to have to control the media, somehow. Broadcasters, radio pundits and news anchors. They have to sell this for us like it was completely ordinary and expected. When Bob comes into the office on Monday morning complaining about the explosion, I want his coworkers to tell him they all knew about the test ahead of time and had even discussed it in the break room last Friday. He was there, didn't he remember? In two weeks time Bob will actually believe that he knew about it, too."

"Who's Bob?"

"He's a figment of my imagination, Felix. I made him up as an example. Come on, try to keep up."

Dr. Keller bit the inside of his cheek. "It could work…"

"It will work," corrected Bruce. Now he was cooking, was on a roll. This is what he did. This is how he put food on the table, how he paid for the lake house and the set mistress up in a studio in Soho. He'd been away from it for so long he'd forgotten how good it felt when it all aligned perfectly in his head, from conception to execution. They'll believe what I tell them to believe. When I say there're tornados in Nevada in the goddamn winter it makes the front page.

"But we need to drop more," he said.

"What?"

"One detonation isn't a test, it's a mistake. But if we drop more, people will assume the first wasn't an accident."

"More?" sputtered Dr. Keller. "More? Did you hear what I said? The fallout is getting pushed into Utah."

"I heard what you said. And I also heard you say that we didn't know if the first one was successful or not. So I'm saying drop another one."

Dr. Keller shook his head sadly, but Bruce could see that he knew he was right. There were no other options.

I'm not going to sleep here another night. Not one more.

"One maybe," Dr. Keller said. "But more? I can't believe the residents of Las Vegas would stand for it."

"Sure they will. We'll advertise it as a tourist attraction. 'Come to Vegas and Celebrate the Fourth of July with the biggest fireworks display in the world.' That sort of thing. People will eat it up."

9

The helicopter must've been shielded, because it didn't dive into a tailspin following the EMP blast. It shook and rattled with the shockwave, an alarm blared in the cockpit and Irvine felt like he'd been set to the tumble dry setting, but they retained their altitude.

After the blistering, trillion-watt flashbulb receded, Irvine hazarded a glance. A pillowy mushroom cloud, like a volcanic eruption, was rising into the stratosphere three miles away.

"Detonation confirmed," King reported with awe.

"Copy, Man-Eater. Please verify Target Wintermute has been neutralized."

"Negative, Mercury," King said. "We do not have eyes on target. It appears to be a direct hit, but if there's anything left to see of Wintermute it's obscured."

"Copy. We're en route to you. Maintain a holding pattern around the impact site at a safe distance and report any change in status."

"Roger that."

The bird described a wide circle around the stem of the cloud, both pilot and passenger scanning the ground for any signs of life. There was nothing except for burning sagebrush and pinon-juniper. There was a mirror shine where sand had fused to glass, and Irvine set to wondering just how safe they really were this close to the nuclear explosion. The windshield of the helicopter appeared to be polarized, but he doubted that would stop gamma rays, and a creeping dose of radiation, dying only after several agonizing days, spraying blood from both ends and having his hair and fingernails fall out, wasn't exactly Irvine's ideal way to go.

He voiced his concerns to King. The pilot said, "We're definitely soaking up more than we should, probably a decade's worth, but we should be okay. It's like having a couple of x-rays at the hospital."

Irvine wasn't so sure about that, but he was too tired to argue. He yawned and settled back in the seat, his exhaustion finally catching up to him. "How much fuel we got in this thing?"

King glanced down at the gauges. "We've got another hour left."

One hour. One more hour. He could handle that. Then, as long as the skip didn't re-emerge suddenly like the villain at the end of a horror movie, he'd go through radioactive decontamination for several days. As the commanding officer in the field he'd also have to write up an after-action report for the Foundation's records. When it was all said and done he was probably looking at another week before he could go home.

For Irvine it couldn't come soon enough. He had a date with two beautiful girls that he intended to keep. They were Australian Shepherds, a breed of dog called Kelpies, sisters he'd named Nico and Lucy. They were waiting from him back home, being watched by his next-door neighbor until his return.

10

Bruce's commitment not to spend another night in the Foundation compound didn't come true, but for the first time since his arrival he slept deeply and soundly.

"I have some good news for you," Dr. Keller said to him Sunday morning, as they ate breakfast in his office. "You'll be going home shortly — in another hour or two, I'd say. The SOC has approved our proposition."

He tapped a newspaper on the desk with a yellowed, nicotine-stained finger. It was the Las Vegas Sun. The front-page story pertained to the Atomic Energy Commission and the US Department of Energy commencing nuclear testing — as scheduled — at the new Nevada Test Site. The paper conveniently contained another copy of the handbill it said to have originally included seventeen issues prior.

WARNING

[[>]] January 11, 1951 [[>]]

From this day forward the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission has been authorized to use part of the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range for test work necessary to the atomic weapons development program.

Test activities will include experimental nuclear detonations for the development of atomic bombs — so called "A-Bombs" — carried out under controlled conditions.

Tests will be conducted on a routine basis for an indefinite period.

NO PUBLIC ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE TIME OF ANY TEST WILL BE MADE

Unauthorized persons who pass inside the limits of the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range may be subject to inquiry from or as a result of the AEC test activites.

Health and safety authorities have determined that no danger from or as a result of AEC test activities may be expected outside the limits of the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range. All necessary precautions, including radiological surveys and patrolling of the surrounding territory, will be undertaken to insure that safety conditions are maintened.

Full security restrictions of the Atomic Energy Act will apply to the work of this area.

RALPH P. JOHNSON, Project Manager
Las Vegas Project Office
U.S. Atomic Energy Commission

"Pretty good," Bruce said, bobbing his head.

"It's the work of our Red Herrings team. Morning television and radio news broadcast will be doling out much of the same. Funding has also been set aside for the paid consent of prominent local figures — politicians and businessmen, as well as a random assortment of individuals who display a proclivity toward subornation. Another detonation is planned for later today. We were extremely lucky, all things considered. The Foundation's base in Mercury is to be scrubbed clean and will be turned over to the federal government, along with the surrounding land. All of it's to be consolidated under the Nellis Air Force base."

"How were we lucky?"

Dr. Keller said, "The United States has been seeking continental atomic weapon testing ever since the end of the Pacific theater, and initial surveys indicate the Jackass Flat is suitable for both atmospheric and underground detonations. That, in combination with its relative seclusion and lack of flora and fauna make it a favorable location for continued testing."

"So really it couldn't have happened in a better place," Bruce said.

"It's unfortunate, but under the circumstances…yes."

They sat and ironed out additional details, most of which were standard boilerplate forms for Bruce to complete. Leonard appeared shortly with his suitcase and then led him back to the garage, where the black Lincoln idled once again. Except for the difference in the time of day it was all so familiar to Bruce's initial arrival that he had a sense of déjà vu. A short ride later and he was pulling onto the runway.

He was surprised to find a second car waiting by the plane. Dr. Keller stood by the rear bumper, wearing a long double-breasted trench coat that flapped about him in the wind. Bruce approached him and shook his outstretched hand.

Dr. Keller laid his other hand on Bruce's shoulder. "I just wanted to see you off and say goodbye," he said.

Bruce was flattered by his cordiality and warmth. "Yeah, thanks. It was nice meeting you, Felix. It's been quite an experience. I don't think I'll ever forget it."

"Oh, I'm sure by this time next week you won't spare us a second thought."

They exchanged a few more pleasantries and then Bruce trundled up the steps into the plane. That was sweet of him, he thought, wondering why the doctor had felt their farewell in his office hasn't been sufficient.

An hour into the flight the copilot left the cockpit and went into the cabin to check on their sole passenger. If Bruce had been awake he would've described the tall and gangly man as looking like Lurch from the Adams Family, but he was snoring in his chair, half a glass of whiskey left on his seat tray. Leonard was relieved that Bruce had helped himself to the bar; it was either that or he'd be forced to administer the amnestics intravenously. By drinking the laced whiskey Bruce had saved him the trouble. It was only a Class D — he'd wake up with one hell of a hangover and no recollection of the last few days, but that would be the extent of the memory loss. He might even retain some fragments of the puzzle, but nothing he could piece together that would make any sense.

Leonard was on his way back to the cockpit when he remembered the watch. He retraced his steps back to Bruce and carefully set the timepiece back three hours, to Eastern Standard Time. When he'd tried to do this the first time a damn pin had come loose and it'd taken him hours to find it and figure out where it went, returning the watch to him the next day. He didn't intend on making the same mistake twice.

11

OPERATION RANGER

Name Yield Status
Baker 8 kilotons Detonation January, 28 1951.
Easy 1 kiloton Detonation February 1, 1951.
Baker 2 8 kilotons Approved. Pending detonation.

The End.

09/26/17

began working on logistics of the plan, and another detonation is planned for later today."

He slapped a newspaper down on the desk. It was the Las Vegas Sun. The front story was about the nuclear detonation going as scheduled at the

"Good," Bruce said, heading bobbing up and down.

"Haven't been sleeping much," he confessed, knuckling a rheumy eye.

"I do have some good news for you. You'll be going home shortly — by midafternoon, I'd say. The SOC has approved our proposition."

"I wish I could say it's been a pleasure…" Bruce said.

"Yes, I understand. Under these circumstances it's difficult to feel anything accept grief and misdirected guilt, but I'm telling you that you should feel proud.

We're en route to your location. Please maintain a holding pattern around the impact site at a safe distance and report any "

Mercury had supplied the bird with a pair of polarized binoculars. Irvine surveyed the impact site with them. He held his hand over the microphone of his headset and commented to King, "I can't see anything with these damn things."

"Here, let me take a look."

Irvine shrugged and handed the pair to King. "There's too much shit thrown in the air. I don't know what they expect us to see."

"You're right," agreed King after a minute. "I don't see anything. Uh, Mercury. We have no visual on Able due to

Name Yield Status
Baker 8 kilotons Detonated January, 28 1951.
Easy 1 kiloton Detonate February 1, 1951.
Baker 2 8 kilotons Approved. Pending detonation.

10

Irvine was bone-tired, there was a sharp pain in the heel of his left foot, his whole body ached, and he desperately needed a shower. In the past five days he'd gotten less than twenty hours of sleep.

He limped up the porch steps of the ranch-style house. It sat on a plot of forty acres. There was an oak tree in the front yard and a small vegetable garden out back. He fished his house keys out of his hip pocket, unlocked the door and braced himself for the attack.

It came swift and sudden. The two Australian shepherds, Niko and Lucy, had been waiting for him every since they heard his pickup pull into the driveway. They barked frantically and lunged, Lucy's forepaw accidentally striking Irvine in the groin. He was bowled over by the weight of the two, falling back on the porch. They barked, tails wagging frantically, as they pursued him, licking his face and vibrating with excitement. He managed to grab hold of Lucy and embraced her with a tight hug.

It was good to be home.

11

"It's been a pleasure working with you," Bruce said, shaking Dr. Keller's hand. He didn't even know whether he was telling the truth or not.

The black Lincoln idled in the parking garage. Leonard stood nearby, hands held in front of him.

"Thank you for all your help," Dr. Keller replied.

"Well, I'm going to be expecting a sizable check in my bank account." He laughed while the chauffer took his suitcase and packed it in the trunk. "Seriously though, it's been an experience I won't ever forget."

