The Contingent

Ashes to Ashes
Session 5 (Cathy)

“So, this is the Secret Frequency you all keep talking so much about, huh?” Gina leaned over blocking, Natalie’s view of the screen. Her breath smelled sweet and spicy like cinnamon. Nat was worried about her friend; she had bags under her eyes that no amount of makeup could hide.

“It’s not really a physical place, Gina.” Natalie gently nudged the woman to the side so she could see the screen again. “We’re kind of everywhere—this is just how we contact each other.” Natalie stood up from the computer to let Gina take the lead. “Okay, I’ve logged in and you can send out your request.”

“This is so much better than trying to coordinate with beepers like we did when I started hunting. Plus, girl, no one could really look cool wearing one of those things.” Gina’s long red fingernails flew over the keyboard of Nat’s laptop. How does she type with those talons? Natalie read over the woman’s shoulder, her concern growing as Gina revealed her request for help.

Hello Hunters, Gina here. I’ve been having some real disturbing dreams lately and you all know how I get when I haven’t had my beauty sleep. It started with dreams of an underground tomb. Around the edge of the tomb are decayed bodies draped in rosaries. In the center are other bodies that look…fresher. They have tubes of blood coming out of their bodies. At that point the dream shifts and I feel myself being pulled out and up. I fly upward through rock and stone until I am nearly blinded by sunlight reflecting off of a dome. I am standing outside of St. Peter’s Basilica. There are hundred of black birds perched on top of the statues that line the square. All at once their beaks open and I hear them squawking my name over and over. I turn to run and the ground begins to crumble beneath me and chunks of the scenery begin to fall beneath my feet. Then I wake up.

I have to go to Rome and figure out what this all means. It’s starting to scare me; something bad is coming and we have to try to stop it. I don’t want to go alone. Will some of you come along with me?

Hunters

Aaron Mathias
Josephine “Josie” Bennett
Marshall Barsoom
Winston Moss

Writeups

Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride

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Oh! You Pretty Things
Session 5 (Justin)

We’re being hunted. Alex Lathem has been taken. Since Carver’s death, many groups in the shadows have started moving against us. I need a smart group of hunters to get her back. This is obviously a trap. It will be violent, but I also hope that some of our more persuasive individuals will join in to help turn our enemies to allies.

- Dr. Skaar Eric A, Aaron, Craig, Marisol, Jacob, Spencer

Hunters

"Rob"ert Throdron
Miles Jaggens
Wayne Hodges
Tazendra “Taz” Crow
Richard Miller

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I'm Afraid of Americans
Session 5 (Johnathan)

ATTN ALL CONTINGENT MEMBERS

A contact in ATF leaked to us approval for a surprise raid of the Lupine Organics Farm just outside Denver. We did some digging and there’s nothing requesting agents or equipment. We’re certain it’s a cover for a Task Force Valkyrie cleaner team to take out a known site of The Contingent.

This is bad. TFV is probably the best trained and best supplied group of Hunters out there. I’m pulling together the entire Union and anyone else I can at the VFW in Buena Vista, Colorado. We’re gathering people and supplies to get up on the mountain to help the Sept.

Get here as fast as you can, we don’t know how fast Valkyrie will hit.

- Ed

Major Clues

Hunters

Charles Powell
Eva Jimenez
Granger Simms
Mallory “Mal” Cunningham
Keith Moye

Writeups

Bat Country
Swords to Plowshares
Wishes

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Final Preparations

Wayne stood on the porch of the cabin where he’d spent the last month with Josie. The last month of their lives had been almost surreal, and he wasn’t sure it had even happened. Sure, there were some bad times—not many, but a few. They all seemed to stem from this obsession she had with Blackstar. He had done everything he could to help her through it, even going so far as to make a trip to the store to buy a hotspot for every carrier so that Josie could continue her research—she had threatened to leave more than once, just to be able to find something, anything, on Blackstar.

Truth be told, though, not all of the tense moments between them had spawned from her obsession. In fact, the most recent argument stemmed from Wayne’s decision to help rescue Alex. They both knew it was a trap; they both knew it was incredibly dangerous; and they both knew that Wayne simply could not ignore Alex’s plight. At the end of the argument, they agreed—although reluctantly—that Josie would go to Rome, and Wayne would go to save Alex. Josie wasn’t happy about that…and Wayne wasn’t happy that he’d lied to Josie.

Wayne had made Josie a promise that he wasn’t sure he could keep—and to him, that was the same as lying. He promised to come back, but he knew there was a distinct possibility that wasn’t going to happen. This would be the most dangerous mission he had been on yet. I just can’t leave someone behind…and I’m glad Josie knows me well enough to realize that as well. Wayne took a sip of sweet tea to cool his rising temperature and anxiety.

Josie had left earlier that day to catch her flight to Rome. Wayne tried to imagine Josie’s reaction to flying on a private jet, and landing in a city known for romance and adventure. Big city girl gets to travel around, even if it is still a mission, he thought with a smile. The furthest he’d ever traveled was to Canada, and that was for an otherwise-typical hunting trip. He tried to imagine what Rome would be like, finding an interest in the city only because that’s where Josie was headed.

He was worried—about Josie and whether she’d be safe or not; about Alex and the mission; about the fact that people were kidnapping and attacking members of the Contingent. It seemed as if everything had gone sideways in the most epic of fashions. He closed his eyes, and began steeling himself for what was to come. Josie’s one hell of a woman, and she’s with good people. I know Aaron and Nat will help keep her safe, and I’m certain Josie will help keep them safe in return. Those reminders helped Wayne calm his nerves.

He walked back into the cabin, rinsed out his glass, and put it in the drainboard to dry. His gear was packed up long before now; he had only to load it in the truck. He walked quietly back into the cabin and placed a letter on the end table near the couch. Written on the envelope was a single word: Josie. As he finally left, he pulled out a slip of paper from his pocket, and dialed a number on his phone.

Mathias,” said the voice on the other end when the call connected.

“Aaron?” Wayne asked.

“Wayne? Hey, what’s going on?” Aaron asked, somewhat worriedly. He sounded disturbed, as if haunted by his thoughts and emotions.

“I need to you do me a favor should things end up badly. I need you to make sure Josie comes back to the cabin. I left something for her—you know, just in case.”

