The creature that no longer resembled a Hippo and Enrico Momio's soul watched silently as both Locke sisters went away. And took the thing away with them.
"The bloody hell was that," Enrico said. He already knew he wasn't able to feel fear anymore.
He was beginning to understand his new circumstances. He was simply remembering how he used to feel fear, and thinking he should be feeling fear; but he was not able to feel fear, not even agitation.
He could feel disgust, though. And he came to terms with that almost instantly, knowing the rest would come, if only from revulsion.
Oh, good, I still can be a cynical bastard.
As they drifted together across nothingness, Enrico desperately clinging to the diminutive dot of presence that was the Hippo's soul, the thing disappeared as Locke carried it away.
The creature retorted: "I have no concrete idea, but it has your mean friend in a grasp she cannot break. Perhaps it is a grasp she has accepted. In any case, they do not belong here."
"Well, she is an auditor. They can't belong anywhere, that's sort of the point… I wonder where she got it."
Enrico scratched the back of his head. When he realized he was doing it out of pure habit, he thought about stopping, but then shrugged and kept scratching.
"What is an auditor?," the beast asked.
"I thought you knew everything…"
"I insist, I am not your sky-god, Enrico. I know little. I dedicate most of my thoughts to controlling the body I made to inhabit it."
"Ah. Well, it's like a lawyer, only they can close your entire operation if they feel like you're breaking the rules. Even violently so."
"Really. Well, that wouldn't be nice, I like it in here," it said. "I've grown quite settled to my body already."
"It's hideous, man. I mean, no offense-no, fuck that, feel offended if you want, it was weird two nights ago, now it's just hideous."
"It's a collection of different biological waste from parallel realities, Enrico. Of course it would look strange, even alien to you… to us. That doesn't make it any less comfortable."
"Parallel realities?," Enrico said.
The creature that no longer resembled a Hippo pondered him. "You didn't even know, did you."
"Know what? Oh, never mind. See, we have to help my folks! There are violent people out there, and if that thing… if they get their hands over Locke and the thing, what they will do with it-"
"Militias, I think. Maybe other big players are making a move on us, on our stuff. On you, even."
"Sure, you can purify water rather quickly, right? Well, there are people out there that would make use of you."
"And these… militias are sending me to those people instead of letting me help you?"
"After killing my friends, most likely," Enrico added.
There was a surge of light as the creature, soul un-carnate, went back into its body. "I should help," it thought, a tinge of genuine concern over its thoughts.
"Help? Help how, you told me it'd be problematic-!"
The creature's body started to tremble. The nail-like spikes on its back glowed red. There was a trembling noise and everything around Enrico was light for a brief moment.
Then the creature came back. "I just helped."
"Wait, what? How?"
While the house was a nice, clean, orderly place, it was in the middle of the Gran Paradiso National Park, Piedmont, and a lake could be seen from two sides of the house; the other two were surrounded by trees. Accessing it was difficult; the closest thing to civilization around it was a dirt road. Most of its floors and ceiling was woodwork. However, everything in it was either comfortable or plain out functional; a home away from everything. A haven.
The minimalistic furniture contrasted with a few old relics made of oak wood, dark and baroque.
And there was a visitor sitting in the oldest piece of furniture, a slightly dilapidated and dusty armchair. Riding her raised left leg as an expert cavalryman, a tiny girl laughed at the rhythmic movements of her unlikely mount. The visitor was wearing a short bright green dress which contrasted with the tiny girl's, flowery and fairly plain. A man left the kitchen to eye on them both as he cleaned his hands with a rag.
"Hello, sis. Heard you coming in," Gary said, "but I didn't wanna disturb your game session."
"Dad!," Hada announced, dropping from her aunt's leg. "Aunt Dizzie is staying for dinner!" The man looked at the visitor, brows arcing in surprise.
"Unless something major goes down in my jurisdiction, yes, I'm staying here," the woman casually said in a grave, kind voice. She looked tired, but happy.
The tiny Hada went to the armchair again and hugged her legs. The visitor smiled and caressed her tiny head.
Gary smiled at the scene. As he went back to the kitchen, he commented: "Well, we'll have enough for three. You'll eat in the damn chair, as usual?"
"If you don't mind," she calmly answered.
"Mind? Dammit, I can't imagine what you go through every day, sis, and you still get the job done and find time for us. Of course I don't mind."
"Will you tell me stories tonight, auntie?," the adorable whisper melted the visitor's face into another larger, brighter smile, her eyes slightly watery.