Dr. Keller replied, "Yes, you will."

The End

09/15/2017

"That's a bit convenient, don't you think? The same day the most severe system in US history dissipates we happen to drop a nuclear bomb?"

Bruce waved it off. "The testing was planned ahead of the storm, no way to predict it. And all you say is that the scientific verdict is currently out as to whether the bomb had any meteorological impact. People will connect the dots and will be happy that we dropped it."

Dr. Keller was shaking his head. "They won't believe it.

But Bruce was on a roll and couldn't be discouraged. This is what he did. This is what he did best in the world, how he supported his family, how he paid for the lake house and the mistress in Soho.

//They'll believe it. They'll believe what I tell them to believe. //

It was amazing what an insulator the human body was, protecting its interior.

"Poundstone, are you reading the signal?"

"Negative. We're three minutes from target."

Poundstone must've been of the name of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber. Irvine tried looking for it through the windscreen; it would probably be coming from the base's airstrip to the south, but he couldn't see it.

"Mercury for Man-Eater. Are you at a safe distance?"

Irvine raised his eyebrows and looked to the helicopter pilot, who nodded. "Man-Eater actual, that's an affirmative. We're at a safe location. Over."

"Hold your position and standby for visual confirmation."

"Roger that."

The helicopter pilot ignored the order and continued to move away from the skip. Irvine didn't argue. A single mile between him and a nuclear explosion wasn't a comfortable buffer, and he was all for getting as didn't hold position

The object classification of 'Keter' didn't mean anything to Bruce, although the word was naggingly familiar. Maybe Leonard had gone over it that morning, but if he had Bruce hadn't retained the definition. There was text — skeletal in its brevity — under the containment header that amounted to 'stay the hell away from it'. It was the description field that he found interesting.

"How come it took you guys so long to identify it?" he asked.

Dr. Keller said, "The man that wrote that has been dead for more than twenty years. There have been only two verifiable incidents, and both took place last century. Now I admit our filing system could use a bit of streamlining, but I hope you can understand the delay."

"It doesn't really tell us much."

"For our purposes, no," admitted Dr. Keller. "The information, even now that we know its designation, is still very limited."

"It doesn't even tell us what it is," Bruce said.

"Yes it does. It's right there. A phenomenon that causes at least two human bodies to fuse together."

"Yeah, but what causes the phenomenon?"

"Ah, that I'm afraid is beyond our wissen."

"Our what?"

"Umm…ken? Knowledge?"

"Okay, but why does it happen? What triggers it and what makes it stop?"

"Everything I know you're holding right now in your hand. I don't have any insight into it's nature beyond that file. It's these types of questions we try to answer through containment, through study and research."

"But it can't be contained," Bruce pointed out.

"It would seem not. And we have…" Dr. Keller glanced at the clock on the wall. "Approximately seven hours until it reaches Las Vegas."

Bruce swore under his breath. Only seven hours? He was hoping they'd have more time.

"It says here that in both two incidents the anomaly eventually terminated on its own."

Dr. Keller nodded. "Yes. Once instance was approximately twenty minutes long, the other five hours, before both dissipated for unknown reasons. The current instance has last more than four days. I don't want to take the chance that it may feel like stopping in the next seven hours. This really isn't under our purview anyway. This will all be handled by the MTF and the SOC. What we need to focus on is what's released to the public."

"If it reaches Vegas there'll be no way to cover it up. You can whitewash the death of fifty thousand people."

"I pray it doesn't come to that," Dr. Keller replied. "But if we had to-"

"No way. Uh-uh. That's fifty thousand in the immediate vicinity, not including those that'll be impacted by it indirectly. Friends and family that might live out of state. People are going to notice when the entire city of Las Vegas up and vanishes over night."

Dr. Keller said, "You read the operation status report. You know how many people have already been impacted directly."

Bruce tried to remember. It was a lot. More than the population of Las Vegas.

"So don't tell me it can't be done," Dr. Keller continued. "Because you've already done it. As far as the rest of the country is concerned, Nevada is currently besieged by violent storms spawning tornados. The AP has already picked up the story and it's going to run in every major newspaper starting with this evening's edition."

He glimpsed over at the skip. He tried to avoid it, didn't like looking at it this close where he could make out the individual faces. It looked like most of them had died during the night, that or they were unconscious. He couldn't imagine anyone being able to sleep. There was a naked woman — they were all naked, their clothes rubbed away from friction — and she was working her mouth around something.

Where the hell did she get a sandwich?

Her cheeks and lips were smeared with raspberry jam. She was having a tough go at the last bite, the tendons in her face clenched as her jaw flexed. She spit the morsel halfway out, catching it between her front teeth. Irvine had thought she was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but now it looked like a raw

That's what the skip was to him: that same swarming, hypermanic bee colony, returning to Irvine in human form after being gone for so many decades.

cartilage

That would be even more terrifying, as it would mean the anomaly wasn't the instrument of a separate, outside agency, that it wasn't necessarily beyond our — as in the collective human race's — control, but rather that we were responsible.

— and said over his shoulder, "Pass me some water and one of those bennies, will you?"

Corporal Anderson handed him a canteen and a small white inhaler from the backseat. Irvine popped the sterilization wrapping over the nozzle and administered a full dose up each nostril. It immediately cleared up his sinus passages and he could taste the rubbery drip in the back of his throat. The slang 'benny' was short for Benzedrine, the first marketed pharmaceutical amphetamine. The Foundation's version wasn't chemically identical to its namesake, but the effects were the same. Irvine wasn't falling asleep at the wheel, but felt he needed the edge the stimulant would provide.

He rode on, the cherry ember of the cigarette a red dwarf against the gray predawn sky. Through the windshield the anomaly surged and coursed across the sand. More than half of the people trapped in it were already dead, their limp corpses still fixed to the instance. There were a lot of ways to die being pressed together with tens of thousands of other people. Suffocation and blunt force trauma were the most common, but there was also hyperthermia, dehydration, and a myriad of other conditions. As Irvine drove he saw a woman chewing on someone's hand. She looked rabid, frothing with saliva and blood as her mouth worked around a thumb. She was naked — most of them were — clothes worn away by friction, skin like a lobster from baking in the desert sun.

Then the skip rolled and she was gone, replaced by another crowd of people just like her.

At dawn they radioed their location to Mercury. Airstrikes were scheduled to recommence shortly after daybreak. They'd had little success actually hitting the target, and after the debacle with Chimney Sweep Irvine had very little faith

So how did it form decisions, even decisions made instinctually? It was currently impossible to interview affected people, and there were no known survivors, but it didn't appear to have a hive mind.

Nobody knew if it was somehow leeching information from them, piggybacking on their sensory organs.

It was unclear where this comprehension and motivation originated — the anomaly had no components except for the people of which it was comprised, which meant no identifiable sensory organs. It was possible that it was somehow piggybacking on the sensory organs of the humans it had ensnared, but

It was getting larger.

Irvine eased off the gas pedal, the jeep coasting over a dune as the needle of the speedometer dropped. Still the skip grew larger as it drew closer to the vehicle.

"Fuck," cursed Irvine. "Hold on."

Boyle, riding shotgun in the passenger seat, braced himself as Irvine stomped on the brake, feathered the clutch and threw the gearshift into reverse. Neither Bruin and Mugger were as quick to react and soon both M38s passed him on either side. Irvine twisted in his seat, hand propped against the back of Boyle's headrest as he drove backwards, the jeeps behind him slaloming out of the way.

"Warn them," he said to Boyle between bared teeth. "Tell them."

Boyle snatched up the dangling mic. "Man-Eaters pull back! Mugger! Bruin! Tsavo move! Get out of the fucking way!"

Irvine glanced forward in time to see Sawyer ripped from his seat in Mugger. The sergeant flew through the air and joined the

most of their clothes

In addition to emergency medical supplies, standard Foundation protocol for a mission like this was to dispense rations of performance-enhancing and mood-altering drugs. You never knew when they'd come in handy.

Irvine popped the sterilization covering over the nozzle and administered a full squirt up each nostril. It immediately cleared up his sinus passages and he could taste the rubbery drip in the back of his throat. The slang term 'benny' was short for Benzedrine, the first pharmaceutical amphetamine. The Foundation's version wasn't chemically identical to its namesake, but the results were the same, and right now Irvine needed the stimulant. He was practically falling asleep at the wheel.

the cherry ember a red dwarf against the dark night. He'd tried to kick the habit after returning home from the war, but had found himself rooting through the trash for the crumpled pack of Winston's he'd tossed out two days earlier, his hands shaking. He hadn't tried to quit since. After being recruited to the Foundation, it didn't seem to matter much anyway. Irvine had the notion that everyone walking around had an expiration date, and that he was long past his.

It tasted like rubber, but "Bennies" was slang for the pharmaceutical Benzedrine, the Foundation's formula of

A large cat — probably a bobcat or a lynx — darted out from the shadows of a sagebrush. Irvine swerved but still

migrate

And even if a person wanted to

metastasis collective cell migration,
if single-minded

intentional

dirtbikes, atvs

like they were a modeling kit a child had glued together haphazardly without reading any instructions. Gravity seemed to hold no influence on it, and although basic logic told him Irvine couldn't move, couldn't do anything except collapse and disperse, his eyes told a different story.

From what he'd been briefed on the Skytrain flying into Nevada, Irvine had been expecting a sea of bodies mindlessly stampeding across the desert. There were photographs in the case file, but they were grainy and it was hard to tell what you were looking at. When he saw it for himself the first time it stole his breath away. It was a seething, writhing mass of bodies stacked on bodies at impossible angles and impossible heights, like they were a modeling kit a child had glued together haphazardly without reading any instructions. Gravity seemed to hold no influence on it, and although basic logic told him Irvine couldn't move, couldn't do anything except collapse and disperse, his eyes told a different story.

It moved.

It moved faster than an Olympic sprinter.

Downwind you could smell the skip from miles away.

At Keysville, which was a collection of homesteads and tar-paper shacks lying adjacent to Route 18, a single traffic light blinked where the highway intersected Rural Route 64 West. A half-mile down that dirt road was a trailer park, inhabited mostly by people suffering from tuberculosis. They'd been sent to Nevada by their doctor, who prescribed the dry desert air under the pretense of treatment. The real reason was the landowner they rented from was the very same pulmonologist's brother-in-law, who was sick of lending money to his sister and received a kickback for the referrals.

Project Topeka was inchoate and playing catch-up, and so many of the consumptive residents of Rural Route 64 were still home when the skip arrived. Irvine watched in muted dismay as it transformed into a spiral galaxy, spinning along its axis while protoplasmic arms spread out and broke into the trailers like opening tin cans.

He wasn't disappointed. It was all that…and more.

He'd once been involved in the emergency response to a hotel fire in Havana, and a majority of the tourists trapped inside had clogged the main entranceway of the lobby in their attempt to escape. They'd pushed and shoved, trampling women and children while their hair went up like torches and their clothes blackened and smoldered. Eventually, fueled by desperation and blind panic, they'd created a ramp of bodies that blocked the entrance from floor to ceiling. The MTF arrived only a few minutes after the first call had come in, and Irvine had listened on the other side of the doors as the hotel guests that hadn't yet succumbed to smoke inhalation wailed and screamed

with safe unobstructed exits just a few feet away.

