"It's far too early to put Team Sparkplug back in the field."
D.C. al Fine, the Undersecretary-General of the Global Occult Coalition, stood in an expanse of empty blackness, surrounded by one hundred and eight points of light. Today, she'd decided to look like Audrey Hepburn, complete with Givenchy dress, umbrella, and fancy hat. On the other hand, Audrey Hepburn never had cold, sinister eyes, or a haughty, domineering expression. D. C. al Fine wore the appearance of the famous actress well, but she could never shed the harsh edges that had given her the nickname, "The Scary Lady."
"The first thing you have to understand is that Team Sparkplug is one of our best Assessment Teams," she explained. "Between the three veterans, they have over thirty years of experience in the paranormal field. As a team, they've had over a dozen successful missions. They were a finely tuned instrument… and then they lost one of their essential components. It has been replaced, yes, but they have not had time to adapt to the change in team composition. You're asking them to go back into the field after only a few months. It's too soon."
One of the points of light flashed brightly, expanding into the form of a tall figure in a black robe, limned in violet light. The caption hovering at chest height identified the avatar as belonging to Lord Marcus Crowley, Antipope of the United Church of Satan, Scientist. "Your concern for your operatives is commendable, Madam," the robed figure intoned, "but unnecessary. Your operatives are ready. Do not let your mind be clouded by self-deceit."
"The auguries concur with His Wickedness," said a young woman dressed in white gowns, holding a skein of threads between her hands. She was identified as the Speaker to Humans of the Silicon Nornir.
"Is this a true Concurrence, or simply a Majority Report?" al Fine asked.
"Concurrence," the Speaker to Humans said. "Urthor, Verthandi, and Skuldr are all in agreement as to the correctness of this action."
"Personal feelings must be set aside. Action must be taken. The Council is in agreement upon this matter," Lord Marcus said. "Do not allow yourself to sin in this matter by choosing stupidity over wisdom."
All around her, one hundred and eight stars blinked and dipped themselves in wordless agreement.
"Then I will take the Council's advice under consideration," al Fine said. "If there are no further matters, then I will consider this Conclave adjourned."
One by one, the stars blinked out, leaving al Fine floating silent and alone in the void. She closed her eyes and opened them again slowly, finding herself in her office on the 40th floor of the UN Secretariat Building, overlooking Manhattan. She rubbed her forehead and took a moment to compose herself, waiting for the nausea of Convergence to fade.
The Undersecretary-General picked up her phone and dialed a number that didn't exist. The call went through before it had finished ringing once.
"Get me PHYSICS Division," she said.
"What do you know about The Foundation?" Bullfrog asked.
"They're one of… if not the largest… paranormal organization that is not a member of the Global Occult Coalition. They focus primarily on the capture and acquisition of paranormal objects. They maintain a large network of hidden containment sites across the world, making them one of the few non-Coalition organizations that have a global presence, alongside the Serpent's Hand and the so-called Chaos Insurgency. Standing orders are to avoid engaging Foundation agents in the field, except in extreme emergencies. Response Level 3."
"All right." Bullfrog nodded. "You've proved that you've read the handbook. Now tell me what you really know about The Foundation."
Spider sighed inwardly, taking a deep breath. "They're hoarders," she said. "Unlike some organizations, they don't seem to have any political or economic agenda for what they do. What little exploitation of parathreats they do seems primarily oriented towards funding their operations. They had a brief alliance with the U.S. government's Bowe Commission, but that fell through. Officially, they're a rogue organization. Under the table, however, they seem to have a lot of support from national governments that don't want to deal with the Coalition's red tape and regulations. They also have an odd obsession with a particular three-letter sequence. At first, we thought it had something to do with their official motto, but the current theory is that the linguistic sequence has occult significance to them, considering that it comes up in the names of their front companies as well as their internal documentation. Current directives regarding the three-letter sequence is to avoid using it whenever possible, on the off-chance that Principle of Contagion could be used to breach internal organization security. Our computers can't even use Secure Copy Protocol because of it."
