Automatic Stop
rating: +25+x

« Slow Animals ||

The parking lot of the Chipotle Mexican Grill was false, and held many secrets.

Once Vera Garcia had reported to Taco Bell and found a false bottom in her bag of one Burrito Supreme and one Crispy Chicken Quesadilla, she knew that her plan had been approved by the Rotisserie Outfitters Bureau.

Inside the secret compartment, she found three objects of note.

  1. A picture of a young man with cropped black hair, tan skin, and a strained smile. He was wearing button-down shirt. Vera supposed it was likely taken for some official purpose, perhaps an ID card. On the back of the photograph, a phone number was written in blue sharpie. Beneath that a name: Casey Malik.
  2. A small object shaped like a pocket pistol but with a wide, flat barrel. Where the hammer would typically be there was an LED light. Brief experimentation showed that the LED flashed when the gun was pointed a specific direction. A compass, of a sort.
  3. A note. It informed her that her subsequent actions would be of the utmost importance, and that she would be alone. It was reassuring.

Once she had enjoyed her meal, she made haste across the street, past the Chipotle and into its parking lot. The gun in her hands made a pleasant buzz as she waved it about in the dark. The pulse of its light intensified when she brought it to face the back of the lot — a thin strip of trees and bushes separating the concrete from rows of compact housing.

She closed the distance, eyes alert for threats. As she stepped carefully over the curb and into the grass, the gun chirped. A small blue button had appeared just above her thumb, on the side of the grip. She took one more look around before she pressed it and the ground beneath her vanished.

She didn't have time to grab anything for support. She was falling now through a tube, or a tunnel — surrounded by a substance like vinyl that pressed up against her uncomfortably, but with enough friction to keep her speed low.

Seconds later the constriction gave way. She braced for impact, landing feet-first on a hard brick surface.

For such a long fall, this didn't look like it was underground. The sky was a dark, deep blue, and her surroundings were lit by strings of lights supported by the air itself, weaving about in the sky. She was in a town square, nearly empty, and in each direction she could see roads travelling out, flanked by buildings in eclectic styles, a mosaic of vibrant shades.

She could hardly believe her eyes, but she'd have time for disbelief later. For now, she had a job to do.

An ancient necromancer in a bathrobe stood on the threshold of his front door.

In front of him was his son's boyfriend, wearing scuffed slacks and a wrinkled button-down shirt spattered with some dark spots. He was carrying a file folder under his arm.

"Hi, Mr. Rowe!"

Eustace Rowe squinted. "Adam's not here."

Casey shook his head, "Oh, no, I'm not… can I come in?"

"To hide from the police? Or to clean the blood off your clothes?"

"…how did you know that I—"

"It's called 'the news.' And 'the police' who showed up at my door asking about you, Casey."

"…what did you tell them?"

"That I didn't know where you were. Which is true."

"Oh. So, can I…"

Eustace sighed. "Yes. Get in here."

Casey muttered repeated thanks as he slid into the entryway. He could see the dimly-lit hallway proceed into the house, flanked by stairs into darkness and leading to a shady kitchen. Behind him, Eustace shut and locked the door. "Move," he muttered. Casey shuffled out of the way and down the hall.

The kitchen was clearly in use recently, arrayed with what was either a very exotic dinner or a terrifying arrangement of viscera. It smelled of formaldehyde, and Casey's nose wrinkled. "Sorry about the mess," Eustace grunted, "wasn't expecting to be… interrupted." He motioned to a chair, situated at a dinky dining table prepared for four.

Casey sat down, his legs silently thanking him for the relief, and set the stolen file on the tabletop. "Right. Sorry. Thank you."

The elder stayed standing, leaning back on the kitchen counter. He was silent for a moment, surveying Casey's ragged figure. "…You need to get cleaned up. Quickly."

"Oh. Why?"

"Because a child wearing a magician costume could track down your thaumic imprint, and Adam would be upset with me if you died in my house."

Casey nodded slowly. "Right. That makes sense."

"And then you'll get out of my house."

"What? They'll find me. You just said you couldn't let me die."

"In my house. You're the one who killed a man. Far as I can tell, I'm being perfectly charitable by not turning you in right now."

"No, it… it wasn't like that. I didn't have control over my actions. There's a… memetic worm. Or something."

"Ah, the mind control defense. That'll make your trial more interesting, at least until the Mayor decides to execute you by soul amputation."

"Look, I… can you at least help me contact Adam?"

