Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Operation Emerald: Part Four ~ All that Jazz



Enchanted skull Cup
From: Whispers of Persephone (coming soon to Kickstarter)
Artist: Christian Martinez





Enthen mén Skýllē, hetérōthi de dîa Charubdis
"On one side lay Scylla and on the other divine Charybdis"
.... Homer, 'The Odyssey'
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Astrally projecting through natural elements is extraordinarily difficult.  Spirits can manage it easily, if the element in question is the one from which they originate.  Whatever had grabbed Rose had dragged her under the mana charged water, plunging her into an element that would be difficult for her to operate in. Lily had dived in after her.  I dove in after my spirit-daughters, colliding with the element of water.  While a human's physical body is largely at home in water a person's soul is not.  I struggled, pulling after my daughters and falling further behind by the second. 

"It has me." Rose's thought voice reached me clearly through the dazzling haze of elemental energies I was trying to swim through.

"I'm coming, sister!" Lily exclaimed. 

"Hang on baby-girl!  I'm coming to get you!"  My thought voice sounded fuzzy to me.  Trying to force my way through the water was like trying to swim in gelatin.

"I will do violence."  Rose's thought voice rang in my skull.  A moment later, there was a blinding flash of mana energy. 

The water around me was blasted away and my astral form was blown into the air along with the fine spray. I was trying to orient myself when Rose and Lily appeared next to me.  "We should leave," they said in unison.

"If I didn't know better, I would think you were twins too." We flashed away from the flooded streets, found the carved steps and shot up the polished tunnel.  Behind us, a baneful howl reverberated through astral space. Lily, Rose and I appeared in the cavern and were confronted by Creep and his flock of demon-women.

"What the hell was that?" Creep demanded.

"Don't know but it tried to make off with Rose." I said. "It was hiding under the water, grabbed her and dragged her under. Definitely has a physical body, too."

"Well, let's kill it and be done with the thing then." Creep's proclamation was punctuated by a second, echoing howl that rang about astral space within the cavern.

"I've never heard an echo in astral space before, have you?" I asked.

"No, my first time too." Creep replied. His astral form looked pensive and I saw a growing glow of anticipation and tension building in him.

"It is coming." Rose's thought voice was calm. She was facing the tunnel, hands outstretched and readying spells. Lily stood ready at her side. Power was building within them, ready for violent release.

"I don't like the idea of confronting it in the ruin again.  The water concealed its approach.  I never had a hint it was there until it snatched Rose." I nodded my agreement to Creep.  "You're right, we kill it here."

"Groovy." Creep snarled.  Around him, six demon-women laughed.

I turned back toward the carved tunnel and cried out into the astral, "Shut up!  If you're going to growl and fuss about it, come get us you lazy bastard!"

"Thanks, Machine." Creep drawled.

"Remember, girls, it's astrally active or else it couldn't have grabbed Rose. Stay in the astral where you're at your strongest.  I don't want you tangling with this thing in the physical world unless absolutely necessary." I took up a position between them while Creep and his demons flanked us.

"Of course, father." Their thought voices reached me directly.

I was waiting for the creature to come for us and was still surprised by the speed with which it attacked.  One moment I was facing a dead, lifeless hole in the living rock and the next moment I was batted across the cavern to slam into the unyielding Earth.  Pain flared through me as screams of rage erupted from Lily and Rose, drowning out the cries of demons and the manic laughter that rang out from Creep. I was dazed and watched as the monster, for it fully deserved the name, raged and clawed at my girls.  Creep's demons threw sizzling bolts of mana at the thing to no obvious effect.

It was huge.  Five meters tall and three meters broad.  It's body was covered in scabrous lesions that seemed to ooze a sticky puss.  The thing had a stink to it that somehow extended to the astral plane.  It was shaped like some monstrous giant, with a head bearing four eyes and a broad mouth filled with rows of fangs. The monster's thick legs ended in wide, webbed feet and it moved with inhuman speed. The monster lashed out at Lily with a massive, clawed hand as if to rend her to bits.  I saw Lily's face full of rage as she grabbed onto the outstretched arm and twisted with all her might, spinning the beast forcefully to the cavern floor.  Rose drove her fist down into the monster's exposed neck.

Rose beat at the thing while Lily held it pinned fast against the unyielding stone of the cavern.  It howled in rage and pain, and thrashed about trying to escape Lily's grasp.  Creep's demons rained down spells upon it, but it seemed to shrug them off. The cavern rang with unearthly howls.

I pushed myself off the cavern wall realizing, quite suddenly, that I had been badly hurt by the monster's first strike.

"Try this on for size!" Creep laughed. I saw him pull in energy from the abundance of magic in the cavern and weave it into his spell.  The slimy little fragger laughed and babbled as his spell coalesced and flashed into the beast.  I saw it's astral form fracture at the point of impact, and cracks along its astral body began to bleed out essence.  The monster's howls became screams of pain. Lily stepped in, placing her foot firmly between the monster's shoulders, and snapped its arm at the elbow.  Rose struck down at the thing's head, driving its face into the stone.

The fight was brutal.  Creep's demons abandoned their spell casting and fell upon the beast, tearing at it with claws and fangs or stomping at it with cloven hooves.  I watched, my astral form battered and hurting everywhere.  It took about two minutes for the thing to die.

Lily and Rose appeared beside me the moment after the monster's aura vanished. "Let's get back." I told them.  We rose up through the steel seal, up the shaft and into the airlock.  Creep appeared a moment later and we both returned to our physical bodies.

"Oh, frag that hurts." I complained. "Creep are you back yet?"

"Yeah, I'm here," he replied. "What the hell was that thing?"

"Close and seal the hatch.  I have no idea what that was.  I want more people ready to go before we head down there in the flesh." Creep closed the hatch for me as Rose and Lily materialized in the airlock.  It was cramped but their presence was most welcome.

"You are badly hurt." Rose's voice sounded worried in my mind.

"I heard another howl from the tunnel as I was coming back up." Lily reported. "There is at least one other down there."

"It was terribly fast." I said out loud. "We'll need to warn the team before we move on down there. I'll talk to Jazz about how we'll secure our exit route."

"Good idea. I don't like the idea of getting cut off by one of those things." Creep answered. "Assuming, of course, that there isn't only one more."

"Right, assume the worst so you're not disappointed when it happens to be the case." I closed my eyes and felt the pains flaring through my body. "I need you to stay here and cover the shaft.  I'm going topside to report to Control and get some shut-eye.  I'll relieve you in four hours and bring down some back up. I'll schedule our breach of the seal after I speak to Control."

"Looked like that thing knocked you pretty hard.  You gonna be okay?" Creep asked.

I opened my eyes and saw the slimy little fragger smiling at me. "Yeah, Creep, null sheen. I took harder hits than this in the Barrens."  Technically it wasn't a lie, I had been hit harder in the Barrens before. Thankfully, that hadn't happened often.

*****

November 23rd, 2060

0200 hours, operational area local time

Samantha had taken the report of the monster in stride.  She had no insights to offer on what it may have been. She ordered the seal to be breached and for exploration of the ruin, and recovery of artifacts to begin. I recommended that we leave Sherlock behind until after we cleared the ruin of hostile creatures, but Samantha instructed otherwise.  He was going down with us in the first trip.

Jazz and I spoke at length about how to secure our route back out of the ruin and cavern.  Neither of us liked the options we came up with, but we settled on the best plan we had.  Zero was going to be staying top-side, in camp and standing by in case we had to initiate our GTFO* maneuver. Simon would be going down with us to set up comms, and maintain drone recon.

"We don't have enough people." Jazz said flatly.  "We're spread thin between camp and the site."

"What should we do?  Move the camp into the cavern?" I asked him. "I don't think that's a good idea, Jazz."

"Me neither, but it consolidates our firepower." Jazz shook his head. "Of course, it also traps us meters deep in case some random asshole drops a grenade down the lake on top of our airlock. Damn.  We just don't have enough people."

"So, we have Zero keep drone coverage up at camp and we leave Ding up top to cover him.  We bring the rest of the team down and point their guns into the dark and hope we can kill anything that tries to eat us." It was a terrible idea.

"Problem is that makes getting out quickly impossible. We can cycle up to two men at a time through the airlock, that just isn't enough time to get everyone out."  Jazz gritted his teeth and looked me in the eye. "Your call Machine.  There isn't a good option."

"Split the team then. Fewer guns under the lake, but more topside to keep us covered.  Also allows for the potential of a rescue effort if need be.  We can call down reinforcements if we need to, and also cycle out people for rest periods.  If anyone gets injured we can replace them from top-side personnel."  Jazz nodded grimly. "I think it's the best option."

"I'll make it happen." Jazz replied.

"Oh, Jazz, have everyone load silver.  I don't know what that thing was, but it shrugged off most of the spells thrown at it.  Let's err on the side of caution." I said.

"And if the silver doesn't work?" Jazz asked.

"We leave, weld the seal closed, back-fill the shaft and say 'Frag It'." I replied.


1100 hours, operational area local time

I was tired. Creep and I had astrally projected down into the cavern while the seal was being cut away.  Spirits were at the ready and watching for any sign of danger. The cavern walls were alive with the energy of the living Earth and the carved tunnel loomed like a dark maw waiting to swallow us.

Time ticked by slowly.

