“But when you reach the end…?”
“It’s like… sometimes, it’s like there’s a hole in my mind. Like… where memory used to be, just this empty, gnawing… hole. And you motherfuckers still won’t let up, will you? Won’t let me remember… even if it means getting what you want, you won’t even let me remember this…
* * *
Sometimes it’s like there’s a hole in my mind, a cold blank void where sharp memory should be, like a piece of time was frozen and taken out the way a surgeon extracts a tumorous growth: maybe the thing itself was toxic, but the emptiness will never feel quite right. The void is a year of my life, or close to it, a solid year when I may have been out drinking and getting laid back home and watching the Trailblazers or hitting the beach in special ops on some godforsaken coast; but I think it was more likely that I was knocking my head against the wall in a padded cell, somewhere white and clean and secret. That’s the only feeling that the void ever has; it feels like the nervous edge of fear. It fills my thought now, when I’m waiting, when I’m standing in blood in a grotesque room waiting for the butcher to come get his due.
I’m in Bogota again. Sometimes it’s hard to remember how I got here; sometimes the void seems to grow, to reach out and claim other times, bits of other events, before it recedes to the hard lines that it always defines. I came out of Bethesda one day, two months ago: that’s when I came out of the void. I walked out of the lobby, past the trim blue skirt of an Air Force captain, then I looked around and smelled the traffic and the Maryland winter air. I wanted the sea, I wanted the salt water and sand and the open sky whether blue or grey, I wanted the freedom of wind and rain and sheer physical joy or misery; I wanted to
Derzig (Captain, USMC, First Force Recon) came for me before I even had the thought to look for a cab. “Dee,” he said, his voice hard, the voice of training. He reminded me of Johnstone, that motherfucking traitor. I snapped to and listened close. He was smiling, just a little, as he came into my field of view. He was shaved bald, shorter than me but ten years older and built like a hard-ass sergeant. He carried a thick folder. I could see my name and number on the tab. “Jesus Herbert Christ, Dee, didn’t you make them let you do some push-ups in there? You come in from the cold for a while and you go to seed, is that it? You look feeble, Petty.” He gestured with the folder. “They told me I have to train you. Indefinite transfer, Dee. You now work for the NSA, on the books, and that’s classified, and that means nobody’s going to look into what you’re really doing. You know the drill. You think you’re up for it? Or do you need to rest and relax a little while more?” I wanted to go home; Derzig showed me the closest I was ever going to get.
I blinked and I gave him the only answer I could have given. It was all squared away, all very neat and tidy and official. Derzig didn’t tell me anything about the void, and he didn’t want to know what came before it. He didn’t ask about six men dead in the grass outside that Spinoza house, and he didn’t ask about the other men I had followed into bloodshed and ruin. I was missing close to a year, but I had to get back in the field, and I had to do it right. We trained. We hit the beaches and the woods and the sand and open sky. I punished my weakened body until it performed, until muscles and mind were sharp and quick again, and then eight weeks were gone and I was back in the heat, in a team again, running down to Bogota again with Derzig and the CIA and the Army and the Navy and the DEA, chasing devil-worshippers and coke-fiends under the cloak of false identity and plausible deniability. Our group was lean, just a dozen spooks, cops, and snake-eaters chasing angles that Ollie North the Security Council wouldn’t want to bother with, not after the Contra heat they brought on themselves. But I was in Bogota again, and I was back in the heat and chasing the Sign, and that thought made the void in my head hum with the mad panic of an unholy fucking chorus, every time.
* * *
The Ricon gang worked out of warehouses and mansions on the edges of Bogota, like the Spinoza family, one of a cluster of families and gangs the DEA mission here calls the “Bogota cartel.” They’ve been smugglers all along, long before anyone in the U.S. took an interest, but they hooked into cocaine thanks to American connections, Miami and Caribbean gangs in tight with Meyer Lansky and the Cosa Nostra who saw the vast untapped market of an America looking to burn its wealth on thrills and death.
The Spinoza family came late to the Yellow Sign, and mostly by accident; I can remember putting a bullet into the man who brought it to them, before they vanished in the earliest space of the void. The Ricons have chased it for years. Others in Bogota call them a devil-gang, Satan-worshippers. Priests have denounced them for trucking in darkness and mothers have cursed them for the disappearances of countless children in the city every year, but no one has pursued them: the people who live around them are weak and afraid; other Bogota gangs protect them as a useful distributor and ally; and the Americans and the Colombian government (when it is not busy making deals with Medellin and Cali on the side) can’t be bothered with such a small group. But that’s a cover; my team couldn’t care less about the drugs. That’s what gets us here, of course. The claim of chasing the drug smugglers is a sure way of inserting operatives into the region without risking the harder questions back home. But Baswell, the CIA chief, and his people, they want the other side of the darkness that fills the Ricon group. They want the rumors of sacrifice and old prayers, all the trappings that turn on the most pathetic burnouts in the States. They want the Sign. And they’re not the only ones. I know that better than anyone on the team: we are not the only ones.
And now I’m in Bogota again, it’s 1987 and I’m standing in blood in a meat-locker thirty feet deep, and the skinned and dismembered bodies of men and women and children are hanging and dripping around me. I can hear the filthy spring rain coming in sheets on the tin roof through the insulation overhead. I can see some of the bodies on the floor, piled against the wall, and some pieces are splayed on great wide tables to be trussed and drained like steaks. The stench is unreal, thick with old blood and fresh bone and open guts left lying in the cold
for disposal. I already told Derzig about it. I can hear his reply in my earphone:
“They’re not cannibals,” he says. “The meat’s for their dogs.”
“Fuck,” I breathe. I’ve seen blood, a lot of it, and I’ve let it flow, but sometimes it’s just too much. Sometimes it just looks more wrong than the rest, sometimes it comes home that there’s more to us than meat, there’s more to all of us than meat and bone and cold expediency, and then I’m taking another step through the broad crimson puddle that is the floor, and the door opens behind a row of hanging men and women. For an instant I force myself to wait and listen and feel him: it’s a man, walking heavily, breathing fast, angry and afraid, gearing himself up to fight even though he doesn’t know what he’s against and he wants bad to run, I feel him coming deeper into the room and toward the corner; I take two steps on the toes of my boots and I’m as silent as a fucking ghost and as he comes around the rows of swaying meat he sees me and he sees my eyes and he sure as hell sees the barrel of my .357 Colt Python and there’s a long breath where he registers the fact that, brave or not, Devil or not, Sign or no Sign, he’s about to take it in the face and die.
“Be silent or I will kill you,” I say. My Spanish is less than perfect. He swallows audibly and nods. I remember his picture from the briefing: he’s Luis Ricon, first cousin to the head of the family. Luis is the butcher. Luis feeds the dogs. Luis stares at the barrel of my revolver and he doesn’t say a word.
“We need to talk,” I tell the butcher. “You want to live, yes?”
He nods again. A drop of sweat falls from his chin; it seems to fall for seconds before it splashes into the blood of the floor, mingling with it for an instant in clear white threads of water before vanishing into the gore.
“You take people sometimes to kill them,” I say, forcing my brain to produce the correct words. “You kill them for your god. You kill them for the Sign.”
His eyes widen and bulge slightly. He shakes his head emphatically and begins to speak. I interrupt him.
“Shhh,” I say. My thumb lifts and draws the hammer of the pistol back until it locks into place, fully cocked, not moving the barrel a millimeter from its aim at his face. “No lies. We know what you do. We know. But you will tell me where.”
He shuffles slightly on his feet. He winces and breathes; in fact, he looks like he might cry. But he doesn’t give me time to decide to kill him and carry on. I suppose he’s seen this scene, from the other end, enough to know the rules.
“The forest,” he says, finally, in a high, weak voice. “Ten kilometers, west, outside the village. It’s… it’s the holy ground. It is holy! They come, there, they come and, and, they take the meat.” He suddenly looks furtive. His eyes dart about the locker and his feet shuffle again.
“Hold still,” I say. He surrenders. He lifts his hands again and he forces himself to be still.
He makes a beautiful target.
The gunshot is a bloom of gorgeous fire as the Python erupts in my hand and the magnum round enters his lower forehead and tears most of his brain through the back of his skull in a misty explosion of blood and bone and hair. The noise is horrendous. When hearing returns to my throbbing ears I’ve already checked the hall and I can hear Derzig in my earphone.