Eustace sighed. And then he sighed again. "Fine." He turned walked out of the kitchen, vanishing into the darkness of the hallway beyond.

Casey fidgeted in place for a moment. And then Eustace returned, bringing a large, blocky phone with what seemed to be an over-sized tape recorder attached to it. He sighed once more, for good measure, and began entering some code into a number pad on its front.

"From last I checked, Adam should be in Backdoor SoHo. Got some shitty medium gig."

"So, uh… how can we even call him, between enclaves?"

"A good question. This looks like a phone, but it's actually a psionic link to a carrier pigeon selectively bred to survive in the void between universes. It flies through the Outside, the formless space relentlessly crushing it as it carries messages at the speed of light."

"Oh. Really?"


He finished whatever calibration he was doing, and a droning beep began to play. Eustace held it to his head, and the droning stopped. "Wake up, Adam. Your boyfriend killed a man."

Casey's eyes went wide.

Eustace covered the receiving end of the phone while confused protestations spilled out of the speaker. "Don't have the time or the patience to coddle here. Better to just rip the band-aid off." In this metaphor, Casey assumed, the band-aid was his relationship.

"Just. Give it to me." Casey stood up and reached out for it, and Eustace reluctantly handed it over.

He held it up to the side of his head and tried to sound as calm as possible. "Honey?"

The speaker crackled, and a tinny facsimile of Adam's voice spilled out. "Casey? What's going on? Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm… fine. Things have gone a bit lopsided."

"I can tell. What happened?"

"It's… something infected me. Something memetic. It took control of me. Made me—" Casey's breath shortened as what he'd done hit him like a slap to the face.

"Shh, shh. I understand. You don't need to talk about it right now. Look, I'll… I'll get to Portlands as soon as possible."

"No, I don't think that's… the best idea. Whatever's happening, it's still going on. And it's probably not going to get better for a bit."

"I can't let you do it alone. Look, my clients are a wash, and their dead relatives aren't going anywhere… I hope. I can pack up and—"

"Please? Just… stay safe for now." Casey knew that Adam would only sit idly by for so long. Hopefully things would be safer by the time Adam foolishly rushed in.

"Fine," Adam pouted. "But surely I can do something out here."

Casey stopped to think for a moment. As he did, Eustace came up behind him with a device like a handheld metal detector and started waving it along Casey's arms. He guessed Eustace had taken the thaumic scrubbing into his own hands.

"Oh, there's… before what happened, I was in Bristol meeting with a business partner. Maybe you could go there… see if there's anything magical you can find?" Casey searched his pockets for Mr. Erwan's card, and recited the address into the phone.

"Roger. I can… I guess I can go through the Library? Yeah, probably…" He was working through the logistics in his head, Casey could tell. He was nothing if not resourceful.

"Thank you. Stay safe."

"You need that more than I do. Please be careful. I love you."

"Love you too." He clicked the phone off.

He turned, and Eustace was staring at him. "…what?"

Eustace shrugged. "Didn't say anything." His wrinkled face had a surprising capacity for passive aggression. "You're scrubbed of any identifying links, now. You're welcome for that. But you should go change your clothes. Just… take some of Adam's, from the hall closet upstairs."

"Right, right." Casey rather pointlessly tried to smooth himself out, and went upstairs to change into something that wasn't covered in dirt and blood.

He walked back down wearing slightly too-tight jeans and one of Adam's nice tan jackets. For the first time since what had happened, he felt somewhat refreshed.

This positive feeling quickly evaporated when he reached the bottom of the stairs and saw Eustace pointing a gun at some woman in the kitchen.

Eustace motioned to Casey with his free hand, beckoning for him to come closer. "Finally."

Casey inched towards Eustace, eyes wide as he struggled to take in what he was seeing. A black woman, wearing a tan suit, her hair tied in a neat bun. She was sitting at the kitchen table, and seemed unperturbed in spite of the elderly man waving a pistol in her face.

"Found her in the lot out back. She was trying to snoop through the window." He shook the pistol at her. "Now, why don't you tell him what you told me?"

"Well," she said. Her voice was calm, rehearsed. She'd clearly been looking forward to the chance to speak. "The first thing you need to know is that I'm on your side."

She paused for a moment, feeling the room for a reaction, and then continued. "My name is Vera Garcia. I've been sent by an organization that knows of what is going on here, and wants me to help you prevent it from getting worse."

Eustace nodded. "You buying any of this, Casey?"

He had, in fact, heard this story before. "What organization?"