"Why don't we go look for the whatsit?  Hunt it down from the astral and kill it off with the spirits." Creep asked suddenly.

"No. We wait for the team.  That first one had a helluva punch to it."  I replied.

"We're going to have to head down there sooner or later." Creep murmured.  "Why take the gun-bunnies with us?  They'll just slow us down."

"No.  We wait for the team.  We need the backup just as much they need us." I didn't dare to look away from the tunnel.  "It took all we had to take out the first one.  Don't underestimate these things, whatever they are."

"Sure thing, Machine." Creep replied.

"Creep.  You do know we're going to come down here in the flesh once the fire team is down, right?" My question lingered on the currents of mana for a moment.

Creep's reply was a quiet. "Oh."


1120 hours, operational area local time

Jazz was the first man to arrive in the flesh.  He roped down quickly, his AK-97 coming up as soon as his feet hit the cavern floor.  The team came down one at a time.  Fanning out with weapons trained toward the dead hole in the living rock.  From the astral plane I couldn't tell how they could see in what must have been pitch darkness but they moved well.

I drifted away from the tunnel and hovered near Jazz.  He had squatted down and was rummaging through old bones.  I watched and waited until he stood and raised his arms, crossing them at the wrist.  "Creep. I'm coming down in the flesh. Once I'm down, you come down too."

"Yeah, copy that Machine." Creep's response did not sound enthusiastic.

I opened my eyes, still hurting from the earlier encounter with the monster.  The stink of chlorine and the foul stench of the monster, mingled with a strange smell of old water and earth.  A simple levitation spell lowered me down into the cavern.  Headlamps gleamed from the helmets worn by each of the weapons specialists.

"Jazz, report." I whispered.

"It's dead, Machine." Jazz answered. "Bits of it strewn about, but yeah you guys killed it ugly."

I looked around at bits of the monster we had killed in our earlier encounter.  Its remains were strewn throughout the cavern.  Bones that looked as if they had come from an arm were near Jazz.  On the far side of the cavern, the skull and what could have been ribs lay bare among old bones.  There was no sign of flesh on any of the remains of the thing.  "Jazz, we didn't strip its flesh or scatter its bones.  Something or more likely, several somethings, tore it apart and ate it."

"Just what I was thinking." Jazz replied. "Notice that parts are clumped together in different areas?  Different things dragging off parts to eat away from the rest of the feeding frenzy."

"Yeah.  So five different piles, five different things." I didn't like what I was hearing.

"No, at least six. Those five dragged parts away from the corpse.  Nothing dragged the torso away, just parts of it.  Spine is right there where you said you guys killed it.  It was eaten there, most likely by a few of whatever these things are." Jazz looked at, a strange expression on his face. "What are these things?'

"No idea." I replied. "But they appear to be hungry."


1200 hours, operational area local time

Simon came down with a number of small drones and a pack full of power cells.  Sherlock, came down last.  Jazz put two men behind machine guns to cover the tunnel entrance, and left one behind with Simon who had set up a repeater directly below the seal.  Simon sent a pair of drones down the tunnel, and gave us our first visual of the ruins below.

There was a dim level of ambient light around the ruins.  I couldn't see the source.  The drone cameras revealed that the streets before us were flooded. The stone structures rose to the cavern ceiling overhead.  I saw a sudden flurry of motion as the waters thrashed violently.  I heard an eerie howl echo from the tunnel.

"Weapons free." I whispered into my mic. Creep's demon-women manifested in front of the tunnel. I heard the actions cycle on weapons all around me.  I lifted my Smith & Wesson 500 Magnum (tm) and leveled it at the dark whole that loomed before us, carved from the living rock.

"Drone is picking up motion in the tunnel." Simon muttered.  "Moving slow and coming up quiet. Nothing on visual."

"Creep." I looked at the lunatic and gave him the order he would certainly enjoy. "Fireball. Make it hurt."

His face split into a smile that made my stomach roll.

"Hell's burning light, damnation and darkest night" the incantation rolled out of his mouth as easily as if a normal person were saying 'hiya'. "Feel the pain of burning spite, and suffer the wrath of my might!"

Fire erupted in the tunnel. I felt a blast of heat wash over me causing sweat to break out over my body.  An inhuman screech, a scream out of nightmares, echoed out of that fire blasted hell.  The stench of brimstone assaulted my nose as Creep's laughter rang painfully in my ears.

"How's that!?" He croaked out between his chuckles. "Hey, Jazz!  Fire in the hole! Am I right?!"

Jazz cocked an eyebrow, but otherwise kept his AK-97 trained on the tunnel.

"Jazz, pick three and you're with me.  Creep, fire support for the rest of the team. If anything gets past us, kill it hard. Sherlock, stick close to Simon. Everyone, we do everything we can to keep each other alive.  Nothing touches Simon or Sherlock."  My thought voice reached out to Rose and Lily, "Girls, stick close to me.  I know I'm going to need your help."

We plunged down into darkness.  Acrid smoke assaulting us as we moved down the tunnel.  We found a charred corpse twenty meters down.

Creep's spell had burned the creature's flesh to an ashen grey char.  It had been a biped, with long arms and squat legs.  Its four eyes had exploded in its skull, leaving blackened holes that looked out at nothing.  The stench of the burned monster was unlike anything I had ever encountered.

"Chalk up another confirmed kill for Creep." Jazz said softly.

"Is anyone keeping count?" I asked.

"I'm sure he is." Jazz focused his attention down the tunnel. "Any idea why we couldn't see it what the drone?"

"Invisibility maybe, or perhaps something like the color blending that you see in some para-critters. Not sure, really."  I opened my astral sight and beheld the burning vista of the tunnel I was in.  Ghostly flames licked at the dead walls of carved stone.  The blackened corpse was awash in impressions of pain and surprise.  Small dark motes, grey and fleeting, formed a trail that led down the tunnel toward the ruins.  I had to strain to close my astral sight, the effort earning the beginning of a headache for me.


1235 hours, operational area local time

We made our way down the tunnel and out to an flat stretch of stone that overlooked the ruins below. The air was thick with the scent of mold and open water. Small glowing fungal growths sprouted at random along the walls, looking like clumps of glowing pods on the near wall and like distant stars hanging from the high cavern ceiling and the distant walls.

I heard water splash violently in the flooded streets below us.

"Machine, we have a problem." Jazz had his AK-97 to his shoulder training down the roughly carved steps that led down to the water.

I followed his aim and beheld shapes rising from the water.  Broad shouldered beasts, mockeries of metahumanity, with large sloped heads holding two pairs of red eyes.  There were perhaps a dozen of them, three as large as the one Creep and I had killed hours before, while the remaining were smaller, roughly the size of an adult troll.  They sprang to the steps and hurled themselves toward us.

I shouted, "Open fire!" and reached out to Lily and Rose.

Jazz and the three weapon specialists he had selected, fired a hail of bullets.  Silver streaked invisibly through the distance between us and the monsters. The bullets struck home, to no effect.

"IGNIS MAGICAE!" Flame leapt from my out-stretched finger tip, burning across the hide of one of the five meter tall giants.  It screamed in pain and fury, its flesh bubbling and lesions bursting to spray puss a meter into the air.

Lily and Rose cast out their hands, each of my spirit daughters hurling a devastating ball of violent mana energy down to detonate among our monstrous foes.  The spells erupted with the stench of ozone, and no obvious impact on the deformed creatures.

"Machine, we definitely have a problem!" Jazz shouted out.

"Girls, fire based spells, now! Jazz, we're falling back!" I was still calling out my order as I turned to face back toward the tunnel behind us.  Two of the giant sized monsters had somehow scaled down the wall behind us, and landed with solid impacts upon the stone.  Their huge bulk blocking sight of the tunnel, and cutting off our escape.  They opened their gaping maws, exposing rows of shark-like teeth, and bellowed triumphantly.

"IGNIS MAGICAE!"  Lily's voice rang out like a bell.  A lance of flame, as thick as my own arm, roared past me and caught the monster on my left full in the face.  Its head exploded in a shower of stinking puss, roasting brain tissue, and charred fragments of bone. 

The monster on my right blurred forward.  Behind me I heard Jazz scream, 'Grenade!'.  We stood on that patch of rock, dozens of meters below Lac Assal, as the monsters came at us.

In the back of my mind I heard Aria's voice. "You come home to me, Tommy."

The monster coming at me was inhumanly fast, but it had a few meters to close before it could reach and kill me.  I reached out with a spell I often used at play with my daughters, only with this casting I put the full force of my magic behind it.  The levitation spell lifted the beast from the stone. Its forward momentum and churning limbs caused it to tumble in the air as my spell lifted it meters overhead.  It passed over us, thrashing and howling in infernal rage.

"IGNIS MAGICAE!" Lily's voice rang out again as her second flame spell seared skyward, cutting off the screams of the giant above us by searing its body to the bone.

"FALL BACK!" Jazz screamed over the muffled blast of the grenade far below, the sound of gunfire and blazing spells.  The rest of the team turned and ran for the steps.  Jazz took a long stride to follow, but a large hand reached over the lip of the carved steps below us and grasped his waist.  The monster jerked him violent backward.  Jazz's head snapped forward and slammed against the stone step before he disappeared into the darkness. His AK-97 clattering on the rocky landing.

