All the team members have recently finished training at the Granite Peak facility in Utah, and are told by their phones to gather in London for a shakedown mission.
There's a new fad in the City, Neuro-Conceptual Training. It's been going for about six months, and seems to be mostly fuzzy positive thinking and ``law of attraction'' nonsense - with lots of hard sales of meditation MP3s, books, seminars, and so on. On the other hand, there's a bit of Sumerian imagery involved, so it's worth checking out.
Downloads of brochures, web site, and some of the books have been provided. The founder is one Dr Malcolm Davies, in his fifties, an Oxford-trained classicist with a reputation as a slightly dodgy antiquities dealer. (He's been arrested in a few Middle Eastern countries, but never convicted of anything.) There's another face that shows up quite often in lecture photographs, a man perhaps in his mid-thirties, with close-cropped hair and a muscular build; Ram pegs him as a likely former soldier.
NCT has been going for about six months, starting with evening sessions at the office building on Holborn Viaduct, close to the City; three months ago it bought an old country house near Braintree in Essex; they've renamed it Advance House, and run weekend seminars there (a mere £800 for two nights and two days on site).
Ram takes a look at the building; it doesn't look at all out of place, and doesn't appear to have been redecorated recently. It's three stories high, plus a small basement parking area accessible from the back; there are cameras covering the entrances. Around 6.30pm, people start to arrive on foot, mostly in their twenties and early thirties and dressed expensively; they trail off shortly before 7. At 9pm, they leave, splitting up and heading for buses and railway stations; most of them look more tired than they did before, but not as though they'd been exercising.
Half an hour later, the lights are turned off; nobody comes out through the front door, and there's no further sign of activity.
Meanwhile, the rest of the team has been looking through the brochures and books. Marianne considers them from a propagandist's point of view; the thesis is mostly positive thinking and wishing for success, but there's a strong undercurrent of being prepared to stab your colleagues on the back (not entirely unexpected in the City). Meanwhile, Stacie examines the material on a more psychological basis; it's mostly the scammer's variant of NLP that the Project has allowed to get into the outside world, but there's an undercurrent of induced dependency that's much more subtle than she'd expect from such a source. Seth looks at the mythological side, which is used mostly as illustrative stories, but gets sidetracked into a comparison of Sumerian and classical Greek myth systems and ends up translating large chunks of the books into Aulang (quite a challenge, given that the language is partly intended to make inconsistencies of logic stand out as errors).
The next day, a search across various official databases has retrieved a name to match the face of the muscular man: Jim Waring, who joined the Army at 17, was administratively discharged (i.e. asked to leave) a couple of months after his regiment was sent overseas (to Bosnia), and has shown up since as a mercenary and bodyguard, more recently moving into bodyguard training. He doesn't seem like a very likely person to get involved with this sort of thing.
Stacie decides to attend an evening session. Ram and Seth watch the front and back of the office, while Marianne coordinates. Davies arrives in a sports car around 6pm, and parks under the building. Stacie arrives on her motorcycle at 6.30, putting on a good show, and goes inside; a receptionist, another youngish man of military bearing, takes her £50 and directs her upstairs. There's a little guarded chat among the twenty-odd participants; Stacie also notices that her phone signal has dropped off sharply in the meeting room, and it goes altogether when the door is closed. (She is still able to record the session, though.)
Davies starts by asking people to turn off phones, and explaining that there won't be any breaks. His manner is almost absent-minded, but as he starts to speak his voice becomes strangely compelling. Stacie recognises this as an Anunnaki technique, not too far from the ones she knows herself, and is able to resist, though everyone else seems to have gone under.
The suggestions he's giving are two-fold: one group deals with clear and quick thinking, largely by jettisoning moral qualms, and the other is encouraging people to buy the various goods that are for sale at the end of the session: some of them are the same books and audio files that the team already has, but Stacie picks up a multicoloured LED lamp in case there's anything interesting about it, and signs up for two weekends of seminars and individual training at Advance House. She's not by any means the only person to do so; it starts to seem plausible that the organisation could have taken enough money to buy the place in the short time it's been operating.
Stacie walks out with the others, aiming to look a bit groggy as they do, and heads back to the office, ignoring the parking ticket her bike has acquired; Ram and Seth hang around for long enough to spot Davies and the other man leaving in the sports car. Their infrared gear suggest that there's nobody left in the building.
Seth considers Stacie's recordings; he confirms the influence techniques in use, and also comments on the decor of the meeting room. There are lots of small elements that focus attention on the lecturer and encourage a power relationship; any of them might be standard corporate room design, but to have all of them at once seems remarkably coincidental.
The next day is a Friday, and Stacie's due at Advance House in the evening.
The team looks up a bit of information on the place: it's a mile or two from Braintree, next to Andrewsfield airfield (and indeed the brochures include instructions on how to arrange to bring your own plane to the seminar). There are a few local villages, but their proximity means they don't have much in the way of facilities (no pubs or B&Bs). Satellite photographs show a large old house and a rather ugly newer block (planning permission was obtained, but probably shouldn't have been); the new building is the accommodation block, while the house is used for meetings and meals. The grounds are heavily wooded, and the high ratio of evergreen trees means that there's quite a bit of cover even at this time of year.
Ram, Seth and Marianne head down in a Range Rover; Marianne has Renshawed some church history, and can talk convincingly about an interest in the ruined chapels in some of the local villages as she gathers gossip. Ram and Seth take a look at the site; there's a 10' wall all round it, with what looks like a capacitance wire on top, and the trees are well trimmed back from it. Ram could certainly get in, but he's pretty sure someone would know about it. Apart from the main gate on the road, there's a gate directly onto the airfield, and some sign that it's been used (but this might only mean five or six vehicles in the last month or two, given the season). It appears to be remotely controlled.
Seth has to leave for an unexplained ``school trip'' that everyone seems to be taking terribly seriously. However, considering the archaeological background involved here, the Project supplies a reality archaeologist, Paul Sinclair. He joins Marianne, and they poke around the village church in an informed manner, noting that it has a potentially useful-looking tower.
Ram finishes his circuit of the grounds. The village is a little way to the east of the place. On the south side was a relatively main road; on the west side was the gate to the airfield; on the north side is a small strip of waste ground, then a (much more easily-bypassed) wire fence, behind which is a gravelled area of ground containing a number of construction machines (diggers, cranes, etc.) and a variety of partially-completed structures. The machines all carry a ``Machine Forge'' logo, and some quick searching reveals that this is a training business, offering intensive courses in construction equipment and techniques. (They also do a small rental business.) As Ram completes his circuit, he sees the main gate of Machine Forge to the east side of that site, on the minor road that leads through the village.
Paul and Marianne get hold of the vicar, who has five parishes but lives in this one; he's thoroughly enthused that someone's finally paying attention to his (originally Norman, heavily modified over the centuries) church, and barely even listens to Marianne's explanations that they're conducting preliminary research for an archaeological programme. Among the information they get out of him is the fact that ``them in the old manor house'' aren't much liked - apparently they even bring in cleaners from That London, never mind cooks and such, and they turned off Old George who'd been keeping up the grounds for years.
