Ancient Fire isn’t stopping, so neither can Task Force 27. But the work they do takes its toll…
The last time I spent any time on a beach in San Francisco, there was a dead selkie on the shore. This time, I was sitting on the sand and sharing canine-safe cupcakes with her still-mourning mate, which was definitely going to be the better memory. If I remembered any of it two days from now, that was, since I was jet-lagged all the way to hell and back – hell having been Bangladesh this time around.
If I never see another fucking red-beaked parakeet again, it will be too soon. But they’re contained now – we hope – the world has been saved one more time, and Dave and I had managed to make it back in time for Joey’s wedding. Literally the night before the wedding, as in late last night, but we’d made it. I think I may have scared the hell out of several other wedding guests at the hotel by just sort of appearing at breakfast and greeting various people with hugs as I made an unsteady beeline for the coffee, but hey, not my problem unless someone makes it my problem.
Or unless someone had tried to make it Joey or Angela’s problem, which nobody in this crowd was going to do. Especially since Dave and I spent most of our half-awake breakfast in a corner with Ramon and Maria and Pete and Pete’s laptop, making sure Bangladesh was still stable and everyone else in the network knew how to make sure that problem didn’t show up on their doorstep next.
Fucking parakeets, I’m telling you.
Anyway, after breakfast everyone headed down to the beach, things got set up, and then Joey and Angela had the world’s most perfect and heartfelt beach wedding anybody has ever seen. They weren’t nervous at all; they were already together forever, this was just a party they were hosting for their friends and family to make it official. They held hands and quoted sea poetry at each other instead of saying traditional vows, the sea breeze ruffling Joey’s hair and fluffing out the gauzy layers of Angela’s dress like the hand of an approving grandmother, and then they exchanged rings and kissed and it was beautiful and everyone was crying and clapping. Yes, including me. And including Joey’s ex-girlfriends, two of whom were there with their husbands and one with a date who’d started off smelling like he was strutting, secure in the knowledge that he must be better than his date’s ex…and then he’d seen Joey, who was looking like the Prince of the Beach in his roll-cuffed tan linen pants, flowing white shirt and aquamarine silk sash, and most of the swagger had pretty much drained out of the poor guy after that. He lost the rest of it after he realized Joey was that Dr. Cristal and Angela was that Dr. Marshall – in other words, when the selkies showed up – and he was pretty subdued for the rest of the reception.
It also didn’t help that his date had hugged Angela and told her she was the luckiest woman on earth. I can’t say I cared for the way the guy smelled just on general principles, but ouch.
Of course, the arrival of the selkies had been pretty startling to most of the guests, not just him. It’s not a secret that the colony exists, but it’s not really commonly known, either, so most people have never seen one of them at all much less been close to them. And they got pretty close, because Joey and Angela had picked this particular patch of beach for the ceremony specifically because it was selkie-accessible. They’d also settled on a small bride-and-groom cake surrounded by tiers of different types of cupcakes instead of the traditional multi-layer cake so the selkies – and me, and Hana – would be able to eat cake with everyone else.
Our cupcakes were very carefully labeled, of course. And so were the vegan ones set aside for Angela’s sister and her husband, for the same reason.
Did I mention that for such a beautiful wedding it had a really strange reception? It did. For starters, about half of Joey’s huge family was there, including his grandpa being conferenced in via Pete’s laptop because he was too old to travel. I love the old guy, but I avoided that area religiously after I heard him ask someone whose dog I was – it honestly made me laugh my ass off, mostly because of the way he said it, but I didn’t want to scare him into a heart attack by coming up to the camera and talking to him after that. Hana kept back for the same reason, and Pete made sure the camera wouldn’t pick up any of the selkies.
Six of whom had shown up, and who’d brought wedding presents with them that put everyone else to shame. Polished shell, carved bone, gold, diamonds, semi-precious stones – it was like they’d raided a sunken pirate ship or or the treasury of Atlantis. ‘Or something’, of course, being the drug dealers’ boats they’d been tipping over out there in the shoals. The Coast Guard had told the colony they only wanted the drugs and guns, so the selkies had been handing all of that over and keeping all the bling for themselves. Probably at least some of the cash, too, but the Coast Guard didn’t care and nobody else was going to say anything; eventually the colony was going to have to move to an area with more food and more space, they were saving up moving money.
