The images displayed are as sharp and clear as the best law enforcement recorders can generate under the circumstances and the burly brown bear peering over the shoulder of a somber technician is experiencing an unaccustomed level of anxiety.

It’s not the content arrayed before him causing his misgiving, although the subject matter is disconcerting for a variety of reasons.

Nor is it the luxurious pelt of body hair matted beneath his clothing that’s challenging the efficacy of his anti-perspirant. Rather, it is the certain knowledge that the images the system has just filtered for review are going to require Henry Pojade to do something he most definitely does not want to do.

Sweat has begun to trickle down his back and beads upon the brow of his big, pink, baby-face.

“What do you make of that irregularity?” he says.

The technician, a slight Hispanic woman with a poker face, says, “The woman in white?”

“Yes. Has the record been edited?”

“No, sir. The corruption we’re seeing is sunfade.”

“The trainee?”

“Medical on-site reports he is physically unharmed.”

“Do you have a marker at the disappearance of the woman and the trainee?”

“Yes, sir. I have markers at each instance of her anomalies.”

“Show them to me.”

He watches each of the records twice, reviewing, despite the degradation, the detail from both officers’ personal recorders and the one in their vehicle. The unidentified woman vanishes from her place in front of the local civilian, materializes in front of the junior officer, and both vanish. A momentary pucker in the air marks the spot where they stood and nothing more. The junior officer’s body cam ceases working at that time.

Seventeen seconds later, the woman reappears alone to confront the senior officer who simply disengages and returns to his vehicle as though nothing had happened. He drives off the Pueblo property to a McDonalds drive-thru in nearby Bernalillo, where he purchases three Big Meals and consumes them with an eerie urgency.

There is nothing in Pojade’s experience to help him place this in a reasonable context.

“Can you clean it up so we can see more detail?”

He’s just stalling now and he knows it.

It is an aversion stronger even than his embarrassing and inexplicable fear of amphibians. While the proximity of a toad may drive him to an illogical state of apprehension, the thought of contacting the Deputy Director of LocUS, even in vee, spawns within Pojade a wave of unreasonable dread difficult to drive down or rationalize. After all he’s experienced in his often-violent career, something about Jacob Hergenrather repels him at a primal level.

Regardless, he’s committed and the connection is initiated.

The obligatory ‘announce and validate’ protocol is acknowledged without haste. Almost a half-minute passes before Pojade’s unease is rewarded.

The ‘accept’ cue is followed by full engagement in subjective space. Resolution is instantaneous and, as expected, troubling.

The Deputy Director is cast in near-silhouette against a sickly, greenish-gray phosphorescence. The color, intensity, and subtle motion of the envelope remind Pojade of things pustulent and poisonous. It never fails to make his stomach churn.

Hergenrather’s suit is a razor-edged shadow, but his eyes are the color of sunlight through an iceberg. Shaved head and scowling facial hairstyle only accentuate Pojade’s perception of malevolence.

He’s seen dangerous men before. Lots of them.

He’s experienced the deadly, surgical precision of a textbook military insertion, the randomized mayhem of a well-planned incursion gone hopelessly awry, and known the inhuman brutality of men to whom torture is a craft. He has survived mindless violence spawned of desperation and faced the murderous aggression of street thugs and professionals alike.

This one is like none of them.

No one has ever accused Pojade of being a churchgoing man. The constraints of organized religion have always tended to run more or less counter to his personal set of principles. The antithetical concepts of Heaven and Hell seem designed to keep the ignorant and gullible in line, and he perceives himself as neither.

He doesn’t believe in angels and yet, given all he’s seen in his circuitous path on this bloodthirsty rock, the existence of their dark counterparts seems more than likely.

He’s a big fellow, Pojade is—not Samoan rugby player big, but enough to make him a noticeable presence. Hergenrather is head and shoulders taller.

Perhaps it’s merely his experimental and, as yet, unbalanced anti-depressant talking here, but assuming for the sake of argument that the demon Beelzebub contrived to walk the Earth in the guise of a man, he imagines it would look and sound like Jacob Hergenrather.

The only thing that ameliorates Pojade’s anxiety and the knot in his stomach is his own self-loathing at the realization that this meeting is in vee, for Christ’s sake. Nobody dies in vee, not in a NoASR regulated environment, and certainly not with the kind of failsafes his agency’s interface has in place.

