Barcode splashed cold water across her face, well aware that it had been seventy-two hours and three minutes since she had last been asleep and that sleep would not come for another seventeen hours. She looked up into the mirror: The young woman who looked back, with the round face and short-cropped hair all dyed up, and the bare arms sleeved with tattoos of I Ching hexagrams, looked unfamiliar in a way. She recognized that it was herself, but the image felt disconnected. Like a photo that she couldn’t remember taking.
She’d need to get her dye touched up, she noted: the black roots were showing beneath the orange and white. The circles under her eyes were exceptionally dark, almost black, as they always were towards the end of her waking cycle. Her senses were dulled to the point where the world around her consisted of a blurry blank vastness, viewed through clouded, rippled glass.
She flicked open her foldable toothbrush and squeezed a glob of blueish goop onto it.
And yet the world exploded with color and noise around her like a demented scrapbook. Each object, the sink, the faucet, the soap dispenser, the toothbrush, her hands, was outlined in its shadows a thousand days hence, and bathed in colors that had no wavelength, and twisted around in more dimensions than it ought. She saw things from all sides and none, things that existed and did not. She saw it all, all at once, if she looked the right way.
If she looked in the mirror at the right angle and let her eyes go unfocused just the right amount, she could make out a blood-red worm with a thousand rippling legs and a head shaped like a penis, curled around her neck.
“Morning, beautiful,” it said in a velvety voice with some indiscernible Slavic accent curling around the edges of its fleshy mandibles.
“Go home, Vinnie,” Barcode said through the toothpaste foam. “You aren’t real.”
“Aw, don’t be like that, baby.” The worm skittered around her shoulders, undulating rhythmically. “Don’t be like that.”
“You’re a figment of my imagination.”
“You’re no fun anymore.”
Barcode spat into the sink. Drink, swish, spit, drink, swish, spit.
“I was never fun, Vinnie.”
She rose from the sink, put her toothbrush and toothpaste into the pocket of her pajama pants, and brushed at her shoulder where there was no worm.
The young woman named Barcode, of the Esoteric Warfare Unit’s fourth squad, trundled out of the bathroom, her bare feet brushing against the cool, cracked tiles.
“So I says to the guy, I says ‘Do you want to see some real operating?’ and I show him Bessie like this, and he looks about ready to shit himself and… Chinkacoon, are you sleeping on the job?”
Barcode half-heartedly flipped off the dark, shriveled husk of a man sitting there on the low concrete wall. Ramses. Fitting name. Brought a plague on every house he entered. That, and he looked like he crawled right out of the Valley of the Kings.
He actually had crawled out of the Valley of the Kings, though the exact details changed with every telling.
“You look like a walking corpse.” Ramses twirled his favored razor around in his fingers.
Barcode didn’t dignify that with a response.
The other man sitting on the wall looked like someone had stapled a face and a brain to a flank steak off of a rhinoceros. This was Whalebone. His fingers were as thick as her wrist.
“Morning, Barcode. Heading home today.”
“And leave when we get there.” Ramses flicked his straight razor closed and slipped it back into his pocket. “About fucking time.”
“Heh heh heh, yeah, we could all use the relaxation. What are you gonna do, Bar?”
“Sleep? Pah.” Ramses mimed the act of spitting. “Sleep is no good for relaxing. Fit for savages, perhaps, but worthless for a man such as myself. Civilized relaxation requires fine silks, good wine, a large jug of olive oil, and a half-dozen nubile young men in various states of undress. You miss the finer things in life, Chinkacoon.”
“That explains why I’m stuck listening to you.”
Whalebone laughed, and it sounded like a hippopotamus with a respiratory infection.
“Too bad we can’t have our leave here.” He nodded out towards the beach and ocean. “Home is probably frozen solid by now.”
That it was. Snow and ice back home, rather than tropical salt breezes and bright flowers and five suns and a crumbling Nazi bunker. The last bit wasn’t particularly nice to look at, but it did contribute to the overall atmosphere in ways that Barcode could not adequately describe now. She could, however, see a few burning towers of screaming goat skulls, an erotic carrot hive-mind, some micro-zeppelins with sloth faces, and aborted spoons in the background, none of which existed.
