The Falcon's Flight

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November 14th, 2018
Moses Howard Federal Building, Three Portlands

There are two versions of the Unusual Incidents Unit.

There is the publicly acknowledged version, the FBI's UFO hunters, the Bureau's embarrassing in-joke, where the dregs and cast-offs of federal law enforcement accumulate, out-of-the-way where they can't do any damage.

That version only exists to conceal the existence of the other UIU, the shadow DOJ responsible for the entirety of the American justice system behind the Veil, tasked with implementing and enforcing all of the parapolicy of the Domestic Security Council. This UIU hunts UFOs too — and arrests the aliens flying them, prosecutes them, and imprisons them in an inescapable supermax facility designed to contain hostile gods. This UIU is entrusted with policing and protecting the largest paranormal enclave in the Western Hemisphere. This UIU deals directly with a paracriminal class composed of supervillains and monsters, and does so under the legal restrictions of due process and habeas corpus — restrictions that organizations like the Foundation would falter under.

This UIU is a force to be reckoned with. And now, as of the moment Judge Jelen finished signing the arrest warrant, the full might of that force was aimed at a single man: Vincent Anderson.

Kenneth Spencer surveyed the assembled troops. It was a full MOOT deployment, the best battlemages and combat psychics the Unit had at its disposal, all kitted-out and loaded-up to take on one of the nastier gods. In their black trench coats and full-face gas masks, they looked more like shock troops from the First World War than federal agents about to execute a warrant. But the gas masks had cognitohazard-filtering lenses slotted over the eyes, and the trench coats were covered in minuscule sigils of warding and enchantments written in Enochian, stitched into the anti-ballistic fabric with silver thread — and across the backs, the letters 'FBI' were emblazoned above the symbol of the Eye of Providence.

"All this for one man?" he asked.

The leader of the Mobile Occult Operations Team, at least for this arrest, was Jesse Davis, a veteran war-wizard specializing in electrical evocations. She carried a shotgun loaded with Spellbreaker rounds, which doubled as a conductor for some of the meaner spells in her repertoire.

"All this for Anderson," she said. "He's one of the most powerful wizards on the planet, and his raw talent is augmented by cybernetics of his own design. They're prepping the Nazi bastard's old cell to hold him."

"First we have to catch him. The Skippers have been trying to do that for the better part of a decade." Robin Thorne wasn't a regular member of MOOT, and hadn't opted for the full combat gear that the other wizards were wearing, but they had thrown on one of the trench coats over their usual suit and attire.

Davis laughed, the sound echoing slightly under her gas mask. "Well, I welcome the opportunity to one-up them. Would have made your mom proud."

Thorne grimaced. "Yeah." They looked down, ostensibly to double-check their pistol. "Let's get this done."

"Right." Davis turned to address her team.

"Alright people, you all know the target. The Electric Jesus himself, Vincent fucking Anderson. There's no room for error on this one. We know from Special Agent Thorne that the building has been modified significantly from the floor plan filed with the city, so be ready for anything — for all we know, he could have a life-size Statue of Liberty mech in there. Hopefully, he'll come quietly, but if he doesn't, we are going to be fighting our way through a veritable army of robots. Fire's no good, and frost will only slow them down a little, so we'll be relying heavily on shocks — Martins, Baxter, that means you'll be on point. Any questions?"

The men and women in black were silent.

"Good. Let's put this motherfucker in Paramax."


November 14th, 2018
Anderson Robotics World Headquarters, Three Portlands

Thorne stared at the building through closed eyelids, looking with the aetheric sight of an Observer. "I'm not seeing him."

Spencer frowned. "You're sure?"

They nodded. "Anderson is a wizard with a capital W. He puts out more ARad than an orgy. I'm hardly seeing a blip."

Davis chimed in over the radio from her position on the opposite side of Prometheus Plaza. "Same here. There's a few Blues in the building, but minor talents only."

Thorne opened their eyes and looked over at Spencer. "So what's the call? We can't wait for him forever, people will start to notice this many battlemages hanging around."

Spencer rolled his shoulders in a stretch. "Kick over the hornet's nest and see what comes out."

He stepped forwards and raised a megaphone to his mouth. "Mister Anderson!"

The sound reverberated across the Plaza, which quickly fell into silence. They had an audience now.

