Leap Year

Participants:

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Also Featuring

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Scene Title Leap Year
Synopsis We begin again.
Date February 29, 2020

The sky is awash with all the colors of the rainbow.

Curtains of auroral light criss-cross the heavens, reflect upward from the placid surface of a mirror still lake. In the shallows of the shore, laid out among the mossy rocks, the pale figure of Eve Mas looks like a corpse draped in rags. Her clothes are tattered and shredded, singed on the edges, riddled with bullet holes. But her body remains intact.

Glittering motes of emerald sparks dance in the air around her, swirling in eddies and currents of unfelt wind. Those green flecks are reflected in her eyes as she pulls herself from the shallows, discovering that she sits on the edge of a tiny, rocky island covered in pine trees. Her head throbs, and the last thing she recalls is the cabin of Adam’s boat out in the ocean. She remembers Silas and Luther, Kaylee and Kimberly, and—

Sibyl.

The name slips out of Eve’s mouth reflexively as the moments leading up to now come in fits and starts. Silas with the gun, coming out from the darkness. A single pop of gunfire, and then… nothing. Nothing until the water. Nothing until now.

In the distance, Eve’s eyes focus on something beyond the auroral light spread out across the sky. A distant shore far across the placid lake. It might be a city, or a town; it’s something other than water and a tiny island. Her stomach turns upside down, but most alarming of all is the absence of any electrical pops or crackles from her hands or even the sensation of such.

She doesn’t feel her ability at all.

Eve coughs as she looks back from that distant shore to the sky above and the auroral light. Marveling, still, but just as confused. Where were her friends? Eve coughs again and twitches at the memory of Silas’s gun. Adam's old corpse unraveling before her. All of this unnerves her, but the thing that makes her dry heave? Her ability’s absence. Her gift was gone. "Hot Hands? Miss Mind? Kimbo? Old Guy?!" Her voice is weak and raspy. She knows she's alone though, or feels very much so.

But the colors… "Oh the colors, can you see them? " Eve asks of nobody in particular, nobody at all. She's getting distracted by the lights, feeling like they call to her. But that town, city, whatever it is in the distance? She has to get there. Can she do it? She isn’t sure anymore.

"Snap out of it Eve!" The pale woman lifts a hand to weakly slap at her own cheek but it doesn't land with the vigor it would usually have. Her fingers curl into her hair and she rocks back and forth. Where was she? The former seer takes another look at the sky, eyes wide and body shaking.

Eve begins to push herself off the island and into the water, willing herself to make it to that place in the distance. Or die trying.

“You make it halfway and drown.”

She knows that voice.

Turning around sharply in the shallows, Eve finds herself face to face with Adam Monroe. He looks immaculate, dressed in a fine suit of night black with a midnight blue shirt beneath. Up his right sleeve of his jacket is a gold leaf pattern of a coiling snake. Kensei sword in hand, Adam regards the reflections of the aurora in the blade with partly lidded, burning gold eyes. “There’s no one left out there,” Adam says in a calm voice, looking from blade to Eve. “Or anywhere.”

“They’re all dead.”

It isn’t Adam.

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Not anymore.

Eve eye the sword. Flashes of old visions depicting this very scene assault her mind — visions two years old, warning she didn’t understand — and she takes a step back and then forward in indecision. "No," They can't be dead. "No, no, no. What-What did you do?" Remembering the faces of her friends make her blood curdle, imagining what could have happened to them turns her blood ice cold. Could this be true? A trick?

The wind pulls at her burnt hair and she struggles to stay righted, ankle-deep in the freezing cold shallows.

There's nothing to be done. Eve is currently powerless, weaponless. Her expression is one of resignation. "The girl's face was prettier on you." It's like speaking to two old, shitty friends at once.

The entity inside of Adam smiles, much as Adam does. “They did it to themselves,” he says with a rise of his shoulders, “or would have on a long-enough time table. You know that’s true, Eve. How many dreams of death have you been helpless to prevent?”

"Too many," Eve whispers. Helpless to prevent.

The entity slowly approaches the shoreline, looking up at the radiant sky. “I’ve reduced them all to their composite matter. Consciousness separated from flesh, a dissolution of the physical form into an incorporeal amalgamation. That’s them.” He motions with his chin to the sky above. “Everything that makes up a person, joined together into an infinite sea of memories.”

The entity looks back down to Eve. “I wanted you to see this. Because it was never avoidable. Soon the island we stand on will crumble away, this planet will break apart into so many fragments of elemental matter, and the world will return to the way it was.”

Gold eyes settle on Eve again. “You made this possible.”

Eve shakes her head from side to side, but then calms and feels a dread serenity pass over her. She feels the futility in her struggle, in resisting the truth of what exactly the Entity is saying. "Ascension," She whispers and looks again up to the sky. Gilly? Chicken? Was her cousin there in those lights somewhere? Were they all up there? The former seer tries to hold back tears but they roll down her cheeks anyway. She's failed. Again.

