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2021


January 2

Site-54: Leipzig, Free State of Saxony, Federal Republic of Germany


Imogen Tarrow, Director of Site-54, was not German.

She had always imagined that the job carried that unwritten requirement. A German might object to the very existence of a Foundation facility beneath a city of over six hundred thousand people, and Site-54 was more dangerous than most. A German might have sentimental attachments to the locals, which would make the draconian security measures required to obscure the place's existence more difficult. Most of all, however, a German might feel even more keenly the active snubbing bestowed on the Director of this Site and all its representatives by the other twenty-one major facilities within the Bundesrepublik Deutschland.

Site-54 was effectively an inland, urban island.

In theory, Tarrow could call on her fellow Directors for aid if something outside her ability to manage were to occur. In theory, an overwhelming supply of manpower and materiel could be mustered in her defense at a moment's notice. She did not want to test that theory.

She now habitually woke up with a feeling of low dread thrumming through her veins. Most of her people, if they knew what was what, spent their first few seconds of consciousness each day wondering if the end of their little world was in progress. Virtually everything kept caged at 54 was potentially Veil-breaking, and certainly bone-breaking in most cases. The further the Site expanded, the more horrifying nonsense it incorporated. The warehouse, and whatever malign power snatched trespassers out of it. The tunnels, and their monster. The infirmary which bestowed an insidious infirmity of its own upon its patients. The status quo had become so obviously and impossibly dangerous that there now seemed little reason to avoid conducting dangerous experiments and further piling up the heap of catastrophes waiting to happen. The Volkswagen spaceship. Those infernal go-karts. The Conceptual Restabiliser. Sometimes she wondered if the real reason the Foundation had risked the wrath of one of its most effective and independent administrative regions to build a Site in an urban centre was that if something were to happen there, and of course it would be an apocalyptic happening, they could play it off as a nuclear strike by a rogue nation.

She tried not to wonder that very often, but it certainly explained all the acrimony.

So fragile was the state of equilibrium that alone of all the Directors not taking part in ETTRA's absurd sting op, Tarrow had been briefed on its details. If anything were to go wrong today — even though 54 had absolutely nothing to do with the operation — it was a foregone conclusion that somehow, some way, it would go wrong here as well. The Director of ETTRA, Dr. Dan (she didn't know if that was a given name, a surname, or a Cher name), had swung by a few weeks back and done nothing more substantive than take a few pictures and offer the wholly unsatisfying assurance that everything would be fine.

She'd heard similar blandishments before, and she knew what they usually meant.

Imogen Tarrow, Director of Site-54, was waiting for all hell to break loose.


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Comune dell'Aquila: Province of L'Aquila, Italy


Philip E. Deering got up in the morning for several reasons.

He didn't actually mind his job. He was good at it; nobody had been doing any of what he did for longer than he had, and it showed. He was as much an expert as Dr. Lillihammer or Chief Ibanez were at what they did, even if what he did was fix broken terminals and clean counters. Expertise was expertise, and its exercise was pleasurable. He had friends, if not many; he had hobbies, if none he was particularly good at. He had Doug — "Good morning, Philip," the mirror monster rasped at him from the glass light fixture on the ceiling. And, of course, he had Amelia… but that was the problem, wasn't it?

Because every morning when he woke up, she was already there with him. She was the reason to end all reasons, and he didn't have to roll out of bed to be with her. So what, precisely, was his incentive to do so?

He rolled out of bed, kicked his jumpsuit on the hotel floor, and touched his toes. He stood up, he stretched — winced loudly, felt the tingle in his knees and elbows — and turned around to face the bed again.

She was stretched across the space where he'd been lying just moments before, her angular eyebrows arched, her sea-green eyes sparkling, a mischievous grin on her face beneath the tangle of her limp brown hair. She did this almost every morning, and every time she did it, he felt his decision to tackle the day had been vindicated.

"Morning," she said.

"Morning," he replied.

"WARNING," Phil's work phone added in muted tones, from the jumble of his jumpsuit. "NEW PRIORITY MAIL."

Amelia guffawed, and flipped over onto her back. Instead of fishing out the phone, Phil watched her. "That'll be Sokolsky," she said. "Wanting us to back home early."

"Bullshit." He rubbed his aching throat with both hands. "We got choked out by a demon for him, he's not gonna cut short the holiday."

"Choked," she corrected him gently, smile quirking further. "Not 'choked out'."

"What's the difference?" he asked, bending down to pick up the jumpsuit. He checked the right pocket first, which was novel, and pulled out the phone.

"Look it up later." He could hear that she was smirking now, and he wanted to see that, but what he saw on the phone was temporarily clouding his vision.

