Vital Signs

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June 7, 2016
Portland, Oregon

Agent Sasha Merlo sat at an empty table in a quiet coffee shop, tapping her fingers as she stared out the window. The sky was predictably overcast.

A younger person in plainclothes slid into the seat across from her. "Sasha Merlo?"

"You have an ounce of perception," she said cryptically, still staring out the window.

"More like a pound of obscure," they muttered. "I swear, who the hell comes up with these counterphrases?"

"I think that one was song lyrics," Merlo said, grinning and turning to face the newcomer. "What happened to Agent Spencer?"

"Something came up in Three Ports that he had to deal with," they said. "I'm his partner, Special Agent Robin Thorne."

Merlo studied the FBI agent. Thorne was noticeably younger than her, with close-cropped auburn hair that framed a youthful face, but they projected an aura of calm confidence that Merlo knew came only from experience. It felt like looking back across a decade of time into a mirror.

"Why does that name sound familiar?" Merlo asked. While she was genuinely curious, she was also using the question as a conversational gambit to get a feel for the other agent. She had come prepared to make her pitch to the notoriously hardline Spencer and was now having to mentally rewrite her planned speech.

Thorne blinked and glanced down at the table. "You're probably thinking of my mother."

Merlo ran the name through her mind a few more times, trying to dislodge any stuck memories. Then she remembered. "You mean Florence Thorne?"

Thorne nodded, still looking down at the table. "We've actually met before, at her funeral." They looked up and met Merlo's gaze, expression inscrutable. "You left early."

A brief recollection of a gangly teenager with eyes full of anger flashed through Merlo's mind. "Sorry," she said. "There were a lot of people there who weren't too happy about my departure from the Bureau."

Thorne shrugged. "I wasn't blaming you." They drummed their fingers on the table. "But I doubt this is why you asked for a meeting, is it?"

Merlo inhaled briefly and chewed her lower lip. "I know Anderson is operating out of Three Portlands."

Thorne stared at her for a moment before giving a short laugh. "So, that kind of meeting. Guess that tracks for you." They folded their arms on the table and leaned forwards slightly. "What makes you think your white whale is hiding out in the Weird City?"

Merlo shifted in her seat, unsettled by Thorne's knowledge of her vendetta with Anderson. She pressed on regardless. "Are you guys still running PLAMPRO?"

Thorne's gaze hardened. "That's classified."

"You know what it is though, right?"

They nodded slightly.

"Well, when I joined the Bureau back in '02, the first thing they put me on was analysis of PLAMPRO traffic. You know, finding movement patterns, trying to identify specific smuggling routes. I even worked with your mom for a little bit on a related case of hers… Dark Door, I think was the codename?"

"Dark Room," Thorne said, offering the correction automatically. "What's your point?"

"My point is that I know what it looks like when somebody's using Three Portlands as the center of a smuggling ring. The spatial and temporal distribution of Anderson's operations fits that pattern perfectly."

"So what you've really got is just a hunch."

Merlo sighed. "Thorne, quit bullshitting me. I've played your side of this game before. I know he's in Portlands. You know he's in Portlands. You're just wondering who told me he was in Portlands. Now we can keep going in circles like this, or you can accept that I'm not going to burn an informant. Your choice."

Thorne studied her quietly, frowning ever so slightly. "You called this meeting, Agent Merlo. Obviously you need something from us, or else you wouldn't be here."

Merlo reached into her jacket and removed an envelope, which she placed on the table between them. Thorne looked at it curiously.

"Quid pro quo," Merlo explained. "This contains a list of five fugitive paracriminals currently wanted by the UIU, along with their last known locations as of 6 PM yesterday. I tell you how to find your guys, you tell me how to find mine."

Thorne stared at the envelope, considering.

"You're right, of course," they finally said. "I suppose it was really only a matter of time until you found out. It's not exactly like he's being subtle about it, what with the giant sign on the building."

"So why hasn't the Bureau moved against him?"

"Why haven't you caught him yet?"

Merlo gritted her teeth. "He's really good at not getting caught."