The hotel was a renovated fort dating back three hundred years and the bottom floor lacked windows

even though there were plenty of other exits clearly marked and free of congestion and flame.

That's what Irvine had been expecting. Instead he'd been shown a seething, writhing mass of bodies stacked on bodies at impossible angles and impossible heights, like they were a modeling kit a child had glued together haphazardly without reading any instructions. Gravity seemed to hold no influence on the structure, and although basic logic told him it couldn't move, couldn't do anything except collapse and disperse, his eyes told a different story.

It moved.

It moved faster than an Olympic sprinter.

At Keysville, which was a collection of homesteads and tar-paper shacks lying adjacent to Route 18, a single traffic light blinked where the highway intersected Rural Route 64 West. A half-mile down that dirt road was a trailer park, inhabited mostly by people suffering from tuberculosis. They'd been sent to Nevada by their doctor, who prescribed the dry desert air under the pretense of treatment. The real reason was the landowner they rented from was the very same pulmonologist's brother-in-law, who was sick of lending money to his sister and received a kickback for the referrals.

Project Topeka was inchoate and playing catch-up, and so many of the consumptive residents of Rural Route 64 were still home when the skip arrived. Irvine watched in muted dismay as it transformed into a spiral galaxy, spinning along its axis while protoplasmic arms spread out and broke into the trailers like opening tin cans.

Downwind you could smell the skip from miles away.

Saturdaym January 27th, 13:44:51 at NTS Area 5 ~ 36.82664°N 115.95883°W

congestion

protoplasmic

spiral galaxy, arms reaching out to embrace

had the nickname Panar painted on its hood along with the numeral one. Blotches of paint meant to resemble leopard spots marked the sides and rear of the vehicle, but gave it a polka dot appearance rather than anything remotely threatening.

If the documents were taken at face-value, the idea had actually worked better than all the other plans and machinations the Foundation had devised so far. Besides Topeka he didn't know what the other codenames meant, just their status as failures.

"I'm not sure I feel comfortable about this. When I said that — about the tornadoes — I didn't think you'd take me seriously. I thought the questions…I thought they were all hypothetical. Christ." He scooted forward in the chair and held his head in his hands. "I don't think I can do this. I don't."

Dr. Keller tamped his pipe and lit another match. "Relax Bruce," he said between puffs. "Don't get sanctimonious. You're part of the solution, not part of the problem. You didn't cause those deaths by any stretch of the imagination. And neither did the Foundation. We're not in the business of murder. We're trying to save these people's lives, and because of you we were able to accomplish just that."

Bruce picked his head up. He took deep, steady breaths to fight the urge to vomit.

"Did you even read that radio transcript? We evacuated towns in the path of the anomaly based on the premise of your lie. You saved hundreds, maybe thousands, and I'm not exaggerating. For those we did lose you should feel no more guilt than when you read about a pileup on the expressway or a fire in a tenement building. 'Why shouldn't you feel guilt,' you may be asking yourself. And I'll tell you why: because there was nothing you could do to stop it. "

"I can't handle the responsibility—"

"Don't be infantile," Dr. Keller said. "You called it a natural disaster — that's about as close as you can get to the truth with it still remaining a lie. What we're dealing with is an unnatural disaster, and your country needs your help. It's time to step up like you did a few days ago, the only difference today being that your no longer ignorant of the stakes."

Bruce's salivary glands were working overtime, the impulse to throw up balanced precariously on a ledge. A slight push would send him over. He closed his eyes. It didn't help that he was being morally admonished by what may very well have been a war criminal, a genocidal fascist.

Dr. Keller continued, "I'm not asking you to sacrifice anything except your time and attention, both of which you'll be paid for. We've moved on to a different stage in the planning, anyway. If I'd known you'd react this way I wouldn't have let Leonard divulge any of the details. Now, can I count on your support and aid?"

He said, his throat tight, "I just — I don't think I can handle this, okay? I'm not built for this. You've got the wrong guy. I'm an ad exec, which means—"

"We know exactly what it means. It means you're not only used to working under time crunches. Well, we've got a deadline of about…" He eyed a clock on the wall. "…sixteen hours before this disaster reaches

Not everyone, but a lot of people. If you'll pardon my poor choice in words and promise to not let it go to your head, I believe you're a hero."

"Bullshit," Bruce snorted and looked up at Dr. Keller.

"Didn't you read the transcript? We evacuated towns in the path of the anomaly based on the premise of your lies. It's not bullshit. You saved people."

"Yeah, but many people are dead."

January 1951 13:44:51.0

they rode into the night

Bruce frowned, tried to concentrate. There were a million questions he wanted to ask, so many in fact that the burden of choice made it impossible to select only one.

"I don't understand why you don't just destroy it," he managed to say. "I get that it's not what you'd prefer to do, but this thing doesn't seem to be containable."

"Oh, undoubtedly it needs to be destroyed," agreed Dr. Keller. "But you have to understand and even right now we have almost zero information as to its properties. At first we believed it to be a manifestation of the

gluttony punishment third circle

They spent the next several hours working together, going over possible avenues to attack the problem, with a focus on the prevention or suppression of public awareness. Bruce didn't see how it was possible to keep something so large — so devastating — a secret, but if it meant getting home sooner, he was willing to give it the old college try. Keller's secretary sat in a corner of the room, taking notes via shorthand. She was as quiet and unobtrusive as a dormouse, and Bruce wasn't sure when she'd come in, or if she'd been there the entire time.

There were frequent interruptions, either the phone ringing, or letters delivered by hand to Keller. inbox, and he would sit quietly, listening and reading, pulling on the stem of his pipe, his head permanently haloed in tobacco smoke.

absently tamped his

"Sure," Bruce said. "As long as you don't mind me asking what your doctorate is in."

"Psychology," replied Dr. Keller.

Bruce tried to remember whether he knew that already or not. It wasn't the kind of specialty he'd been expecting. Chemistry, rocketry, nuclear physics. Something else. Something less subjective and more exploitable.

What the hell would anyone want with a psychologist? Germans practically invented the field, true, and most of them were Jewish. But what can you do with that? What can the Foundation do with that?

The answer came immediately: Manipulation. Propaganda. Influence.

Pretty much the exact same thing that Bruce did every day.

"Before I forget," Dr. Keller said, rifling through a desk drawer. "The cleaning crew found this on the airplane." He pulled out a silver wristwatch. "I believe this is yours, correct?"

Bruce nodded. "Thank you for returning it," he said and accepted it. The time on the watch matched the clocks in the building, (Or was it the other way around?) implying that he'd remained in the same time zone.

He'd left New York in the middle of January.

Looking out Dr. Keller's wide bay windows, evergreen trees soared until their serrated tops were lost in a cloud bank. The forest floor was carpeted in a thick layer of moss and lichen, still bright green despite the time of year. As he watched, the largest deer Bruce had ever seen in his life appeared between the bearded trunks of two trees. It's antlers would've made an impressive must've been a sixteen-point buck.

He inspected the clasp on the band, and to no surprise found that the loose pin was still in place. That meant they were either an incredible

"So at half capacity we're looking at eighty miles, give or take," completed Irvine. "Bringing our grand total to one hundred and thirty miles." They might make it on a hundred and thirty miles. Then again they might not.

There was no way for them to condense the number of M38s to four, nevermind three, to try and save on fuel. There were sixteen members of Man-Eaters in the unit, and what little space in the jeeps they didn't take up was occupied by their supplies. The rear seat of the jeep that Lesniewski manned had been removed specifically so that extra jugs of gasoline could fit.

"Come on," Irvine said, "I don't know about you but I've had enough of this place. Let's get the hell out of here and catch up with Tsavo and Bruin."

He used the steering wheel as leverage to pull himself into the driver's seat of the lead jeep. It had the nickname Panar painted on its hood along with the numeral one. Blotches of paint meant to resemble leopard spots marked the sides and rear of the vehicle, but gave it a polka dot appearance rather than anything remotely threatening.

Anderson and Martinez squeezed into the backseat. Boyle was already riding shotgun, the heavy radio transmitter balanced on his lap. Irvine said to him, "Tell Mercury we're black on fuel and water. If we're going to be out here for another four or five hours they'll have to arrange a supply drop. Then call Bruin to get a fix on his location."

Irvine flicked the parking brake off and depressed the clutch while revving the engine. He'd left it in first gear. He feathered the clutch as he eased the pressure off the gas pedal and the jeep rolled forward.

One hundred and thirty miles, he thought.

He lit his last cigarette and took a drag, the cherry ember a red dwarf against the dark night. He'd tried to kick the habit after returning home from the war, but had found himself rooting through the trash for the crumpled pack of Winston's he'd tossed out two days earlier, his hands shaking. He hadn't tried to quit since. After being recruited to the Foundation, it didn't seem to matter much anyway. Irvine had the notion that everyone walking around had an expiration date, and that he was long past his.

Blue smoke curled around his face before getting dragged away by the slipstream. He glanced in the rearview mirror just as the jeep behind him abruptly vanished, the headlights winking out.

What the hell?

Then he remembered there was a problem with the electrical wiring, causing the headlights to flicker on and off every time it went over the slightest bump.

But Leslie said he fixed that. And although Leslie joked around a little too much, he took his job seriously.

Irvine took his foot off the gas, the jeep coasting over the sand. Sitting beside him, Boyle glanced up from the radio, suspecting something was wrong but not yet sure what. The volume of chatter coming from the backseat lowered then went mute. Irvine ignored them and kept his eyes on the mirror. Suddenly the pair of headlights belonging to the last vehicle in their loose phalanx also disappeared, but this time Irvine thought he heard an accompanying crash. The sound was oddly delayed, a peal of broken glass and metal sheering on impact, gone as soon as it arrived.

Irvine stuck his head out of the open window and craned his neck. Visibility was about as good as he could hope for — a clear sky, the moon almost full. The landscape was made up of deep blue islands contrasted by the lace chiaroscuro formed by a sea of black shadows. Except for Leslie in the M38 bring up his right flank, they might've been alone in the world.

The other two jeeps were gone.

4

Bruce was led into a large office, with large bay windows looking out at the encroaching forest and polished furniture made from Brazilian rosewood. A scent of tobacco and lemon lingered in the room.

moving at high speeds collided with an unmovable object.

accordion

Humans were the fuel to its fire, and feeding off them caused it to grow larger, its metaphorical flames burning hotter and brighter. Although considering it, Irvine thought that feeding might not be the right word for it. Certainly it derived a kind of nourishment or sustenance from people, but the consumption didn't involve normal mastication or digestion. What would you call it then? Absorption? Collecting? Probably a researcher, snug and safe in a laboratory or library, had a technical name for it, but whatever the term was Irvine didn't know it. Feeding would have to do.

sunburned

The wind had erased the tread marks of Tsavo and Bruin, but it was easy to follow the skip. Irvine fished a pack of Winston's from his jacket pocket, lit one for himself, and then passed the pack to the backseat, ignoring

Irvine pulled himself

The radio transmitter weighed about forty pounds, and so Boyle had left it in

He fished a battered pack of Winston's from his jacket pocket, lit one for himself and passed the pack to the backseat, ignoring Boyle, who sat with his hand cupped around the mouthpiece of the walkie-talkie. The kid didn't smoke. Good for him, was Irvine's genuine response to that. After the war he'd tried to quit himself and had been shocked when, less than two days later, he'd rooted through the trash with shaking hands to find the crumpled pack he'd carelessly thrown away.