"This is Special Agent Kenneth Spencer of the Unusual Incidents Unit," he continued, ignoring the growing crowd. "I have a warrant for your arrest for seditious conspiracy against the United States, and twenty battlemages raring to execute it. This is your only chance to surrender peacefully. Any resistance will be met by lethal force. If you do not come out of the building within sixty seconds, I will send my wizards in to drag you out, and they will disassemble your tin soldiers with the kind of methodical brutality the LAPD can only dream of."

A murmur rippled through the crowd. The UIU was moving against Anderson? The Feds were finally doing it?

"Nice," Thorne whispered. "Way to look like the good guy, Ken."

"Fifty seconds!" Spencer shouted. He raised a hand to cover the mouth of the megaphone and turned to address Thorne. "We are the good guys. That doesn't mean we have to be nice."

He turned back towards the building and spoke into the megaphone again. "Forty seconds! Do not test my patience, Mister Anderson."

Thorne shook their head. "He's not in there."

"We'll see. Thirty seconds!"

The lobby doors swung open and a figure started to approach, hands raised half-heartedly to just below shoulder level. "What is the meaning of this?"

Spencer studied the man. "Mister Dillard. If you tell me where Anderson is right now, I won't have to tear your building apart looking for him."

The executive looked at him with contempt. "As much as I would love to lie to you, Mister Spencer, I genuinely have no idea. Mister Anderson has taken a sudden leave of absence. I don't know when he'll be back."

Spencer nodded, then spoke into his radio. "Davis, move in and search the building. Start with his office. If anyone gives you trouble, arrest them. Destroy any robots that try to stop you."

He looked back up at Isaac. "What about Mister Frostman? Where is he?"

Isaac Dillard scowled. "He and Anderson had a falling out. I haven't seen him in almost two months."

"Doctor Contos?"

"Neither her nor her son have shown up to work all week."

Spencer crossed his arms. "Mister Dillard, do you know where any of your company's officers currently are?"

"Of course. Myself and Doctor Wilson are both here today."

"And of course, neither of you will know anything about Anderson's efforts to infiltrate the United States Congress with Sakers, would you?"

"I beg your pardon?" Isaac actually had the decency to look surprised.

"That's what I thought." Spencer turned to speak into his radio again. "Talk to me, Davis."

"Give me a bit. They're not resisting, but they sure as hell aren't cooperating either. Gonna take a while to find his office without directions."

"Robots don't have civil rights. Get creative."

Isaac sputtered. "That's company property! You can't—"

"Mister Dillard, the head of your company has committed treason against the United States. Your company property is military-grade weapons systems." Spencer narrowed his eyes. "Give me a reason why I shouldn't have my team destroy all your robots as terrorist devices."

The businessman clenched his fists. "Second floor. Corewards corner. That's where his office is."

"Thank you. Davis, did you get that?"

"Copy that." Several seconds of silence ticked by. "Alright, we're in his office. Going over the computer systems right now. I'm having Fintan copy everything, but I don't know how much good it'll do us — it's all encrypted, and I'd wager only Anderson has the passwords."

Spencer looked at Isaac and raised an eyebrow. "Well?"

"She's right. None of us had access to his personal system."

"Keep copying it anyways, Davis. Maybe the lab techs will be able to crack it."

"Got it. Do you want us to grab the general company records too?"

Still keeping his eyes on Isaac, Spencer said, "No. We'll come back with another warrant for those. I doubt we'll find anything in them though. Anderson's smart enough to keep this kind of thing off the company books."

"Understood."

Spencer clicked off the radio and turned his full attention to Isaac. "Mister Dillard, if you see Anderson, if he contacts you, if you learn anything about his whereabouts — you are required by law to report it. If you don't, you will be considered an accomplice. Do you understand?"

The other man sneered. "I understand that I've done nothing wrong, and you have no further reason to be here. Take what you came for from Anderson's office, and then get out of my building. Don't come back without another warrant."

Spencer watched, quietly seething, as the current highest ranking executive of Anderson Robotics walked away.

"Son of a bitch," he whispered.

"Maybe we'll turn something up when we search his house," Thorne said. "It's not over yet."

"Yes it is." Spencer whirled around and kicked the nearest trash can in anger. "He's gone, in the wind. Odds are, we'll never see him again. We lost."

