Black Ops: Shadows
by Raven Blackmane
GURPS BLACK OPS is a role-playing game written by Jeff Koke and S. John Ross, and published by Steve Jackson Games. BLACK OPS is a trademark of SJ Games.
Argus: A secret organization of 12 men and women, created by President Harry Truman in 1947, dedicated to eliminating paranormal and supernatural threats to human civilization without alerting the public to the existence of said threats.
The Company: The worldwide organization created by Argus to execute its goals without the interference or knowledge of any government, corporation or other outside entity. The Company is divided into five independent, autonomous departments: Combat, Intelligence, Science, Security, and Technology. Each receives its orders directly from Argus.
Mission directives of the departments:
Combat (the grunts) -- Killing things
Intelligence (the spooks) -- Finding things that need killing
Science (the geeks) -- Figuring out the weaknesses of things that need killing
Security (the secops) -- Protecting the Company operatives ("ops") while they kill things and keeping everything secret
Technology (the techies) -- Inventing new ways of killing things
Wiggler: A critter that is small, fast, and hard to hit.
Beast: A critter that is big, strong, and hard to kill.
I'm just sitting down on the pot for a good long dump when the buzzing starts.
The Company always calls at the most inconvenient times.
I'm used to having my privacy violated by now, of course -- it's part of the business. Meanwhile, as I'm doing my business, this chip in my neck is quietly vibrating every few minutes, whispering the phone number into my brain where I'm supposed to check in.
Well. They can just wait a few minutes. There's no way I'm going on a mission without getting this crap out of my system.
Twenty minutes and two buzzes later I'm out of the restroom and at the corner pay phone outside the building. (No, I'm not going to use a cell phone. You have any idea how easy those things are to tap into?)
Dial the number. Ring. Ring.
"Hello, Kane," a deep male voice says.
"What's up?" I ask.
"You're being pulled from UU duty, Michael," he tells me.
Good. I'm getting sick of babysitting Universal Underwriters' little safehouse. It's about time they gave me something to do.
"Fine by me," I tell my contact. "Where'm I going?"
"The Lab," he says. "Science has a P an' S for ya, my friend."
I grit my teeth. A Protect and Serve mission -- meaning some bastard out there is killing civilians, and we have to go take care of it.
And when Science is sponsoring the mission, that almost always means a live capture is involved.
I hate capture missions.
"Understood," I say. "Kane out."
As I hang up the phone and head for my car, I idly wonder what sort of critter Science is so eager to get their hands on. Gargoyle? Vampire? Maybe a wiggler of some sort?
I smirk. A wiggler. Yeah, right. I should be so lucky.
Climbing inside the Company Lexus, I head for the airport ... and the private flight I know is waiting to take me to the Lab.
The Science Department's headquarters is probably the most beautiful piece of architecture in the Western Hemisphere. The Lab, as they call it, is located underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, a few miles off the coast of Texas. Connected to the mainland by a private subway line, the place has windows everywhere -- you can sometimes look up and see sharks hunting right above you. Combine the dappled light filtering down from the surface with the spit-and-polish shine of the hallways and corridors inside, and you've got a pretty nice place to work down here.
I don't spend much time here, of course. The Lab is the geeks' domain. I'm a Security Operative -- or secop, as we call ourselves -- so the only time I come down here is when Science wants me for a mission.
Or, rather, when Security decides that Science wants me for a mission. I can be realistic. Nobody really likes us secops.
Well, okay. That's an exaggeration. Some of the geeks don't mind us -- guess they're smart enough to know they need us -- and Argus is pretty glad to have us around. Or so they say. And of course other secops have no problem with me. But when you get right down to it, the love for Security is pretty thin in most places.
Like I give a damn. They need me, and that's at least as useful as liking me. We secops have saved their butts more times than they'd like to admit, and that's what really irritates them about us.
I arrive at the Briefing Room and step inside, quickly taking in the scenery. One grey-haired guy in a white lab coat -- that'll be the briefing officer. One slender gal with auburn hair -- hey, I know her. That's Juliana LaFollette, one of the best Grey Readers we've got.
I frown. If they're sending Julie on this mission, she must be getting pretty worn out. They only pull the readers off the war with the Greys when they need a rest from prying through alien minds. That's mostly because there aren't enough of them around that we can really afford to spare any of them.
Lessee. Who else is here?
One scrawny kid with kinda spiky brown hair ... probably a techie, from the looks of him. One tall black guy with an impressive build -- oh, that's Daniel Hoffman. Good man, and a damn fine soldier too. Probably one of the most level-headed ops Combat has. He's survived a long time now -- 23 missions, which means he just passed the average life expectancy for an op. The really good ones last longer, of course -- half the reason our statistics are so bad is because so many rookies get killed during their first three years in the field. You survive past three years, chances are fair you'll live to see retirement. For a guy like Hoffman, the odds are a hell of a lot better than "fair."
There's one other person in here, besides the lab assistants scurrying around in the background: About five foot ten, straw-blond hair, blue eyes, and a build so ripped it would make Mr. Universe break down and cry. Thin, white scarring lines on the exposed left arm form the shape of a pentagram. The figure turns, and I see the trademark: "Death Fetish" tattooed across the upper chest, exposed by the low-cut black muscle top. A necklace of animal bones is draped over the shoulders, with a bleached lizard skull resting in the cleft between her breasts.
You heard me. Her name is Natasha Kerensky. She's one of the Cadre -- fifteen elite Combat ops who have pledged their lives to the extermination of all paranormal beasts everywhere.
They're also dangerous, obsessive psychotics, and some of the downright scariest mothers you'd never want to meet. The only reason the Company even tolerates them is because they kill so many more critters than the average op. On the whole, everybody else thinks the Cadre ops need psychological evaluations ... if not electroshock therapy.
And I've got one on my squad.
I hate the Cadre.
"Mister Kane," the lab-coated geek nods to me. "Glad you could join us. Everyone have a seat, please, and we'll get started."
We take our seats in the row of chairs facing the large display panel on the back wall. Julie smiles at me -- we've worked together before. Hoffman nods an acknowledgement of my presence, which I return. Kerensky scowls and takes a seat as far from me as possible.
Kerensky hates secops.
The briefing officer nods to one of the support-geeks in the back, and a map of the U.S.A. comes up on the display screen.
"For the last three weeks we've been receiving disturbing reports from the Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico," the lab-coated man says. On cue, the northwestern quadrant of New Mexico is outlined by a flashing red border, then expands to cover the entire screen.
"There has been a mysterious increase in animal attacks on the reservation of late," he continues. "No apparent rationale behind it. Locals, missionaries, domestic animals -- there've been bodies turning up among all of them. Intelligence suspected paranormal involvement, so they sent a recon squad down there last week.
"The spooks found out that the killings were being caused by a group of werewolves that's moved into the territory." He throws us a significant gaze from behind his wire-rim glasses. "They sent us their last update forty-eight hours ago. They haven't been heard from since."
"What's Omicron tell us?" Julie asks. The Omicron Device is the gizmo that keeps track of those implants in our necks. It can pinpoint an op anywhere in the world -- and, with the help of some poison sacs planted in the brain case, kill him in an instant if he's gone renegade on us.
"Inconclusive," the geek says. "We're still picking up the signals from the chips, but our satellite can't see past ground level in the building where they are. Hard to say if they're hiding out in the basement or if they've been buried there."
"So we have to go in and take care of the weres before they kill anyone else," Hoffman reasons. "What kind are we dealing with here?"
The question is a valid one. "Werewolf" is a generic term the Company uses for any humanoid with a strong streak of the bestial. That includes everything from Sasquatch to Neanderthals to your more traditional shapeshifters. The different kinds of weres demand different approaches. Some are significantly tougher than others.
"I'm glad you asked," the geek replies with a grim smile. "Because that brings us to the other part of this mission. The data brought in by the spooks suggest that these are werecougar shapeshifters. Now we have had incredible difficulty procuring an actual shapeshifter for study here. Argus has decided that it's time to bring one in alive."
There is something like a choked laugh from somewhere on the other side of the briefing room. Everybody here knows that Science is at least as responsible for the capture side of this mission as Argus ... if not more so.
Our grey-haired associate ignores the sound. "The killings have centered around the town of Serpent Ridge," he says, as the town is highlighted with a yellow blip on the map. "Your orders are to go there, hunt down the weres, bring back at least one intact and eliminate the rest of them. We aren't sure how many of these beasts there are, but the spooks sighted at least six at any given time. You are also to track down the missing ops and take measures as appropriate. Medevac choppers are standing by at our office in Farmington, and you'll be provided with cryobags just in case."
"Question," I say, raising a hand. "How are we bagging the live beast?"
"Fortunately, Technology has been so kind as to loan us one of their new Tangler devices," the briefing officer replies. "It will fire a neural-disruption net at the target that should completely entangle the were and render it unconscious in under three seconds. Faster, if the target struggles."
"A lot can happen in three seconds," Hoffman notes ominously.
"Agreed, which is why Technology recommends using it only on targets at medium range. You'll also be provided with tranquilizer rounds similar to those we used in bagging that ice weasel last year in Alaska. We don't know what the best dosage would be for a werecougar, but it's better than nothing if the Tangler malfunctions."
When it malfunctions, I note darkly to myself. Technology's Dynatronics R&D firm is notorious for its bug-ridden equipment. It would never be tolerated if they weren't putting out wonders thirty or forty years ahead of their time.
