Cableton Palace is all vines and neglect; all rust and abandonment. This is true at any time of day. During the late afternoon, the sullen sun beats down on the hoods of abandoned cars, setting their hunkered bodies to baking. And when twilight falls, all that heat takes back to the air in a simmering, shimmering distortion that stretches for miles down the West-109. Standing in the center of the road, you can see that great burning yolk breaking over ruined buildings and, in distant Pamphrey, a skyline like rotting teeth.
Then the sun is extinguished and all is transformed.
Cableton Palace skirts the edges of the Unhab, and I know I shouldn't be here after dark. I shouldn't be here in broad daylight either, not without a platoon of marines, but in my line of work reckless self-endangerment is something that goes front-and-center on the resume.
I am here because I am looking for a girl. Past the boundaries of civilization, the odds for happy resolution on a missing persons case drop precipitously, but I am a specialist in these matters. I spent a third of my life working for BRIAR, and I've done what most of their agents do after washing out: got right back in the game.
Working without a team that's not much of an edge, but it's kept me alive this far.
The Bureau to Resist Incursions from Across the Realityhedge, aside from its fondness for acronyms, has an abiding love of simulations. Some are live-fire, but most are paper-and-pencil. The Bureau employs an entire department of analysts to conduct what they call Scenario Design in the vague hope that with enough brain-training their agents can be prepared for the un-preparable.
I have run simulated variations on search-and-rescue hundreds of times.
I put them out of my head entirely.
The Bureau's simulations are never preparation for the real thing.
They're just an exercise to make the recruits feel competent and safe.
Moonlight glimmers on glass: the crushed detritus of a legion of abandoned beer bottles and ruptured streetlights. Cableton Palace is unpowered, thoroughly disconnected from all municipal grids by the army corps of engineers so that nothing tries to wriggle back up the wires and into peoples' homes, but around me a gentle glow is beginning. The wisplights are starting to bloom.
They manifest in clouds of burning blue-white, lurking behind windows and gathering at the ends of alleyways. In another century they would have been called foxfire. They also would have been made of nothing more than swampgas.
Today, we know for scientific fact that they are the souls of the departed. Gathered in tumorous clumps, they sing softly to themselves. There are words in their melodies, all but impossible to hear.
Certainly not at a distance.
Draw near, the unconscious mind seems to say. Let them share their wisdom.
A quick brush of the hand over blue-white fire and your soul is added to the cluster.
I keep my distance from the wisplights.
I have a different end for the evening in mind.
I have been visiting the building across the street from me for several days now. I have only visited this street during daylight, and I have never gone further inside it than the foyer, but I have seen the signs of habitation in there. Human habitation, which is a rarity out these ways.
Tonight, I will venture deeper into the crumbling hotel.
It is where I believe Samantha Marigold is hiding.
Checking the action on my piece, I click the safety over to where the little red circle shows. Twelve bullets, all transpatially inert, rest in the clip; enough to make one of the weakest Incursions hesitate. They cost most of my last paycheck, but as a fringe bonus they work on humans too.
Easing open the side entrance of the Ryl Gld Htel, as its maimed sign proudly proclaims, I step into the foyer. Faded red carpeting gives slightly under my feet. I pull down my eye-patch.
Most incursions don't show up on night-vision, so I keep my naked eye open in case I need to turn on my flashlight. As soon as the beam lights, I'll shut my patched eye so that I don't get blinded by the night-vision feed coming through the patch. It's an awkward workaround, but I don't have the luxury of keeping both eyes naked and advertising my presence while I hunt around with the flashlight. Instead I go quiet and half-blind, hoping that I won't bump into anything the night-vision can't see.
The Bureau never works like this. It uses swarms of flashlights, with massive teams deployed into the Unhab to make up for in numbers what they lack in individual threat. This accounts for a lot of their casualties, but also for most of their kills.
Keeping my patched eye wide, I scan the inside of the hotel. It is as empty as I could hope for.
I make my way to the second floor, following a track of footprints through the dust. They lead up a staircase, down a corridor full of skeletonized potted palms, and to a door that is both derelict and shut.