Or ‘establishing a sea kingdom’ money, same difference. You know how you tell a mermaid from a selkie? The selkie’s the one with all the bling.
Anyway, after the obligatory mingling was over, I ended up down the beach eating cupcakes with Javier. He’d filled out a lot since the last time I’d seen him, muscle pushing up from under the layer of insulating fat, and he was full of the confidence he’d been missing before although the loss of Mary and their baby was still weighing pretty heavily on him. He’s one of the colony’s scouts now, and one of the main dealer-hunters too. He and Jo-Jo, who’d done some underwater demolitions training at some point, had a lot of fun swapping pointers about the best ways to disable a boat from underneath said boat, a conversation which got them their own little circle of wide-eyed guests, including Ramon. Maria was busy being Mike’s wedding date, and since he’d never seen her wearing pretty clothes and makeup before he spent the first half of the wedding walking around looking like a guy who’d kissed the woodcutter’s daughter and then found out she was a princess – a science princess, but still a princess.
I had just finished my third cupcake when I saw something wriggle up out of the water and start flopping around on the sand in a weird way, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Javier and Jo-Jo were deep in the middle of a debate about whether C4 was worth the hassle, so I got up and went down to see what the thing was. Probably a fish, or a damaged crustacean. It was black with streaks of iridescent green catching the light as it flopped around, and when I got close and leaned down for a better look it managed to right itself and looked up at me. The peachy-orange beak opened to reveal serrated little teeth, and then its wet wings spread out and it launched itself right at my face with a squawk of pure hatred.
I woke up with a start, and Larry raised an eyebrow. “Parakeets again?”
“Fucking parakeets.” I scrubbed my face with my hands, trying to wake up and verifying that the parakeet hadn’t actually gotten me. You’d think if I was going to have nightmares it would be about fishies, or Kaito’s senshi-whale with its three rows of teeth, saw-edged fins and armored scales. Nope, the parakeets beat them all. “What time…”
“The boat’s here, and we’ll be leaving in half an hour. I already have our bags packed.”
I nodded, yawning. “Thanks. I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”
He waved it off. “You needed it. You guys pulled how many all-nighters this time? Five? Six?”
“I lost count.” I really had. Across the room, Agent Sorenson was mostly asleep sitting up in a chair, and Sanele – that’s Dr. Khumalo, our network member from Cape Town – was snoring with his head down on his desk. We were the only ones in the temporary lab other than Larry, but up on one of the security camera screens I could see the other members of the task force down at the dock loading equipment onto the boat while soldiers stood ready with automatic weapons – to ward off hippos and crocodiles, not for shooting the modded creatures. Which were on the other side of the river, waving in the breeze. Possibly waving their ‘arms’ in frustration because they couldn’t reach the boat, or less possibly waving goodbye. It was impossible to tell – we thought they probably had at least a minimal level of self-awareness, but most of their behavior appeared to be instinctual. At least they weren’t actively trying to attack the boat like they had been before. Not that we blamed them for displaying aggression toward humans once we’d found out how they’d gotten this way. These weren’t like the idealistic college kids and their ecological fairy tale gone wrong, these people had been forcibly modded by Ancient Fire when they’d refused to convert.
And even worse, it hadn’t been Eastern Lightning that had approached the village in the first place; it had been some other ‘missionary’ group who, after being rebuffed by the villagers, had decided drastic measures were necessary to show them the error of their ways. Some semi-related fanatic in Zimbabwe had actually spilled those beans by announcing this ‘glorious new development’ to his congregation. The authorities were still trying to figure out if he’d been involved, or at least who’d told him, but they’d been experiencing a lot of pushback from his supporters and the whole thing had blown up into an international religious controversy. The task force had done its best to defuse that by being a lot more open about our findings than we usually got to be, because people needed to know that this had been a cruel, brutal act and not a ‘merciful punishment’ which would ‘bring non-believers into closer contact with their creator.’