Thorne nodded glumly, wishing they could disagree. But they were starting to realize what it must feel like to be Sasha Merlo.


November 15th, 2018
A Burning Building in Three Portlands

"It's Frostman," Thorne said.

"Shit."

Spencer stared at the burnt out remains of what had been the residence of Albert Frostman, also known as Phineas. The UIU agents had arrived on the scene shortly after the police golems and fire crew, just in time to get the confirmation that Phineas had been found dead inside his destroyed home.

"3PPD has a witness that says they saw Anderson leaving the scene just after the fire started. Looks like Dillard was telling the truth about the two of them falling out."

"Figures. If you know you're going down for treason, why not add a little arson and murder one?" Spencer shook his head. "This is spiraling out of control."

"Hey, at least we know he's still in the city."

"For how much longer?" He shook his head again. "Did the witness see which way he was going? We should at least try to do a dragnet in that direction, maybe we'll get lucky."

"Outwards along Wavering Boulevard, towards the Periphery."

Spencer nodded. "Alright, we'll start our search near—"

He was cut off by the squawk of the police band radio. "All points, major disturbance at the abandoned Tristan Academy near Wavering Boulevard and Boring Street. Multiple reports of gunfire, evocation backlash. Sounds like a wizard duel. Immediate response requested."

Thorne and Spencer looked at each other.

"Anderson," Spencer said.

"It's gotta be," Thorne said.

Spencer grabbed his radio. "All points, this is Special Agent Spencer. Disturbance is likely suspect Vincent Anderson. Suspect is highly dangerous, do not engage without backup. Myself and Agent Thorne are en route. Get MOOT on the ground ASAP, with whatever support 3PPD can give them. Repeat, do not engage without battlemages."

He stopped transmitting and looked over at Thorne. "Let's get him."

Thorne didn't reply. They were already running down Wavering Boulevard as fast as they could.


November 15th, 2018
Tristan Academy, Three Portlands

They were too late.

They had missed him by mere minutes — shell casings were cooling on the floors, and residual backlash was still crackling through the air — but they had still missed him.

Thorne moved through the building methodically, automatically taking in the crime scene with the detached movements of well-practiced habit. The decrepit school had been the scene of serious violence, and lots of it, but whoever was responsible had taken steps to destroy the useful evidence — and they had been thorough and effective, despite the obvious rush.

Blood was pooled and splattered across multiple surfaces, but it had all been flash-dried by rapid application of extreme heat, destroying both the DNA markers and the contagion links that it might have yielded. Empty shotgun cartridges and spent pistol casings were scattered across the floors, still stinking of cordite, but there were so many of them that it was clear someone had dumped several bags of pre-fired rounds collected from elsewhere to frustrate any ballistic analysis.

Of course, that was only the immediately obvious evidence available from cursory examination. It was possible — maybe even likely, considering the window of time — that a more thorough forensic examination would turn up something the cleaners had missed. But Thorne doubted it. Whoever had been here and done this, they were clearly professionals.

Jesse Davis whistled appreciatively. "Damn. Looks like Andy really pissed someone off."

"Yeah, but who?" Spencer picked up one of the brass casings and weighed it in a gloved hand. "And who won?"

"Internal power struggle? Maybe Frostman made a hostile takeover attempt?"

"And what, Anderson puts him down hard and then comes here? Why?"

"Sakers loyal to Frostman? They're dangerous enough to cause this much damage."

Spencer crouched down next to a puddle of dried blood, then shook his head. "Too much blood for Sakers. And I'd think Anderson would have a backdoor to deal with his own robots."

"Human mercenaries then? Prototype combat drones that Frostman developed in secret?" Davis waved her hand above a line of blood baked onto the wall. "Maybe the blood's a plant too, like the shells."

Thorne was only half-listening to the other agents as they wandered into the auditorium, attention captured by the faint remains of a chalk circle drawn on the stage. They climbed up onto the platform, then took a few steps back to study the entire thing.

The ritual geometry was elaborate, more elaborate than anything Thorne had ever seen outside of theoretical research. It was also idiosyncratic — there were clear influences and elements from academic thaumatology, and they could even decipher some of the symbolism, but most of it was clearly in the personal grammar of a specific thaumaturge. A very experienced thaumaturge, who had clearly studied a wide multitude of esoteric schools of occultism.

