"There's no way she was here."
I stood up, brushing wood-chips from my dress slacks, and gave the playground another long look. Empty and cordoned off, it looked somehow skeletal in the early morning light. Bones of plastic and metal lay bare to the autumn chill. I imagined children swarming over them, covering them once again in flesh.
This wasn't the eruption site, and I had simply chased down another useless lead. "Time's ticking, Mal. Let's just hit the next one."
My partner shivered. She was used to warmer climes. Dark skin and thin, wiry braids marked her as an Inner Coaster. We didn't get many of them around here. "You positive? What about the intermittent artifact?"
The woman who had called it in had described a little chain of wooden blocks tumbling endlessly through the air. Neither Mallory nor I had seen it in the half hour we'd spent poking around the place. Chances were, it was unrelated to our job.
Abigail Swanson had attended Saint Mary's, though, and she was our patient zero. The squat brick edifice of the school lay just down the street from here. Little Abby had never made it to her bus, but perhaps she had come over here to play, taking her contamination with her. The other children would never even have suspected.
My wristlet was picking up nothing, of course. Under normally abnormal circumstances, the charms would've been itching and crawling against my skin, but the ones I was wearing were suited only to general detection. If the ethophosphor of the entity we were tracking didn't match the frequency of the charms, it might as well have been invisible. It could saturate the whole area in its spoor and we would be none the wiser.
Except for the artifacts.
They weren't always reliable, but sometimes you could tell where something that conflicted with reality had passed by the flickering patterns left in its wake. Mild visual or auditory hallucinations. Waking dreams or sudden surges or sensation. Fringe scientists claimed that there was a pattern to them, and that you could diagnose an entity's motivations by the signs it left. This was clearly false, and had been proven so by study after study, but it was sometimes hard for reason to stand up to the human mind. It wanted order so badly that it would accept a consistent fiction over an inconsistent truth.
"My guess is that she saw the news and panicked. She heard the outbreak started around here, and so she saw what she expected to see." This wasn't unusual. The tumbling blocks wouldn't have been the first fake artifact called in to the ODC. "We can always flag the site for later if you think it's worth checking out."
"If we can't locate the entity today, I'll forward it to paraforensics." Mallory had her hands shoved deep in the pockets of her coat, but it wasn't doing much good. I couldn't blame her for wanting to get back in the car.
"Alright. I'll give dispatch a call; see what they have next for us." By the time I'd fished my phone out of my pocket and started keying numbers, she was already walking away.
"I'll warm up the car, Jason," she called over her shoulder, threading her way around the tire swings to the parking lot. "Don't take too long."
"No promises," I muttered, but she was already gone.
Of all the cities in the Western Protectorate, Habitation was the oldest. Its silent smokestacks and Orthodox spires had been squatting there for hundreds of years while the boroughs grew slowly around them. Most of Habitation was industrial, but in the wealthier places like Clemont, the signs of its factories could be well hidden. When Mallory and I arrived at the cross of Fenning and Lyson, it was like we had stepped into another world.
A thick alchemy haze hung low in the air, reeking of sulfur and solvent, and the first breath of that was like a preparation for the rest of the scene. The sidewalk beneath us was cracked and littered with discarded cigarettes, smoked so close to the filter that there was nothing left for the homeless to pick over. On either side of the street, stalls had been erected, restricting traffic like plaque around the inside of an artery. There were hardly any automobiles here. Parking was scarce, and tow-aways were infrequent, so we took a spot next to a hydrant. The buildings around us were concrete, metal, and old. They had been erected during a rush to provide housing for factory laborers and had never been remodeled when those jobs finally dried up.
The Hapsburgh area still clung fiercely to life. Without a regular stipend from the captains of industry, the Hapsburghers had learned to be self-sustaining. Their gray market had blossomed like a noxious weed overnight, selling handmade charms and off-brand enhancements and untested cures. Students of the Gutterstride College of Alchemistry seeking cheap near-campus living had colonized the north end. Ethnic restaurants, cafes, and dive-bars had followed in a hectic rush. The open air market, still a feature of the district, drew homeless men and street-performers, and those in turn opened the way for daring tourists.