Even the really staunch supporters had started wavering when we’d discovered that six of the tree people had been children under twelve, though – and also that none of the village’s young girls were among the victims. According to Agent Ben, the head of the U.N. Security Council had hit the roof so hard he’d left a dent when that report had come in. A manhunt had immediately ensued, and public sympathy for the perpetrators had dried up fast. Even moreso once we’d released the news that it wasn’t possible to reverse a plant-human mod without either killing the subject or leaving them irreversibly brain damaged – quite literally in a vegetative state – meaning the traumatized girls who had been found and rescued wouldn’t be getting their families back. Not to mention the other flaws in the mod – some of them deliberate, because it had been a punishment, but some of them just from Ancient Fire being sloppy because they hadn’t cared enough not to be. If the trees had been plant-modded animals, or if we’d thought they were suffering because of the flaws in the mod, we might have recommended euthanasia as the most humane option…but these had been people, and diminished capacity or not they didn’t deserve to be killed just because they’d been planted in an inconvenient location. Luckily the governments of Namibia and Botswana had agreed; Botswana’s original plan, before we’d found out what exactly was going on with the weird mangrove-hybrid creatures on the east bank of the Chobe, had been to just burn the problematic patch out.
I hopped down off the stool, stretching and shaking myself to get the stiffness out of my joints, then trotted over to Sanele and shook him. “Wake up, Sanele, we have to leave in thirty minutes.”
He groaned and swatted at me. “Go away, or I will kill and eat you.”
“With what, the sharp edge of your Starbucks card?” Sanele is a city boy through and through, he’s about as much at home in the swamp as any of us would be – meaning not at all. I shook him again. “Come on, get up. You don’t want them to leave you here, do you?”
That sat him up. “No, that I most certainly do not want,” he said, grimacing when his back apparently let him know he was getting too old to sleep slumped over on his desk. “And you are cruel to suggest it, shame on you.”
“It got you up,” I pointed out. “Now come on, we need to make sure all of our data got transferred…”
“It did.” Sorenson was all the way awake now and stretching his own kinks out. “Mr. Kelekolio verified that it had all been received twenty minutes ago, and so did the university. The only thing we still need to do is get on the boat.”
Sorenson is a city guy too, of course – and so is Agent Ben, which is why he’d assigned himself to take care of things that didn’t involve him being in the middle of the freaking swamp with homicidal semi-sentient tree-people and other aggressive wildlife. I think he might also have been squeezing in a visit to his mother, who still lived in Cape Town, but that was okay too. I checked the security monitors again. Okay, that was definitely not the wind: they were getting agitated. Possibly because of all the people they could see milling around at the dock. “We should probably get down there. They’re trying to reach across the river again now.”
Sanele sighed, and I patted his shoulder. We’d done everything we could, but even though the tree people were healthy, they were still living on borrowed time – if the next drought didn’t kill them, them killing some curious or careless person would trigger a government order for their destruction. We’d considered trying to relocate them to a safer location – the river cruise companies had been petitioning the governments on both sides of the river to make that happen – but the tree expert the task force had pulled in had nixed that idea within half a day. The tree people had dense networks of capillary-like roots in addition to their characteristic thick, visible stilt roots, and those finer roots had already spread out and become entangled. If we tried to uproot even one of them, they’d all bleed to death. It was a lose-lose situation, no matter how we looked at it.
I went back to my workstation and started packing my microscope into its sturdy travel case, keeping one eye on the security monitor. I could see Harold, the tree expert, standing on the boat’s lower deck getting one last video of the tree people in motion. He’d mentioned thinking he’d seen root movement earlier, we were all hoping he hadn’t. In theory the tree people could be capable of moving their roots, but because of where they were rooted too much movement could cause the riverbank to crumble – and they were topheavy, so the stilt roots wouldn’t be able to keep them from tipping forward into the river and tearing out their fine roots in the process.
Like I said, it’s a lose-lose situation. None of us were leaving happy.