"We're devoted to keeping the world safe, and preserving the things that matter most."

Casey raised an eyebrow. "…but what's it called?"

"Directorate K."

Eustace suddenly bent over, laughing hoarsely. The gun in his hand evaporated into smoke. "No shit? This night just gets better and better."

Casey did not know whether he should take offense to that. "You know them?"

Eustace ratcheted himself up to a standing position again, still smiling. "You could say that." He turned back to the woman. "What, just come off of infiltrating the leadership of a Chuck E. Cheese's?"

She smiled earnestly. "Funny. I suppose it's important to keep some levity in the face of bomb threats."

Eustace's gaze narrowed. "What?"

Vera nodded to the file folder, stolen from the Chaos Insurgency, still splayed on the kitchen table. Indeed, a paper was poking out — some notes about potential locations for a device that could be planted on one of Three Portlands' many side streets. "Sounds like there's a real conspiracy shaping up. It sure would be convenient if a skilled infiltrator were to offer a hand."

Casey looked down. "Point taken."

Eustace squinted at her for a good while. Like his view was piercing her and examining the insides. Which, to be fair, could literally be happening.

After another moment, he spoke. "Fine. You can stay here. But you take a single hostile action, the house will eat your flesh and I will not treat your bones with dignity."

Vera smiled. "Noted."

The sun rose, pulling shadows taut across the stone and brick landscape of Three Portlands. Casey watched it with suspicion.

Behind him Vera pored over the contents of the ill-gotten dossier. She flipped through pages of equations, numbers she couldn't make sense of. Details of people she didn't know, working for corporations she didn't recognize, in cities she hadn't known existed. She pulled free two pages in particular and set them down on the table, towards Casey.

"These," she stated, "are the only people in the file who aren't marked deceased."

Casey turned from the window, scanning the documents. Sidney and Timothy Way, two brothers. There were no pictures, just basic identification information. And a Three Portlands Address. "That's… not much to go on."

She shrugged. "It has an address. That's all we need to pay them a visit."

Casey's face hardened. "Is that a good idea?"

"If they're like you, they're allies. And either way, we get more information on what's going on."

Casey pursed his lips. "What about the police? Everyone thinks I'm a… murderer."

"Well, you got away the first time, didn't you? How'd you manage that?"

"I was picked up by a strange man and then lost most of my memory of what happened after."

"We've all been there. But for now, you're wearing someone else's clothes, and a strange woman is going to be giving you instructions. Now… where is this address?"

Casey gulped.

The day was cool and clear. Perfect weather for taking a walk.

Evidently many others felt the same way. The streets were saturated with milling crowds, pastel swarms wandering about to get to work, to school, to shopping. Living their normal lives. Or as close to normal as Three Portlands permitted.

Casey watched with envy until Vera grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back into the alleyway.

"Staring is weird. Criminals stare," she whispered.

"I'm pretty sure regular people stare too."

"Not from alleyways. Usually." Vera cast a glance behind her. "Let's keep going."

They'd been going through alleys for a bit — zig-zagged gashes in the urban jungle, growing pains of a city constantly making space for the new and shuffling the old to the outskirts. Most of these voids between buildings were empty, though some were marked by signs of occupation: clotheslines, plywood shacks, or bundles of blankets on the muddied stone. Sometimes people huddled in the alleyways, sleeping off their hangovers, or searching for scraps.

Walk at a constant pace, she had said. Every day, you walk by hundreds of people, each with plenty of their own thoughts on their mind. Take every precaution to not disturb their daydreams, and stand out as little as possible. The vagrants Casey passed certainly didn't pay him much mind. Casey wondered if they would care even if they did recognize him. Better them than one of the faceless police golems he'd seen on the street corners.

As he neared an intersection in the path he took a left turn onto an unpopulated side street. The brothers, it seemed, lived in a particularly dense area of the residential district, where teetering tenements were stacked against each other. It was a ways from Eustace's home on the outskirts.

As she passed Vera peeked into the displays of stores advertising fashion, art, or gluttonous indulgence, boundaries artificially removed with the help of regenerative exploits, anomalies typically reserved for the ultra-rich.

Casey turned back to her, as she was eyeing the posted menu for a restaurant that specialized in food that was the opposite of Italian food. "…have you not been in Three Portlands before?"

She shook her head, snapping her gaze away from the store and quickening her pace to keep up with him. "I have no idea what this place is or how it works."

"Oh. Wait. You haven't seen behind the Veil before now?"