"Bingo," Thorne said, making a finger gun gesture in her direction. "Strictly speaking, he hasn't actually done anything illegal — not that we can prove, anyways, and not for a lack of trying. And even if we could pin anything concrete on him, moving against him would be… difficult."

"How so?"

"Imagine trying to arrest Jesus Christ in the middle of the Vatican."

"That bad, huh?"

"Worse. Half the city seems to think he's going to single-handedly reassemble Mekhane, and the rest think he's some sort of anti-Foundation Robin Hood. He'd have to murder someone in broad daylight before we could move on him, and even then, the case would need to be ironclad."

There were several seconds of silence as they each considered this.

"I'm not bound by the same restrictions," Merlo said quietly. "I just need to know where he is."

Thorne laughed. "Right, because you think after all of that, we're going to just waive the Hoover Mandate and let you guys grab him off the street of a paranormal enclave?" They paused, expression becoming serious again. "And — no offense Merlo — but from what I understand, you don't have the best track record on this."

"Better than you," she said.

Thorne smiled wryly. "Fair enough, but that doesn't explain how you intend to get around the fact that you're barred from operating in Portlands."

"Simple. I'm not going to do anything in Three Portlands."

Thorne raised an eyebrow. "What are you planning?"

"Anderson's operations might be centralized in Three Ports, but he's got dozens of Earthside facilities that we still haven't located. Odds are good that they're all connected to or in contact with the headquarters in Three Portlands, and I'm willing to bet money that the Bureau's been monitoring that place to see what he's up to."

Thorne nodded. "Right, and you think that we can just tell you where Anderson's satellite facilities are so that you can move in and dismantle his operations piecemeal."

"Pretty much, yeah."

Thorne sighed. "As much as I love the idea of handing you Electric Jesus on a platter, we're as in the dark as you are in this case. You're right that we've got his HQ under surveillance, but he doesn't use the public Way network — we think he's got some kind of private nexus setup that he's using for shipping and logistics, but for all we know, he could be apportating everything around. He's definitely got the power for it."

Merlo nodded in disappointed acceptance. "That's distressingly typical at this point. Right when I think I've finally got him, it turns out he was two steps ahead the entire time." She sighed, then stood up in preparation to leave. "Thanks for your time anyways, Agent Thorne. It was good to meet you again."

"Likewise. Just sorry there's not more I can do."

"Well, if you turn up any leads that could use some extralegal action, you know how to contact me." She slid the envelope across the table to Thorne. "Go ahead and keep that. Maybe your lot will have better luck than mine."

Thorne watched the older woman depart, before turning to stare at the envelope some more.

Quid pro quo…


June 9, 2016
ICSUT Campus, Three Portlands

"Now arriving at Memorial Park Station. Nearby points of interest include ICSUT Portlands, the Sidhe Consulate, and the 7th Occult War Monument. The next stop along this route is at Milk Box Boulevard and Hobgoblin Street." The canned voice of the streetcar announcer paused before repeating the same message in Celtic.

Thorne waved their transit pass at the ticket golem as they stepped off the trolley. The summer break meant that the station platform was comparatively empty for a Thursday, which made it easy for Thorne to navigate by muscle memory. They had made the short walk to the ICSUT campus almost every day for four years, and could now reliably do it with their eyes closed, even this many years later.

The campus sphinx was waiting by the gate, head between her paws and tail twitching lazily. There were several competing stories about where she had come from and how the school administration had acquired her allegiance, but Thorne thought it most likely that she just enjoyed tormenting students.

"Morning, Fix," Thorne said. "Can you open the gate please? I just need to use the Library."

The sphinx raised her head and fixed Thorne with a stare. "To pass through this gate, you must first answer my riddle."

Thorne sighed. "Not this again."

"What… is your student ID number?"

Thorne blinked. "Fix, that's not a riddle."

"I know." She pouted. "They stopped letting me ask real riddles after I locked the Dean out."

Thorne took out their wallet and removed their alumni card, holding it up for the sphinx to see. "Here, is this good enough, or do you need me to read it out to you?"