Thirty minutes later we were all on the boat and leaving Linyanti even unhappier. We’d be spending the night on the boat, and then the next day we’d finish up at the Kasane airport, where the task force’s plane was waiting to take us all back to Cape Town, but nobody was thinking about that. Nobody was thinking about anything except the sight of stilt roots tearing out of the ground as our boat had pulled away from the dock, some of them horrifically tipped with gnarled bumps that had pretty obviously once been toes, and the tree-person lashing its branch arms at us, reaching for us even as it ripped out of the riverbank and toppled into the river, spraying blood-sap all over its thrashing, quaking neighbors and into the water.
The crocodiles showed up practically out of nowhere, and the boat’s pilot got us out of their as fast as he could. Young crocodiles, he explained once the boat was clear of the red-tainted, churning water, would be followed by older ones, and the older ones were large enough to damage the boat.
Probably to knock over the remaining tree people, too, drawn by the blood-sap pouring out of torn roots and splattered on trunks. And there hadn’t been a damned thing we could do to stop it from happening, we hadn’t even been able to document most of it.
Harold got drunk with the pilot that night, and Sanele and I sat up and went over the footage he’d managed to get – and we saved it down to my laptop, too, and even kicked on the satellite uplink so the video would upload to the lab’s server before deleting it from Harold’s camera. He’d asked us to. He’d been okay, he said, until he’d seen the toes.
Hell, Sanele and I hadn’t even been okay after seeing the toes, and we’d – at least in theory – known they were there. Sanele eventually took his own share of some of the pilot’s stash and went to sleep, but I didn’t have that option so I sat on the deck and looked up at the stars. They were so bright and clear, they looked so perfect…but I knew they weren’t. I knew some of those bright pretty lights were stars exploding, incinerating any planets that might surround them. Others were stars cooling and dwindling down into nothing, leaving their solar systems frozen and drifting. And some were already gone, leaving behind a ghost made of dust and old light.
I pulled out my phone, put it back again. Pictures of stars never come out right, and without the satellite uplink going there weren’t going to be any messages to check. I’d get tonight’s messages tomorrow afternoon, which would be the middle of tonight for the guys because if you go far enough around the planet your perception of temporal reality gets unbalanced and you start to wonder if time travel could actually be possible and/or if you actually existed during that half-day or so now missing from your personal calendar.
If you’re going by the stars, maybe only a ghost of you did.
Law enforcement, however, seems to be convinced you can be in two places at once. I usually don’t have trouble at the airport when I’m traveling with the rest of the task force, but this time they pulled me aside and a uniformed security officer started asking me questions about where I’d been for the past week. That was a pretty easy one to answer, since I’d been in Linyante with everyone else for the past fifteen days, but when I said that he raised an eyebrow as skeptical as his scent. “You were there the entire time?”
“I’m not sure where else I could have been, since the only way in or out was by boat – or possibly by riding a hippo.”
He shook his head. “Please, this is serious: It is important that we verify your exact whereabouts on the dates in question. Could anyone who was with you confirm your version of events?”
“All of them could, because we were all stuck there until the boat came back for us,” I told him. And all of them probably would have been, if he hadn’t detained me while they were all stuck going through the security checkpoint. Convenient timing. “You could also contact the head of the task force, Agent Bennijnckinck. He’s in Cape Town right now, but he’d be able to confirm the time and date of all our communications because we were having to use the official satellite uplink. The video we uploaded last night would also have a time- and date-stamp on it.”
Still skeptical. “You are in this video?”
“You should be able to hear me in it. Mr. Sekibo was filming the riverbank from the deck of the boat and I was standing at the rail beside him.”
His scent spiked with…triumph? “But you cannot be seen.”
“No, because he was filming something across the water and I was standing next to him.” He shook his head again, smelling even more pleased. This was getting more than a little scary. “The boat’s pilot can confirm that I boarded his boat yesterday afternoon and was on the boat until we docked here in Kasane.”
He waved that off. “He was drinking, he can confirm nothing.”
So he’d already interrogated the pilot. “What about the soldiers who were with us? They were taking turns keeping watch.”