Shortly after being taught this lesson in humility he'd been recruited to the Foundation, and suddenly quitting didn't seem so important anymore. He didn't expect to settle in the suburbs with a picket fence and two and a half kids. His job was killing, and Man-Eaters specialized in humanoid game. Sooner rather than later Irvine figured he'd be the target in the reticle of a riflescope, so he'd better enjoy life while it lasted.

t would've paid no heed as it crushed the headstones. In many cases the markers were probably the last evidence of their lives, and so in a way it was erasing them from existence.

Boyle had left the transmitter in the M38, as it weighed over thirty pounds and he didn't carry it when he didn't have to. He ran back to the jeep to radio Mercury but froze halfway there. A flash of red had caught his eye among a green patch of Indian tea. He retraced his steps and there it was again — a red ball laying among the stems.

Boyle plucked it off the ground. He examined and immediately dropped it. "Oh, fuck," he moaned, wiping his hands on his pants.

Irvine said, "What? What is it?"

"Fuckin' baby's head. Goddamn… decapitated… baby's head."

The small head was lacquered in blood, like a candied shell around a rotten apple. A black fly landed and crept across its cheek. The lips were missing, and its milk teeth were just starting to come in through the gums.

No one said anything. Boyle should've known better than to touch it. The head wasn't from Silver Creek, that much was obvious, as even the newest graves were at least a couple of years old, and the baby it belonged to couldn't have been dead for more than a day or two.

They left it there in the sand, unburied and unmarked.

Irvine told himself that even if Chimney Sweep had been successful it wouldn't have made the baby any less dead. Death didn't work on a sliding scale.

"Come on," he said, "I don't know about you but I've had enough of this place. Let's get the hell out of here and catch up with Tsavo and Bruin."

Visibility was about as good as they could hope for — the sky was clear, the moon almost full, although the wind was quickly eroding the tire impressions from the two lead jeeps. Not that it

trail of the dead to the south and east. The anomaly molted human body parts like a snake shedding its skin.

Never a full body or torso, no, it was only cast off limbs and skulls.

It was easy to track the skip, and visibility was about as good as they could hope for — the sky was clear, the moon almost full. All they had to do was follow the trail of the dead.

The anomaly molted body parts like a snake shedding its skin. Arms, legs, heads. All torn out of joints and ripped from sockets, bones crushed to powder. Flesh bruised and swollen and split open. Tendons sheared. Blood. So much blood. Irvine had spotted more than one male genitalia, and other body parts that were so damaged as to be unrecognizable.

It left behind a streak of blood and piss and shit

Irvine had even spotted male genitalia. Some other body parts were unidentifiable.

This mission is Charlie Foxtrot."

"Roger that," Irvine agreed.

The small head was crusted in blood, as if it had been dipped like a candy apple.

Lacking in imagination, he'd found the film to be boring and ridiculous, and now, years later standing in a graveyard at night in a ghost town, his feelings remained unchanged. Objectively he could understand how others might find the scenario scary, but he knew there wasn't anything here to be fearful of

sidled

green Mormon tea, green ephedra, and Indian tea, is - green stemy grass-like

lifted the dirt to his face and inhaled deeply. It smelled of clay and loam and silt, without a hint of decay or spoilage. It was a clean smell. Irvine spread his hand and let it spill from his palm, thudding hollowly against the broken lid of the casket.

sagebrush scrub and pinon-juniper. The Shoshone Mountains are home to mule deer, chipmunks, coyote, elk, and many other small animals such as shrews and squirrels. At least 21 species of birds can be found in the range during the year, including sparrows, woodpeckers and orioles.

After World War II, Jeep began to experiment with new designs, including a model that could drive under water. On February 1, 1950, contract N8ss-2660 was approved for 1,000 units "especially adapted for general reconnaissance or command communications" and "constructed for short period underwater operation such as encountered in landing and fording operations." The engine was modified with a snorkel system so that the engine could properly breathe under water.[28]

He'd never met either Dr. Berthiaume or Leonard. His handler had been a genial old man by the name of Dennis who had a bushy head of thick white hair and a penchant for tweed jackets. Their interactions had been limited to brief conversations, usually conducted over the phone, once or twice a month. The topics had varied but had always been related to market communication. About six months ago he'd been passed to this man identifying himself as Leonard, and over the past few days their calls had ballooned to the point of harassment, and the discussions had shifted to subjects in which he had no experience.

The offer had been too enticing to refuse. He'd signed the NDA with a flourish and a smile.

and so was never quite sure exactly how long the flight had been.

He'd been swindled, and it was a feeling that Bruce Glenn wasn't used to. Usually

. A wave of unease shuddered up his spine. It was obvious that he was being taken to some secret

Unease sank its teeth

I thought that was a hypothetical

four stories tall and circular in its design.

the compound was located in the middle of the forest

Everyone he questioned refused to tell him where he was, and he saw no other signs of civilization to help him position himself.

orient

SCR-300

The Army Signal Corps depended heavily on very high frequency (VHF)

"Captain…" called Ferrari.

Shit. If the men were noticing it too, it wasn't his imagination.

ob by a column of dust rising into the air, stirred by its

"Can you get the Chimney Sweep team on the line?" he asked, still without tearing his eyes away.

"Yes sir," said Boyd, the radio operator. "I got their channel when they hailed us about the blast zone."

"Do it."

blood turned to ice water

01/25/2017 - thursday

"Fuckin' better," Sawyer responded, echoing Owens' thoughts. "If it doesn't we're

He heard Boyd, his radio operator, talking with Mercury, the Foundation's forward operating base. "Captain, they're requesting a status update," he relayed.

"Pending," Owens said.

A butterfly fluttered in his stomach. In the magnified lens image, it appeared as if the target was veering from its southeast heading. The change was slight, and may have just been the angle or a trick of the light, but Owens wasn't so sure…

"Can you get engineering on that?" he said.

Boyd nodded. "That was them warning us about the blast zone.

Doppler effect

If not they'd continue in their dogged pursuit, but he hadn't slept in over thirty-six hours, and things were liable to get much worse if

It sounded like a baseball stadium after the home team wins with a walk-off homerun.

Irvine was pretty sure that Martinez was riding in Ogre, the M38 directly behind him. He slammed on the brakes and the entire convoy stopped around him, kicking up a cloud of sand. He threw the gearshift into reverse and feathered the clutch. "Hold on," he said, and Boyle braced himself as Irvine stomped on the accelerator. It was fine for the men to fool around when the unit was alone. Irvine even encouraged it as he recognized its benefits for both bonding and as a release. He wasn't in the habit of pulling rank either, not often. He knew that when things got serious he could trust any and all of the men with his life. They wouldn't be in the squad if he thought otherwise. But Irvine's patience had worn thin and Martinez should've known how far to take the joke.

SCP-3758

Irvine slammed on the brakes, the M38 directly behind him knocking into their rear bumper as the entire convoy stopped around him in a delayed response, kicking up a cloud of sand.

Panar's rear bumper collided into Ogre, the trailer hitch cracking through its radiator grill. The impact flung the soldiers up before driving them back into their seats.

Irvine was pretty sure that Martinez was riding in Ogre, the M38 directly behind him. He slammed on the brakes and the entire convoy stopped around him, kicking up a cloud of sand. He threw the gearshift into reverse and feathered the clutch. "Hold on," he said, and Boyle braced himself as Irvine stomped on the accelerator. It was fine for the men to fool around when the unit was alone. Irvine even encouraged it as he recognized its benefits for both bonding and as a release. He wasn't in the habit of pulling rank either, not often. He knew that when things got serious he could trust any and all of the men with his life. They wouldn't be in the squad if he thought otherwise. But Irvine's patience had worn thin and Martinez should've known how far to take the joke.

Panar's rear bumper collided into Ogre, the trailer hitch cracking through its radiator grill. The impact flung the soldiers up before driving them back into their seats.

"Okay, okay," Martinez said over the radio. "What the hell, Lieutenant? You twisted my back with that little stunt. Ahh…we're on a southeast header, of course. Always southeast. We're 'bout ninety klicks north of Mercury and two hundred klicks northwest of Vegas. Target Wintermute moving at average speed of fifteen klicks an hour."

At that pace they'd reach Vegas around 1700 local time. Irvine was curious as to why the skip appeared to be ignoring the Mercury forwarding base, which was closer. Maybe it somehow knew most of the facilities were underground and unreachable, or that they had aircraft standing by in case of evacuation. The entire staff could be up in the air in under half an hour. If the anomaly did advance on Mercury there'd be nothing for it to consume by the time it arrived.

Irvine levered back into first and took a drag off his cigarette. He leaned over to Boyle and said out of the corner of his mouth, "I'm just glad I hit the right jeep." It would've been embarrassing if Martinez hadn't been in the M38 he'd chosen.

He picked the mic back up and said, "Don't ever make me ask you for something three times again, Martinez."

"Yes — yes sir."

"She still drive?"

"Looks like we're going to find out."

Although the damage to Ogre's radiator was mostly cosmetic there was still an increased risk of the engine overheating that Leslie would have to keep an eye on. The convoy set out again, the cherry ember of Irvine's cigarette a red dwarf against the velvet predawn. A thin lunula of morning light was just beginning to crest over the eastern horizon.

Nathan peeled a rheumy eye open. The phone was ringing. It automatically picked up after the third ring.

Where are you? said the voice on the other end.

Nathan didn't ask who was calling. There was only one person that had the number.

The Director.

"Not telling." He was just two days into a week-long leave. The point was irrelevant though, as the phone — surgically implanted into his skull and hardwired to his nervous system — had a GPS the Director could easily access, assuming he hadn't already.

How soon can you get to Massachusetts?

"Commercial?"

Preferable.

"It's going to take about a day." If he didn't want him to fly private, it would all depend on the availability of flights.

Arrange it and call me back. The line went dead.

Nathan's head throbbed and his stomach was percolating. Too much wine with dinner last night, and he wasn't used to all the cream and butter the French put in their food. He lit a cigarette as he made his way to the bathroom, accelerating his bowels' already pressing needs. He snatched the travel kit off the credenza and rifled through it while perched on the toilet. A B12 syrette he injected into his thigh. Nathan probably didn't need it — usually his stomach was a garbage compactor, and he hardly ever got hangovers; on the rare occasions when he did they never stuck around.

Showered and dressed, he gazed out at the Paris skyline through the balcony window and slipped on his watch and sunglasses. Then he placed a call to the Charles de Gaulle Airport and booked a direct flight to Boston departing later that afternoon. Nathan put it on the company card. After all the fees and surcharges it totaled over ten thousand American dollars, just for a one-way trip. If the Director expected him to fly economy across an ocean he could go fuck himself.

Nathan mentally dialed him back. "Done," he reported.

Jacques' bakery on the Rue Anaïs. Ask for last month's special. Already paid for.

So the bastard knew where he was.