“Room service,” he says, “report.”
“The butcher’s down,” I say. “Nobody else in sight.”
“Bug out, by the numbers. We have Jimmy. Check for termites before we bring him out.”
“On it,” I reply.
I spare another glance at Luis. One of his eyes is still in place, staring up at the rain-pounded tin roof as if unconcerned that the rest of his face has collapsed into the cavity in the back of his head. Nothing’s there. Nothing. He’s become meat, nothing more. I think, This must be how he felt about everyone. I take the back door out to the rain and the gutters of shit and I leave the butcher in the blood and filth where he belongs.
“Jimmy” is our half-baked code for Jaime Ricon, head of the family and chief wicked priest of them all; “termites” are what Derzig calls the other suits in the mission, agents working below the law like us. That’s what Derzig and Baswell say, anyway. They showed me a research dossier on one of the men we’d managed to photograph, and he was non-existent, officially dead since a 1983 “training accident” in Honduras. Officially, our group is working on a sanctioned operation, black and illegal but still approved by the President and the NSC, clandestine intelligence gathering in a friendly nation. Baswell won’t report everything he finds, of course, and I get the feeling that they don’t expect him to. The powers-that-be gave us just enough sanction to put us in place; we’re tasked with doing the job without needing anything more. So, why the spooks?
When I asked, Baswell just smiled, cold, and said, “They’re you, Dee.” I waited for an explanation. “They probably work for Johnstone and whoever owns him,” he said. “You remember Johnstone, right? They want to know what’s behind Spinoza and the Ricons. They want a piece of this mission. But they don’t have the sanction that we have. I don’t know if their men will ask more questions than you did, though, so they probably think we’re the outlaws here.”
I stayed stony-faced, kept it down, way down low, and waited for the day to move on. “Hell of a world, right, Dee? But don’t worry. This time, you’re on the right side.” Then he clapped me on the back like a brother, the bastard, and brought me into the Ricon briefing.
Coming out of a wing of the Ricon house I slide on my night-vision goggles and take a long look around at the street and the stucco walls of Spanish buildings nearby. The rain is still coming down hard, slapping the mud and the puddles with each drop. There are no street lights around, and the moon is gone beyond the thick stormclouds. There was one light in a window across the street when I came in, but now it’s out. From the cover of the doorway I give it a long stare through my field glasses, but there’s nothing there. If they’re smart, they’re probably down on the floor praying for the fight not to find them. If they’re stupid… well, if they were stupid they’d be in the window with a gun, or they’d have left the light on as a distraction while they came down for an ambush. Two minutes creep by, slow as death, and still nothing happens but the rain.
I move out fast, darting across the street to a covered walkway opposite, construction breaking the tarmac and cement of street and sidewalk. The walkway is built low, and every step pushes the wood down into the mud. Trotting down the walkway, I stop in the shadows of a corner doorway and wait and watch. Water drips down my face in slow, irritating rivlets, through my “cover,” a plastic hood tied tight as a skullcap over my head with a second one, cloth, tied over it to reduce the noise of raindrops. I ignore the itch of the water and wait, still as I can be, in the shadows, waiting for some reaction to my arrival.
There’s nothing. I start to come out and cross the intersection, then I duck back into the shadow and watch. A car pulls past, going fast without headlights, and I can see men inside wearing their own goggles. I smile, despite myself, as they ride past and turn another bend, heading for the front of the Ricon mansion.
“Termites are digging at the front door,” I mutter into my microphone. “Back door’s wide open. Tell the cubs to head north at a good clip to give the termites something else to chew
“Got it,” Derzig replies. “On the way. Eyes peeled.”
The “cubs” were Baswell and the other Agency operatives, of course. It started as a joke between Derzig and me, after KUBARK, the old code-name the CIA used for itself in classified documents. Through the droning, hypnotic pattern of rainfall I hear a car engine rev in the distance, then the wet squealing of tires trying to find traction fast in the mud. That would be the termites taking off after Baswell and Clara, I hope. The sounds fade quickly, and in seconds there’s no sound again but the rain. My ears are still ringing a little from the gunshot, but that’s fading, too. It’s peaceful. It’s seductive. With conscious effort, I stay alert and sharp while I wait for Derzig to show. I watch the windows and doorways nearby, and those in every direction from the intersection. It’s like a ghost town.
Then I hear another engine, behind me, and I see Derzig’s Range Rover come careening down the street behind the Ricon mansion. It hauls to a stop, fishtailing slightly, just long enough for me to jump out of the shadows and into the open door. The dome lights have been cut, of course, and he’s not using headlights, either, so the car stays dark as I close the door behind me and we drive. Melendez, a captain in the Colombian army, taking more money from us than from the cartels, is at the wheel. I can see Derzig in the back with a man-sized lump in a body bag. He winks as Melendez takes three hard turns and loses us in the endless slums.
* * *
Anyone can be broken.
I learned that lesson my second year in Team Four. Certain elements of the Team were shipped to Fort Benning, Georgia, for a four-week tutorial in the School of the Americas, where Special Forces and Agency spooks teach hand-picked Latin American couterrevolutionaries how to counterrevolt, American-style. The first day, an old Army colonel strode thoughtfully before the class, pacing on the worn grass of a clearing in the woods while his pupils stood at attention and listened.
“We are not here to teach you torture,” he said slowly, distinctly, certainly. His voice was pure Deep South, with that long drawl that seemed to avoid every possible ‘R’ and add an extra syllable to every word. The drawl sometimes masked his keen sense of irony. He spoke like a history book; it seemed like the only time he bothered with contractions was to favor us all with a mocking touch of informality. Once he heard a SEAL snickeringly call him Colonel Sanders, and the SEAL became the Object Lesson for a full week.
“We are not here to teach you torture,” he repeated. “But it is vital for each of you to fully understand the process of coercive physical interrogation. While we in the United States military-industrial complex,” he continued with a slight smile, “frown heavily upon the conduct of torture, some of our opponents are not so merciful. Each of you must learn the process of coercive physical interrogation, so that, if faced with it in the field, you may resist it most effectively. But let me reiterate: it is not our intent to teach you how to torture.
“There are many distinct methods of coercive physical interrogation,” he continued, “each of them more or less efficacious, depending upon the character and constitution of the subject of interrogation. Some men, for instance, resist physical pain quite masterfully. It is rare, truth be told; I have met very few such men, myself; but some men do. In such cases, it is the responsibility of the interrogator to develop the proper combination of physical, emotional, and intellectual factors to erode the will of the subject and produce results most efficiently. If a man can handle a spike through each testicle, for instance, that is fine and quite admirable: but add electricity and show him realistic photographs that depict his wife or daughter providing sexual favors to the milk-man, and his will may erode quickly indeed.
“That is what you are here to learn: the limits of human will and endurance. By the time we are finished, you will know what it takes to break you. Afterward, you will know what it will take to break another. And, equally important, you will learn how best to sift what is true from what is offered in panic from the imagination of a broken mind.”
Anyone can be broken.
I never learned what it took to break Jaime Ricon. We strung him up in an old manufacturing plant where the noise of air generators ran constantly, so loud that you had to be nearby just to hear someone shout your name, so loud that Jaime knew that nobody would ever hear him scream. I could tell that much about it going in; we were there to break him. Jaime was part of it, deep down in the heart of the old wickedness that makes Baswell and his spooks lick their lips in a second’s fear when they think of it. Jaime knew all about it, even though, in the end, he hardly knew a thing of the truth. But he was a key, for us. He was a key to the real source of the magic, the powers that brought out the Sign. “He’ll tell us where he learned of the Yellow King,” said Baswell, and I licked my own lips for an instant and waited for orders while the edges of the void roiled with fear like cresting waves of acid.
They kept Derzig and me in on most of the interrogation. Baswell and Clara and the other KUBARK spooks had gone through the training at Camp Perry; they had learned the truth, in an abstract sense. They knew that anybody can be broken, but they didn’t know what it was to be broken. Derzig and I had gone through that truth and learned how to come out again. We stood near each other as we watched Baswell and his people work. They were the ones asking the questions; we were there to watch. We were there to take Jaime’s measure. We were not there to handle the whip, unless Jaime stood up to everything his interrogators had to offer.