"Now. For those of you who don't know one another," the geek continues, "This is Technology Op Harvey Smith." He gestures to the scrawny kid with the weird hair, who stands up with a happy-to-be-here type expression. "Smitty is part of the design team that created the Tangler, and he's volunteered to oversee this alpha test of the device."
"Combat Op Natasha Kerensky, heavy weapons specialist," the briefing officer says. Kerensky stands to her feet and folds her arms across her chest, her muscles flexing impressively as she does so. "Kerensky was chosen by the Combat Department to handle the hunting portion of this mission."
Kerensky nods to the rest of us, but I can see her staring daggers at me. I look back at her with a cool, professional gaze. No sense in letting her get to me. Yet.
"Science Op Juliana LaFollette." Julie stands, her hazel eyes glittering. "LaFollette's on leave from Grey-reading duty right now, so she's been assigned to overseeing the were capture."
I smile at Julie as she sits down. I hope she's doing all right. Nice gal, and a terrific field operative. It'd be a hell of a shame if we lost her to burnout.
"Security Op Michael Kane." I stand, nodding to the others. The reception is about the same as I got when I walked in a few minutes ago. "Kane's worked with a few of you before, and he has quite a bit of experience dealing with both weres and P&S missions."
There's a reason he's telling them that. It means that I'll be fair with them, because I know when a mission like this still has a chance at victory and when it's time to cut your losses and run. A secop has absolute authority to scrub the mission at any time if it looks like the lives of the ops or the safety of the conspiracy is in danger. As the ultimate guardians against exposure of the Company -- to the public, the government, or anyone else -- it's Security's job to call it quits when things look bad. That's the other reason people don't like us: we'll pull a rabid Cadre grunt off a suicide mission, or keep the geek from running out into crossfire to collect a dead wiggler, or stop a spook from sneaking off on his own when we need him with the rest of the squad. People don't like being told what they can and can't do. Since it's the secops' job to tell them, that means they usually don't like us.
As I said before: Like I give a damn.
"Combat Op Daniel Hoffman." Hoffman stands, looks at each of us in turn with a calm and measuring gaze. "Hoffman is one of the most reliable grunts in the field, and he's shown himself to be an effective leader. That's why Science has designated him as the squad leader for this mission."
I nod. It's an impressive testimony to Hoffman's abilities that Science would choose a Combat op to lead this mission. The Science and Combat departments have a long-standing rivalry that goes back to the earliest days of the Company. It really comes down to their mission statements: Science's charter instructs them to procure specimens, in order to find the best ways to fight our enemy. Combat, on the other hand, has standing orders to eradicate enemies whenever possible, and only capture when killing is impractical, impossible, or foolhardy. This conflict of interests has led to a feud between the departments that is only surpassed in intensity by their mutual hatred for the creatures we're fighting. The fact that Hoffman could rise above all that and get assigned as the leader for a Science-sponsored mission is nothing short of amazing. Then again, Hoffman is a pretty amazing guy.
"Once you get back to shore, we'll be flying you straight out to Four Corners Regional Airport, near the northeastern corner of the reservation," the geek continues as Hoffman sits down again. "From there, you'll take two of our supply trucks down to Serpent Ridge itself. Considering what happened to the recon squad, we recommend that you exercise discretion when approaching the town."
Kerensky snorts derisively at that. For once, I can't really blame her.
"What's our cover?" I ask.
"If anyone asks, you're carrying supplies to a uranium mine that's not far from the town. Intelligence confirmed its location before they sent out the surveillance team. LaFollette and Smitty will pose as radiation safety experts being brought to the mine for consultation purposes. The rest of you are the heavy labor."
I smirk at that. Kerensky, Hoffman and I should have no trouble passing for truck drivers. Fighting beasts and Greys on a regular basis tends to keep you in shape.
"So what's our excuse for stopping in town?" Smitty asks.
The briefing officer smiles. "One of your trucks is suffering from some mild mechanical trouble," he says. "It may be nothing, but you want to be sure before heading out into the desert again. If the mission looks like it's going to take more than a day or two, 'discover' a more serious problem."
The techie grins. "I can do that," he says impishly, rubbing his hands together.
"I thought so." The scientist turns back to the rest of us. "Any other questions?"
"Extraction procedures?" I ask. Any time you're working near civilians, you'd better make damned sure you can get out of there quickly. Five ops armed with sci-fi weaponry and lugging a live shapeshifter would be pretty hard to explain to the locals.
"Ideally, if everything goes according to plan, you'll seal the entangled were inside a cryobag and take the supply trucks back to Four Corners. If the authorities start breathing down your necks, or you need to get out of there in a hurry, the choppers will fly you out. Intelligence will have several spotters in the area to keep an eye out for cops or government agents. We'll notify you via Omicron if trouble's on its way in.
"Anything else?" After a few seconds of silence, he continues. "All right, then. You have your orders. Good luck."
The flight out to Four Corners is long and uneventful. It's just the five of us inside the passenger compartment of the private jet, with everybody trying to look calm and composed despite the fact that we all know we're not fooling anybody. Capture missions are rough, both because it's a lot tougher to take a beast alive than to fill it with hot lead and because the geeks are paranoid that the grunts will frag the critter if it looks at them cross-eyed. Science frequently accuses Combat of actually ordering the grunts to do this ... and more often than not, they're right. Me, I don't have any secret agendas. Secops have nothing to hide -- except for the conspiracy, of course. My biggest challenge in this mission will be to keep Kerensky from biting the weres' eyes out.
Kerensky. She's sitting over there in the corner at the back of the plane, eyes half-shut, chanting something under her breath. I've heard rumors that she's tried burning incense on the plane before, but the pilot had a fit about it and complained to the squad's secop. She probably could have broken his arms, but the rest of the squad was unanimously against her and she finally backed down. She may be an obsessive fanatic, but she's not stupid. Stupid people don't make it out of the Academy.
Hoffman's staring out the window, deep in thought. Julie's reading a copy of "Science" that she brought along with her. Smitty is fiddling with the Tangler, checking knobs and triggers and pulling off various access panels to check on the mechanisms inside.
On the whole, it's a much stranger-looking piece of equipment than most of the weapons Dynatronics sends us. It's short, stubby, and has two huge grips on either side, one of which is equipped with a sturdy-looking fire button. It looks a little like a riot gun, but the bore is huge -- a good six inches across. There are some exhaust vents along the top and bottom of the barrel, and some sort of targeting display on the back, but there are also a lot of buttons and switches that seem to serve no purpose besides looking mysterious and high-tech.
"Is that thing actually going to work when we need it?" I ask, trying to keep my voice from sounding too pointed. Techies are infamous for taking things apart in the field to make them work better. Sometimes that means that they don't work at all when you really need them.
"Oh, yeah," Smitty says, looking up with a grin. "No sweat. I'm just checking on the targeting system, that's all."
Julie looks up, interested. "That thing has target tracking?"
"Yep. The round has to be programmed to deploy the net at just the right time, or it may not entangle the target properly. The computer uses a targeting laser to monitor how close the enemy is when you pull the trigger, and it sets the timer on the round accordingly."
"What's the effective range?" I ask.
Smitty pauses and considers. "About twenty yards, on the long end of things," he says, frowning thoughtfully. "You could let the were get as close as six yards, but that's pushing it. Ten to twenty is probably best."
I nod. "And how many rounds does it hold?"
"Just one -- for now," he adds quickly, grinning sheepishly at my expression. "We made it a muzzle-loading design to cut down on complexity. There's enough to go wrong with just the targeting computer to worry about.. Besides, this thing kicks like a mule -- rapid fire isn't even a dream at this point."
Julie and I look at him fixedly. "But it'll work," she says.
"Oh, yeah," Smitty says again, nodding once. "Sure thing. I'd stake my reputation on it."
"We may be staking a lot more than that," Julie reminds him.
The techie looks thoughtful. "That's true," he concedes. "But it'll work. Don't worry."
Don't worry. If I had a buck for every time a techie's told me that...
Smitty finishes the check-up on his baby, places it back in the carrying case and wanders off to the cockpit. Maybe planning on asking the pilot if he can have a look at the avionics. He could probably figure out a way to intercept Grey transmissions with the radar system, if we didn't mind not being able to see where we're going...
Julie chuckles. I turn to glance at her, but she lowers her eyes immediately and goes back to reading her magazine. Her expression is carefully neutral, but her face is red.
I decide not to say anything. Grey Readers have a hard time keeping their minds to themselves, and they often hear other people's thoughts without even trying. Calling her on it would only embarrass her further.
I lean back in my seat and try to relax. It may be the last opportunity I get for a while.
We arrive at Four Corners around 3 p.m., local time. The spooks have done a nice job of preparing the way for us: the entire airfield has been cleared of civilian traffic, and the supply trucks are standing by for us when we arrive. The airport higher-ups have been told that we're part of a very sensitive undercover operation by the DEA, and shown the appropriately convincing documents to prove it. We load our equipment onto the rigs and head off into the desert without a moment's delay.
Hoffman takes the lead, wisely choosing to bring Kerensky along with him -- Cadre ops only really get along with other grunts, so his decision minimizes the risk of her causing problems with the rest of the squad. Smitty rides in the back of their truck, where he can keep a close eye on the Tangler. That leaves me and Julie alone in the cabin of the second truck.