Its lock, however, is electronic.
It has failed open in accordance with a long forgotten fire code.
I shift it wide.
The room beyond smell of must and personhood. It also reeks faintly of sewer. There is a single king-sized bed slumping in the center of the space, its mattress punctuated by the attentions of rats. Behind it is a girl of not more than twelve. She is crouching, with only her eyes and matted hair visible over the bed. Despite that, I can see the fire axe that she is carrying.
I breathe out a sight of relief.
"Thank god," I say. "I've been looking all over for you."
She shifts her grip on the axe, raising it shakily overhead. This is a reasonable precaution to take in the Unhab, although the blade would not do much against an intrusion. Not unless it had been blessed or Stabilized, which it most assuredly has not. Anything she might do to me, were I not a human, would be temporary at best.
Unfortunately for me, I am a human, and I really don't want to get a gash from that blunt tetanus-lopper trying to extricate the girl from her bolt-hole.
"Honey, I'm not going to come any close until you tell me I can," I say. "I'm not one of them, and I'm going to try and prove it to you. Okay?"
She casts around in the dark, trying and only half-succeeding at zeroing in on my voice. It's more visibility than I'm comfortable with, but I can't think of another way to let her see me, so I pull my eyepatch up my brow and turn on my flashlight.
I point the beam at her and then myself, going completely nightblind in the process.
"Now that you can see me," I begin and I have only the patter of little feet to warm me not to finish the sentence. I fling myself backward.
The axehead bounces clumsily off the doorframe, resounding down the hallway. I turn the flashlight back on Samantha, whose eyes are dilated and wild. She is heaving the axe overhead again.
I'm not proud of what I do next, but it keeps me alive.
I tackle the lost, malnourished grade-schooler like I'm sacking an undefended quarterback. The axe clatters to one side of us and the flashlight goes rolling.
"Stop!" I shout, grappling with what seems more like a bag of weasels than a child. "Christ, kid! I'm not your enemy."
I take a good clawing across the face, but eventually she settles down.
"Good," I say, blood streaming where her nails have raked my scalp. "I've got a bike on First and Laymont and a car on the outskirts. I can get you out of here. Get you home. What do you say to that?"
I can feel Sam's body go slack. Slack and scared. "But that's where it lives," she says.
"It?" I ask, bewildered.
She begins to sob.
Monteview Crescent is in the Inhab - a particularly nice stretch of it, too. Daffodils bloom in terraced flowerbeds and preening plastic flamingos guard the borders of cookie-cutter suburbia. There is no visible Intrusion here, although it is only a dozen miles from the Demilitarized zone.
The Tech working the gate pass there gave Samantha a once-over with some crystals and a Thermographic Imagining Machine, then had a priest prick her left index finger with an iron needle. When she did not erupt explosively into a tottering tower of wings and mouths, she was cleared to pass.
They did confiscate the axe, but that was probably for the best. Presenting her to her parents was going to be easier without any Lizzie Borden overtones.
We had stopped on the way home for a snack at a Tac-O-Luxe, and she is nibbling at the edges of her sixth quesadilla when we pull into her driveway. The other five meals are greasy wrappers scattered across my back seat.
It is six in the morning, and I rub my eyes before checking the load on my sidearm. Proper protocol would be to report the suspected Incursion here, but BRIAR has a very broad defenition of acceptable losses when it comes to body-swappers. I do not want to wrap this job up by standing on the wrong side of a Sainted Cordon while the house and Sam's parents burn.
"Are you ready?" I ask her. She nods. I tell her: "The second it sees you, I need you to run back outside and start screaming for help. Can you do this for me?"
It's dicey, but if the timing works I can have BRIAR onsite to help me finish off the threat, then take the Marigolds in for testing instead of precautionary immolation.
Standing side-by-side with the little girl, I knock on the front door.
A minute passes. Then another.
Warm April wind sweeps over me, and I am reminded that I have been wearing my current clothes for over twenty four hours. My eyes probably look like they belong on a raccoon and I am wearing my weapon openly.
Eventually, a light flickers on upstairs and then traverses to the front porch.