“Who were they?” asked Baswell, his voice as calm as a shout can be. Jaime panted heavily, silent in the droning, throbbing noise of machinery, covered in sweat and rainwater and smeared with blood and oil, his face twisted and his eyes bitter and red from tears, his hands tied behind him and drawn up high by chains until he hung with his toes an inch from the floor. Jumper cables ran from a generator, controlled with a simple ON/OFF lever, to jagged clips now clamped painfully to the flesh of his bleeding kneecaps. Baswell had his limits; I could tell he had already considered the testicles, but he could not bring himself to it. Part of me wanted to frown at the irrational waste of an interrogative resource; a larger part was relieved. Yet another part was ambivalent. It didn’t matter much how he was broken. The real harm was in the mind, and it was much the same regardless of the physical or emotional
Jaime didn’t respond. He had begun defiantly. He had not yet sunk to pleas. He hung there, twitching, panting, crying, scowling, and he remained silent, waiting out the seconds until the pain would come again. I had been there, not many years before. Sometime soon, I knew, he would start coming to grips with it: he would start trying to understand his failure. He would start trying to accept the point where he would break. But that might be a long time coming. Baswell threw the switch, and we heard Jaime scream again above the pounding noise of the machines.
I glanced at Baswell’s companions. Three of them had remained to observe or to question; the rest stood guard outside. One of them, Olivetti, a thin reed of a man with black hair and thick eyebrows, said something silently to Clara. I thought I could read his lips: “Don’t you wish we could be the good guys?” Clara did not respond. Her eyes were dead, as they had been since I met her on this op. She watched Jaime, and I could tell what was in her mind:
he was meat, nothing more, nothing less. He was meat, and he would be carved up and thrown away if that’s what it took to break him of his secrets. I looked back at Jaime. Somehow, it was easier to watch him than her.
“Who were they?” Baswell asked again. Jaime’s muscles slowly began to relax again. He sagged on the chains and stared, panting and sweating, at the floor. His eyes were distant, almost blank. He had gone deep. It would be harder to reach him; we would need to wait, change modes, prime him until he was back and ready to feel the pain again. But Baswell didn’t want to waste the time. He stared at Jaime for a long time, and his eyes got harder and colder with every second. He turned to us, to Clara, to everyone, and he jerked his head toward the door. He wanted Jaime alone. I blinked and glanced at Derzig, but Derzig was already heading for the door, stone-faced and silent. We left them alone, and I never learned what it took to break Jaime Ricon.
It did not take much more time. We heard Jaime scream, in the end, over the machinery and the thumping rain. We glanced back toward the sound of it, and it drew out for minutes. None of us knew what had happened; none of us knew what Baswell had decided, what he had done. But it had turned it, that was certain. Jaime was breaking, from the pits of his soul on up. I felt a cold shudder despite it all. Five minutes later, Baswell met with Clara and passed the word down. Plans were laid. We had to deal with the opposition first; then we would learn whatever truths Jaime had given up.
I saw Jaime briefly as they brought him out for disposal. He was still alive, but it was like he had shrunk; not physically, really, but emotionally, mentally, however you want to think about it, something inside him had died and was gone, leaving the whole of him reduced. Baswell would not look at him. Clara watched him for the full minute before they got him in a car and drove him away. Then she turned to me, and her dark eyes were almost as dead as ever, but worse: there was a touch of despair. Then she blinked, angry, and went after Baswell to plot our maneuvers.
Now I’m sitting alone in the darkness of an empty and abandoned hotel, staring across rooftops at a dim-lit apartment window, one of hundreds in the barrio, watching through an electronic light-amplifying targeting scope as the men, the “termites,” my strange compatriots, talk and study files and drink away the midnight hours. A submachine gun sits on a chair nearby, a blocky Ingram MAC-10 with a long, thick suppressor attached to the barrel. We used nothing but local equipment, the pistols and machine pistols and Russian assault rifles the cartels favored. Local law enforcement kept better tools, especially the Department of Administrative Security, Colombia’s FBI, but we had to leave the right calling card, the “Medellin signature” to throw off investigation: quick hits, discarded weapons, anonymous calls to some ally of the targets warning them against some action or other, all to make it look local. Gringos shooting up drug traffickers in Bogota would bring all the weight of the DAS and the State Department to bear, but gang killings were so common they were ignored. Even local heroes were shot down every day, from politicians to Colonel Jaime Ramirez, one of the best cops most Americans in the country had ever seen; the police just can’t keep up. They’ll file the incident away and forget about it, as long as it looks like a local hit.
We had to be invisible. We didn’t exist. We used local assets to gather information, and otherwise we didn’t talk to anyone and we weren’t seen by anyone. Nobody knew the extent of our clandestine operations in Colombia, and it had to stay that way. Even Ramirez, as tight as he was with the DEA, never pushed too hard to find out how the DEA knew what it knew; and the CIA only told the DEA enough to make it all look legitimate, local informants and spies in the skies. There were layers on layers of cover. The CIA was tasked with developing local assets for information and tips which it could feed to the DEA, which the DEA could feed to the DAS, which didn’t really want to know where the tips had come from. Most of the time the sources, the “local assets,” were on their own. But sometimes the CIA would send a special ops team to protect an especially productive asset, if they knew of a threat ahead of time and could divert it with a quick strike that could be disguised as a local hit, taking out the would-be killers or whoever knew too much. Chasing the cult, we moved a level lower still, making the CIA think we were taking care of local assets while we went after the Ricons and dodged the other Americans on the case. As long as nobody got caught, nobody wanted to know too much. It was a beautiful setup. The country was a hell of murder and fear, but we could hit whoever needed hitting, as long as we were quiet.
Soon it will be dawn. I don’t know what they’ll do, then, whether they’ll sleep or whether they’ll tank up on speed to stay alert and hit the streets again. Others in our team are in place to follow them if they move. I’m in place just to give the signal.
Guard duty and surveillance are the hardest duties in the world, for me. Waiting is harder than any task. There’s nothing to wrap your mind around, nothing to focus your energy on, nothing to overcome or maneuver around except time and your own will. You have to stay alert, while nothing around you may happen to keep you that way. You have to stay ready, while all the lack of stimuli shouts relaxation and sleep. You have to watch and listen and observe nothing, second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, waiting for something, waiting, maybe for the stillness to turn to hell and blood if your eyes droop or you find some distraction and your guard goes down, just enough. As I watch the men I glance at the streets, the buildings, the lay of the land below and beyond, a second at a time, never sparing more than that away from the quarry. I think of tactics, of room to move and fields of fire, of the rush and silence and darkness of ambush; ambush is the converse of surveillance: ambush is waiting and watching and observing while you already know what hell and bloodshed is about to come. These men know that much, too. I can tell, the way I’ve seen them move in our sparse visual contacts, the way they’ve slipped surveillance, the way they nearly tagged Baswell and his car when we pulled away from the Ricon house. I don’t know if they are Special Forces or if they are CIA or SEALs (no, I doubt they are SEALs; something about the way they work the land is wrong); but they know the trade. They know that we’re here. And they know that we’ll be dealing with each other before we can deal with the Ricons.
The light goes out in the apartment. The men have moved away from the main room, and I can see their heat-signatures through the curtains in the bedroom, two of them prone on the beds, a third, kindred spirit, sitting watch in the darkness and silence. It has been a slow few hours. No contacts by radio. No news coming in. Just reading and talking and now, sleep. It’s easy enough; Baswell and Derzig have a few others tailing the other half of the termites’ team.
An hour passes, and the velvet night sky turns indigo, then a lighter purple, and the stars begin to fade, those few of them visible through Bogota’s smog. There’s no change in the apartment. There’s no change anywhere, but for the noises, slowly picking up, of trucks rolling along the streets below. My room is another apartment, part of a building that where the rooms are empty and dead to the world. The wood shows in grey through cracked and peeling green paint. I’ve gotten used to the silence of the place, the weight of the silence, like fog across the morning.
I can tell at once when it is broken.
The noise is hardly even that: it is more a vague feeling, like premonition, a telepathic sense that something in the changeless silence of the building has changed. I hear a slight creaking in the wood, then the dull clatter of something falling, far below. Then another, a few seconds later.
