Numbed Owls Feasting
rating: +24+x

0200: Sixteen eggs made of camouflaged polymers and lightweight metal streak across the sky. Each had launched from micro-submarines idling off the East Coast of the United States, and each now sheds confounding chaff that would only survive for scant minutes in the air. Following their successful launch, each submarine turns back toward a small French port.

0203: Two eggs painted midnight-black explode above infrastructure critical to a certain subsection of the United State's sprawling defense complex. Two charred corpses careen from the sky, each bearing the remnants of heavy armaments, and fall toward the UNTGATE array that was originally built to smack dangerous payloads out of the aether itself.

0206: Three eggs burst above the Appalachian Mountains. Cumberland Valley is graced with three more plummeting corpses and their accompanying debris, as is the ANCOMB sphere inverted below its surface. Disrupting the Pentagram's vast effort to track and identify the world's more powerful thaumaturgists is but a happy side-effect of the operation.

0209: Six pods suffer what will later be identified as a microglider failure above a long stretch of I-76 and plummet into five miles of concrete and cars. The bodies within each are far more intact, though critically wounded by impact, and forensic analysis will later identify them as members of a certain terrorist organization.

0210: One pod touches down in the courtyard of a signless compound otherwise protected by high fences and armed guards. The man who bursts from its shell kills three soldiers tasked to protect USAMPCOM. He does not possess the capacity to enjoy success. Fortunately for him, death swiftly follows. Yet another sacrificial pawn to suggest a far larger scheme.

0213: The four remaining pods crash through the walls of the Predictive Technology and Atemporal Armaments Research Division (PTAARD, for anyone who could bear the acronym's folly). Each vehicle pulses along a disruptive electromagnetic gradient upon landing, but not hard enough to scramble the hardened cameras lurking in every corner of the classified facility. Despite this, all fail to record the passengers' faces as they exit their pods.

Each bears a halo of static and wields tools of death.


"I refuse to believe we are best suited to this," said Munru. Indeed, none of Tau-5's members bore their usual arms. Appendages or weapons. Most had been stripped, repaired, and repurposed from battlefields elsewhere, and bore unfamiliar forms even beneath flesh.

"I agree," said Onru. "Our… armaments are sparse. We may miss something in this state."

"What's done is done," said Irantu. "There is no sense in bringing tools that exceed the mission requirements."

He slapped the nearest pod's smooth surface. All four vehicles pulsed again. Light bulbs in the wide hallway trembled, whined, and popped. Glass fell in a tinkling rain around the four cyborgs, echoing out across the corners and behind closed doors. The surviving pods fizzled and burst into hissing flames. Hot, but not enough to destroy critical pieces of evidence. Nearby, a woman emerged from her office. Clutching a coffee mug, rubbing one red eye, she had clearly stirred from a long night in front of a computer. In the light of those flames, they must have looked monstrous.

Irantu shot her with his sidearm. Targeting suggestions charted out an array of bullets just sloppy enough to look like merely well-trained aim. She topped backwards, and a second bout of gunfire caught a second scientist still napping at his workstation. He slid down to the floor into a mushy pile.

"We may be in danger if a ghost appears," said Nanku. "We are not currently equipped for even the smallest bit of busting." Her reference was met with resounding silence.

Tau-5 followed their planned path down the hallway, pausing only to execute sheltering employees. Thermography arrays and sound-visualizing overlays were enough to surpass human ingenuity. Incendiary grenades were plenty to handle the rest. Orders to optimize terror across the broadest spectrum more than made up for reductions in weaponry.

"Probability does favor a spectral emergence," allowed Munru as they pushed through a hastily fortified barricade manned by security officers who had no idea what they were facing. Three died before they fired even one bullet in return.

"Why do you say that?" asked Onru.

"Some percent of all humans must be haunted."

"Agreed." She fired her short rifle down a side-passage after a fleeing researcher. Two bullets to the head. One to the spine. Three strays to disguise the rest.

"And we have observed ghosts with a wide range of… dispositions."

"Also agreed." She fired again, this time at a guard escaping from a burning room. Her uniform was already alight, but lead proved a surer end than flames.

"As the number of deceased increases, so does the chance of releasing a spirit that bears affection toward its host. We would be likely targets for revenge."

"Ah." Onru turned to punch through a cracked plaster wall, grabbed something fleshy on the other side. She squeezed until it popped. "I was right. We are under-equipped."

"We are equipped to suggest an ongoing threat," said Irantu. "Ghosts were not included in the mission profile."

"Hm," said Munru, stooping in one alcove to reload.

"Hm," agreed Onru, peering around one dark corner.

"Ghosts often appear in cemeteries anyway," said Nanku, "so there may be a… fermentation period."