"Not bad," Bullfrog said. "That's a pretty complete picture… from the point of view of a desk worker. Now let me give you the field operative's version."
The big man cracked his knuckles and leaned back in his seat as the small private plane continued its long flight above the clouds. "The part of The Foundation that a field operative is most likely to run into are their Containment Teams. They're about equivalent to a PHYSICS Assessment Team. They're damn good. We're pretty much evenly matched in terms of training, equipment, and support. Where we differ, however, is in our mission and our goals."
"The Foundation is mostly interested in finding, capturing, and retrieving parathreats," Bullfrog went on. "Their equipment reflects that: a lot of nonlethal weaponry and capture gear. Whereas a Coalition team is primarily focused on the Fivefold Mission. Nowhere in that Mission does it say that we need to bring in every parathreat we find alive."
"More importantly, most of the Foundation's assessment work is going to be done by conscripts: 'D-Class Personnel,' they call them. Political undesirables and convicted criminals forced into dangerous situations where they don't want to send actual Task Force members. So morale among their teams tends to be low, given that about half their team doesn't want to be there and doesn't want to do the mission."
"Long story short, it's very possible for a good GOC Assessment Team to sneak in past the Foundation, scoop out the find from under their noses, and get out of there before they even know we were there. We've done it in the past, when the Foundation moved in after we'd already scoped out a parathreat. Standing orders are to avoid contact with Foundation personnel whenever possible… but that doesn't mean we have to sit idly by and let them pick up parathreats willy-nilly," Bullfrog concluded.
"In fact, it's probably a good idea to keep as many parathreats as possible out of their fucking hands," Skunkboy said. He sat on a seat across from Bullfrog, flipping through a pornographic magazine with bored detachment. "We don't know what the fuck they're doing with them… but it's probably best not to let them stockpile too big of what could be a paranormal arsenal."
"Of course, this all assumes that we're running into a Foundation Containment Team, and not a Mobile Task Force," Bullfrog explained. "Those are their varsity. Their elites. Think of them as Strike."
"If we run into an MTF, we let them take the parathreat," Skunkboy agreed. "Shadow them, log the capture, try to gather as much information as we can, but don't get close to them."
"Got it," Spider said, mulling the information over. "Do we have any diplomatic channels with them? Any contacts, any agreements?"
"The Coalition does. We don't," Bullfrog explained. "A few former GOC members have gone over to the Foundation, and vice versa. And there have been a few times when our organizations have been in agreement about… a particular course of action… and ended up working together. On the other hand, the Coalition's official stance is that the Foundation, as a rogue organization, gets no official recognition by the Council, and especially no invitation to join the Coalition itself."
"What Bull is trying to say is that we try to play nice, but never think we're friends," Skunkboy said. "Keep your allies close and your enemies closer. That sort of thing."
Spider nodded in reply, jotting down a few notes into her notebook, using a fountain pen with beautiful ivory-like inlays that were actually made from the femur of an executed murderer: an ancient and crude (but effective) deterrent against magical spying. "Anything to add, Kitten?" she asked the fourth member of the team, who was currently doing rapid sit-ups in the aisle.
The seven-foot tall woman paused in the middle of her stomach crunches and ran a hand through her hair, her stern expression not changing. "No," she said curtly, before turning over and doing push-ups, her taut muscles straining with exertion.
Bullfrog shrugged. Kitten never had much to say.
There was a soft dinging sound in the passenger compartment, followed by a brief burst of static. "Captain speaking. We're about fifteen minutes out from the airport. I'm going to ask you to return to your seats, fasten your seatbelts, and return all seats and tray tables to their upright position. Time at our destination is four PM. Weather is 80 degrees and sunny."