That is enough: we’d gone over that in the briefing. I click the radio, twice, a simple code to tell the others that I’m no longer watching. With that I’m up and moving, across the wooden floor, stepping lightly and briefly on the hard points where I found the wood to be most solid, before, and least likely to sound out my weight. I step to the doorway and stand close to the frame and wall, again using the solidity of it for silence. I’m good at silence. I’m still very good at silence. I move down the hall and to the stairs. The world is green and black in the sight of my goggles; the heat of any living thing will show bright and nearly white. It could be an animal, I think, but I discount the chance: no animals have come into the place yet, and the risks are too high to ignore it. I take the east stairs–the quiet ones–and two floors later I stop and listen. The earphone against one ear is a soft irritant, rubbing against the sheen of sweat on my ear. I’ve heard nothing else. Three floors below, whatever had stumbled in the darkness had become careful and quiet again. I hold the Ingram low; it is not yet my focus. I listen for a long minute, but there is nothing else. I lift the gun higher, ready in my line of sight, and I move down the stairs again.
The hotel is a tumbled ruin on the ground floor, as it was when I came in from the rain outside, as it was when we first reconned the place two days ago. Shattered furniture and mold-riddled padding lie in heaps on the floor and water drips slowly and noisily from a point in the ceiling, draining through broken pipes from the roof high above. The door is closed, as I left it. The windows are blocked, still, with wooden planks. The place is empty, silent but for the water, cold but for my own heat. I step forward, slowly, past the lobby until I can see into what once was a dining room. I blink away a drop of sweat that has formed inside my goggles, and then, in the brief irritation of the oily water in my eye, I see a vague and pale flash stretch across the room.
It was not the shape of a man, nor did it have the heat of one; it glared within my goggles for an instant, and no more, an indeterminate shape stretching suddenly from the bar to my left, across the chamber, to the ball-room curtains to my right, and then it was gone. A fraction of a second too late, I bring the Ingram up and follow the path it took, but there is nothing. I breathe slowly, very slowly, silently, and I force myself to wait and listen. There is nothing. I move into the room, crouching low, keeping close to the wall and silent as I shuffle toward the ballroom.
I look past the curtains. Somewhere, deep down in the slime-riddled shaft of my brainstem, I feel the electric tingling of the void, the raw edges of fear, the sense of knowing what I had lost when it took my year. The room smells like rot and ripe meat. Curtains hang around me and along the walls as loose and heavy and moist as the guts that strewed the butcher’s locker. Chairs and tables are scattered and tossed like splintered bones across moldy carpet and a time-scarred wooden floor. Everywhere the water is dark and black as old blood in my
goggles. The breath chokes in my chest. Wrong, I think, all wrong, all dead, long dead and gone and there’s nothing to fear from death but plague and sickness, nothing to fear but that it will come up and take your time, too. I catch a flash, again, this time to the side, barely in sight, a movement of some vague shape, not heat, not human, not animal, not there, but moving and I sink low, nearly to the floor and then it’s gone. My ears are deaf, I realize, deaf but for the pounding rush of blood and fear, and I scowl and grimace as I listen closer for the words that Derzig is shouting into our radio link, breaking radio silence as we’re only to do in a crisis.
“Goddamn it Room Service report, report, report, we got termites on three and four and the fucking cubs are gone silent or bugshit. Room Service report, report!”
* * *
“Three” is Baswell’s group, him and Clara and Olivetti, on the ground a block away and tasked with land surveillance of the hostiles if I was to signal that they were on the move. Derzig goes silent quickly once I check in: “Take it solo,” he says, “and watch your ass until we regroup.” As I head out into the rain I hear gunfire not far off, maybe a couple of blocks distant; then another volley, louder, outdoors, about the same distance. That’s group four, another CIA team, and I can recognize their Uzis and Glocks below the termites’ rifle fire: the termites came out serious, it sounds like. I count three or four rifles firing.
The gunfire continues for several seconds as I cross the street, slogging through dirty rainwater, and take to the shadows of the first apartment complex on the block where we left group three. I keep the MAC-10 close to my body, hoping to keep myself unremarkable in silhouette; with its suppressor the thing is too bulky to be concealed from plain view. The distant shots cease. It’s another fucking spook-war, and I still don’t know what either side really wants or why they’re killing each other. We’re like a bunch of gangsters, gang-bangers in cheap suits and BDUs, popping off fire like the Fourth of July whenever we get too close. It has to be the Sign; they know it has power. Ritter told them that much. But what do they think they can do with it? And what does Baswell want with it? And what does it do for the Ricons and the Spinozas and Doctor Subin, their teacher or priest, now dead a year? I’m going in hard, now, and the best I can hope for is that the termites didn’t know my location when they made their move.
I take a narrow stairwell of dark wood in the heart of the building, passing green-carpeted landings and the smells of breakfast as I run for the roof. Once I pass someone’s vague shape in the hall at a landing, but I keep going and she says nothing. When I reach the roof I’m breathing hard. I kneel against the wall and stare out the broken mesh of the wire door. The ceiling stretches out forty inky feet, wet and dim under the pre-dawn sky, then comes a gap and the next building. I slip the goggles in place again and scan the rooftop and the windows and roofs nearby. A few of them are hot, but none show hostiles. I have my breath again, or most of it, and it’s time to get into the thick of things again.
I keep low as I move to the edge; it won’t do Baswell’s group any good for troops below to see me up here, and it sure won’t do any good for me. I only come up in my last three steps to the edge, lifting my body straight, legs pumping hard, one-two-three-out… then I’m over the gap and landing hard on the other side, feeling the asphalt of the new building under my boots and listening for something, anything, any sign that I’m found out. There’s nothing. I head across again, fast, keeping close to the center of the building and ducking lower when I have to move out around vents and chimneys. I come to the next ledge, easy, but the next building–Baswell’s building–is fifteen feet below. I stop, low at the edge, and lean out to look around. It’s still dark; nobody’s moving below. Someone walks in the window of a rowhouse
across the street, too far for me to make out details; but he’s gone before it matters. I look across the gap and think fast: fifteen feet is not far. I could hack it on the training courses, no problem, just out and over and roll hard when you hit. But this isn’t training. The roof could be weak; the spooks could be up top, listening for someone to land; someone in the apartment below could hear the noise and scream; I could slip in the muck and twist an ankle and be as useless as if I’d been killed. Looking around, I can see a stairwell standing open. I take it, fast, and run to the ground floor on squeaking and littered steps. The place might as well be deserted. I come out the front door, slower, staring out as the air grows lighter. There’s more movement. I can still stay out of sight, but the equation will change when the sun rises a little more. I head across, and in seconds I’m inside Baswell’s building. I move slower.
The place is unlit, cheap and dusty, its broken plaster walls painted pastel green and showing rat-gnawed wood and rusting wires, its wood floors scarred, scratched and noisy. I wince and fight back a curse as the floor groans with my first steps into the solitude. I stop again and listen: Baswell camped on the ground floor, and I can already hear voices, faint, through not too many walls. They’re not quite straight ahead, northeast, so I take another hall–less noisy, this time–and move west and then around north again, hugging the walls, past doors closed or standing open, past the stirring shadows of people just waking to the shouts of confrontation nearby and the slow realization that this one is something new. I’m running in a low, loping jog, my feet moving quickly, scuffing along the floors with hardly a sound but for the odd squeaky patch. The voices have stopped shouting by the time I come closer. Closing my eyes, I can see the floorplan as if from above. Baswell’s apartment, there; two invaders, minimum, one a sentry after our group has been disarmed, best placed–where? Here, the hall outside the apartment, a few yards down, close to another hall and the cover of a utility closet. I would stay near one of the intersections, if I was them, not too close to the closet. But which hall?
I start to move, and then I get an answer I don’t want: three black-clad figured dart past the intersection ahead of me, running. They’re in a hurry, enough to be careless. If any of them had glanced a little to the right they’d have made me, but they pass me, not ten feet away, still crouched near the left-hand wall with the suppressor of my MAC-10 pointed in their general direction. I allow a slow, tight breath. Amazed relief doesn’t last long. They’re dead: Baswell, Clara, Olivetti, any second now… My senses are sharp as I step to the corner, everything in focus as I concentrate on details, shadows, flickering bulbs, the nearby sounds, all to keep my focus and avoid the tunnel-vision of combat. I can hear voices again, around the corner, low, tight, and cold.
“I don’t give a shit what the general said,” says the first. “he’s lost his sanction, and we got our orders.”
The next voice is more tense. “Bullshit. What are you playing at, Dougal? We’re in the fucking field, here.” I frown and listen more closely.
“Are you gonna follow orders or not?”
