Umiko sat by the fire as it burned down slowly. The waves rolled quietly over the warm sand of the beach, occasionally crashing with a low rush of water and spray. In the light of the setting sun, the roadie adjusted a ratchet strap on a piece of sound equipment. He pulled on the strap to test the tautness before hefting the case over his shoulder and carrying it to the back of Morgan’s truck. He set it down carefully, making sure to situate it just so. A few trips later, the bed was full up with all of Constellation Starfish’s equipment; Morgan and Clyde’s guitars, Brooke’s drums, the amps and mixer, and a half empty cooler of craft beers. Umiko wiped sweat from his forehead and smiled. As he surveyed his work, a careful tetriswork of cases and straps, Clyde walked up behind him.
“‘Miko,” he said, putting a hand on the big man’s shoulder, “I think you just got a call."
Umiko turned and grabbed his phone out of Clyde’s outstretched hand. “Many thanks, Clyde. I am finish with truck. Will phone call now.”
Clyde smiled back at him. “Thanks, buddy.”
Umiko looked behind him where the other members of the band were standing with a group of bums, pointing at the sky and laughing. Morgan was the center of attention, as always, and was waving his arms like a bird while trying not to spill his beer. Rosa, ever at Morgan’s side, stood close enough to occasionally brush up against him, but not enough to arouse suspicion. Brooke was twirling a drum stick around her finger and reading from a magazine, hardly paying attention to the commotion her bandmate was causing. And Clyde, Clyde was still pulling on the strings of his acoustic, picking out a quiet melody as the waves played their accompaniment.
Satisfied that the band wouldn't notice his momentary absence, Umiko walked away from the group towards the road, where a surf shack sat deserted. He continued his usual ambulatory gait until he felt he was sufficiently out of sight. Then, and only then, he straightened his back, stretched, and pulled out the phone. Quickly hitting redial, he glanced again towards the beach. They had not seen him walk away.
The phone rang three times before another voice answered. It was a connecting line, a midway between two callers. The automated voice on the other end spoke clearly with the same uncannily human tone that it always did during these calls, and like always, Umiko clenched his teeth slightly.
“Welcome to Service and Care Products. How may I direct your call?”
“Sarah niner nine Amy.”
A pause, and then.
“Please state your designation.”
Umiko cleared his throat. “Agent Alexi Konnikov, Site 99, Task Force Bravo.”
Again a pause on the line. Alexi always hated this part. The slightest misstep would result in, best case scenario, a stern talking to by Director Page or, worst case scenario, a strike team sent to his position. The giant Russian tried to relax, but the voice caught him too quickly.
“Please state your security code, followed by your Task Force code.”
A deep breath, and then, “Echo alpha five five charlie two niner papa golf one one zulu.” He took another breath. “Bravo nine three seven charlie padre.”
There was a brief silence, during which Umiko counted slowly to five.
“Thank you, Agent Konnikov. Welcome to the Site 99 Secure Network. How may I direct your call?”
Alexi emptied his lungs and wiped more sweat off of his brow. “GOI Central Department, Supervisor McKinney.”
The phone clicked, and then began ringing again. Alexi poked his head around the corner of the shack, and eyed Morgan attempting to juggle three empty bottles while Rosa laughed and cheered a little too loud.
“This is McKinney.”
Alexi turned back around the shack. “Randy, it’s Alex. You called?”
McKinney coughed on the other end. “You know, for somebody who hates going through authorization so much, I would think you’d be more willing to answer the call when it comes through the first time. Get to skip all that niner niner bullshit.”
“I was occupied,” said Alexi. “I’m supposed to be undercover.”
“You’re right, you’re right. What were you busy doing this time, huh? Channeling your chi through some spirit stones again?”
Alexi sighed. “Do you need anything, Randy?”
McKinney laughed. “I’m just giving you a hard time, Alex. I do have a reason for calling, though. Talk around Central is that they’re considering reassigning you. Might come within the next month.”
The hair on the back of Alexi's neck stood up. “Reassign me? To where?" He paused. "Then why send me here? You said that this has been our primary target ever since North Carolina. Why would they want to pull out all of a sudden?”
“By the sounds of it, Central isn't convinced anymore that we've got an actual Fifthist sect. The group in North Carolina had giant, reality bending snakes, Alexi. That’s some crazy fucking stuff right there. Your Constellation Starfish… I mean, they haven't done anything except play shitty music and smoke a ton of pot.”
“McKinney, come on. You've read my reports, haven’t you? I thought I was pretty clear about-”
“I've read your reports. A few strange incidents here and there. I almost believed it when I saw that video of the dancing light thing last week, but then they were able to cook that all up in a lab down in R&D. Said it was just smoke and mirrors, and… I don’t know, Alex. I know you’re dead set on this being the one, but just because the singer has a link to North Carolina doesn't mean this is your Star Signals. All of the Fifthists so far haven’t exactly been discreet. Unless Constellation Starfish does something out of this world here before too long, they’re probably going to pull you for a Broken God project in Arkansas.”
Alexi rubbed his temples fervently. “Randy, listen, I know this probably sounds crazy, but I swear there’s something going on here. I need you to hold off Page and Central for another few days. The band is going to a big concert upstate this weekend, and intel is hinting that it’s a Marshall, Carter and Dark event. If you want some fucking giant, exploding snakes or whatever, be my guest, but what’s going to happen at this show is going to blow that shit out of the water.”
Randall McKinney was silent on the other end of the line. Ten seconds passed, then fifteen, and then, “Fine. I’ll talk to Page, we’ll get this taken care of. I swear to fucking god though, Alexi, if nothing happens at this show and I stick my neck out for you for nothing, you’ll be in a cubicle somewhere sifting through UIU intercepts by the end of the month.”
Alexi exhaled. “Sure thing, boss.” The phone beeped and Alexi swiftly tucked it into his pocket. He mussed his hair slightly, slouched his shoulders, and stumbled back around the shack. Most of the crowd had dispersed, with only a few tagalongs hanging around to smoke pot with Clyde and Brooke. Morgan had disappeared, and Rosa was sitting near the truck, simmering. As Alexi approached, Clyde raised his head and grinned at him. “Who was that, big guy?”
Umiko smiled. “Only mother. No worries.”