"So. How are things on the Grey front lately?" I ask, casually, as we pull out onto the highway. We'll be going west along US-64 until it reaches the highway that will take us south through the Navajo reservation. Ironically enough, that highway is US Route 666...
Julie grimaces. "Pretty much at a standstill -- though that's not a completely bad thing," she concedes. "We've stopped a few of their major operations in South Asia in the last couple of months, though we weren't able to kill many of them. Our biggest concern right now is keeping Mind from getting in touch with them."
I nod. Mind is an international organization of very powerful telepaths who use their powers for personal gain. Most of them are harmless, from the Company's point of view -- they're too wrapped up in petty hedonistic pleasures to care much about taking over the planet -- but some of them have dedicated themselves to unraveling the paranormal mysteries of the world ... probably so they can gain more power for themselves. If they were to discover the Greys, and make a deal with them...
"How are you doing, Julie?" I ask, steering away from that unpleasant line of thought. "You seem quieter than usual. Is everything all right?"
She sighs, lowering her head and rubbing her temples with one hand. "Not really, no. It's hard, Michael, really hard. When they know you can read them, the Greys are always coming after you. You're their first target when the fight begins and the last one they aim for before bugging out. And then there's the fact that half the time the rest of your squad doesn't even trust you..."
I shake my head in disbelief. Julie is one of the kindest, most decent human beings I've ever worked with. Can things have gotten so bad that her fellow ops would treat her like an enemy, just because she's a teep?
"Yes, it is that bad!" Julie says suddenly, slapping her hand down on the armrest.
I turn to look at her, and I see the anger and frustration suddenly dissolve into embarrassment and shame. She lowers her eyes and turns away.
"Sorry," she murmurs.
I reach over and take her hand in mine, squeezing it slightly. "It's all right, Julie," I say, gently. Damn the Greys for doing this to her... "You don't have to apologize to me. I --"
I break off as she looks up at me, quirking an eyebrow at my unspoken thought.
I sigh. "Okay, I don't understand, but I sympathize, at least. There's a lot of people who don't like secops, either. But I do understand that you can't always control your talent, so I'm never going to hold that against you. If there's anybody in the Company who I'd trust with my thoughts besides me, it's you, Julie."
She smiles a little at that. "Thanks," she says. "I'll be all right, I think. I just needed to get away from the front lines, rest my talent for a while."
"And take a nice relaxing vacation, hunting weres in New Mexico?" I add, grinning.
She laughs. "Only in this business does a mission like this qualify as R and R," she says. From the look on her face, her mood has brightened a bit. I'm glad. Maybe someday, when we're both retired and teaching classes at the Academy...
Julie flashes me a knowing grin. "Why, Michael! I'm flattered."
Now it's my turn to blush...
Things are quiet as we pull into town, parking the trucks alongside the road just outside the cluster of buildings that serves as the town square. The sky is a clear, deep blue, and a light breeze sends the dust blowing through the street. There are a number of small shops in old aluminum-sided buildings, catering to the typical needs of rural life: a general store, a gas station, a dentist, a farrier -- you get the idea. There's also a hut-shaped adobe building on the side of the road, painted light pink. The window displays show dream-catchers, leather goods, turquoise jewelry and other traditional and semi-traditional knickknacks. I shake my head. Even in a little town like this, somebody is always cashing in on the tourist trade.
Next to the gift shop is the general store. It looks a lot like an old western-style bar, with a broad porch in front of it. The locals probably use it as a gathering place, since there are no bars on the reservation -- alcohol is officially prohibited on Navajo land, though that doesn't usually stop people from getting their hands on it. There are a couple of chairs and a small table on the porch, no doubt for playing cards or checkers. An old Navajo man sits in one of those chairs, watching us impassively as we walk into town. He's dressed in a colorfully-patterned shirt, blue jeans, a bolo tie, cowboy boots, and a belt with a large buckle that has a few pieces of polished turquoise on it. His skin looks like wrinkled leather, weathered by too many years out in the sun, and his long white hair is pulled back into two braids that hang on either side of his face. Apart from him, the place seems deserted
"Hello, there!" Hoffman calls to him as we approach. "We're looking for a place to spend the night. Is there anywhere to stay around here?"
The Indian raises a hand, just slightly, and gestures toward a two-story building down the street. "Mary will help you," he says. He has a fairly strong accent, but his diction is good enough to understand him.
Hoffman nods. "Thank you." We turn and continue walking in the direction he pointed us. I notice that he follows us with his eyes, but his body barely moves a muscle.
"You think he might be a brainsucker zombie?" Smitty whispers once we're farther away. The brainsuckers are the other aliens we have to fight on a regular basis -- tiny parasites that invade a person's brain and take over, using the victim's body as an incubator for their young. Brainsuckers aren't particularly smart, so they tend to maneuver their hosts into places where they won't have to interact much with humans. The elderly are particular favorites, since the brainsucker's dull wit can be easily mistaken for the onset of senility.
In this case, though, Julie shakes her head. "He's for real," she says, just as softly as Smitty. "I sensed a very sharp mind, but one that was also ... detached, maybe. Impassive."
"A people watcher," I say, scanning around us for any sign of other inhabitants. I still don't see anyone. "He's curious about us."
"Probably," Julie agreed.
Smitty gives me a worried look. "So what if he starts getting nosy?"
I glance briefly in his direction. "Let me worry about that." That's only natural; after all, I'm the secop. I just hope I won't have to do anything about the old guy. If there's one thing every black op agrees on, it's that civilian deaths have to be kept to a minimum.
It turns out that Mary runs one of those old-fashioned restaurants with the guest rooms upstairs for any traveler that happens to wander through. She's an older woman, probably a widow, with her graying hair pulled back into a bun and "granny-style" glasses on her round, weathered face. She smiles at us, and seems quite willing to let us rent the guest rooms for the night, especially after our story. Behind her eyes, though, there's something else. I can see hints of worry, and maybe something else, but I decide not to stand there staring and try to figure out what it is. Julie will do a better job of picking up her thoughts, anyway.
Apparently, Julie has a few hunches already. "Have you had any other visitors pass by here in the last three or four days?" she asks. "A few of my colleagues went on to the mine ahead of us -- I was wondering if they might have come through here."
Mary looks thoughtful. "A couple of young fellas and a lady came by here a few days ago," she says. "But they moved on early yesterday morning. My guess is they're probably out at the mine already."
Julie nods. "Thanks," she says, smiling. "That's all I needed."
I smile a little at the true meaning of Julie's words. In another minute, we're upstairs in one of our two rooms with the door shut tight. Smitty produces a bug sweeper from one of his pockets, verifies that the room is clean, and sets up another contraption near the door that he assures us will guarantee our privacy. The device looks like a prop from a bad Fifties B-movie, and it hums ominously as he starts it up, but nothing shows any sign of exploding yet -- so far, so good.
"What did you find out, Julie?" I ask after Smitty gives the all-clear sign.
"She's on our side, I think," she replies, looking pleased. "She lied to us to protect our fellow ops -- they're still here, hidden in the basement."
"She must have thought we were weres," Hoffman says.
"She wasn't sure who we were, but she wasn't about to take any chances," Julie says.
"That's a problem," I say, frowning. "If she knows about the weres, then we've already failed in our efforts to keep this under wraps."
"Don't worry about that yet, Kane," Kerensky says, speaking up for what I think is the first time this mission. Her voice is soft and low, but as strong as iron. "The Navajo have legends about shapeshifters that go back thousands of years. Many still believe that magic-users walk among them that can take the form of an animal. The spooks probably fed her a story right out of her childhood fairy-tales."
"Natasha's right," Hoffman says, nodding. "Magic is a part of life for these people. Even if they shared their story with others, no one on the outside is going to believe it. They'll say it was a family of wild cougars that went bad, started killing humans."
I nod, reluctantly conceding the point. As I said before, Kerensky isn't stupid.
"All right," I say, crossing my arms. "So she has our ops in the basement. How do we get to them? Do we try to convince her that we're friends, or just slip down there in the middle of the night?"
"If we try to sneak down there, we risk making an enemy who will send the authorities after us," says Julie.
"And talking will be useless unless the recon ops have given her some way to tell that we're their allies," adds Kerensky.
"Only we don't know what that sign might be," Hoffman points out. "The recon squad didn't know who would be sent after them." He pauses, thinking a moment, then turns to Julie. "Can you reach them telepathically?"
She nods. "I can try. If they're unconscious or delirious, though, it won't do much good."
"It's still worth a try."
Nodding again, Julie sits down on the edge of the bed and closes her eyes, pressing her fingertips gently against her temples, chin, and forehead. She begins breathing slowly, deeply, as she tries to actively reach out to the minds of our comrades below. I wish she didn't have to do this -- after all, she was supposed to be resting her talent on this mission -- but so far she doesn't show any sign of strain. Apparently touching human minds is a lot less stressful than touching alien ones...
After a minute or two she opens her eyes and looks up at us. "I talked to Jonathan, one of the two spooks," she says. "He's hurt pretty badly, but he's conscious and able to speak. He says he'll let Mary know about us."
Sure enough, it's only a few minutes later that Mary appears at the door, a puzzled expression on her face. We follow her down the stairs and through the restaurant kitchen to a walk-in pantry. She presses a hidden switch and part of the back wall swings inward to reveal another set of steps leading downward.
