Two Between the Eyes
rating: +31+x

January 18th, 2008
Helmand Province, Afghanistan
Noon

The Iranian agents die before they even know they are under attack.

There are four of them, dressed in the drab browns and greys appropriate for camouflage in the mountains of southern Afghanistan, all hiking in a single file line. Their disguises are good — it takes her several seconds to spot the concealed weapons that mark them as combatants, and almost fifteen seconds to spot the occult tattoo on the wrist of the leader that betrays his allegiance to the Organization for the Reclamation of Islamic Artifacts, rather than the Taliban.

Staff Sergeant Ulyssa van Kann of the United States Army, 23rd Paranatural Operations Group, watches the four men through her scope for a full minute before deciding to end their lives. It takes significantly less time for her to do so.

Gorgons see the world differently. Their eyes are covered by a polarized nictitating membrane, which ruins the sight of rainbows and protects the world from their stony gaze. It is only when they unblink, retracting the membrane, that they can view the world in full color — petrifying whatever creatures they happen to look at.

For a full gorgon, unblinking is effortless, easier even than blinking. But Van Kann is a half-gorgon, a mutt, the unintended — but not unwanted — result of her mother doing a dangerous amount of AUM with a sculptor from Backdoor Soho at an Erisian gallery-club. She still has the petrifying gaze of her sisters, but it's weaker, needing more time to take effect, and the muscles of her nictitating membranes are atrophied, requiring a greater effort to unblink, one which is painful to maintain for more than half-a-minute. But unlike her mother and sisters, she looks human. There are no snakes in her hair, no scales on her face, and no fork in her tongue. As long as she wears sunglasses, she can walk in the Unveiled world untroubled.

None of this matters to the man in her scope, although soon nothing at all will matter to him. He stumbles as his feet become heavy, then topples forwards. His outstretched arm shatters when it hits the ground.

She moves the scope onto the second man, who has stopped and is staring at his petrified comrade in surprise. He is too confused to scream before his vocal cords harden into marble.

The third man is slightly faster on the uptake. He's also a wizard, or the beneficiary of one. As Van Kann brings her sights to bear on him, he activates a glamour, vanishing from view. There's a muffled crack as her suppressed rifle fires, and then a bullet rips through his neck before he can move, killing him and his invisibility cloak in an instant. The spray of blood from his neck crystalizes into a sprinkle of sparkling rubies.

The fourth man tries to sign something with his hands — probably an exploit, for all the good it would do him. Van Kann never has a chance to learn what his intentions are, because her cursed vision catches the man mid-gesture, with his thumb upraised in an ironic sign of approval.

And then the battle is over. It takes Van Kann fifteen minutes to pack up her gear and hike down to where the men were, intending to scavenge their remains. When she gets there, she finds on the first statue's face a complicated expression of surprise, confusion, and belated terror, one which is very familiar to her. She smirks slightly as she surveys the self-memorialized battle.

"Too easy."

"I agree." The voice whispers in her ear, and a gun is pressed against her back. "Don't move."


Kandahar Airfield
9 Hours Earlier

"Sergeant, thank you for coming on such short notice."

Van Kann nods. She doesn't bother to ask the man his name, knowing he won't give it. He's a spook, possibly in more than one sense, and probably doesn't even have a name any more.

The man's eyes roll back in his head as he becomes a conduit for a psychic back at the Pentagram. He begins speaking in a different, more detached voice.

"During the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, they left hidden caches of paraweaponry across the country. Most of these were recovered by Coalition forces following the initial invasion. The former KGB Division of Special Circumstances, the paracriminal syndicate Scarlet Hammer, has been working with the Taliban to recover the remaining caches in areas outside of Coalition control. Fifteen hours ago, we received intelligence indicating that they had uncovered a major cache in the Helmand Province."

He spreads a map across the table. It is covered in Enochian and other esoteric symbols describing the paratactical situation — leylines, known Ways, elevated ARad sources, ghoul nests, and the like. It is also written in blood.