"This is your resurrection." Eve spits and puts a hand to her chest as she sinks to her knees in the shallows. "How…" Was this the last point in her world?

Was this really the end?

"And me, what, I'm to be reduced to…" Waving her hands to the sky. If it meant joining her family and friends at this rate… Eve swallows a sob and looks up at the thing wearing Adam's face with bloodshot eyes. "Is this my gift?" For all the help.

The entity tilts his head to the side, one blonde brow rising. “There are no gifts, only clarity.” He advances, slowly, and brings the edge of the Kensei sword up to Eve’s neck. “You were apiece in all of this, Eve. A part of my design. There is always a herald, always a guardian, always a hunter, and always me. Patterns make sense. Patterns can be followed.”

Eve stiffens as the blade is placed against her neck, "Heralds and hunters and you, oh my."

The entity smirks with Adam’s smirk, laughs with his voice. “Your role was the herald.” He moves the blade to press the cold flat of it against the side of Eve’s neck and the cutting edge under her chin. “Ever since I first saw you all those centuries ago, extending your mind and body through time. I knew you would be the one to carry my memory forward, to give me the opportunity to return from the short-sighted prison they put me in.”

“Here, I am limited to a linear perception of time and events, but there…” The entity looks up to the sky, then back down to Eve, “I am everywhere and nowhere at once. I am both imprisoned and free, I stretch out across the shores of time and space, wrapping my arms around the beauty and horror of creation and cradling it to my chest in spite of itself.”

The entity looks down from the sky to Eve, on her knees, defeated. “How else could I have orchestrated this? How else could I have been sure to push two beings into close proximity, so that your alcoholic mother would sleep with a man she doesn’t even remember to ensure your birth? Across how many bloody timelines?”

Eve turns her head to look the entity in the eye. A bead of blood slides down her neck from the movement but she does not waver now, not with the mention of her birth father. Who could have known that a refrain trip with Odessa would have led to all of this? Who but the entity.

The entity laughs in Adam’s cruel voice. “Didn’t you find it odd that you all found one-another, time and again? Of all the people every world seems to focus on a handful of specific individuals? That is not coincidence, that was design.”

The blade bites gently into Eve’s flesh. “It wasn’t until I was imprisoned for the second time that I came to truly appreciate my cell. It was the answer I had been seeking all this time, about how to end the cycle of violence perpetrated on our kind.”

The entity’s smile is Adam’s smile.

“Destroy everything. Start anew.”

The elaboration on its former prison makes Eve tilt her head. "You’re cut off from the echos, not tethered any longer." But the pale woman is getting ahead of herself, this knowledge won't give her comfort if these were to be her last moments. She needs to know the truth of her family.

"You know then, who my father is?" Shoulders shaking and midnight hair flying in the wind, the question is there without being asked but Eve does anyway: "Who?" The Entity thought clarity wasn't gift enough but Eve's thirst for knowledge shines through here and especially because it has to do with her parents.

“Ancestors are gene donors. You owe them nothing.” The entity says with cold precision. “Your biological father was an abusive drunk named George Porter, ten years older than your mother, who took advantage of a vulnerable young woman who wanted to feel needed. He was no one, nothing. But the combination of genes, timing, potential, and shared life experiences gave you the ability you have and put you where you are now. This world is like you, born of insignificant foundations and in the end… served a purpose that is now over.”

The news of her parentage makes Eve fall backwards into the water. She violently shakes her head from side to side, eyes wrenched shut. "No no no, you're lying!" Though the former seer knows it's true and she finds herself clapping her hands to her mouth. Alcohol, timing. Insignificant. A purpose served. Eve Mas is broken.

But in that brokenness, she remembers a conversation with herself, one from the time of the overlays.

“Everything dies,” the younger Eve recites. “Even that which thinks itself forever.” For a moment, she glances up at something again, as if she spotted movement in the corner of her eye. There’s nothing there for this Eve but the ceiling, but that doesn’t stop her from looking.

When she looks back, she sounds a little more awake, as if she knows she needs to say what she wants quickly. “Things will get harder. Do you still want them to make it through, even if you believe something worse might follow?”

Being asked a question like that causes Eve to stiffen and she looks away considering, "I…" she had been set on this path the first dream she had of Otter Eyes. "I want them through." She has to believe, "I have to believe it will be okay, we can face this together."

"We deserve to live!” Eve shouts, rising up to her knees in the water and thrusting her fists at the entity, as if she would sock him in the jaw. “Maybe they rain on our parade, maybe we haven't had the best time in these streets! But silly don't you see? We heal the world. We are strong." A beat passes, "Maybe we learned it from you, ancestral memory. Mother and father." Eve rasps. "We just need a chance."

“How many thousands of years of chances is enough?” The entity asks with Adam’s cold efficacy. He lowers the sword from Eve’s neck, snorting at her with derision. “There is no healing the world, Eve. That was a delusion forced on Adam by those who thought they could stop me, to hide his truth behind a veil of lies. But it doesn’t matter.”