“I am following orders, asshole. Just not yours. We’ll sort it out when we get back.”
“That ain’t how the Director sees it.”
There’s a heartbeat of silence. My mouth is dry. I can feel what’s coming. It doesn’t take another word. I can imagine the men in there, around the corner, squaring off, as uncertainty turns to something else. One of them will see it in the other’s eyes, see him crossing that mental line, and then…
Their gunfire shatters the stillness, and I wince and crouch reflexively, deafened almost as badly as each of them will be. The first second is an explosion of noise, and by the flashes of the reports I can tell only one shooter is around the corner, firing the other way, firing toward Baswell’s apartment. The next second I’m around the corner, the wire folding stock of my submachine gun tight into my shoulder. He’s barely five feet away, and the burst tears into his throat and skull. With my ears ringing and the air filled with rifle fire, my burst may as well be silent, and he collapses, twitching, soundlessly, leaving a mess of hair and blood on the wall. Another two steps and I’m around the next corner, aiming left into Baswell’s doorway. A man in black fatigues lies there in a pool of blood, an AK-47 useless at his feet; another man, almost identical, lies a few feet down the hall. Shadows flicker in the light from Baswell’s room. The place is silent again. Even the neighbors have the sense to keep still and silent in their terror.
I consider moving into the room, but there’s no reason. If another target was active there, I’d still hear it. So I wait against the wall, aiming at the doorway and taking quick, darting glances all around, waiting, as my hearing slowly returns. I tense up as a figure appears suddenly in the doorway, aiming out: but it’s holding a pistol–it’s Clara. I duck back, instinctively, but she doesn’t fire.
“It’s Room Service,” I growl in Spanish, loud enough for her deafened ears to hear.
“Acknowledged,” I hear her shout in return.
I come around the corner and step into the room, over the body in the doorway. Another lies a few feet away, in the ratty living room, and yet another lies near a bedroom door. Baswell and Olivetti are hunched over the one near the bedroom. I step closer. Baswell pulls a hypodermic away from the man’s throat and disassembles it, hurriedly packing it away. Olivetti, covered in blood, is tying a tourniquet on the man’s thigh. He’ll most likely lose the leg if he doesn’t bleed out, and it looks like he’s already in shock. I can see the man’s mouth moving, angrily, babbling, his eyes wide but seeing nothing.
“…can’t stop us,” rasps the fallen man weakly, “can’t stop it… we’ve found the Sign, Dougal, we’ve found it and soon we’ll tap it and that’s it for your bosses, that’s all for them.” I take a breath and listen. The guy’s losing it. His face contorts into something like euphoria.
“They know it,” he continues, “They know we can learn. We can be their equals. You’re a slave, Dougal, a slave, but they’ll be the slaves when we’re finished! They fear the Yellow Sign!”
He gasps and his body contorts weakly. His fingers grasp at air. His eyes seem dry as glass. Olivetti curses and staggers up and back, his hands shaky, but Baswell stares at the man, and so do I. Olivetti finally looks around and breaks the silence.
“We better go,” he says weakly. “We… better go.”
I nod. “Yeah. Up, get your shit and let’s move out.” I step to the doorway and signal Derzig with the radio. “Three’s secure,” I announce, “four termites down and we’re bugging out.”
“Acknowledged,” I hear him growl. “Two’s secure and in transit. I think One’s history.”
“One” is Melendez’ group, him and two DEA agents borrowed from the Bogota field office. They were closer to the target, babysitting our phone tap. Derzig had been placed in an adjacent building, in an overlooking window with his rifle.
“Tell Two to pick us up. When Three is away I’ll check on One,” I tell him.
“Affirmative. I’m on my way.”
Baswell, Olivetti, and Clara all pull hoods over their faces as they haul their gear out of the room. Olivetti is still bloody. We move fast, nervously, but every door is closed as we pass, and nobody makes a sound. I hear a toddler laugh once, past a door, but the sound is quickly silenced. In another minute we’re outside and across a narrow street, waiting at the drop-point. It’s a hard wait, adrenaline still racing, the night still pouring rain. I breathe slowly, deeply, keeping my eyes moving and listening, waiting for the trembling to subside; the others haven’t dealt with it as much. Olivetti leans against a dirty wall, shaking, and Clara stares blankly into space. Baswell unconsciously pulls a cigarette from his coat, then shakes his head and throws it away.
I hear the car coming first, and at my signal we lean back against the wall, waiting tensely. The van stops at the corner. The door slides open quickly, and I can see McKay inside with his men looking out behind their rifles. We move fast and pile into the van, then it drives off with a lurch, sliding in the muck and away from the tenement. The driver’s already been given his orders. They drive a half-mile and stop again a block from Group One’s assignment. “Good luck,” I hear McKay say.
I nod as I jump out and jog into the shadows. Then the van is gone.
Dawn is closer. The city is not yet fully stirring, but I can feel a sense of attention in lights behind a few windows, the droning engines of cars in nearby streets. Melendez’ group was holed up in a disused storefront, but I wait at a corner, first, watching the doors and windows across the street. I stare through the night vision goggles, waiting for some sign of surveillance, any flash of body heat from an observer. I see nothing, but I wait, letting seconds pass, a minute, another, feeling raindrops, listening to the rain and noises of the predawn city and watching the motionless street, green in the goggles. Then–nothing. No; a blur, a vague blur of white, insubstantial color reaching into the street and drifting across. It’s coming from Melendez’ side, from the storefront’s side. I don’t breathe; I don’t make a sound; I don’t move, but to let my left hand drift up and pull the goggles from my eyes.
It’s dark, very dark, the only light under the rainclouds coming from windows overhead and a functioning streetlight a block away. But I can see the shape, there, in the street, loping across it impossibly. I can feel myself gagging reflexively, and I fight it in silence. The thing is incomplete; that’s my first thought, and then I think how nonsensical that seems. My thought processes are already off, going into obsessive tangents, sure sign of overreaction to stress. Focus: the thing is not human. It is not an animal. It crouches on four legs–legs? Perhaps. Claws. It is a pale fleshy color, scabrous, rough, hairless, with wide eyes, dark eyes, human eyes, but cold and repellant as those of a lizard. It creeps across the street, distended snout testing the air, fangs glistening. It turns to look my way. I can feel the steel weight of my gun, but I’m frozen, fascinated, consumed by its hard human eyes. It stares at me for a moment, waiting, tasting the air between us.
And then it moves–it is a foggy blur, and it is gone. I feel light-headed… dark spots in my vision… oxygen deprivation… then I inhale raggedly, noisily, and lean panting against the wall. I wince and I can feel fear boiling under my memory, barely submerged, and I suddenly can feel nothing but hatred for it and terror.
I move around the corner, still breathing raggedly, heedless of everything now. The storefront door is closed. The signs haven’t been moved, placards with the name and number of the property’s owner, the glass window frosted over and broken in an upper corner from a thrown rock. I test the door, not bothering to think about traps and wiring; the door is unlocked, and it pushes inward without a sound. Melendez must have oiled it when setting up shop. Inside the front room there’s nothing but empty floor, but a door stands open in the back, behind an empty counter. The floorboards creak slightly as I drift across them, the Ingram held up, now, at the ready. I pull the goggles on, again, and I dart across the floor to get a glimpse into that doorway. I can see the white glow of one person, immobile. I move up fast and lift myself onto the counter and over with deft movements. I come into the doorway in a crouch, the goggles off my eyes again.
Derzig is in the corner, staring at a far wall. His rifle is on the ground; his hands are empty. I might think he’s dead if he hadn’t just shown up in the goggles. I look into the room. I look at it for a good, long minute. Then I step into the place and I grab Derzig’s shoulder. My own hand is shaking again, and I can feel him trembling through the rough fabric of his BDU shirt. I lift him forcibly, and I’m strong enough that he comes clumsily up. His muscles take over by instinct and he pushes himself upward, balancing, looking around wildly. “Easy,” I tell him. He looks at me like I’m an idiot, and that’s a good sign; he’s clear headed enough to see the bullshit in thinking that anything here is easy. I nod and take a step back, a brief step, trying to avoid stepping in what’s left of Melendez’ men or the killers who came for them. There’s no way to tell them apart, now, dissolving bloodlessly into misty nothingness or drifting into the solid floor. I don’t want to touch them. I don’t want to think about them. The gun is all but forgotten in my right hand. With my left, I give Derzig another tug. He looses a shuddering breath and staggers out the door, ahead of me.