I jumped off the landing toward the monster making off with Jazz. Rose and Lily appeared right beside me.  Meters below me, the water flooding the streets of the ruins continued to churn as more of the monstrous creatures erupted.  Below me, Jazz hung limply in a hand of the giant.  The monster lifted him toward its gaping maw as the girls and I plummeted after him.

"IGNIS MAGICAE!" My voice was joined by Rose and Lily's.  Our spells shot forward, striking the beast's arm, neck and its malformed head.  The creature's head exploded in a gruesome spray of flesh and bone fragments. Its arm was severed, and fell to the stone steps with Jazz still held fast in its grasp.  I landed hard, two steps above Jazz's limp form. The monsters before us gathered themselves to pounce.

*to be continued in part five*


******
*GTFO: 'get the frag out', based on an earlier saying from the turn of the century.
******

Thank you for reading my fan fiction.  I hope you are enjoying these tales.

I also write and publish role-playing game material (though not for Shadowrun), and will soon be launching a KickStarter campaign for my next title Whispers of Persephone.  I hope you'll check it out!

Your comments are always most welcome.  If you like these stories please do share them with others.

Until the next installment, where we conclude Operation Emerald, shoot straight runners.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Operation Emerald: Part Three ~ Drowning in Darkness

You see things from the shadows.  As you lurk in darkness, those secrets playing out before you are illuminated.  Secrets come into your possession and are passed onto Mr. Johnson for whatever token sum you have agreed to.  Some secrets are so terrible that they haunt your dreams and fuel your nightmares.  Brace yourself before you enter the shadows, because you'll never be the same.... Thomas Michael Gunne
___________________________________________________________________


November 20th, 2060

0715 hours, operational area local time


Dredging out the salt had revealed faint drill lines in the salt bed of Lac Assal. Creep's idea of mapping the cylinder had been fruitless as the drill marks were too faint to have been revealed from our ultrasound scan.  The cylinder we dredged free had been dug out then backfilled at some time in the past.  At fifteen minutes after seven on the morning of November twentieth, we reached a scratched stainless-steel plate, its surface adorned with symbols warning of radiological and biological hazards. Engraved beneath the symbols, in English, French, Somali and Arabic were warnings of an unspecified danger of radiological and biological contagion. A seal of the Djibouti National Gendarmerie was prominently embossed across the top of the plate with the year 2001, beneath it. We sent down a aquatic drone equipped with a dosimeter and collected samples from the water and dense salt pack around the plate. The same drone attached sensors to the plate itself, before surfacing and being collected for analysis by Sherlock and Simon.


0830 hours, operational area local time

"Control, this is Machine." I said into my comm.  Simon had set up a secure satellite link directly back to the office.

"Standby for Control." A male voice replied.  I recognized it as belonging to an ork gentleman I knew only as 'Danny'.

"Understood." I replied.  I sat, the water from Lac Assal rapidly evaporating from my wet suit and leaving a grey-green film of salts deposited across my body.  My tent was cool in the early morning hour.  Rose hugged me, then vanished into the astral plane carrying a message back to Aria for me.  I powered up my tablet computer and kept an eye on the reading from the sensors I had attached to the metal plate we had uncovered below the lake. I didn't have to wait long.

"Machine, this is Control." Samantha's voice came over the comm clearly.  "Report."

"Authenticate per mission order." I replied.  The data I had was important enough that I wanted to make certain it was Samantha and not someone spoofing her voice.

Her words came back without hesitation. "Aria likes my dress."

"Confirmed. Sending data from Simon now."  I hit a button on the tablet and transmitted the sensor data stream as well as image files we had collected from the dredging and of the plate that had been exposed. "Someone's been here before. Seal looks legit from what Simon can dig up from here.  We have no trace of radiation and no sign of any contaminate leak in the area surrounding the plate."

"Have you done any astral reconnaissance beyond this seal?" Samantha asked.

"No. If there is a radiological threat, I didn't want to dive down into it."  I replied. "There is also the difficulty of projecting down under the lake to consider."

"Understood. Cap the drill hole, pump out the water and set up an airlock. I need information on the status beyond that seal.  Materials are on the way."  Samantha issued her orders but information about what was going on seemed particularly scarce.

"Copy that, what can you tell me about what's down there?" I asked.

"Nothing over this line.  I'll be arriving with the materials.  We'll talk face to face."  she said.

I shook off the shock of that announcement and replied. "Bring sunscreen and water.  See you shortly."


1323 hours, operational area local time

I didn't see or hear the Osprey land. There was a brief windstorm that blew in from the east, carrying salt-dust that stung every inch of exposed skin. Suddenly the wind stopped and a second Osprey was sitting fifty meters from our camp, its rotors winding down to a stop.  Jazz reacted by shouldering a rocket launcher and calling out an alarm. He held his fire as Samantha Goode came marching down the ramp at the back of the craft.  I pulled my Zeiss binoculars and saw her wave her hand before the aircraft vanished from my sight.

Samantha walked toward our camp alone.  When she was twenty meters away she called out, "Machine! Report!"

I walked out to meet her.  "Neat trick." I said. "Air and earth spirits working together to conceal your arrival?"

"Of course." she replied. "With a bit of invisibility thrown in for good measure."

"I'll keep that in mind. I can have the team unload supplies as soon as you're ready for them." We were two meters apart, standing under the blazing sun atop a crusty patch of salt strewn earth.  She was as beautiful as ever.  Her amerind-elf features gave her an air of unearthly grace and concealed a level of magical power I had rarely witnessed.  I held a mixture of professional respect and raw fear of her ability close in my mind.

"Wait until nightfall. No sense in taking any more chances than necessary. Plus, you have some reading to do."  Samantha patted the satchel she wore at her side and gestured back to the area where her Osprey had vanished. "Shall we talk?"

I walked back with her, vanishing from sight as I passed through the concealment effects of her spirits.  The Osprey was devoid of any other people.  I walked up the ramp and heard it start to rise behind me.

"Remotely rigged?" I asked.

"No. I flew it here."  Samantha showed me the commlink resting in the palm of her hand.  "Remote control app.  Nothing so fancy.  Fewer people involved the better."  She took a seat atop a crate, dug into her satchel and handed me an old-style paper file. "It's a copy.  The original is too valuable to lug around.  I made this last night then melted down the copier.  Your eyes only and no one, and I mean no one ever learns of this."

{You sort of disobeyed that order. ~ Angel}
{I don't work for them anymore and like I said before, for some reason there wasn't a non-disclosure agreement in my contract. ~ T}
{Clumsy of them.~ Angel}
{No. They didn't expect me to survive.~ T}

I looked down at the file.  CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY was blazoned above an eagle head and shield symbol floating above UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The colorful logo was centered on the file with red lettering above it reading "TOP SECRET" and "DO NOT COPY" below it.  I opened the file and was confronted by a stack of pages, each bore the title "Operation Emerald" across the top of each document. I sat down on the deck and began to read.


1625 hours, operational area local time

It took almost three hours to read through the file, pausing periodically to glance up at Samantha as she watched me.  She refused to answer any question I had, only pointing me back to the file and saying, 'Everything I know is in there.'  I read and followed the documents as they cross-referenced each other.
_____


Operation Emerald (Cross referenced under redacted notations from Project Stargate, declassified in part and made publicly available in 1995) had begun in 1977.  The new government of Djibouti had received monetary incentive from the old US and had accepted a presence at Camp Lemonier.  In August of 1977, CIA field supervisor Nathan Johnson (I'm not making this up, yes, the CIA had a 'Mr. Johnson' in the area) launched an investigation of reports of KGB backed Communist insurgents using the Lac Assal regional caverns to hide out in.  Field agents reported finding several dead bodies that showed signs of disfigurement that were (at the time) attributed to some unknown disease.  It was noted that the corpses had been partially devoured but the animal responsible had not been identified. Subsequent searches of the area found badly decomposed bodies that were eventually matched to missing persons from the surrounding area as well as some persons who had been reported as kidnapped from rural areas. Field supervisor Johnson managed to get local government assets to investigate, but nothing conclusive was found and the investigation was closed in July of 1980. 

In April of 1984, field supervisor Johnson requested satellite time for surveillance over Lac Assal following the disappearance of a bus full of tourists.  Citing lack of strategic significance, his request was denied.  In October of that same year, the bus was found in a sinkhole, five miles from Lac Assal.  There was no trace of any of the missing tourists, though the interior of the bus was badly damaged and dried blood was found splattered about.  Property belonging to several of the tourists was found in 1989 when elements of the Djibouti first special forces were conducting training exercises near caverns in the Lak Assal region.  Those forces reported coming under attack by a hideously deformed person that assaulted them barehanded, clawing and biting.  Photos of the deformed corpse closely resembled those deformed bodies found in '77.

Johnson sent a pair of forensic scientists along with the investigators who followed up on the incident.  The investigators discovered human remains scored with bite marks which were believed to have come from the deformed assailant.  While investigators were scouring the caverns, two of the soldiers who had been injured in the assault, sickened and died.  Their bodies were quarantined then incinerated.  The assailant's corpse was determined to be diseased and potentially contagious and was likewise incinerated.