"Ah." He placed his empty magazine in a deeper part of the crevice, where it might later be found unscathed, pilfered fingerprints still intact.

"Agreed." She fired at a doorway where someone was desperately trying to wave their white lab coat in surrender. The bullets drilled through thin plaster and hapless victim alike. The garment went unscathed.

"We are all agreed on not worrying over ghosts then," said Irantu. "Our secondary objective remains. Proceed to the central laboratory."

Their passage mandated less caution than usual. Indeed, modulated efficiency was one of the primary reasons for their tasking. Blind angles went intentionally ignored. Cover went intentionally unchecked. Doors were kicked down, then passed through with scant inspection. Each blunder could have been fatal if they weren't so aware of their surroundings, and to the security cameras, each would look like nothing but fervor-invoked blindness. Rome's razings had been so thorough that civilization never forgot its fear of barbarians breaking down the gates.

"What do you imagine the fermentation period of a ghost is?" asked Munru.

"I thought we agreed to not worry," said Irantu.

"We are supposed to appear reckless and dangerous!" said Nanku. She cheerfully stuck her fist through a pane glass window. "Talking loudly about… unrelated matters will help."

"I suppose."

"How long does the process take then?" insisted Munru.

"I do not have any point of reference," said Nanku.

"Nor I," said Onru. They walked in near-silence for a few long minutes after that, punctuated only by the sounds of wanton violence and calculated destruction.

"I have heard that beer typically ferments for two weeks," said Irantu.

"Then we do have a baseline," said Onru.

"I was not suggesting they should be… conflated."

"What do you suppose ghost beer tastes like?" asked Nanku.

"Do not conflate them."

"A graveyard of wheat." Munru nodded solemnly.

"A morgue of grain." Nanku shook her head.

"Stop," said Irantu. "We are almost there."

A fortified laboratory lay nestled deep within the PTAARD facility. Its whitewashed walls were pocked with bullet holes now, and uniformed guards had splattered against one set of security shutters. It stood proud all the same. Classified blueprints indicated that a heavy metal barrier encased its surface in full. No vents emerged. No power lines converged. It was a tomb inside a tomb, built to keep something truly precious away from the world's grasping hands. Naturally, the Foundation believed that the Pentagram was unqualified to do so. It also believed others should bear responsibility for proving that point.

"Cutting charges," ordered Irantu. He and Onru stood watch as Munru and Nanku attached elongated pustules to the chipped stonework.

Steel-toed boots thudded in the distance, audible only to those with enhanced hearing. Authoritative barks mixed with dark jokes. Gun stocks tapped against body armor. One of the Pentagram's highly-trained EEL teams had no doubt entered the building, intent on preserving the American government's treasures. Their progress through the ruined halls was slower than Tau-5's had been, but they would meet soon enough.

"Fire one." Munru primed her explosives' detonation.

"Fire two." Nanku did the same.

"Fire all," said Irantu, still staring down the long hallway. Gloom gathered at its depths, thick even to him, and keen senses meant nothing if not steadily applied. The ring of pustules placed around the security shutter alighted, burning bright in that dark place. They burned hot too, singeing the closest cyborgs' backs.

Though quiet, the charges were sharp enough to chew through metal and stone. Munru and Nanku pushed the severed door inwards. It withstood momentarily, but such construction wasn't truly prepared for bundles of enhanced muscle and cybernetic amplifiers. The solid mass teetered precariously and fell inwards, knocking up a blinding cloud of dust in the process. Tau-5 moved through and were immediately cut off from access to the outside world. The bronze-lined room was a black hole of knowledge, even with one entrance gaping open. They had crossed the horizon line, it insisted, and enjoyed no hope of ever escaping.

All four siblings fanned out around the sprawling chamber in pursuit of their prize. Onru leafed through stacks of files, relying on automatic detection of keywords to flag anything worth reading or destroying. A few of particular note were set alight even as she sorted the rest. Names and numbers. More names and numbers. Projects with cute names, then so many more numbers.

Irantu and Nanku examined long tables covered in half-dismantled assemblages of intricate machinery. The Foundation rigorously protected its monopoly on stabilizing reality's fundamental components, so the Pentagram was forced along other avenues of research. Useless to Tau-5's secondary objective, but more than relevant to their primary one.

"Quartz arrays?" asked Nanku. The tiny spheres glowed dimly in their casings. Their lights flickered, as if to convey some discernible message.

"Crush it," said Irantu. His sister's reinforced fist proved insufficient, skin tearing on metal, so she took the butt of her rifle to it. The faint tinkling was even gentler than that of shattering light bulbs.

"Biological components," she said, continuing down the table. "Fungal."

"Burn them."

"Biological components. Human."

"Burn them."