People who lived here usually described Hapsburgh as the truest, most authentic way to experience Habitation. I thought it was a liability.
Moments after locking the car, Mallory and I were assaulted by a man in a ripped sweatshirt and faded jeans. The attack took the form of pamphlets, which he thrust into both of our hands. Madam Geisha's Arabian Ball was printed in bright ink on the covers alongside a date. We waited until he was out of sight before pitching them in the trash.
"Doesn't change much, does it?" We mounted the curb, navigating our way through the press of bodies on the sidewalk. Hawkers and hucksters and veteran beggars called out all around us. We ignored them, keeping our eyes forward and our attention on nothing in particular.
"I wouldn't know. I try not to come here any more than I have to."
Mallory had attended Gutterstride some four years ago, and I knew she still had a fondness for the nearby area. It was not a feeling I shared. I'd grown up in Clemont, and those ties ran deep. If some working mother hadn't claimed she'd seen Abigail hopping a bus to Hapsburgh, I would've gladly been anywhere else.
"Think the Battery picked her up?"
"We'll know when we get there."
Like the other boroughs, Hapsburgh had a detection Battery near the center of the district. It had its own little fenced-in lot, plastered with warning stickers and legal notices—and, this being Hapsburgh, an Old Country supermarket and a Catscratch Coffeehouse pressed in on the property from either side.
The Batteries were ODC property and didn't see a lot of casual use. In most places that meant they were still treated with proper gravity, but not here.
Handscrawled graffiti and the corpses of discarded chewing gum packets lined the entrance to the access alley. I scowled and strode past them, Mallory at my heels. Someone—either a hobo or a caffeine junkie—had peed in the alley recently. The place stank of musk and disrespect.
At the gate to the Battery enclosure, I fished a charm out of my pocket. It was a little wooden ball studded with square pegs, and it had been keyed to my etheric signature. I would've preferred an access card or a retinal scanner, but charms were harder to trick. Anyone who tried to access a Battery without the proper permissions would set off a whole host of alarms.
Beside me, Mallory produced a tiny straw doll on a keychain. Charms were rarely ever identical. You could manufacture them in bulk, but some element of the industrial process stole away their power.
There were no flashy lights or tones to indicate that our charms had been accepted, but I went ahead and unlatched the gate anyway.
The Battery was humming quietly when we approached. It sat on a stone podium, three feet off the ground, and under its own plastic canopy. Water had a temporary grounding effect on most charms, and so care had been taken to insure it against heavy rain or flooding.
Why anyone would think it worth protecting was not immediately apparent. It looked like someone had fetishized a coat-rack, carved their fantasy out of scrap-lumber, and then shot it full of fishing hooks. However, the ODC spent twice my salary on average to maintain a single Battery for a single year. If it wanted to build a new one, it asked the Habitation Governor's Council for more funding.
Kneeling down, I began to study the charms mounted on the Battery. There were a handful of minor wardings hanging near the top, but all the other abstract baubles were geared towards detection. Each one was labeled with a series of numbers, telling me—or any other qualified inspector—which entities they were designed to keep track of. If a charm was agitated, that meant that it was either picking up interference—or that an entity had recently passed into the district.
"This one's practically leaping off the hook." Mallory had circled around to the other side of the battery and was pointing at something I couldn't see. "Lesser Abadonian."
"Might not be related, but I'll phone it in." I took a few healthy steps back from the Battery. They could be temperamental around people or communications technology, and I didn't want to be responsible for shorting this one out. By a similar token, charms and entities didn't tend to show up properly on film. We couldn't inspect our Batteries as often as we would have liked without them blowing out, and we couldn't survey them from a distance without getting meaningless blur. As a result, any readings we did manage to get were called in and carefully documented to help track the movements of entities.