Dozens of documents followed showing images of grossly deformed persons.  Each attached to incident of violence, outbreak of disease, and carefully concealed stories of cannibalism.  Photos of deformed corpses appeared as if a progression of some dreadful disease.  I saw strange elongations of teeth and jaws, fingernails blackening and taking on the appearance of talons, and milky cataracts forming and becoming more pronounced as years went by.

In 1997 a village was burned down, the official story being an outbreak of swine flu that had killed everyone.  The truth, according to the file, was that the village had been attacked by a group of deformed cannibals who had killed everyone and were found feasting on the corpses. The cannibals were killed, photos of their corpses showed scabrous skin, pronounced pointed teeth and talons.  They looked like people who were infected with, and showing advanced signs of, the Kreiger strain of the human metahuman vampiric virus.

Satellite images from 2000 revealed what looked like a structure hidden beneath the lake bed of Lac Assal.  Given the rising strategic importance of Djibouti and the periodic appearances of what were deemed 'mutated' humans, the CIA sponsored a dig to the site under the guise of researching geothermal power generation.  A drill rig was brought in, and a hole drilled down through the lake bed to the bedrock.  A submerged station was built over the drill hole, and water pumped out.  The remaining excavation was done from the station.

Dozens of pages were missing from the file and were referenced in the later documents as "the Dying Light Incident".  What was left was a list of casualty numbers and expenses related to sealing the drill site and removal of all traces of its existence.
_____


"Ghouls." I looked at Samantha, tension growing in my jaws. "They found ghouls, years before the awakening. Some sort of spike in the local mana field, or maybe some infected bit of bone and then we have these periodic outbreaks." 

"That's what I concluded as well." Samantha replied.

"Where is the file on the Dying Light incident?" I asked.

"Missing.  No idea where it is or what became of it."  Samantha fixed me with a dire look.  "Are you detecting any ghouls in the area?"

"No.  Not since that first night." I held out the file to her her.  "Why are we here?"

"Satellite image mentioned in the file. Recent fly over did a higher resolution scan and it shows a far more extensive structure than was initially believed.  Easily as big as the one in Laos."  Samantha glided off the crate and took the file from me. "You're here to find out what is down there.  With these images it looks like there were ghouls showing up before the awakening.  Spikes in mana field or random infection, who knows? But you have a lot of experience fighting ghouls and you and the team have experience with old ruins.  That's why you're here."

"So, you're sending us down under the bottom of a lake to investigate.  Into a place where I'll certainly find tons of things waiting to kill and eat us."  I felt my face getting hot even as I bit back my rising ire. "What are you hoping is down there?"

"Keep your eyes open for any items carrying an aura attached to them.  Focus items, enchanted bits, or anything with writing on it."  Samatha smiled easily.  "Don't fret over it Tommy. This is why you make the big money."

The team and I offloaded the equipment under cover of darkness.  Samantha took off in silence, her passage concealed by another freak windstorm.  Sherlock, Jazz, Ding and I moved the equipment out to the lake and into the water. It took two days to set up the seal over the hole and to assemble the airlock.


*****

November 22nd, 2060

2015 hours, operational area local time

It had taken seven hours to pump the water out of the hole and to stabilize the air pressure.  I opened the air lock and peered down the fifteen-meter deep shaft.  The odor of chlorine stung my nose.

"Rose, please tell Aria you're leaving to help me with something, then tell her I say, 'I love you' and then please come to me." My thought voice stretched out through the metaplanes and reached my ally spirit in Seattle.

"Certainly. Shall I tell Jasmine and Violet anything for you?"  Rose's question tugged at my heart as I found myself wondering what I may have missed during the few days I had been away.

"Just tell them that daddy loves them, please." I turned my attention back to the shaft below me.  Fifteen meters down was a steel plate that was meant to seal away whatever lay beyond.  I unsealed waterproof gear bag and holstered my S&W500(tm) Magnum. The big pistol's weight was oddly reassuring.  "Ghouls.  Dark hole under a dead lake.  Rampant magical energies all over the place.  What could possibly go wrong?" I said to the empty airlock.

"Say again, Machine?"  Simon's voice came over the speaker on the wall.

"Disregard.  Just thinking out loud Simon."  I replied.

Rose appeared next to me.  "This is a strange place."

"I agree.  Trust me, it's about to get even stranger."  I briefed Rose about what I had learned in the Operation Emerald file through the telepathic link we share.  I didn't want anyone listening in on that conversation, and I didn't want to worry Simon. 

"You expect to find monsters below us.  If they are there, I will do violence."  Rose's thought voice didn't hold any malice.  She was simply stating the facts as she knew them. Her presence was reassuring, and I began to believe I would survive the day.

"You are correct.  I want to ask you to do something that is very dangerous.  If you're afraid to do it, let me know and we'll find another way." Rose contemplated me as the thoughts raced between us. "I want you to go down there and materialize on the other side of that metal plate.  Look around and let me know what lies beyond.  If you run into anything dangerous I want you to run away, back to me, as quickly as you can."

"You are afraid for me?" Rose's voice drifted into my mind.

"I'm always afraid when I send you or Lily to fight.  You're more than a weapon, you're my daughter." I hugged Rose, my powerful ally spirit, my first daughter. "I'm sorry that I keep bringing you into these situations."

Rose smiled at me. "You don't have to be sorry.  We are family and family protect each other."  With that, she vanished into the astral plane and drifted down the shaft.  She passed through the steel plate effortlessly.  "There is power here."

I closed my eyes  and focused on what Rose was seeing.  There was a cavern beyond the steel plate.  All around her the stone pulsed with the power of the Earth.  It was a natural formation, deep and wide.  Rose materialized, her senses seeing ribbons of power through the rock, and a profound darkness that swallowed her up.  Water had created a thin, ten-centimeter long, ribbon of salts that descended from the roof of the cavern at one corner of the steel plug above her.  A ball of light sprang to life in her hand, pushing back the darkness to bring the cavern into view. 

Fragments of bone littered the floor of the cavern.  Rose drifted down, looking over the remains.  I saw old shell casings scattered among splintered bone fragments, the brass thick with green corrosion. "There was violence." Rose reported.

"Do your spells detect any ghouls in the area?"  I checked my own spell enhanced senses and felt nothing.

"No." Rose reported. She continued to move among the remains.  Old corroded weapons, shell casings, and bullet impacts along the cavern walls hinted at a desperate fight.  "Something dreadful happened here. Terror lingers in these bones."

"Be careful. Find any openings that may exit out of the cavern."  I began dictating notes as I sat there exploring the cavern through Rose's senses.  There was a strange odor to the place.  The only sounds were the rare drip of water on stone.  It was hot down there, though Rose weathered it without complaint.

"There are no skulls.  Is that significant?" Rose asked. There were broken bits of leg and arm bones, splintered ribs, scattered vertebrae, fractured bits of pelvis, and tiny pieces of bone from hands and feet were strewn all about the cavern.  There were no skulls or jaw bones to be seen.

"Yeah, that means something, though I don't know what." I confessed.

Minutes stretched by until Rose found a tunnel that opened along the cavern wall.  Its walls were polished smooth and seemed to be cut from the living rock.  It was tall and broad enough to drive a large vehicle through it and it stretched on into darkness beyond the range of Rose's orb of light. The tunnel seemed to bore down deeper into the Earth.

"This is the direction toward the ruins you mentioned." Rose's said. "No monsters have come forth."

"Okay, come on back baby-girl.  Next time you go down there I'm going with you."  I keyed my commlink.  "Simon link me to Control."

I briefed Samantha on my findings. I planned to take things cautiously as there were simply too many happenings in the past which alarmed me.  "Creep and I will do a thorough astral recon in the morning.  After that, I'll make the call as to whether we breach the seal or not."  I told her.  Samantha had agreed and cut our conversation short with a simple. "Understood."

I sent a telepathic message to Lilly.


2130 hours, operational area local time

The airlock cycled and Creep entered the cramp confines.  "For the record, this sucks Machine." he said.

"Agreed.  Let's get to it." I said. I lay my head against the bulkhead and slipped away from my physical body.  At the other side of the airlock, less than two meters away, Creep lay down and slipped free of his own body.  Six of his demon-women fire elementals appeared around him in an instant. Beside me Lily's face wrinkled in distaste, while Rose seemed unconcerned.  The demons smiled at us. 

Creep's astral form leered unashamedly at his demons.  "Looking really hot today, ladies." He laughed at his own joke for a moment.  The demon-women tittered along with him, a melody of soft voices tinged with madness reached my senses. 

I dove down through the deck, plunged down the cylinder we had dredged through lake bed, and passed through the steel plate into the cavern beyond.  Rose and Lily stayed nearby as I flew over to the tunnel carved in the rock.  Creep and his demons followed close behind.  "Creep, the girls and I are going to move on ahead.  I want you to take a look around the cavern and standby in case I need help.  If you don't hear from me in an hour, come get me."

"Understood. We'll hold things down out here.  Scream if you need us." Creep's astral formed smiled. One of his demons jumped suddenly as he swatted her bare rump.  Lily, Rose and I drifted off down the tunnel leaving the madman and his demons behind.

"The rock is dead, lifeless.  Someone has cut the heart out of it." Lily whispered.

"That may work to our advantage as it should be easy to see a living aura against that dark backdrop. It would be harder to pick out against the natural stone of the cavern."  I told her. "Something is down here.  Maybe it doesn't know we're here yet, or maybe it's hiding and waiting for an opportunity to strike, I don't know.  Something killed those people in the cavern though, so stay alert."