She waited a few seconds, then prompted him: "Well?"

He flipped the phone into the air. It bounced between the nightstand and the wall with a dull thud. "God fucking dammit."

"You probably broke it," Doug told Phil (and only Phil). "Now you're in trouble."

Amelia reached out, grabbed his thighs, and pulled herself across the bed. "Where's my suit?" she asked, pushing him out of the way so that she, too, could get up.


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"Carry me out?"

Phil affected ignorance. "Carry you out?"

"Of the hotel." They were standing in the lobby, which was empty. Phil strongly suspected Gillespie had bought out the entire building just for them, as a reward. A very brief reward. It was probably for the best — they only had their work clothes, and the Director of Site-77 probably wasn't about to take them shopping. He was a little bit surprised they were meant to meet their contact on the street, though. The hour was early, but the chances of getting spotted seemed high…

You don't get paid to think, mop man. The trip abroad had obviously done him some good; he'd normally have heard those words from his external monologue rather than his internal.

Amelia was smiling impishly at him. This was particularly impish, as she knew the effect it had. "I gave you a ring. Carry me out."

He rubbed his neck, and she laughed. "Come on, tough guy. The Site docs said you're fine."

"They missed something," Doug informed him from a crystal chandelier.

Phil shrugged. "I think you're confusing… several different traditions all at once. So I'll meet you halfway."

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She was riding on his back, nuzzling his neck, when they met the plainclothes agent on the deserted street. He was tall, well-built, and square-jawed; he smiled at them amiably. "Just married?"

"Just engaged."

The agent chuckled, shook his head, and opened the door of the nondescript grey sedan. Phil turned to glance at Amelia; she kissed him, and waggled her eyebrows.

"Come on," he said.

She opened her eyes wider, and pursed her lips.

He sighed.

He turned away from the car, backed into it, and squatted down. When he felt her hop off his back and into the car, he turned around and pushed her along the bench so he could join her.

"You're never allowed to get married," the agent remarked as he got settled in the driver's seat. "You'd set the whole world projectile vomiting."

The ride to the outskirts of L'Aquila was languorous and pleasant. Phil mused that he wouldn't really miss Italy; he'd effectively failed to notice it, between focusing on mortal peril and focusing on…

He was holding Amelia's hand, so he could feel her pulse quicken as they reached the heliport. She was staring at the lone helicopter, a bulky single-rotor with a matte grey paintjob. Her expression gave him pause.

"We're in a bit of a rush, folks." The agent opened the door for them, and this time Amelia didn't ask for a piggyback ride. She looked very serious indeed, now. He tried to match the look.

The agent pulled open the side door, and ushered them inside. There was already a second agent there, a woman with a tight blonde ponytail and cold eyes. The interior was spartan: two rows of benches, a few equipment lockers, and several panels full of instrumentation that Phil didn't recognize. He'd never done work on Site-43's choppers. He was more of a vending machine guy.

Phil and Amelia sat down together on one bench as the agent closed the door and sat down across from them, beside his own partner.

"Love the bird," Amelia remarked.

The man grinned. "Lovebirds yourself."

Amelia took Phil's hand in hers, and giggled. Now it was his own pulse that Phil felt quicken; Amelia didn't giggle. "Nice of you folks to give us a ride. Beats the hell out of a limousine."

The man patted the nearest bulkhead. "She's a beaut, right?" The urban scene suddenly dropped away, and they were aloft. "Saved my life more times than I care to count."

Amelia was slowly working the engagement ring off Phil's finger. "What team you with, anyway?"

"GIGO," the woman responded. The response was quick and sure, and it certainly checked out. MTF Pi-43 ("Garbage In, Garbage Out") was Lake Huron's primary transport unit.

Amelia palmed the engagement ring, and rubbed her hands together. Phil reached out to hold them in his own. "Circulation problems," he explained.

Both agents nodded. Phil stuck his hands, and the ring, in his pocket.

"How'd you boys swing a Cyclone?" Amelia queried. "All I ever see are Sea Kings."

The man shrugged. "Just lucky, I guess."

"Not very lucky, though." She was still smiling.

"What do you mean?"

Amelia was flushed. "If you'd stolen a Sea King, I wouldn't have been so suspicious. GIGO hasn't got a single Cyclone."

The woman smirked. The man rolled his eyes. "Fucking Canadians," he sighed. "Can't ever use the new stuff, can you?"

"And as far as I can see, this thing isn't going to make it across the Atlantic. So where are we actually going?"

The man got off the bench, walked to the front of the chopper, and leaned over the pilot's chair. "ETA?"

"Five hours."

He glanced back at them. "Long trip. Let's keep this friendly, and nobody needs to get hurt."