“They said they did not see you.”
Okay, that had been a flat-out lie, and he knew it because I could smell very clearly that he did; I’d spoken to all three of them the night before, and I’d fallen asleep in a chair on deck. My tail was bristling, a reaction I really can’t control, and another spike of triumph told me he thought that meant he was getting to me. What it actually meant was that I wanted to growl at him to stop playing games and just spit it out, but since no one from Task Force 27 was in sight and neither was Larry that probably wouldn’t have been a good idea. So instead I cocked my head and let my ears lay back a little; time to turn it around on him, and hopefully stall for time until Sorenson realized something was wrong. “Is this about that pelt bounty? Because everyone knows I’ve been in Botswana for the past couple of weeks, so if I suddenly disappear this is the first place they’ll look.”
Holy shit, it actually worked. His scent went from smug to confused. “What bounty? I do not know what you are talking about.”
“Of course you don’t. You separated me from the United Nations task force I work with, you’re trying to make it sound like I haven’t been in your country even though you know I have, but you don’t know anything about the million-dollar bounty that’s on offer for the world’s only villeluvu pelt.”
That startled him, and for a moment his scent got very complicated and then it cleared down to businesslike and slightly…apologetic, even though his body language was still saying he was in charge and didn’t want me to forget it. The posturing would have worked on anyone who couldn’t smell him. “I have not heard about such a thing, Dr. Darling,” he said, in a much less confrontational tone of voice. “And it would not be allowed here, I promise you. I was simply told to verify whether or not you had been in Botswana during the past two weeks. I was overzealous, and for that I apologize; I am used to dealing with smugglers. When I received the order to question you, it was my assumption that someone had reason to believe you might have been doing something illegal.”
He smelled still-suspicious, but the apology was an honest one so I nodded. “I understand,” I told him, even though I wasn’t really sure I did, not entirely. “You’re just doing your job. But I’ve been in Linyante doing mine for two weeks. I haven’t gone anywhere else in that time, and if you need evidence of that there’s plenty – you just need to ask the task force members, or call the head of the task force and ask him.”
This time he cocked his head. “Why is he not here?”
I let myself smile, just slightly. “Agent Bennijnckinck…decided he could be of more use in Cape Town.”
He got it immediately, according to his scent. “I see,” he allowed, not quite smiling himself. “You can give me his contact information?”
Sneaky. I got out my phone…and pulled a card out of a pocket in the waterproof case instead of unlocking it like I knew he’d been hoping I would. “Here you go, this is the official contact information for the task force. Agent Bennijnckinck’s mobile number is on the back.”
He was disappointed, but he took the card. “Thank you, your cooperation is appreciated. Do you have any idea why someone would wish to cast suspicion on you?”
Ooh, fishing. I shrugged. “Other than the pelt bounty,” no, I hadn’t made that up, “the only other thing I can think of is the recent controversy over the modded creatures the task force came to Botswana to investigate. We know there are still people who believe what was done to those villagers was perfectly acceptable, even down to Ancient Fire separating out all of the young girls and selling them to ‘worthy believers’ as child slave-brides.” His reaction to that was immediate, both physically and scent-wise, and I nodded. “We felt the same way, believe me. And the other victims are either dead or dying now – that’s what Mr. Sekibo was filming yesterday, one of them uprooted itself trying to attack the boat, and the blood-sap from its torn roots drew what looked like every crocodile in Linyante to the area. The rest of them are probably either dead from blood loss now or the crocodiles have eaten them too.”
Sheer horror. “There was no stopping it?”
I shook my head. “No, our pilot said the big animals coming would be big enough to damage the boat, we had to leave the area. That’s why he was drinking last night, by the way. If I could, I would have been too after seeing that.” Sorenson came hurrying up just then along with one of the soldiers, both of them visibly pissed off. “He just needed to ask me some questions, it’s okay.”
Scent-wise, Sorenson really obviously disagreed with that last qualifier, but outwardly he just nodded. “Of course. Officer Bamalete, my apologies, but to have Dr. Darling separated from his bodyguard and the rest of the task force in such a deliberate manner was quite alarming, as there have been multiple attempts on his life. You received the information you required?”