"Go ahead," she said, a dejected note in her voice. As she put her head back down, the gate began to open of its own accord.

Glancing between the open gate and the miserable sphinx, Thorne made a poor decision.

"If it'll make you feel better, you can ask me a riddle anyways."

The sphinx's head immediately shot up. A wicked glint in her eyes, she said, "In me, you can find the truth; I am not math, but I possess a proof. What am I?"

Thorne paused for a moment, then said, "Liquor."

The sphinx grinned. "You're much cleverer than the Dean. He kept insisting that the answer was a trial."

Thorne snorted. "He doesn't know many lawyers then." They waved a hand at the sphinx as they started walking towards the library. "Later, Fix."

The library was located at the center of campus, and was part of the intricate web of architectural sorcery that kept the complex anchored in place relative to the rest of the buildings in Three Portlands, which were all gradually drifting towards the exterior boundary of the city to be shunted off into the Outside. The ring-shaped building that housed the library formed the innermost circle of a three-tier warding geometry, and completely encircled the Servane Clocktower that was the focal point of the campus and its enchantments.

The sheer amount of EVE being focused through the library and the clocktower meant that, as an unintended consequence, the tower's clock face could be read by its aspect radiation shadow, even through solid objects, and could still be reliably seen as much as a mile away — at least by an Observer like Thorne. Unfortunately, the same aspect radiation that made the clock visible also had a tendency to disrupt its inner workings, and so the clocktower was rarely accurate — at the moment, it was indicating that it was seventy-two minutes past a large lemon.

Despite their best efforts, the old oak doors gave a tortuous creak as Thorne pushed them open, drawing the attention of the desk librarian. Opening his mouth to deliver a sharp admonishment, he stopped and smiled when he saw them.

"Robin," he said, voice barely above a whisper. "Don't tell me you've changed you mind about postgrad courses."

"Afraid not, Professor Holcomb," Thorne said. "Sorry to disappoint, but I'm just here to do some research."

He nodded sagely, unsurprised. "Of course, the library is always open to you if you need it."

"And what about the Library?"

Holcomb's expression sobered. "I'm quite certain that our collection is exhaustive when it comes to occult theory. There's no need—"

Thorne held up a hand to cut him off. "Professor, I'm not trying to impugn your reputation as an archivist. I just figured you wouldn't want me summoning an Outsider in here."

"Oh." He considered this. "Yes, that would be far from ideal." He paused. "Do you mind my asking what you require the services of a daemon for?"

"Just trying to compensate for some gaps in my casting proficiencies. You know I was never the best at evocations." They shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant despite the conversation topic. "So… Library?"

He nodded. "Of course. The Way is where it's always been, but the door code's likely been changed since you last used it… I believe it's delta-rho-nine-seven now."

"Thanks Professor." Thorne waved a hand at him before turning and heading deeper into the library.

Although it paled in comparison to the immensity and complexity of the Library, the ICSUT library had its fair share of spatial anomalies — a result of both the immense amounts of EVE surrounding and permeating the library, and some of the more esoteric volumes housed in its repositories. Taking care to avoid the catalogue sections indexed with complex numbers, Thorne picked their way through the shelves until they reached a nondescript door tucked away in an isolated alcove.

There was no sign on the door indicating what was behind it, and if not for the alphanumeric keypad next to it, it might have been mistaken for a janitorial closet by a casual observer. Thorne punched in the code that Professor Holcomb had given them, causing the door to swing open to reveal an empty closet.

Thorne stepped into the room and shut the door behind them. They paused for a moment, then whispered into the darkness.

"By this art you may contemplate the variation of the twenty-three letters."

Thorne instantly sensed a spike of Aspect Radiation as the Way reacted to the words of Borges. Two brilliant points of light appeared at the base of the opposite wall and began inching upwards along its surface, tracing a softly shining path beneath them. As they neared the ceiling, the points turned inwards and began moving towards each other, stopping and merging into a single ray of light when they met at the center. In response, the gleaming outline that had been traced on the wall flared brightly, forcing Thorne to blink.

