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."


"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.

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