It turned out that Jacqeus' Bakery was only several blocks away from where he was staying. Nathan packed his suitcase, checked out of the Hotel D'Aubusson and walked over to the shop. The girl behind the counter looked like she was still in high school, had blonde hair in curls, a button nose and wet lips.

"Umm…" He hesitated. This seemed wrong, but he'd never known the Director to make a mistake. He looked up the French translation for 'last month's special' and mimicked the pronunciation while also running a search to see if there were any other Jacques bakeries in Paris. It seemed like a common name.

The girl smiled and bobbed her head. She flipped the sign in the window to boutique fermée. "This way," she said in accented English, and with a playful finger, lacquered with red gloss and dusted in flour, motioned him to the doorway behind the register.

Beyond the kitchen with its convection ovens and deep mixing bowls, downstairs into an insulated cellar and through a sliding door on casters, he was led into a room dominated by a surgical chair, the surfaces galvanized steel and a drain sunk into the middle of the floor.

Nathan smiled grimly. "You're Jacques?"

"Yeah GI Joe," she said, and blew a bubble of gum, snapping it with teeth that clicked. "Get in."

He sat in the chair and waited patiently while she administered a local anesthetic before getting to work on his face, changing the hair color and adjusting his hairline, new pigments to the iris, higher cheekbones with a harder jawline, molding his earlobes and sharpening the nose. She leaned over him, loudly chewing gum as she went about carving up his face, sculpting it like a lump of clay.

Or a wad of dough, he thought.

It was all cosmetic, nothing functionary. Her bosom pressed warmly against his shoulder as she leaned over. She smelled like cinnamon and almond extract. He focused on the cupid bow of her mouth, the thin picket lines in her lips, and found himself wishing he had more time in Paris to get to know her better.

She cleaned him off with a sterilized swab, looked him over, eyes narrowed, wiped his temple and chin, then nodded, apparently satisfied with her work. All told it'd taken a little over twenty minutes. Jacques produced a mirror and Nathan looked himself over. He had to admit she'd done a good job. It was a face, nondescript, plain, looked just like any of a billion other faces circulating the world. Not too pretty and not too ugly, nothing to draw attention. He pulled on the skin, still numb but elastic, responsive. Besides some mild swelling that made him appear slightly bloated, there was no indication of surgery.

"Want me to do your hands?" she asked.

"Don't bother." He only had a quarter of the epidermal ridges on his palms and fingers as a normal human, and had just gotten them changed a month prior. He would've liked to have had his fingerprints removed entirely, but a person with hands as smooth as glass could raise eyebrows. "You've got something else for me."

Jacques handed him a manila folder. Contained inside was a new wallet with all the standard contents — license, credit cards, even photographs of a fake family — a new passport, and a key emblazoned with the Toyota car manufacturer's logo. Attached to the key ring was a tag which read:

BOS INT Lot 16 Blue. Make: Toyota. Model: Camry. Year: 2031. Color: Gray. Plate Number: HG36T10.

He looked at his new name. It was the same one he'd provided to Air France when purchasing the ticket. He almost had to admire the Director — that cocksucker knew his every move.

He swapped the cash out of his old wallet to the new one, then handed it along with his previous passport to Jacques.

"What do you want me to do with this?"

Nathan shrugged. "Sell em if you can make money, but it's probably not safe to use, and the credit cards will have already been cancelled. Otherwise burn em." It never hurt to have a stranger traveling under one of his old pseudonyms to throw Interpol and the feds for a loop.

When he left the bakery he still had several hours to kill, and so Nathan decided to grab an early lunch at an outdoor café, the hangover already a fading memory. He ate an overpriced plate of steak-frites paired with an even more expensive bottle of sparkling water. From the café he hitched a cab to the airport.

Are you on your way?

Nathan sighed. "Heading there now," he responded. The driver glanced up at him through the rearview mirror, and assuming his passenger was talking on a mobile phone and the remark wasn't directed at him, ignored him for the remainder of the ride. "You know I have to get there three hours in advance just to check in."

You're flying to Logan?

"You know I am." It was annoying to be asked questions he knew the Director already had the answers to.

Emailing the dossier to you now.

The call disconnected.

The next ten hours were spent wading through the minutiae and hassle of air travel. The actual flight was just under seven hours, and Nathan spent the majority of it sleeping, not sure when he'd get another chance. After leaving the international terminal of Logan airport a little past four in the afternoon — the sea breeze refreshingly cool coming in from the harbor — he found the Toyota sedan right where the tag said he would. He appraised the hardware and firepower in the trunk then climbed into the driver's side, tossing the travel kit next to him on the passenger seat.

He hopped onto the Massachusetts Turnpike westbound. At this time of day the highway was a parking lot, and he set the vehicle on autopilot, cranked the AC and shut his eyes.

His destination was a town called Millbrook, located in the central part of the state. He'd passed through the area once or twice but knew next to nothing about it, and so browsed the web for information, the results appearing in his heads-up display against the dark background that was his closed eyelids. The details were dry, encyclopedic. Nipmuc tribe deeded the land and it was eventually incorporated in 1715. Consisted of 14.5 square miles of land and 6.7 square miles of water. As of the most recent census the population was listed as 2,963.

All that told him was that it was a small New England town consisting mostly of swampland. He checked local news articles, but except for a domestic murder-suicide three years ago, a particularly severe impact felt from the opioid epidemic in the first quarter of the century, and possible inspiration behind some of the stories by an author named Lovecraft, there was nothing of interest.

The car inched forward and stopped.

Millbrook bordered the Quabbin Reservoir, the primary water source for Boston, and the creation of which had necessitated the flooding of four towns back in 1938, almost a hundred years ago to the day.

Who gives a shit? Nathan thought. Discouraged and out of patience, he exhaled and closed out of the search.

It took over an hour just to get out of Boston, and another two to reach Sturbridge, where the sedan took the off-ramp of Exit 9 and button-hooked onto Route 20. The sun had already set, the sky changing from shades of rose and orangeade to velvet as the stars wheeled overhead.

His stomach growled, reminding Nathan that he hadn't had anything to eat since Paris. He'd passed on the in-flight meal.

He usurped the car's controls and manually steered into the first fast-food drive-thru he saw. He ordered three bacon cheeseburgers, a large fries and a fountain drink, and then pulled back onto Route 20, shoveling the food into his mouth after handing the controls back to the Toyota. The burgers were swaddled in wax paper, piping hot and delicious in the cheap, dirty way only American fast-food seemed to posses. The fries were a sodium blitz and the soda liable to turn him diabetic. He didn't care. It was like masturbation. Afterwards he might feel filthy and ashamed, but in the moment the act was pleasurable.

By the time he was finishing off the last burger, tossing the wrapper over his shoulder into the backseat, the car was turning off Route 20 and onto back, surface roads. Beyond Sturbridge was Brookfield and then Ware.

According to the dossier he'd read while he was still seven miles above the Atlantic, the Thaumaturgical Array Sensor — a black satellite in low Earth orbit — had detected a spike within the Sothian spectrum at 0300 local time the previous night. The witching hour, if you believed European folklore. Supposedly due to the canonical hour's lack of prayers.

Coordinates pinpointed the source to a half kilometer square patch of land in Millbrook. But the technology the TAS utilized was still in its infancy, and often gave false positives.

So basically Nathan had no idea what he was walking into. For all he knew it could've been a couple of teenage girls at a slumber party playing with a planchette and Ouija board.

Night was deepening as the Camry hung right onto a road called Hammond Hill. This was the street where the four residences within the targeted zone were located. He was lucky the place wasn't densely populated — the properties were large, each plot several acres, the homes spread far apart. It could've been a lot worse, and he grimaced at the memory of past missions involving an apartment complex, and another — not too long ago — a trailer park.

He'd studied the four residences on his phone, through 3D rendering composed of satellite imagery and GIS data. House number one was a modern two-story with a manicured lawn. The second house was more of the same. House number three was a ranch with a wrap-around porch, and like the first two there was an unobstructed view from the street. They were all possible candidates, but Nathan doubted it. For his money he was betting on house number four — a Cape Code built in the eighteenth century, set a hundred yards from the street, accessible only by foot or via a long dirt driveway. That would be the one.

The Sothian cultists would want their privacy.

Then again it might not be in any of the homes. Half a square kilometer also covered a lot of forested area, and he didn't like the idea of having to trudge through the woods at night looking for what amounted to a needle in a haystack.

A dark sedan was parked in front of house number four, blocking the driveway. The windows were tinted and he couldn't tell if it was occupied. The car idled next to a rusted mailbox, the name MCKEOWN written on it in faded letters.

He seized control of the wheel and drove past.

"Looks like we've got company."

I know. I saw.

"You know I hate it when you watch the feed from my eyes. It's so… intimate."

Grow up. I'm using all available resources at my disposal, so don't flatter yourself. Aerial surveillance shows two SUVs and a box truck up at the house. I don't know what's inside the box truck, it's either empty or shielded somehow.

Nathan wasn't surprised. Rival factions were like an iceberg — if you saw two agents, it usually meant there were ten more close by.

He hit the blinker and swung onto the next street, driving slowly and careful to obey all traffic laws, buying some time before he had to loop back around. From the travel kit riding shotgun he pulled out a Benzedrine nasal inhaler and gave each nostril two pumps. In addition to the methamphetamine it also contained a cocktail of sensory enhancing chemicals. He felt his sinuses immediately respond and open up, and he inhaled deeply.

I'm tracing the plates. Registration belongs to a Megan Parsons. No criminal record. Next the Director would run a background check, employment history, credit bureau scores, taxes, everything he could get his hands on. It's a dummy alias.

That was fast. "How do you know?"

Social networking accounts are boilerplate. Digital photographs along with the same exact comments have been identified on eight other profiles with mutual friends averaging at twenty-five percent. Two of these mutual friends also share the same date of birth and college degree as our Megan, and another has the same license number. There are other overlapping convergences I won't bore you with.

"Someone got sloppy." It was easy to forge social security numbers and medical documents to pass cursory examinations. The Director's examinations, though, were anything but cursory, and it took time and energy to craft convincing social networking accounts that could fool him and his search algorithms. Cutting and pasting wouldn't do the trick.

"Any idea who my new friends are?"

Nothing yet. The aliases must be fresh, no known affiliations coming back.

"Great." There was a huge difference between going up against members of the Voltaic Counsel and the GOC, or the Chaos Insurgency and the Branch Lakivians, and being able to identify which group it was could be a matter of life and death.

I'm piggybacking on their communications but they're currently radio silent. When I know you'll know.

"You want me to wait?"

Absolutely not. You wasted too much time already getting here and it's lost us the initiative.

"Hey, that's your fault. If you'd chartered a private jet I could've flown straight from Paris to Worcester, and from there I can get to Millbrook by car in less than half an hour. It would've shaved ten hours off my arrival."

I didn't like the the risk assessment. Only two private flights have flown from Paris to Worcester in the past year. There was a sixty-five percent chance your unexpected flight would have been flagged as atypical and subjected to further scrutiny.

Nathan was grateful to hear there was an actual reason behind the Director forcing him to fly commercial, but he'd never express it. "Well, what about flying into Logan?" he responded instead.

Nineteen percent, and if you'd then flown from Boston to Worcester it climbs back up. Higher if we used a helicopter. TF Green was at twenty-five percent. Flying commercial had less than a single percentage point probability of you getting flagged. So I sacrificed the hours and went with the safest option.