“Sure thing, man. Josie’s one of us, just like you.” Aaron paused. “Wayne, you’re going with Skaar’s team, aren’t you? You’re going to find Alex.”

“I have to, Aaron. She helped us all back in Tennessee—you most of all. I owe her that much.”

“I know,” Aaron said. He sounded like his heart was breaking. “The alerts didn’t come through until we were almost halfway across Western Europe. If I’d known about this before now, I’d be right there with you.”

“I know you would,” Wayne said. “So I guess it’s our turn to ask each other to take care of someone who means the world to us when we can’t.”

“Damn right,” Aaron said. “Get her out of there, Wayne, and watch your ass. Whatever managed to nab Alex, it would have had to go to a lot of trouble to pull it off. She’s…got some pretty scary people looking out for her. If they couldn’t stop whoever did this, then you’re in for a real handful. In the meantime, Josie will be safe with us.”

“I hope so, man. I really do.”

“We’re hunters, Wayne. This is our life. No promises going in, no regrets coming out. It’s a bitch—but it’s what we do.”

“Yeah. I guess so.” Wayne stared down at the hunting knife he kept beneath the truck console, the same knife he’d lent to Aaron in Florida. “Be careful, brother.”

“You too. Call and update me when you know more. I’ll check in with you as I’m able to. And thanks, Wayne. If I can’t be there…then I’m glad you can.”

“That makes two of us, Mathias. Get yourself and others home alive, you hear?”

“Will do. Good luck, Hodges.”

“Good luck, Mathias.” Wayne hung up and started the engine, pulling away from the cabin. He had no idea what the future held for him—no intel, no weird science, no dream omens to point the way. As such, he did the only thing he could do: he focused on the mission.

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Regrets, Part II
We will pay the price, but we will not count the cost.

(Soundtrack)

Aaron rolled out of the bed in the executive suite of the private jet Natalie had been lent by the Empire Foundation, struggling to keep his footing as his blood redistributed properly throughout his body. High altitudes combined with physical exertions didn’t make for excellent equilibrium, apparently—Aaron had only ever flown business class before, though, so all of this was rather new to him. He heard the sound of a shower being turned on behind him; he’d wait until Nat finished and then go get cleaned up and dressed himself.

He had just enough balance left to pull on his suit pants and button-up shirt before flopping down on the leather couch lining the starboard wall of the main cabin and grabbing his smartphone from his satchel, clearing notifications. Most weren’t directly work-related, although he did notice a very recent text message from Mal saying she’d had something important come up and couldn’t join the Rome team after all.

Aaron was scrolling through a few emails from some publishers about ongoing projects, flagging a few and archiving others, when nearly every alert tone programmed into his phone went off at the same time.

Both the Secret Frequency and the Union network had multiple redundancies built into their communications grid to ensure that important messages reached the parties they needed to, and an internal flagging system which separated users into various priority tiers and allowed higher-ranking Contingent operatives to escalate calls for assistance as they deemed appropriate.

Right now, two messages were being escalated to the utmost extreme of the alert system—the highest level available. Across the cabin, he heard Natalie’s phone buzz with the same incoming notifications. His pulse quickened. This can’t be good.

He flicked a finger over the phone’s screen and pulled up his Union email account. The escalated message, flagged with five red stars in the custom client Simon had designed, was from Ed McLaughlin.

ATTN: ALL CONTINGENT MEMBERS
A contact in ATF leaked to us approval for a surprise raid of the Lupin Organics Farm just outside Denver. We did some digging and there’s nothing requesting agents or equipment. We’re certain it’s a cover for a Task Force: VALKYRIE cleaner team to take out a known site of The Contingent.
This is bad. TF:V is probably the best trained and best supplied group of Hunters out there. I’m pulling together the entire Union and anyone else I can at the VFW in Buena Vista, Colorado. We’re gathering people and supplies to get up on the mountain to help the Sept.
Get here as fast as you can, we don’t know how fast VALKYRIE will hit.
–Ed

Oh God, Aaron thought. Simon, Ed, the Carolina pack…my friends.

He flipped back to his text messages and tapped out a question to Mal. Are you going to Denver?

Yes, came the reply. Eva is already on her way.

He swore under his breath. The he saw the second message flashing in the SecFreq dashboard. And in the Union client. And in his ASI.net inbox. He flicked the dashboard widget open.

It was from Dr. Adrian Skaar’s personal email account at the Empire Foundation. That was alarming enough. Adrian never issued communiqués from his own account; they almost always went through Samantha Whitehall.

Then the subject line populated in the widget, and Aaron’s heart sank into his stomach.

Subject: SOS—Alex Lathem kidnapped

He scanned the message. The details were scant, as was always the case with Skaar’s missives—Adrian never believed in showing his hand too early or disseminating intel that could be intercepted by enemy agents or tech-savvy extranormals. He’d save those for the face-to-face briefing.

Guilt blossomed in the pit of Aaron’s stomach—an emotion he’d dealt with all too often lately, until Alex had released him from it. The guilt grew into frustration, and with that, rage. He stood from the couch and stalked over to the bar in the cabin, pouring a double from an expensive bottle of Scotch and downing it in a single swallow. He grimaced as the flavor of peat burned into his palette, bitter and smoky like the emotions roiling within him. He spun on his foot and screamed, hurling the glass across the cabin; it shattered against a bulkhead on the port side of the bed.

Tears welled in his eyes as he emerged from the cabin. Gina sat in a recliner in the main galley; her eyes were red and puffy, her cheeks sallow—Natalie and Aaron hadn’t seen her eat in days.

“Now you know,” she said, locking her gaze with his.

His anger surged inside of him again as he stared at her incredulously, realization dawning in his head. “You knew about this the whole time. You saw it all unfolding. The attack on the farm, Alex being kidnapped.” He sobbed in frustration and despair. “Gina, why didn’t you tell me?”

The expression of sorrow on Gina’s face deepened; frown lines etched into her expression as she breathed deeply, answering in that calming tone only she could muster. “Aaron, sometimes we aren’t meant to know what the future holds—and seeing what’s coming only makes our choices that much harder. Forces have been set in motion that we have no control over. Now all we can do is have faith in one another.”