They talk their way up the tower, which is kept locked, and while they're up there Ram takes a look at ground level. There's a huge, old lock on the door, but it certainly looks as though he ought to be able to climb it from outside. And for that matter the key isn't exactly carefully guarded.
Marianne looks up ``Old George'' by filtering the electoral roll for addresses and age, but the only candidate is a George Forester, in his early twenties.
During all this time, Stacie's been riding down from London. There's a security man at the gate, dressed in a suit rather than a uniform, who looks as though he's had his nose broken at least once; he checks her name on a list, and lets her through. She rides up the drive, and parks the bike in among the very expensive cars outside the accommodation block. It's started to rain quite hard by this point, and she's waved into the main house, where people are gathering in the Great Hall, probably a ballroom originally, that's been fitted with a stage at one end and plenty of chairs.
However, for the moment, about thirty people, roughly a third of them women, are milling around the back of the room, where drinks and snacks are available. Most of them look very much like the people she saw at the meeting in town; one man stands out a bit since he moves like someone who's been trained to it, perhaps a dancer or a serious martial artist.
While considering the snacks, Stacie notices that they're all fairly low-protein and low-energy - lots of salads and roughage.
After ten minutes or so and a couple more arrivals, Davies bounds into the room and jumps onto the stage. He gives a quick introductory speech, asking people to put their phones in the lockers at the back of the room (this was on the booking form, though not in large print); there's a bit of muttering, presumably from the first-timers, but everyone appears to comply. Stacie hangs on to her Project phone, leaving it recording and transmitting sound while apparently turned off. She spots something odd about the martial artist, just for a moment out of the corner of her eye, but can't pin it down.
Davies explains the rough schedule, starting with breakfast at 7am tomorrow and the first sessions at 8, and suggests that people get a good night's sleep. There's some memetic reinforcement, but it's not heavy-handed.
The rest of the team is in the Range Rover, listening in. Paul continues to monitor the audio feed, while Ram and Marianne start looking for Old George; at his address, the door's answered by an elderly woman, who says that he'll be in the Golden Fleece in Braintree for the next few hours. She's oddly un-curious about why they want to find him, though she does mention that if they want to get him to talk about Advance House they shouldn't call it that; ``The Old Manor'' is the way the locals know it.
As Ram and Marianne leave, Ram overhears a phone being dialled; he can't catch much of the conversation, but there is a mention of ``foreigners''. A quick call to headquarters reveals that the target number is a mobile phone registered to George Forester, and it's currently in Braintree.
The pair head for the Golden Fleece, a large and noisy establishment mostly dedicated to serving as much lager as fast as possible. The barman's confused by their (fairly normal) drink orders, but fortunately the manager who's fetched knows George - he's drinking in a corner with a few mates.
George is willing to make the most of what seems to be his fame, what with actual journalists coming to talk to him, and gets several rounds of drinks out of them; he doesn't have a lot of substance, but speculates heavily. He'd been looking after the grounds informally for a few years while the house was owned by a property company that was trying to get planning permission for a huge hotel; he's particularly annoyed that the new owners not only sacked him but turfed out most of the trees, bringing in a lot of pine and other coniferous trees instead. They put up that wall on what used to be fairly open land, there's someone on the gate most of the time, and apparently they've even got their own chef from London...
(Quick cut to Stacie at supper, coping better with the low-energy, low-protein food than many of the others there.)
Marianne plants some extra suspicions by mentioning brainwashing; George hadn't thought of this, but she gives him a card and asks him to call if he comes across anything else odd.
Meanwhile, Paul's been waiting out the rain in the village bus shelter. He can just barely hear intermittent and irregular popping sounds from the far side of the wall; they're not loud enough to be firearms, but the pattern sounds an awful lot like someone doing a small-unit exercise. Paintball, perhaps? In the dark, in the rain? He climbs onto the bus shelter for a look over the wall, but can't see any signs of lights in the grounds. He thinks about getting in, but can't be sure how far the capacitance sensor will be degraded by the rain (not much, it later turns out); there's nobody at the gate, just an intercom panel, so suborning his way in seems unlikely to work.
Stacie decides to use the exercise facilities, in the half-basement of the new block, before turning in; the martial artist is also there, working out with weights and a punch-bag, and introduces himself as Tim. They chat briefly; Stacie gets the feeling that he's being friendly rather than trying to pick her up. He's also a first-timer here, moderately tanned, with a very faint trace of an accent (even Stacie with her linguistic training can only just detect it, and she can't pin it down; most people wouldn't even notice). She asks which gym he uses - in his workout clothes it's obvious that he must be spending a lot of time there - and he names a place in east London that's perhaps a bit low-class for a City type; he admits that he used to be involved in boxing, but calls it a ``young man's game'' (he's in his late twenties, and his nose appears unbroken). By the time Stacie's finished her swim, Tim has left. She turns in too, looking out over the trees visible outside her window (she's at the back of the block, looking away from the courtyard).
The rest of the team gets a B&B in Braintree, and plots over takeaway food. Real-time infra-red footage from an NSA satellite shows that there were at least six people running around the woods, maybe more, though the cover and rain make it hard to be certain. What's visible of their movements looks a lot like a small military exercise, one team of three-ish against the other. They head back into the house at midnight; there's still nobody on guard at the gate, and no sign of patrols in the grounds.
Alarms go off at 6.30 on Saturday morning. Most of the weekend guests are dressed in an expensive but casual way; Stacie's the only one who's gone for high fashion. Breakfast is, as expected, thoroughly lacking in nutritional value, but high on fibre and water.
As Stacie reads the room, she realises that several of the more experienced guests are setting up private sessions with the heavies; those who don't do this are apparently expected to stick with the published schedule.
She takes a close look at Tim, and this time manages to discern the slightly curved sword he's wearing across his back. Her eyes try to crawl away from the complex shape that's drawn across its scabbard and hilt, but once she's made out the sword she can spot it again if she tries.
After breakfast, she heads back to her room and reports, masked from listening devices (she hopes) by the sound of running water.
Meanwhile, the outside team has had a traditional B&B breakfast (``anything you like, as long as it's fried''), and Seth has returned from his school trip. They head out in the car to be near Advance House in case of emergency.
The first session of the day is a general discussion led by Dr Davies, heavy on the manipulation - the subliminals are there as always, but there's a lot of talk about what people are trying to achieve and now Neuro-Conceptual Training can help them. There's more mention of backstabbing than Stacie would have expected.
Stacie and Tim are invited to a small group session with Davies next; it turns out to be just the three of them. This takes the form of exercises, generally some sort of problem-solving attempt, a visualisation technique, and then another go at a similar problem to show the improvement. The subliminals are more interesting; both of them are being pushed to consider a career with the organisation, and Stacie's also being pushed to sleep with Davies.
For the next hour, Stacie and Tim are encouraged to do more exercises in one of the house's drawing-rooms. The outside team is running a camera-equipped model aircraft, and sees that some discussion groups are happening outside in the grounds (it's a bit chilly, and people are walking briskly).