We moved down the tunnel and found a steep slope at the end.  It took me a moment to realize I was looking at a broad stairway that had been carved from the living rock.  We floated down, passing into a new cavern that stretched high overhead.  Before me stood rows of intangible, grey stone.  Strange shapes alight with mana energy floated near the ceiling, like boats buoyed by an invisible tide.  I realized the rows of stone were buildings, arrayed along streets that formed strange patterns only seen from the air. 

We soared over the ruins.  The strange shapes floating near the ceiling were long bits of stone impregnated with magic that held them aloft.  They were huge, as large as city buses, and appeared to be shaped like boats.  Below us the streets were flooded in murky water.  Magic energy pulsed through the ruin, flickering through buildings and charging the air, earth and water.  I didn't see any living auras.

I had only explored part of the first street I encountered when Rose said, "It has been nearly an hour.  We should let the wretched magician know we are well."

"Right." I looked around, my curiosity doing battle with the dread I had felt since diving down through the seal.  "Let's go get Creep."

I had turned to head back when a giant scabrous hand erupted from the water below us and grasped Rose's ankle.  I jumped in surprise and brought my hands up to cast a spell.  Rose was plunged under the water before I got the first bit of mana together.  "SISTER!" Lily's scream echoed in the astral plane, reverberating against the currents of mana in the water beneath us.  She dove into those heady currents after Rose, with me close on her heels.

*****

Thank you for reading my fan fiction!

I hope you are enjoying the stories of Tommy's adventures as a shadowrunner. 

Coming Soon!
I will be launching a KickStarter campaign to fund art for my coming RPG source book, "Whispers of Persephone" which is a book on a new necromantic arcane tradition for the 5th edition of Gary's game.  I hope you'll check that out when it launches, support if you can, and share it with other TTRPG enthusiasts.


Thank you all!


Art for Whispers of Persephone
Artist: Christian Martinez









Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Operation Emerald: Part two ~ Dig toward damnation



November 17th, 2060

1100 hours, operational area local time

My comm beeped in my ear, waking me from my nap.  (Here's a tip chummers, when you're out on a job grab sleep whenever you can!)

"Machine, can you come take a look at this?" Simon's voice was oddly inflected.  It wasn't often that I had heard Simon speak when something had him stumped.

"On my way." I replied.  I yawned and stretched then pulled my socks and boots back on.  The Osprey was comfortably hidden under the camouflage netting. Hidden from the sun, the interior was pleasantly cool.  I hurried down the ramp and onto the salt-beach.  "All personnel, report."

I heard a steady stream of  "All clear." as one by one the team reported in.  Zero called in last with, "We're good to go here."

It took me a just a couple of minutes to reach the white tent where Simon had set up the remote sensor equipment.  I walked in and found Simon, Jazz, and Creep staring at an empty space through their AR optics.  I pulled on my own AR goggles, and tapped into the feed they were watching.  "What am I looking at?" I asked.

"That," Simon sighed thoughtfully, "is the density anomaly in the lake bed. I thought at first it might be a subsurface lava tube, or maybe a hot spring.  Problem is the dimensions, they're too mathematically perfect for a natural occurrence.  It looks suspicious to me."

Simon was smart and capable.  I looked at the 3D model of the anomaly and had to agree with him. The area of lower density was a cylinder.  It looked precisely circular and cut through the salt bed down through the bedrock below.  "Mathematically perfect? What do you mean?" I asked.

Simon blew up the image in cross-section. "I'm doing a high-resolution mapping scan. It's reliable down the millimeter.  So far as I can tell from this sensor the width of the anomaly is precisely four thousand millimeters, perfectly straight, all the way down.  That's four meters across. I took measurements of the circle circumference and came up with twelve thousand five hundred sixty-six millimeters.  Sensor readings bounce back and forth between adding a point three or point four on the end of that calculation."  Simon shook his head thoughtfully.  "No way that is natural."

"Okay, explain a bit harder. I can do the math, but I don't understand the significance."  It looked artificial to me, but understanding what could be evidence of that was important.

"Well that means that the anomaly, this cylinder of lower density, is a circle that is good for a two meter radius circle using pi to the fourth decimal value.  Probably to the fifth decimal value with that variation in the decimal at the end.  That's probably the sensor's tolerance being reached and trying to reconcile the measurements. You don't see that precision unless you're looking at aerospace level precision, so missiles, rockets, satellite boosters, ICBM's and that sort of thing."  Simon looked over his AR glasses at me. "In short, it's artificial.  Could Control have found a forgotten missile silo?"

"I don't know.  You were in the same mission briefing I got, 'Investigate subsurface anomaly and report', plus the usual spiel about weapon usage for self-defense."  I took a moment to look at the cylinder of less tightly packed salts. "Well, it's not much but we found something.  Any chance we can get more information about what's at the bottom?"

"Not without drilling down through the salt." Simon replied.

"Okay." I thumbed my comm and opened a channel to Zero. "Zero, get Control on the line. We're reporting in."

"Copy that. Wait one for Control." Zero answered.

"Simon, link these images to the comm.  I want Control to see what we've found." I dusted salt from my armored fatigues.  "Salt got everywhere. I'm going to have to call up a water elemental to wash it off."

"I have a thought." Creep said softly. "You said this sensor is good for resolution down to the millimeter.  Can you map the salt filling that tube, then roll out the image?"

"Yeah, let me get the comm set and I'll do that on another rendering." Simon replied.

"Sub-zero. Thanks, Simon." Creep was being calm.  His voice carried a thoughtful tone I had rarely heard.

"What are you thinking?" I asked.

"Not sure exactly.  You know how we've seen carved stone on old ruins?  Well, if this salt pack is lower density, can we lift the surface image from the ultrasound if any exists?"  Creep replied.

Simon interjected, "I think I see where you're going with that.  I doubt we'll be able to lift anything, but I'll give it a try.  Machine, you're linked up with the images.  They'll be transmitted as soon as Zero links to Control."

"Excellent work. Thank you." I turned to Jazz. "I'm going to want your assessment of our vulnerabilities here. If control wants us to stick around I don't want to be worried about running out of ammunition with so many awakened creatures about.  Plus I want to get Taz out of here as soon as possible for medical attention."

"Understood." Jazz replied.

"Machine, Control is online. Signal is strong, satellite link is secure, it's as private a call as you're likely to ever have." Zero said.

{Want a recording of that call? ~ Angel}

{No thanks, I was there. ~ T}

"Control we are on site.  Hostile encounter with ghouls in the night time hours.  Six wounded.  Five fully healed but we need to evacuate Taz for medical attention.  No fatalities.  We've found an anomaly at the coordinates provided.  Simon has patched our findings so far into the feed. Request permission to un-ass this area of operation, or to at least evacuate Taz for treatment."  I kept my voice calm and waited for what I was certain would be bad news.

"Machine, request to leave the operational area is denied.  Medi-vac for Taz is authorized.  We'll send flight plan to Zero momentarily.  Have Simon patch the body-cam footage to this transmission, we'll process it."  Samantha paused in her reply for a moment. "I'm seeing the anomaly you mention.  How deep does it go?"

I turned to Simon who keyed his own comm and replied, "Fifteen meters down to bedrock then a bit below that into a small cavern area.  Readings are imprecise at that depth.  There may be a gas pocket."

"Understood. What is your situation?" Samantha's voice was the same calm professional tone I had become accustomed to.

"We're fully exposed." Jazz offered up. "Anyone with a mortar is going to ruin our day and end our lives, not to mention anyone with genuine artillery.  Contacts last night were all ghouls.  Scavenged weapons, light or no armor, but we counted two hundred dead. Some of them had communication gear but none of it survived the fighting. No patches or dog tags tying them to any one nation or corporation. Seems they had been raiding villages beyond the desert.  We may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but with so many of them I don't like those odds."  Jazz took a slow breath then added. "We need drone support in strength if we're going to be here for any length of time.  Water is going to be an issue within three days.  Ammunition and heavier weapons for any prolonged stay, as well as sunscreen."

"Received and understood." Samantha replied. "Give me a list and we'll get it loaded when we off load Taz."

"If we're staying here for a while I request additional weapon specialist personnel be brought in.  We caught those ghouls off guard.  If a well organized force finds us before we find them, we've got problems."  I wasn't expecting much, but if we were staying a while I wanted as much firepower as I could get.

"Copy that Machine.  Additional personnel authorized.  We'll get more boots on the ground.  Hold position and call out if you have any further contact with hostiles. Weapons free.  Hold that ground." Jazz's eyebrows arched in surprise.  Beside him, Creep and Simon both shared similar looks.

I steeled myself and replied as calmly as I could. "Copy that. We'll be evacuating Taz in a few minutes.  I'll have Zero stay in touch.  Simon will set up the secondary satellite transmitter and we'll dig in."

"We'll take good care of Taz.  Get him in the air." Samantha replied. "Control out."

I keyed my comm as I walked out of the tent. "Jazz, get the men dug in.  Simon, I want that sat-link running asap.  Once that is done, get some drones out to keep eyes on the desert and put a blimp drone over the lake.  I'm not taking chances on something not being in there.  Creep, cover Simon and let me know if you two find anything from that image once Simon gets it generated."