The lights in the sky begin to grow in intensity. “This is the last day, the culmination of all things.” The entity points the Kensei sword at the sky.

“At last, we unite.”

And then

there is nothing

but black.


Somewhere in Detroit

February 29th
7:17 pm Local Time


Eve awakens with a sharp breath as if from a dream. It isn’t a bed she finds herself in but a morgue, laid out on a metal table surrounded by other bodies.

A pair of coroners are loading a body into a cooler on a tray. There is a tag hanging off of one of Eve's toes, steel surgical tools on a tray beside her. Kaylee, Luther, Silas, and Kimberly are nowhere to be seen.

As Eve starts to become more aware of her surroundings, she realizes her clothes are covered in more blood than she remembers. There's tears and cuts where there weren't before. A coroner, on seeing her moving, yelps in shock.

"Oh— my god. Oh my god she's— Lars! Lars the Jane Doe is—" The female coroner, stunned by Eve’s awakening, comes rushing over and lays a hand on her shoulder gently. "No, sweetie, no you're—"

The coroner stares, blankly. She looks bewildered, confused, and opens her mouth in abject horror. A gloved hand moves up, hovering over her mouth, as if to restrain a scream that might erupt from her. The woman’s dark eyes wander Eve’s face in disbelief. "Who— who are—"

A male coroner, sleeves of his cardigan rolled up and blood stains on his hands comes walking over, an abject look of confusion on his face. "“Oh my god.” He hurries the rest of the way over, looking at Eve wide-eyed.

“Her face,” Jamie states in shock. But worse, “She was dead, Lars. You called her. Yesterday.”

Lars takes a step back from the table Eve’s on. “She's got to be SLC-Expressive. A— regenerator or—" Lars looks around the room as if there’s some obvious explanation, then back to Jamie as he finds none.

“That’s not her face.” Jamie states flatly. "How? How the fuck?"

Lars leans over the table she’s laid out on. “Ok, you're safe. We’re going to call someone from SESA to take care of you. What's your ability, can you tell me? Are you going to be ok?”

Eve was not prepared for this.

Not again.

Suddenly, Eve smacks her hands together. "Thank the goddess above!" She falls back onto the metal slab and looks up at the ceiling. It's almost as if she doesn't hear the people in the room with her or the panic in their voices. She hears other voices, memories, recollections.

“I… I will try to keep my lid on and not popping off.” It’s a delicate promise and Eve isn’t sure she can totally keep it. But she can try, for Gilly. For herself too but Eve has always run willy nilly into situations that she shouldn’t. Gillian knows this and Eve wants to stop giving her heart attacks, she’s had enough of those to last a lifetime twice over. Eve’s hunt for Adam though is something that she has been doing for so long now, she’s not sure how to stop herself.

"I keep getting this god awful visions and then they always in some way come true. It hasn't really failed me yet. So this event will happen, or something similar. The event that Else is singing about will come to pass in some form or another."

"Sorry dearie, what?" Eve snaps back to reality and she looks at Jamie, blearily taking in the coroner’s features. Eve wiggles her toes and fingers and looks confused. SESA, friends but maybe not. "My ability? I–"

Eve's eyebrows raise and she falls silent. "I'm…" Falling short again, she can feel her heart racing in her chest. What happened to her? Eve’s thoughts land on the immortal Adam, one of his clones? But why, why again. "I…" But that’s when she notices the differences from the last time she died. There’s no IV tube, no bag of an immortal’s blood. Confusion paints her features anew.

“She's still in shock,” Jamie explains concernedly. “Miss—no—you need to lie down I—You were brought in, you…” Jamie looks over at Lars, who nods to her to keep things going there and heads to the door to go get someone who might be able to make sense of all of this.

“You—we thought you were dead.” Jamie corrects herself with a shaky voice. "You were dead. You didn't have an identification card on you, we didn't know what ability you had. You—you do have an ability, right? Do you know what year it is?”

Jamie looks at Eve anxiously, without explanation for these events. “Sweetie, what's your name?”

Her name?

Suddenly, Eve can’t help but smile broadly. "Selene," and the facade she presents masks the utter horror of feeling so intact. Her molecules staying firmly together. Long, pale fingers wiggle in Jamie’s and Eve raises her eyebrows. "See? I'm okay! I must have… taken a nap! Flatline, beep beep."

Just like that, Eve swings her legs around and hops off the mortuary slab with a clap of her bare feet on the floor. She regards Jamie with narrowed eyes. “You know that always seemed like a trick question, what year is it?” She chomps at the air. “It's the year 2020, sacred year. April was the real 420."

There was such an eerie feeling to this, like Eve had been here but in several different ways. The way she talks, it’s like she's manically trying to get out of something when Lars and Jamie haven't even done anything. Her inside burn with the anxious desire to just disperse and leave this place and figure out what the fuck had happened somewhere else.