"The cache is located in the mountains east of the town of Garmsir, here." He points to a spot on the map. "The area is controlled by Taliban forces. Remote observation shows that Scarlet Hammer remains in the area, likely negotiating an exit strategy with their local partners. Forecasting suggests that they will depart the country within seventy-two hours, with the majority of the paraweaponry, which will be sold to Samothracian militants who will use it to attack Athens. This is an unacceptable outcome."

He places an engineering sketch on the table, labelled in Russian. It depicts a device that looks like a telescope mounted to a rifle stock.

"The paraweaponry contained in the cache is a stockpile of first-generation Soviet look-to-kill devices, which have a thaumoptical package that directly copies the design of a biological gorgon. Which is why—"

"You're sending me in alone."

"Correct. Our narcoprophets project that this will have the highest chance of success."

Van Kann nods again, knowing that the man would say that regardless of the actual odds. It changes nothing. "Mission parameters?"

"You will be inserted into the target area via Ghost Hawk. You will recover or destroy the look-to-kill devices. You will maintain radio silence until reaching the extraction point, here." He points at another spot on the map.

"Opposition?"

"No more than a dozen members of Scarlet Hammer, armed with Class 2C paraweaponry — chiefly plasma projectors and harmonic grenades — and supported by an unknown number of Taliban with conventional armaments. The wild card, so to speak, is the ORIA — there is a significant chance that they will launch their own operation to recover the cache. If they do, you must deal with them first, or risk a complete mission failure." He draws a line across the map. "If you follow this route, you will almost certainly encounter their agents, should they deploy."

"Strength?"

"Unknown. Their thaumaturges are actively blocking our divination attempts. Based on prior encounters, we expect them to field a team of four to six operatives, supporting one or two paranatural assets. Plan accordingly."

Van Kann nods a third and final time. When it's clear she has no further questions, the psychic releases their mental grip on the man, and his eyes snap back into place. Hand shaking ever-so-slightly, he dabs a drop of blood from his nose.

"Good luck, Sergeant."


Helmand Province
15 Minutes Past Noon

"Turn around. Slowly." The words are English, but the voice is lightly inflected with a Persian accent. It is also clearly feminine.

Van Kann allows herself a small, grim smile. She focuses, unblinking her eyes to see the world with her full, deadly vision, and turns around as instructed to see—

Nothing.

Not quite nothing. There is a gun floating in front of her, about four feet off the ground. But the woman holding the gun is invisible, and thus immune to her gaze.

Van Kann frowns. The asset is a djinn then, not the wizard she killed earlier. Unfortunate, but maybe not unsalvageable.

"What's wrong?" The voice taunts. "Having performance problems?"

"I could ask you the same thing," Van Kann retorts, keeping her tone deliberately scornful. "The power to remake the cosmos at your fingertips, and you're holding me at gunpoint. Why is that, I wonder?"

The barrel of the gun wavers, but the djinn doesn't respond.

Van Kann continues speaking in a softer, more reconciliatory tone. "I'll admit it, you've got the upper hand here. But suppose you kill me. Then what? What do you expect to accomplish without a handler?"

"I'm still invisible—"

"Oh, sure, and maybe you'll be able to kill a few people that way. But do you think the Russians don't have ARad imagers? They'll find you eventually, kill you, and then we'll have both failed our missions. Neither of us wants that."

The barrel drops slightly. "Why do you care?"

"We both want those Soviet LTKs. You can't get them by yourself, and if you kill me, I can't get them. If you don't kill me, I can help you get them. Seems like a better outcome to me."

"You mean, you can betray me as soon as I drop my guard."

"Don't drop your guard then." Van Kann shrugs. "Your choice, but if you're going to kill me, can you get it over with already?"