"Nobody here," the woman corrected him.

He grinned.


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The next few hours passed in brittle silence. Phil felt selfconscious even clearing his throat. He kept Amelia's hands in his, partially to keep them warm, partially because it made him feel stronger. Their pulses pulsed in tune with the rotors overhead as they passed out of Italy to parts unknown.

The female agent carefully disassembled their cell phones and tablets. She removed the SIM cards, and pocketed them.

"Why haven't you just taken the passwords from us, and radioed them in?" Phil asked, suddenly aware that he'd been wondering this when the words jumped out of his mouth.

Both women glanced at him. He glanced back at Amelia first, and something in her eyes made him suddenly sorry he'd asked the question.

"We want your murder monster," the female agent replied. Phil immediately understood this to be a lie. If Project Resurrection wasn't all that interested in Doug, he doubted some random anomalous terrorists would be. He suddenly wished he had his phone; he could call Gillespie, even at this distance, and

Oh, fuck. That was why. That was why he and Amelia were sitting in the helicopter instead of falling out of it. Whoever these people were, they didn't have secure long-range comms.

We're holding on to the passwords for them until they can safely get rid of us.

The silence turned icier still after that revelation, and Phil's heart beat faster and faster as the final few hours ticked down. He found his mind frantically rushing over calming, banal things; when the pilot turned to face them and gave a quick thumbs up to the agents, he was in the midst of being thankful that they'd both used the washroom before leaving the hotel.

The helicopter was no longer moving forward. Both agents stood up, and gestured for Phil and Amelia to do the same.

"It's a long way down," Doug mused apropos of nothing from Phil's inward-turned wristwatch, the first gift Amelia had given him.

Amelia stuck one hand in her jumpsuit pocket. Phil pulled her other hand into his own jumpsuit pocket. She took a deep breath. "Are you going to kill us? When we give you the passwords?"

The male agent shook his head. "Only an idiot starts a fight in a helicopter." He walked to one of the lockers, and swung the door open. "Put these on."

He tossed them a pair of backpacks, one by one. They landed on the deck. Phil glanced down, then back up curiously. "You're going to let us go?"

The woman laughed. "We're at the edge of town. By the time you can tell anyone what happened, it'll be far too late." She took Phil's phone off the bench, and handed it to him. He took it with his free hand, and the agent repeated the process with Amelia. "You can't call anyone, and the closest Foundation Site is a long hike through unfamiliar urban terrain."

Amelia took another deep breath. Phil could feel her hand shaking. "What if I decide to be an idiot, and start a fight in the helicopter?"

The woman shrugged, then punched Amelia in the gut. She fell to the floor, knees on the parachute pack, and Phil went down with her, knees on the

SON OF A BITCH

Philip's eyes had narrowed with the pain of striking the deck plating. His jumpsuit had padded knees — he was, on his better days, a mechanic — but it still hurt. He kept them narrowed to hide the way he felt about what had just happened.

"Are you going to let her get away with that, Philip?"

Not a fucking chance.


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When he stood back up, he had tunnel vision — no, laser focus. It played out in front of him like a literal play. Amelia had been sending him subtle signals since the moment she'd recognized the truth and taken off his reflective diamond engagement ring. He knew what he had to do, and he had just rather conveniently lost all squeamishness about doing it.

He slung the parachute over his back, and Amelia did the same. "Gonna tell us how to use these?" Amelia grunted, clutching her stomach. Phil felt another pang, and refused to let it go.

"You'll figure it out," the woman responded. "Or you won't."

As the agents prodded them towards the cockpit, Phil carefully rotated his watch so that it no longer faced his body. Deprived of any closer station, Doug immediately appeared on the chopper's door window. The agents didn't notice.

"You're up first, straw hair." The woman pushed Amelia forward, and the pilot brought a wired microphone up to her face.

She hesitated. "You'll want to back off, everybody, or you'll hear it before whoever's on the other end of this does."

The agents stepped away; the man leaned against the door, and Phil was briefly terrified he'd obscure Doug's vision.

Amelia sighed, and recited the password into the radio. The pilot pulled the microphone back, and said in clipped tones: "Please confirm, over." He then cocked his head for a moment. Whatever he heard back on his headset obviously satisfied him; he nodded curtly.

"Your turn," the male agent snapped. He poked Phil in the back.

"No." Phil shook his head, while the rest of him started shaking as well. "I don't trust you. Let Amy go first, then we'll—"

The female agent pulled the door open — her partner very nearly fell out — then grabbed Amelia and hurled her through.

"Off the deep end," Doug remarked as Phil gawped at the empty space into which his fiancé had just disappeared.