The door opens to show Mrs. Marigold, a woman in her early forties with her hair a mess of curlers. She is wearing a hastily wrapped bathrobe and pink bunny-rabbit slippers.
Seeing me next to her daughter, she turns very pale.
"Beg pardon, ma'am," I begin, and at this her lips press very tightly together. I change my tactic. "Your daughter is fine," I say, "but I found her in the Unhab. She's had a bad scare, but she's glad to be home again."
Bewilderment flashes across Mrs. Marigold's face. "My daughter is upstairs. Asleep. I don't know what you're trying to pull, or what you think you've found - " She cuts off suddenly.
I look past her.
Up the stairs to the second story, another Samantha is standing. The Samantha at my side sees it too. She takes a deep breath and lets it out in a scream. Then she bolts back across the lawn towards the street.
At the same time, I shove past Mrs. Marigold, clear my holster, and angle for a shot.
The older woman comes down on my arm, spoiling it wretchedly. I put a round through the staircase before I can brush her off. All the while she's crying "not my girl! Not my perfect new girl!"
The child at the top of the stairs is watching me implacably.
I muscle forward, raise the sidearm again, and Mrs. Marigold hits me around the waist in a desperate lunge. I pitch down into the stairs, cracking my forehead against a wooden rail. Lights and sound explode in the front of my thoughts. Water leaks from my eyes.
And from upstairs, I hear a bellow.
Mr. Marigold has awakened.
The Mrs. continues sobbing. "This was the right one," she's telling me. "You can't take her. She's fixed now. I don't want the old one back."
I bring an elbow up, almost apologetically. I'm expecting to meet nose-cartilage with the bone, but my sympathy makes me hesitate and that's another error. The woman grabs it; brute, desperate strength working to pin it behind my back. With my free hand I snap off a shot at her false-daughter, but it goes just as wide as the last one.
The thunder from it's report precedes Mr. Marigold's arrival by less than a second.
The Samantha at the top of the stairs has begun to smile.
Wrenching my arm back into position, I correct my aim to the left and fire a third time. This one wings her. She spins brokenly and collapses.
This is theatrics.
Unless, of course, I've badly misjudged the situation and shot an innocent girl.
Mr. Marigold, howling, scoops the Samantha into his arms.
This is when she decants.
Most changelings, in their native form, are still roughly hominid. They might be men made of willow branches. Or women of water and glass and circling fish. Or else a child built from the bones of other, smaller children intertwined with vines.
Those would be the nine-out-of-ten cases changelings.
This one is a one-out-of-ten, and there is no saving Mr. Marigold from the needles that erupt, pricking little red spouts in his bones and flesh.
The Intrusion decouples itself slowly from his spilling body, then lowers a psuedopod onto the stairs and slinks towards me. I want to discourage it from this course of action, but the Mrs. is still driving a knee into my back, beating at my spine with her hands.
"You can't do this to her," she chokes out around the tears. "You can't. You can't. You can't."
The "her" that she's discussing ripples at the edges, its gray-black membrane sniffing the air. In sinks another step closer, emitting a noise just on the upper edge of my auditory range.
It sounds like a purr.
Abandoning my last pretense of courtesy, I jack-knife, driving my feet back into Mrs.'s midsection. The breath leaves her in a startled rush, and for a blessed second she falls silent.
It is enough time for me to get disentangled, stand, and empty the rest of my magazine into the Intrusion.
False-Samantha hardly seems to care. The bullets patter her like raindrops. Protoplasm wells and rushes forward, and now I'm stumbling back, dragging Mrs. Marigold by the collar and throwing her to one side of the oncoming creature.
I jink in the opposite direction, out onto the porch, and it pursues me.
Hurdling the whitewashed railing costs me precious seconds. Slipping in the dew-wet grass loses me a few more. The changeling doesn't care. Its body parts around the railings like the tide surrounding a rock, needles quivering in expectation of the kill. I lob my gun at it as I scrabble back, and its membrane envelopes the pistol. The black, oblong shape drifts down inside of it, and then vanishes from view.
I'm back on my feet a moment later, kicking dirt and making for the driveway.