The djinn doesn't speak, but Van Kann knows the other woman is going to fold. Without her handler, she is essentially powerless — the djinn may be a reality bender capable of effortlessly altering the world around her in any way she can imagine, but she is leashed by a powerful geas, one of the greatest secrets of Islamic thaumaturgy. Unless given a command by a human handler, her only power is the invisibility imposed by the binding laid upon her.

This djinn's handler, and his comrades, are all going to be archeological finds that will puzzle and delight future historians of Afghan sculpture.

The djinn lowers the gun. "I will kill you as soon as you are no longer useful."

"Promises, promises."

"Fuck you."

Van Kann smirks.

The djinn kicks a cloud of sand at her. "You know where the cache is? Start walking."

Van Kann does, but slowly. "I'm going to assume there's more to giving you commands than just saying 'I wish you would stop holding me hostage.'"

"You would be correct." The djinn's voice takes on a more neutral tone as she launches into a lecture. "Each of us is bound with a unique symbolic language of command. Mine is based on hand gestures."

"So if I make the right gestures, you'll be able to use your powers in that manner — but you don't have to, do you?"

"Correct, it's a permission, not a requirement." The djinn stops walking, although it takes Van Kann several steps to realize it and come to a stop herself. "How did you know that?"

Van Kann shrugs. "If it worked the other way, it would be too dangerous to use you in the field — secret language or not." She starts walking again, then stops after three steps. "How exactly do you intend to teach me this gesture-based language?"

There is a long, dangerous silence.

"Do you," the djinn says slowly, "Have any gloves?"

Van Kann nods, then unslings the pack from her back. Moving carefully, acutely aware of the gun still trained on her, she removes a pair of gloves from one of the side pockets. She tosses them to the djinn, who catches them out of the air with one hand. She has to let the gun dangle from her shoulder strap while she puts them on, and Van Kann watches it with catlike intensity.

The djinn waggles her fingers experimentally, then laughs. "Goodness, it is weird being able to see my fingers."

"So are you naked all the time, or are your clothes invisible too?"

She raises one of her disembodied gloved hands and flips Van Kann off.

"Which hand signal is that?"

"It means I can still decide to kill you, American."

"All that with just one sign?" Van Kann pauses for a moment. "It's Van Kann. Staff Sergeant Ulyssa van Kann, of the US Army."

The djinn hesitates, then says in a softer tone, "You may call me Vida."

"Just Vida?"

"Just Vida. My true name was sacrificed in the binding." She sounds wistful, and Van Kann recalls that few djinn are created voluntarily.

"Just Vida then. What do I need to know?"

Vida holds up a raised pinky. "This. Every command has to start with this. It basically means 'you', or 'djinn', or 'attention'. That will be followed by one or more gestures to denote a target, followed by a gesture for a verb, and then this sign—" She clenches her hand into a fist. "—to complete the command. It means 'end' or 'execute'."

Van Kann nods and pays rapt attention as the djinn walks her through several basic gestures while they continue walking.

"Technically, you can chain multiple targets and verbs together, but I wouldn't worry about that." She leaves unspoken the reason: that they won't be working together long enough for it to matter.

"Do you have to actually see the signs?" Van Kann asks.

"I have to be aware that you're signing," Vida explains. "But as long as I am, I don't actually need to see the signs to know what they are. It's part of the memetic awareness of the geas."

Vida starts drilling her on the signs they've run through, and Van Kann does her best to perform them accurately. The symbol for (Weapon (Held by (Enemy (Indicated)))), a particularly complicated multi-part gesture, gives her some trouble though, and eventually Vida stops her in frustration.

"Like this." The djinn reaches over and grabs her hands. Vida's grip is hesitant at first, but tightens once it's clear Van Kann isn't going to pull away. She guides the half-gorgon's fingers through the proper motions, once slowly, then again faster. Her hands linger for longer than they need to, but quickly pull away when Van Kann starts to repeat the sign unaided. She does it perfectly, and Vida offers her a thumbs up. "You're lucky you're a quick study. If you weren't, I might be rethinking this plan."