The security officer nodded, scent spiking with just a touch of worry. Have I ever mentioned that Sorenson has gotten to be every bit as good as Agent Ben at politely threatening people who try to interfere with the task force? “I apologize also,” he said. “As I informed Dr. Darling, I was told only that his whereabouts for the past week needed to be verified. Of course smuggling was immediately suspected.”
“Of course,” Sorenson allowed. “We know that is a problem in the area.” Apparently not as much of one as Bamalete had wanted me to think it was, though. “If you are finished, however, we must board our plane. Please contact Agent Bennijnckinck if you have any further questions, we will be rejoining him in Cape Town a few hours from now.”
Bamalete held up the card. “I will contact him, thank you.” His scent went back to businesslike with just a tinge of concern and suspicion. “Have a pleasant flight.” He hesitated, then added, “I hope that if you are ever to visit my country again, it will be for sightseeing rather than…an incident such as the one which brought you here this time.”
I nodded back. “We hope so too, Officer Bamalete.”
He went away, and the rest of the group caught up with us a few minutes later and Sorenson herded us all out to our plane. I settled in next to Larry, who was still smelling agitated. “Stop that, it’s not like there was anything you could have done. But it’s a trick we’ll probably need to watch for from now on – separating the group at the security checkpoint, that is. Any idea what it might have been about, Erik?”
Sorenson shook his head. “No idea. Political stupidity, possibly. If the fool actually does call Agent Ben with such a story, I am sure we will be told all about it the moment we land.” He couldn’t quite keep the smirk back. “He is…frustrated right now. His mother was quite displeased that he stayed in civilization while we were in the bush working, she says such laziness will make him fat and slow and then something will eat him and she will never get grandchildren.”
I wasn’t the only one who almost choked on that, but Harold sort of shivered. “I do not understand how you can all…how do you do this? How are you still normal, after seeing such things?”
I’d been expecting that question. I turned my seat around – the task force has its own plane, remember? The seats swivel – so I could look at him. “If we didn’t hang on to some normalcy, we’d go nuts,” I told him. “This was your first incident; with any luck, it will be the only one you ever see. But we see this and worse all the time. It does affect us, believe me – every time you saw me jump awake at my desk this trip, that was modded parakeets from two months ago.” His scent shifted from horrified/sick to just a little bit smug – parakeets? – and I smiled, pulling out my phone and opening one of those photos before handing it over. Little bastard had been squawking at me from inside a reinforced cage, his talons were spread and his teeth were visible and he had crazy eyes, and my smile widened just a little when Harold jumped in his seat. “Yeah, there were flocks of them, someone realized they weren’t normal just a little too late to stop them from breeding up a new generation.”
“We had to oversee the destruction of around three-quarters of their population,” Sorenson put in. “The rest are hopefully contained, but that is difficult to do with birds. I am just hoping some idiot does not start trying to sell them as pets on the black market.”
“If someone figures out a way to catch them without getting eaten, we should hire that person,” I said. “Wouldn’t hurt to have a fearlessly stupid animal wrangler on call.”
Harold smiled, relaxing just a little bit, and started swiping through the album. I didn’t stop him; that was the work-related one I kept all of the creature photos in. He swiped and stared and swiped and jumped, and once he swiped and cursed in what I’m guessing was his native language. Probably Daddy Fishie that time. Then, though, he stopped, scent expressing confusion. “Why is this man with all the photos of creatures? He looks normal to me.”
I stopped my ears from drooping with an effort. “Oh, that one’s probably just in the wrong folder,” I told him. “Big guy with a beard?” He nodded. “That’s the head of the lab in Moscow, Dr. Markovic. The photo after that should be a modded elephant called a makara, it lives on a preserve in India and eats poachers. It’s bulletproof, too…”
Behind me, Larry’s scent had shifted into a different kind of concern – he’s had the mini-mod just like the guys do for a while now – but I just kept distracting Harold. Because sometimes, staying distracted is the best way to push the bad thoughts back.