"This place was built back during the national Prohibition," Mary explains, gesturing at the secret door. "This was where they hid the still. Will and I got rid of it when we bought the restaurant in the Fifties. We still keep a little liquor down here, but not so much as they did. The elders don't like it, but I don't see the harm in giving my guests a bit of whiskey now and then."
Jonathan is waiting for us down in the hidden cellar, leaning heavily against the wall for support. His short black hair is matted, his once-tan face marred with bruises. His arms, legs and torso are wrapped in bandages, some of them containing splints. All in all, I've seen ops looking a lot worse.
"Jonathan," Hoffman says, nodding to him as we approach.
"Daniel." The spook nods in return. Looking up at Mary, he gives her a "thumbs-up" signal. The innkeeper closes the hidden door behind her, leaving us alone in the cellar.
"What's the situation?" our leader asks quietly.
"Pretty bad, Daniel. We were shadowing a group of the weres around the town a few nights ago when two more came up out of nowhere and attacked us. We barely got out of there alive. Since then we've been hiding down here -- for the mission Technology gave us a gizmo that masks our scent from the weres. So far it's working."
"How are the others?" Julie asks.
Jonathan gestures toward a woman lying on the floor under a blanket, a few feet away. "Allison's in serious condition -- internal bleeding, I think. I'm not a doctor. Our secop, Jake, was the worst off. I don't know how he made it back here with us." Jonathan lowers his eyes. "He died yesterday. We couldn't do anything to save him."
I nod, grimly. That's the way things go in this business. "I'll call for medevac," I say, pulling out my communicator. It's a life-saving little gadget, as convenient as a cell phone but equipped with the best scrambling equipment Dynatronics could devise. So far, no one's succeeded in cracking it -- and we try to keep things that way by only using it when we have to.
While I'm making the call, Julie and Hoffman grill Jonathan for information about the weres. Even though they've only seen six of them at any given time, Jonathan is pretty sure he's seen more sets of tracks than that -- a lot more.
"We'll find them," Kerensky says firmly, her voice dark. "They've taken one of our own. We will pay them back in blood."
Julie looks at her, long and hard. "Yes, we will," she says. "Just remember to leave one of them for the bag."
Kerensky smiles. "Whatever you say, LaFollette."
"Julie, go get one of the cryobags from the truck," Hoffman says gently, interposing himself slightly between the two women. "We need to get Allison ready to fly."
Julie nods once, sharply, and heads up the stairs. Right about then I finish up with the call.
"The choppers will be here as soon as it's dark, which shouldn't be long now," I say. "We'll have to meet them a few miles north, away from the town."
"As soon as we get Allison in the bag, Julie and I will take her and Jonathan to the rendezvous point in one of the trucks," Hoffman says. "Natasha, I want you to go with Michael and Smitty and start hunting these bastards down."
"As long as I can do my job, that won't be a problem," Kerensky says, her ice-blue eyes glancing for a moment in my direction.
"You'll get to do your job," I reply calmly. "It's your extracurricular activities that concern me."
"Natasha won't be a problem," Hoffman says firmly, in a way that makes it just as explicit as a direct order. "And she's the best tracker we have. If anyone can find the weres, it's her."
"Granted," I say, nodding. "But if we happen to see any, we don't take them down until the whole squad is together."
"Agreed. But take the Tangler with you, just in case." Hoffman smirks. "Who knows? You might find a young one out hunting alone."
"We should be so lucky."
The door at the top of the stairs opens again, and Julie descends carrying the cryobag. One of Science's proudest achievements, it's essentially a body-bag with a miniature cryonics unit that allows a severely injured op to be flash-frozen into a state of suspended animation. In the years since "the bag" was introduced, Science's doctors have become experts at reviving ops from this state, as well as treating the wounds that make the use of the bag necessary in the first place. If your heart and brain are still working when you go into the bag, chances are good that the docs will be able to save you. The bag gives us that precious margin of time we need to get an injured op to safety, without worrying about their condition getting worse en route.
It only takes a few minutes for Julie and Hoffman to get Allison into the bag and safely frozen. Jake, the secop, goes into an ordinary body-bag. Then, after Julie verifies that no one is watching, we head out of Mary's restaurant and back to the trucks. Hoffman and Julie have a life to save. The rest of us need to find the beasts that almost ended it.
Kerensky holds up a hand, and Smitty and I come to a halt. Crouching down, she examines the ground before her closely, even taking a bit of dirt and raising it to her nose. As she rises, the Cadre warrior takes a careful look at the land before her, the bare ground shining silver-blue under the moonlight.
"We're on to something," she says quietly. "They've come this way many times. Their scent is strong on the land."
Privately, I wonder to myself about how the hell she does this. People say she has the night vision of a cat and the nose of a bloodhound, but where did a human get those kinds of abilities? Whether they're exaggerated or not, her record speaks for itself. Sometimes, given the way she acts, I wonder if she is all human.
"Any idea how far we are from their lair?" I ask, keeping my voice just as soft. No sense in broadcasting our presence.
She gestures at a jagged line in the distance. Given where we are, that must be the Chaco Canyon -- a long gash in the earth that runs along the edge of the reservation and then curves east to the historical park that bears its name. It's hard to tell how far away it is. "Somewhere in there," she says. "A cave, maybe. Or an abandoned mine. At least a mile away."
I nod, looking at my watch. It's very late. By now Jonathan and Allison are back at a Company hospital somewhere, probably Albuquerque, the doctors there working tirelessly to put them back together again. Hoffman and Julie will be back at Mary's place by now, too. In the last several hours we've tracked all around the town, heading maybe half a mile in every conceivable direction -- but now Kerensky has finally found the main path, the common route that all of the weres have taken on their way to terrorize the town. We may not know exactly where they live just yet, but we definitely know which street.
"Let's head back," I say. "If Hoffman okays it, we'll head back this way tomorrow night in full force."
"Let's hope nobody else gets killed before then," Smitty says, sounding unusually grim.
As we turn back toward the town, my eyes catch sight of a shape moving nearby. Looking closely, I see that it's a small desert owl, watching us from atop a rock in the middle of a small clump of sagebrush. It looks at us curiously, turning its head one way and the other. Then it turns and flies soundlessly away, back in the direction of the town.
Smitty chuckles. "Do you suppose he overheard us?"
"Might be a security risk, Kane," Kerensky adds, smirking. "Think we should take him out?"
I pretend to mull that one over carefully. "No... no, I don't think so," I say at last, utterly deadpan. "Let him go. We can follow him back to his colleagues and eliminate the entire nest."
Kerensky laughs at that, a short, sharp bark, and then starts walking back the way we came. I follow a few steps behind her, wondering why the back of my neck is prickling.
Apparently I'm not the only one on edge. As we get close to the town Kerensky's pace slackens, and I see her scanning the dark buildings and shadowed streets ahead of us, her expression sharp and focused. Then she unslings the Model 4 from her shoulder and brings it into a "ready" position, flicking the switch to fire up the power cell.
"Trouble?" I murmur, taking out my Desert Eagle. It's a far cry from an M4 Electrothermal Sniper Cannon, but it works well against most things -- especially after the techies got done with their "upgrades".
"Maybe," she grunts back, continuing her cautious approach toward the town. "Just caught a whiff of one of them."
I frown. It's late, and nobody's likely to be awake to see us, but walking into a populated area with gun in hand is not something to be taken lightly. Especially for a secop. Under the circumstances, though...
"All right," I say at last. "Take the lead. Just remember, we don't want to go looking for it. If it finds us, though--"
"Right," Kerensky says.
Behind me, Smitty flicks a switch to power up the Tangler.
We pass down a narrow alley just off of the main street. The moon is low in the sky by now, and the shadows are as black as pitch. Our eyes wander everywhere around us, alert for trouble. We all move silently, even Smitty, as our ears strain for any warning that our eyes might miss. Just another one of the skills the Academy teaches to help us stay alive in the field.
Somewhere off to the left, I hear the startled cry of a rat, followed by a quiet rustling noise. Kerensky and I share a quick glance: the sound probably came from the next alley over. We had heard no indication of what scared the rat, but cougars tend to move even more silently than an op...
I look up at the building to our right. It's a stucco house with small windows, a balcony on the second story, a flat roof -- and a narrow ladder leading up to that roof. Perfect.
I gesture toward the ladder. Kerensky nods, and I motion to Smitty -- he'll be the first one to go up. He shoulders the Tangler (which he fortunately thought to equip with a strap) and climbs quickly up to the roof, soundless as ever. I holster my pistol and follow him up. A moment later Kerensky is beside us, as well. We creep to the edge of the roof, look down, and wait.
It's practically impossible to make out anything in the shadows down there, but a few moments later we see a slight flicker of motion as something glides silently into the alley. The ... presence, you might call it ... approaches the house. I can only see the vaguest impression of a shape, but a quiet sniffing noise floats up to us as the shape pauses by the ladder.
I look at Smitty, addressing him in sign language: [Can that shoot down?] I ask, gesturing at the Tangler.
The techie frowns and shakes his head slightly.
Damn. And here I thought this might be easy...
[Let's move back there,] I say to Kerensky, pointing to the far end of the roof. For a second I think she's going to argue with me, but then she looks down at the ladder again and begins backing away herself.