Still no go and Eve clings to the wall like its her tether to this reality.

"A blonde man in a suit, maybe on your camera—" Eve rasps, but then wheels about to a whole other topic. "—I don't know what I am." Her eyes focus on the pale fingers. Wishing for a red light.

“No one else has been down here,” Jamie stresses, slowly approaching Eve. “Lars just went to go call SESA, get—get someone down here who can understand your—your—” She doesn’t even know how to explain it herself. Spontaneous resurrection sounds preposterous.

“Help will be here soon,” Jamie says, laying a hand on Eve’s shoulder.

"No, no, no, but Mother and Father—my family, my friends. Me. You see?" Of course Jamie doesn't understand what Eve means, maybe not even Eve can.

"You are such a nice lady you know that?" Eve says as she abruptly throws her arms around Jamie and hugs her like a lifelong friend. The coroner goes stiff in Eve’s arms. Eve knows what she has to do now, as she releases the terrified coroner.

She has to find her family. She has to find the Entity; Adam.

Her chase never stopped, not even for death.

Eve slowly pulls away and dances a hop-skip step around the room. It's then that she feels a little breeze and snickers. Birthday suit. Nothing new there. "But I have to go! Lots to see, lots to do! I feel I'm late!" Backing up on tip toes with a forced grin on her face.

"Oh!" Eve exclaims as she backs into the door leading out of the room, "Is it the year 2020? You never did answer and I’d hate to be naked in the future-past."

Jamie stares wide-eyed at Eve, “Yes?

That bewildered, shell-shocked answer is all Eve needs as she slips out of the morgue.

This isn’t her first rodeo.


Meanwhile

Alameda Point Airfield
Praxia
California Safe Zone

February 29th
4:21 pm


Several Blackhawk helicopters are parked amid the wreckage of a few Z-12 Qingniao aircraft strewn across the pockmarked tarmac. In the distance, thick plumes of black smoke belch out from the remnants of factories and foundries littering the industrial landscape. A US Army sergeant comes jogging up to one of the helicopters, squinting against the downdraft. He slides open the helicopter door as the rotors wind down, offering a hand out to the federal agents emerging from the vehicle.

They are dressed uniformly in black and none take the offered hand. Two shield their eyes behind sunglasses and walk in lockstep with one another, look identical to one-another; dark skin, black hair, square jaw, nice suit. The lead agent is older, whiter, with his left eye slightly offset from the right making it subtly hard to tell which direction he is looking in.

“Agent Gates?” The sergeant asks, and the lead agent offers a nod without looking at the soldier.

“Where is he?” Agent Gates agent asks, and the soldier motions toward a series of tents erected on the tarmac. Behind them, soldiers move about like the drones of a beehive and military vehicles roll past with urgent places to be.

Gates and the two agents behind him reach the tent, and one of the duplicates pauses and looks back to the soldier. “You’ll have to wait here,” he says to the sergeant. One copy and Agent Gates part the tent flap and step in, finding a medical triage area where a single old man sits on a cot, right arm in an air cast.

Shengjiao Wu looks on at first with uncertainty, then suspicion when he sees the Black agent. “Harris,” Wu says with a hitch in his throat, and Agent Harris says nothing in return, merely removes his sunglasses and puts them in his suit jacket pocket.

Agent Gates snaps his fingers, eliciting Wu’s attention, then smiles facetiously when he sees the old Doctor look his way. “Doctor Shengjiao,” Gates says with a duck of his head, moving to sit at the foot of Wu’s bed. “We’ve come a long way with a series of very important questions for you, and we understand you’ve been cooperative with the authorities since your apprehension.”

Wu looks from Gates to Harris and back again. His eyes speak questions his mouth will not.

“Doctor…” Gates says, looking to the bed, then gently laying a hand on Wu’s knee over the coarse emergency blanket, “did you work on Project Hydra?” Gates’ blue eyes meet Wu’s, and while a smile crosses his face it doesn’t reach those pale eyes.

Wu swallows tensely and looks to Harris.

“Over here,” Gates says, snapping his fingers again to draw Wu’s focus back to him. “Hydra.” Gates urges. “You worked on it.” Wu knows this is rhetorical.

“Yes, but I did not start it.” Wu finally says, and Gates smiles in a patronizing way, gently tapping Wu’s knee.

“I know,” Gates says, briefly shutting his eyes as he rises from the edge of the bed. “How many times did Erica Kravid undergo the Hydra process?” He abruptly asks with another small smile, looking back to Wu.

The question has Wu’s expression sagging, eyes wide. Parting his lips, Wu shakes his head slowly. “Erica never—” but he doesn’t finish his sentence. There’s doubt. Uncertainty. He wonders what they know that he doesn’t.

“It’s okay,” Gates suggests with a small gesture to Wu. “You’ve had a long couple of days, Doctor. Why don’t you think about your answer and Harris here will reacquaint himself with you.” Gates points from Wu to Harris and back again. “You two know each other, don’t you?”