"Copy that," Jazz and Simon replied in unison.

"Understood, I've got him." Creep reported. "My ladies and I will keep him safe."

*****

1305 hours, operational area local time

The Osprey lifted off from the salt-strewn beach, climbing twenty meters before its wings began to decline as it pulled away from our position.  Salt stung every inch of exposed skin as it was propelled from the down draft.  Taz was tranquilized and sleeping in the belly of the great metal beast.  I watched as the aircraft gained speed and disappeared from my sight.

The salt beach near the lake had seen a lot of activity in a short time.  I had called out to the earth elemental I had bound to me and had it dig one meter deep holes, each three meters across, in spots Jazz indicated. We set up white tents within those holes, then scattered the displaced salts around the tents, blending them into the terrain as best we could.  It wouldn't fool a spy satellite, but it was certainly enough to hide us from any casual flybys.

Salt got everywhere.  It was caked onto my body from my time in the lake.  It was a distracting irritant, so I whispered into the astral plane and called forth one of the water elementals.  I stripped down, washing my fatigues and form fitting body armor in the elemental's manifest form, before having the elemental engulf me to wash the salts off.  No one else wanted an elemental "bath" so once I was dressed I dismissed the spirit back to the astral plane.

Jazz sent in his request.  He asked for rocket launchers, heavy machine guns, a pair of mortars, a handful of surface-to-air missiles, as well as thousands of rounds of ammunition.  I could only imagine the look on Samantha's face when confronted with tens of thousands of nuyen worth of munitions requests.  "She'll not authorize half of it." Jazz told me. "It's like the army.  Ask for more than you need so that when they reject a lot of it you have enough on hand to make things work."

"I'll remember that." I told him. "How fragged are we?"

He shook his head. "We're the virgin in the whorehouse out here. Anyone who notices can frag us hard."

"Well, then lets make it hurt." I told him. "I wish I knew why we're sticking around though."

"She'll send in someone who knows something, to look into something which is likely to be something." Jazz cracked one of his rare smiles. "Good looking out for Taz.  He's good talent, good people."

"We take care of our own."  I told him.

"Yeah." Jazz looked about a moment. "Can we talk?"

I opened my astral perception and looked around.  There was no sign of any spirits or spells that were watching us. "Yeah, astral is clear.  No guarantee against listening devices but we're safe from listening spells at the moment."

Jazz pulled a small, hemispherical bit of plastic from a pocket.  Small holes dotted its surface.  "Let's take a walk."  Our boots crunched on the desolate salt beach. Jazz hit a button on the back of the device and I heard a soft buzzing sound emit from it.  "White noise generator. Should keep the guys who have hearing augmentation from hearing us."

"Sub-zero.  What's up?" I asked.

"Creep. We still have a problem with him?" Jazz asked.

I looked back for a moment then to Jazz. "I think so. Until further notice, anyway.  It's not the melt-down giggles that bother me.  It's comments he makes about needing to kill something, or 'letting the bad feelings out'.  I think he's insane.  I know he's powerful and that is a bad combination."

"So I'm clear.  He goes off mission, he endangers the team or turns on us. I'll put him down." Jazz looked me in the eye. "This isn't personal for me, it's professional. If this is personal for you, do him yourself."

"If it were personal for me, he'd be dead already." I replied. "But thank you. I completely respect your position."

"Okay. I don't like the fragger, but I don't really know why.  Maybe it's pheromones or something like that."  Jazz looked back toward the lake behind us. "I don't like him but the only thing I can point to is his breakdown in the field and the way he goes kill-happy with those demon women of his.  It's like it excites him.  It's unnerving and makes my trigger finger itch."

"I get that. His magic is different, dark. Other magicians have mentioned it to me. I know spirits that don't like him either." I stuck my hand out and Jazz shook it. "He's a psycho, but he's our psycho. Let's keep him pointed the right way and maybe he'll help us all live a bit longer."

"Understood." Jazz released my hand and shut off his white noise generator. "By the way, my knee has been itching since we first stepped onto this salt shaker."

"Yeah, I think we've just scratched the surface."  We walked back, the only sound being our boots crunching on the salt beach.

*****

1910 hours, operational area local time

"Machine, I've got an airborne contact thirty kilometers out closing fast." Simon's voice was crisp, with just a trace of tension. "Air speed is three hundred kilometers per hour, altitude is one hundred twenty-five meters. I don't have an ID on it yet."

"All personnel, take cover." I came out of my tent and whispered into the astral plane. The earth elemental manifested next to me a tic later. "Talk to me Simon. Will it be over us, near us or just in the neighborhood?"

"Heading straight for us. Will be overhead in five minutes, thirty seconds.  ID pending." Simon replied.

"Copy that. All personnel, get your heads down and do not move. We'll be hidden in a moment."  I pulled an invisibility spell around myself and held it tight.  To the earth elemental I sent a simple command, "Conceal the presence of myself, my men, and our equipment.  Hide all trace of our activities."

The spirit consented with a rumble and grinding of the earth beneath me.  Before my eyes I saw the tents, the satellite uplink dish, and all trace of our comings and goings vanish into the terrain.  It was a mirage of sorts, a spirit power that would hide us from everyone except for astrally active beings.

"Machine, I've got a signature match. Confirm approach is a MIL MI-26 HIND-2 gunship.  Transponder tags it as Djibouti Army, first air cavalry. It's due east of us now. They're transmitting but I haven't been able to break the encryption yet.  I've got translation software standing by for Somali, French, and Arabic."  Simon reported.

"Do not fire unless fired upon." I was banking on us being undetectable.  The heavy helicopter flew overhead minutes later. Circled back over the lake and slowed as it prowled overhead.  I opened my astral sight, looking for any sign that a magician may have been onboard.  It passed above us again, slowing before it landed four hundred meters away, amid the blasted landscape where two hundred ghouls had died the night before.

"Machine," Simon whispered over the line. "I've got a tap into their comms.  I can send it to you if you want."

"In English please." I replied.

I heard a click sound as the channel was spliced in. Whatever language they were speaking in Simon had filtered it out.  The voice in my head was male and generic, like any voice that might be used for electronic personal assistants.  "HQ, we have many dead in the area, all look like ghouls.  Likely the fight happened within the last twenty-four hours.  Several explosive blast patterns, possibly from grenades.  Looks like quite a fire-fight occurred.  No sign of hostiles in the area.  No sign of the aircraft."

Drek.

"Capture images and then resume airborne patrol.  Was their any activity at Lac Assal?" A second voice, this time female sounded over the comm.

"Negative.  No one around.  All instruments show no-contact.  There is nothing and no one here." I breathed a little easier. "We'll be airborne in fifteen minutes."

I watched through my Zeiss optical binoculars as six hard looking soldiers moved among the dead, gathering images with their gun cams.  Creep appeared next to me in astral space.  "Technically I'm not disobeying orders. I stayed right where I am." His aura blazed with power.

My thought voice seemed to reach him just fine. "What's up, Creep?"

"Poking my head up.  I can call up the ladies but I think they might show up on thermal." His concern made sense. "They are pretty hot." He smiled as his own thin joke.

"Good catch. Stay frosty." I replied.

He nodded and vanished in a flash.

It was a long fifteen minutes.  I watched the troops move among the dead, then board their helicopter.  They were airborne and flying away in short order.  For another ten minutes we were still.  Hiding against any unseen surveillance that may have been watching us.

Simon's voice came over the comm as I rose and dropped the invisibility spell. "No other EM traffic in the area. We're clear."

"Copy that. I'm dropping the concealment now." I whispered to the earth spirit and its power bled away into the local manasphere.  The team was laying about, weapons at the ready.  "Good work everyone."

"I can't believe they didn't spot us." Ding said.

"Not all magic is flash and bang." I told him. "Look at it this way.  We didn't have to fire a shot, no one died, and we don't have to worry about reinforcements showing up to kill us."

*****

November 18th, 2060

0215 hours, operational area local time

Zero brought the Osprey in just fifteen meters above ground level.  We had the camouflage nets over it as soon as the rotors came to a halt.  Simon was tapping into the Djibouti military channels and was confident the Osprey hadn't been spotted.  I decided to err on the side of caution and had the earth elemental use its power to conceal the aircraft.

Samantha had sent us an additional six weapon specialists, two trolls, two orcs, a human and an elf. Each of them carried themselves like they knew their business.  We offloaded the additional weapons and ammunition. I was surprised to see that we had received most of what Jazz had requested.  A dredging rig was the last piece of hardware to come off the Osprey, accompanied by a man in his early thirties who brought a lot of bad news with him.

"I'm looking for Mr. Machine." he said.

"I'm, 'Machine'.  Who are you?" I had never seen the man before and his presence made me very curious.

He thrust is hand out to me. "Doctor Charles Ling-Thomas.  Doctor of archaeology. Pleasure to meet you."

I took his hand for a quick shake. "Pleasure to meet you doctor. Why are you here?"

His face took on a questioning look. "Why, I'm here about the excavation.  I'm told you've found something."

"Something.  Yes we found 'something' but we don't know what yet." I looked at the dredging equipment that had come off the Osprey.  "You know how to use that?"

"Yes, indeed I do.  I've had extensive experience with underwater finds."  The good doctor seemed at ease.  "I confess though, I haven't the foggiest idea of what you hope to find out here."