“Faith, huh? That’s your fallback plan? Really? Gina, my best friends are in serious danger! This could have been prevented! If I’d known—”

“If you had known,” Gina broke in forcefully, her tone shifting into the same mom-mode she’d used when she snatched him by the ear all those months ago, “you wouldn’t be where you’re needed most. You had a choice, Aaron. You followed your heart and your conscience toward a conclusion where you felt you could make the most impact—where you could do the most good.”

“What choice, Gina?! Don’t give me that destiny bullshit! I came here because I knew nothing about what was going on anywhere else!” He grunted in frustration, pounding a fist into an overhead storage compartment; it left his knuckles bloodied.

Natalie came out of the cabin behind him, still toweling her hair, her sleeping gown clinging to her half-dried body. When she saw Aaron’s hand and Gina’s expression, she dropped the towel and ran to him, seizing him by the arms. “Aaron, what is wrong? I heard glass breaking.” When their eyes met, she realized how bad a frame of mind he was in. “What happened, babe?”

He thrust the phone into her hand. “Look and see for yourself,” he said, pulling away from her grip and stalking over to the bar in the galley to pour another drink. As Natalie’s eyes scanned the phone screen, a crestfallen look fell over her. “Oh no. Oh my God.” She dropped the phone to the couch and turned to face him. “Aaron, I’m so, so sorry.”

He was about to raise the glass of liquor to his lips, to drown out the tide of emotions with another drink, when a manicured hand wrapped around his wrist. Gina stopped his arm from lifting the glass. “Aaron,” she said, “stop running away from your feelings. All this drinking? It doesn’t do you, or the people who love you, any good.” Her voice was stern, but her eyes pleaded for rational thought and discipline on his part.

Aaron’s lip trembled; he gazed down at the glass, sighed heavily, and set it down on the bar. “I feel like I’ve failed them all when they most need me.”

Gina put her hands on his shoulders. “Aaron, listen to me. Something big was set into motion when Carver was killed—like a massive tidal wave of fate crashing ashore into our lives. We can’t stop it, not by ourselves, no matter how bad we might wish we could. Right now, we’re all pawns in a bigger game. That’s a hard truth to face, but we all have a role to play.” She put a taloned hand to his cheek. “You can’t see everything that I see right now. Yes, there is heartbreak and pain and loss in our future. I won’t deny that. But right now, the friends you’re so worried about? The people you want to protect? They’re all banding together to push back the tide. They’re working together—old friends, experienced hunters, green kids, agents fresh out of ASI basic training, young scientists from the Empire Foundation, men and women of the Union with nothing left to lose but their lives and souls, hackers across the Frequency carrying on Chester’s work…they’re all watching out for each other.”

“But I’m not there,” he said through another sob. “They’ll think I don’t care.”

“Aaron, they know how much you care. They know because you’re here with us—doing the most good you can, seizing your own piece of destiny, fighting the battle the best way you can. Listen to me, young man: you cannot fix everything that is broken. You are not a superhero, or a demigod. But you can lead this team, and keep them alive, and help me stop whatever terrible thing is about to happen in Rome.”

Natalie moved behind him, her arms encircling his waist, her face pressed into his neck as she whispered. “Aaron, say the word and I’ll send this jet right back to the States once we land. If you feel you need to go back and help them, I understand.”

Aaron was silent for several long seconds, his eyes clenched shut. “No,” he finally answered. “Ed and Elijah were right. We all have to trust each other to do our duty. To finish the mission.” He looked up at Gina and then turned to face Natalie, a new resolve burning in his eyes. “You’re right. I made my choice already. So, I stay. We get this job done, and we bring everyone home safe.”

The two women enveloped him in their embraces. Tears were shed for loved ones; worry and apprehension hung thick around the three hunters. It didn’t fade as the final hours of their flight passed, not completely—but it diminished somewhat as they each resolved themselves to their fate.

Their friends would make their stands on the battlegrounds of their choice. And they would do the same here.

View
Regrets, Part I
The world weighs on my shoulders, but what am I to do?

(Soundtrack)

Aaron Mathias sat calmly in the lounge chair on the executive patio as Elijah Sharpe poured two cups of coffee and reclined on a beach towel in his own seat by the rooftop pool. Sharpe had been finishing up his morning swim when Aaron had arrived for their appointment. Their last few meetings had not been overly pleasant, between the destruction of the cursed bible in Florida and the irreverent game of phone-tag Sharpe had played with the other operatives with whom Aaron had worked in Dallas. Those meetings had taken place at the desk inside Sharpe’s office, where Elijah typically doled out his tongue lashings to wayward ASI employees.

Today, Sharpe seemed much more at ease—pleased, almost. Aaron felt as though the timbre of discussion between the two men had changed somehow, and couldn’t help but wonder if Sharpe already knew that he knew. “So, Mr. Mathias, I understand you and Miss Allegro have already talked to Mrs. Tarantino regarding her situation,” Sharpe said, breaking the silence.

“Yes, sir,” Aaron replied, swallowing a mouthful of steaming-hot caffeine. “I’ve compared her dreams to my own visions and we’re both recording concurrent journals to keep each other up to date. Natalie and I plan to spend next week at her home in New Jersey so that we can coordinate more closely on the upcoming mission.” Gina had not been her usual self lately—normally flawlessly made up and impeccably dressed, even more so than Natalie, she’d downgraded her wardrobe to sensible clothing and flats in place of her signature high heels, and the bags under her eyes and sense of weariness that permeated the air around her suggested she was losing a lot of sleep. Aaron knew that look all too well from firsthand experience.

Sharpe sipped at his coffee and looked askance at Aaron. “You worried, son?”

Aaron hesitated before answering. “Frankly, sir, yes, I am. I’ve never encountered anyone else who has these visions, and definitely not anything so close to my own. For her to spontaneously experience them with no prior history of oneiric disturbances, even given her pre-existing psychic tendencies…it’s alarming, sir.” Aaron sighed. “And she’s a good friend. Like a second mom to me.”