We both take shaky steps into the silvery air of a rain-soaked dawn.
* * *
“How do you deal with it?”
She took a drag off her cigarette and waited for an answer, her dark eyes narrow in the smoke as she exhaled. The shakes had passed. Now she was contemplative, waiting for the fear to pass, too, waiting for it all to make sense, wondering if this latest terror would haunt her dreams, be yet another nightmare to choke her sleep. She watched me with those dark eyes, her face still smudged with sweat and rain. I saw a fleck of blood on her neck, where the skin is softest, just below her right ear. That spook was close by when she shot him.
I shook my head and looked out across the tiny courtyard of our new safe-house, a rented hacienda barely a mile from downtown Bogota. How did I deal with it? With what? With the killing? With the risk? With the fear? With the void in my memory? With the thing that I had seen out there? I didn’t have any answer for her. I just came out of a year that’s gone, flat gone, because I couldn’t deal with whatever came before. I took a drag from my own smoke and let it out slowly.
“I just deal,” I told her weakly. “Some guys can, some can’t. You let it roll off, like water, all the… fear, all the blood, everything. You go back out to the surf and train like hell. You drink. Talk to a shrink, maybe, but mostly that’s just a sign you need to get out. You get it off your mind and keep it off. Keep it off long enough and it’lll stay gone until you need it again.” I
shrugged. “But that won’t work for some people. Some guys take it to heart. Hits too close to home. They keep it up close, right up in their mind, so it’s part of everything they see. Then… then you got to get out, just get out and go home, because you’re gonna crack.”
She was quiet for a minute. The rain had subsided, and it was wet and quiet in the morning, not yet as hot as it would get in the day. I heard a car horn, not far off, and then the soft crackling of dried tobacco igniting as I took another drag.
“What about Derzig,” she asked, her voice leaden. “Is he gonna crack?”
I stared out across the little courtyard to the other balcony. Our team is alone in the building, and everyone else was inside, trying to rest. We would be here for twenty-four hours, Baswell said, and then we move out and on to the next leg of the operation. The last I saw Derzig, he was sedated, going under for at least twelve hours. She didn’t press while I thought about it all.
“Derzig’s out cold,” I said finally. “No way to know ’til he comes out of it. He’s been deep in shit before, though, right? So maybe he can file it away and move on.”
She stared at her cigarette as the hairline ember ate away at the last of the tobacco. She ground it into a tin ashtray we had scrounged from the kitchen.
“So,” I asked, quietly. “How do you deal with it?”
“God, country, and forgetfulness,” she answered at once. “But God doesn’t give a shit, and my country would put me under the jail if they knew half the shit I’ve done.” She looked away, staring at nothing in particular. “Right… under… the jail. With every other damned thing.”
I watched her as she stared into the air. Her eyes were round and wide, afraid, as if watching something terrible, and her face was tense and indrawn. She was attractive, I thought; not a head-turner, most of the time, but intriguing, even deep in fear and shame. It was an unsettling thought, and the discomfort brought my thought back to the street, back to a glimpse of some impossible monstrosity and the equally impossible things it did to a half dozen men. I felt dizzy, suddenly, and I leaned heavily on the bannister. When I looked up again she was watching me.
“Let’s get in,” she said quietly, “get some rest. You need something to keep you under? No? Well, come on.”
Nine hours later, we’ve gathered in a a broad second-floor drawing room, after Clara, me, and two of McKay’s Army boys have spent two hours surveying buildings in line-of-sight for surveillance. We found nothing, but we still had McKay’s electronics specialist sweep the place for bugs and for incoming lasers. The specialist is a sergeant named Elmer who’s spent the last five years doing spook jobs for the NSA. He found nothing.
The meeting is small, just Baswell, Clara, McKay, one of the Army boys, and me. The Army boy is O’Reilly, a captain from a Special Forces A-Team, a little older than me, maybe thirty. Derzig is still out cold. Olivetti’s taking care of him; Olivetti was a trauma doctor before he got bored and hooked up with the Agency. The others are on the equipment and standing watch.
Nobody’s happy at the table. O’Reilly is straight and even, but I can tell he’s just keeping it up for the audience. His finger traces the edge of a file folder, slowly, deliberately, then it stops for exactly one second and begins the trip back. Clara just stares, lost again, wherever she goes when things are quiet. Baswell spends thirty seconds staring at a folder in front of him, idly flipping a page, a photo, a photocopied map. McKay looks at Baswell for a good second or two, his eyes narrow, appraising him, before he looks down at his own notes. The two men are probably the same age, each of them around fifty, though it seems McKay has gotten the better of the years. McKay is ruddy and strong, with black hair just going steely grey; I already know he’s a doctor, not Infantry, but he’s grown into that look over the years. Baswell is thin, balding, with steady hands but nervous eyes. But Baswell is in charge, and everything that McKay does says that he knows it.
Baswell finally clears his throat. “O’Reilly,” he says, glancing from me to McKay before looking at the captain, “first let’s get a report on TONIC; that was your operation.”
O’Reilly nods crisply. “TONIC was a limited operation to buy us time in the field,” he says, for my benefit. “We’re facing an opposing force in this mission, not counterintel but a rival group. We need to get out from under, just long enough to conduct our primary assignment and exfiltrate. TONIC was designed by Captain Derzig, based on our current intelligence on the opposing force. It had two elements. First, we obtain operational intelligence with which to predict and neutralize their future actions; second, we provide disinformation to divert their immediate response. TONIC was intended to be conducted without direct contact with the opposing force.” He glances around at the group. “That didn’t happen, but I think TONIC was otherwise a success.”
McKay’s mouth is a tight line. Clara watches O’Reilly, expressionless. Baswell rubs his face tiredly. “Go on,” he says after a pause.
“Yes, sir. We recovered one operative from the opposing force and conducted an extensive interrogation. First of all, Group Three’s account was on the money: there are two factions of the opposing force, working at odds with each other. Both are part of a black Defense Department program, intel and counterintelligence. One faction is working for a higher-up who’s exceeded his mission. The other faction is trying to clean house, it sounds like. Both sides want us out of the picture. That means that we’re targets until they change their policy. We know they exist–that’s enough for them to waste us.”
“All right,” says Baswell, glancing at the rest of us for a moment. “What are they after, really? This higher-up that they work for, who is it? What’s he doing?”
O’Reilly purses his lips for a moment, stares at his papers. “This… Yellow Sign. They want to know what it does, and why.” I sit still, breathing softly. He glances up. “Our subject didn’t know much else about it. They know it has certain… effects on people, psychological effects, but they don’t know why. They think foreign technology may be involved.”
McKay smiles ruefully. “Foreign technology.”
O’Reilly nods and ignores the smile. “Foreign… alien technology, sir. Subterrestrials, some kind of underground alien outpost called K’n-Yan. The place crops up in a few Mexican and Andean myths, some kind of land of the gods. That’s what our subject thinks. But he says it’s a little different, on the books. Officially, their project is aimed at Russian psychotronics. Mind-reading, subsonic brainwashing, all that. But our subject says he knows better.”
Baswell stares at the table for a moment. McKay leans forward and shuffles a paper. I… I wait. I feel detached, suddenly, disconnected from the bulk of what’s going on, until Clara interrupts the silence.
“Magic,” she says softly.
McKay sighs impatiently. “Greene,” he begins, “we–“
She looks up with a smile. “We don’t know shit,” she says. “Haven’t you seen it, sir? I have.” She
looks at me, still smiling. “And so has Dee.”
I stare at her. I let it roll off, roll away just like water.
Baswell shakes his head. “There’s no magic, Greene. Just what we know and what we don’t know. These… people, these Yellow Sign cultists, they’ve tapped into something that we don’t know. That doesn’t make it magic. It just makes it a mystery. We all need to remember the difference.”
She looks down again. Her voice is light, almost sing-song. “They know the flesh of a living god.”
I clench my teeth. My voice is cold, filled with anger and the roiling fear of the void, barely suppressed. “What’s that?”
“They decayed and died,” she says, not looking up. Her voice is still soft, echoing now in my head; it reminds me of the hollow deafness after gunfire, ringing and low. “Just by its touch. And Esson; it touched his mind, didn’t it, Ron? And Mike…” Her head twists slightly to the side, involuntarily, as if forcing down some fear or drive. “No, Mike never touched it… but the rest of us did, and that was it for him.” She stares at the table, still, as if blind.