She shrugged her shoulders. "From what I understand, it seems like most of the things I thought were impossible are in fact possible, and that there is some kind of secret underworld of people who know this and can utilize these impossibilities freely."

"Yeah, that's… basically it. You're taking this a lot better than I did." Casey had spent more than a few days locked in his room after Adam had showed him some magic years ago.

Again, she shrugged. "What I'm learning is that my preconceptions were getting in my way. There's no need to dwell on the lies others tell to us."

"That's the best way to look at it, I guess." He led her into a right turn into another jagged alleyway where bricks gave way to sandblasted stucco. They kept a healthy pace.

"It's the benefit of my work. Clarity of purpose means that sometimes you don't need to think. You can just be and do."

Casey nodded. "I guess that makes sense. What does 'doing' entail, anyhow?"

"The way I see it, we have firefighters and doctors to preserve the things we need to survive. Directorate K is concerned with preserving the reasons we have to keep living."

"Reasons to live?"

"Things that make life worthwhile. The things previously unknown. The tastes that change each time you sample them. Disorder is an order all its own, and it's what human life is built around. It's about finding that combination, the repetition of something that changes every time. The appreciation of a thing just for what it is and how it feels. That's how I see it, at least."

"And that requires… spy shit?"

"I appreciate secrets. I'm skilled at finding them, cataloging them, patterning them. Beyond that, where the information goes is irrelevant."

"And you're here now."

"I'm here because it's where I'm best applied. My superiors knew there were secrets here worth sharing. Or maybe they felt something was at stake. Or both. It makes no difference to me."

"That's a… relaxed attitude you have towards the crimes you are currently committing."

She cast a sideways glance at him. "I have faith in what I do. I'm good at what I do. I'm confident that this is where I'm supposed to be. You could do it too, you know. You're overwhelmed, but you're still moving forward after what happened. You're more adaptable than you think."

"I mean, I couldn't-"

He was interrupted by Vera grabbing the sleeve of his borrowed jacket and dragging him to a stop. They were standing at the outlet of the alley, and she pulled him back against a rough plaster wall. A few people kept walking past them and Casey turned to hide his face. "What? What is it?"

Vera pointed down the street and across, to a dinky apartment building among rows of others. "That's it, isn't it?"

Casey turned over the address in his head. "Yeah, that's probably it. Why did we stop?"

She stopped pointing but kept looking in that direction. "There's a man out front."

She was right. A bearded man wearing basketball shorts was leaning against one side of the building's entrance, peering into a small mesh backpack. She continued, "I've seen him before. In Portland just a few days ago. Portland, Oregon. I saw him and another man and they were talking about doing something big and vague."

Casey peered at him. "Big and vague, huh?"

"He's Sidney, probably," Vera finished.

The two of them stood in the alley for a moment longer.

Casey started. "So… what do we do?"

"Ideally we approach in a non-threatening manner and begin a dialogue."

"And then get held hostage by an old man with a gun?"

"I did say ideally."

Casey leaned out of the entrance they were discourteously blocking. "He's leaving."

The man had zipped up his backpack and turned to start walking with purpose down the street.

"So should we…" Casey trailed off.

Vera was already walking down the street. Casey nodded to no-one in particular and followed.

Casey gulped, grasping at an air of nonchalance. No big deal, just stalking someone in broad daylight while wanted by the police. Just a hobby.

Vera exuded effortlessness effortlessly. She weaved through the crowd (it just kept getting denser, Casey was suffocating), eagle-eyes trained on the mark.

Casey strained to see over the commotion in front of him. Where the street led around a run-down community garden, the paths were blocked by concrete dividers. Blue tape and sawhorses. They were heading straight for a checkpoint, manned by half a dozen police golems. Oh no.

His breath started to pick up. It's okay, he thought. He can just turn around and walk away. They can come back for Sidney some other day. He tugged at Vera's sleeve. She was undeterred. He stopped in place.

It was at this moment that Casey was tackled.

Arms flung around his neck, the weight of a lanky man toppling him him off his feet and onto the asphalt. Casey looked up. A man he had never seen before was on top of him. He was shouting. "Why are you following us?"

Casey gasped for air.

"Hi, Timothy," Vera said. She swung her leg into the man's side, sinking her foot into his stomach. He wheezed, loosening his grip. Casey pushed into his sternum, and Timothy Way landed on his back beside him.

A siren rang. The crowd was fanning out like air bubbles leaving water. A mechanical voice chittered, "This is an active crime scene. Please lay on the ground and place your hands behind your back for processing."