Elijah smiled and turned to face Aaron, his slippered feet clapping forcefully on the cement surface of the patio as he repositioned. “Aaron, you’ve seen some of our old case files, so you know that Gina and I have hunted together for a long time. Now, I don’t normally let my feelings for my employees show—favoritism is a dangerous beast to feed in our line of work. But I trust her instincts, and I worked in the field with her for many years, even before this company was anything but a piece of paper on file downtown. In light of everything else that’s happened lately, I consider this case to be a top priority for ASI.” He reached over, placing a dark-skinned hand on Aaron’s shoulder, his grip forceful but comforting, almost paternal. “And you’re the best agent for this job, Mathias.” He slapped Aaron’s shoulder and withdrew his hand, reaching for his coffee cup again. “We all screw up from time to time, son. God knows you’re no exception. But I’m impressed with how you’ve grown as a field operative this year. If I didn’t think that, I sure as hell wouldn’t let you handle this matter.”

“Thank you, sir. I appreciate the words of confidence.” Aaron considered his next words carefully before he spoke. “Mr. Sharpe, I feel I owe you an apology.”

Elijah grinned behind his coffee cup. “For what, son?”

Aaron’s eyes shifted downward in shame. “For the last two years, I’ve wondered if my serum therapy was nothing but a shell game to control me, keep me in ASI’s pocket. I assumed the worst about you—especially in light of what we learned from Carver in Braxton Falls. I was wrong.”

“I take it Miss Lathem showed you the files on the oneiric study, then?”

“She did. I had no idea there was a possibility of me developing a tolerance to the serum so quickly. Or how hard you, Evie, and Ken were working to avoid that eventuality. I owe you an apology—and my thanks.”

“Aaron, this line of work can desensitize us so easily,” Elijah said solemnly, locking eyes with the younger man. “It can become all too easy to think of your fellow hunters as commodities and skill sets, and forget that they’re people deep down. I know, because I made that mistake myself a long time ago.” He smiled sadly. “It took Trent writing me off to make me realize that—not to mention others in my life who tried to show me that I could become a monster myself in the process of hunting them down. It’s easy to fool yourself into believing that the ends justify the means, son. But when the means end up hurting someone you care about, you start to think about things differently. And then you see history repeating in people a generation younger than yourself, and you hope they’ll figure all this shit out faster than you did. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t.”

“That’s very true, sir. Still, I’m sorry I assumed the worst about you.”

“Mr. Mathias, let me ask you a blunt question,” Elijah intoned grimly. “Are you happy here? Do you want to leave ASI?”

Aaron inhaled sharply. That’s the issue, isn’t it? Is this my life, my career, now? Do I do this until it kills me, or do I get out and try for a happy ending? “I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t joined ASI. And I feel like I owe you and the company a debt I can never repay. And honestly, I feel like I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing here.” He looked up to face Elijah. “But I’m happiest when I’m with Nat. Even if we still fight, still hunt…I want to do this with her. I want to do everything with her. And I know she’d be miserable on the East Coast.” He closed his eyes. “And I’m not sure that me being here—that us being here—would be fair to Alex. She’s my best friend, even if things are still a little weird between us, and as much as I’d miss her if I moved away, I worry that staying here just makes things harder on her.”

Elijah frowned at that statement. “Mathias, let me tell you something that you don’t seem to be able to figure out on your own: Alexandria Lathem is made of tougher stuff than you give her credit for. She’s iron inside. Like her grandfather.” Sharpe smiled at Aaron’s expression. “Oh yes, I knew Alexander Lathem. Hell of a man. His son was a good friend, too…but that’s a story for another time. Alex will be fine either way—but I’d hate to lose you both, because the two of you have done some damn fine work together, and I need all the help I can get to fight this battle.” His expression turned serious again. “If you feel it’s time for you to move on, Aaron, I can’t make that decision for you. But what I can tell you is that you have a promising future as a field operative—if you live to see it, God willing, and you get your shit together and stop doing stupid things. You could be a role model for these kids who are just joining the Contingent. But you also don’t have to do that here. I gave up my shot at happiness and family a long time ago to start this company. For me, it was the right decision. But that doesn’t mean I don’t regret what I sacrificed in making it.”

“That’s…a very valuable perspective, sir. Thank you for being candid.” Aaron leaned back in his chair. “No matter how much I want a normal life for me and Nat, I know we’ll both always have one foot in the weirdness pool. But I can’t help but think we’d be happier if it were just that—a foot, instead of being neck-deep in it. Still…I know this isn’t over. I feel it. There’s work left to be done, even with Carver dead and gone. So I can’t walk away from the mission. Not yet.”

“That’s a mature attitude to take, son. And a hard truth to face.” Elijah stood and pulled on a t-shirt over his well-defined chest, stretching in the sun, his black skin gleaming in the light of the morning. “Well, whatever you do decide, Aaron, know that you’ll always be considered a friend here at ASI. I could always use a consultant with your talents on my payroll, son. And I’m glad that your problems got sorted out…however unorthodox the methodology used to reach that end. But you didn’t hear that from me.” Elijah winked at him, pulling on a pair of sunglasses. “Now then, I’m sure Grace will have some training exercises for you while you’re in town—but come Friday, I expect you to be in New Jersey with Gina preparing for the mission in Rome. You’ll be the most experienced operative we have on that team, Mr. Mathias. It’s going to be up to you to keep those kids safe and bring them back home in one piece. Can I count on you to lead them responsibly?”

“Yes, sir,” Aaron said without hesitation.

“Good. And Mathias? Gina means as much to me as Alex does to you. She’s one of my closest and oldest friends. So the fact that I’ve assigned you to this case should tell you how much confidence I have in you to do the right thing. Stick to the mission. Do your duty. Trust the others to do theirs in turn.” He reached out a hand; Aaron shook it, hearing echoes of Ed McLaughlin in Elijah’s final words.

“You have my word, sir. We’ll do everything we can to help Gina.”

“Good.” Sharpe rapped on the glass patio table with his knuckles, grabbing a peach and stalking back into the office. “Back to work, then, son. We’ve got a job to do here.”

View
A Matter of Perspective
Trips, Research, and Assumptions Shattered

Alex was packing up her laptop when Jonas dropped a stack of oversized books on her desk. “Hey Georgia, are you in a hurry to get home?” He slid one of the books aside, revealing the corner of a blue folder with red tape sealing the edges closed. “I wanted to make sure you had these for that case you were looking into.” Tapping the books, he shifted them back into a stack and quickly tossed them into her bag. “You wanna grab some dinner? Last chance before I get shunted off to London to deal with the translations on those docs for a few days.”