This was her heaven. Her only rest. The place where she was safe.
"Oh, sweetie," she answered, "that's the one thing I have, stories, so many of-"
The visitor looked at Hada, the girl's face slowly turning into a sad frown.
"They called you now, didn't they?"
"What makes you say that?"
"When they call you, your eyes always go from being like this-", Hada pulled the corners of her eyes back, turning them into two thin slits, "-to this." Hada pulled them down, and then she shrugged. "And you stop smiling."
Her aunt felt pride on her. Three years, and she is this smart already. "Tell your father I'm sorry, dear. Will you?"
"But you just arrived," Hada pleaded.
With a sad, distant smirk, the visitor caressed her hair. A few strokes, just that. She needed it.
Then, knowing that waiting any longer would only make it harder, she stood up and found herself in the dark, narrow safe room by her office, the walls filled with files and cardboard boxes stacked in white shelves.
There was no furniture but the old, dilapidated armchair and a perfectly normal stool she used when she had to read something. Her bright green flat shoes, perfectly matching her dress, rested on the low seat.
There, there was no older brother in the kitchen.
There was no little girl.
In her world, there was only the Mission. And a long, demanding mission it was.
Steeling herself, she hurried to the security door, decorated with a series of pentacles arranged in a perfect pattern of concealment. She checked her dress, flattening a few wrinkles here and there, and opened the lock.
While Madam al Fine wanted to at least glance back at the old armchair, she knew she couldn't afford any further distractions. She walked into her office through the armored panel that hid her study, which closed back once she went through it, seamlessly hiding itself amongst the other parts of the wall.
Three people, two of them in military uniforms, were waiting for her. "Let's get to it then. Tell me everything we know," the Scary Lady said.
"You've warned WHO?"
Six minutes later, inside a bare office in a large official-looking building in Abidjan, a man called 'Pericles' by his superiors and Assistant Director by his subordinates received a call.
He stood at attention as he listened to his most absolute superior. Her orders were clear, concise and brief.
As soon as he hung up, he started making calls again. He phoned his secretary, his three, most immediate junior officers and a man who, he was aware of it, would do any job he gave him.
Even that one.
Once 'Pericles' was done, he sat behind his desk. He knew he would be expected briefly in the regional command hub meeting. However, he took a moment to ponder on his life and his loyalties.
Suddenly, 'Pericles' made up his mind. He opened a drawer in his desk. At its bottom rested a wooden toy bird and a bag of luminous candy.
"The Coalition! I think I remember some of your associates speak in very high terms of them when close to my tank. I only assume they will come and help us-you seem concerned."
"CONCERNED, it says! ME? About the fucking GOC figuring out we're breaking the 1987's agreement in at least eight points?"
"We don't deal with the GOC, Hippo. We don't deal with them 'cause they don't actually LIKE us. They think we're more trouble than we're worth, and they think we tell them whenever something goes awry, but this time we haven't told them, and if that thing from before, if Locke-oh God."
"I told you I'm not that."
At the time, Sarah Desjeux was alone in her surgery room. Out of mere habit, she merrily hummed, but she wasn't putting her heart into it; her mind was filled with what her mother would have called 'plenty of bad omens material'.
-she placed all the boxes with surgical gloves in the top drawer. Then took one of them, which she left with the large bottles of disinfectant-
Sarah was not a particularly joyful person. That was one of the most tragic misconceptions about her, and the most common one. She didn't exactly put a facade, either; she just wanted others to realize life could be lived with a smile and a shout and a laugh. That did not mean she was immune to its horrors, of course.
-she counted all the surgical scissors again. She was missing one, and since they had had three major surgeries that day, and they could have left it in? No, she thought, that can't be, Lila was counting them, she never misses one-
Actually, that was not entirely true. After living such a long, busy life, she was beginning to understand the calmness, the serenity with which certain old people used to carry themselves around. The aplomb. And that was what most people would expect of a leader such as herself: composure and seriousness. And that's what they would get.
-and there was a large splatter of blood where that poor boy's leg had fallen to the ground. She examined it. Still fresh, no trouble. Sarah took a wipe and crouched to deal with the drops, the white floor bright anew as she went through it-
That was not to say she was immune to worst things in life, but she was pretty resilient. She had buried dead workmates, she had performed amputations after running out of anesthetics and she had delivered dead children to young mothers who wished. It really didn't get much harder than that, she mused.