"Me neither." I confessed.  I spoke with Doctor Charles for nearly an hour. He was operating under the impression that this was a new dig site and he fully expected to be on-site for months. 


0618 hours, operational area local time

The sun was rising but I was underwater.  I hammered down six pitons into the lake bed, and secured the nylon lines that anchored the dredging rig in place.  Dr. Charles Ling-Thomas, call sign "Sherlock", seemed right at home in his scuba gear.  He swam effortlessly and situated the dredging pipes with clear familiarity.

"Machine, get clear from the run-off pipe.  It will cut you bloody if the waste jet hits you." Sherlock warned. "You'll hear some high pitched noise when the screws kick in an start cutting on the bed.  That is normal.  Power cell is good for four hours, then we'll have to switch them out."

"Copy that, Sherlock. Let's get to work." I saw him thumb the control panel, and heard the rig whine to life.  Small pebbles of salt and rock came shooting out the run-off pipe, propelled by a jet of water. With that, we had begun our dig toward damnation.





Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Operation Emerald: Part One ~ Djibouti




November  17th, 2060

Lac Assal, Djibouti  0200 hours, operational area local time

"This is a bad idea, Machine." Creep's voice whispered over my earpiece.  "Those ghouls are coming, and if you're still gone when they get here, we'll be down a man."

Jazz interrupted in a hushed tone, "Agreed.  We've got poor position.  This lake sits in a basin and we're widely exposed even on ground level, not to mention drones by air or mortar fire.  They get serious, we die."

"Got any better ideas?" I whispered into my mic. "If you do, I'm game."

Neither of them spoke up.

"Okay, then.  Creep, keep an eye on my body.  If I die, incinerate my corpse. I don't want those fraggers eating me."  I lay down on the shore, next to the saltiest lake in the world, closed my eyes and slipped from my body.

Lac Assal is the lowest elevation in all of Africa. The area around the lake is beautiful and holds black lava fields, dormant volcanoes, lava tubes, and vast 'beaches' of salt that have been exposed from years of evaporation.  The lake is always warm as it is fed by active hot springs. The water is so salty that you can't drink it without running the risk of poisoning yourself. Under the clear night sky the astral space was alive with mana energy. The elements of nature combine in a unique way here, as fire and earth heat water that touches a parched sky.

The desert surrounding Lac Assal is vast. Before the awakening it was dangerous for the careless wanderer due to the heat, lack of water, and the occasional bandit gang.  With the return of magic the desert came alive with strange creatures not known to exist anywhere else.  Fire elemental spirits sometimes rage along the old lava fields. Wind spirits dance dervishes into existence in the desert.  Water spirits erupt from the lake as if trying to touch the sky itself.  The ground shakes as thermal stresses and the rumblings of earth spirits create earthquakes.  Amid all the spirits and awakened creatures, all around me, nature was alight with raw elemental energy and hummed with power.  Currents of light moved through waters that were devoid of life, spun over parched salt beaches, erupted into the sky and plunged into the quivering Earth.  It was breathtakingly beautiful.

I looked around at the faint auras of the team.  Jazz carried a lot of high-end cyberware that had weakened his aura considerably.  He was calm and resolved.  I saw similar traits in auras of the rest of the team, except for Creep.  His aura was devoid of emotion, and simply radiated magical power.  There were strange flickers in his aura, as if dark thoughts were dancing in his mind and coloring his soul.  Maybe he didn't have emotions at all, some psychopaths are like that.

I turned my attention to the east, where the ghoul forces we had been fighting were likely getting ready to attack our position.  "Girls, come here please."  My thoughts stretched out across the vast distance of space, through the metaplanes and reached the ears of my ally spirits, my eldest daughters.  I felt them respond through the connection I hold to them which touches my very soul.

"We are coming," their thought-voices reached me in an instant.

Lily and Rose appeared at my side moments later.  Two bright angels, wings and all, stood to either side of me.  Rose, my first ally spirit and my eldest daughter, stood at my right hand.  Lily, my second ally spirit daughter, was ready at my left.  "Glad you're here girls." I told them.  I reached out and took their hands in mine.  "There is a large force of ghouls closing on my position. I must ask for your help to fight them."

"I will do violence." Rose's thought voice carried a certitude to it.  She was calm and ready for action.

"I will fight by your side, father." Lily's thought-voice carried a ring of steel.  She had been exposed to horrific enemies in her short time on Earth and I fear it had hardened her.

I squeezed their hands, our astral forms shining across the brilliant landscape.  "Thank you, girls. Here's what we're going to do.."

*****

0230 hours, operational area local time

Astral space was brilliant over the desert.  Below us, two hundred ghouls crept along toward Lac Assal.  They were fanned out in squads of five, each ten meters or more from any other squad, and stretched for five hundred meters across the pristine landscape.  Their aura's were dark red, like old blood, and their souls were weakened from essence hunger.  They must have been ravenous.

The ghouls had been plaguing the area.  Raiding villages and infecting survivors to increase their numbers.  Some carried scavenged weapons, mostly older rifles and AK-97's left over from desert wars.  Those ghouls whose intellect had degraded, the most feral of wretches, were pushed to the forefront where they would sniff at the air and scamper toward the lake.  They were closing in and I didn't like the odds that were leveled against us.  We flew overhead as I looked for signs among their auras.

I found what I was looking for.  The auras of three of the ghouls showed the unmistakable signs of awakened beings, magicians.  These three had spread out and among their fellow monsters, creeping along in the darkness.  Lily and Rose flew off, taking up positions to the north and south of me and waited for my command.  I hardened my resolve, remembering all the horrors I had witnessed, all the victims I had seen who had suffered and died at the hands of the infected.  "Now, girls." I sent the message and turned my focus to the ghoul magician below me.

On the north end of the ghoul force, twenty meters ahead of a squad with a ghoul magician among them, Rose appeared in her full angelic glory.  "Die." was all she said before unleashing a fireball spell that lit up the night, consuming the ghouls in a flash of fire that reduced them to ash.  The ghoul magician didn't even have time to scream.  On the south end of the ghoul force, Lily shattered the night sky with a war cry of  "FIRE AND WRATH!"  Her fireball spell exploded among a squad of ghouls, detonating in the face of the second ghoul magician.  They were blown apart, their bits incinerated in the conflagration.

Gun shots sounded over howls of rage and terror in reply to the girls' first spells.  The bullets bounced off the attacking angels.  Ghouls rushed toward them, fury and feral hunger competing on their faces only to be replaced by confusion when the girls vanished before them.  Below me, the last ghoul magician looked up, his astral sight bridging the space between the physical and spirit worlds, and spotted me immediately.

"Hi." I said to the monster below me.

The ghoul sorcerer lifted his hand in a gesture of power, gathering mana into what would certainly be a nasty spell. Lily and Rose tackled him astral space, dragging him down to the desert floor and tearing his aura to shreds.  It was over in a flash of angelic wings and the screaming of the damned. In those first six seconds of the battle, my girls had killed eleven ghouls and stripped the force of their magical support.

"Now we wait." I took their hands again. "Thank you girls.  Are you okay?"

"I am unharmed." Rose said to me. "Thank you for asking."

"They were unable to injure me." Lily added. "I am also grateful for your concern."

"I would rather you were home, helping Aria and having fun playing, but I am very glad you are here.  As soon as this battle is done, once we have destroyed these monsters, I'll send you back.  We'll get ice cream when I get home."  I looked at my ally spirits, my beautiful and powerful daughters, and felt a tremendous pride.

"We love you, father." Rose said. "I am proud to fight by your side."

"Rose is correct." Lily said. "I will not fail you again."

"You've got nothing to prove Lily." I assured her. "You've done wonderfully, you both have." They both squeezed my hands softly.  There, in the astral space above a kill zone, I found a brief moment of peace.

We were interrupted as Creep's astral form shot up to us like a comet.  He stood there, blazing in his power. "Hey, Simon found their com signal and is intercepting their chatter.  He's cut their long range communication, so its just all us monsters in the desert ready to kill each other.  Zero called in and says he can put down near the lake but it will be close to dawn before he can get back."

"Thanks, Creep.  Tell Jazz, we're on for phase two. Weapons free." I added. "And Creep, stay safe and keep the gun-hands supported.  Nothing happens to Simon.  Keep him covered at all costs."

I could sense the satisfaction that rolled off Creep's soul. "Sure thing!" he chirped, then blasted away back to his own body.

"He is unpleasant," Rose commented to me.

"Can I kill him later?" Lily asked.

"I agree, Rose, and no you many not, Lily.  Not unless he tries to kill me or you or the others. If that happens, then yes, kill him hard." I wondered how it was that Creep made even spirits uncomfortable.

Below me, four ghouls were patting down the corpse of the last dead ghoul sorcerer.  I watched as one's aura vanished.  In the physical world his head exploded as a large caliber rifle round struck him in the back of the head.  Taz had opened fire, right on time.  Ghouls dropped and tried to flatten themselves into the salt strewn waste.

"Okay, girls, lets get started on the next part of the plan."  I focused my will and manifested my astral form into the physical world.  On the north end of the ghoul force, Lily and Rose manifested in all their angelic glory. A tick later fire shattered the night as they began to cast their spells upon those monsters in the night.