Abadonians were a sub-class of Outside entities that required an act of destruction before they could take a host. Like all Outsiders, the specifics of the act varied heavily, as did the behavior of their host after they assumed control. Typically, infected people isolated themselves from their families, experienced periodic mood-swings, and began to gather together into a cult. Ritual worship strengthened the infection to the point where it could convert other hosts, and that was the tipping point for an outright pandemic.
I keyed in dispatch's number. Static clung to the line. I should've gone outside the fence before I placed my call, but I could still hear ringing through the noise. "Gable?" I asked.
"Here." The voice was curt but effeminate, two words that also described the guy it belonged to. "What've you got?"
"A thirteen five in Hapsburgh. No other agitations. You want us to look into it, or do we chase down the next Swanson lead?"
"Do you have a location?"
"Give me a minute."
I covered the receiver with my hand. "He's sending us after it."
Mallory frowned. "Not tactical?"
"We're threat-assessment. They'll consider tactical if we actually run it down."
She didn't look too happy about it, but one of the ODC priorities in Habitation was minimizing internal expenses. Big black vans full of tac ops professionals sent a very clear message to the working public, but the men and women in accounting pitched a fit every time we had to call one in.
"Jason?" Winford Gable's voice cut through the static and I uncovered the phone.
"What is it?"
"There's a brawl unfolding down on Central Market, three blocks away. Please intercept."
"Copy." I hung up the phone and turned back to Mallory. "I think he found it."
Apart from the men and women who had the dubious honor of belonging to Tactical, very few members of the ODC traveled heavily armed. At most, we packed a handgun and a couple of single-use wards and obfuscations. There was paperwork associated with the deployment of either.
Collateral damage was a consideration in both our performance evaluations and our training, but it didn't trump success. We were encouraged to improvise, to rely on each other, and to work as carefully as we could, but there were times when a situation could get so entirely out of our control that the only option we had was to ride it out.
Because of the way entities could spread, our number one priority when we were deployed to an active site was to take control of the crowd. Milling human bodies were as much of a threat to the performance of our duties as any number of rampaging Outsiders, and so the first thing I did when we arrived on the scene was to produce my handgun, aim it at the sky, and incur paperwork.
Hapsburgh instincts took over and about a third of the crowd dropped, giving me a clearer view of the fight. Young men and women, stripped to the waist, were laying into each other in the middle of the street. What had been a ring of onlookers was now a broken mob, prone or fleeing in all directions, but this hadn't fazed the combatants any. A thick-set man from Domain slugged a pasty-faced Hapsburgh girl in the face. In retaliation, she grabbed a passing Clemonter and bit into the side of his neck. Blood welled up around her mouth, and her expression was ecstatic.
Mallory was already moving past me, stepping around the bodies of people who had dropped and were still expecting a second volley of shots. Clipped to her belt was a bracket of charms. Without looking, she selected from them a wax sculpture of a cactus and crushed it between her palms.
"Oh, hell." I dropped too, hitting the pavement next to a garishly dressed couple. My eyes snapped shut, and I managed to get my hands to my ears a moment before the blast went off.
I felt the pulse of sound in my bones, slicing right past my skin and shaking my skeleton at the hinges. With it came a burst of retina-searing light. We were only supposed to use the cactus in emergencies.
My head rang as I struggled to my feet, blinking away dense red spots from my field of vision. I holstered the handgun. It wasn't needed anymore.
What was left of the fighters was crumpled and groaning on the asphalt, crawling aimlessly, or locked in a furious tangle with another body. Mallory had already moved in amongst them, and was trying to pry some of them apart. I hastened over to help her.
Plastic ties slipped over wrists. Someone lunged drunkenly at me and I cuffed them. Mallory put a boot to a pair of men digging fingers into each-other's eyes. It did very little to discourage them.
I tore my phone out of my pocket. "Gable," I told it, and it blipped and obliged.