"Urn. Hm… sealed shut."

"Break it."

"But what if a ghost is ins–"

"There is no ghost. Break it." They continued in that manner, crushing progress and burning knowledge.

Munru fired down the hallway at the encroaching EEL team. They struck back with more than bullets. Dizzying patterns of light had no effect on eyes that automatically shifted to safely perceive them though, and noxious gasses had even less on nasal cavities prepared to clog themselves. His precise rounds found chinks in their armor instead, sliding up under helmets and along inner thighs. More precise than their fiction should have allowed, perhaps, but achieving their secondary objective seemed worthwhile enough.

"I have found it," declared Onru. She punched a combination of numbers into one of many storage safes lining the walls, then wrenched open its door. Gray light crept out. It coursed forth in gentle tides, advancing and receding in calming waves, but always progressing in sum.

A jittering stream of bullets fired down the hallway from an empty point in the air. None of the filters Munru's vision flickered through detected any source, not even those that scraped along the borders of reality. No possible movement allowed for total evasion either. He shifted such that one projectile merely blew two fingers off.

Both digits tumbled through the air as more bullets smashed against his helmet's face-plate in a quick beat. Not even the finest technology could perfectly deflect such force, and they were equipped with far worse. Munru pulled back behind the corner, head shaking and ears ringing. He readied one last incendiary grenade with his bleeding hand and tossed it back down the hallway.

"The ghost issue has become pertinent," he shouted to his siblings, who were slowly withdrawing the glowing mass from its dark vault. Though small, the lump of ore bent their knees with its weight.

"There may be a graveyard nearby," said Nanku. "I did not search the wider area during our descent."

"Do not worry about graveyards or ghosts right now," said Irantu.

"This structure may be built on a graveyard."

"Then should the ghosts not be angry with them?" asked Onru.

"Stop," insisted Irantu. They did. More pressing concerns persisted, despite the many interesting implications of ghost law.

New spectral attackers within the hallway fired on Tau-5 from additional points, all while the first continued applying suppressing fire toward Munru. The dim figures on the other end of the hallway struggled to approach the laboratory, uniformed bodies slowly passing through open air. None reacted to the firefight in the least. Still, they had come close enough.

"We're done," barked Irantu over the din of battle. "Converge and execute. For Delta Command!"

One other member of Tau-5 sighed at that. One snickered. One almost giggled. "For Delta Command!" they shouted, loud enough for the distant soldiers to hear, though with a decided lack of zealotry.

Munru edged around the room as his siblings held positions near the glowing mass, all firing back into nothing at all. Their bullets flew through the air in starts and stops. Halting, then racing for no discernible reason. Returning fire emerged closer to Munru than before, beating a rhythmic pattern into his armored back, pushing his body faster along the perimeter. Blockers for his pain receptors marshaled themselves as he scrambled. Chemical stimulants battled to keep his legs moving.

Behind him, the sluggish EEL team finally reached the first ghostly gunshots' origin and brought up their weapons. One in particular aimed at where Munru had taken cover, though no bullets burst from their rifle this time. Munru himself saw little of it. Not as he dived deep into grating white light.

The four cyborgs huddled over the tidal ore even as bullets pecked at their bodies, some finding chinks in subpar armor. They clutched each other even as the furnaces built into their guts worked churned to a furious heat. They perished as four blasts burned away every last scrap of flesh, bones, and most importantly, the glowing ore beneath them.

That the other soldiers went unharmed by the explosion may have seemed a miracle to some, but it shouldn't have. Witnesses were required to seal their facade's wax.


In the aftermath of that night's events, two messages were sent from wildly different places to wildly different people. The first, from one grim bureaucrat to another:

TO: vog.su.margatnep|nostennet.p.h#vog.su.margatnep|nostennet.p.h
FROM: vog.su.margatnep|nix.q#vog.su.margatnep|nix.q
SUBJECT: Update

Harry,

Our fair-weather friends in the west were less open than I hoped, but they said enough. Everything about this 'insurgency' checks with what we've learned so far. I'll brief you in full as soon as I'm back in town. The President will likely need to approve our next steps. Until then, I recommend preliminary activation of EEL teams in Europe. Speak soon.

Xin

The second, from shadowed prophets to blind underlings:

TO: Dropbox 6, Dropbox 16, Dropbox 28, Dropbox 55
FROM: pmud.nibhsart|932yawaworht#pmud.nibhsart|932yawaworht
SUBJECT: Bloody Nests

All,

Open every operated blackbox in the Americas. Disclose their contents to your superiors immediately. Bring questions to your wayward colleagues, who wear masks as faces and have forgotten their true names. Loyal soldiers, find us the fool who ordered the eagle's young eaten.

– Command

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