She shot Jonas a quizzical glance, picked up her phone, and motioned him to grab the bag. “What will I do without your charming presence around here for a few days?” Alex giggled at an intern who was trying not to choke on his drink. “When are you leaving?” Before he could respond, her hands were pressing into his back, urging him out of the room.

“Late tonight,” he winced, contemplating the five hour time difference. “They want me there 8:00am London time, so I’m gonna have to head out in a few hours so I can get some sleep and pretend not to have jet lag.”

As they crossed the lobby, Alex pulled him to a stop and started rummaging through her bag, nearly dragging him off his feet. “I have to drop these off first—almost forgot.” She flashed him a smile and turned quickly, making her way to the reception desk.

The light cotton dress flared as she spun around, its bright red color accenting her pale shoulders. He could still smell her perfume, a hint of jasmine, lingering in the air, or perhaps it was in his head; he didn’t care which. You should tell her before you go. Jonas pushed the thought from his mind, choosing instead to burn the image of her into his memory.

“What are you thinking?” Alex let the corner of her mouth curve into a smile, as he watched her return.

He held out his hand to her. “Nothing at all, Georgia,” he lied. “We need to be out of here.” They walked out of the building and down the street.

Halfway through dinner, Alex risked a peek at the file sandwiched between the books in the bag at her feet. As she pulled the top of the file clear, she noticed the writing across the tab: Oneiric Study—Internal Documentation. “Jonas? How did you…”

“Indefinite moratorium on projects that are no longer active.” He nodded slightly. “They went into the lower vault yesterday. It seems that the only test subject is no longer available.” Jonas raised his glass in her direction before taking a drink. “I knew you would want to see these— and because I know you, Georgia, you need to take the files to him.”

“Is this part of that whole ‘the past is a cage’ lecture again?” She tried to suppress a snicker but ended up snorting while he hid his face in his hands.

“This is why I don’t drink around people,” Jonas muttered through his fingers. “I’m never explaining anything to drunk you ever again.” He flicked his finger at the tip of her nose, tossed some cash on the table to cover the bill and started for the door. “Grab your stuff, I’ll get you a cab.” Alex was about to say something but he held his hand up and ignored her, shaking his head as he went.

By the time she got out to the sidewalk, he was standing by the open door of a taxi. “I’ll see you in a few days. Go do what you need to.” His hand slipped to her waist as she tossed her things in the back seat. “I was going to say I’ll miss you, but you ruined that,” he sighed in mock resignation.

“I’d offer to make it up to you when you get back, but you keep saying no.” Alex stepped back up on the curb and kissed him on the cheek. They stood there for a few moments, neither willing to say more.

He put his hands on her shoulders, turning her around to face the open cab. “But you keep coming back,” he whispered, brushing her hair to the side and letting his fingers trace the curve of her neck. “Go before I say something stupid, alright?”

“Text me when you get there, okay?” She waved as the car pulled into traffic.

Jonas laughed out loud as the car drove away. “Seriously, Georgia?” He shoved his hands in his pockets. You should have told her. He answered himself, walking back toward the office, “Did I forget to say that I love you, because saying that to someone right before you leave town is an invitation to the universe to fuck everything up.”

Alex had been in the cab for about twenty minutes when the text came in. A picture of the Camden Tube Station filled the screen, along with the message: I’m just going to assume for some reason that you thought I was flying.

You’re not going to let me forget this, are you? She hit send and waited a few seconds before a single word appeared in response. NOPE.

She turned back to the files in her lap and typed out an email to Aaron. I have something you need to see. I’ll be home after seven.


Aaron hopped out of the Toyota that had so graciously and uncautiously sped him to Alex’s apartment building. He still wore the riot undergear he’d had on at the firing range earlier, including an empty holster, which the driver had noticed. Best drive time from Philly to Wilmington yet, Aaron thought. I should wear this stuff outside of the office more often. He headed up the exterior side stairs toward the fifth story and knocked on a fondly-remembered door.

Alex opened it with a familiar look on her face that told him she had lost track of time working on something. “Hey,” she motioned him inside. “Let me clear off a space. Don’t look at the mess, we’ve been busy.” She walked over to the couch and scooped up a pillow and blanket and tossed them into the hallway. The furniture had been moved since the last time he had been here. The couch was pushed off to one side to make room for the antique desk which now sat in the middle of the living room. Her computer chair was on one side, and the leather reading chair from her grandfather’s house was sitting facing hers from the opposite side. A printer rested beneath a pile of books and printouts that covered most of the desk. The coffee table was stacked with a number of obscure language dictionaries and a few old maps which were covered in sticky notes.

“I think I set a building that looked like this inside on fire a few weeks ago, y’know,” Aaron commented. “I should start a cleaning service.”

The bookcases had been moved in front of some of the windows to clear the one solid wall in the room. Three whiteboards covered in notations and comments covered the space where several movie posters used to hang. Two distinct handwriting styles flowed across the boards, some of the symbols and words blurred and made Aaron’s head ache as he looked at them. All around the main boards were color coded reference images and notes. Alex caught him staring and interjected apologetically, “Sorry, it’s easier to work here. We can think better, and there’s no one to interrupt.” She intentionally erased some of the symbols before pulling the folder out of her bag. The seal had been neatly cut along one edge, and several pages were poking out of the side. “This is for you.”

Aaron raised an eyebrow as he read the tab on the folder. “This was going to the shredder?” He flipped open the front of the binder and thumbed through years of administrative detritus related to his dreams.

“Jonas stuck a few tabs in there,” she didn’t look at him as she replied. “Most of it is general chatter, but there are a few memos from Elijah that you probably want to read.” Alex pulled her chair back from the desk and sat back, propping her feet on a precariously stacked pile of books on the floor. “He’s the one who pulled the file. They shelved the project and were boxing everything down in the vault.”

Aaron drew back a series of pages marked with a simple Roman numeral and scanned the correspondence. A stream of communications between Elijah Sharpe and a myriad of medical and R&D personnel at ASI was sandwiched between the tabs. A solid minute of silence passed. Aaron looked up from the file. “But this means…did you know this? Before the files got vaulted, I mean.”

Alex shook her head, she had been trying to reconcile the facts on her own since she had read the reports. “No, I had no idea. I always assumed what you had said. That he was limiting the serum to keep you at ASI.”