Gates flashes a smile, tapping his finger in the air toward Wu. “I don’t recall it being a good history either.”

Wait,” Wu says, but Agent Gates isn’t listening. “Wait!

As Gates steps out of the tent, Harris reaches inside of his jacket and produces a pair of long, gold-plated scissors as he approaches Wu’s bed.

“What was it you said to me, back in Shanghai?” Harris says with a tightness in his voice, dark eyes wide, threateningly snipping the scissors open and closed.

Pain is progress?


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Global Headquarters
Shanghai, China

March 1st
7:23 am Local Time


“Mr. Kellar, it’s time.”

The call of his name turns Claudius Kellar’s eyes up from a laptop on his desk. Slowly shutting it, he looks with a closed-mouth smile to his assistant and brushes his fingertips across the laptop’s surface, then steps away from the desk with a cellphone held to his ear.

“I’m aware, my dear.” Claudius says with teeth showing. "Mr. Crane, we'll be wheels up shortly and expecting you to roll out the red carpet upon our arrival. The asset is already prepared for transport."

On the other end of the line, a younger man's voice crackles over the bad connection. «I look forward to it, Mr. Kellar. I hope it's everything you promised.»

"And more," Kellar says with a slide of his tongue over the back of his teeth. "Talk to you soon, Lucy." And he terminates the call. Kellar tucks the phone into his suit jacket, then straightens his necktie and steps out into the hall. There he finds the stern-eyed gaze of Yao Tze waiting for him in the balcony overlooking the steel sculpture that runs up the center of the arcology. Yao Tze has seen better days, and no amount of makeup can hide the rings of bloodshot red around her irises.

“The jet is waiting, Mr. Kellar,” Yao says with impatience, “asset forfeiture was effective as of 6:00 am, your government is still entangled in negotiations with the national legislature, it will be too late by the time they get boots on the ground here.” She turns her attention to the lightless levels of the arcology below the balcony. “Whatever is left of here.”

Claudius approaches Yao and lays a hand on her shoulder. “Calm,” he says in a whisper, leaning in closer than she’d like. “Everything is going according to plan, you just keep playing your role and all the power you’ve ever dreamed of will be yours.”

Yao tenses, hides a scowl at the touch to her shoulder and fixes Claudius with a dagger-eyed stare until he slowly leans away and gives her space. “Our helicopter is waiting to take us to the airfield.” She says through her teeth.

Yao straightens the collar of her jacket and moves to step behind Kellar, looking down over the railing again to the lightless depths of the Praxis Heavy Industries arcology. She cannot help but feel a tremendous sense of loss in this moment, a tremendous sense of failure. Yet at the back of Claudius Kellar, she has hope that there is perhaps a light at the end of this dark tunnel.

Wiping blood away from her nose, Yao Tze hopes that light comes soon.


Meanwhile

The Catskill Mountains
Shandaken, NY

February 29th
7:36 pm Local Time


In the Catskills there is a winding road that is barely plowed in the winter, twisting up through the forested mountains far from any major road. Here, amid the pines and oaks, is a lonely house that has sat vacant for a few weeks. There is a ghost of life in the walls, of residents come and gone. It's a modern thing, all right angles and pale shades of gray. It's walls are mostly glass, and it looks like it probably cost a fortune to construct out here in the mountains.

Beyond the front yard laden with freshly fallen snow, beyond the tinted windows offering privacy to the vacated home, is tragedy. Through the thick glass windows, the house is empty. Furniture has long-since been vacated, the residents have moved on. But a squatter has taken up vigil by the fireplace.

Joy had spent the last day crying by the fire, one that has long since burned out. Her hair is a wild, unkempt mane of tangled black hair, her cheeks stained with dried tears. She is hollow now, bereft of noise and words. Bereft of grief for the man she loved, bereft of grief for the children she lost, bereft of grief for each and every consciousness that is now a part of her.

Watashi o tasuketekudasai…1 she whispers into the empty fireplace. But there is no response. The one man that could have helped her passed away in this house long ago, too far for her to save a memory of, too distant to be snared into her whirlpool.

Exhaling a shuddering sigh, Joy closes her eyes and slouches against the cold brick. Alone with her hopelessness.

Excuse me.

Or perhaps… not alone.

Joy’s eyes snap wide, fixed on the silhouette of an older man standing in the middle of the house where there was no one once before. But he isn’t a stranger, she knows him.

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Walter?” Joy rasps.

“In the metaphorical flesh.” Walter says with a sad but affable smile, slowly approaching her with his hands tucked into the pockets of his slacks. “I imagine it’s been some many years since we last met. Thirty-six, if I’m being precise.” He does not look to have aged a day since the last time she saw him before the redaction, but she knows in her heart that isn’t the case. A thousand of her senses can tell her what feels wrong about him.