They had found a flag when they first got there. Kramer cut it up and used it as toilet paper. Said the chafing was worth it.
“Long story short, the guy got fucked over.” Ramses continued whatever story he was telling before. “And I look down and lo and behold, he had no legs. Nothing below the waist. I look down at him and I say, I say ‘see, you should have listened to me, never trust lactating clowns’, and then I cut his throat. Common decency was at stake.”
Barcode ignored their talking: the words went around her like so many three-eyed salmon.
She felt a twinge in her head, something pulling down at the edge of her stretched tarp-consciousness. Something out by the ocean, fluctuating the Field, bobbing up and down. Irregular. Like a lead weight dropped on a sheet of rubber.
hey kramer im picking up something on the water
ANY IDEA WHAT IT IS?
The words tasted yellow in her head. A gaunt, looming yellow.
no idea going to run down and check it out
RIGHT, I’LL TELL MACNUGGET
Barcode wandered out of the bunker and down the wooden scaffolding that led to the beach. The thumping in her head grew more intense, louder without sound. Muskrat liches scattered as she passed. There were weird things out in the water, probably just some big dumb thing messing up the local Field…
She was on the beach, sand in her toes. The Thing, whatever it was, was drawing closer. And it was big. Her mind brushed against its presence, like a swimmer brushing a foot against a boulder they could not see to its full extent. She couldn’t see anything with her eyes, but she could feel it there, swimming off the coast. Maybe a few hundred yards out and approaching.
A spout of water erupted from the waves, and a sharp lance of panic stabbed through the blurriness in Barcode’s mind.
“WHALE!” she screamed with voice and mind, drawing the Field around her close.
The mist and spray fell back to the ocean as a wide, bloody gulf opened up in the sky. Wisps of damned souls shrieked as they poured out of the gaping hole and swirled about in the pooling black clouds. The thumping became an all-out assault against Barcode’s mind, coiling and prying and trying to find an opening in the Field. The waves broke as a great humped back rose above the water, grey and red and speckled with the fleshy, screaming faces of its old, eternally tortured meals. A massive wedge-shaped head, encrusted with barnacles and sea lice, opened up its mouth and roared.
The air rippled and tore, and whatever mild local gods inhabited that place collectively shat themselves.
Barcode found herself rooted where she stood, immobile. The fear that sprung up sublimated on contact with her mind, burning away the blurriness and leaving cold, strangely logical thought behind.
There was a Whale. There was a God-damned Whale maybe a hundred yards away from her. There was a dog-fucking God-damned Whale that knew she was there. There was a shit-licking dog-fucking God-damned Whale here right when they were going to head back to Baseline. There was a cunt-chafing shit-licking dog-fucking God-damned Whale here and she couldn’t move because sparing any neurons from maintaining her shield would let the Whale into her head and reduce her mind to a fine slurry. She could feel its gigantic, salt-rimed eyes already peering down at her soul, like a king looking at a worm in his apple, trying to crack it open.
A mass of golden fire screamed over her head from behind, hitting the Whale in the shoulder, cascading off in sheets of flame. The pressure on Barcode’s mind lifted just enough that she would allow herself to move, allow herself to run. More fireballs launched overhead.
kramer is there a plan
ARE YOU UP FOR A SOULSHOT?
do we have a choice
NOT UNLESS YOU WANT THIS THING TO GAIN THE ADVANTAGE. KILL IT IN FIVE MINUTES OR FIVE MONTHS YOU KNOW HOW IT IS.
right ill do it
WHALEBONE’S BRINGING YOU A CADABRA.
The fireblasts were now accompanied by the booming thumps of a cannon. That’d be Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The Whale roared again, though in irritation rather than pain. Barcode didn’t have to look to know that the full extent of the barrage was maybe a little bit of temporary discoloration of the skin. It would be in the shallows now, reaching the shoreline.
She was at the cliff, at the base of the scaffolding. She looked up to see Whalebone jump off from the top and plummet to the beach. The slight form of Spleeny rocketed off of the cliff face, striding towards the Whale on six legs of braided barbed cables.