A vicious set of assumptions crumbled away in the back of Aaron’s mind. “He was trying to help. Sharpe never gave up. He believed he could find the cure.” He looked at her. “In a roundabout way, I guess he did, when he hired you.”

“When Jonas gave me the file, he mentioned that Sharpe probably had an idea of what I was trying to do, but he never gave any indication. It makes sense though, letting me go on the acquisition trip, the mission plans, all of it.”

“Alex…thank you. I never said that, I don’t think. I should have, long before now.”

Her brow furrowed but she smiled anyway. “There are a lot of things that we both should have said before now. I’ve been so tied up in trying to work on things here that I haven’t had time to think about much else. I’m sorry.”

“I know that feeling. The teams did well by all accounts, though. I get the feeling there were a lot of hands involved in seeing to it that those operations went smoothly. And I’m pretty sure that I know most of them.” He smiled knowingly and looked around the room at the evidence assembled. “So what are you working on now that isn’t decoding mind-bending dead languages?”

“Oh, this?” She waved a hand at the disaster that was her living room as she laughed. “This is just a hobby I picked up last week.” Alex got up and headed into the kitchen. “Actually, we’re trying to take what we know and locate the landmarks mentioned in the Carver’s journal. Things still aren’t adding up, but we should have a clearer picture in the next few days. They sent Jonas to London to talk to someone about the translations, so he’s going to have to be nice for a few days. He’s not happy about it.”

Aaron couldn’t suppress a chuckle at that. “At least the weather will agree with him.” He twitched a cheek muscle in thought. “Y’know, I may be able to help you correlate some of this stuff. If it wouldn’t be stepping on your toes, or Jonas’. I’m kinda wired up from some of the drills Grace put me through today so I won’t be getting to sleep anytime soon.” He smiled sheepishly. “If you want the help. And, er, I might owe the company a little overtime in light of, uh, all this,” he said, glancing down at the folder in his hand.

She had been waiting on the kettle to boil while Aaron talked. “I could use a hand to at least dig through a level or two of this. It’s different working with Jonas…everything just clicks faster.” She poured the water into the coffee press and sat on the floor with her legs crossed. “He picks things up before I say them sometimes.” Alex looked up at Aaron and smirked. “That’s why we’ve been working here. It bugs some of the people in the archives when we don’t talk but keep handing stuff off to each other.” She handed him a list of coordinates. “If you want to start checking these off against the maps on the desk, use the old ones, pre 1950, some of the names have changed from what was referenced in the text.”

Aaron took the list and dragged a stool over from the kitchen bar to the pile of maps. “Guess we’ll have to communicate the old-fashioned way, then, like we did back before the kids started up with all this crazy new-fangled telepathy nonsense.”

“It’s more efficient,” she tensed defensively for a moment before taking a deep breath. “Gonna be a few minutes on coffee still—he did teach me to make a kick ass cup of coffee, in between all the bitching and yelling at interns.” Alex grinned as she sorted through a stack of images. “I think there’s some cheesecake in the fridge from yesterday if you want it.”

“Ooooh, tempting,” Aaron said. “But you know the rule: after-hours research must always be accompanied by almond scones. I’ll run across the street and grab some while the good stuff brews.”

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Sweet Dreams Are Made of This
Who am I to disagree?

The Suburban pulled into Granger’s Own a little after one in the morning. Ed and Granger were both dead tired. Two solid days of driving, stopping only for food and bathroom breaks, had taken its toll. As they stepped out of the vehicle, Granger noticed a bright light under a tarp off in the corner of the garage draped over the front end of the Charger that Taz had acquired on their last mission. He could hear the muffled sound of music, probably from headphones. Suddenly reenergized, Granger mischievously snuck over to the tarp and quickly lifted it, shouting, “HEY TAZ!”

“Jesus, Granger! Oh, hey Ed. How’s the Sphinx? When did it get dark out? Anyway, welcome back. Radiation levels are still cool. Toss me the air wrench, will ya?”

“Guys, I think I’m going to crash for a while.” Ed left Granger and Taz to chat. He yawned, his jaw cracking.

Ed shuffled into the small office at the garage and collapsed on an old couch. Within moments, he was asleep.


He found himself standing on an abandoned stretch of asphalt. The moon-lit fog extended in all directions, obscuring his vision, but the smells and plant life at the road’s edge told Ed he was still somewhere in the low country.

Out of the swirling fog strode a massive wolf made of vines and earth. The creature was easily the size of a draft horse and its presence filled the air with the smells of growth and the sounds of branches rubbing against each other in a storm. Flanking the creature to the left was a fox right out of a Disney movie, standing around five feet tall and walking like a human. He carried a thyrsus. To the wolf creature’s right was Leanna. But most surprising was the young girl, not much older than five, that rode on the creature’s back.

Okay, a dream, Ed thought. I clearly didn’t wander out into the wilderness at night, so this isn’t real.

The fox laughed. “You are both right and wrong, I’m afraid. While this is most certainly a dream, it is also quite real.”

Ed stepped back in shock. “How the hell did you know what I was thinking?”

Reaching for the spot at his hip where his pistol usually rested, Ed found comfort in the cold steel suddenly there. He drew the pistol, but didn’t yet level it at the fox. Instead he took the revolver into both hands, pointing it at the ground in the fox’s general direction. The fox’s tail twitched in disapproval.

“Ed! Don’t!” Leanna called out. “He’s just here to talk, I promise.”

The fox’s face twisted into a sneer as he glared across the wolf’s snout at Leanna. “Ah, yes, talking. Something I don’t recall giving you permission to do!”

Leanna’s shoulders slumped and her gaze fell back to the ground. “Start talking, fox, before you find yourself mounted and decorating my mantle.” Ed snarled.

More disapproving tail twitching followed. “Well, I certainly see why you think he’s useful,” the fox droned.

The little girl finally spoke. “Mr. Grumpy Pants, you are being rude.” She pointed a tiny finger at Ed. “All we want is to be friends, and Mr. Fluffy has some ‘portant things to tell you.”

The fox’s eyes rolled at the girl’s name for him “I am not called Mr. Fluffy! The name is Sorni. Ugh, what’s the point?”