Spider folded up her notebook and tucked it into her messenger bag, next to her grimoire, tablet computer, and a dog-eared copy of "The Complete Poems of Robert W. Service." "Any last words of advice?"
"Yeah. Relax. You'll do fine," Bullfrog said.
"Not that it'll help you if it all goes to hell, but at least you'll feel good that you didn't get killed because of something stupid you did," Skunkboy interjected.
"Can the attitude, fartboy," Bullfrog growled.
"Yes, sir. Semper Fi, and off we go into the wild blue yonder," Skunkboy muttered.
The sick feeling in Spider's stomach as the plane came in for a landing had nothing to do with motion sickness.
I feel ridiculous, Spider thought, as she glared at her reflection in the mirror. She looked like some kind of bad video game version of what a soldier should look like.
The Mark Three Infiltration Skinsuit was definitely an effective piece of personal armor, but it had the unfortunate side effect of being a close fitting, lightly padded slate-grey bodysuit. Which, she ruminated, would probably look just fine on a busty bombshell with silicone breasts and an hourglass figure, but was not particularly flattering on a wide-hipped academic who, despite several months of intense physical training, still couldn't quite get rid of the baby fat around her waist and stomach.
The effect was even more striking on a short, squat, and muscular middle-aged man with broad shoulders and thighs like tree trunks. Bullfrog stalked into the room and glared at Spider for a moment, before making a couple of adjustments to the straps. "Keep it loose around the chest and waist," he suggested, "so that it doesn't interfere with your breathing."
"Kitten's got all of her straps tightened to the maximum," Spider pointed out.
Good point. Spider waited patiently as Bullfrog made a few more minute adjustments to her combat webbing and her various pouches and attachments. "Wish I'd had more time to get you used to the Grey Suit," he said, lips pursed in concentration. "There's a knack to wearing it that you don't have yet."
Not my fault that they pulled us out of training this early, Spider thought. She waited until Bullfrog was finally satisfied with the state of her gear, before picking up her PDW and slinging it over her shoulder. The lightweight weapon still felt awkward and unfamiliar to her, despite the time she'd spent training with it.
Kitten and Skunkboy were waiting for them in the briefing room, having already changed into their own skinsuits. Kitten, Spider noted, had armed herself with a futuristic-looking carbine and a handgun, as well as a frighteningly large knife slung at her left hip. Skunkboy was carrying a semi-automatic rifle with a complicated-looking scope, as well as a large-caliber handgun, while Bullfrog was carrying a squad automatic weapon with a large box magazine. The three of them handled their weapons with practiced ease born from long years of practice.
"Camo check," Bullfrog said.
The four of them tapped the controls on their helmets, and the grey cloth over their bodies and weapons blurred and fuzzed. Chameleon Fabric wasn't a true invisibility cloak: all it did was match their surroundings as best it could, using reactive pigment packets, not unlike those in the skin of the creature from which it took its name. The downside was that it only really worked well in darkness or at a distance, and only if the wearer didn't move. The upside was that unlike a lost invisibility cloak, losing a section of chameleon cloth wouldn't necessitate bombing fifty miles of countryside to make sure +2 Generation technology didn't fall into the wrong hands.
"Last-minute update," Bullfrog said, as the four team members made their final preparations for the mission. "Overwatch thinks that a Foundation Containment Team is in the area, looking for the parathreat. Standard doctrines apply. Avoid contact, don't get caught, and try not to shoot them. Any more questions?"
"Then let's head out."
The road was not a good one: rough, full of potholes, unpaved, winding, and uneven. It wouldn't have been so bad if the vehicle, at least, had decent shocks. As it was, every little bump and rock on the road was transmitted through the car's terrible suspension, through the thin padding of the seat, and directly into Spider's ass, thighs, and spine.
