Not-So-Lucky Triple Sevens
rating: +11+x

"I'm telling you", said Vulture. "GOC rations almost saved my life once."

Wheels rolled her eyes. The other operatives ate and listened.

Vulture continued, "So, my old team's in the Urals, tracking down these proto-Sarkic nutters. Big CK reality shift from this artifact they're making. Doesn't get us, but gets our cache of spare supplies. We exfil on foot, grab our stuff, and the first bite of an MRE entree, we spit out, it's all pillbugs. Tiny ground pieces of pillbugs, barely visible. If the MREs weren't designed this way, we would have eaten it. They were that small!"

"But then you ate them anyway," said Generous. "And that's why they call you Vulture."

"And that's why they call me Vulture," exclaimed Vulture. The Arab woman jabbed a finger wrapped around a half-empty MRE. Her full mouth did not seem to impede her speech.

Around the circle of four GOC operatives, a purple-blue sunset sky kissed distant, gray mountains. The plains of Sonora, Mexico stretched out with light sandy soil and gray-green shrubs. In the distance, some distant bird of prey shrilled, perhaps in triumph, perhaps in dismay.

Vulture said, "But think about it. We determined the bugs were not poisonous or anomalous, and it was our only food at this point. It was two and a half days' climb back to extraction. What would you have done?" Vulture asked the three other operatives.

"Go hungry."

"Go hungry."

"Yup."

Vulture sneered, unbefitting her ladylike appearance. "Well, nothing came of it. It was the right call. But still, I've been Vulture ever since. How about you? Did you guys have old call-signs?"

"Something like that." said Generous. She put a hand to her round, tan features. "Well, it's a good question. As the leader, I'll start. Before the GOC, they nicknamed me ‘Tigress’ because I developed this way to leap onto hostiles with a knife. Dropped them on the spot, nice and quiet. Of course, that was when I was young and limber. I try it now, and I just crush people- far less effective."

She said it without shame, and no one dared tease the short, muscular woman for it.

"Alright. Wheels? You wanna go?" asked Generous.

In response, the lithe, dark-skinned woman brushed a hand along her short curly hair. "I uh… okay, well, you guys are going to laugh … but in Eurtec, I was 'Squeaky'."

"Squeaky," said Vulture.

"Yeah. Because I complained so much." said Wheels.

"Gee, I can't see why. ‘Wheels’ is somehow worse, though." said Vulture.

Wheels waved an MRE pastry, threatening to send errant crumbs everywhere. "Look, they put those fucking car toys there on purpose! I was operating on two hours of sleep!"

"Ha!" said Noface. The young, reedy man leaned forward. "Wow, 'Squeaky'! I was LEN in the Serpent's Hand. Short for Little Eater of Names, for the same reason you all call me Noface. The 'Little' is because the real Eater of Names wouldn't like it otherwise."

"I see. I might as well share an embarrassing secret so Wheels doesn't get Squeaky on us." deadpanned Generous. "See, there's a bar-friendly origin story for every unflattering call-sign. That's what I told you guys."

"That you're 'Generous' because you waste ammo?" asked Wheels.

"Have you seen me ever waste a bullet?" said Generous.

"No…" said Wheels.

"My first team named me Generous… for my chest," said Generous.

Noface turned red and tore his eyes away from Generous's face and upper body. Vulture laughed.

Wheels stuttered, "Wait, what!?"

"The GOC was a lot less enlightened in the early 2000s. I punched someone over it. Then I got a reduction. I'm contrary like that." said Generous.

"It could be worse, my old team's first try was 'Porky'," said Vulture.

"'Porky'?" asked Wheels.

"Ex-Muslim," said Vulture. "Our CO told them 'fuck no', so they went with Vulture."

"I still think we should have gone with 'Serpentor' for Noface," said Wheels.

Vulture grunted out her enthusiasm.

"I still think 'Cobra Commander' would have been funnier. But no, Region Command has that policy against call-signs too indicative of background. So Noface was for the best." said Generous.

"For the best." sighed Noface. "I left the Serpent's Hand behind me. For good. I hope."

"So, this parathreat," said Wheels. "When are we finally going in?"

"Never, I hope," said Generous. "We have another night. Maybe our parathreat will show its true face soon. Noface, you did say 72 hours is thaumaturgically significant?"

"Yeah. Three days show up the most often in rituals. It's rarely two, four or five, or even a week. Always three, for some reason."

"Well, there you have it. GOC SOP and thaumaturgy agree. Three days to see if the parathreat does something interesting before we go in." said Generous.