Sorni turned to face Ed, drawing himself up to his full height. “Fine. It seems our little Child of Spring here did you a great service recently. But she didn’t follow the rules. And then someone got greedy and took more than his share.”

The wolf creature growled; the throaty bass made the very ground rumble.

The fox turned to face the wolf, his free hand going to the fox’s hip. “Oh, you most certainly did! Desire, yes, that one was yours. But you gobbled up his Wrath, Fear, and Sorrow right along with it. Those weren’t yours to take, and you know it!” The fox punctuated each emotion by poking the wolf in the side with his thyrsus.

“Bad puppy! Greedy puppy!” the little girl shouted, reaching down to bop the wolf on the nose.

Unbelievably, the creature actually appeared ashamed by her admonishments. Its ears and tail drooped, and its shoulder sagged.

“On top of that,” the fox continued, leaning across the wolf’s snout and pointing his thyrsus at Leanna, “this one, my own courtier, hid away your memories.”

“I was just trying to help him!” Leanna pleaded. “He’d done so much for us—I didn’t know what it would do to his mind to have the memories and not the emotions!”

“That was not your choice to make!” the fox bellowed. Bits of spittle flew from his mouth. “You’ve broken the Contracts and put us all at risk! And now, when we need him and his kind the most, he’s this pitiful thing, wallowing in this sweltering mosquito pit instead of preparing to defend the Laurels!”

Ed’s frustration level had reached its peak. “Someone is going to start talking sense, or I’m going to start shooting things until I get answers!”

The fox turned his head to face Ed, having obviously forgotten Ed was even there. “Ed!” he said with a big grin. “Ed! My buddy, my pal. Look, no hard feelings, right? No reason for you to mention this business to anyone else. No reason to ever mention that Leanna broke the Contracts or the Ysengrim got greedy. We’re even going to give you back everything Ysengrim here took, okay?”

The wolf-creature obviously didn’t agree with the Fox’s plan. “Okay, fine! You can keep the Desire—that’s fair, I guess.”

Ed’s Super Redhawk barked, throwing up chunks of asphalt onto the trio. "Enough! Whatever the fuck you guys took from me, you’re going to give it back. Otherwise, I know where the next bullet is going.”

The young girl giggled, bouncing up and down. “He said a bad word!”

Sorni squared his shoulders and put himself between Ed and the others, holding the thyrsus in both hands like a warrior. The humor in his voice dropped. “Yes, but I’m fairly certain that he’s not a bad man. Just…frustrated. So tell you what Ed, Ysengrim and Leanna will give you back what they had no right to take, and I’ll even add a little something extra for your trouble.”

Ed leveled the steel barrel at Sorni and looked over the sights into Sorni’s eyes. “You will give me back everything you took, or we’re going to find out exactly how real this dream is.”

Sorni’s tail twitched. “Ed. I can’t just give back the Desire—it’s Ysengrim’s, fair and square. He held up his end of the bargain. Or close enough.”

Ed’s index finger moved from the trigger guard to the trigger itself. Sorni’s eyes grew large “Wait!” he shouted. “But he can give it back! If you do him a service. Yes, a pact. We can do this the right way. Everything we owe you, repaid with interest. And if you will defend the Laurels for a complete cycle of the moon, Ysengrim will give back the Desire he took.”

Ed lowered the weapon. “For the last time, what the hell are the Laurels? And why do you think I can defend it?”

“Ed, the Laurels is what my people call the Farm.” Leanna explained. “And since you defended it once, Sorni and Cicuta think you can do it again.”

“The Farm? Who would be insane enough to attack the Farm? It’s protected by werewolves.”

Sorni glanced back over at Leanna. “Yeah, they’re not exactly at their best right now—problems with leadership. That part will make more sense once your memories are returned.”

Ed’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What’s the rest of it? If I know anything about fairy tales, there’s always a catch.”

Sorni sighed. “Remind me to shit on Grimm’s grave later—bastard spoiled everything,” he muttered to himself. “Alright, so not a catch per se…but there is a penalty. If you fail to protect the Laurels, everything goes back to Ysengrim for time eternal, a pox on your head, yadda yadda yadda. Honestly, not a problem…unless you run out on us. And I imagine that if you fail in the attempt, there won’t be much ‘after’ to worry about.”

Silence stretched for long moments. Finally, Ed holstered the weapon. “Fine. I’ll do it.”

Sorni’s ears perked up and his tails swished from side to side “Excellent! Now we just need you to swear on it.”

“What?”

“Swear it, on your name.”

“Fine. I, Edward McLaughlin, swear on my name to protect the Laurels for the next month.”

Sorni nodded. “And in return, we swear to return to you what was taken without right, and will return your Desire upon completion of your Task.”

The fog bank at the road’s edge broke, mist spilling onto the asphalt between Ed and the fairy creatures. “Good luck, Ed,” Sorni called out as the fog obscured all details.

“A bunch of dudes with guns and some werewolves? I think we’ll be fine,” Ed called back.

“Oh, no. Not with that.” Sorni shouted, sounding incredibly far away. “Good luck with what comes next. Those memories might be better left locked away, I’m afraid.”

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Distractions

Josie looked down at her phone for a fourth time; the ‘No Signal’ symbol had yet to vanish, and her frustration escalated to a new level. Pacing through the cabin barefoot, she tried in vain to find somewhere she could get a signal. With a growl, she tapped her foot against the hardwood floor. She had things to do, and this ‘camping out in the woods’ idea of Wayne’s was only slowing her down. Catching a glimpse of Wayne from the corner of her eye, she stormed over to him, holding her phone out in front of her. “This is beyond ridiculous. I have research I need to do, and you dragged me out into the middle of nowhere!”

Wayne took a step back as he blinked at her, surprised that she was yelling at him. Josie stepped towards him with a glare, closing the gap between them again. “I need to find out what Blackstar is, Wayne. I don’t understand why no one else seems to care about this.” Pushing past him, she began to pace through the cabin again, her grip tightening on her phone as she bit the inside of her cheek out of nervousness. Wayne’s eyes followed her like a mouse watching a cat; he was obviously concerned with her behavior, and she hadn’t been quite the same since Dallas. He cleared his throat, following after her as she moved about the cabin frantically.