When they opened their eyes again, a simple pinewood door had appeared on the wall in front of them. As the light began to fade from the room, the door swung open, unbidden, to reveal the Wanderer's Library.

The door swung shut again as soon as Thorne entered the Library, sealing the Way behind them. They turned to examine it briefly, then placed a hand firmly on the doorknob and whispered a quick cantrip. It was a simple spell, meant to infuse the door with a tiny amount of EVE in order to create a contagion link that Thorne could use to find it again. Although trivial to perform, it was a vital tool for exploring the Library.

Satisfied that they weren't going to end up wandering forever, Thorne headed off in search of a Librarian. This was a great deal easier than finding a specific exit, for the Librarians seemed to have an innate sense of when and where they were needed. It didn't take long for Thorne to find one waiting for them as they rounded the corner of an aisle.

This Librarian was a towering figure — easily fifteen feet tall — and completely enshrouded by a heavy green cloak. Its face — if it had one — was hidden within the shadows of its hood. It stood silently in the center of the intersection, staring directly at Thorne.

Even though they had been expecting it, Thorne still gasped sharply when they saw the figure. Taking care to avoid looking directly at the void where its face should have been, they approached it cautiously.

Thorne waved at it weakly. "Hi."

The Librarian didn't respond.

"Right, not much for small talk then." Thorne cleared their throat. "I'm looking for books on Outside and Constructed Intelligences — Outsiders, daemons, familiars, that kind of thing. In English preferably, but modern Celtic is fine too. Can you point me to the right section?"

The Librarian raised one of its long, slender arms, the sleeve of its cloak drawing back to expose a skeletal hand clenched into a fist. Slowly, the Librarian extended a single finger, from which a thin cloud of mist began to billow. As Thorne watched, the fog coiled down to the floor and snaked away through the shelves.

Thorne looked back at the still silent Librarian. "Uh, thanks, I guess."

A single syllable in an eldritch tongue rasped out from deep within the folds of the cloak, causing Thorne to shudder. It might have been an expression of acknowledgement, but they decided against asking for clarification.

Thorne scurried off after the trail of fog, following it deeper into the Library. It led them on a winding path through the rows of shelves, occasionally doubling back on itself to traverse some bit of warped space. After half an hour of wandering, the trail finally stopped at the end of a long row of shelves that rose five stories high and stretched away into the distance. A plaque at the base of the nearest shelf simply said 'OUTSIDERS'.

Thorne looked down at the fog and considered whether they should thank it. Before they could decide one way or another, it evaporated, leaving them alone among the books.

"Looking for something specific?"

Thorne glanced over their shoulder to see an Asian woman wearing a beat-up bomber jacket sitting at a nearby table and looking at them over the top of a book titled Der Nichtswanderer. A small golden apple charm hung from her neck.

"I'm not really sure," Thorne said truthfully.

"Mood," she muttered. "Maybe I can help?"

Thorne shrugged. "Sure, I'll take it. Better than browsing for the next week."

"I assume you have a specific goal in mind. Not many people go researching Outsiders on a lark."

"I need a Constructed Intelligence for…" Thorne paused. "To help with a complex evocation."

"Working familiar, gotcha." She hummed softly. "Try starting with On the Outer Daemons Most Amenable. I think the author is Litherland? Yeah, that's it. Teige Litherland. You'll want the one annotated by LR though. Should be on the second story, about twelve shelves down." She gestured further up the aisle.

"Litherland, got it. Thanks for the help, uh…" Thorne paused. "Sorry, I didn't get your name."

"Alliott." She said. "And don't mention it. I probably know this section better than some of the Librarians."

Thorne waved at Alliott before setting off down the aisle in the direction indicated. It didn't take long to find the book, a thick, leather-bound volume that looked like it could have been any age between 20 and 200 years old — although Thorne happened to know the annotator was still alive, which suggested that its actual age was on the lower end of that range.

They carried the book over to a nearby table and began to read.


June 14, 2016
Prometheus Plaza, Three Portlands

"So how come you didn't ask Spencer to help?"