The 11am session is run by Waring, and includes all the new people. The subliminals here take on a very different flavour: the chance to be a part of something great, though with a hint of exciting danger. The people who respond to this get a slightly different set of exercises, and Stacie's disturbed to note that there's a lot of self-sacrifice and ``blaze of glory'' in there.
The outside team looks up Tim Simons - he has a thin cover, which is easily peeled back to show he's a corporate security specialist, mostly working in close protection. He's travelled extensively, and is recently back from several months in Brazil. This raises a flag or two; one of the offices of Sebastião Chopra's telecoms empire is in Rio, and it's where he keeps what's thought to be the world's most extensive private collection of cuneiform tablets. He's definitely on the ``interest'' list for the Project.
Meanwhile, as the rest of the team's been listening in to Stacie's sessions, Paul finds the ``part of something great'' strangely tempting; a bit of hypnotism from Marianne, and a self-inflicted kapadol reset against an unsuspecting tree, take care of that.
After lunch, where there's one Advance House heavy per table guiding the talk in reinforcing directions, there's an extended training session for the people who went for being part of something great. This is in a large room in the house, with various shapes laid out on the floor in different colours of tape; Stacie juggles her perceptions well enough to realise that the subliminals are giving her the impression of a building, with corridors, lifts, and guards, and she's being taught to carry a wooden cylinder about a foot long to a specific spot, put it down near a vent, and twist the end. She keeps half an eye on Tim, and reckons he's similarly faking his reaction to the subliminals. Other people seem to be working on different colours and different layouts.
The last session of the day is from Davies, who's exhorting people to buy books and meditation sounds; both Paul and Ram find this strangely convincing, and this time Paul has a bit more trouble throwing it off.
After 5pm, the group splits up a bit - some go off to play badminton, though it's a bit chilly, others swim or do puzzles with more subliminals. Stacie ends up in an informal yoga session, since it seems the best bet for not expending more energy - even she's now feeling pretty hungry - and not getting too much subliminal exposure.
The outside team calls for a burglary team to get ready to hit the London office - they'd be happiest doing this in daylight tomorrow. They also ask for a backup team to help them hold prisoner anyone who leaves from here in response to the alarm they expect to be sent.
Stacie sits with some of the older hands at dinner; she spots a slide bite on one of them, suggesting he's been misusing an automatic pistol recently. There's a fair amount of flirting, and she ends up joining Tim in his room. A pleasant time is had by all, but some time later she wakes up to realise he's putting a sleeper hold on her. She struggles without success, but has enough breath to call out some nonsense syllables which stun him for a few seconds; she rolls away, punches him hard in the groin, scoops up her clothes and heads back to her room to report in. He doesn't pursue.
Drone and satellite views show more activity in the woods: a glimpse of some of the figures shows that they're using Airsoft MP5s, and working in two teams, taking turns in attack and defence scenarios. One side's clearly better at this than the other. Whatever it is they're defending is under a thick belt of trees, but it's at least thirty feet long.
Around 11.30, a figure (with sword, on infra-red) is visible moving from the accommodation block to the house; it stays there for about half an hour, then comes back, apparently empty-handed.
At breakfast, Tim nods in a friendly way to Stacie; she mentions that she's not that kinky, and he apologises.
The burglary team goes in at 9.15; at 9.20, one of the heavies comes in to say something to Davies, who tells him to take care of it. The team's ready in ambush, but nobody leaves the site; they later learn that the City of London Police showed up at the office, and were put off by the Project's usual not-quite-fake IDs.
Sunday goes much as Saturday did, with more training, particularly in the building infiltration; Stacie recognises one of the building layouts she's shown as the Ministry of Justice headquarters in Petty France.
Things break up around 5pm, and the guests leave. The outside team spots Tim - they've seen his photograph, and it does seem to be the same man - and note his car registration.
Stacie adjourns to the nearest greasy spoon to get some food (and sweet tea) into her, and the rest of the team joins her for discussion.
Stacie gives a verbal report to fill in the surveillance recordings, and the team plans a raid on Advance House. Ram considers the main gates; they're solidly built, but he identifies a problem he's seen before in that they're not properly anchored into the walls. Hitting them with the Land Rover ought to take them down.
Stacie vanishes into the loo for a couple of minutes and comes out looking entirely different: hair colour, face shape, and posture have all changed.
The team calls for Advance House's landline phone to be cut off, local mobile phone towers to go off-line, and warns the local police not to interfere. Ram drives at the gates, and they go down cleanly. Overhead IR surveillance shows two figures running north-east from the house, towards the paintballing site in the grounds; Ram decides not to leave the road to go after them.
There's an old and battered estate car that nobody remembers seeing arrive parked in front of the house, though checking the satellite feeds suggests it turned up about half an hour before the assault started and the occupant walked inside. There are no lights visible in the house, though there were before the gate went down.
Ram moves to the first window to the left of the front door, breaks it with his rifle-butt, then throws in a flash-bang - and is surprised when two of them go off in the room. There are two doors from that room, but it's otherwise empty; he moves along to the next room to the left, and prepares to repeat the exercise. Stacie, Marianne and Seth hurl themselves across the open space between car and house wall. Paul spots a couple of faces looking out of the window above the door, and takes aim on them from the car.
Ram smashes the window and doesn't throw in a grenade; one comes out through the window, and in case it's an explosive one he hurls himself into the room. Another flash-bang is dropped outside, from above the front door. The team has hearing protection, but while their night-vision devices are good they aren't completely immune to flash; Marianne is stunned for a few seconds. Stacie and Seth climb into the second room with Ram, while Marianne checks the first room.
Ram is together enough to spot the man coming for him with a knife; he evades and fires, but the other fellow isn't in the way. Ram's second shot catches him in the leg, and he goes down screaming.
Paul takes his shot, and strikes brick next to the window where his target's standing. He drops the flash-bang he was working on, and Ram's victim fumbles out another from his position on the ground; both of them go off, but this time the team's relatively unaffected.
Paul's second shot is more effective, and both targets drop out of sight. Stacie cuffs the man on the ground floor, and Marianne moves to come into the second room. As she's climbing in, she and Paul both hear a noise of creaking tree-branches, as though in a high wind, something that hasn't been happening so far this night; Paul scans around outside, and spots a black-clad figure dropping out of one of the trees near the house. The black hang-glider lodged in the tree above him gives some clue as to his mode of entry.
Paul and Marianne both assume this is Tim, and shoot in his direction, but he gets away round the south side of the house before they hit him.
Ram starts to move through the house, and the rest of the team follows, with Paul taking up the rear guard; there's a sound of running feet ahead, and they concentrate on catching up with that rather than on looking around.
They get out to a porch area at the back of the house, where a Land Rover is pulling away. Ram puts a burst into the back tyres, and it swerves a little; Stacie shoots the driver, and it runs into a tree. There are two people inside; the driver is unconscious, and the other man is whimpering in surrender.