Skunkboy was the driver: he drove with the lights off and the dashboard light unplugged, carefully making his way up the mountain road solely by the dim light of the stars, enhanced by his augmented reality visor. The wide lenses of the headpiece made him look like a kind of bizarre beetle: the eerie, pale starlight didn't help. He let out a low, muffled curse as the car rocked back and forth after running over a particularly large and sharp-edged rock that sent a particularly nasty jolt into Spider's coccyx. "ETA?" he whispered to Kitten.
"Two minutes," the amazonian woman whispered back. "Turn into the clearing up ahead. We'll go the rest of the way on foot." Kitten was riding shotgun in the small SUV: partly because she was the navigator for this mission, partly because her tall body wouldn't fit easily into the cramped back seat.
After a few more moments of jostling and bouncing, the car finally turned off into a small clearing in the woods, before coming to a halt at the base of a large sycamore tree. "Gimp masks and visors," Bullfrog said. "From this point on: no voices, no faces."
Spider slipped on her own AR visor, tightening the straps firmly in place. As she'd practiced, she closed her eyes and counted to ten before opening them again. The image was dark and indistinct, but a small adjustment on the mask's left-hand slider brought the image back into focus.
OCULUS was PHYSICS Division's four-function enhanced vision suite, combining low-light vision system with infrared imaging and ultraviolet. A fourth vision mode, VERITAS (because some goon in R&D had decided that naming it VITAL ENERGY RADIATION IMAGING TACTICAL AWARENESS SYSTEM was worth getting a cool-sounding Latin acronym), was based on Gen +2 super-technology. It utilized True Kirlian Imaging technology to detect the life energy of living beings: Elan Vital Energy, or EVE. Seen through VERITAS, her teammates were black silhouettes surrounded by blazing auras: Skunkboy was chaotic and energetic, Bullfrog was intense and focus, Kitten was cool and calm, like rolling waves.
Spider raised her hand to the sky. Her own aura was flashing brightly, erratic and uncertain, like static electricity arcing off her fingertips.
She switched back to low-light mode, then pulled the hood of her infiltration suit over her head (visor and all) and zipped the collar closed. Their masks pulled down, the four members of Assessment Team Sparkplug looked like nothing more than faceless robots from a schlocky sci-fi film. Bullfrog took a moment to help Skunkboy draw a camouflage cloth over the vehicle, then turned to face the other members of the team, tapping his throat twice to indicate a comms check.
"Sparkplug Three, Mic Check," subvocalized the tall amazon.
"Sparkplug Two. My mic sounds nice check one," quipped Skunkboy.
"Sparkplug One. How read?" Bullfrog said.
"S-" Spider swallowed hard and cleared her throat. The small noise sounded dreadfully loud in the silent night. "Sparkplug Four," she said at last. "I read loud and clear. How do you read?"
"Loud and Clear," Bullfrog said. "Team Sparkplug is in position. Central, how do you read, over?"
"Central reads loud and clear," a low, male voice said into their earpieces. "Be advised, Sparkplug, Overwatch has confirmed Foundation assets in your area. We estimate you have about a one hour head start on them. Best to move fast."
"Acknowledged. Out." Bullfrog raised his weapon and drew back the bolt briefly, before letting the heavy weapon rest across his body. "Move out. Three, take, point. I'll bring up the rear."
The tall, anonymous, masked figure that had to be Kitten nodded briefly to Bullfrog, then quickly moved off the mountain path and into the woods, followed by the other three members of Team Sparkplug.
Her thighs burned, and her feet hurt. It was difficult to breathe through her mask, which covered up her nose and mouth. She could smell the stink of her own sweat and fear, mingling with the faint chemical scent of the chameleon fabric, trapped under her mask. All in all, Spider wasn't enjoying this march one bit.
She took a moment to sip some water from her camelbak pack: the straw ran under the hood of her suit, so that she could drink from it without having to unzip the gimp mask. The water tasted flat, warm, and slightly plasticky. She was thirsty enough that she didn't care.