"I've always had clever fingers," Van Kann says.

Vida coughs quickly and clears her throat. "So, what exactly was your army's plan for you? Obviously, you're a formidable soldier, but how did you intend to keep Scarlet Hammer from using the look-to-kill weapons against you?"

Van Kann looks over at the djinn in surprise. "Gorgons don't affect gorgons. The LTKs are close enough that I'm immune."

"But what about the mirrored shield of Perseus?"

"What about it?" Van Kann shrugs. "It's a myth, and a Greek one at that. Herodotus basically invented lying. Anyways, you're one to talk. Aren't you supposed to sound like Robin Williams?"

Vida harrumphs. "I never liked that movie."

"Why? Is genie a slur or something?"

"No. I mean, I guess. But that's not why." She kicks a rock out of the way. "The princess has a choice and the djinn gets release."

"And you don't."

"The power of the djinn runs in my bloodline. My ancestors have served Sultans and Caliphs for centuries. This was my lot before I was born." Vida waves her hands sadly, conveying resigned acceptance.

"It doesn't have to be."

The djinn snorts. "What's the alternative? To defect, to join your military? I would just be trading a familiar master for a foreign one. Can you honestly tell me that would be better? Can you truly say that you had a choice?"

Van Kann hesitates, then shakes her head. "No. Not a good one." She looks down at her feet so that Vida won't see her face. "I can walk in the human world, but I'm not part of it, and I never will be. My options were the military, or selling life-size lawn ornaments. At least this way, I get to travel to exotic locales and meet interesting people. Even if most of them are trying to kill me."

She looks over in the direction of the djinn, and for a brief moment she is certain that she's making eye contact. Then Vida coughs, and the moment is gone.

"I wish we had met under different circumstances," Vida says.

Van Kann nods. "But djinn don't get to make their own wishes, do they?"

"No. Nor do gorgons, apparently."

They continue walking in silence for several minutes after that, until Vida regains interest in teaching Van Kann the sign language. She's giving Van Kann far more vocabulary than she'll actually need, but it's something to do during the hike. When they both focus on that, ignoring the fact that they are still enemies, they can even pretend to be something more than allies of convenience.


Evening

They reach the Scarlet Hammer encampment just before sundown.

The spies-turned-gangsters and their insurgent allies have setup camp around an old Soviet bunker from the last Afghan War. Faded and flickering wards written in sinister and otherworldly scripts, chiefly Cyrillic, are scrawled across the single steel door, betraying its paranatural purpose. The tents pitched in a loose semi-circle around the bunker suggest they've been there for a while. The trucks loaded with crates bearing the logo of the Division of Special Circumstances suggest that they won't be there much longer.

Although they're dressed in similar garb, Van Kann can easily tell the two groups apart through her binoculars. The Russians are more relaxed and better armed, lounging around the camp in groups of two and three, while the Taliban are only carrying Kalashnikovs, and are huddled together in a worried cluster near one of the trucks. Van Kann watches with disinterest as the apparent leaders of the two groups argue, the subject of their discussion only evidenced by the wild gesticulations they occasionally make towards the trucks, the bunker, and each other.

Van Kann hums pensively. "Tough nut. I could probably get a third before they wise up and drop out of sight — maybe half if I start with the Taliban, they're clumped up in a nice soft group, but they're not the ones to worry about. Then it would come down to whether one of them can get a bead on me with a plasma projector before I can look at him. Call it a toss-up."

"Then it seems you got lucky in encountering me," Vida says. The djinn has shed her gloves and ditched the battle rifle, so that Van Kann can only guess at where she is based on her faint footprints in the sand and the direction of her voice.

"So it seems." Van Kann lowers the binoculars and stows them back in her pack. "I could just ask you to kill them all from here, but that's so unfair that I would actually feel bad about it. For a little bit. Maybe."

"It would be rather boring."