Nathan decided to let it go. He should've known better than to question the Director's logic. "So what's my approach on this one? Think I should try bluffing?"

I think they'll shoot you before you could get close enough.

"Okay… How many combatants?"

Counting seven armed by the house, four covering the sides and three about to breach. There're another two in the car that you passed.

He made a three-point turn and headed back onto Hammond.

Pull in here.

Nathan stopped the car half a mile from the McKeown house, parking it on an old fire road. He stepped out and stripped naked, breath pluming in the spring air, and squeezed into a suit of combat armor that was in the trunk. It was tailored for him, but still a tight fit. The suit was a magnetorheological fluid-based weave. The insulation and reflective surfaces blinded optoelectonics, rendering him effectively invisible to everything besides motion sensors and the naked eye. A reinforced cowl covered his head without restricting movement or his field of vision. The phone in Nathan's brain made additional components — such as a helmet-mounted display, WPSM or a situational-awareness hub — superfluous.

When he finished selecting the last of his gear and weapons from the trunk, buckling an explosive belt around his waist, he jogged back to the house, careful to stay out of the arc-sodium streetlamps. He told himself he was about to engage nine people, all of them probably highly-trained. Hopefully his own training and technology would prove superior, lending him an advantage by force multiplication to try and even the odds.

The sedan hadn't moved, was still next to the mailbox. Nathan crept toward it and planted a proximity mine on the side panel, then slunk away, up the muddy driveway before the thirty second delay ran out and the mine armed itself.

He heard commotion up ahead as he approached the house — a door kicked in followed by boots stomping across warped planks. Orders shouted to "Get the fuck down!" and "Let me see your hands!" Nathan paused at the top of the driveway and tilted his head, hidden under the eaves of pine trees that ringed the barren yard. The house was dilapidated, paint eroding from the few clapboards that remained. All of the windows were either capped by plywood or covered with newspapers that had gone bankrupt and folded decades ago. There was a hole in the gabled roof, the shutters had been stripped and the chimney was slanting so much a strong breeze probably could have toppled it.

Five are inside, now. There's one standing by the vehicles, and the last one is at the rear of the house, on the opposite side.

The two SUVs were parked on a patch of gravel to his right, sandwiching the box truck between them. He moved swiftly, circling the SUVs. A stocky man loitered by the rear of the truck. He had on a bullet-proof vest over a tactical uniform sans insignia, head covered in a helmet and balaclava. He looked like a member of SWAT. These guys — whoever they might be — definitely weren't Voltaic or Lakivians. Judging by their hardware they might have been agents of the Insurgency.

The way he was standing, the man's back was against the cargo door of the box truck, and the two SUVs covered his flanks. Nathan either had to come at him from the front or go under the vehicles, and the latter would limit his strike zone to nonlethal parts of the body save the femoral.

He couldn't afford the time to let him bleed out. Nathan switched on the active-camouflage system of the suit and rushed head-on, relying on his speed and the darkness to keep him concealed until he struck. He had three million photoreceptor cells in each retina — more than twice as many rods than average — allowing for better scotopic vision. To him the world at night was clearly visible, although it came in drained of color, like an old black-and-white movie. What he saw as nothing more than shade, what the foliage of a tree might cast on a bright afternoon, everyone else saw as inky, abyssal black.

The midnight zone.

He clung to it, that fathomless dark, and unsheathed his knife. The padded soles of his boots didn't make a sound as he swept forward, launching into the air to cover the last ten feet.

The blade flashed as he pounced and buried it in the agent's throat, his other hand cupped around the mouth to muffle any potential scream. He twisted the handle and dragged it horizontally. Blood sprayed in a fan. There was the wet sound of running water as if someone had turned on a spigot. The eyes went wide even as the body began to sag. Nathan wrenched the knife free and slipped the blade between the ribs.

He gently laid the corpse on the ground and rolled it under the truck.

Around the house, he turned the corner and sprinted to the back. The ground was uneven, an obstacle course of depressions and hillocks and half-submerged rocks, dead grass slick with dew. Scattered leaves crunched underfoot. He cut around the next corner and there was the other agent, exactly where the Director said he'd be. He was dressed identical to the previous man, watching the windows and backdoor in case anyone tried to escape that way.

He swiveled in Nathan's direction, raising the gun muzzle. But his reaction was too slow, too slow…

"What-" he managed to utter, and then Nathan was on top of him, his weight driving the agent to the ground. He jammed his finger into the trigger guard to prevent the gun from discharging as the knife severed the jugular, cutting deep, almost to the point of decapitation. He sped death along with another thrust to the heart, and left the body where it fell.

They're about to exit through the front. They've got three unarmed with them. I think they're bound prisoners by the way they're moving.

He girded the side of the Cape Cod, hugging the crumbling foundation as he made his way back toward the front and peeked around the corner. An agent emerged from the house and tramped down the uneven porch steps. He was less than ten feet away from Nathan, but the angle was poor, and the line of fire was broken by an old man trailing close behind him. The old man's hands and feet were shackled, he was blindfolded with his mouth gagged. Another agent pushed him along with a catchpole — a noose made from steel cable attached to a long rod, like the kind animal control officers used to snare dogs — forcing him to march outside.

The old man staggered and almost fell on the top step, the wire drawing taut around his neck as he tried to catch his breath, nostrils flared and cheeks ballooning around the ball-gag.

Nathan backpedaled, returning to the edge of the pine trees that encircled the property in order to gain a wider perspective. Two more civilians in matching restraints to the old man were led out: a woman in a stained house dress and a boy — couldn't have been more than seventeen. Both were being led by catchpoles. Bringing up the rear were the final two agents.

The old man was emaciated whereas the woman was obese, the boy as big and fit as a farmhand. Despite these differences there was a familial resemblance to all three, and Nathan surmised that he was looking at three generations of the McKeown family.

Overwatch is trying to update them on the deceased status of the two agents you killed. I'm blocking the receivers but it's only a matter of time before they switch to a back channel. They can't see you but they know someone is there; they think it might be snipers and are broadening their search pattern.

Nathan wanted to broach the topic that they had an Overwatch at all, but was preoccupied and filed it away for later. He waited until the group reached the medial point between the house and the vehicles and then opened fire, focusing on the two agents forming the rearguard, as they were clustered together. He mowed them down, rounds perforating their chests in red cloudbursts, and moved up the line. The vests offered no protection against the antipersonnel flechettes Nathan was using for ammunition, the needle tips puncturing the ballistic material like tissue paper.

The boy rubbed his face against his shoulder, dislodging the blindfold. Realizing he was no longer tethered by the catchpole, he dropped his shoulder and charged the agent holding fast to the McKeown woman — presumably his mother. The boy slammed into the agent like a linebacker, knocking him off balance and giving Nathan a clear shot as he stumbled, arms pinwheeling. Three supersonic flechettes sliced through the balaclava and drilled into his face, cleaving the tip of his nose in a surgical bisection and ripping the mandible from one of its hinges, the lower jaw flapping loose from the remaining attached joint. Broken teeth crested a waterfall of blood. The agent wailed. His tongue protruded like an angry pink worm from the back of his throat. If there were any words in that wail they were lost to his disfigured mouth as he collapsed to his knees.

The two remaining agents reached cover behind one of the SUVs, dragging the old man with them as they laid down suppressing fire. The shots were scattered and all over the place. The flechettes had no tracers, and he was using a suppressant to cover the muzzle flash. It was clear they had no clue where Nathan was, and he didn't bother seeking the protection of a tree trunk as bullets stitched a line of tiny meteoric craters in the earth several feet away, spraying him with loam.

On Hammond Street a ball of fire suddenly erupted. There was the booming peal of the detonation of the proximity mine — Nathan felt the shockwave reverberate in his diaphragm — followed by the shrill protest of shearing metal and the crystal-chimes of glass hitting the macadam. The surrounding land was briefly bathed in a warm light as the flames blossomed. His suit rapidly changed colors trying to match the lighting, the outer skin turning bright orange before dimming as the flames withered and finally dissolved in a cloud of black smoke.

The two in the car are now dead, but they've caught on and switched to a back channel. I'm trying to find it now. They'll be calling in support.

I'M ALMOST DONE, Nathan texted back in order to maintain silence.

He stood and surveyed the situation. The boy had found a key ring on one of the corpses and was systematically trying each one on his mother's chains. The surviving agents hunkered behind the SUV, probably digging in, would hold the position until their backup arrived.

They didn't understand that they had just boxed themselves in.

Nathan popped two smoke grenades and lobbed them at the vehicles. One landed close enough for an agent to snatch it in a gloved hand and pitch it away, but it was too late. Pale, thick smoke was already enveloping them, expanding and spreading across the yard. Nathan cut right through the trees, emerging a hundred feet away as made his approach.

As he closed the gap he cycled through visual augmentations, switching to thermal-infrared imaging. His suit's color automatically changed to a milky, off-white to blend in with the smoke.

He could easily see the agents now — one of them was trying to hook some kind of optical device on their head, but was having difficulty getting it to clip on the brackets of their helmet. The other clutched a submachine gun and sat on top of the old man, pinning him to the ground.

Nathan paused a moment to listen in. One of the agents was actually a woman. Underneath the current of their voices, the prisoner repeatedly mumbled something behind the plug of the gag.

"Did you see how many there are?"

"I didn't see shit. I still can't. These fucking goggles aren't picking anything up."

"Rodriguez is still alive. They blew his face off and he's still alive. I can hear him choking over there."

"Sit tight. You can't do anything for him right now. Slanted and Enchanted is on its way along with a med evac."

Nathan vaulted over the hood of the SUV, landing softly behind the pair.

"This is goddamned Charlie Foxtrot."

"You got that right."

"You still don't see anything?"

"No. I told you. Neither did Overwatch."

"Wait, I think I heard something."

The man turned on the balls of his feet, spinning one hundred and eighty degrees as the smoke parted just in time for him to glimpse the bore of the gun pointed between his eyes. Nathan fired from a range of about two inches. Blowback showered his hand with blood and bone fragments as the skull split open like a rotten piece of fruit.

The remaining agent whipped her carbine around while Nathan was aligning his next shot, readjusting from the recoil. He slapped the barrel away, iron-sight digging into his palm, as the first bullet glanced off his thigh. The other shots went wide, punching holes in the SUV's door panel and shattering the tempered glass window, breaking it into granular chunks. The tire popped, exhaling a puff of pressurized air as it deflated.

She released her grip on the carbine and Nathan allowed it to fall, belatedly realizing that it was a distraction while she drew her sidearm. He sidestepped and she unloaded into the vacant space he'd previously occupied. Wedged in the tight quarters between the SUV and the box truck, he jumped onto the side of the truck, using it to pivot and change his trajectory, angling with his foot to strike at her exposed neck.

Hearing him rebound the agent twisted and fired blindly. A bullet found Nathan, striking his forearm. The armor absorbed the round, deforming and pancaking the bullet while deflecting most of the energy, but the impact numbed his hand to pins and needles and he dropped his gun. The kick sailed harmlessly over the agent's head.