"Yeah, ugh. I hope this is a false alarm. We haven't seen anyone inside. Even through drone footage. I'm not exactly excited to walk into something that makes people disappear." said Noface.

"It's not a false alarm," said Generous. "Satellite intel is clear on this. Twelve locals went in and never came out. Then their homes got haunted, for lack of a better word."

She gestured to a shack on the horizon. It appeared as if someone scaled up a mortarboard hat, turned it into wood, and called it a house.

"This is why the GOC hates structural parathreats", said Vulture. "They're dangerous as hell. Half the time it's not even the building itself, but the location, so there's not much we can do."

"I've been to a dozen controlled demolitions back in Strike. Very boring. Plant disintegration charges, go over a big-ass checklist, wait until it's over." said Generous. "Not satisfying like shooting Bixbies into spaghetti, or sharing 40 mm with anomalous wildlife."

"The worst is when we have to tip off the Foundation and let them wrap it up. Hate to say it, but they're best suited for this kind of thing," complained Vulture.

"Agreed," said Generous. "Just like they like to ring us up in case of a Large Scale Aggressor."

"Oh man, I got to see a UHEC in action once!" blurted Vulture. "Like watching gods fight!"

"Three times, for me. It is intense beyond intense," said Generous. She pointed with an empty MRE wrapper at Wheels and Noface. "You kids are missing out."

"Yeah, I'm going to pass on anything crazy enough to warrant a giant mech," said Wheels.

"Yep." agreed Noface. "So… should I run Field Ritual B9-73 again?"

Generous's eyes swept the three operatives, noting they long since finished eating. "Good idea. Dinner's over, let's get in some more scans, then a good night's sleep before we head in."


Generous woke up to find herself standing up, rifle ready.

Her sudden movement startled the skinny rookie whose voice woke her.

"Ah! Geez!" gasped Noface.

"What's the situation?" Generous demanded.

"Vulture's missing!" he whispered.

Generous nudged Wheels with her foot. Wheels crawled up to attention with less grace and more groaning than Generous.

"Wha- what is it?", mumbled Wheels.

"Vulture's missing. Check the sensor array. Noface, what did you see?" said Generous.

"Nothing! Normal night, nothing moved. Suddenly, I look over you guys, and Vulture's just… gone! I tried calling her, nothing." said Noface.

"Did you look in IR? UV? VERITAS?" asked Generous.

"Yeah! Couldn't find her," exclaimed Noface.

Generous scanned the Mexican chaparral and saw nothing but shrubs and stars. "First step, Noface, secure the perimeter. Cover my back while we talk. Composite vision mode, just in case. Wheels, report what you got."

"Still sifting through history", said Wheels, eyes deep on the HUD in her helmet. "Not even minor events. No motion sensors tripped, no unexpected light changes, all sound levels within expected. Vulture's life sensors are on and still in tac-net radius."

"Is this how the parathreat makes people disappear!?" asked Noface. The skinny mage swiveled his gaze around. "It makes no sense! Vulture's got the highest cognitive resistance score of us! It couldn't have compelled her to walk away!"

"If she walked away, the motion sensors would have gone off. Look for signs of a CK reality shift. Or other terrain alteration." said Generous. "Wheels, eyes on the parathreat structure. You see anything weird, we have to know."

"It still looks like a run-down shitty shack," said Wheels.

"It's disappeared thirteen people now," hissed Generous. "I do not want to give it more! Eyes forward and wide open."

"Roger, wilco," muttered Wheels. The three operatives began to walk to their fallback point, rifles ready. They covered each other's movements and backs. Their footsteps made almost no sound even in the dry scrubland soil. A chill wind murmured as if to warn of danger ahead.

"I have a theory," said Wheels.

"Shoot", said Generous.

"Parathreat may have carried her up and off, motion sensors are only reliable up to 8 meters' radius."

"Damn it. Hadn't thought of an aerial perimeter. She could be anywhere by now." grunted Generous.

"Are we sure there wasn't a CK?" asked Noface.

"She's alive and around here. We can deal with any other implications later. Okay, we're at a secure spot." said Generous. "Keep covering me."

The other two operatives nodded, presenting their weapons to the cold night air.

Generous's eyes made the gestures on her HUD to open her radio.

"Control, this is Assessment Team 777 'Fingertip'," said Generous. "Fingertip 1 speaking, Fingertip 2 MIA, unknown cause. Do you read me?"

Silence. The side of her screen descended into noiseless static.

Generous continued, "Control, this is Fingertip 1. I say again, Fingertip 2 MIA. Please respond."

Silence.