We take up positions on the side of the roof opposite the ladder. The light isn't too much better up here than in the alley, but at least we can see a little. I mentally judge the distance between us and the far edge: it might be ten yards, but no more than that. Inwardly, I sigh. Well, we were going to have to try it sooner or later. I place a hand on Smitty's shoulder and nod. He nods back, hefting the Tangler and aiming it in the direction of the ladder. Kerensky and I have our own guns drawn, just in case.
There is an uncomfortably long silence. Then, another flicker of movement, and a dark shape seems to melt over the ladder and onto the roof.
It pauses there for just an instant, looking at us, its eyes glowing bright green in the reflected moonlight. It's big and vaguely cat-shaped, but it looks solid black -- the moonlight just seems to fall into it and disappear. I don't get more than a second or two to analyze, though, because Smitty pulls the trigger.
There is a loud whoosh, like a Stinger being launched, and then Smitty is sprawling backward, as a vaguely egg-shaped object hurtles toward the beast. Midway there it splits open with a loud crack, unfolding into an array of weighted slugs connected to a shimmering mesh of something that looks a lot like a giant spider's web. For a split-second the net is right on target, just about to entangle the were--
And then the creature moves, darting out of the way with inhuman speed. The Tangler round was fast, amazingly fast for such a big projectile, but the were sidestepped it as if Smitty had just thrown the thing with his hand. The cat snarls -- a harsh, throaty sound -- and then turns its attention to us.
Kerensky doesn't waste any time, squeezing off round after round at the creature. Every shot sounds like a miniature crack of thunder. The superheated plasma that propels the Model 4's slugs paints fiery streaks through the cool night air, acting as a convenient sort of tracer for her shots. Most of them seem to hit, but the beast only hesitates for a moment before racing toward us.
I'm shooting too, but I get the impression it isn't doing much. In seconds the were races across the roof, leaps at Kerensky and tackles her, knocking the gun out of her hands. The Cadre warrior isn't finished, though -- rolling with the impact, she lands on her back and then flings the beast off of her, using its own momentum against it. The cat sails over the edge of the roof, snarls again as it hits the wall of the building next door, and lands with a crash in the alley below. We're at the edge in a second, peering into the darkness, but the beast is gone.
Kerensky mutters some sort of an oath in Russian. "I hit it!" she hisses, frustrated. "I know I hit it!"
"We both hit it," I agree, turning to look back to where the creature was a moment before. There are no holes in the roof from errant shots. I can now make out a few large splotches of blood here and there, but...
I turn back to the alley. It's hard to see, but I don't think there's any blood staining the wall of the other building.
We stand there in silence for a while longer, but the beast doesn't show itself again. At last I turn to Kerensky.
"I don't think it's coming back again," I whisper. "Go ahead and go down. We'll cover you from here."
The woman must be half-hoping that the cat is waiting for her, because she nods and goes down without a word of complaint, descending to the pavement swiftly and without a sound. Smitty goes next, and I follow him, while he and Kerensky keep watch in case the beast comes back.
Down on the ground, I take out my flashlight and sweep it over the walls of the buildings and the piles of trash littering the alley. There's no sign of blood anywhere.
"Geez," Smitty mutters, looking around. "You'd think it would be leaking all over the place, after that..."
"Let's get out of here," I say, not liking the looks of this at all. Kerensky grumbles something else in her own language, but she follows me out into the street without any overt complaints.
We're headed back to Mary's restaurant-slash-inn when we come to the old general store we saw earlier this afternoon. As we get close to it, a dark figure emerges from the building, flashlight in hand.
"Busy night, eh?" a familiar voice says.
Smitty looks at me, surprised. "It's the old guy," he whispers. I nod in agreement.
We shoulder our guns as he approaches. Smitty keeps the Tangler slung over his back, to keep the old Indian from getting a good look at it. The man is holding a shotgun in his right hand, the flashlight in his left. He looks at us for a few long seconds before speaking.
"I see that you are hunting the evil ones," he says.
Kerensky and I exchange a glance. It would be pretty stupid to try to deny it at this point. After all, we've just finished shooting the hell out of something. If the man was awake, he certainly would have heard it -- and the guns on our backs are pretty hard to hide, anyway.
"Yes," I say. "We've been contracted by the Department of the Interior to deal with the rogue family of cougars that has been attacking people in the area. They didn't want the animal rights people having a fit about the culling, so they sent us in undercover."
"I see," the old man says, nodding. Somehow, I get the impression that he "sees" a lot more than he's letting on. "I also hunt them. They know me, and some of them fear me -- but I am not strong enough to destroy them all." He gives us an appraising look. "I think, though, that you and your friends might prove stronger."
I nod. "We appreciate your vote of confidence. We hope to take care of them soon and be out of here in a couple of days."
"That is good," he says, nodding. "They have caused much sorrow for our people. There is room for both to live here in peace, but these young ones have rejected that path and begun to prey on the innocent. It pains me to see their lives ended, but they have left us with little choice."
"Sometimes that's just the way the world works," I agree, grimly. "Nobody likes it, but human lives have to come first."
The old man smiles enigmatically, his eyes twinkling in the dim light. He remains silent for a long moment, apparently deciding whether to say anything to that. I realize that my comment probably rubs against some aspect of his religion. I'm not interested in debating metaphysics with the Navajo, though, and I think he realizes that. At last, he nods to us again.
"I wish you good luck in your hunt," he says. "You will find them in an abandoned mine down in the canyon, about three miles east of here. Just try to keep the noise down. It bothers the neighbors." With that he turns and heads back into the tavern.
"I'm telling you, I saw it with my own eyes. I filled that beast with a dozen rounds, and it didn't even flinch."
"I saw it too," I say, confirming Kerensky's version of events. "I must have hit it a good seven or eight times myself. Didn't even seem to faze it."
Hoffman leans back against the wall next to his bed, looking deeply concerned. "What kind of creature can take that kind of damage and keep fighting?" he asks, mostly rhetorically.
"It's not too surprising that a shapeshifter would have certain regenerative capabilities," Julie says thoughtfully. Her eyes look worried, too. "The metastable nature of its physical form would lend itself easily to rapid restructuring in response to trauma."
Smitty scoffs. " 'Trauma'? Geez, Jules, the thing took twelve rounds from Kerensky's varmint gun. That goes way beyond 'trauma'." He shakes his head, as if he still can't believe what happened. "And it was so fast, too..."
"And that's a large part of the problem," I say. "It practically walked away from the Tangler's web. We'll never be able capture the thing if it can just dodge out of the way."
Hoffman turns to the techie. "Smitty, is there any way you can boost the muzzle velocity on the Tangler?" he asks. "Maybe if the creature has less time to react, it won't be able to avoid the net."
"I probably can, but I won't be able to fire it," Smitty says, looking glum. "The stupid thing already knocked me over with the kickback it has now. I'll make some adjustments, but one of you guys will have to use it."
"It's worth the trouble," our leader says. "Just get that round moving as fast as you can."
"You might also try deploying the net closer to the target," Julie suggests.
"I can do that, too, but it's risky. The net might not open before it hits the target."
"Just see what you can do," Hoffman says. "Have the boys back at Dynatronics run a few simulations if you aren't sure."
Smitty nods. "I'll get right on it."
"Good. If we're having this hard a time taking these things down with bullets, the Tangler may be the best shot we have."
"Now there's a comforting thought," I mutter.
"We still have other weapons we can try," Julie points out. "If we can concentrate a large amount of damage over a small target area, we might be able to overload the creatures' ability to regenerate. I'd suggest using lasers and automatic weapons next time."
"Flamethrowers, too," I add. "Napalm and phosphorus are hard to put out. If we can cover them with the stuff, the ongoing damage from the fire should keep them from healing much."
"All right," says Hoffman. "I'll put in a requisition for the gear, then call Intelligence and have them pinpoint that mine for us. Tomorrow night we'll take the helos in, finish this and get out. Worse comes to worst, we can always bury the mine."
Julie looks at him sharply. "Let's not forget this is a capture mission."
"I haven't forgotten," Daniel assures her. "But my first concern is making sure everyone survives. Smitty will do everything he can to make sure we can capture one of them, but it would be better to go back with a partial victory than not go back at all."
There are murmurs of quiet assent. Meanwhile, my eyes drift to the window, caught by a flutter of motion. For an instant I think I see a desert owl flying away from the ledge, but then it disappears into the darkness. Don't ask me why, but I get the strangest feeling it's the same one we saw earlier tonight...
"... Intel has confirmed the target: an old uranium mine, carved into the wall of the canyon." Julie gestures at the image on her laptop, wired to us through Blacknet by the spooks. "Apparently the Navajo let a prospecting company come in about fifty years ago and search the area for valuable ores, in exchange for getting a cut of the profits. The mine went dry in the early Seventies and was abandoned, but not before an extensive network of tunnels was carved out."
"A perfect lair," Kerensky mutters.
"It ain't gonna be easy getting them out of there," Smitty adds.
"I don't like the looks of this," I say, truthfully. "Going down there, in the dark, in a confined area -- it's just asking for trouble. It's your show, Daniel, but if it were me, I'd cave the place in and cut our losses."
Julie frowns at me. "We need one of these shifters alive, Michael," she says. "If we can learn how these creatures change shape, how they heal so quickly, it will help us learn how to take them down more effectively in the future. You won't always have the option of dropping a mountain on them. Besides, the mine tunnels will limit their mobility, which is a definite point in our favor."