I don't have many weapons left, but there's one sitting there on four wheels, engine quiet and parking break engaged.
Ripping open the driver's side door, I fling myself inside. Keys meet ignition, the engine shudders and turns over, and the changeling hits the hood like a sodden, lumpen mound of rotting taffy. The bulk of its visible body begins to deflate, and I can tell that it's seeping inside.
Proof comes when a questing tendril snakes out my air vents, sharpens itself into a point, and stabs for my heart.
It pierces the seat behind me. I come scrambling back out of my car as the engine shudders and seizes. Blindly, I reach behind me and snap the release on the fuel door. Then I slam the driver's door closed on more protoplasm. Taffy squelches in reverse as the thing tries to extricate itself from my engine block.
I use the time I've bought to unscrew the gas cap, fish a handkerchief out of my pocket, and cram it down into the bowels of my ride. Just a little bit dangles out, a corner of fabric. My fingers find a lighter in my coat, spark hissing gas to a taper of standing orange, and are moving towards solving my changeling problem when Mrs. Marigold strikes me again.
Apparently she's been bellowing something wordless and primal, sprinting from where I'd throw her to meet me in a full tackle around the waist.
And, caddishly, I've been ignoring her.
I go over backwards onto pavement with stubby white fingers raking for my eyes. I buck and put two feet square in her midsection, propelling her off before one of her nails can catch a cornea. For good measure, I throw in a kick to space between her neck and her shoulder, and this modulates her shouting a little bit.
My lighter has gone out, but I ignite it again. In the distance, sirens are rising, but there's no time. The driver's side door to my car shudders and distends, bowing outward enough to let one slopping foot of slime free of metal-and-plastic prison. I roll back to my feet, drag the lighter-flame over the exposed handkerchief, and break for the road.
Several long, heart-thundering seconds pass, and my car conspicuously fails to explode.
Nearing the bottom slope of the driveway, lighter still in hand, still blazing, I turn.
The blast rocks me off my feet.
Gravity is clearly sending me signals at this point, so this time when I hit the tar, I stay there.
Were I the sort of man who likes puns, I would be tempted to say that the BRIAR agents gave me a good grilling, but I am not and the fact remains that most of the first responders, the ones who show up with hand-grenades and tactical rifles and end up having to sweep up a whole lawnful of glopped-about post-changeling slime, are mostly just sympathetic about the loss of my car.
It was a good sacrifice, some of them say. Noble and worthy.
It certainly kept them safe, if not Mrs. Marigold, who has been dipped in burn-and-shrapnel-wounds all down her right side.
The first-responders can afford to be sympathetic.
It's their bosses that are really going to rake me over the coals.
Samantha is kept away from the scene, and for this I count my blessings. No one deserves to see the broken pieces of their childhood security so plainly on display. She's going to have enough trauma as it is, growing up in foster care.
Eventually, after BRIAR has finished with me, giving me a formal reprimand for self-endangerment but not the actual arrest that I technically deserve, I thank the stars that I can lie well under pressure and make my way to meet with my client.
After all, I'm a full clip down, a car short, and with medical fees to boot. BRIAR severance pay only counts for so much.
Little Timothy is on the porch next door to the Marigolds' home; now uninhabited and cordoned by a thaumic hazmat team. The boy is no more than ten or so, and he's got a cluster of bills and change in his hands. A few twenties, but mostly singles and fives. Somewhere upstairs, I imagine a shattered piggy bank and a satisfied metal hammer.
"You were right," I say with a sigh, clumsily stuffing the money into my pocket with my unbandaged left hand. "I don't know how you guessed it, but you were right."
Timothy has sandy hair, and it hangs down over his eyes as he tips his head to study the porch planks. "Her ma and da," he says, voice soft, "they never used to treat her like that. Like they cared who she was. She'd act up, and they'd hit her. When she told me she was being sent away, I knew something was wrong."
I resist the urge to muss his hair. It would look strange to a passerby, and even stranger to his parents if they were to happen home in the middle of the day. Instead I say "you know how to call me if you need help again," and the boy nods.
I walk across his lawn, heading for the street and the nearest bus route home.