"Control, please respond." Generous sighed. "Fingertip 1 to Fingertip 2… Vulture. This is Generous. Are you there? Respond."

Silence.

"Vulture, this is Generous, please talk to us. Are you alright?"

She finished waiting and turned to her team. "Signal's perfect, Control's not responding, neither is Vulture. Looks like it's up to us."

She reached out to empty air and tore off a piece of the night sky. The fabric in her hands reflected and distorted the light around it. A close-topped, armored jeep now stood where it had been.

"The drone didn't see anything if that's what you're thinking," said Wheels.

Generous reached into the jeep. Noface and Wheels backed up behind her, guns outward.

"Not last time," said Generous. "We'll try again. I am not stepping in a haunted house blind." She took a basketball-sized quadcopter from the jeep into her backpack. She moved to help Wheels cover their position. "Noface, get the rest of your thaumaturgic supplies. Everything. We aren't going back."

Noface nodded and turned to the jeep to retrieve a large dark gray assault bag. He took Generous's place on guard as she moved back to the vehicle.

"My turn again. I'm getting the laser designator," said Generous.

"What? What for?" asked Noface.

"You know what happened to 'Clover', the previous Assessment Team 777?" said Generous.

"Uh…" said Wheels.

"Do I want to know?" moaned Noface.

"They got wiped inside a parathreat that duplicates rooms," said Generous. "Called in a fuel-air bomb at their location, died gloriously. The least we can do if we fail is take the anomaly with us."

"That's a little much. Does it even work indoors?" said Noface.

"Oh, I know firsthand: like a charm," said Generous.

"Firstha-" sputtered Wheels. "Ugh fine. You and your hard-on for the Fivefold Mission."

"But we can't raise Control." Noface pointed out.

"We can at least tell GOC spy sats where we died. The bomb will come after that," said Generous.

Noface shuddered.

"What a lovely thought." murmured Wheels. "Anything else to grab before we charge into hell?"

"I'm good," said Generous. She checked her rifle and let its bolt snap shut.

"Yeah, me too," said Noface. He slipped a ritual knife into his sleeve.

"Alright. Let's go find Vulture," said Wheels.


The shack looked exactly as non-threatening as before.

"VERITAS still shows the parathreat as transparent. No life signs inside" said Wheels. "Still looks the same in IR, not enough UV at night to see anything."

"What are you doing with the designator?" Noface asked Generous.

"Sending a message to the spy sats in Morse," said Generous. She clicked the flashlight-like device on and off in staccato. "I'm hoping this will get their attention. Wheels, send in the drone."

"Way ahead of you, it's going in," said Wheels.

The quadcopter buzzed through the dry, dark air and the shack's open window.

"Yeah, nothing. Still empty of anyone. Only one room, flooring, and furniture." said Wheels.

"Alright, let's head in. Keep the drone going." said Generous.

They kicked open the door and surged in. The interior looked the same as the drone's view: dusty, wooden, and unpainted. The quadcopter hovered in place as if to say "I told you so".

"Damn," said Generous. "Look for hidden compartments or tunnels. Every cabinet, every floorboard. 'Nitohaz filters up, composite vision."

"Roger, Gen." the two junior operatives chorused. The team got to work inspecting the shack's crude construction and beaten-down furnishings.

Generous said, "Noface when this is over I want a ritual B-72 for dimensiona- uhhhh, what the fu-"

The three operatives found themselves standing on familiar grounds. Trimmed, low bushes lined the sidewalk. Outlines of austere military buildings blocked out small parts of the starry sky. Orderly rows of bollards and trees bracketed the roads.

"Huh. This looks like… " said Wheels.

"Stay alert. GPS says… huh. We're actually in Fort Sinker, Nebraska. Right outside the barracks. Yeah, we were sleeping here five days ago." said Generous. She gestured at the familiar building they stood outside.

"Might be a CK shift," said Noface.

"Maybe we teleported," suggested Wheels.

"Control? Control, please respond," said Generous. "Still nothing. Stay alert, this might be a dimensional shift."

An alarm blared.

"Oh fuck!" said Wheels. "Base security must have picked up our sudden appearance!"

"Double-check your IFF!" said Generous. She checked her HUD to confirm she was marked "Friendly" on any GOC tactical network.

"What if they're unfriendly?" said Noface.

"Then we're going to die anyway. We aren't evading base security, even on a good night," said Generous.

An armored car's headlights shone over the road and overwhelmed their night vision.