Daniel seems deep in thought. At last he looks up at us, having apparently made his decision.
"Julie's right," he says. "If an M4 won't kill one of these things, we need to know what will. We have to bring one back alive if we can." He turns to Julie. "But Michael is right, too. This is going to be ugly work, and we need to have a failsafe."
"We also need to make sure they can't get away while we're not looking," I add. "Any mine built that recently has to have at least two exits. Where's the second one?"
"On top of the plateau, accessed by a wooden staircase about seven hundred yards into the mine," Julie says, indicating the spot on the blueprints. "Given how long it's gone unused, there's no telling whether or not it's still serviceable, though of course we'll have to watch it just in case. There are four sets of ventilation shafts, too, but they're too small for either a man or a cougar to climb through."
"We'll have the helicopters monitor the exits when we go in," Daniel says. "If one or two of them try to sneak out the back way, the helos will be able to take them down. If they all try to bug out at once, though, we could have a problem, especially if they all head in different directions."
"I could mount charges around the entrances to the mine," Smitty offers. "If things turn bad for us, we can always blow the charges and bury the place."
"And us, more than likely," I add under my breath.
"Maybe so, but that's better than letting these bastards keep killing people." Daniel sighs. "All right. Combat's bringing in the heavy weapons tonight. Once we have them we'll pay the weres a house call and burn the place out. Concentrate on target reduction -- we'll take a capture if we can get it, but given how tough these things are I'd much rather look for one that's still breathing after the shooting stops. If things turn sour, we'll blow the mine. What's the status of the Tangler?"
"Working ... I think," Smitty adds with that sheepish grin of his. "I managed to boost the muzzle velocity by fifty percent, and adjusted the tracking computer to compensate. The sims back at Dynatronics checked out okay, but I still don't know if it's fast enough."
"We'll find out soon enough," Daniel says, getting to his feet. "All right. Get some rest while you can, everybody. It's going to be a rough night."
I sleep peacefully for a while. I'm not sure how long. That may surprise you, given the death trap we're walking into tonight, but after you've been with the Company as long as I have you learn to stop dwelling on things like that. The job is what it is, and after a while you manage to shut out the voices. Most of them, anyway. Some things still get to me -- that raid on the demon's lair in Chicago, for instance, where the bastard was carving up children as entrees. I couldn't sleep for a week after walking through the meat locker of that restaurant. (Come to think of it, that's how I got stuck babysitting that safehouse in the first place.) But facing my own death? Hell, that's easy.
Given all of that, then, I'm more than a little surprised at the images that abruptly start intruding into my mind in the middle of what had started as a fairly promising nap.
I find myself standing in a long hallway. The walls, floor and ceiling are all a shimmering, silvery-white metal. Doors made of the same stuff can be seen here and there along the passage. I recognize the design: I'm in Grey territory, inside one of their underground bases.
I take a step forward. My whole body feels wrong. I look down at myself -- and then find out it's not "myself" that I'm looking at. The slender, attractive form of a woman's body is standing there before my eyes, complete with two very nicely shaped breasts hanging right in front of me.
"Holy..." I reach out with feminine hands and run them along the contours of my body. It's shapely but solid, like a silk glove over an iron hand. I can feel the fabric of my combat uniform beneath my fingers, slightly coarse to the touch. I reach up to my face and touch smooth, flawless skin without a trace of stubble. My hair is long and pulled up in a bun; it feels thick and soft. I can smell a trace of perfume, obviously applied sparingly. God, I've never had a dream this real before...
"Julie?" A voice sounds at my left, and I turn to see another op standing there looking at me with a concerned expression. Unlike me, he's wearing a helmet, which is shielded to help block out the Greys' telepathy. "Are you all right?"
"I think so," I hear Julie's voice say through my lips. I feel the words forming in my -- her -- throat, but I'm not in control of them. "I just had a weird feeling there for a minute."
"Do you hear them?" the other op asks.
My hand goes to my head, the fingers on the temple and forehead, and then a rush of voices comes screaming into my mind. They're hostile, malicious, and yet ... cold, clinical ... not human...
I can hear the voices, but I don't understand them -- just the emotions. I may be in Julie's body, somehow, but I don't have her knowledge...
One of the voices changes, as if it has just noticed my presence. Icy tendrils of thought reach out to touch my mind. The same part of me that spoke those words a moment ago throws up a shield against them, but it isn't very strong or very well constructed. This must have been early in Julie's career with us, before she was fully seasoned in using her gift...
After a few seconds the alien thoughts worm their way past the barricade and slip into my mind, rooting around inside it. Then the tendrils seem to form into a claw, and I feel myself being pulled out of my -- Julie's -- body and into someplace else.
This place is dark, ominous. Clouds hang all around me. Flashes of multicolored light appear in the darkness as the voices speak to each other, gathering around me to examine me more closely. I can't see the ones who own the voices -- the Greys -- but they can see me...
I look down at myself again. I still look like I'm in Julie's body, but it's bright and shimmering and not quite fully there. One of those thought-tendrils shoots out at me again in a burst of rainbow light, and then I'm standing here naked. I barely have time to notice what a nice body Julie has before I hear the voices closing in on me.
A surge of fear rushes through me. I feel cold, exposed, vulnerable ... the tendrils shoot out of the darkness again, touching me, wrapping around me, entering into ears and mouth and other openings I hadn't even begun to think about ... God, the violation ... the psi-plane is a realm of metaphor, and now I realize with a wave of revulsion why teeps call this "mind rape"...
I wake up with a start. My heart feels like it's trying to pound its way clear out of my chest. Looking over to my left, I see Smitty trying to peel his internal organs off the ceiling. The poor kid looks even paler than usual, and his eyes are about the size of dinner plates. To my right, on the other bed, Julie has her face buried in her pillow. I think I can hear her crying...
I quickly come over to her side, my own terror forgotten, and place a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Julie?" She collapses into a round of sobs. "Hey, easy there," I say, as tenderly as possible. "It's all right. You're here. You're safe..."
I sit down on the bed beside her pillow and put an arm around her in what I hope is a comforting manner. It must be working, because she moves over until her head is resting in my lap and I have both my arms around her in a fatherly embrace. She's still crying.
"I'm ... sorry..." she says, choking on the words.
"Shh," I say, gently. "It's okay. It's not your fault, Julie. You didn't do anything wrong. Just try to relax, you're safe now..."
She closes her eyes and tries to calm her breathing. After a few minutes she manages to pull herself together, her sobs die down into quiet tears, and she's still resting there with her head in my lap.
Smitty, having recovered from the shock of sharing Julie's nightmare, is looking at me with something like surprise ... and, I think, a little bit of envy. I almost snicker at that. Fortunately for all concerned, sex is the last thing I want to think about right now.
"I can't make it go away," Julie murmurs, seemingly half to herself. "I can't make myself forget. Teeps can never forget anything..."
There's not much I can say to that. I make a mental note to myself to ask the Company doctors if there's a way to purge someone's memories telepathically. For now, though, all I can do is hold her in my arms, trying to comfort her until the monsters go away.
That nightmare must have lasted a lot longer than it felt. By the time that Julie has pulled herself together, the sun is well on its way toward the horizon. Our nerves are all a bit on edge as we change into our combat fatigues and go across the hall to meet up with Daniel and Kerensky.
I'm the first one to go inside. Daniel looks up at me, then nods in the direction of the other room, a questioning expression on his face. "Julie?" he asks softly.
"She'll be all right," I say, stepping inside to take a seat by the windowsill. "Nothing she hasn't dealt with before."
Daniel raises his eyebrows and blows air between pursed lips in an expression of quiet amazement. Obviously he saw what she was going through, too...
Julie comes in a moment later, looking a lot more calm and composed than she must feel right now. Smitty's behind her, wringing his hands nervously. I see the uneasy glances he's making at Julie, and I wonder how much she's hearing of what he's thinking. Across the room, Kerensky glares at her, obviously pissed for having to share in her sufferings. I grit my teeth, resisting the urge to chew her out for feeling the way she does. For a Cadre member, Kerensky has actually shown remarkable restraint on this outing, and right now at least she's biting her tongue. Of course, she knows as well as I do that you don't have say a word to yell at a telepath.
"The helos are en route and will pick us up a mile north of the town to take us to the target site," Daniel says. "The canyon is totally uninhabited, so we aren't going to be subtle about this. We'll drop in, the helos will take up standby positions, and we'll clean out the site. Smitty will place charges for a neat and tidy cave-in, in case things don't go as planned. If anything except us comes out of there, the helos will take care of it. I doubt even these weres can handle being perforated by a hundred uranium slugs. If they lose contact with us, and Smitty's charges don't work, the helos will use rockets to collapse the mine. Messy, but it gets the job done. Ideally, though, we move in, subdue everything, find one that's still twitching and stuff him in a 'bag for the flight home."
"If we get a shot with the Tangler, we should take it," Julie points out. "Dynatronics loaned it to us for a reason, after all."
"Granted. Someone has to carry it in, then." Daniel looks at me and Kerensky. "The three of us are the only ones who can handle it."
"I'll take it," I say, fighting back my own instincts of self-preservation. "You're both Combat ops, so it just makes sense that you two should handle the heavy weaponry -- which means I take the Tangler. My Desert Eagle isn't worth a damn against these things, anyway."