They closed their eyes to Observe. Whatever the working had been, there was still backlash rebounding through the area — significant backlash, the kind that caused noticeable cracks in reality, not the residual microbacklash that could linger for months after just opening a Way.

Thorne had barely been watching for a minute before they saw a flash of EVE that caused a 1:24 scale model of a yellow Citroën DS to materialize on stage a few feet away. That had to be at least a couple kilocaspers, probably more. That suggested that the ritual had involved a staggering amount of power. Or that whoever had done it hadn't fully grasped the geometry involved, and hadn't been able to control all the backlash.

"Can you reconstruct a rebound?" Thorne whispered to the familiar perched on their shoulder.

The illusion of a bird chirped an affirmative.

"Good. I want to know what the initial ARad flash looked like. It might tell us something."

Crowe twittered curiously. Did Thorne want a mental projection of the reconstructed working?

They nodded. "Yeah, visualize it. In fact, combine our Observations, so we have it in stereo. Two angles might give us more to work with."

The familiar chirped again, then flew up to the rafters to get a different viewing angle.

Then they waited for the next flash of backlash.

It came, fifty-six seconds later. Thorne saw it for the briefest of moments, and then their senses went dark — even the occult sense of Observation. There was the sensation of an ice cold finger running down their spine, the piercing sound of a train whistle, and then they were watching Crowe's thaumic reconstruction of the scene, presented directly inside their head.

Thorne could see the faint outlines of the physical room, traced by interactions with the background aura. Then the most recent burst of backlash flashed into view, throwing everything into sharp relief and highlighting two specks of brilliant blue — Thorne's aura, and Crowe's, reconstructed from the imprint left on the background aura. The room started to fade back out as Crowe continued to rewind, only to be illuminated again by the next backlash wave.

Crowe kept working backwards, using each burst of backlash to reconstruct the one before, and then from that decoding the instantaneous state of the room at that moment. The rebound calculations were only accurate as a lower order of approximation, and the resolution of the reconstruction got fuzzier as the familiar went further back, but it would be good enough to tell how many people had been in the room when the working had been triggered. It might even give Thorne a clear enough picture of their auras to identify them later.

After three minutes — three minutes of direct contact with the familiar's alien mind, which was producing a rapidly worsening headache — Crowe finally reconstructed the initial flash of EVE, and with it, an aetheric image of the room at the precise moment of whatever incident had occurred.

There were three people on the stage, two of them Type Blues. The brightest aura was clearly Anderson's, which would have been recognizable from magnitude alone. It was spiked with the most vibrant stripes of anger Thorne had ever seen in an aura, so potent that they almost took a step back, even though the scene was entirely in their own mind.

The second wizard had a fainter aura, although it was still fairly bright — enough that Thorne was willing to classify him as a battlemage, albeit a weaker one. There were deep pits of pain in the aura, frosted over with an icy sense of determination. Whoever it was, he had been casting one of the most complex workings Thorne had ever seen while under incredible stress. They couldn't help but feel some admiration for the unknown wizard who had stood up to Anderson.

The third aura belonged to Sasha Merlo.

"Robin!"

Thorne opened their eyes, dispelling Crowe's visualization. Spencer was staring at them with concern.

"You okay? You were totally out of it."

They nodded, wincing slightly as the motion aggravated their headache. "Yeah. Yeah. Was just doing some math magic."

"Did you get anything out of it?"

Thorne looked at the spot where Merlo had been standing.

They shook their head. "No. Nothing useful. It's another dead end."


November 19th, 2018
Outside Site-64, Oregon

Agent Sasha Merlo really should have been paying more attention. Site-64's location was classified, but that didn't mean it wasn't known to her enemies — both personal and professional. Anderson himself had even breached the Site once — although he was going to have a hard time doing it again, now that he was inside one of its holding cells. The defeat and capture of her nemesis, after all these years, made her overconfident. So, for the first — and last — time in years, Sasha Merlo walked through the forest trail connecting the Site's hidden entrance to the surface parking lot without looking over her shoulder.

Naturally, that was the night someone chose to ambush her.

Merlo was maybe a hundred yards from her car, right in the middle of the coverage gap between the Site's security monitors and the cameras in the parking lot, when the figure stepped out of the shadows in front of her.

"Sasha. We need to talk."