"She'll be fine," the woman said. "Now get on with it."

The pilot raised the microphone again. The window of the door was now on the outside of the helicopter. The engagement ring was in Phil's pocket. His watch was facing the wrong way.

Doug appeared on the curve of the cockpit glass. Phil leaned forward, muttered the password, then walked towards the door.

"Please confirm, over."

"Happy landings," the woman sneered.

"Wait," the pilot said. "Something's not—"

Phil was not afraid of heights. Save for the single plane ride which had brought him to Italy, he had no conception of heights at all; he'd spent the last twenty years underground. He didn't even close his eyes as he turned to face the agents, whispered "Sorry," then stepped backward into the sky.

He really was sorry.

He wasn't the only one.

An ear-splitting shriek filled the air as Doug lost sight of Phil, so loud that his sudden passage through the firmament was entirely inaudible. The effects were immediate, and revelatory. The chopper rolled hard towards him — I'm falling I'm falling I'm fucking falling — and the woman in the door disappeared. It rolled harder, until it was almost upside-down, and she reappeared very briefly as she lost her grip and fell into the rotors. Over the screeching, over the roar, he heard what he would later describe as a very loud "pop."

He would be weeping.

He turned his watch back around with one shaking hand, and the screeching stopped.

"That wasn't very nice, Philip," Doug remarked as they fell away from the cloud of blood, bone, and torn stretches of skin flapping in the high-altitude winds.

He pulled the ripcord, and a burst of black fabric hid the rain of human mulch from view.


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Phil came down in an empty parking lot next to a cluster of tumbledown structures. Amelia came barrelling out of an alleyway, her jumpsuit torn in two places, a few small scratches on her face. He thrashed around until the straps fell off his shoulders, and reached out for her as the chute enveloped his horizon.

Darkness, mad scrabbling, a sudden impact; he clutched at the fabric shroud and pulled, and there she was. Warm. Alive. He kissed her.

"It was," he gasped. "It was like a 'pop'."

He started to weep. He fell to his padded knees again, and didn't feel the asphalt — he didn't strike the asphalt. She'd caught him. She hauled him back to his feet, and pulled him close. "Shh."

"You killed them, Philip," Doug rasped.

"I killed them." Phil pulled her closer. "I killed them. It was… I heard…"

"Shh," she repeated. "You didn't kill anybody."

"I did. I killed them." The embrace was so tight that his left hand was clutching her left shoulder, his right on her right. "Oh god."

She pulled back, and he reached out for her again as she extricated them from the parachute. He was still crying. She was crying, too. "You didn't kill anybody," she repeated.

"You did."

"I did."

"If they died, Doug killed them."

That gave him pause. He stared at her. He still had only the vaguest sense of where he was. "Doug killed them."

She nodded.

He tapped his chest. "Doug is part of me. Isn't he?" He shook his head. "I'm a monster."

"We're a monster, Philip."

She clutched both of his shoulders. "You're not."

He opened his mouth to splutter another protest, and then something she'd said came crashing through the haze like a careening helicopter, and he asked: "What do you mean, 'if they died'?"

She pointed wordlessly over his shoulder. He looked; the other end of the lot bordered on an industrial park, from which a plume of smoke was rising. "They had to land. But they did land, Phil. And we need to get out of here, pronto."

Reality snapped back into place. The parking lot was surrounded by a jumble of urban sprawl. They'd been dumped at the outskirts of a large city; the chopper couldn't be more than a few blocks away.

"Oh," he said. "Oh, shit."

"Look down," said Doug.

Phil looked down.

There was a severed finger on the discarded parachute.

Amelia slid her hands down his arms, grabbed his hands again, and pulled him into a run.


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Site-77: Province of L'Aquila, Italy


"Director? It's probably nothing, but—"

Shirley Gillespie waved the rest of the sentence away. "Lose that preface from your vocabulary. If it's nothing, I'll tell you when you're done. Now spit it out."

The technician mentally recalibrated. "Yes ma'am. An Alpha-9-associated device just went offline unexpectedly."

She raised an eyebrow. "Thompson and Adams gone off the res again?"

"No ma'am. It's the new one. 5056-B."

"Christ." She thumped the floor of the operations centre with her cane. "That was fast. Where?"

"It happened around the Italian-Swiss border."

Here we go. "Of course it did. Advise Site-54 to be on high alert."

"Already did, ma'am. But they already were."

She snorted. "Silly me. Get Area-09 on the horn."

It didn't take long; that particular connection was on speed-dial. The technician nodded, and Gillespie picked up the phone. "Dan."

"Shirley."

"You were right."

A beat.

"Sorry," he said, "You got anything new to tell me?"

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