“This is not magic,” says Baswell, softer. “But it’s power. And that’s why we’re here. The wrong parties want to control it. If they succeed, they’ll get in too deep, and we won’t be able to fight it. You know what the sacrifices are for.”
“Oh,” Clara laughs chillingly, “I know, Ron. Don’t worry about me. I know all about it.”
O’Reilly watches the exchange carefully, saying nothing. McKay sighs again. “This is getting us nowhere. Bottom line, people: if we get to the core of this cult, we may have to deal with this opposing force again.”
Baswell nods slowly. “Reilly, Dee, you’ll need to be ready. We might only get one chance to remove the threat.”
I shake my head deliberately. “No, sir.”
Baswell looks at me, questioning. McKay’s eyes are harder. “What was that?”
I look at McKay, now. “No, sir. I am not prepared to kill another American soldier at this time.”
“You’re on active duty here, Petty, and that makes me the officer in–“
“Maybe that’s the way it goes in that hospital you work in, sir, but this ain’t a desk job. This operation is black, and I have no confidence that anybody in the National Security Council has authorized the killing of employees of the Department of Defense. If you’d care to haul me before the court martial, I’ll be curious to see their response.”
Baswell’s voice is more quiet. “What do you think you’ve been doing out here, Dee?”
“I’ll help you take out the cartel, sir, and this cult. Orders will get me that far. But I won’t kill Americans just because you say so.”
McKay smirks. “And who the hell do you think you killed outside that Spinoza house, Petty? You want me to name their names? John Calendar, Special Agent, FBI, married, one–“
“I know what the hell I did then, sir. I trusted a fucking traitor and murderer, and I went out guns-blazing because he said it was right. And I’m not going to do it again.” I look around at the three of them. O’Reilly’s eyes are tight, evaluating me. “Jesus Christ,” I breathe. “Six years in the service, and I bet I have more time in the real world than any of you. This is blacker than black. Out here, there’s no sanction, and you’re a liar if you say there is. Out here, there’s no law, there’s no court, there’s no church, there’s no right or wrong. There’s only blood and trust. I don’t know you, sir. I don’t know any of you. I sure as hell don’t trust any of you. You say you’re about to mix it up with an American intelligence operation, and you expect they might try to kill you for it. Well, no shit. I don’t feel any need to murder them for it ahead of time.”
O’Reilly shakes his head. “Bullshit. You heard the score. Nobody on this team has jacked you around like they did with that Spinoza op, Dee. We’re giving you a chance to take it right
up Johnstone’s ass, and you’re telling me you don’t want a piece of it? Bullshit. I think you’re scared, and I think all this hot air is just a way of talking it down.”
I give O’Reilly a smile. “You want to test that theory out, Captain O’Reilly? You want to see how fucking scared I am right now?” He leans forward, just like I knew he would.
Clara still stares at the table. “That’s not good enough,” she says.
I look at her. “What are you talking about?”
“They know the Yellow Sign. You know what it can do. That’s why you’re here.” She looks up at me, finally, and I can see it all in her eyes, all the death, pain, loss, and lies. I know what she must have done up in New York; but I can see betrayal in her eyes. “That’s why you’re here,” she says again, her voice a whisper. “Because this is the only fight around.”
* * *
Derzig came out of it a few hours later, about on cue. He took a while waking up, getting the drug out of his system, but that gave us time to watch him, talk to him, find out if he was going to hack it in the field. He seemed to be holding it together. After another couple of hours, as night was drawing past, he joined the rest of us in sorting our gear, preparing for the strike.
Dawn is a couple of hours away. Baswell is in town tracking our contacts, assets who think they’re feeding information to the DEA for rolls of unmarked twenties, but most of us are scattered in overgrown ditches in woods a mile outside a little working-class town at the outskirts of Bogota. Only a mile from town, we might as well be in a different world. The forest is improbable, out of place in the grassy hills, and it hides old terrors. Here and there small stone markers stick up from the brush like crooked teeth, carved strangely with curving symbols and vaguely anthropomorphic pictograms. Between the markers are clumps
of earth, recent graves, all of them small. “This village has been here as long as anyone remembers,” Baswell told us, briefing us on intelligence obtained from a neighboring town. “They say nobody ever moves there, and nobody ever moves out. It just stays. The natives don’t even look Colombian, not even Quechuan or Huari, but something the anthropologists haven’t catalogued. All the other towns are afraid of it. They say it’s old enough to still worship gods from before the Spaniards brought the Church here,” he said, reading from written notes, “ancient gods who know the secrets of all humanity in a blue land beneath the earth. Our source claims they steal children from the other towns and bring them here, to the graveyard, to sacrifice them to their old gods. Nobody in the city believes it, though, and they figure they have worse problems to deal with anyway.”
We split up, after that. I’ve been hunkered down for two hours in the brush in a ditch with O’Reilly and Clara, a hundred yards from the killing field, waiting, sure the Ricons are going to show up here and do whatever they do, pray, kill, feast, whatever it is. I remember the Spinozas’ doctor and his old gods; angels, he said, angels of night and dream from the mists of Carcosa.
“Subin,” I murmur.
Clara looks at me. “The old doctor?”
I nod to the markers, the graves.
She looks and nods. “Probably,” she says quietly. She stares at the graves. “God, I’m sick of this,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s all just death, and we’re drowning in it.”
“Not for long,” says O’Reilly.
I shake my head.
He looks at me. “What?”
“We know exactly shit about what we’re going to be up against, here.”
He looks disgusted, but he keeps his voice low. “Why the fuck did they even drag your ass into daylight, anyway?”
“Do you see me running for it? I’m telling you there’s more to this thing than you think.”
“Don’t tell me–“
“You make too much noise, O’Reilly. Go back to OCS and give them all that tough shit.”
“Let’s talk it over later on,” he says quietly.
I shake my head and look away. “Whatever.”
Clara motions for silence. I shut up and hold still under our camoflauge, waiting, listening; a truck is coming, and a couple of cars. I lay flat, chin and cheek in dirt and twigs, and watch through low-light field goggles. The path is a barely visible track leading away to the distant road. A heavy green truck pulls to a stop at the edge of the field and disgorges men. They could be anyone, but for the guns. I count twelve of them, plus another six from the two cars that pulled up behind the truck. Easy, too easy, if we want to take them, just let me and O’Reilly and Derzig open up and take them down.
Then the Americans step into view. There are three of them, taller than most of the others, paler, as thoroughly gringo as any of us. I wait for orders. None come. The Americans stand apart while several of the men spread out as sentries, and others haul a body bag out of the truck and carry it into the field. They carry it lightly, and the way the weight hangs it’s obviously a child. Another corpse for the garden. The men drop the bag unceremoniously in the middle of the field, unzip it, and up-end it, dumping a bound and unconscious girl to the earth. The Americans observe unemotionally; one watches the men with the girl, while another talks in low tones to a Colombian standing nearby–from our files I recognize Herman Ricon, nephew of the family patriarch–while the third looks bored and uncomfortable. The men in the field step back toward the trucks and wait while the leaders talk.
Minutes pass; still no orders. Finally, Herman Ricon ends his conversation with the American with a nod. He pulls a small leather case from his pocket and opens it. Through the goggles I see an old syringe. He walks quickly to the unconscious girl, leans down, and injects her hip. He watches her face for a moment–already she’s starting to stir–before he waves the others closer. Moving slowly, slowly, I look toward Derzig’s ditch. In the greenish amplified light I can make him out, watching the men as they gather around the girl, waiting.
The Americans have thrown it all off. Who are they? How many of them are here? Do they know what’s about to happen?
Still slow, slow, I lift the AK-74 to my shoulder and hold it snug, watching through the goggles, waiting…
The girl is awake now, or something like it, incoherently terrified, her eyes wide, comprehending nothing but fear, as the men surround her and watch, some of them dispassionate, some of them gleam-eyed excited, some of them breathing quickly, eyes darting nervously, with the expectation and fear of impending atrocity…
Herman’s hand flicks and the girl’s throat spurts blood, black in the green light of the goggles. Her face contorts as she gags and writhes spasmodically. I can see Herman’s lips moving, eyes closed in growing ecstasy. The Americans watch with distaste, nothing more than that, while the other men step back, lips moving rhythmically. I can feel the boiling fear of the void rising like bile, acid remembrance, eating away at sound and sight, throwing balance to the wind, rising, swelling.