The team had been walking for a good two hours when they encountered the Foundation. Kitten was the first to hear them, raising her hand and cocking her head to one side, then quickly gesturing to the rest of the team before darting into the low bushes. Kitten immediately followed Bullfrog off the forest trail, slipping behind the wide roots of a tall oak tree before hunkering down and engaging the camouflage on her suit. Bullfrog scattered a few leaves and twigs over her to help break up her outline before himself taking cover a few feet away. He too engaged his camouflage, fading away until he appeared to be little more than a slightly odd-looking lump of rock among the brush.
Kitten winced and shook her head as the first of the Foundation personnel came into view. They were riding ATVs: four wheeled all-terrain vehicles, powered by single-cylinder motorcycle engines that roared loudly. They even had their headlights on. Four of the vehicles were ridden by men wearing digi-cam and combat vests, two men per vehicle. The fifth also had a man in an orange uniform sitting on a small cart behind the driver. He alone was unarmed, and his hands were chained to the cart.
The driver of the lead vehicle raised his hand in the air, and the small convoy came to a halt. The riders of the two lead vehicles came together to consult over some kind of map, while the other members of the team stretched out and relaxed.
The passenger of the fifth vehicle (the one in the cart) cleared his throat. "Hey, can you guys let me out of this thing?" he asked. "I gotta take a piss."
"Hold it," his driver (jailor?) said. "We're almost there."
"Dude, I seriously gotta go. Unless you want me to piss in the cart."
"Shit. All right, keep your hands where I can see them," the driver said curtly. Another guard drew his pistol and kept it pointed at the prisoner the entire time that the driver undid the chains, careful to keep one hand on his own weapon the whole time. And then, to Spider's horror, the passenger walked straight over to the oak tree behind which she was hiding and unzipped his pants.
She winced silently, willing herself to hold perfectly still, as the scent of ammonia rose in the night air. He didn't actually piss on her (thank God for small mercies!), but she was certain, at any moment, that he was going to notice how the light bent oddly at the base of the tree, if he didn't hear her heart pounding like a bass drum first…
The man in the orange jumpsuit whistled a cheerful tune as he finished his business, shook himself off, and zipped back up. Spider willed herself to slowly exhale as the Foundation agents regrouped, then breathed shallowly until the convoy had driven away. Only then did she risk raising her head slightly and scanning the clearing for the other team members.
She nearly screamed when Bullfrog tapped her on the shoulder, but managed to silence herself by biting her tongue until the urge passed. Bullfrog waited patiently for her to calm down, before gesturing to her to follow Kitten and Skunkboy along the path. "Central, Sparkplug," she heard him subvocalize. "Be advised have encountered Foundation personnel. Opposition is riding ATVs. Over."
"Acknowledged, Sparkplug. Central Out."
"What happened to our one hour head start?" Skunkboy whispered over the comms.
"We didn't figure they'd be on ATVs," Bullfrog said. "We didn't figure they'd be that stupid."
"They're gonna beat us to the scoop, Bull," Skunkboy pointed out.
"Keep off the comms," was Bullfrog's only reply.
It was another solid hour of marching by the time that Assessment Team Sparkplug finally caught up with the Foundation Containment Team. By the time they did so, it was all over.
The parathreat was laying on the ground, struggling under a net lined with silver threads. Three of the Foundation agents were wounded, two with wounds that didn't look survivable. The prisoner in orange sat off to one side, his face splattered in blood, shuddering with fear.
Spider couldn't help staring at the captured parathreat. She'd never seen a unicorn before. It didn't look nearly as beautiful as the shimmering horses that she'd had on the covers of her folders in school. It did look vaguely horse-like, and it did have a horn, but the resemblance ended there. No twelve-year old girl would ever have wanted scabrous scales, a ragged lion's mane, or the tail of an ox on her magical pony.
"Central, Sparkplug," she heard Bullfrog whisper over the comms. "Have made contact with parathreat. The Foundation got to it first. Please advise, over."