Vera kneeled down, gripping Casey's forearms, and hoisted him to his feet in one fluid motion. Timothy started to clamber to his own knees. Vera glanced down the side street. Sidney was running. The golems were still blaring.

She started to run, and pulled Casey with her.

The streets were surprisingly empty. A crazed murderer on the loose tends to do the opposite of draw crowds.

Sidney ran down the street, fiddling with something in his grip, his backpack jostling back and forth with each of his strides.

Casey's legs burned. He ran track in high school, but that was the better part of a decade ago. Now not only was Casey confronted with the physical pain of his burning muscles, but the simultaneous emotional pain of being acutely aware exactly how much he had let himself go. To make matters worse, Vera seemed to have hardly broken a sweat behind him.

By now the police golems must have alerted the UIU headquarters. They'd probably be setting up a cordon any minute, a ring of armed men lassoing every exit. No escape. He banished the thought from his mind. Sometimes you just need to lie back and let yourself do what will be done.

Sidney spun on a dime, running straight into a tight alley. As he did, he dropped what he'd been carrying, something like a small blue pipe. Casey slapped the brick as he followed, leaping over the object and paying little mind.

Behind him, it activated — bursting into a cyan cloud of fluttering wings, thousands of blue bats spiraling around the entryway. Vera wasn't coming through. Probably best if she didn't chance it.

Casey kept running, dodging littered mush, feet splashing through iridescent puddles of contaminated water. His muscles were screaming, but he'd never been a good listener and didn't plan to start now.

He was getting close. Casey stretched his arms out to grab onto something, anything of Sidney's, but his fingertips only brushed his backpack.

Suddenly, Sidney stopped in his tracks, stepping to the side. Casey couldn't slow down, and his ankles were caught by Sidney's foot. He tumbled, catching on his hands in a pile of sludge, skinning his palms and dirtying his face.

When he looked up, Sidney had left the alleyway. He tried to curse under his breath, but his breath was too short, and it just came out as a squeal. He hoped no-one heard that. Scrambling to his feet once more, he rounded the corner.

Sidney Way was there, stopped in the center of the street. They were in Three Portland's tourism district, flanked on both sides by pastel hotels, vacant vacation homes, luxury spots for affluent folks who, having conquered the material world, sought a more challenging locale to gentrify.

Sidney was holding a gun, some kind of compact revolver. Casey stopped in his tracks.

His voice was even with a tinge of Southern drawl. "Gonna tell me why you're following us?"

Casey heaved for another moment. The body felt like it was still moving, pulsing in time with the pounding in his ears. "I think… we're both… at risk. There's… been weird goings on. I think you might be a target."

He narrowed his eyes at Casey. "Is that so?"

"I don't know what you're doing, but you don't need to. It's not you, it's… something in your head. It's making you do things."

He shook his head. "Might be wrong, but I don't think you have the slightest idea what you're talking about."

Casey couldn't really argue with that. Silence rang for a moment.

Casey cleared his throat. "Then I guess we're just in a… Mexican standoff."

"What? You're unarmed. It'd only be a Mexican standoff if you had a gun."


"Not a chance."

Well, Casey was out of ideas. He could do nothing. He raised his hands behind his head-

It was at this moment that Sidney was tackled.

Vera flung her weight at him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. He lost his balance and fell backwards, on top of Vera, who had fallen onto her back.

He jabbed blindly at her face, elbow smacking into her nose with an ugly thwack.

Casey charged at the entangled duo. He knelt and grabbed Sidney's gun arm, propping it up into the sky. Sidney fired once, then twice, the blasts of sound ringing through Casey's skull as he lost his grip. Vera drove her knee into Sidney's gut, and his fingers loosened, letting the gun come clattering to the pavement.

Behind them, another voice rang out. "Sidney! It's done!" Casey swiveled his head over his shoulder, where he could see the other brother waving some small object in the air. At least he wasn't tackling Casey this time.

Sidney could hardly breathe with two people holding him down, but he sputtered, "Do it! Now!"

Two words flashed through Casey's mind. Bomb threats.

"GET DOWN," he screamed, falling to his knees and covering his ears, squeezing his eyes as tight as he could before-

-the world erupted, a fist of air and displaced earth slamming Casey in the chest with such power that the air in his body was forcibly expelled, and he was lifted off the ground.

Instinctively his body curled, and Casey briefly became a human cannonball, tumbling end over end until his shoulders smacked into the curb.