“I’m sorry to say I was too late in my wanderings to offer the aid you requested. Time and space are fickle things, and bereft of the anchor of my body I wandered like an untethered kite for too long.” Walter says with a slow shake of his head. “But now, in the moment you reside in, the work is done. I’ve laid all the groundwork I can, but I’m… sorry it couldn’t come to a natural conclusion before so many people suffered.”

Joy wipes at her face, even if the tears have long since dried. Slowly she comes to her feet, approaching Walter in barefooted strides. “Is there a way forward?” She asks, her voice hoarse from crying, but the strength of a warrior nonetheless resides in every syllable.

Walter’s brows rise, then fall slowly. “A way? Of a sorts, but you’re not going to like what has to happen next.” His expression flattens, tongue pressed firmly between cheek and gum. She knows that expression, knows there’s a bitter pill to swallow up ahead.

“Out with it,” Joy says in a husky exhalation. “What do I need to do to end this?

Walter furrows his brows, looks down to the ground, then slowly up to Joy.

“Let me show you what I found…”


Meanwhile

3 Miles East of Al Aridhah
Najran Region, Saudi Arabia

March 1st
2:49 am


All the remains of the Mazdak military installation outside of Al Aridhah is fire and smoke belching up from a burning basement. Collapsing cinder block walls are almost entirely consumed by the smoke and flames, burning debris scattered around for nearly a quarter mile. Nearby, a V-22 Osprey switches flight modes, its propeller engines tilting upward to allow the plane to land like a helicopter, kicking up a swirling cloud of sand and smoke.

From the incendiary wreckage of the burning building, a lone figure emerges in black tactical gear; orange-lensed mirrored sunglasses reflecting the hellfire. Lucas Van de Walle reaches up with a cybernetic hand, pulling his sunglasses off as he watches the rear hatch of the Osprey open to deploy the remaining members of his squad.

“You’re all late!” Lucas calls ahead in a shout. “I had to start the party without you!”

The first out of the Osprey is a short, thin woman with a thick mane of curly black hair tied back behind her head. “Y’want t’try waitin’ for confirmation next time?” Audra Kane’s delivery may be taciturn, but Lucas recognizes the amusement behind her words.

A quick flash and a blur zips out past Kane, coalescing from blinding energy into the form of a dark-haired woman in black tactical armor. Elena Moreno stops short of Lucas, one brow raised and dark eyes very slowly moving to the fiery wreckage.

“You wanna throw some gasoline on it?” Lucas asks her out of the corner of his mouth. Elena rolls her eyes and looks back to the Osprey where the last member of their squad emerges from the back, tall and broad-shouldered, squinting against the fire in the dead of night.

“Hope you got that out of your system!” The muscular man calls out in a subtle German accent. Herman Dreyer strides purposefully past Kane, who scans the horizon. Walking straight up to Lucas, Dreyer shoves him in the chest and follows his stagger back to grab him by the collar and yank him forward.

Lucas smiles, looking down at Dreyer’s hands, then up to his stone-cold expression. A moment later, Dreyer’s expression splits into a smile and he gives Lucas a huge hug and a slap on the back.

“We aren’t going to the other sites,” Dreyer says with an incline of his head. This revelation has Lucas look back at his handiwork.

“Then what the fuck did I burn that down for?” He wonders.

“If you’d stayed on comms you’d know,” Dreyer says with a tap to the melted radio clipped to Lucas’ body armor. “Boss radioed in, we’re going back to headquarters. The Saudis can clean up the rest, we have a new contract.”

Lucas’ brows rise slowly, and his smile spreads from ear to ear. “Well, don’t leave me hanging,” he says with a cocksure grin as he pulls a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket with a cybernetic hand. “Where’re we going?”

Dreyer’s smile drops and he gives Lucas a slap on the shoulder. “You’re favorite place.”

“A total shithole,” Elena says as she starts to walk back to the Osprey. Suddenly, Lucas understands.

“No.” Lucas sputters. “Come on…

America?!


Meanwhile

San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Sonoma, CA

February 29th
4:37 pm Local Time


There’s a search party spread out through the wilderness, five or six pairs of boots on the ground moving through low underbrush. There’s a few dozen miles of wilderness surrounding the overgrown ruins of the Skaggs Island Naval Communication Station, too much for a few people to cover in two days. But it hasn’t stopped them from trying.

Apart from the other, Cyrus Karr pushes through a tall stand of saplings, leading with his rifle as he moves. He stops in the shadow of a scraggly sycamore tree, bracing his back up against the trunk as he checks his cell phone. There’s a map of the area displayed, and a dot representing him, a red circle showing his search parameters. He’s still inside the circle.

Lifting the phone to his ear, Cyrus scans what of the horizon he can see through the vegetation. “Scylla,” he says over some static, “I… I haven’t found her yet. But her transponder’s out here somewhere. I’m gonna keep looking.”