She backed away and reloaded, ejecting the clip and sliding in a fresh magazine as she skirted the rear bumper of the SUV, putting it between her and Nathan. Reaching up with a gloved hand, she ripped the goggles off her helmet, and Nathan likewise cycled back to normal vision. The smoke was dissipating, now no more than tendrils of light fog being torn apart by a gust of wind. The nearby trees swayed back and forth. Leaves skidded past, chattering across the gravel.

He snatched his gun up and sprung on top of the SUV, the chassis rocking beneath his weight and the roof dimpling.

The agent looked up at him, sidearm gripped in a shooter's stance. "You're human," she said, like it was an accusation.

Nathan cocked his head, rolling his shoulders in a shrug as if to say: You were expecting something else?

"Might be Insurgency," she continued. "Or a Yeb. Definitely not a Neo-Luddite."

Wait, Nathan thought to himself. I thought you were with the Insurgency. Again he found himself wondering just who exactly these people were.

She fired at him, but the combat suit had already learned from the first bullet and had adapted accordingly. The rounds glanced harmlessly off the armor and cascaded down onto the roof of the vehicle. Nathan hopped down. Comprehending the futility of it, the agent retreated, pistol pointed at the sky.

I'm in their back-channel now, the Director buzzed inside his head. The call signs match a known Foundation MTF.

"What?" Nathan blurted in his surprise.

"Negative," the woman was saying as she moved further away. "Still engaged. Can't terminate."

He raised the flechette-gun, aiming to put this agent down. No more playing with her. No more fooling around. With dawning alarm he realized she wasn't addressing to him — had never been speaking to him, not directly.

"Initiate," she said before he could stop her.

And the Hellfire missile, launched from the Foundation Overwatch drone — a hunter-killer UAV circling high above — struck the house.

1

The explosion reduced the house to kindling and flipped Nathan over before slamming him to the ground. His suit protected him from the heat and debris, but the concussive shockwave of compressed air turned his insides to jelly. When he tried to move it felt like he was going to break apart into a million pieces; the only thing preventing him from doing so was the suit, holding him together like a sausage casing.

Burning roof tiles, pulling contrails of smoke behind them, sizzled and rained down all around him. It looked like the Pleiades meteor shower. Shards of porcelain, from a toilet or sink, scudded past his head. Pretzeled rebar clanged as it hit the ground and went careering off into the surrounding woods. A bed frame landed in the boughs of a white pine, setting the needles on fire.

The rapid changes in pressure, from high to low, caused the wind to howl and whip around Nathan as it rushed back in to fill the sudden vacuum.

Administered hormonal agents, otic compound and coagulants, the Director said inside his head. He was speaking at his normal volume, but to Nathan it sounded amplified, booming and echoing through his skull. He winced and — not for the first time — wished for the serenity of a mute button.

SOME PAINKILLERS WOULD BE NICE, he texted back.

Later. There're more Foundation troops en route, both air and ground. Now get up.

Nathan attempted to lever himself up onto his knees and elbows. His sight dimmed from the exertion, black motes swimming and expanding across his field of vision, and he tasted the signature copper notes of blood on his pallet. His strength ebbed and he foundered, sprawled out on his stomach. He may have passed out for a second or two. It was hard to tell.

He tried to pick himself up again, grinding his teeth and choking back a moan that demanded to be released. Request denied. Nathan imagined his insides as a frayed sweater, the entire garment unraveling under the governance of a single unspooled thread. He coughed, and the taste of blood grew stronger.

Get up, ordered the Director. You have internal bleeding in your lungs and bowels. One of your lungs has also collapsed. You've got several herniated discs, your right eardrum is ruptured and you have a hairline fracture in your clavicle and another in your ulna. You're not dying, but you will die if you don't hurry. Now. Get. Up.

Nathan relied on his arm strength to stand, pushing off from the ground and curling his knees into his chest, swinging his feet into position under him. He straightened his legs, and when his sight finally returned he found himself standing, albeit weaving drunkenly.

You should feel the adrenaline and the otic stabilizer kicking in.

Nathan didn't feel shit; or if he was it was too subtle to notice. The hormonal stimulant should've boosted his energy while the otic compound restored balance, but at that particular moment there was nothing more he'd rather do than lay down and close his eyes, make the world stop spinning and go to sleep.

The missile had transformed the house into a pocked lunar landscape. In the unsteady light of the burning trees, Nathan glimpsed the female agent lying supine, partially buried in sheetrock. Her helmet was dented, the bangs pasted to her forehead by a bright red freshet. A curtain rod had skewered her below the left breast, pinning her to the ground like a butterfly specimen pinned to a piece of corkboard.

WHAT'S GOING ON WITH THAT DRONE? he asked, glancing away from the body. Her eyes were open. For some reason that he didn't care to explore that was the worst part of it. The eyes were open. They lent the corpse a vampiric quality and seemed to follow him as he roamed the debris field.

It's inspecting a vehicle approaching on George Street. Not one of ours, and obviously not Foundation. Seems to be civilian. Once they figure that out it will return, so we only have a small window of opportunity.

DOES IT HAVE ANYMORE MISSILES?

Yes. I think they're using AGM-114P II's.

WHAT MAKES YOU SAY THAT?

It's what I'd use. If I'm right, then that drone's model can carry a payload of four of that variant of the Hellfire. So yes, it either has three remaining or some other armament that's the equivalent.

Great news, Nathan thought as he stumbled through an asteroid belt of rubble formed by the explosion. A webwork of copper piping was being licked by green flames. The silhouette of a large chifforobe loomed through the heavy smoke — it was missing the wardrobe door, the drawers hanging out and clothes that'd fallen out of fashion thirty years ago strewn across the yard. A coffee pot filled with mold had miraculously survived without even a chip. He stepped over a smoldering pile of rubrics and grimoires, swollen to the size of phonebooks from prolonged exposure to mildew. A Windsor chair split down its saddle-shaped seat. What looked to be a horned neopagan altar, the unwrought stone covered in a patina of soot and candlewax with runes crudely chiseled into the sides and surface of the Communion table.

He paused, frowning at the spot where he'd last seen the McKeown boy, trying to free his mother from her bindings. It would take a sponge and squeegee to clean them up. They'd been closest to the point of impact, and all that remained now was a bloody skidmark and some viscera that might've belonged to one of them, both or neither. The wet cordage of an intestine stretched like a clothesline between a pile of drywall and charred wooden beams.

What about Herbert McKeown? said the Director.

Nathan, assuming he meant the old man, picked his way through the wreckage. The old man had been shielded from the blast by the box truck and one of the SUVs, but still looked to be in a poor state. As Nathan recalled, even prior to the missile strike he hadn't exactly been a shining beacon of health.

Nathan jabbed his hand under the chin, rooting for a pulse. It was there, fluttering and off-tempo. Nathan wasn't sure if he was breathing or not.

Rivulets of blood leaked from the old man's nose and ears. His skin was jaundiced, beard the indistinct gray of cobwebs, speckled with putrescent food. Fleas and lice squirmed through the scalp and body hair. The fingers were chapped and stained from nicotine and resin. He was naked except for threadbare cargo shorts that were starched with dirt. Up close the yellowed flesh was oddly translucent. Not only could Nathan see the vascular system, but also the faint outlines of the skeleton. The cage of his ribs, the almost bird-like fragility of the arm and leg bones…

Unless it was all some kind of elaborate subdermal tattoo. There were designs, a mandala and what appeared to be Buer or Baphomet —

The drone has completed its scan of the car and is headed back your way.

Nathan removed the catchpole noose from the old man's neck, pulled out the gag, and then picked him up, draping him over his back in a fireman's carry. He was greasy but remarkably light, and the new burden seemed to make little difference to Nathan, except for an acute itch that flared in his collarbone.

Maybe those hormones were finally kicking in after all.

Even through the air filters of the suit he was assaulted by the stink of the old man. It socked him like sulfuric fumes, causing his eyes to water and the hairs in his nose to curl. It reminded Nathan of a night he'd spent in the Florida everglades, surrounded by an inhuman miasma of jungle rot and scales and steaming mud.

He opened the driver's side door of the closest SUV, a Ford Explorer, and — after confirming the keys were in the ignition — shoved the old man into the passenger seat, climbing in after him. The rear tire was on its rim from catching a stray bullet, but he chose it because the other SUV had taken the brunt of the explosion and was worse for wear. He threw the transmission into reverse, spinning the wheels as he looped backwards, aligning the front end so that it pointed down the driveway.

Wait. Take her with you.

WHAT? WHO?

Don't be obtuse. The female Foundation agent. I want her. Bring her along.

WHY? SHE'S DEAD.

She's not dead, and stop arguing. We don't have time for this. I want her, so bring her with you.

Nathan put the Explorer into park and darted out. He didn't understand or agree with the request, it seemed to jeopardize him with additional — and unnecessary, if you asked him — risk, but the Director was right on one account: there was no time for arguing, and so he wrenched the curtain rod from the woman's abdomen. The open wound spurted blood.

He texted, as if the Director didn't already know: FOUNDATION AGENTS ALL HAVE TRACKING IMPLANTS.

I've arranged an ambulance retrofitted to perform surgical procedures to rendezvous with you in Ware. It's equipped with stealth technology, signal dampeners and multi-spectral camouflage. That should allow us enough time to extract all the devices.

Nathan was familiar with the counter-surveillance techniques utilized by the Director. His own combat suit employed many of them, granting him simultaneous invisibility over multiple layers of the electromagnetic spectrum. That didn't help much, though, if you were broadcasting your GPS via satellite, but he supposed that was what the dampeners were for.

AND WHAT ABOUT ME AND THE OLD MAN? NO AMBULANCE FOR US? I DON'T THINK HE'S GOING TO LIVE MUCH LONGER WITHOUT MEDICAL ATTENTION. He hauled the woman up onto his shoulders, repeating the process of the fireman's carry. Her removal left an impression in the powdered sheetrock like a snow angel. She was much heavier than the old man, and the itch in Nathan's collarbone erupted into a molten burn that forced him to stifle a cry.

A private maglev train is waiting for you and Mr. McKeown up in Fallon, and there's an infirmary car to see to both of your injuries. It's about twenty miles north of Ware. The distance is… regrettable. But it's the closest point in the railway line to your location. There isn't even a station; the train will be making an unscheduled, unreported stop on the westbound line, which is where you'll board. Your vehicle will then be dumped into the nearby Pike's Pond. It's small but deep. Used to be a quarry. The Toyota will never be found.

Nathan opened the rear door of the SUV and deposited the Foundation agent into the back. After a moment's hesitation he decided to remove one of the zip ties from her belt, rolled her prostrate, and cinched her wrists behind her back. He didn't think she posed any threat, not really. If she was alive she must've been knocking on the pearly gates. But she'd already proven to be a dangerous adversary, and he didn't like the idea of her waking up to find herself strategically positioned behind him.

The UAV is locking on to you.

The drone couldn't actually see Nathan, but it sure as hell could see the Ford Explorer and his two passengers. He jumped into the driver's seat and floored the accelerator. The vehicle lurched forward with a sudden jolt that pushed him back into the seat. They caught air cresting the top of the driveway, and he bit his tongue when the SUV's tires touched down. Sparks spat out from the rim. The old man jounced and slewed sideways, leaning against Nathan's shoulder. His slack mouth — the few remaining teeth rotten kernels of corn — was only inches away, and Nathan could feel his rank cesspool breath on his neck.