The night explodes with Derzig’s first shot, a short burst from his Kalishnokov, and Herman flops to the ground with most of his head gone, and the sound of it rolls through my brain like a seeping mucous, creeping behind my eyes, back behind my frontal lobe, resting someplace deep and low above my neck. The air explodes again, O’Reilly firing, and again, Derzig, and again, Clara, and Derzig, and O’Reilly, and Clara’s staring at me, and her rifle’s not pointing at the chanting killers anymore. Her hands are fairly steady, not stone cold but not too shaky, and it looks like she paid attention out in the swamps when the CIA ran her through field training. I know some of those guys, Special Forces types with the electric butterknife patch and a medal or two, sharp operators that cycled through as Clandestine Service trainers around ’81, ’82, when Clara signed up. They didn’t know shit, any more than O’Reilly over there, firing off quick, steady bursts, just him and a few others of us killing God knows how many of those fools before they bother to respond. Clara’s mouth is moving, but she’s silent against the creeping explosion, thunder rolling like words, half-forgotten, in my mind. I pull the goggles off. The thunder stops. Her eyes are filled with pain and fear, though nothing’s touched her, just staring at me, wondering what I hear, what I’m thinking, why I haven’t picked up this rifle and joined in, wondering if she’ll need to put a bullet in my brain before I go after the wrong killers. The thunder stops; no rolling explosion as O’Reilly kills another man, no desperate voice as Clara asks me to come back, no breath of cordite and blood or stirring grass of children’s graves from the sudden wind blowing overhead, nothing but the rush of blood and water and oily fluid beneath my skull, pulsing to some other rhythm, something akin to the mouths moving on the few men who haven’t already died, something old and dead and deathly and far, terribly far, but touching us, touching everything, touching me as I shake my head, smiling, knowing better than she what’s to come.
Clara’s wet eyes reflect a pale blue light. The chanting men are dead or gone, lying in heaps on the ground in a gathering blue mist. Others are there, instead, tall men, strange, bronzed, iridescent, insubstantial, and a sudden flood of white light from above fails to touch them, bends strangely around them, but then it flickers along the earth toward the ditches where we hide. They’re not aliens, not aliens at all. They only know the Sign, and they’re dying a different kind of death than the rest of us. O’Reilly lurches up and out. Clara rises, grabbing my arm as if to help me, pulling me up, but I’m up and past her before she even makes her feet. Dry mouth, dry lungs, dry muscles cracking from the strain, off into darkness and around, ready, low, only a few of them left, no rhythm to feel, no fear of the voice that was never a voice; a flicker of light as Olivetti looses a rocket up toward the gunship, then a brighter flicker as the gunship senses it, responds, trains a line of fire into the rocket and its source, tearing a quarter-acre of trees into splinters to kill one man. The rocket explodes halfway to its target, and there won’t be anything left of Olivetti to send home. I’m already most of the way around the field, every step perfectly timed, nothing but the night and strange blue light and the Colombians nearby who seem to be moving so sluggishly with their machine pistols and their useless hand grenades. One of them chokes and falls as bullets drift in from elsewhere and tear into his chest. I bring the rifle up to my hip and fire and it bucks wildly as another one dies, and then I’m a few steps closer and I bring it back and around and loose another burst into the next.
Turning toward the blue mist I can see the gringos in the dirt there, watching the blue-lit men, their eyes and mouths comically wide, minds consumed. Stuttering fire lances out from the gunship toward the Americans and the strangers, now, their group come to clean house, but far too late: the fire is swallowed uselessly by the blue mist and its death never comes close to them. One of the strange men is crouching under a long cloak, inviolate in the mist, shuddering, indistinct; his garments tatter, fine cloth fraying dingily. He swells, unseen beneath his rags. The other watches, expectant, eyes dead and emotionless, realizing full well what they have brought forth. It takes the only shape we comprehend, formed long since, from whatever source, in all our thought. I feel a voice, something like a voice, silent and resonant:
The void unfolds like nausea, memory, understanding, that voice in my thought, echoing here in his, echoing the truth of God or Yellow King, tattered living Sign for reality beyond perception, life beyond thought, time beyond the infinite, thought beyond time, the falling apart of all falsely substantial that it touches; life ends, death ends, awareness turns to whatever we sense of His reality, moment by decaying moment.
I can almost feel myself running from that killing house, from Ritter’s loss, from the men who followed him, the dead rising and the living in amazement, the drifting blue mist; but I only take a few steps back, entranced, knowing it would be useless. The gunship veers slowly in a wild arc toward the earth. Then O’Reilly is there, and Derzig, coming for me, faces set in cold vengeance delayed long enough. O’Reilly brings up a machine pistol and looks confused as it sparks once and then is silent, its fire swallowed by a sudden stillness, while Derzig, low and solid, rushes me with his hands empty. My rifle is gone, but my hands move on their own instincts, ignoring the void boiling over in my mind. He’s too quick to be taken down by a simple pivoting hand-hold, but it diverts his momentum, bringing us both down and around in the scattering dirt; I feel blood, pumping wildly, waiting to escape as his arm comes up, something black and narrow in his green-painted hand. I thrust forward, hands moving as he feints and draws the knife back and up and then in, slashing, his wrist into my hands, and as I twist and lean into his mass his knee shoots up, sacrificing balance for the impact, only half deflected by his clumsy position. I feel a small bone in his hand pop out of place, and the knife goes flying as he tumbles to the dirt and I stagger away.
A second gone, perhaps two; he rolls to his feet, grimacing, face wet with saliva and sweat, facepaint running in the moisture, but my pistol is already out. My hands shake with adrenaline, no way around that, but I know as well as Derzig or O’Reilly how to minimize it all, let the gun’s sight drift against the motion of heaving breath, stay close, stay high above center mass and his kevlar vest, then another second gone as Derzig evaluates, decides, then the Python kicks and Derzig’s brains scatter.
O’Reilly is standing alone, thoughts gone somewhere else, staring at the King in Yellow who towers over those nearest, touched by something, some essence of that thought. The thing from the Bogota streets is there, a hazy hulking thing, one foreclaw drawing blood and flesh mistily up from what once was McKay, gleaming human eyes looking in mad rapture toward its God, ignored by its breeders in the blue mist.
He doesn’t want us. He may not even notice us.
He is something beyond what we see, what we feel, that graveyard voice in my memory, now in O’Reilly’s, all of it a shadow, a feeble approximation. I could run, but it won’t matter. Distance is as false as every other barrier of perception which comforts us. It’s claimed O’Reilly; it’s claimed the unnamed Americans, whatever they sought to learn; it’s claimed the Ricons here, some of them, while others flee clumsily through the brush; it’s claimed the Spinozas and it’s claimed Ritter.
It’s claimed us all.
The voice fades, the mist fades, the strange men and the incarnation of unknowable decay have vanished. I look about me for the illusion of time and space, the only illusion allowed, the only illusion that matters, grown strange and then reformed. The forest is bloody and quiet. Smoke rises somewhere nearby from the ludicrous ruin of a gunship. Clara is out there, maybe, and Baswell, walking dead with DELTA GREEN stamped on their folders in some secret vault. General Fairfield is out there, cutting his deal with Johnstone’s masters and filing it all away, hard old eyes evaluating, measuring, his voice coming up out of the void from briefings and debriefings in Bethesda, all of it locked away behind the roiling fear, conditioning and the phantom aftertaste of antipsychotics and memory suppressants; locked away until the mission was done and Johnstone’s conspiracy was found out; locked away before Derzig was ever set loose to pull me out and dream his secret dream of revenge. The cold blank void is gone, and I will take understanding through every distraction of my fragmentary life. The night grows silent and empty, and in that veil the dead woods and the Yellow King and all He represents are more distant and constant than the ephemeral light of dying stars.
The sky lightens over a broad swath of grassy hillside, stretching away toward the deeper twilight, but it is only a ticking moment of waiting until endlessness coalesces again.
Until a presence, a current beyond thought is given shape once more.
Until unseen eyes in tattered robes fall on me at the last.
Until the mists gather and the world is lost Carcosa, hulking shadow of a god’s dead dream, scattered through the broken prism of inadequate eyes.
For we all have seen the Yellow Sign.