Paul spots, coming up from behind, an unwelcome sight: a massively muscled man with bull's horns and legs, wearing a tabard with an eye-hurting symbol on it that he recognises as the SANGUSH glyph (roughly, ``I belong here''). He shoots, but the kusarikku evades.
Stacie and Marianne cuff the two heavies in the Land Rover, while Seth turns round to see what's going on and succumbs to the glyph, wondering why Paul's shooting at that harmless caterer.
The kusarikku charges along the corridor to Paul, who evades and shoots back, clearly wounding it. Ram opens up too, but it's a tough beast, and gores Paul, tossing him out through the door and ten feet across the porch area and tearing up his assault vest. The kusarikku fixates on Ram, but he's able to stay clear of its hand-to-hand attacks, which allows Paul to get in behind it and keep firing.
Stacie and Marianne finish handcuffing the two heavies, and spot someone moving through the woods to the north - it's hard to make out details, but he's got something bulky on his back. Finally, after multiple bursts of automatic fire, the kusarikku goes down, thoroughly mangled and dead.
As the figure in the woods gets closer, Stacie realises it's Waring, and fearing a suicide bomb takes him down with pistol fire. Well, he certainly had something on his back... two foot-long cylinders of different colours, one of which looks like the dummy Stacie was training with. And it appears to be hissing out an oily vapour...
The team gets the two prisoners out of the Land Rover; one of them is still conscious, and is clearly much more scared of the gas than of the team. He helps carry his unconscious mate round to the front of the house as the team calls in a status report. He seems a bit confused, switching between calm and terrified, and Marianne reckons that his mind has been messed with by Annunaki influences.
The unconscious prisoner is left in the Land Rover, and the team heads towards the bunker, getting a description of it from their prisoner: it's a basic concrete block construction on one level, buried into the earth, with one heavy metal door and firing slits all round. This matches what they see when they arrive, but the door's open, blocked by a body; it proves to be one of the other mercenaries, who's been shot several times.
The bunker contains no further people, but does have a large stock of cylinders (labelled in Russian), packaged food, water, guns (real MP5s) and ammunition, and one-use NBC suits - which the party dons, including one for the prisoner.
They head back towards the house - the prisoner they left in the Land Rover, and the one who was cuffed in the front room, have both died of what appears to be nerve gas poisoning. The remaining prisoner is cuffed in the team's Land Rover, and they search the house; there's another body behind the window over the front door, apparently shot (presumably by Paul) before the gas reached him.
Calling in a description of the cylinders gets the response that this is Novichok-7 - a late Soviet-era agent, rather more deadly than VX - and an Army decontamination team will be ready to roll as soon as the team can verify there are no more ``special hostiles'' on site.
The only other person - well, part of a person - is in a room on the ground floor, one of the areas that Stacie wasn't allowed into during her stay. On one side there's a heavy vault-style door, firmly closed; outside it is Davies' head, with blood sprayed around the room. It looks as though it's been cut off by a very sharp implement.
As the team contemplates this, and Stacie tries to decide whether she can get through this door, the sound of a car is audible out front. Ram and Paul head out, to see Davies' sports car pulling away; Ram puts a burst of rifle fire into the engine block, and it crashes, catching fire; the driver, a dark figure, flips himself out and into the trees, heading south. Paul and Ram give chase, though they fall behind; Ram is just in time to see the figure climbing a tree near the wall, and hits with a snap shot, though the figure still clears the wall and vanishes on the other side. He follows, losing more ground, and sees the figure running along the road.
He pursues, shouting to warn him about gas contamination, but the figure doesn't stop even when Ram shoots him again; instead, he waves down a car and pulls out the driver, then starts to reverse away. Ram takes out a tyre and it goes off the road; when he gets up close, he spots the figure retreating again, and bluffs with a call of ``stop or die''; at this point, it does.
Paul talks to the driver of the car, who after about ten seconds falls over with apparent nerve gas poisoning; he uses the injectors supplied with his suit to keep him alive for the moment.
The team calls in the Army, and waits by the house. The fleeing figure was indeed Tim, and his backpack contains a heavy clay tablet (now broken into three pieces).
The team sweeps the accommodation block, which seems to be empty, and in case the gas spreads as far as the wall the village is evacuated by the local police. The kusarikku's corpse is bundled up in dustbin bags to be taken away and dealt with later.
While the decontamination is going on, the estate car gets checked over; there are several more nerve gas canisters in the back, a mind-bending arrangement of electroluminescent wire in the side windows, and modifications to the pedals to make it driveable by someone with hooves.
The Army team is told not to worry about the vault for now - Stacie reckons there's a decent chance it's airtight - and the team spends several hours being hosed down in their suits, then showering in decontaminants while the house and grounds are fogged with hydrogen peroxide. Dawn is breaking when the team retires to a nearby cheap hotel, for some reason not named after the village of Gore Pit where it stands.
Tim explains that his job was to get the tablet back for his employer, and make sure the thief wouldn't do it again; he had to wait for Davies to open the vault, since it was beyond his skill. Paul and Seth take a look at the tablet, which appears to be a list of harvest records in cuneiform; Paul gets a distinct feeling that studying it in more detail would get him all sorts of benefits, and the ability to do some real good in the world... a swift head-butt against a convenient hard surface brings him back to normal, and when the pieces of the tablet are separate from each other the effect is much less pronounced.
Stacie, still disguised, interrogates Tim, using heavy NLP techniques to turn him inside-out; he's happy to explain that he works for Sebastião Chopra (directly, out of the headquarters in Rio), from whom the tablet was stolen some eight months ago. He got onto the trail of the thief rather more recently, and after having disposed of him traced the tablet to Davies, who'd bought it illicitly as he had most of the other items in his private collection. The sword was given to him by Chopra, as was the reality shard he wears around his neck - a bronze medallion that the team hadn't noticed before now, made in the shape of a sword and shield, which he describes as making him ``better, faster, stronger''. (Seth tries it on and doesn't feel any different; he has no trouble taking it off.)
Lastly, and without dropping her disguise, Stacie asks him about the attack on Stacie; he explains that he was hoping to knock her out, so that she'd be able to say she'd been sleeping next to him all night, in case anyone asked awkward questions about the vault.
The team drops Tim off at a private hospital run by the Project, and doesn't ask questions about what's going to happen to him. Records recovered from Advance House suggest that the nerve-gas plot was mostly Waring's idea; Davies' notes don't mention it at all, being much more concerned with the basic sex, money, power business, but Waring had plans and photographs of several buildings that were presumably used for to set up the training illusions.
Inside the vault are Davies' headless body and a fine collection of Assyro-Babylonian and Sumerian artefacts, some of them missing from museums, others simply unknown.
Things calm down for a bit. In the ensuing weeks, Seth's sister mentions that she's learning Arabic (and its dialects and Farsi and Hindi, since it's easier to do them all at once); Ram's girlfriend Michelle complains about budget cuts for practical sciences, with kids being asked to take things on faith; Paul's girlfriend Jessica mentions rumours about some ``groundbreaking'' paper on Sumer to be published soon, possibly from someone at Oxford or Harvard but nobody's quite sure; Marianne's producer colleague Richard complains about the weird things advertisers are asking him to include in TV programmes now that the rules on product placement have been relaxed; and Stacie's old partner in crime Vernon mentions that there seem to be a lot of rich Iraqis in London all of a sudden, and they haven't heard of the oldest con tricks...