«Cyrus,» Scylla comes over the phone, «it’s gonna be dark soon. You won’t have any backup and the signal repeater is running out of juice. We— we need to regroup. April’s— »

“Sorry you’re breaking up.” Cyrus says while making a phone static sound with his mouth. “Can’t hear you.” He snaps his phone closed. With a sigh he pushes away from the tree, treading through the underbrush again, searching for any signs of Candice Wilmer. The sun is low on the horizon, though, and Scylla was right that his backup would be heading out before it got too dark. But the darkness suits him just fine.

Pressing on, Cyrus steps around a small swamp, standing on an old deadfall tree to try and get a better look. It’s minutes more before he sees a jacket hanging from a tree branch nearby. Cyrus breaks into a jog, slogging through mud and shallows in a sprint towards the leather jacket. As he reaches it, he can see Candice’s tracking transponder clipped to the breast pocket, and below the jacket, slouched up against the base of the tree: a body.

Fuck,” Cyrus hisses, looking down at the corpse of a man covered head to toe in blood and mud. He sucks in a shuddering breath, realizing it isn’t Candice — or he’s fairly sure it isn’t anyway. Taking a knee, Cyrus, nudges the body’s chin up with the barrel of his rifle, revealing the dead eyes of Adam Monroe.

The body looks days old, mangled as if from an explosion. Rigor had set in already, this wasn’t a fresh kill.

Fuck,” Cyrus curses again. But it’s more than just the body of one of Adam’s clones that has him shaken. It’s the post-mortem wound.

His skull smashed apart.

Brain removed.

Suddenly his attention goes up to the transponder, hanging on the tree like—

Mr. Karr.” Comes a smoky, rasping voice from the dark of the forest.

Like bait.

Cyrus slowly turns, eyes wide as he sees a silhouette of a man in the gloom.

We need to talk.

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Meanwhile

Somewhere in Sweden

March 1st
1:46 am Local Time


A soft electronic beep accompanies the front door of a secure compound set in the mountains opening to the cold. From outside, two figures move into the relative warmth of the building decorated in what can only be described as Eco Brutalism; bare concrete and steel juxtaposed with lush greenery and flowers. The lighting, while artificial, feels natural.

Niklaus Zimmerman takes off his coat on entering, hanging it on bare iron hooks on the wall, then offers to take the coat of the significantly older woman at his side. Ruby Harper smiles and allows Niklaus to take her coat for her, offering the square-jawed man a fond smile before stepping further into the house’s foyer.

“It’s been a long time since I set foot in this place.” Ruby says with a hint of nostalgia, looking up at the sconce lights recessed in the ceiling. The style may feel anachronistic today, but in the mid 1960s when it was built it was practically Space Age. Niklaus is quick to follow behind her, tucking his hands into the pockets of his slacks and soon outpacing her.

“There’s been some changes,” Niklaus says as he walks, locking the door behind them. “Primarily security features, mostly unobtrusive. But the layout has remained largely the same. We kept your room as you left it.”

Ruby smiles at that, nodding once in faint recognition.

Though Niklaus is leading her through the house, Ruby knows where nearly every twist and turn in the hallway is. It is the curving wall of glass coming up on the right, fogged with condensation from an indoor greenhouse, that she is most eager to see. Through the glass she can see the blurred silhouette of someone tending the garden, the glass door left open for visitors and to let out a little of the humid air.

Niklaus stops on the stairs descending to the greenhouse and lets Ruby take the lead, watching her move down the steps carefully with a hand on the old metal railing. As she reaches the doorway, Ruby falters and clasps a hand at her chest, eyes shut as she breathes in the scent of familiar flowers that render the humid air sweet in fragrance and memory.

As she steps through the doorway Ruby opens her eyes, taking in a trellis of vibrant red amaryllis. A smile overcomes Ruby, while Niklaus does not follow beyond the threshold, watching her approach the flowers to delicately cup one blossom in her weathered hand. Through the trellis, she can see the dark silhouette of the gardener beyond and her heart rises in the back of her throat.

“You should see the new plantings,” the gardener says from beyond the tellis, and Ruby falters. Where once there was eagerness and excitement, there is now trepidation. “To think, something so precious could grow in a place as inhospitable as Antarctica.”

Ruby slowly begins to walk parallel to the wall of flowers, keeping that one hand clutched at her chest. The gardener walks in tandem with her, and she can see him only in silhouette. “I’m glad you’ve come back, Ruby.” He says to her with the gentlest voice.

As she rounds the corner, face to face with the gardener, Ruby looks up at him with wide and unblinking eyes. It isn’t who she expected.

“I hear you’re quite the knowledgeable woman.”

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“That’s very exciting.


Meanwhile

Somewhere in Nasiriyah, Iraq

March 1st
2:53 am


“«The throne of God sits empty.»”

Within the marble-tiled floor of a building that once stood as a palace for Saddam Hussein, new purpose had been forged into gilt walls and inlaid tiles. Banners bearing an eight-pointed star hang between ionic columns of eggshell white. Upon a dais of black marble rests a high-backed chair plated in gold upon which that same starburst symbol rests. But the chair is empty, and the one who was to come and take it not present.