Merlo's hand had already dropped to her sidearm and she was halfway through the process of drawing it before she recognized the voice. Re-holstering the gun as nonchalantly as she could, she stepped closer to peer at the federal agent.

"Thorne? What are you doing here?"

Thorne stared at her, face betraying no emotion. "At least tell me you got him."

"What?"

"Anderson. Or do you want to try feeding me some bullshit to explain why he was having a wizard duel with Daniel Navarro in the Tristan Academy?"

Merlo's mind raced. Had they missed a piece of evidence in their haste to evacuate with their prize? If the UIU learned that they had violated the Hoover Mandate, and so blatantly, there was no telling how the American government would react — there might be a MOOT deployment hitting Site-64 at that moment to take Anderson into custody and arrest the senior staff.

"Who else knows?"

Thorne's hand darted into their suit jacket, reaching for a weapon, and the defensive charms on their wrists began to glow faintly. "Don't even think about it."

She took a step back. "What— God, Thorne, that's not— It's me. I'm not going to try and silence you. For one thing, I don't have anyone to help bury the body." She laughed, nervous and half-heartedly, but the federal wizard didn't even crack a smile at her attempt at levity.

"Just tell me that you got him," Thorne said. Their hand hadn't left their jacket.

Merlo nodded, unease growing. "We got him."

"What did it cost?"

"Too much. We lost a lot of people. Navarro lost a hand. Shaw won't walk again." She sighed and looked down. "Don't ask me if it was worth it."

Thorne was already shaking their head. "It cost you more than that, Merlo. We had him — I had the arrest warrant in my hands. We missed him by a matter of hours — hours that we wouldn't have lost if you and Holman hadn't given us the runaround. With his arrest, we would have been able to shut down his entire company. Instead, the board has assumed control, we don't have enough to implicate any of them, and we're right back to square one. Plus a bunch of murders and arson that probably could have been avoided."

They took a step back and threw out their arms, gesturing to the world at large. When they spoke again, there was true venom in their voice. "But hey, at least you got him. The great Sasha Merlo finally got her white whale, all by herself, and that's all that matters, right?"

Merlo flinched, taken aback by Thorne's anger. The rebuke, coming from them, felt like a slap across the face. "What the hell is your problem?"

"You!" Thorne pointed directly at her and stepped forwards until their finger was a mere inch from Merlo's face.

"You lied to me, manipulated me. You invoked my dead mother's name to get me to help you with your personal vendetta! Spencer warned me not to trust you, but I kept sticking my neck out for you, kept trying to defend you. I broke the law. I lied to my partner. I jumped off a fucking building for you! And then you went behind my back just so you could score a pyrrhic victory."

"I didn't— that wasn't—"

"Was it worth it?"

"Thorne—"

"Was it worth it, Sasha?"

"I don't know." She took a breath, and when she next spoke, her voice had hardened into steel. "But I do know that Vincent Anderson is one of the most dangerous men on the planet, a sociopathic genius who doesn't give a damn about the laws of man or nature, who can't be allowed to walk free. For god's sake, he tried to take over the US government with robots!"

She took a step forwards, leaving her toe to toe with the federal agent. "So don't give me that self-righteous bullshit, you're too smart for that. You know he had to be stopped, by whatever means, or else you wouldn't have helped me before. I'm sorry if I got in the way of your operation, but your Unit spent the better part of the last decade doing the same to me — can you honestly tell me that you wouldn't have done what I did, if you were in my position?"

She stared at Thorne defiantly, daring them to deny it.

Thorne met her stare. "Well. I guess that's it then."

"I guess it is."

Thorne turned away, gazing into the shadows of the forest that surrounded them. "I'll tell Spencer that you captured Anderson while he was attempting to flee Three Portlands, after a battle with Albert Frostman for control of the company. That will let us close the case file."

"Thank you."

Thorne shook their head. "I'm not doing it for you. After this, we're done — I'm not covering for you again. If we catch you operating in Three Portlands, I'll arrest you myself."

"You won't."

They glanced back at Merlo. "Is that a promise?"

She opened her mouth to reply, then shook her head. "I wish I could say I was sorry."

"Yeah. Me too." Thorne stepped off the trail, then stopped. Without looking back, they said one last farewell.

"So long, Skipper."

And then Sasha Merlo was alone.

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