That last seems as though it's the highest priority, and Stacie gets more information on these Iraqis out of Vernon - who's retired these days, honest. There are several of them, throwing around serious money, and they seem to be in their twenties and thirties - younger, and rather more healthy, than the typical rich waster. (Indeed, mostly too young to have had any significant involvement in the old régime.)
Two of them are ``Ali'' and ``Hakim'' - Ali seemed to be obsessed with gold, in particular - and they both seemed desperately naïve, falling for all sorts of really old short con tricks (not that Vernon does that sort of thing any more; Stacie tries to warn him off, but it's not clear how seriously he takes it).
Ali at least is staying at the Ritz, and the team gets hold of the current guest list; five people booked into suites at the same time a few weeks back, and Ali Maliki and Hakim Tailab are two of them (the others being Eifan Aouni, Leyla Alanze and Uday Zaed). From this, the team can get arrival records and passport photos.
The team decides to start off shadowing them, and Paul, Seth and Ram spend several days as bicycle messengers, in order to have an excuse to hang around practically anywhere.
Ali spends his time going around various jewellers, mostly of the faintly dodgy type in the East End, and going to highly expensive restaurants and bars. If he's buying or selling anything, it isn't bulky; he just has a document case with him.
Leyla also visits jewellers, but these are more above-board in the West End. She meets someone for dinner (Ram gets a picture of him, though this doesn't trip any automated searches), and returns to the hotel alone and relatively early.
A theme seems to be developing, but Eifan breaks it; he spends his days out visiting a succession of high-priced and discreet brothels. Hakim and Uday don't seem to be leaving the hotel at all.
Marianne checks up the chain for anything that might be relevant to the investigation, and finds that there has been a small wave of Sumerian artefacts turning up recently; Paul recognises some of them as loot from the National Museum in Baghdad, but others are completely new to him.
Stacie and Ram visit one of Ali's jewellers, presenting as plain-clothes detectives; Ram plays the heavy, turning the sign to ``closed'' and glaring at anyone who looks as though they might want to come in. Stacie spreads out some photographs (of Ali, and of a couple of other random people), and the man barely glances at them before saying he hasn't seen them. Stacie hits him with NLP techniques, and he becomes much more cooperative: Ali's been selling artefacts (mostly gold and gems, since that's what they deal in here) and buying generic modern gold items (medallions, cigar lighters, necklaces, that sort of thing). He still has several of the artefacts; Stacie forwards the pictures to Paul, who becomes mildly incandescent; there's clearly a major trove out there that's being looted without being properly catalogued.
When Stacie suggests that the jeweller should make sure he doesn't sell on any more of these artefacts, he points out self-righteously that he doesn't deal in stolen items, and hands them over to her ``for safe-keeping and evidence'' (not to mention potentially bribing the policewoman he still thinks she is). There are three sets of prints recovered from the items - one of them his.
The five Iraqis arrived at Heathrow from Dubai, and had been travelling economy class (on Emirates).
Seth decides to get more information about Eifan's activities, and spends the afternoon being more or less politely thrown out of a series of brothels: he's obviously young and relatively harmless, but these places survive on their discretion.
Marianne books a suite in the Ritz, managing to get one on the same floor as the targets. She and Ram, as her bodyguard, move in; Ram fairly soon spots Uday, who's heading for the casino in the basement.
Marianne invites a disguised Stacie to join her for dinner, and in the restaurant they spot Hakim: red-eyed, and eating enough for about three normal people. Since he's clearly going to be there for a while, Ram heads up to try searching his suite. There's an obvious bodyguard standing around in the corridor where the targets' suites are; Ram reckons he could take him down easily, but it would be pretty obvious that he'd done so. So he calls Marianne, who comes up in the lift with a pocket ikoter, while Stacie stays at the table to keep a discreet eye on Hakim.
Marianne flashes the bodyguard, then hypnotises him into standing still and not noticing anything. Ram gets into the room, and is hit by a waft of dope fumes; someone's been smoking a lot in here, and the large water-pipe suggests he's not trying to hide it at all.
Ram plants a variety of audio bugs, and has a quick scan over the place for other things of interest; there are two wooden shipping cases, one of which is open, and among the straw and newspaper are a number of Sumerian items.
As Marianne's convincing the bodyguard, Hossan, that nothing interesting has happened, she and Ram notice that he's discreetly armed with a pistol in a shoulder holster. This is almost certainly not legal.
The team's well clear by the time Hakim heads back to his room, having eaten about three normal dinners. Marianne, Stacie and Ram hit the casino; Ram peels off to line the walls next to other bodyguards, while Marianne and Stacie generally do a good impression of two wealthy ladies having a night out.
Uday's game appears to be roulette, and he's losing even more than the American wheel would account for - and looking frustrated by it.
Ram's earpiece crackles as he gets a feed from the bugs planted upstairs. Two male voices converse in Sumerian; he links the audio through to Paul and Seth, in a room at the Hilton overlooking Hyde Park Corner. Voice 1 asks whether Voice 2 has had any luck; Voice 2 says no, and makes various excuses, including ``these people are crazy'' and ``why doesn't this whole society just fall apart''.
After some hours, Uday throws down his last chip and stalks off back to his suite without waiting to see whether it wins (it doesn't). Stacie asks the croupier how he's been doing; he doesn't answer, but another player mentions that Uday has the worst luck he's ever seen, not winning anything all evening even on the straight even/odd bets.
The team speculates that there may be an êkimmu involved, a type of possessor spirit that makes its victims careless. This isn't an exact match for what they're seeing, but it's not as though there's been much formal study of irruptors.
The team plans to follow Leyla the next day. She goes down to breakfast, then spends about two hours in her suite before heading out in the late morning. Ram sets up a hidden camera outside the team's suite to keep an eye on the lift lobby.
Leyla spends the morning going to various shops - some jewellers, some private offices, and both Stacie and Paul start to spot a pattern from opposite ends: she's tracking down the sort of people who might be interested in buying expensive artefacts with little formal provenance, off the books.
Stacie disguises herself to look similarly Arabic to Leyla, goes into one jeweller's shop, and catches a glimpse of the folder of photographs Leyla shows to the boss, before he ushers her into a back room. Since she's not carrying the items or taking money, it seems a fair bet she's trying to arrange a sale or perhaps an auction.
Paul checks up the chain to see if any dealers or their agents are due to be picked up soon, with the hope that he can insinuate himself into the auction in their place. One, Dennis Roseman, isn't believed to be directly contaminated but has handled rather more Sumerian materials than he really should have, and the Project is planning to hand him over to the cops quite soon.
Since Leyla visits him after lunch back at the Ritz, he goes to the top of the team's priority list. He's based on the first floor of a shared building, with a shared receptionist downstairs (a man in his sixties who's probably not up to running around as a security guard any more). He's known to work with a single receptionist/bodyguard.