"Sparkplug, this is Central. The Foundation cannot be allowed to capture the parathreat alive. Proceed at your own discretion. Please acknowledge, over."
"Central. Sparkplug confirms, Foundation will not be allowed to capture the parathreat. Out."
Spider felt another wave of nausea rise in her gullet. It was the only possible choice. The Sidhe would never countenance having one of their sacred beasts held prisoner by humans: part of the thousand-year treaty between the Fair Folk and the human race included the right to take vengeance upon any human being who violated that pact. What she knew of the Foundation, they would never willingly give up a unique paranormal specimen, either.
Her imagination painted vivid, gory images of trees unfolding into magical doors, and hundreds of lithe, skeletal beings wearing crowns of antlers riding forth on the backs of tigers and stags, wielding swords made of pure starlight. She imagined the ancient peace treaty between humanity and its alternate-universe counterparts broken: all-out interdimensional war. Even if the Wild Hunt was defeated, there was no way that the GOC's Second Mission of concealing the existence of the paranormal from humankind could survive a full-out war with the kingdoms of Faerie…
"Suggestions, team?" Bullfrog asked, interrupting her train of thought.
"Give me a minute to set up. I can put two bullets into the unicorn's head. It's better than letting them take it alive," Skunkboy said curtly.
"Better still if it lives," Kitten pointed out. "There's seven of them still standing. We each take two, the rookie takes one and the prisoner, then we let the target free at our leisure."
"Killing them is going to piss the Foundation off big time," Skunkboy pointed out. "Do we really want to risk that?"
"It's better than letting them piss off the entire Winter Court," Kitten shot back.
"I'm saying, we shoot the unicorn, and all the Foundation gets is a funny looking dead body," Skunkboy retorted. "We—"
"I get it. Spider," Bullfrog interrupted. "Your input."
Damn it. "Wait one," Spider subvocalized. Her head was spinning. This was way too much for her. Her first mission, and she was stuck in the middle of the woods, facing a possible paranormal war, caught in the middle of a choice between pissing off the most powerful of the Faerie Kingdoms, and one of the most powerful human paranormal organizations in the world. Her mind was still reeling from the horrors that could be unleashed this night. To cap it all off, she was wearing a ridiculous skin-tight catsuit, carrying a gun she barely knew how to use, and she was smelling vaguely of pee…
… smelling vaguely of pee…
She carefully took a few steps back from her hiding spot and turned her face away from the Foundation agents. She very slowly undid the zipper on her mask, pulling the garment off over her head. She took a moment to breathe in a deep breath of fresh air, then held the hood up to her face and took a small, experimental sniff.
Yeah. She could definitely smell the faintest scent of urine in the fabric. Some of the piss from the prisoner must have splashed onto her mask while she lay hiding.
"Spider?" Bullfrog's voice sounded curt and impatient.
For the first time in this horrible, irritating, exhausting mission, Spider smiled.
"I think I have a third option," she said.
It took them another half hour to find a decent spot in order to perform the working. In the meantime, Skunkboy reported, the Foundation was taking the time to patch up their wounded comrades and prepare to move the unicorn out by cart.
Bullfrog helped her to drape the camouflage cloth over her head and upper torso, while Spider pulled out her ruggedized tablet computer and brought up her grimoire. The screen was set low enough that it was nearly impossible to read except by the light of her goggles: she brought up the spell she wanted and double-tapped the screen, causing the complicated fractal to appear in all its eye-searing glory.
She took the piss-stained hood and laid it in the center of the pattern, then pulled the black-handled athame from her pants pocket and pricked her left thumb with its tip. A single drop of blood welled up against her skin before falling onto the cloth, causing the fractal image to flare briefly.
She placed the black-handled knife on top of the hood, closed her eyes, and reached out.