At least he's breathing, he thought and then pushed him off. The old man flopped and sank to the floor, wedged between the glove box and the bucket seat.

He swung right at the bottom of the driveway, the rear of the vehicle fishtailing as he turned onto Hammond Hill. For one brief moment Nathan was sure that he was going to flip the damn thing before the Explorer began to respond and straightened out of the slide.

There were headlights about a quarter mile up the road, three pairs, maybe more, approaching fast and occupying both lanes of traffic, blocking his escape route. More headlights appeared in the rearview mirror. Too many to be a coincidence on this backstreet at this late hour, and they lacked the flashing red and blue lights of emergency response vehicles.

HEY, I'VE GOT A PROBLEM HERE.

He considered turning his own headlights off and vetoed the idea. A lot of good it would do him. He was dragging a rooster tail of sparks like a goddamned sparkler on the fourth of July.

I told you that Foundation troops were en route by both land and air.

They were already between Nathan and the fire road where his Toyota — and his weaponry stashed in the trunk — was parked. He checked the ammunition on his gun. The feed counter next to the slide was reading seven. He had a spare magazine containing another twenty flechettes. He was also wearing the explosive bandolier with an assortment of grenades — frags and incendiaries and flashbangs. And he had his knife.

The shoulders of grass on either side of the road were only two feet wide. Too narrow for him to squeeze onto and try to sneak past. Nathan, his foot a lead weight on the gas pedal, pegged the needle as the Explorer roared forward. He couldn't sneak past them, but maybe he could barrel through if he gathered enough speed and momentum. Probably not; probably the collision would kill both the old man and the agent, and then the Foundation could finish Nathan off leisurely in a hail of gunfire, but he didn't see any other options.

What I wouldn't give for a plough or cowcatcher right now, he said to himself as the speedometer crept to forty miles per hour. At this speed the SUV continuously wanted to pull to the left, cantering on that rim. Nathan fought the wheel for every inch he gained.

As an afterthought he buckled his seatbelt.

Walls of fire sprung up in front of and behind him, transforming the night into a holocaust. "Holy fuck!" Nathan shouted. His hypersensitive eyes were blinded by the rapid change in lighting, and he threw his arm up to shield them until the lenses of the cowl dimmed and polarized. The flames leapt thirty feet into the air; they spanned the entire width of the road and scored the peripheral trees, cutting a swath through their ranks.

Nathan had to fight the reflexive impulse to slam on the brakes. Instead, he applied even more pressure to the gas. A large spruce had been scythed in half and the cloven trunk was toppling into the street. He had to beat it or get trapped behind it.

Or he could always go with option number three: get crushed under it.

I hacked the drone, the Director informed him, and deployed the remaining armament. Direct strike on all Foundation vehicles except one still behind you. They've already regained control of the drone, but not before I put it into a nosedive.

The fire was already dying when he rushed into it, waves of heat prickling his flesh and sweat immediately springing from every pore. The Explorer heaved and shook, dipping into the recently formed crater. He passed by the charred husks of the SUVs that had been pursuing him only seconds previous. Most of them were now unrecognizable; blasted into pieces. He hit one with the fender of the Explorer and sent it pirouetting across the road.

night turned to day

two walls of fire sprung up

The agent somehow managed to hold on, clinging to the running boards and window like a spider. He floored the gas pedal and fought the car every inch for control; it wanted to pull to the left on that rim.

tactical reconnaissance

A German-led NATO research project concluded in 2004 that while "the multispectral signatures of most military equipment can be significantly reduced by combinations of various camouflage materials", multi-spectral camouflage for individual soldiers remained lacking. The main problems identified were operational constraints such as mobility, weight, and the soldier's physiology.[6]

Among animals, both insects such as the eyed hawk-moth, and vertebrates such as tree frogs possess camouflage that works in the infra-red as well as in the visible spectrum.

That's not possible, Nathan thought. She'd been impaled by that curtain rod. Couldn't have pulled herself up and off it. Unless she just ripped it out of her side… but even Nathan couldn't have survived that.

On your nine.

The side window coughed inward as the curtain rod crashed through the glass, launched like a javelin. Nathan slammed on the accelerator, the vehicle lurching forward with a sudden jolt that pushed him back into the seat. They caught air cresting the top of the driveway, and he bit his tongue when the SUV's tires touched down. Sparks spat out from the rim. The old man jounced and slewed sideways, leaning against Nathan's shoulder. His slack mouth — the few remaining teeth rotten kernels of corn — was only inches away, and Nathan felt his rank, sour breath on his neck.

The Foundation agent suddenly rose up and through the shattered window. She had somehow latched onto the side of the SUV and was clinging to the running boards. She clawed a bloody hand past Nathan's chest — one of the fingers, the pinkie, had been shorn away and was nothing but a pencil stub.

She's going for the keys, he realized. She's trying to stop the car.

He grabbed her wrist and twisted it, but with one hand still on the steering wheel the grip was awkward, and she had the benefit of blood for lubrication. She easily slipped out of his grasp. He batted her away just as her nails brushed the fob.

I want that one. Take her with you.

WHAT? WHO?

The girl. Stop being obtuse. Bring her to me. Alive.

UMMM… I'M NOT SURE I CAN..

sewer

sour

she looked normal under infrared

It felt like there were a hundred fishhooks, screws and tangles of razor wire buried deep within him, coiled inside, the barbs and threaded tips glowing white with some intrinsic heat as they tore apart his stomach and lungs and spine.

She's not human, not in the slightest. Some kind of synthetic human.

"Bullshit," Nathan said. "She showed up normal on all optics, including the infrared. If she was a robot I would've picked it up. She was breathing, for Christ's sake. I saw her heartbeat."

He reminded himself this wasn't some splinter group he was dealing with, as he'd initially presumed. This was the Foundation. Their technology and resources dwarfed even the Director's.

"You… you knew, you sonofabitch. You never broke surveillance from the house, yet acted surprised when I passed the car at the end of the drive."

Nathan's mind was racing along now, filling in the time frame and gaps n the story.

"You picked up Foundation chatter and found out when they'd arrive. That's the real reason you forced me to fly commercial. It had nothing to do with probability. You timed it so I'd arrive right after they'd captured the Sothians."

The gear in his trunk had been specifically supplied to take on a well-armed, sophisticated special military unit. It wasn't the type of hardware you'd actually use to take down a group of cultists. There was no charms or blah blah blah

"Which can only mean you wanted them to capture the Sothians and me to sweep in and clean them up. But why? If it was just the Sothians you woukld've flown me in sooner to bypass the Foundation"

Of course, agreed the Director. Now pick her up. You can lose the old man.

"Fuck that — I didn't just kill nine — eight people to leave him behind."

Unfortunately, the main tracking device proved more difficult to remove than we initially predicted. Exploratory surgery showed that it was connected to a "technical jargon for bomb" — a bomb, and removal would automatically trigger detonation. It… delayed the removal.

So I replicated the signal and cast it out into the world… Four hundred times. All the while dampening the real signal she was broadcasting.

Which necessitated our temporary change of address to the current compound.

ejected shell casings pattered

The submachine gun in his hands purred and there was the strobe of a muzzle flash, but the shots went wide as he collapsed.

The dossier had come with clear instructions not to kill any of the suspects — at least not until he determined which, if any, were members of the Cult of Soth.

out of curiosity he checked pulled up biometrics on his HUD. His heart rate had never risen above bpm.

and he knew the shade he was standing in was really deep folds of shadow. He

microclimate cooling system
magnetorheological fluid-based

Force multiplication, in military science and warfare, refers to an attribute or a combination of attributes that dramatically increases (hence "multiplies") the effectiveness of an item or group, giving a given number of troops (or other personnel) or weapons (or other hardware) the ability to accomplish greater things than without it

The director was deceased — at least, in a biological sense — and his consciousness existed in a VR platform. His corpse was cryogenically frozen, the DNA of which had been used as the template for Stephen's own genome. With age and increased wealth had also come paranoia, and the Director didn't trust anyone except himself. Stephen was about as close as you could get.

It was mostly rural, a rugged terrain of hills and dense woods.

ceramic flechettes

tapestry

his mouth tasted like he'd been eating out of a trashcan. His

1

The portside lights illuminated the scow as it drifted past, silhouetted against the matte backdrop of space. Crowley watched it through the monitor, trying to catch a glimpse at its registration.

"She's a big sucker," commented Reed.

She was — at least two hundred meters from bow to stern, its hull block-shaped and fifteen stories high.

"What the hell is she doing all the way out here?" said Lennon. "There're no shipping lanes out here, are there?"

Reed crossed his arms and said, "A few, but they're all around Delta and Gamma. I think there's a mining operation on one of the gas giants down in Theta."

The Galilee, a five-crew ketch rig, was cutting across system HD196050. The system consisted of an adolescent yellow star orbited by three exoplanets. They were making a return flight home through the constellation Pavo, colloquially referred to as the Peacock. returning from a repair job out in Gliese 832, cutting across Pavo to make their way back home. to Virginia station,

about 235 light years away from earth Pavo

ghost ship
sailing / ocean
Mary Celeste

Grus -

constellation Pavo
NGC 6752, - globular cluster
Pavo displays an annual meteor shower known as the Delta Pavonids, whose radiant is near the star δ Pav.[2]

parallax

galley - kitchen
head - ship's toilet

a Class 3 Frigate.

gunboat
man-of-war
dreadnought
monitor
ship of the line
torpedo boat
patrol boat
PCF - patrol craft fast, swift boat

tramp steamer - a steamer which takes on cargo when and where it can find it
barge

sloop - one sail
cutter - two sails
cabin cruiser - yacht
pleasure barge/craft
pinnace
ketch
kettuvallam - houseboat in india
carrier
lighter - used to transport goods and passengers to and from moored ships
lugger
pontoon
scow - used to haul bulk freight; barge
yawl/ketch - two masted sailing craft, similar to a cutter; type of yacht

captain's gig - small boat used to tax the captain to shore, between other boats, etc.

coracle - small, disc-like boat, like a walnut shell

cuddy - small room or cupboard on a boat

berth is a bed or sleeping accommodation on vehicles,

trawlers/ drifters

Quarter berth - A single bunk tucked under the cockpit. Usually found in smaller boats where there is not room for a cabin in this location.

Lee cloths are sheets of canvas or other fabric attached to the open side of the bunk (very few are open all round) and usually tucked under the mattress during the day or when sleeping in harbour. The lee cloth keeps the sleeping person in the bunk from falling out when the boat heels during sailing or rough weather.

V-berth - Almost all yachts have a bed in the extreme forward end of the hull (usually in a separate cabin called the forepeak).

Long-distance trains running at night usually have sleeping compartments with sleeping berths. In the case of compartments with two berths, one is on top of the other in a double-bunk arrangement. These beds (the lower bed in a double-bunk arrangement) are usually designed in conjunction with seats which occupy the same space, and each can be folded away when the other is in use.

Sleeper trains usually consist of single or double-berth compartments[4] as well as couchettes which have 4 or 6 beds (a bottom, middle and top bunk on each side of the compartment).[5]

plugged it into the

Its hull was shaped like a block,

Crowley

Dunham