Stacie and Seth try to go in, but the man downstairs turns them away as not having an appointment. Paul draws a SANGUSH glyph, and they try again, Stacie showing the card with her appointment details. This seems to have an overpowering effect on the receptionist, and he lapses into a trance-like state.
Upstairs, the bodyguard is less impressed, barely glancing at the card and easily shaking off its effects. While he's looking at it, though, Seth hits him with an ikoter, following up with a hypnagogic flash to soften him up for Stacie's quick hypnosis. The door to the inner office doesn't have a panel in it, and this has all been fairly quiet, so Roseman's surprised when Stacie comes in; he reaches for something, but succumbs to the glyph, and Stacie engages him in conversation into which she laces NLP techniques until he's ready to obey her every command.
A backup team has brought a Transit van for the prisoners, and Marianne, Stacie and Ram go off with them to HMP Belmarsh (which is no longer used for indefinite detention without charge or trial, honestly). Paul and Seth remain to search the office; there isn't anything particularly Irruptor-spawned in there.
The interrogation reveals that Leyla has been organising a telephone auction with open bids; tomorrow, people will call her with lot numbers and bids, and she'll call back if someone else has a higher one. Roseman thinks she's a fool for not arranging an actual viewing, since this will severely cut into her profits - so will insisting on being paid in cash or other negotiable instruments, rather than the usual electronic transfers. The auction will run for 24 hours, and exchange of cash and artefacts is to happen on the next day.
There are twenty items in Leyla's folder, and Roseman's able to describe them in some detail; they're all Sumerian, but of different periods and without any particularly common theme.
Roseman is puzzled: there's a rhythm to this sort of illegal dealing, one that anyone who's been in the game learns to recognise, and Leyla doesn't have it. If she's a completely new player, where did she get the stuff?
Roseman has Leyla's business card, which includes the phone number for the auction. The team gets a tap put on it.
The total value of the items seems likely to run into the millions even with the various factors that are reducing prices. After some discussion, the team decides to participate in the auction using Roseman's phone (and with Stacie imitating his voice, which she does perturbingly well), with the aim of winning at least a few of the items and finding out who else is bidding.
The team makes various preparations that evening. They pick up some tasers, and Ram makes sure everyone's familiar with them. When Leyla is out of her room for a while, Ram ikoters the bodyguard (a different fellow from last time, carrying an open sports bag under his arm in an unsubtle manner) and Stacie hypnotises him to look at the wall and remember nothing while Ram gets into Leyla's room. There are three more crates here, closed, and an assortment of gems laid out on the dressing-table: nothing really huge and flashy, and indeed quite a few of them are uncut, but probably into six figures of total value. He photographs everything, plants an audio bug and gets out.
Paul looks at the pictures of the gems and reckons that quite a few of them have been taken out of other jewellery - they've been cut and mounted in a variety of different styles.
The five Iraqis meet later in Leyla's suite, and have a further discussion in Sumerian; there are certainly five distinct voices, and they sometimes tread on each other's speech, so Stacie relaxes slightly about the idea of all these people being under the power of one controlling entity. The gist of the conversation is that Leyla is the boss of this group; she asks if any of the others has had any luck, and the consensus is that they'll have to rely on the auction - though Ali has heard a rumour of ``a guy at Imperial College'' who might know something.
Overnight, while Stacie's sleeping, Seth searches her luggage for the reality shard that he's starting to suspect is there. He doesn't find anything suspect.
Around 11.30, the Iraqis gather in Leyla's rooms again, starting to sound a bit edgy - one of them says that he really hopes this works. There are now five bodyguards outside, and Ram's quite sure they're carrying submachineguns in their bags. With the combination of the tap on Leyla's phone and the bug in the room, the team knows pretty clearly what's going on.
The initial bids go in, with a bit of confusion and delay because it's all going through one phone line. After the first flurry the bidding settles down into roughly half-hour cycles. Stacie bids reasonably at first, but when one of the seven participants drops out (having put in a low bid on everything just in case), she decides to try to push the Iraqis a bit. A couple of the items are of relatively low value (but some archaeological interest), and she puts in higher bids on a couple of them (while keeping things going on the others too). One of the other bidders comes back in at this point. The Iraqis get very enthusiastic about this, and Stacie continues to encourage them.
Overnight, when things have slowed down a bit, the Iraqis talk to each other (still in Sumerian); the people who've bid high on the low-value items, including the party, are the most ``interesting'' bidders. (The other interesting bidder is using an anonymous phone bought a couple of days ago; it's connecting through a cell tower in Hampstead.)
At the end, the auction's raised about two and a half million, with three bidders actually winning items - one of them being the other ``interesting'' group. The Iraqis are enthusiastic - ``we can pay our bill now''.
They try to encourage the purchasers to hand over money and pick up items the same day, but everyone seems to be a bit tired and all the collections end up being on the next day: the ``uninteresting'' group around 6am on a service road outside the Royal Festival Hall, the ``interesting'' group around 10am under a bridge near a motorway service area, and the party around 4pm by an abandoned warehouse in Shoreditch (the web search company that had it has just gone bust).
Stacie tries throwing out some lures by sounding knowledgeable about various forms of untraceable currencies for large transactions, but the Iraqis don't seem terribly excited by this.
Overnight, Stacie takes Marianne aside and admits that she has an off-book reality shard - ``in case anyone else mentions anything''.
The party observes the meet at the Royal Festival Hall. The service road is under cover, with a cross-roads at each end and very few windows overlooking it (and no passing traffic at all); a pair of team members waits in a vehicle at each end, while Seth gets a bit closer in using his invisibility art. With the combination of a parabolic microphone and Seth's observation, the team gets a fairly clear picture of what's going on. All five of the Iraqis turn up in a truck (with one of the bodyguards driving), and three men turn up in another. They hand over suitcases (which are checked), and the items start getting transferred. Stacie picks up on the heavy NLP content of the casual conversations that the Iraqis conduct while this is going on; it seems to be a strong suggestion, done faster and more efficiently than the methods she knows.
Once it's taken effect, all three of the visitors pause. Uday asks, in a resigned way, ``I don't suppose you know this... we need to know how to get back to the other history.'' They don't, and he releases the suggestion and lets them get on with the loading.
The team considers whether to assault the next meet, on the basis that if the Iraqis learn what they need to they may not keep the last one. Discussion with Project higher-ups reveals distinct interest in these people, and a suggestion that they should be delivered, restrained, to RAF Northolt.
As part of the planning, Paul works on setting up a glyph on a briefcase so that it'll appear to be full of money, but finds himself following the lines a little too thoroughly, and has to take some rest. Marianne indents for a briefcase full of actual cash.
The team heads for the second meeting, near the Chievely service area on the M4. It's fairly open ground under a motorway bridge, with nowhere nearby to park without being obvious, so they lie up some distance away with shotgun microphones and binoculars; Seth gets closer in, invisibly.
A dirty grey Transit arrives a little early, and the Iraqis get there on time in the same van as before. Six people get out of the Transit, three of them openly carrying sub-machineguns which several of the team recognise as Skorpions, a fairly old and low-powered Czech design.