"And it would be boring," Van Kann agrees. She turns to where she thinks the djinn is and offers a sinful smile. "How about we have a little bit of fun? Give them the ghost of a fighting chance, just to make things interesting."

Vida clicks her tongue. "What did you have in mind?"

Van Kann signals to Vida: (You (Djinn)) (Weapons (All (Area))) (Disrupt) (Execute command).

The djinn laughs, and then, with a snap of her fingers, temporarily rewrites the laws of reality within a half-mile radius so that gunpowder won't ignite and plasma won't conduct.

The ensuing slaughter doesn't even count as a battle.

Van Kann slides down the slope, raising a plume of dust and drawing the attention of every man in the camp. One of them, a sentry, manages to raise his arm to point at her and open his mouth to shout an alarm before he is trapped in that pose forever.

There's a chorus of dismayed curses as each of the men discovers that their weapons don't work, and then death is among them.

The half-gorgon stalks through the camp with the deadly indifference of her forebear Medusa, stoning men with every sweep of her gaze. Behind her, Vida darts around unseen, snapping the necks of any who manage to evade the lethal notice of her comrade. Three members of Scarlet Hammer come charging out of the bunker, and are petrified before they finish taking three steps. One of the Taliban, a minor magician of a religious mind, attempts to say a warding prayer that could even be effective, only to be silenced by an invisible kick to the groin. Another man tries to throw his useless plasma projector at Van Kann; she dodges it easily, and the man is a statue before the gun hits the ground.

In less than twenty seconds, the duo kill more than twenty men.

The last Russian is smart enough to have figured out what's happening, and to know that he only has one chance. He waits to ambush Van Kann from behind, leaping out around the corner of the bunker with a knife as she walks past. It slices through the air, aimed directly at the half-gorgon's spine, leaving no time for her to turn around.

Vida catches the man's arm, stopping the knife an inch from Van Kann's neck.

At the djinn's shouted warning, she spins around and locks eyes with the Russian. The final thing he will ever see is a pair of eyes the color of emeralds, and just as cold.

Silence falls as the last of his flesh turns to stone. With all enemies neutralized, all that remains is to complete the mission objective.

Van Kann looks at the knife, then at the space where Vida last was.

There's still one more thing to do before either woman can finish her mission.

The knife starts to wriggle free of the statue's grip, seemingly of its own accord.

Van Kann dives forwards, tackling the djinn just as she liberates the blade.

They roll through the dirt, wrestling for control of the knife. Van Kann ends up on top, straddling Vida, and thrusts her left arm against the djinn's throat, pushing her head deep into the sand. The djinn drops the knife and grabs at the arm the half-gorgon is pressing against her windpipe, struggling for breath. Van Kann scoops up the weapon with her free hand and raises it triumphantly, preparing to bring it down for the killing blow.

The setting sun glints off the tip of the blade as it descends…

… into the sand next to Vida's head.

Breathing heavily, Van Kann stares at where she thinks the djinn's eyes are. She shifts her grip, so that her bare wrist is resting on Vida's neck and its surprisingly warm skin, releasing some of the pressure. As the djinn gasps for air, her invisible and definitely-naked body rises and falls beneath Van Kann. They stay like that, transfixed in silence broken only by the sound of their panting, for an eternity.

Quick as a snake, Van Kann leans down and kisses the other woman, directly on the lips.

The kiss lasts for only an instant before Van Kann withdraws. Pushing herself off the djinn, she stands and turns towards the trucks loaded with the crates of look-to-kills. She glances at Vida, then signs: (You (Djinn)) (That (Indicated)) (Destroy) (Execute command).

For a long moment, nothing happens. Then the trucks implode into a tangled mass of warped metal and splintered wood.

Van Kann nods, satisfied. "Thank you, Vida. And goodbye."

"Ulyssa! Wait!" The longing in the djinn's voice is unmistakable.

Van Kann looks back at the djinn and smiles. "As you wish."

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