The smile on Hergenrather’s face carries nothing of warmth nor humor, his silence broken by neither greeting nor inquiry, merely a narrowing of the eyes and tilt of the head.

Instead of meaningless pleasantries or unnecessary verbiage, Pojade conjures a virtual portal cloned from his technician’s feed.

Within the vorp, five individuals are imaged near a well-used personal cargo vehicle, a roller with a vintage body type. It’s a custom job of a style popularized at the beginning of the transportation reboot, a cheap conversion, functional and unattractive, just the kind of heap one would expect to find on Indian land.

The vehicle and two of the individuals have linking icons afloat in the virtual air beside them, catalogued references. One of them is an indigenous man, a local, and the other, a short, rotund woman, is far from her home of record. The other three are unidentified, not in the uncharted depth and breadth of Sonder’s memory, unrecognized by any linked agency database.

A watchdog program, however, some kind of legacy routine embedded in the system, had lit up like a proverbial pinball machine, flagging them for immediate scrutiny.

The pair in white garb are unaccountably bizarre.

Of the two, the big one looks armored up, packing a hefty sidearm on his right side that looks as though it could use some counterbalance. The smaller one, a hardbodied female, appears unarmed and carries herself with a self-assured poise he’s seen before. Her cosmetic choice, an all-over blackface, is curious.

He thought she looked every bit as troublesome as her much larger companion, even before he saw what she is able to do.

The third among them is a male, early-mid forties at a guess, a lean, ropey fellow about six-foot nothing, maybe a buck sixty. He refuses to internally calculate the metric equivalents. Long, straight black hair, high cheekbones, prominent nose, hard lines, likely Amerind.

This one, Pojade surmises, might belong to any segment of a small, but recalcitrant population of unchipped, disenfranchised, rebellious trash who think their disdain for the society they reject insulates them from the responsibilities of citizenship.

Hergenrather walks around the vorp, a slow turn, stopping to stare at the man in the battered, wide-brimmed hat. It’s pushed back on his head enough to reveal a weathered, stony face, a hawk nose, and eyes green like new grass. His hair is long and black, but the stubble on his jaw and upper lip is an unexpected red in the bright sunlight.

If it had seemed Hergenrather could not appear more unnerving, Pojade watches his features transformed by undisguised joy. The effect is grotesque. And short-lived.

“Where is this?”

“It was recorded within the Pueblo of Sandia in New Mexico, a sequestered community that does not embrace uninvited visitors.”

“How long ago was this acquired?”

“Four and a half hours.”

“And I’m just hearing about it now?”

“Tribal Police protocol doesn’t require continuous feed. This was captured during a global upload following the most recent sunfade and an algorithm that’s been running for—hell, I don’t know, so long it’s become canon—pushed these three records through CBP. The Assistant Commissioner handed it off to me thirty minutes ago. I allocated a drone to locate the vehicle’s transponder and acquire visual confirmation of the target before I contacted you. Who are they?”

“Walking dead. Where are they now?”

“Northwest New Mexico, near Four Corners. They’re off the trac network, westbound on an unconverted highway. We won’t be able to detour or shut them down directly, but I can have them detained within the hour.”

“No. Do nothing. Wait while I bring this to the Director.” His avatar recedes into the dead, gray-green backlight and the air of frigid malignance relaxes.

Seconds crawl past as Pojade observes how the phosphorescence seems to demonstrate occasions of fluid movement within. It reminds him of weirdly glowing urine. He works to relax the gorge rising again in his throat.

Hergenrather’s return to the conversation is not a relief.

“Show them to me,” says the Deputy Director. It sounds like an order.

Chaffing, Pojade delivers terse instruction to his operator.

A new vorp opens in the space between the two men and envelops them, each sharing an aerial panorama. Beneath them, a near-deserted highway stabs through hundreds of square kilometers of bleak, high desert barrens.

The highway begins to fall toward them, accelerating in a precipitous plunge that terminates an abrupt, gut-wrenching two meters above the pavement.

Neither man is moved, as anyone might be, even in the virtual realm, to clutch instinctively at a nearby stationary object. There are none and Pojade observes Hergenrather with grudging approval.

The eye’s relative position and speed is displayed in an unobtrusive optic in the upper left corner of Pojade’s vision. It does little to distract him from Hergenrather’s glacial stare as their view levels on the target vehicle.

Ocher light from a lowering sun washes the front end of the geriatric utility van and highlights the two individuals in the cab.