It looks as though thse buyers are attempting an ambush; Leyla says something - even the team feels a slight urge to put their guns down and stop being silly - which has a stunning effect on most of them, but one resists the effect and opens fire, putting a burst into Hakim, who goes down. The Iraqis' driver starts reaching into his bag. Seth moves in, losing sight of the scene behind the truck as the gunner fires again, and hits him with ikoter fire; he stands, dazed. Nobody else has been shot, but the Iraqis' van has a bullet hole through the windscreen.
The leader of the buyers says something in Russian, and the two other gunners shoot the dazed one in the head. It appears that they're trying to continue with the deal; the leader produces a briefcase full of cash, which Leyla checks carefully. As before, the Iraqis use more subtle NLP techniques on the Russians: when the latter claim to know nothing about the ``other history'', Leyla asks why they were interested in particular items, and they respond that they know people who know people... Leyla clearly considers trying to trace this chain, and gives it up as a bad job.
Since the team members are a fair way from their own vehicle, following the departing trucks isn't a possibility, so they report in and give details of the plates.
The bug in Hakim's room at the Ritz reveals that the Iraqis have called the house doctor, and given him a large amount of money (and a small amount of subconscious control) to patch up Hakim's wounds and supply a variety of painkillers.
Interpol records have finally come through: Ali and the others have been known organised-crime figures for some years in Baghdad, all in the same organisation, though they don't always work together.
The team stocks up on flash-bang grenades, and Seth also carries an expanding spike strip. In the end, they don't use the loading dock, but just take a van into the narrow alleys between tall warehouse buildings.
As before, the Iraqis turn up on time. Hakim is present, though moving a little stiffly and not really paying attention to what's happening around him. Stacie and Ram start to talk to them, while Seth heads round to the other end of their lorry (the damaged windscreen has been replaced) to deploy the spike strip. Ram and the bodyguard both have weapons visible; Stacie hands over the briefcase, and Leyla counts the money in a manner that would normally be somewhat insulting.
The Iraqis start their NLP tricks again, and Stacie points out that this isn't necessary: the team already has the information they want. Leyla asks, in a tone of some desperation, ``then how is it achieved?'', and Stacie puts her off with talk of higher-ups. Leyla describes herself and the others as ``servants of the gods'', and they talk further as the crates are transferred. When Stacie asks about Leyla's NLP techniques, this is clearly a misstep: Leyla, shocked, asks ``you did not learn them from the gods?'', and gives a hand signal to the bodyguard.
Seth spots this, and throws a flash-bang grenade past the truck; it bounces wrong and ends up in the cab. The windows shatter. Ram shoots Leyla with his taser; the bodyguard tries to open up with his MP5, but nothing happens when he pulls the trigger, and Ram shoots him with the other taser dart. Seth manages to drop the next flash-bang, and runs past the truck towards the rest of the action; by the time he's got there, all the Iraqis have been hit by further taser fire from Marianne and Stacie, and are down. Just as things are calming down, the second flash-bang goes off.
Marianne retrieves the briefcase, then everyone joins in cuffing and gagging the prisoners (and Stacie tranqilises them too); during this process they notice a certain amount of smoke coming from the cab of the truck where the first flash-bang went off, and extinguish that fire. They wait for the police; it's not long, as there's a station nearby, and given the reports of explosions the cops turn up armed... to find Marianne being ruthlessly polite with a warrant card and Ram reprimanding Seth for the untrained use of grenades.
The Iraqis' van is left under police guard while the team takes the prisoners to Northolt, grabbing their hotel keys and phones en route (they don't have much else on them). The prisoners, including the bodyguard, are handed over to a relatively unconcerned American (``can you believe this pilot thinks he's flying for the CIA?'') to be taken to headquarters at Granite Peak. The team heads back into London; outside the Iraqis' suites at the Ritz are two bodyguards.
Stacie pops home to change clothes into something that matches Leyla's style, and returns wearing her face. She goes up to the suites, and asks the first bodyguard (Hassan) to come in and help her pack; she then hits him with NLP techniques, and he goes thoroughly under.
There are four bodyguards in total - one's already been captured, and the fourth is on his break. She sends Hassan out and calls in the other one, but he's more resistant, shouting ``what are you trying to do to me'' (in the Arabic that's his preferred language), and muzzily hauling out his pistol. He gets off a couple of shots, but Stacie manages to evade for long enough for her stunning techniques to work.
Seth and Ram head over at the sound of gunshots, and Hassan gets there even sooner, but the situation's contained for now. Hassan comes out again just as the third bodyguard comes up in the lift; Ram hits him with an ikoter as he passes, and Hassan stays around while the other two are hauled away for Static to hypnotise later. The hotel's security staff have obviously noticed the gunshots, and come up to check what's going on - they have a quick scout around the suite, but seeing no dead bodies and nobody injured they're quite happy just to add the bullet damage to the bill and suggest that the situation not happen again.
Stacie and the three bodyguards head for the team's van, while the others follow in a car. They start to head for Belmarsh, but just after coming out of the Blackwall Tunnel the two less-controlled ones make a break for it, leaping out of the back door when Stacie has to slow down for an obstruction. She tells Hassan to bring them back, and pulls in to the side of the road; the team behind does the same. Ram's driving, but Marianne and Paul shoot ikoters, bringing down one of the runners. The other gets through the tree line at the side of the road and into an industrial estate; Seth is first through behind him, and grapples him. He tries to bring him down, but doesn't have the strength to knock the man off his feet; but he does still slow him down enough for Ram to ikoter him.
The prisoners are cuffed, and the journey resumes; they're dropped off at Belmarsh to be isolated for a bit until the deprogrammers can get to them. (In fact, it turns out, they're mundane thugs who've been doing this job for the money rather than because of unnatural influence.)
Back to the Ritz: the team gets room-service food and drink, then searches the Iraqis' rooms. Checking the remains of waybills on crates in which the antiquities were stored reveals that they were shipped through various places, generally declared as part of someone's house-move, but they all seem to have originated at the Baghdad offices of Nile International Freight Services. The various cash, bonds and gold, and Leyla's collection of gems (and of clothes) are recovered; Ram takes a cabochon-cut emerald to have set into an engagement ring, and Stacie abstracts both most of Leyla's wardrobe and a few tens of thousands in cash (some of which will go to Vernon for putting her onto the lead).
The team has a restful night, and checks out - Stacie staying behind to settle the Iraqis' bill with the recovered cash, avoiding loose ends and potential enquiries.
Paul checks through the recovered artefacts in more detail; there doesn't seem to be anything actively toxic in there. Some of them are certainly loot from the National Museum; others have less clear origins, possibly unofficial digs.
After some time off for rest and training, it seems clear that Nile International needs to be looked into; it's a publicly-owned Egyptian company with offices across the Middle East and part-time agents elsewhere. The team heads for Baghdad, under the cover of Paul returning recovered artefacts to the National Museum; the rest of the team goes as mercenaries working for Sandman Executive Solutions (Stacie's the translator, and Ram makes a convincing thug, but Marianne and Seth don't fit quite as neatly into this mould).