“Josie.” She seemed to ignore him, muttering to herself about how humans weren’t meant to live in the woods. “Josie, you need to stop,” he tried again, only to be brushed to the side. Letting out a deep breath, Wayne shifted to the side, getting directly in Josie’s path, raising his voice slightly to get her attention. “Josie! Stop!” She looked up for only a moment before turning around to pace in the opposite direction.

“I can’t, Wayne! We shouldn’t be hiding out here—we should be finding out what’s going on! We don’t have time for this! There’s so much more we need—“

Wayne cut her off as he grasped her elbow and pulled her towards him. His other arm snaked around her waist, pressing her against his chest as he leaned forward, kissing her suddenly. Josie’s entire body tensed as she tried to process what was happening—but Wayne was warm, and safe, and for just a moment, everything she had been worried about melted away. She relaxed into the kiss, letting the moment consume her.

Then, as quickly as it had begun, it ended.

“Oh God, Josie, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.” Wayne stammered as he gently forced Josie backwards and away from him. “I didn’t mean to, it just happened. I’m so sorry.” Josie gaped at Wayne in shock as she watched him fumble out several more apologies.

“Why on earth are you apologizing?” Josie followed after Wayne as he continued to pull away from her. He turned around, walking towards the door, rubbing the back of his neck, but Josie refused to let him walk away from her.

“I shouldn’t have taken advantage of you! It just happened—I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. I’m so sorry, Josie. That won’t ever happen again,” he said regretfully.

Josie rushed towards the door, standing in between the exit and Wayne, refusing to let him leave. She glared at him, but her expression softened when she saw that his face was flushed and he couldn’t maintain eye contact with her.

“Contrary to popular belief, I can actually handle myself. Do you seriously think you’re taking advantage of me?”

His expression grew even more guilty. “I took advantage of the situation, and it was wrong. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m so sorry.”

Josie narrowed her eyes at Wayne, taking a step towards him. “Quit apologizing! If you regret it because it’s me, just say it. Don’t play games with me, Hodges.”

“What?” Wayne shook his head, his eyes widening at her implication. “Oh God, no! No, it’s not because it’s you! You weren’t answering me, and I said I’d keep you safe. No, never because it was you—you’re—no, you’re great.” Josie raised an eyebrow, crossing her arms over her chest. “Ah shit, more than great. You’re smart, and determined, and beautiful, and a surprisingly good shot. Of course I would want to kiss you.” Wayne’s blush intensified as the realization that he had wanted to kiss her for some time finally hit him.

Josie stalked towards Wayne as he spoke, her hips swaying from side to side. Swiftly grabbing his shirt, she pulled him down towards her, kissing him firmly, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. Wayne lifted her up, hooking an arm under her knees and behind her back to gently carry her into the bedroom. He struggled to kick the door shut as Josie tugged on his earlobe with her teeth.

Breaking away softly, Wayne set Josie down gently on the edge of the bed, as if placing her side-saddle on a horse for the first time. Josie’s eyes narrowed in frustration, then rolled upward as she yanked him down next to her by the collar. No one tells me how to ride, she thought to herself as she straddled his lap and fell on top of him.

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Tough Call
Marshall Barsoom

Marshall picked up his phone. He recognized the number; answered it anyway.

(on phone)
Hello, This is Marshall with…(sigh.) Hi, Maya…No, I can talk now…Yeah, I took a few weeks leave…Yeah, Paris. I know I’m not in the Airforce anymore. You spoke to Matt..? I know he is your son-in-law too, that’s not the point…He didn’t need to tell you…I know he isn’t one of my airmen…What command voice?! (deep breath.)…Do you mind if I put you on speaker..?

Marshall tapped an icon on his phone. “Okay. I’m sure you didn’t call to have this argument again, so why did you call..?”

Maya answered, “No I didn’t. Matt sounded concern when he talked to you a few days ago. He said you were planning to go to Saudi Arabia after you left France.”

“That’s right,” he said crisply.

“Our son-in-law thought you sounded like you didn’t plan on coming back.” She spoke as if he’d already confirmed the notion. It was one of the things the aggravated him when they were married.

Marshall offered an explanation in a guileless voice, “I’ve taken a few language courses online, and I figured this would be an excellent opportunity to immerse myself.” He could sense his ex’s expression tighten after his lame attempt at levity. The corner of his lip uncurled from its smirk as his voice took on a serious tone, “I’m just looking for closure.”

In disbelief, Maya returned, “Closure? We lost our daughter, Marshall. Now you’re intent on wallowing in self-pity and wandering into the desert to die.” He couldn’t dispute what her words; Maya was right. She had a habit of being right more often than was absolutely necessary.

He spoke in a somber tone, “You don’t understand. That night, I lost everything. I saw…I did something terrible and haven’t been able to move on from that night in Khafji. I grasped a few of the crumbling pieces for a while, but everything else, everyone else…” he paused, “continued on without me.”

“You’re right,” the frustration evident in her voice. “I can’t understand. You wouldn’t tell me, remember? You just put on a brave face and tortured yourself for the last twenty-five years because of a lapse in judgment that got you a medal.”

“And, I still can’t tell you.” Marshall knew she would take it the wrong way, she always had, but he preferred her anger over whatever potential reaction she’d have to the truth. “I need to confront my demons, and I need closure.”

After a long silence, Maya replied in a flat voice, “Fine. Don’t talk to me, but think about our foundation. Whatever you think you did or didn’t do, there are others that have gone through what you have.” After a brief silence she added, “Marshall, talk to someone.”

“Yeah. I will. Say hello to Bill for me,” he said sounding exhausted.

He sat thinking about the last thing his ex-wife said; he’d met people who had also survived a similar experience. Unfortunately, He helped destroy a book they were after and was sure he had burned that bridge. The image of Shandi pop into his mind; he cringed visibly at the dark thought.

Marshall tapped the red hang up button on his cell then uncocked his sidearm before placing it on the desk in his hotel room. He looked down at the gun which now lay between the phone, his passport and the one-way ticket to Saudi Arabia. He thought, “Maybe I should iron the shirt for the flight in the morning.”

Marshall was halfway through ironing his clothes when his cell started buzzing. Unknown number; answered it anyway.

(on phone)
Hello, this is Marshall Barsoom with the Homefront Foundation…Oh! Hi, Natalie. No, I can talk now. I’m just doing a little ironing…

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