“«Baruti has not returned yet»,” Aida says as she emerges from the darkness beyond the columns. Standing beside the throne, Ra’id Abdul-Jalil Sabbagh struggles to maintain a neutral expression. He turns to regard Aida with creased brows and tension in his jaw.

“«You saw what I saw.»” Ra’id seeks her confirmation, finding it instead in a gentle touch to his shoulder. Aida looks at the throne, then back to Ra’id.

“«It is just a chair.»” She implores. “«You were always too literal.»”

Ra’id sighs, looking away from Aida and to the symbol of the eight-pointed star. “«Three decades,»” he says with a shake of his head. “«I gave three decades.»”

“«What is a few minutes more?”»” Aida asks, letting her hand fall away. “«Would you bemoan the sun for a long winter’s night if it rose late? We are not infallible. We…»” Aida hesitates, hearing the sound of footsteps approaching the chamber. She turns to fully face the source of the sound, Ra’id joining her with that tension renewed for altogether new reasons.

The glowing blue irises of Baruti Naidu’s eyes are the first thing they see pierce the darkness. As he steps into the light of the chandelier overhead, Bauti looks worse for wear. His lip is split, a bruise swells one side of his face and he squints one eye nearly shut. Ra’id and Aida share a nervous look to one another, but any questions they have die in their mouths when they see a pair of glowing orange irises moving through the darkness.

Adam Monroe looks like the devil incarnate as he emerges into the light, stripped of his tactical gear but still dressed in sleek black lines. His eyes burn like iron fresh out of the forge, moving to Aida and Ra’id one after the other. Neither know what to do with this, it wasn’t the face they were anticipating, it wasn’t the God they expected. They were told it would be a woman; Eve.

As Adam walks, he tosses a crisp red apple in one hand, a few bites taken out of it. As he comes to stand beside Baruti, Adam cocks one brow and looks to the blue-eyed man, then snatches the falling apple out of the air and takes another large bite out of it.

“Hello gents,” the entity says with Adam’s voice and a crooked smile. “Sorry to have kept you waiting.”

“You wouldn’t believe the week I’ve had.”

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The birds have never stopped calling, not since everything changed.

The distant cry of crows is an ethereal but ever-present threat, even if the flapping of their wings seems forever-distant; the birds are a force imagined but never seen. Here, in a realm of twisting mist and churning fog, of mossy headstones and crumbling monuments to memory, all things are that: imagined.

But amid the perpetual overcast twilight, a single orange beacon moves through the dark. A tall and shadowed silhouette creeping among the stick-bare trees and night-black pines, bearing a swaying lantern like the boatman down the river styx. These are not unfamiliar waters to him, he has been here for a long time.

And he is a cunning navigator.

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Gabriel Gray’s dark eyes move with predatory swiftness among the headstones of the graveyard, seeking the shadow of a bird among the long dark. There are whispers within the trees, hints and impressions of a person that walks barefoot among the pines and smells of cigarettes and fond memories. That she is here is both a balm and a burn, soothing and scalding a heart that is but a memory of one.

Seeking the shadows, there is no such scent on the air. Yet the shadows of the graveyard are nonetheless disturbed by something more than ephemeral, something that isn’t a memory of a memory or a copy of a copy. It is something that has never been within the graveyard before.

Gabriel stops by a weathered monument with no name, a landmark to the ancient and crumbling past. Kneeling beside it, he sets down the lantern and sees something unfathomable in the headstone’s shadow.

Green.

Shoots of green rise up from the snow-dusted ground, breaking through the soil in vibrant contrast. It is not a snowdrop or another perennial sign of spring — if such seasons existed here — but a vibrant yellow daffodil standing determined among nothing else living, as if to loudly say: I defy you.

Gabriel touches the flower, a delicate caress of calloused fingertips, and tears well in his eyes. Not for any supernatural hold the flower has on him, but for the memory of life within a realm that exemplifies death. In that moment he spies a phantom among the headstones, the shade that has haunted this place in ways memories do not.

Bolting up, Gabriel raises his lantern and calls, “Eileen?” into the dark. The phantom does not respond, but neither does it flee. He moves fast, leaving the daffodil behind as he rushes between the rows of unmarked graves toward a shadow that seems infinitely far away and only just out of reach all at once. It is only when he gives up the chase that it feels like she draws closer; rapidly so, closing in on him as if miles of distance were narrowed to a fraction of a foot in a single moment.

Blue eyes stare up at him from beneath a tangled mane of dark hair. But they are not her eyes. No, they belong to someone altogether different. Comprehension dawns on Gabriel’s face as he takes in the youthful features, lips part to ask unvoiced questions or how or why.

Finally, a puzzle he cannot so easily solve.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” Gabriel says. He can feel it in his heart that it’s the truth, even if he does not fully understand the why of the matter.

The phantom nods once in agreement. For she does not belong here.

A being of two worlds

and none.

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