"We surrender! Friendlies! Do not shoot!" yelled Noface, laying down his rifle and putting his hands on his head. Generous and Vulture followed his lead. "Assessment Team 777 Fingertip! Do not shoot! We were suddenly brought here when-"

When their eyes and HUDs adjusted, the car seemed to be empty. Light beams with no source started sweeping across the three operatives' vision. They stood there in silence.

"What the heck? It pulled up. Who's driving it?" asked Wheels.

"Maybe this is a dimension where Fort Sinker has self-driving cars?" replied Noface.

"Whoa," said Wheels as she stumbled. "I think something pushed me."

"Where are those lights coming from?" mused Generous. The light beams swirled around as if confused.

"Hm… well, stay where we are. We don't want to alarm base security with sudden mov-" Something made Generous lose her balance.

"Yeah, still nothing in VERITAS or IR. UV's at night is a lost cause, but… no, still nothing," said Wheels.

"I'm trying too. Still nothing." said Generous.

"Maybe a field ritual? I know a few that can tell us which dimension we're in," said Noface.

"No ritual, we'll set off even more alarms…. wait a second… I think I know what's going on!" exclaimed Generous.


GOC base security searched for unseen intruders, sweeping with their tactical lights.

Sergeant Eber said, "Teleportation alarms picked up something here. Three human-sized masses. They say it hasn't moved, but… be careful."

Private Gognitti seemed to jolt. "Whoa I think something pushed me!" she yelled.

The alarmed soldiers pointed their rifles near the shouting woman.

"Not seeing anything," said Private Greenberg.

"Get your goggles on, switch to composite vision, it might be invisible," said Sergeant Eber.

"Roger that….still nothing."

"Let's get Sec Three and Sec One on the horn ASAP. Form a perimeter, I don't want it backtracking to us."


"Control, I lost the rest of my team on tac-net! Noface, Gen, Wheels, they just… disappeared!" yelled Vulture. She tromped around the Mexican plains where she had seen her team last.

"Damn it. Fingertip 2, do you have visuals on the parathreat?" replied Mission Control over the radio.

The frustrated, sweaty operative tilted her head at the parathreat.

"Door is open. I don’t know when, I swear it was closed ten seconds ago and I was looking at it the whole time," said Vulture.

"Fingertip 2, do you see any signs of a CK shift or thaumaturgy?" asked Control.

"VERITAS is still dead quiet, no EVE flare-ups anywhere," said Vulture. "Should I enter the parathreat structure?"

"Fingertip 2… we have… negatory. Do not proceed. Fingertip 2, stand by for further instructions."

Vulture grunted and kicked a rock as hard as she could. She busied herself looking for clues and wondering what the hell happened.


"I think I got something solid!" said Noface. He held onto something that felt like empty air, but his fingers resisted closing all the way. The other operatives stopped their attempts to grab at thin air and turned to look at him.


"Hey! I can't… move my arm," said Private Greenberg, struggling against an unseen, unfelt grip. Only the other base guards heard him.

The others grunted in alarm and pointed their searchlights in Noface's direction.

"You know what? Prep less-lethals, I want to try something," said Sergeant Eber.


Noface felt his vision explode and he fell to the floor twitching.

Generous kneeled to inspect her spasming teammate. "Yeah, that looks like a bog-standard Class C Electrosubmissive."

"Oh my God, Noface!" said Wheels. She rushed to their downed comrade.

"Don't touch him, you'll get zapped too," said Generous. She stood up to restrain Wheels. "Remember, it's a lot safer than a civilian Taser. He'll act like it never happened in a couple of minutes. We've confirmed we're dealing with people we can't perceive in any way. I know what to do."


"Okay, that stopped whatever was grabbing you. Probably antimemetics, to keep us from noticing it. Way beyond our pay grade. All units, fall back." said Sergeant Eber. The graying, mustached soldier put his hand to his headset and followed his soldiers' retreat.

He said, "Sec Two to HQ, do you copy? Our intruder is antimemetic. I recommend we pull automated defenses in, make the perimeter airtight. How do we know? Took a blind shot with a Class C E-sub. The munition disappeared into thin air but halted the anomalous activity…. Roger that, Sec Two out."


"Ahhh!" said Noface. He stretched like a cat. "Best sleep I had in months. What happened?"

"You got tased," said Wheels. She busied herself writing on a notepad.

"Tased?!" yelled Noface.

"Class C E-sub."

"Oh. Huh, it's rather pleasant."

"Do it enough and you get memory problems. Don't get ideas." said Generous. "Okay, we're good to go?"

"Yeah. That should do it," said Wheels. She put down the paper.

"What are you guys doing?" asked Noface.