-three, four, five, six, seven? I thought we had seven big bandage rolls here. She shook her head. Shouldn't have bought them large rolls, but would they listen? Noooo. We at the Continental Branch know what we do-
No, life was hard, and it was hard on her too. Day to day life was difficult, filled with work, full of wonders and death alike. But it was good to have fun and try to enjoy it while it lasted; and there was something, something she had felt since she was a child. The smiles. She loved the smiles they dedicated her, and the laughs. She had grown into a person everybody around her liked, or at least respected; and they had grown, she knew it, thanks to that silly short woman under her almost indomitable mop of chestnut hair.
-da doo doo daaa, now we clean around here, antiseptic everywhere and a bit of daa doo oh, what's with racket out there, I can't even think-
She cleaned the shelf of the last piece of furniture in the surgery room until she felt satisfied with its neatness. She wiped her sweaty face with the back of her hand as soon as she discarded her gloves. Daily work. That was the key. Patching people, patching minds by talking to them and getting to know them. Humans, all of them mortal, all of them little, all of them inconsequential. All of them fragile.
-all of them so very beautiful.
And here I am, all alone, Sarah laughed at her own thoughts. She left the surgery room, going into the busy aisle outside, a few volunteers working with Somali doctors who had come from Mogadischu and Garowe. All of them wore the white-and-green surgical robes provided by the MCF. Some of them, whom she didn't even now, rushed to respond to some emergency. The hospital was alive.
That was the part of a project she loved the most. See it outgrow her.
As she glanced through one of the windows in the well-illuminated aisle, Sarah felt, if not happy, content.
And then, as the small toy bird she always carried around and used in private to talk to her superiors and a few well-placed friends started to vibrate with the voice of a man she once knew, the window exploded towards her.
"No, you don't get it. There is a basic law when dealing with the GOC and trans-reality stuff."
"Yes. Just don't do it."
When Frank reached the place where the shooting had gone down, he had been expecting to find a PR mess and a few injured people.
Instead, he was met by a horrid scene.
Several corpses were scattered around the now extinguished bonfire, where their volunteers had been burning meat — My orders. — as the gasoline-soaked wood underneath it had burn completely. As he came closer to it, he realized there were living, breathing animals in the pile, miraculously calm and silent. Some of their corpses were intertwined, already growing back and combining. Frank grimaced. There we go, Dodger's undying pets. Great.
Frank wondered where she was. He could use a bit of Mission Watch insight now.
The largest one, the head of a particularly badly hurt wildebeest, looked at him. Half its neck was covered in dirt. Under its neck, the rest of the body was covered in bleeding injuries and burns.
Frank noticed the bleeding was slowly decaying, the corpse rapidly recovering from the injuries it had suffered. Not enough hurt to put you down, right, big guy?
As if answering his thoughts, it softly bellowed. One of the AMISOM soldiers jolted and shot it twice.
Frank grimaced. He turned to the other part of the scene. But he did not want to do it. He did not want to check on the bodies.
The Executive Security member went over the corpses, he made the count. Seven of them wore white and green vests. At least ten were civilians. Six more were militians, perhaps irregulars that tried to stop the violence; most of their guns were gone. Some were piled in mounds, muddied and bloodied.
Frank noticed one of the corpses was oddly familiar. His heart sunk as he recognized Enrico Momio's corpse.
He had work with him for years. He felt the need to sit somewhere and sleep, sleep for a hundred years. Instead, he closed his eyes, open in an expression of surprise.
"See ya, you pest," he whispered. "Will keep an eye on Tino for you."
"This is more than just one shooting. They've killed a bunch of armed veterans! We have to report to our superiors, right now!," their sergeant said. Frank nervously nodded.
"And it was not bandits, either. This is probably people from Laascaanood itself, angry over our decision to incinerate the meat," he said. The soldier cursed in Arab, but Frank did not have the time to argue. "Warn your superiors, tell them to bring here whatever men they can spare. Please. If they attack us, they will murder all of us. They will probably go after all those who supported us, as well. This could very well turn into a bloodbath. The hospital is our only quarters in the area and it is a very evident target, so as soon as you-"
And then, he saw the explosion in the distant hospital. When the sound reached them, he was already running towards it, with a pistol he took from a dead member of the militia.
"Don't do it? At all?"
"They get real serious about it, too. They're all about causal cross-contamination and timestream fussion or collision between parallel Earths and stuff like that. They get real serious. Real, kill everyone around the stuff itself just in case, serious!"
"Well, then I don't understand why would anyone talk anything but ill of them. Your friends must be all liars."