The abbreviated nomenclature of the boxy roller’s linking icon is sufficient to indicate its license and inspections are current, and another icon floating in the virtual air beside the roly-poly driver indicates her file has already been catalogued for reference. Right now, it is enough to verify the target has been correctly acquired.

The woman in the passenger seat with no linking icon and jeweled eyes confirms it.

“She looks like her skin is dyed black.” Pojade says. “What the Hell’s that all about?”

“Irrelevant. Are you sure the other two are in the back?”

“They made a rest stop twenty-five minutes ago. Everybody piled out, including those two big dogs from the pueblo. Everyone did their business, climbed back inside, and off they went. No stops since.” Are you certain you don’t want us to intercept?”

“Under no circumstances will you make contact with the subjects. Do you understand me?”

Pojade’s “Yes,” comes at the end of a reflective pause to reconsider his tone. “I understand you.”

“Then transfer full copies of all records to me and release the eye to my control. I’ll take it from here.”

“I can’t do that.”

“You can’t do what?”

“I can’t give you the drone.”

“Why not?”

“My operator is copying the SPD records to you, everything the eye’s recorded so far, and a stream of everything it continues to record, but I don’t have authority to turn the asset over to you.”

“I don’t think you want to start a pissing match with me over a fucking drone, Henry.”

“I have revised directives from the AC-IOC. Our inventory has been decimated by the so-called Vulcan storms. Models sporting avionics and telemetry hardened to maintain operational integrity against the electromagnetic interference are spread thin. I’ve stretched my own authority just keeping a valuable asset that’s been requisitioned elsewhere focused on your persons of interest, although the level of that interest has unquestionably been justified.”

“Wake your Operations Chief and have him give you authorization.”

“No, Mr. Hergenrather. I’m not going to do that.”

“And I thought we were pals, Henry.”

The technician, invisible at Pojade’s right hand, says in his earbud, “Sir, are you seeing this?”

The woman in the van’s passenger seat is pointing. Afternoon sun sets her jet features in vivid relief and, despite its glare in her face, she is pointing as though she has somehow seen the tiny thing pacing almost half a klick ahead of the vehicle. She appears to be pointing at them.

“Take it up. Now!” Pojade says and the technician’s response is a stomach-churning vertical ascent for those within the virtual portal.

The drone’s pressors slingshot it a full kilometer above the vehicle in seconds. Tiny, silent, its chameleon skin renders it effectively invisible.

Pojade straightens himself, shaking off the visceral effect. Hergenrather appears unmoved.

Below them, the van slows to a stop off the blacktop’s edge. The passenger-side cargo door opens. The largest of the subjects steps out and looks up. He’s removed his mask and he seems to be scanning the bottomless blue of late afternoon sky. His eyes cease tracking.

A swash of burnished metal sweeps up in his hand. A bright turbulence becomes a burst engulfing the vorp for an instant before man, van, highway, and desert are erased in a silent flash.

Outside her supervisor’s virtual envelope, the operator is pressed back against her seat, squinting at her deck. Save for a couple rows of small function tiles at its margin, her viewport is blank. Her hands twiddle virtual controls in an attempt to reestablish connection to the asset.

“It’s gone, sir,” she says.

Blinking against a dazzling afterimage for the moment it takes the agency’s AI’s physics to catch up, Pojade’s tari is surrounded by the envelope of putrid ambiance once more. Beelzebub is beside him and its expression is furious, a thunderhead.

The sweat rolling down Pojade’s back feels cold, though his tari does not exhibit the shiver he feels in Real. He silently curses this sense of dread he cannot shake off. This creature can’t harm him.

“I will contact the Assistant Commissioner and task another drone,” he says. “I’ll notify you when the target is reacquired.”

“You do that.”

The sickening backdrop and the razor silhouette wink out.

Two calming breaths are barely enough. Wrestling a pill bottle from a deep pocket, Pojade turns to his technician.

“You alright?” he says and pops a couple tablets into his mouth, swallowing them dry.

Poker face restored, she says, “I may have found another eye we can redeploy. Top of the call list. There will be some blowback.”

“I just lost a drone I misappropriated from the call list earlier today. Of course there’s going to be blowback. It’s nothing like what will happen if we lose that vehicle and its occupants.”

“I have your authorization, sir?”

“You have to ask?”

“Yes, sir. I do.”

“All right, then; you have it. Make it happen and alert me when you have a lock on them. And… don’t let them see this one.”



     ~     ~

Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
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