Daniel nods soberly. "All right, then. Any questions?"
There aren't any. Our leader stands to his feet.
"All right," he says again. "Let's move."
Two helos are already waiting for us by the time we pull the trucks up to the rendezvous site. There's actually enough room in one of them for all five of us, with room to spare, but the extra chopper lets us carry in a few crates of explosives along with the arsenal Hoffman has requisitioned -- and in the event the weres get out of the mine, having two gunships in the air will reduce the odds of any of them escaping.
Smitty takes a look at the demo equipment Combat has provided while Daniel, Julie and I check out the weapons. It's a nice selection: three laser rifles, four flamethrowers, two Castor '97 caseless miniguns, ten HAFLA pocket incendiaries (a personal favorite of mine), and a "Hammer" Man-Portable Railgun -- no doubt intended for Kerensky, who is one of the few ops I know of who can actually fire the damn thing without a weapon harness.
I abruptly notice that Kerensky isn't in sight. I've heard about this, how she'll disappear just before an assault and then show up again just as the team is about to leave. I don't know what she does while she's gone, and I realize that I have more important things to do than to try to find out. We finish going through the equipment, Daniel gives the okay, and we start strapping ourselves in.
As predicted, Kerensky turns up a moment after the helos start spooling up their engines for takeoff. She climbs into the chopper, and I can see that her face has a complex pattern drawn on it in red war paint -- or maybe that's blood. I don't think I want to know, actually. Her eyes are calm and detached, but there's a fire burning in them just below the surface. I can tell she's been looking forward to this.
The moon is about halfway to its zenith, and the land is lit up in the same cold blue light as the night before. The helos pass quietly over the harsh, almost lifeless terrain, and almost before we know it we're already there: Chaco Canyon.
I've heard the stories about this place, of course. Every op has. Chaco was once home to a thriving civilization of cliff dwellers, who ruled this area a few thousand years ago when the Chaco Wash was still a river and the land was a lot more fertile. They conducted trade with every Indian tribe in the region and forged roads to everywhere -- and, mysteriously, a lot of roads to nowhere, all of them oriented with major stars, constellations and astrological events, and all of them so precise that we can hardly do better with modern survey equipment. Nobody knows what these lines in the desert were for, but more than a few people have suggested they had something to do with extraterrestrials. The Navajo called these cliff dwellers the Anasazi -- which means Enemy Ancestors, Ancient Foreigners ... or Ancient Aliens, depending on who you talk to.
For whatever reason -- probably because of the climate change -- the Anasazi disappeared a long time ago, leaving their cities largely intact. It's generally thought that they were the ancestors of the Hopi, but there are more than a few loons out there who think they were taken away in the Mother Ship. Most of us ops find that pretty hard to buy -- but then, most people find breederbugs and ice weasels hard to buy, too, until they've seen them.
Anyway, the canyon has been abandoned for centuries, except for archaeologists and tourists at the old Anasazi cliff cities and a few mining operations like this one. Fortunately we're a long way from any of the known archaeological sites, so we shouldn't have to worry about anyone noticing our little outing. Assuming we don't have to collapse the mine, that is...
We pause near the lip of the canyon, and the other helo lets down a ladder over the mine's emergency exit. Smitty climbs down with a satchel of charges on his back and spends a couple of minutes mounting them around the small, square hole in the ground. After he's done with the job and back in the helo, we finish our descent to the bottom of the canyon, where the main entrance is waiting for us.
The site is quiet as we touch down, with no signs of the weres. The mine entrance sits there like an open maw, a few boards hanging loosely from the posts and a lot more lying scattered on the ground in front of it. I power up the Tangler, shoulder a laser rifle and pocket a couple of HAFLA tubes, and hit the ground ready to go. The other ops are right beside me, and together we move in on the mine.
Daniel and Kerensky go first, approaching the entrance cautiously with Hammer and minigun at the ready. Kerensky peers into the darkness for a few seconds, then gives the all-clear signal. Smitty starts breaking out the PLASTEX and detonators.
While the grunts keep watch, a few yards inside the entrance tunnel, Smitty lays down a network of charges guaranteed to turn the mine into a tomb. He's got a good eye for this sort of thing, and inside of two minutes he gives Daniel a thumbs-up. Nodding, our leader directs us silently onward.
Not that being silent probably matters at this point. We all have small, high-powered flashlights mounted on the barrels of our guns -- or, in the case of the Tangler, next to the left grip -- so maybe staying quiet is pretty pointless. We could have used night-vision goggles, but with those flamethrowers that Julie and Smitty are packing there's a good chance we would have ended up blinded. Besides, it isn't like we want to avoid a fight. We keep moving quietly, though -- old habits die hard, I guess.
The mine shaft is as still and silent as a graveyard (an un-haunted one). It slopes down very slightly before us and runs for at least twenty or thirty yards before the first side passages open up. We shine our lights to either side -- nothing. Daniel looks at Julie, but she shrugs and shakes her head. Teeps generally can't sense other minds through more than a few feet of solid rock, so she isn't going to be able to point us in the right direction, but she can at least keep them from sneaking up on us from behind. Daniel waves us onward. Down at our feet I notice a mouse scurry past us and into the darkness ahead. I smirk. If he only knew what sort of critters lived down here...
The passage continues onward and downward, with side passages at regular intervals of about fifty yards or so. At each intersection we scan the area again, each time without results. After going through this five times I'm beginning to wonder if we got the right mine. At last the main passage comes to an end and heads off to the right, with no corresponding passage on the other side. After only a moment's hesitation, Daniel gestures for us to continue to the right.
The side passage goes on for a long way, perhaps about a hundred yards, and then bends to the left. As we approach the bend, Kerensky motions for us to stop. She gestures toward the ground, then at her nose. We must be getting close.
Daniel turns to Julie. [Do you sense anything?] he asks in sign.
Julie puts her hand to the side of her head, bringing back a wave of unpleasant memories as she mimics that initial scene in our shared nightmare. After a moment she looks up at us. [Yes, but very faint,] she says. [I don't know how many, or how close.]
Daniel nods grimly. [Ready position,] he says.
We move, smoothly and in unison, scarcely thinking about it as we all take our places: Daniel and Natasha in front with the heavy weapons, Julie and Smitty to either side to guard our flanks with the flamethrowers, leaving me in the middle with the Tangler. Nobody needs to say a word -- this is the point where the training kicks in and everything you do is second nature. Julie and Smitty check their 'throwers, then give Daniel the thumbs-up. I check the Tangler, slide one of the egg-shaped rounds inside the barrel, then do likewise. Smitty took a few minutes before we left to show me how to use the thing, but I still couldn't work half of these knobs and switches if I wanted to. Hopefully I won't have to.
[Okay,] Daniel says. [Let's go!]
Quickly now, all thoughts of stealth abandoned, we move around the bend and hustle forward. In front of us, the passage opens up into a large chamber, big enough that I can't see the walls. Numerous stone pillars are spaced evenly through the room, left by the miners to support the roof, and they cast an eerie web of shadows under our flashlights. Julie motions for us to stop, and her eyes look worried. Before any of us can ask why, we hear a soft scuffing noise in the darkness ahead.
"You do not belong here." The voice is strong, deep, and carries a note of menace as it echoes through the chamber.
"What the...?" Smitty whispers.
"You are trespassing on our lands," the voice continues. The accent sounds vaguely akin to that of the old Navajo man, but the voice is nothing like his. Each word is spoken deliberately, as if the speaker wants to be so precise that he leaves no doubt as to his meaning. "You will leave this place. You will tell your kind to leave this land, as well. We will no longer tolerate their presence in our ancestral home."
Julie speaks up, a challenging tone in her voice. "If this is a war against the White Man, why are you killing natives, too?"
There is a moment's silence. "You do not understand," the voice says at last. "White Man or Red Man, we no longer care. All of you will go. This land was ours long before it was taken by any of your kind. You will go, and you will not return to this place."
"Got that right," Kerensky growls. Then, bracing the Hammer against her hip, she pulls the trigger.
There is a deafening clap of thunder, as the railgun's 1.3-pound armor-piercing explosive round blasts into the darkness in front of us. There's another sound, a horrible shriek, which is almost drowned out by the subsequent explosion -- which sounds muted, moist, and messy. We get a momentary glimpse of something vaguely man-shaped being reduced to hamburger, and then all is silent...
For about one second.
Then, an angry cacophony of hisses, screams and growls echoes all around the chamber -- and out of the darkness, eyes glowing green in the dim light, come dozens of black, angry beasts.
"Aw, geez..." Smitty mutters.
Daniel doesn't have to say a word. Tongues of fire lash out toward both sides of the room, as Kerensky pops another APEX round in the mouth of the Hammer and Daniel himself cuts loose with a torrent of lead from the MG. I point the Tangler at a cluster of green-eyed shadows that's headed this way, wait a fraction of a second for the target tracking to lock on, then pull the trigger.
Smitty's right -- the damn thing kicks like a mule. I stumble back a couple of steps, manage to keep from falling over on my rear, and watch as the Tangler round races toward the weres, again cracking open in mid-flight. This time, though, it's even faster, and the net deploys just a little closer to the target -- and with as many bodies as there are in this place, there's not a lot of room for them to maneuver. The net catches two of the beasts in its shimmering web, and then bright blue sparks flash along the strands as the weres struggle to get free. As promised, though, their struggles only entangle them further, and inside of two seconds the critters are lying collapsed on top of each other.