Last Hearth, AKA, Hearth Actual, AKA the Stoker, was calmly debriefing his boys as they flew to their target. He liked to think of them as "boys", despite the fact that they weren't children nor exclusively men.
"Target is, as of now, unknown but present in a Manna Charitable Foundation station in Laascaanood, Somalia. As luck would have it, most AMISOM and Puntaland military units are out of town. As bad luck would have it, PSYCHE warns us of very high risk of local violence due to a combination of anomalous activities conducted by the MCF and inter-tribal or sectary violence. In fewer words, boys, this is an all-out assault, another one."
That's what they called him for, usually. Him and his boys. He pondered them briefly; two hundred of the brightest and best the Coalition had, deployed by chopper from Mogadischu 'cause, why, no apportation-capable Strike Teams were available at the time! And they needed a large Strike force this time, since riots and mass control might become an issue!
Faint-hearted bastards, all of them.
"Sentinel satellite 22 detected a huge Aspect Radiation spike near the town. It was Ebony, but brief. Very brief. We are not certain of the precise location of the entity that generated it, but it's pretty obvious that it should be in an MCF location. Problem is, with ongoing local violence, we will get in trouble if we just jump in… and it might be worse to not do so at all. We all know what will happen if other groups get their hands on an Ebony hue entity."
They all knew. They had all lived through situations like those, generally to take back whatever the bad guys took for their personal use, and then set it on fire so that nobody else could use it. The very reason why the Global Occult Coalition existed. Last Hearth occasionally thought people upstairs were too interested in their own damned careers to remember that.
"So we will attack first any group of non-anomalous combatants that may look like they are attacking MCF interests in the area. We will also be going in sort of blind. We will be going against civilians, militias and perhaps even the MCF volunteers themselves, if they are responsible of this mess."
There were other Coalition teams available to deal with the problem, but they had chosen him and Team Phalanx for a reason. The reason being they knew everything there was about getting their hands dirty before joining the Team. Nowadays, every single one of them underwent post-mission memory wipes to keep them sane, or at least functional. Every single one of them was obsessed with physical form, absolutely committed to the five-fold Mission and conditioned to obey to him. Many of them had had organs replaced by wetware and hardware devices as part of the APAR(T) program, and one of them had even been selected for the SPAR(TA) testing program. He was basically a machine at that point, more a weapon than people. My boys, Umber proudly mused.
"However, Mission-wise, this operation is to focus on Destruction. If Destruction is impossible, we will simply prioritize Survival and retrieve the item for further study. Concealment is secondary; the entire area has been put in a communications blackout by PSYCHE, and they'll chalk it all up to tribal violence when the deal is done and journalists are allowed to go back to the streets."
And then, he waited for a moment before continuing.
"Protection, in an operation where we can expect locals resisting to us, is a minor concern. In other words, business as usual. ETA: two hours, at around eight and a half local time."
As their helicopters came closer to the place, Hearth checked once and again on updates from PSYCHE and the Sentinel network. There were no news from the latter, but the Special Observers and the only Assessment Team in the area reported many bad news on the civilian front.
Other Team Leaders would have frowned, grunted and asked their superiors to reconsider their role in all that. Maybe send other group, or just try a different, more discreet approach.
Team Leader Hearth would not.
"Fuck. Never mind, you just don't get what you've done," Enrico's soul said. The Hippo's soul seemed embarrassed about the whole thing.
"So…," it started, "I have an idea. You said you wanted to be alive again, didn't you?"
"I can!?," Enrico jumped.
"Not in your old carcass, it's wasted. I checked. Mmm… but there is another possibility."
Olympe had felt the blast rather than hear it, since he was tinkering with Garziel and Poitriburg on the Old Orange. Technically, he was not allowed to teach them how to do it, but he had done it anyways.
"Ziel, Poitri, go see what that was, please," he told his trainees. "Do what you have to protect the hospital. I'll charge Oldie."
As the women left the garage in a hurry, their robes still stained with oil and the semi-abnormal fluids used by the machine's engine, he stood in front of the Old Orange and looked at the canister where he would be enclosed.
Technically, he was not allowed to try and put layers of armor on it, but he was about to anyways.
Rico's memory of a face grimaced. "I'm not possessing a person."
"Oh, no, everyone finds mind-riding very inconsiderate even in cases of emergency such as this! Not to mention the kind of control required takes a long time to master… No, you wouldn't be possessing creatures that might have pure, immutable souls. You'd be, uh, possessing creatures with no mind."
"You are familiar with the orchard somebody planted nearby the camp, I believe?