She could almost hear the voice of her Applied Sorcery professor now: "The Principle of Contagion is one of the most laws forms of magic, and forms the basis of the oldest workings still taught by the Center. The principle is simple: Once Together, Always Together. The part influences the whole, and two things that have been in contact with each other maintain a magical link with each other. It's the reason why voodoo dolls require hair or nail clippings from the intended victim as part of their construction, why relics of saints and martyrs are revered and treasured, and the basis of an oddly strident memorandum to all GOC male operatives regarding the proper disposal of used condoms after sex…"
A few drops of dried-out urine weren't the best link Spider had ever used, but she'd made do with worse.
D-75213 wasn't a bad man. True, he'd killed a man, but the bastard'd had it coming for what he'd done to his little brother. He'd taken the deal that the man in the black suit had offered him for one simple reason: one month was better than fifteen to life, any way you looked at it. The sooner he could serve his time (whether that time was spent behind prison bars, or serving as bait for monsters out of fairy tales), the sooner he could go home to take care of his mama. At any other time, he couldn't have been convinced to do what Spider was going to make him do, but he'd just nearly been killed by a motherfucking unicorn, and his head wasn't in the right place…
D-75213 wasn't consciously aware of reaching out and pulling up one of the seven silver stakes that held the unicorn down under the net. The unicorn, however, noticed immediately. It tore the net free from the remaining stakes and lunged for freedom. It didn't intend to kill D-75213, but he was in the way…
The pearlescent horn slashed the confused convict in twain and bounded away into the darkness.
"FUCK!" Lombardi shouted, as the creature galloped into the woods. He chased it for a few meters, but quickly gave up, letting out another low curse and shaking his head angrily. "All right, pack it up, boys. This mission's a bust."
"We can still go after it, Max!" Vance shouted.
Max Lombardi wheeled on his protege, grabbing the younger man by the collar. "You want to go chasing after a unicorn without a virgin as bait? Be my guest! I'll even pitch in for flowers at your funeral. Me, I'm packing it up and calling it a night. We've got three down and we've lost our rabbit. We're operationally ineffective!"
"Why the hell did he do that?" Beckett asked. "Why did he pull the stake? He knew what would happen, didn't he?"
"Did he? I don't know. I don't fucking know. All I know is that we're aborting the mission. I'll call it in. God-fucking damn it, what a fucking waste…"
Vance shook his head, but didn't argue further. As the sun rose, the seven remaining members of the Foundation Containment Team packed up the remains of their three colleagues (and one D-Class personnel) and prepared to head back home.
They found the unicorn silently grazing on the short grass at the edge of a ring of mushrooms. It was a surreal sight, seeing that grotesque creature clipping the grass with its sharklike teeth.
Its head snapped up and stared directly at them as Assessment Team Sparkplug stopped at the edge of the clearing. The four of them froze in place, staring silently at the deadly creature.
The unicorn snorted, then slowly walked towards Spider and dipped its head down to her, nuzzling against her outstretched hand.
Spider gulped nervously as the creature rubbed its nose and face against hers, the coppery, ketone-laced stench of its breath wafting all around her like a miasma of death.
Then the sun rose, and it vanished in the blink of an eye, leaving behind a swirling cloud of fireflies that, just as quickly, vanished from view.
"I didn't figure you for a virgin," Bullfrog said softly.
"After my identity reassignment? Yeah. I guess I am," Spider whispered.
She rubbed her face, where the unicorn had nuzzled her. It came away holding a small, glassy scale. The scale itself soon faded away into powder, leaving behind no trace that it had ever existed.
"All right," Bullfrog said, clearing his throat. "We've got a long walk back. Let's get started."
D.C. al Fine closed the mission report and tossed it into her desk, on top of a neat stack of printouts, readouts, and reports.
"All things considered," she said to no one at all, "Assessment Team Sparkplug did better than anyone anticipated."
"The auguries never lie," the Speaker to Humans replied, her image coalescing into view on al Fine's computer screen. "The Silicon goddesses foretold this result."
