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

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