He desperately gasped for air, but his lungs filled only with the dust of obliterated stone, and he was wrenched into fitful coughing. He scrambled over, moving onto his hands and knees. He was suffocating.

With shaking hands he grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled it over his nose, trying to filter the air. He inhaled slowly. That was better.

Gradually, he regained some control over himself. He opened his eyes, but the air was stinging them. All he could see was tawny debris in the air, and flecks of metal floating down.

"Vera," he gasped, as strongly as he could muster. "Vera!" No response.

His eyes refocused, gradually sifting through the shades of brown. A darkened shape surfaced to his left, a person clambering to their feet.

Across the street he saw what had been a building moments before. A teal and green display of garishness assembled into the shape of a holiday home. The facade was ripped clean down now, splinters littering the street.

The silhouette started to walk towards the wreck, holding something in front of them with both hands. The gun.

Casey propped himself on his elbows, then his stinging palms, and pushed his body to his feet, joints popping with discomfort. He followed the figure. They didn't seem to notice.

They stepped over the threshold and Casey trailed behind, tip-toeing into the house.

The building was in tatters. A living room was covered in shreds of what was either destroyed modern art, or fully intact modern art appearing as intended. A shriek came from a doorway, and both Casey and the figure turned to look. The silhouette moved in.

It was an ornate bedroom, or it used to be. Half the wall along with the remains of an antique dresser was caved out into the street, and the ceiling had fallen in. On the bed, an old man was trapped, pinned beneath the rafters.

The silhouette turned, revealing the profile of Sidney's face as he raised the gun.

The reveal of his face was very convenient to Casey, who then knew exactly where to aim.

His suckerpunch smacked into Sidney's ear, sending the already wobbly man down against the wall, the gun leaving his grip once more.

Casey leaned over the bed. He could make out the man's features. He looked… familiar.

Cillian Erwan. The man he had seen just days ago. The man who had put a gun in Casey's bag without him noticing.

Evidently, he recognized Casey in kind. He coughed. "What're… what're you doing here? What's going on?"

Casey heard shouting outside. A blasting voice. "FBI, everyone get on the ground!" He didn't move.

Casey tried to keep his voice low. "Why did you… what did you do to me? You made me kill him. Why? What did you have to gain?"

Erwan's face shifted. He moved back. "What're you on about?"

His breath sped up. "Your android. She gave me a gift for Regent. It turned into a gun in my backpack, and I… and I…"

Erwan interrupted him with a sick laugh. "The robot, huh?" His laugh sputtered into coughing as he inhaled dust. "You're asking the wrong guy, kid. This is them getting me too, isn't it?"

Casey furrowed his brow. "No, look, we'll… we'll get you out. I just need to find-"

Someone was at the doorway. Someone that any troublemaker in Three Portlands knew very well. Special Agent Kenneth Spencer. He was holding a gun, too.

Casey scrambled away, towards the hole in the wall.

Erwan coughed again. "About time you got here. I've been-"

His thought was ended with a bullet from Spencer's gun. Casey's eyes widened. Behind him he heard another, identical voice. "FBI, everyone get on the ground!"

Spencer(?) turned to Sidney, still clutching his head against the wall. Another gunshot.

Casey vaulted over the debris, his foot catching as he fell face-first back into the street. He shuffled onto his hands and knees and back up again. He started to limp across the street again. He stumbled down to his knees once more. In the corner of his eye there was another Spencer, flanked by uniformed agents and visibly confused.

"Identify yourself," Spencer said.

"Special Agent Kenneth Spencer," said Spencer.

"No…" Spencer said. "You're not. Drop your weapon and exit the building with your hands up."

"No," said Spencer. He was at the collapsed wall of the bedroom now. "You're not." He leveled his gun at Casey.

Casey squeezed his eyes shut as the sound of a gunshot filled his ears.

And then another. And another gunshot.

But no pain came. He opened his eyes again, and saw only red. He blinked.

There was nothing wrong with his eyes. Standing above him was a fair-haired man, arms held out in front of him. One hand drew a thin knife straight down the other forearm, and from the wound wine-dark sparks spilled, flowing around the both of them in a hollow shell. The bullets had bounced harmlessly off the buffer.

Casey stared up at him.

Adam Rowe stared back down.

"We're gonna be fine," he said, with a weak smile.

Adam knelt down, reaching with the hand that wasn't shooting energy and gripping Casey's tightly.

And then the world around them became a blur.

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