"Staying clear. Come on, let's move away from the jumpy base guards," said Generous. She watched the jeep, as if of its own accord, back up and drive away. "They're pulling out, which means we'll see reinforcements soon. MOVE IT, Noface!"

"Okay okay!" said Noface, pulling himself off the ground.


"Well, I'll be damned," said Sergeant Eber. He scanned the perimeter. His men pointed rifles in the general direction of the threat.

"Sir?" said the soldier next to him.

"HQ says drone scanners pick up three… friendlies. Right over there," said Eber. He pointed at thin air not far from their position.

"Friendlies, sir."

"Yep. But they don't show up on the drone visuals either."

"Well, that explains a lot. Should we worry, sir?"

"Just in case, let's- wait, do you see that? On the ground right there?"

"It's GOC field stationary, sir."

"Yes well, I can fucking see that, private! Move up and read it for me! All units, stay alert."

"Yes sir… It reads, 'We are friendlies, GOC Assessment Team 777 on an operation to Sonora, Mexico. We were transported here upon entering a parathreat structure. We are from dimension 2719-C.' "

Sergeant Eber growled, "Yeah, definitely beyond our pay grade. HQ, are you getting this?… Oh, that's our dimension? Thank fuck! Should we stand down?" He paused. "Roger that."

Eber turned to his soldiers. "Looks like this is a problem for specialists now. Keep a perimeter up, keep up the drones going, let's be sure our guests don't wander off."


Two days later

All Miguel Rodriguez knew for sure was that his throat hurt from shouting. One house after another was empty. Row after row, street after street, not a single human being.

House lights went on and off. Cars vanished and appeared in driveways when he looked away. Yet he had not seen another moving creature anywhere. No amount of shouting or wailing produced any response. On the phone, in houses, anywhere. The wayward environmental inspector wasn't sure where the hell he was. Ever since he had stepped foot in that stupid shack in the desert. Was this a dream? It was far too long to be a dream. He forced himself to walk through abandoned Mexican suburbs. He couldn't contemplate giving up the search for his wife and three boys. But his feet hurt, his throat hurt… he didn't know if his body would let him continue.

After so many weeks of silence, he startled and spun around when he heard voices. He rushed into the strange soldiers' arms, heedless to whether they meant to harm him. He figured either would end his nightmare.

The American woman in strange gray military armor gently pushed him away. "Hello, I believe we are looking for you. What is your name?" she said in halting Spanish.

"I'm… I'm Miguel Rodriguez. Thank God you're here! Everyone's vanished!" he replied in a hoarse voice. "You are the first person I've seen! Thank God! What the hell happened here!? Are you from the government?" He fought the urge to sob in her arms.

Wheels stammered at the rapid barrage of Spanish. She listened to a translation from her headset and cautiously addressed each of his questions.

The two other operatives hung back while Wheels handled the civilian.

"You don't speak Spanish, Gen?" asked Noface.

"Heck no," she replied.

"But you're from-" objected Noface.

"Brazil. Where we don't speak Spanish."

"No, I mean, you said you used to work on Brazil's borders. Surely you used a little Spanish?"

"I know some very simple basics. 'May I use your phone?', 'Where is the nearest town?', 'One step closer and I'll blow your fucking head off!'"

"That's a basic phrase?!" asked Noface.

"In our line of work? You better memorize and practice it," replied Generous.

Vulture interrupted over their comms. Her voice sounded distant and garbled over special memetic filters, but at least they could hear her now.

"She's right, " said Vulture's voice. "Any country, any language, that's going to be in your top ten."

"Unbelievable," said Noface.

"Less believable than an antimemetic effect that keeps you from perceiving anyone else? And vice versa," said Vulture.

"I can't say that, no. Which civilian are we even on?" said Noface.

"This guy would be the tenth of twelve. Well, the fourth we've found alive." replied Generous.

"Poor bastards."

"Yeah, this guy's lucky he didn't wander into traffic that he can't see."

"We're lucky we didn't do that," said Noface.

Generous pointed to a drone hovering over them.

"We have a bit of help. Anyways, once we get the civilians accounted for and amnesticized, then PTOLEMY will get us fixed up."

Noface sighed. "Yeah. I dunno, I'm just glad we lived through this. I want to see the parathreat blown up though."

"So do I," said Generous.

"Alright, exfil in five!" Wheels shouted to them and gave a thumbs up. Miguel sobbed in relief on her shoulder.

“Not too bad for a first mission,” said Noface.

“Could have been a lot worse,” agreed Generous.

“Can’t wait to see you guys again!” said Vulture’s voice.

The operatives chuckled softly and waited for pickup.

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