"This is Jason. We have verified contact. Requesting medical, exo, and decontamination."
"Are either of you hurt?"
"No, but there's a lot of wounded hosts or thralls. Still assessing, possibly no casualties."
"Any sign of an entity?"
"Other than everyone tearing each other apart?"
"Let's keep this professional, Mr. Carol."
"It's impossible to say at this juncture, Gable. Mallory popped a second tier obfuscate. If we're lucky, the prime host is right here, incapacitated. If we're not, this is making the papers."
A few feet away, an old man tried to bite Mallory's leg. "Let's hope it doesn't."
Most of the reputable news agencies in Habitation held their tongue. They got their broadcast licenses from the Governing Council, and so were comfortable cooperating with us. The rags, on the other hand, went wild every time there was even the hint of an outbreak. Their information was usually second-hand and faulty, but that didn't help to change the public perception that they got there first, and that they could be trusted more than the Informer, the Citizen, or the Continental.
The day of the incident, the news swept through Hapsburgh like a sick, clinging fog. Mallory and I were pulled out as soon as exo arrived, thrust from street-work into what felt like an endless series of debriefings. Jamal Owens, our immediate supervisor, was present for most of them, coaching us on how to answer questions so that their reflection in public record would be a pristine as possible. Our department—Investigations—was answerable to the ODC as a whole, and to the Governing Council through them. Any time something high profile went down there were a lot of feathers that could wind up ruffled, and so the better part of a week was often spent smoothing them.
Abigail Swanson's disappearance was handed over to Analysis during that time.
I wasn't crazy about the geeks over there, even if they were useful. Most of them, even the secretaries, had this disconnect with reality that made them hard to work with. Whenever I talked with one of them, it felt like my part in their day was somehow incidental, and that they would have been more comfortable with me if I was in either the future or the past. Their department was better at following a cold trail, but it didn't really know what to do with a hot one. When I heard that the transfer had been made, I tried to argue against an immediate debriefing, but inside I knew there was no chance of that.
For three days, we were sequestered. We woke up, we went to the ODC office, we went home, and we slept. Meanwhile, the other departments pieced together the events that had led up to the brawl.
According to exo, several of the people we had subdued had indeed been hosts. They had been giving off very minor traces of ethophosphor like smoke off of a freshly lit fire. An Outsider had reproduced with them, laying its traces in the substance of their beings, but the contamination was so new that even a counter-radiation protocol could have reversed it. Even better, the ethophosphor was already on our records, tagged to a minor Abbadonian called Shan'a'iel. It was expensive to vaccinate against, requiring the ritual burning of select Old Country pharmaceuticals for a day and a night by the patient's bedside, but Shan'a'iel was also difficult to contract. To even be vulnerable to it, you had to commit a crime of passion against a person who was physically stronger than you and that you were afraid of. You had to wound him twice and ingest a portion of his blood. Shan'a'iel exposures were almost always deliberate, the last recourse of criminals. And, while it could start a cult and generate other hosts that same way, considerable violence was required to give it purchase on those hosts.
The other fighters we had subdued had been simple thralls. The presence of an Outsider could be intoxicating to people who weren't mentally prepared, vaccinated, or warded against it. Weaker wills would often cave to it for as long as it remained close by. After that, the victims came out of their daze and dialed us—unless they felt they had something to hide, or were worried that they couldn't be cured. We ran a good public information campaign, but stupidity wasn't always a treatable disease.
While exo ran their tests and prescribed ritual cures, Investigation hit a series of targets in the Hapsburgh area. They were nearly all harmless, New Age shops with radical thoughts about what constituted proper medicine, but the hope was that if we had somehow missed the Outsider that had originated the mob, this would help run it to ground. The entities didn't always follow our logic, but they did respond to our actions. Sometimes their behaviors could even be predicted.
Which is why, after our third day of debriefing, Jamal sent Mallory and I to meet with Analysis.