Thorne glanced at their current partner. As usual, Renee Morin had chosen to forego the more formal attire that was common for UIU agents, and was instead wearing her normal plainclothes — including a battered Atlanta Aztecs baseball hat with two holes cut into it for her ears to fit through. Although the pair of them certainly made for an unusual couple, they were still far from the most interesting sight in Prometheus Plaza.

"Ken wouldn't appreciate us doing a favor for the Foundation," Thorne said. "Especially not one of… questionable legality."

Renee smirked. "Is the question, 'Is this illegal?' Because it totally is."

"And yet, here you are."

She shrugged. "I'm always up for a little B&E against Mickey D and their collaborators," she said, a hint of venom in her voice. She paused, then added, "Unofficially, of course."

"Well, if everything goes to plan — and I know just saying that has probably decreased the odds of that happening — there won't be any breaking involved in this entering."

"Does anything ever go to plan when Anderson's involved?"

"Not really, no," Thorne said. "But he definitely isn't in there — I'd be able to tell if he was — so maybe we'll have better luck."

"You really believe that?"

"I'd like to." They turned to face Renee. "You've got the charm I gave you?"

She nodded.

"And if that doesn't work, do you have the rune memorized?"

Renee crouched down and quickly drew a symbol in the dust. "Like that?"

Thorne studied it for a moment before nodding. "Yeah, that's good."

The catgirl rubbed out the symbol with the back of her hand before standing up again. "So, are we ready then?"

"Probably not," Thorne said. They took a breath. "Come on Kit, let's go make Hoover's ghost proud by conducting an illegal search of the headquarters of a community leader."

Admittedly, the former FBI Director probably hadn't envisioned his "dirty tricks" being carried out by an androgynous wizard and an impertinent catgirl, but Thorne was certain he would have approved of the nature of their planned operation. For some reason, that knowledge wasn't encouraging.

Together, the two agents cut across the plaza towards the Anderson Robotics World Headquarters. Once upon a time, the building had housed the main Three Portlands offices of Prometheus Labs. In the aftermath of PL's breakup, the place had played host to a rotation of short-term tenants, including an abortive attempt at a Deer technical institute. For the past few years, however, it had been occupied by Anderson and his menagerie of robots, who had gradually turned the structure into an imposing corporate fortress.

Holding their badge in front of them like a shield, Thorne strode past the Peregrine units posted at the main entrance as security guards, acutely aware of the electric eyes tracking them. The robots made no move to stop them as they entered the lobby and approached the reception desk.

Unlike the guards at the door, the man behind the desk actually looked human, although Thorne could immediately tell from the absence of any aura that he was a Saker android. He looked up as they approached, offering a courteous smile.

"Is there something I can help you with, Agents?"

"There's been a report of an escaped gas golem in this district," Thorne lied. "We have reason to believe it might be in this building. We need to do a sweep of the ground floor to try and locate it before it asphyxiates someone."

"I'm afraid I've been instructed not to let federal agents perform any searches of the premises without a warrant," the android said, still smiling without sincerity.

Renee leaned forwards and put her hands on the edge of the desk. "There are lives at stake here. That's exigent circumstances, and that means we don't need a warrant." She flexed her fingers ever-so-slightly, extending the tips of her claws just enough to scratch the finish of the desk. "That makes what you are doing right now obstruction of a federal agent in their duties. So, by all means, make us come back with a warrant. But if this thing ends up killing someone because you stalled us, there will be serious consequences."

The android slowly looked between the two of them, smile faltering. "I suppose… if there's a public safety hazard… I could let you perform your sweep with an escort."

"Fine, whatever lets us get this done," Renee said.

The android gestured towards one of the Peregrines guarding the door. "578, accompany the agents while they perform their sweep. Do not allow them to leave the ground floor."

PSHUD #578 nodded. "Understood." It turned to face the two agents. "Please follow me. Do not attempt to leave my presence until we have returned to this location."

As their escort began marching out of the lobby, Thorne quickly flashed a smile at the reception android. "Your cooperation is appreciated."

The android didn't respond as he watched the trio depart.

He had already triggered a silent alarm that would notify Vincent Anderson of their presence.

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