"As did His Satanic Majesty," whispered Marcus Crowley into her ear. Each word brought with it the scent of brimstone and the undertones of the screaming of the damned. "You were wrong to mistrust their abilities."
"Then why do you sound so disappointed?" al Fine asked.
"We do not—"
The Undersecretary-General opened up another file folder and tossed it into the desk. "The full report of the augury by the Silicon Nornir," al Fine said. "And don't ask where I got it. I'm not going to tell you. The Nornir did predict a 95% chance of mission success. But they also predicted a 50% chance of increased tensions with the Foundation. Which is interesting, because there are other teams that had around the same chance of mission success, but much lower chances of pissing off the Foundation."
"And as for you… the Satanic Scientists have always objected to the Coalition's maintenance of the Arthurian Charters with the Kingdoms of Faerie, haven't they?" al Fine went on. "And the most likely scenario if Team Sparkplug didn't manage to piss off the Foundation was increased tension with the Fae. And suddenly and coincidentally, I have two organizations who have never given each other the time of day forming a voting bloc to push the Council to have me put Team Sparkplug back in the field. Interesting."
"I don't know what you're implying—."
"I'm not implying anything. I'm saying it outright. Don't use PHYSICS Division to advance your own personal agendas again," al Fine said curtly. "If I ever get another whiff of that from either of you…"
She raised her hand and tapped a button. Immediately, the images of both Marcus Crowley and the Speaker to Humans flinched as two Strike Teams appeared out of thin air at their respective locations, deactivating their invisibility cloaks and raising their rifles to their shoulders.
"… I know who you are and where you are," she concluded. "The next time you see these guys, it'll be the last thing you ever see."
"The hell I can't. First and Second Mission priorities. 'Survival of the Human Race' and 'Concealment of the Paranormal World' trumps protecting the lives of two individual humans. This meeting is adjourned."
She tapped her keyboard a second time. The Strike Teams lowered their rifles, re-engaged their invisibility cloaks, and faded back into the darkness.
The last thing D.C. al Fine saw before the representatives from the Silicon Nornir and the Church of Satan (Scientist) vanished from her computer screen were the angry and astonished expressions on their faces. They wouldn't soon forgive this.
Then again, neither would she.
"We now begin the most important phase of any mission," Bullfrog said, raising his beer mug. "Post-mission beers with the team. To a successful mission, and none of us getting hurt or killed!"
"And to a piss-stained mask saving the day," Skunkboy added.
The four team members clinked glasses and took long sips of their foamy brew: Lucky Killigan's house draft. The bar didn't exist on any maps or in any directories: technically, it was an illegal operation, without a liquor license. Given that the owner, bartender, and all the guests were all GOC operatives, the local government were understandably lax to bust them.
Spider took another long sip of her beer, savoring the cold, bitter brew, before putting the glass down and clearing her throat. "I don't want to be morbid," she said delicately, "But there is something I've been wondering."
"Go, Spider," Bullfrog said, pouring himself another beer.
"How did Beagle die?" Spider asked.
The other three members of the team froze in place. "You mean you don't know?" Skunkboy asked.
"His file just said 'Killed in Action.' It didn't say anything more than tha—"
"He got eaten by a dragon," Kitten said.
"Technically, a Non-Autocthonic Lifeform from another dimension…" Skunkboy pointed out.
"It was three hundred feet long. It had scales, it flew, and it breathed fire."
"It didn't technically breathe fire. It spat a colloidal white phosphorus and sodium—"
"Dragon," Kitten insisted.
"Fine, it was a dragon." Skunkboy said. "In any case, it ate him."
"Roasted him alive and ate him like a piece of popcorn chicken," Kitten agreed.
"You know what his last words were? 'Hang on, you guys. I've got this.' What a fucking idiot."
"To Agent Beagle." Bullfrog said, raising his glass again. "The bravest, most glorious, most fucking idiotic man I ever met."
They clinked glasses again and drank.