The ghouls below me rose and fired on my astral form. Bullets passed harmlessly through me.  I watched as a another ghoul's head exploded. Its aura vanished and as it fell lifelessly to the ground.  To the north, mana flashed and fiery explosions rolled across the landscape.  I could see heavy currents of chaos, confusion, and mind-searing hunger polluting local astral space.  The ghouls to the south were surging forward toward the lake, spreading out as they went.

The two ghouls remaining below me met their end from Taz's rifle.  I streaked across the desert and dove back into my body.  I opened my eyes and took a deep breath.  Rifles were firing all around me.  I rolled onto my stomach and saw a wall of flames erupting in the distance.  Ahead of me, stretching south, were dozens of ghouls.  Some were sprinting forward with mindless abandon, others were advancing with shouldered assault weapons firing short bursts of death.

I picked out group of ghouls who were laying prone in the salty desert and firing methodically on our position. A burst of fire passed half a meter away from me and hit Taz in the forearm.  The bullets blew his arm off just inches below the elbow.  His right hand landed in the salt, his index finger twitching as if trying to fire back.  Taz fell, the shock from the wound knocking him unconscious.

"IGNIS MAGICAE!" I shouted.  A small white orb materialized above the prone ghouls for a fraction of a second, then exploded with the the full force of my magic behind it.  They died in an instant, their ammunition cooking off in a fury of micro-explosions. I scurried over to Taz.

Blood was squirting from the shredded stump of Taz's right arm.  It marred the salt bed we were fighting on with a growing dark stain.  Taz was unconscious, his aura was weak, and he was losing a lot of blood.  I grabbed his arm, poured out water from the blood falls on the shattered stump of his arm and began the healing incantation.  Bullets broke the night all around me, explosions of magical energy raged in the distance, and I was sitting on a white patch of salt around a dead lake, healing a man who had been unfortunate enough to get hit.  I tried to shut everything out, but my memory haunted me for a moment.  I remembered a time, not too long ago, when I was kneeling in the snow, healing a Knight Errant security guard.  Blood had surrounded me then, the snow a strange mix of crimson and pink.  Around me the white salts were soaking up the moisture from the blood, leaving a sticky mess of bloodstained salt crystals around me.  Taz's aura was weak, the cyberware in his body made it difficult to get the spell fixed to him.  I held onto his arm forcing mana energy into him, prompting the healing processes.

"FLASHLIGHT!" Jazz yelled out.  I steeled myself and heard the claymore mines discharge a tic later.  Ghouls screamed in pain and howled in rage.

I felt the healing spell finally latch onto Taz's aura. I held it there, sweat beading on my skin, as the battle raged under a dark sky sprinkled with stars.  The blood stopped shooting out from Taz's stump, splintered bones knitted themselves together, and a new layer of skin grew over the exposed wound.

Lily and Rose appeared next to me.

"The first group of ghouls have been destroyed." Lily reported.

"Excellent work, girls!" I nodded to a pair of figures laying limply on the ground. "See if you can't heal our wounded.  If any ghouls get to within fifteen meters of our position, kill them."


0245 hours, operation area local time

The last ghoul presence I could sense vanished with the sound of several assault rifles firing. The desert returned to a desolate silence under an uncaring sky.

"Sit rep."

Jazz's voice came over the comm clearly. "Six wounded.  Worst is Taz, the rest were mostly superficial. We're reloading mags now then we'll mop up any survivors."

"Astral is clear. Most of the local spirits have shied away." Creep added.

"Understood. Simon, where is the target?" I patted a damp cloth on Taz's face.

"Two hundred meters west. It's out on the lake and six meters subsurface." Simon replied.  "You're going to need a mask or goggles.  The water's saline level is through the roof.  You'll blind yourself if you go down without eye protection."

"Good to know.  Thanks, Simon." I replied.


0648 hours, operational area local time

Dawn saw the Osprey land near the water.  We loaded Taz into the belly of the beast.  For him, that job was done.  We unloaded the ZodiacII from the Osprey and cruised out to the coordinates for our target.  The little boat's electric engine was quiet, producing a soft buzzing noise and a thick spray behind us.  We bounced over the crystalline green waters and slowed to stop over a darker patch of green.  We were over one of the deepest points in the lake. I pulled on the dive mask and fitted it tightly over my face.

"Respirator?" Ding, one of our FNG's*, asked.

"No, thank you,I'm fine." I replied. I slipped over the side and into water that felt strange on my skin.  I was buoyed up, and floated easily.  "Okay, anchor please."

Jazz handed me the small ten pound anchor and I sank like a stone.  I felt my boots hit the bottom, about six meters down.  There were no fish, no plants, no sign of life of any kind.  The water was warm, and all around me the area had a green tinge to it.  Above me the ZodiacII provided the only shadow on the bottom other than my own.

I pulled on the anchor cord and waited as Jazz lowered a large bag down to me. It took me ten minutes to level a place on the packed-salt lake bed. I pulled out the device within and worked it into position.  I hit the power button and watched for a moment as it came to life.  I felt a soft impact, something like being hit by a soft pillow, as the ultrasound and sonar fired. I swam up to the surface.  Jazz helped me into the boat, then we turned and headed for shore.

Simon monitored the sonar sensor from the shore.  The data came back gradually as the sensor oriented, mapped the area, then began its deep probe of the lake bed.  "Composition is salt, salt, and hey... more salt." Simon offered.  "I've got a density difference, a significant one actually, about two meters from the probe.  Once we finish this cycle, can you move the sensor over that area for a deep scan?"

"Not a problem." I replied.  Two hours later, Jazz and I went out on the ZodiacII.  Simon signaled that the first scan was done about ten minutes later and I dove under to move the device.  Simon put a directional arrow on the sensor's display panel with a range indicator that dropped as I got closer to the target area.  When I was over the spot he wanted to scan, a 'thumbs up' signal appeared.  I set the sensor and swam back up to the surface.  Below me the sensor bent its technological abilities to locating the anomaly we had been sent to investigate.

May God have mercy on our souls.
______________________________________

*FNG :  acronym for "fraggin' new guy".  A variant of an older term from the late 20th.

*****

Thank you for reading my fan fiction.  I hope you enjoyed the first part of this story line.  The story of Operation Emerald is one derived from game play, but from a different character.  I hope you'll join me next time for Part two!

I write this fan fiction blog because I enjoy doing it and as a writing exercise.  Your feedback, comments, and criticisms are always welcome.

I also design, write and publish role-playing game books as well as comic books (coming soon) and will be releasing children's books (again, coming soon... waiting on art).  You can find my RPG material on Drivethrurpg.com under my company Sinopa Publishing LLC. Presently, I've been releasing open game license content and will be releasing my own, original RPG in 2019.

Some of the things I have coming soon (2018):

The Steel Road ~ Funded on Kickstarter in June of 2018, this book is scheduled to fulfill to backers this month (August, 2018).  It will become available on Drivethrurpg.com after fulfillment is complete and will be available on Amazon once I have my store running.



Whispers of Persephone ~ Coming to KickStarter August 25th, 2018!!!  My little bloody book of necromancy.  A new arcane tradition, mechanics for ritual sacrifice, new spells/rites/rituals, new feats, and several new magic items.  This is a book to bring the 'DARK' back to your dark arts.  Don't miss the KickStarter campaign, as it will be a great opportunity to get this book and to help it be all it can be! Illustrated by the renowned artist, Christian Martinez!  I'll be releasing a few promotional images over the coming weeks before launch.  I hope you'll help spread the word and support the KickStarter campaign.



47 Furious Tails ~ The comic book retelling of the infamous Ako Incident!  The legend comes alive as we explore the events leading up to the Asano's final trip to Edo.  Issue one is coming to KickStarter later this year!  Illustrated by the remarkable Alexia Veldhuisen, this comic is a treat for the eyes.

Cover of issue 1
Art by: Alexia Veldhuisen

Tarot Adventures, Book Three: Death comes to Glenfallow ~  Currently in development, this adventure continues the Tarot Adventures series in grand style.  Packed with fearsome foes, deadly encounters, and a principle villain that will leave your players stunned, this book ups the stakes for your adventurers.  Lives are at risk and the only people who can help are sitting around your game table.  Written to be a deadly level challenge, this adventure will leave Glenfallow changed forever.  Whether that change is for good or ill will be determined by the player characters.  Glenfallow needs its heroes. Can you live up to the expectations, stand against a dire evil, save the people of Glenfallow and survive to the tell the tale?  (Artist: TBD ...)


Coming in 2019:

More Tarot Adventures ~ Adventure continues as the hand of Fate is played out.

More issues of 47 Furious Tails ~ Asano and his entourage arrive at Edo.  Destiny unfolds as Kira clashes with Asano.  Death, honor and revenge in the Edo period.  Don't miss this amazing story.

Sinopa Publishing's first comic book anthology project (this showcases a number of artists/writers who have contributed to our RPG product lines).  Example art from that project is shown below.











And... children's books, an original role-playing game, and so much more!


Wow... yeah I've been working on a lot of projects.  I hope you'll be as excited about these books and comics as I am.  It's amazing to be able to produce them.

Legal Stuff:  All art included in this post is copyrighted by the creating artist or by Sinopa Publishing LLC.  All rights reserved.  Use of these images is not permitted without express written consent of the artist and Sinopa Publishing LLC.  Thank you!