At long last, the thing works as advertised. Thank you, Dynatronics. I don't have much time to dwell on the success, though, because three more of the things have just jumped up to take the place of their comrades.
The battle gets harder to follow at this point. All of us are aiming, shooting, shouting, as a sea of weres closes in on us. There doesn't seem to be an end to them, as if they're coming straight through the walls. The flamethrowers seem to be hurting them badly, as we hoped, and Kerensky is turning them into chunky salsa every time she fires the Hammer, but it's hard to tell if we're killing them fast enough.
Did I mention that it's only been about ten seconds or so since this firefight started?
Load. Point. Shoot. Stagger. Another were gift-wrapped for Science. As I'm loading a third round, something comes flying at me from the left and knocks me to the ground. The Tangler goes skidding away across the mine floor somewhere, probably broken, but I have more important things on my mind and a two-hundred pound cougar on my chest. We wrestle for what feels like a long time, though it's probably really only a few seconds, as I try to keep him from carving his initials in my sternum with those claws of his. I manage to pin one of those forelegs up against a stone pillar for a second or two, enough time for me to grab a HAFLA from my pocket and then swing it toward his face, as if I'm throwing a punch. The were buys it, and opens his jaws to bite my hand off -- and in that moment I pull the trigger on the little handle, filling his mouth and throat with enough burning phosphorus to blanket a good-sized warehouse. He screams horribly, in the few seconds before the stuff finds its way down to his vocal cords, and I pull myself out from under his thrashing body and take out my laser rifle. A three-second blast burns a hole from one side of his brain to the other, ensuring we won't have any more trouble from this cat.
"Tighten up!" Daniel shouts. It's easy to see why: the 'throwers are out of fuel and the ammo belt on his Castor is getting short. Julie and Smitty have pulled out their laser rifles, and while the guns work pretty well they take a lot longer to put any serious hurt on these things. I pull back alongside Smitty to concentrate our fire, just as three more of the beasts charge us. Two of them are stopped by laser blasts in the eyes. One isn't.
Smitty gets knocked to the ground hard, cracking his head against the stone floor, and I take a quick shot at the thing to keep it from ripping his throat out. In the process, though, I leave my own flank exposed, and now there's another one of the bastards sinking his teeth into my right leg. He jerks his head, and I fall to the floor next to Smitty, gritting my teeth and suppressing the urge to scream as it crunches through my bones like dog biscuits. Another HAFLA, this one sprayed in the face and eyes, gets him off of me, but now I'm down on the ground and a sitting duck for the next one that comes by.
Things are looking bad. Really bad. Julie is lying over there -- can't tell if she's conscious or not. They seem to be ignoring her, going after the big threats. Daniel's down to his last dozen rounds or so, and in a few seconds even those are gone and he's fighting them with his bare hands. He goes down bravely, but he goes down nonetheless. Kerensky is tearing through the beasts in a blind, feral rage, snapping spines like twigs and crushing skulls in her bare hands. Every inch of her body is covered in blood, most of it not hers, but she's still outnumbered ten to one. Eventually, inevitably, a few blows here and there make their way through her defenses, and the Russian warrior falls, buried in a pile of her own kills. It's all over...
And then, all of a sudden, it isn't. There's another shadow at the entrance to the room, bigger than all of the others. It roars, a strange sound that reminds me of a dozen different animals at once, and the surviving beasts pause in their attack on us and look up. For a split second, nothing moves. And then...
...what the hell...?
...the larger shadow attacks the smaller ones.
I can't even tell what it is, except that it's as big as a grizzly bear and moves like lightning. Like the cougars, it seems to be made out of darkness itself -- and yet here it is, crushing, shredding and mauling the beasts, while being careful not to lay so much as a claw on any of us.
My vision goes hazy, as a wave of disorientation sweeps over me. I must be losing a lot of blood. Getting harder to concentrate...
I see the big one kill most of the smaller ones. The others run ... heading for the entrance ... helos will take care of 'em. Getting light-headed...
The big guy's looking at us, one at a time. He lumbers over to me ... I can see two glowing blue eyes peering down out of a sea of black ... and then the shadows move, shrink, reform into a vaguely familiar shape...
"That was a close one," a friendly voice says. "It was good that I decided to join you. Rest easy, now. The evil ones will not trouble us again -- neither your people, nor mine."
I catch only the faintest glimpse of the old Navajo's smiling face before slipping off into unconsciousness.
I wake up on a narrow bed with a thin mattress in a room that reeks of disinfectant, with my wrecked leg in a cast and one hell of a headache between my ears. Ugh -- thank God for the cryobag, but coming out of deep freeze does a number on the head. Looking down at myself, I can see a lot of bandages wrapped around various other parts of my body. Guess the weres got to me a little more than I realized, at the time...
Abruptly, the memories of what happened come rushing back to me: The mine. The weres. Kerensky. Daniel. Smitty. Julie -- oh, God, what happened to Julie? --
"Relax, Michael, I'm right here."
The voice comes from my right. Looking over, I can see her lying in the bed next to me, a small, amused smile on her face. Her head is bandaged and her right arm is in a cast, but other than that she's looking pretty good. She probably has other injuries I can't see from here, of course, or else she wouldn't still be in a bed, but at least she's not on life support or anything.
"Where are we?" I ask.
"Company hospital, Albuquerque," Julie says. "I talked to one of the helo pilots. He said that a handful of the weres tried to escape out the entrance of the mine. After the helos took care of them, he radioed us to find out what was going on. When he didn't get a reply, they went inside and found us all lying unconscious along with three Tangled weres and a lot of dead bodies. They 'bagged us all and brought us back here for treatment. The weres are on their way back to the Lab."
"So everybody made it out alive?"
She grimaces. "So far," she says, her eyes showing some concern. "Smitty's in the ICU with some pretty serious cranial trauma. They're saying it could go either way at this point. Hoffman and Kerensky are in better shape, but they still took a lot in that fight."
"Not as much as they gave out," I say, smiling grimly.
"Fortunately," Julie agrees. "Neither of them is going to be able to walk for a while, though, and they have some internal injuries to heal, too. It'll probably be at least a week before they can think about getting out of bed and into a wheelchair."
"Assuming Kerensky isn't too proud to use one." I lean back and let out a sigh. "So. We did it."
"We did it."
We damn near killed ourselves in the process, but we did it. Yippee. I hope Science is satisfied. It's going to be a long time before they can convince anybody to try a stunt like that again, at least without very good intel. Six or seven weres, they said...
My brain suddenly catches on something else: the old Navajo -- or at least, he had seemed to be a Navajo at the time...
"Did the pilot say anything about finding anyone else in the mine with us?"
She frowns, giving me a puzzled look. "No, just us and the weres. Why?"
I tap the side of my head. "See for yourself," I say, consciously dredging up all I can remember of the big shapeshifter that saved our necks.
"Oh my God," she murmurs, after a moment. She looks even more surprised than I was when it happened -- of course, the blood loss probably had something to do with that. "He was one of them?"
"Yes and no, apparently," I say. "He must have turned himself into something small, sneaked in with us. Any idea why you didn't pick up his thoughts?"
She ponders that for a few seconds, then shakes her head. "Maybe he has some sort of psi-power himself, or some kind of shielding. Or maybe the mind isn't as noticeable when it's stuck in a smaller brain. Interesting..."
"Well, whatever it was, I'm glad he came along." I chuckle. "Guess this just goes to show us that there are some critters out there who don't mind living peacefully with humans."
"Encouraging," Julie agrees. "Maybe we can find a few of them who'd be willing to help us fight the Greys."
My mind flicks back to Kerensky, and the inhuman strength she displayed in that last battle. "I wonder if we haven't already."
We mull that one over in silence for a bit. Then...
I turn to look at her. She's smiling, sort of, but there are tears in her eyes...
"Thank you," she says softly. "For ... well, you know."
"Yeah," I say, smiling gently back at her. "I know." I reach out my hand to her, and she reaches out and clasps it. I give her hand a reassuring squeeze.
"You gonna be okay?" I ask.
Her eyes flit over to the corner of the room for a second, then she looks back and nods. "Yeah, I think so," she says. This time her smile is brighter than before. "Sometimes, you just need to know you're not alone."
There's not much I can say to that, except what my smile says for me. I give her hand one last squeeze before lying back on my bed again.
"So," I say. "How long until we can get out of these beds?"
Suddenly my mind spins, and after a moment's disorientation I'm standing on top of a hill covered with wildflowers, and there's a sunset in the sky and birds singing overhead, and there's Julie in front of me in a beautiful flowery dress, and I take her in my arms and she wraps her arms around my neck and we're kissing each other deeply and--
And then I'm back in my hospital bed.
"Why wait?" she asks coyly.
I look over at her, momentarily dumbstruck. "What -- doesn't that strain your talent?" I ask, feeling the need to say something.
She laughs. "Trust me, compared to Grey-reading, that's nothing." Another coy smile. "So, Mister Kane: Have you ever gone flying?"
"Black Ops: Shadows" Copyright 2001 by Raven Blackmane. GURPS BLACK OPS Copyright 1997 by Steve Jackson Games. If you want to post this story anywhere else, please ask for permission first. Thank you.
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