“Catch!” he tossed her a gun, a sleek grey thing on a shoulder strap. Red runes were painted along its length.
“Get me up there!”
Whalebone grabbed her around the waist with both hands. His skin rippled with the silhouette of his elasmotherium totem.
“Can you keep yourself stable?”
“Right then. Alley-oop!”
He threw her at the Whale.
Barcode nudged herself just enough to keep herself stable as she flew, wind howling around her. She had precious little mind to spare outside. Everything she could afford had to be directed at the Whale.
Her mind hit the Whale’s like a jet hitting a wall. If it had been big before, now it was monolithic, a singularity of hate corrupted by the static of the ghosts that swam in the air around it and the souls roiling in its gut.
Below, Spleeny lashed at the Whale with her barbed cables and spears of her own blood, whisking around it. A scarlet lance lodged itself in its eye, and for a moment there was a crack in its mind before it healed from its injury. Barcode squeezed through, and began assaulting the Whale’s mind. Not to damage it permanent, just enough to make it recoil, just enough.
For all of this, Barcode was in the air for six seconds. She landed where the neck met the hump. She shaped the Field around her hands and feet to maintain her grip and continued hacking at the Whale’s mind. Cannon shots and fireballs continued to barrage it as Spleeny continued to circle and lash.
The pain in her head was indescribable, like getting eaten alive inside her own skull. She could dimly feel a dribble of blood running down her lip. She aimed the Cadabra, pressing the barrel right against the Whale’s smooth grey skin.
Within the burning pain that surrounded her in the Whale’s mind, she could hear its voice and understand its tongue.
Maggot [rot, scum, decay] infesting the fruit of the Tree / slave to knowledge [ignorance and false teachings] impotent / die a thousand/million/billion deaths [forever] undying / disgust-abomination wracked in/by/with filth
Barcode was assaulted by a flood of new pain, human pain, the mindful-mindless anguish of a thousand souls driven beyond madness, stripped of the very capabilities of sapient thought. They swirled around her, and she could feel herself drifting off to join them in their unthinking chorus.
No. Not today.
She pushed through the well of spirits, their claws tearing at her, to reach the core of the Whale’s mind. It was unfittingly frail under her presence, a husk that felt as if it would collapse at her touch. But it did not collapse.
She struck at it, and pain shot through her. Again, again, again…
There! It recoiled!
Barcode screamed, blood pouring from her eyes and ears and nose and mouth, her mind writhing in pain she had no comprehension of, and pushed one last time against the Whale’s consciousness, driving it back upon itself for the briefest moment, letting it coalesce into a tiny, shriveled, pitiable shell of a mind and soul for a fleeting second.
Right under the barrel of her gun.
She pulled the trigger. A crackling stream of concentrated thaumic energy cut through the Whale’s flesh like a white-hot needle boring through a fingernail, cutting down into the water, into the sand, down to the bedrock. Molten meat splashed across the beach and water boiled off into clouds of steam as the Whale buckled and collapsed. The open sore in the sky wavered and collapsed upon itself, as the wailing of lost souls faded.
The Whale steamed and smoked and was still. They had killed it before it had gotten out of the water. Barcode slowly made her way down the carcass. Her arms and legs trembled.
Upon reaching the sand, she walked a short distance, and collapsed. She was dimly aware of Spleeny and Whalebone approaching her.
With a grunt, with her last bit of energy, she rolled onto her back, lay there spread-eagle, and laughed. She laughed until her stomach hurt and her lungs ached and tears dripped down her cheeks. She laughed because she had to, because she would die if she didn’t.
When the laughing died down, she could hear the faint scuttling of a thousand legs in the sand behind her head.
“Fuck off, Vinnie.”
This was the closest one to Baseline we've seen so far. They're becoming more active, and we're running out of time. For every successful execution like this, there is one that drags on for months. The Department of Extra-Universal Affairs has closed off the portal and banned any return trips, though will keep an eye out for any activity from that side.
That said, pass on congratulations to the men and women of squads 4 and 5. They're earned their leave.
- Colonel Manu Avninder, Esoteric Warfare Unit