After an armoured limousine trip to the hotel, and an informal welcome from the museum's staff, Paul spots an (Arabic) newspaper headline: third headless body found. The English-language newspapers are playing this down, but the Arabic ones are full of it: three decapitated bodies have been found over the last few weeks, near the Hands of Victory Monument (two giant arches made of pairs of swords). Two of them were American; one was a local policeman. There's been no sign of the heads yet...
Stacie and Ram collect the box of weapons that couldn't easily be taken by commercial air, and everyone spends the evening chatting in the hotel bar. Ram spends most of his time with other off-duty bodyguards; the headless bodies aren't really in their headspace, since there are more frequent threats all the time (particularly car bombs). Seth lurks in the hotel lobby, looking just respectable enough not to get thrown out, and watches people coming and going; it looks as though most of the people drinking here are guests at the hotel, largely a mix of mid-ranking businessmen and journalists. Marianne gets chatting with the barman, who's mostly keeping his head down... sometimes literally. There's a ``crump'' in the distance, but mostly people ignore it.
Marianne sends a request upstream for information on the official murder investigation - the man in charge is Inspector Shahil Baraniq, under the guidance of Qamar Asir of the Ministry of the Interior. She also arranges for a container of personal effects to be delivered to the airport, to give an excuse to talk to Nile International.
In the morning, Seth and Ram visit the Nile International address. It's a large warehouse with a small office space attached, the only building on its block; it's in a mixed residential and office area in the al-Rasheed district (yes, that al-Rasheed). There are a couple of men hanging around inside the warehouse with AK-47s over their backs, but that isn't entirely unusual here. What's slightly more unusual, that both Seth and Ram spot after a few minutes, is that the locals seem to be giving the place a wide berth, while trying to appear as though they're not doing so.
In a local coffee shop, Ram manages to get a local to talk, and he mentions the ``bad men'' who work for Nile International - he's sure they're part of a big crime syndicate.
Everyone gets back together in time for the museum reception, where Paul and Marianne are the main focus of attention. A couple of halls have been closed off, and around thirty people are attending, with speeches about how wonderful it is that the illicit sale of these items should have been spotted. The ones that weren't looted from the museum in the first place are being kept here for now, until some actual provenance can be worked out.
(Marianne tries to get information on the five Iraqis' flight details - precise routes and any unusual phenomena. That'll take some time to find out.)
Most of the guests are local, but there's one American, who keeps trying to explain that he really is a cultural attaché, and doesn't work for the CIA.
Looking for possible excuses for investigation shows that the third victim, Felipe Corbelan, worked for the PMC White Eagle Solutions - and six months ago they lost four guys in an attack on their HMMWV, but only one of the bodies was positively identified. That's not ideal, so they also poke at embassy records; Pete Phillips, another junior clerk, disappeared about three months back, and is believed to have married a local (his wife back in the USA would presumably not approve).
If the wife were to fund a private investigation, that sounds like the sort of job a PMC might be prepared to take on if it were already going to Iraq for some other reason, and the team makes an appointment with the US Embassy. They speak to a fairly harrassed woman who clearly doesn't regard Phillips as a major problem; he didn't have access to any sensitive information, and while he didn't go through the normal separation procedures that doesn't generate much more work for her. He'd been in a few other places, in South America and Africa, but hadn't really specialised in a region yet; he did speak good Arabic. As a side note, the team asks about Dave Williams, the first victim, in case there's any possible connection; but she doesn't have much information about him.
That evening, the team visits White Eagle, where a big and heavily-muscled man talks primarily to Paul (the whitest of the group). It turns out that he was the last to see Corbelan, when he checked out on the evening of his death, but didn't notice anything unusual. He's heard that there's a ``good house where you can relieve your tension'' somewhere near Zawra Park, and assumes that's where Corbelan was going. He describes him as ``always twitchy'', very alert, and notes that the police have said there weren't any defensive wounds on the body, suggesting he was taken very much by surprise.
Seth works at tracking down his sister. She's been memetically inserted as the daughter of one of the Museum's staff who's suspected of having links to off-books antiquities dealers - the same woman who was talking to the cultural attaché at the reception.
The first job next day is to visit the police: Stacie and Ram call on Shahil Baraniq, handing over the guns that they're carrying more for verisimilitude than for self-defence, and are let in to see him after only about half an hour's wait. His ``office'' is a corner of a larger room, and he's clearly overworked, but he makes time to talk to these interfering foreigners. He speaks in Arabic, and Stacie and Ram are happy to converse in that language.
They start off by talking about Phillips, in whom he isn't interested at all, then mention Dave Williams and their theory that there might be a connection (at least, Phillips might turn up as a victim). Shahil is more more concerned about this, mentioning that the second victim was one of his own men, but that he's completely stumped on this - he's chased up the usual leads, and he's getting nowhere. He considers the pair for a few moments, then offers to fetch them some coffee, asking them to make sure they don't look at the files he's leaving on his desk while he's away.
Ram and Stacie take the hint, and frantically flip through the files, photographing everything; there are crime scene and post-mortem photos, but they don't take time to look in more detail yet.
Shahil returns with coffee (which turns out to occupy a curious lacuna between traditional Arabic excellent coffee and traditional police station terrible coffee) and a younger man in an expensive-looking suit, who turns out to be Qamar Asir from the Ministry of the Interior. Shahil's still polite, but much less friendly, now that he's being watched. Qamar is clearly determined that these murders should be proved to be the work of foreigners, rather than evidence of domestic crime; in an unguarded moment, after a sly glance at Ram and Stacie, he reveals that he thinks it's probably a CIA psychological operation, but of course there's no possibility of ever proving that. Shahil barely resists the impulse to roll his eyes.
Ram and Stacie leave, and the team looks over the files. All of them are consistent: the head removed by a single powerful blow by a sharp object (in one case a vertebra was transected), and no other wounds. One of them was certainly cut from the side; the others are inconclusive. Witness statements regarding Dave Williams, the first victim, suggest that he was walking along the road when ``suddenly his head flew off, and there was blood everywhere''. The other two were out later at night, and weren't witnessed, at least not by anyone who's come forward.
Corbelan's wallet was missing, but the other two bodies were undisturbed, and this is being regarded as the work of opportunist locals.
Marianne checks for recent reports of weirdness in the area; unfortunately, with the ontological instability of Baghdad, it's not cost-effective to send in long-term observers, and there's a fair gap before the team's own report of earthquake and thunderstorm on the day the five Iraqis left.
Once the heat of the day passes off a bit, the team visits Zawra Park, and particularly the parade ground at the south end of it where the incidents happened. It seems to be a popular place to walk through, though the people doing it seem mostly to be commuting rather than walking for leisure. Apart from the two arches, the most obvious thing nearby is the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, a mound carrying a huge slanting shield; there's a permanent honour guard, though they're talking to passers-by rather than showing the strict formality one might see elsewhere.
The team looks at the locations where the bodies were found, then checks the arches themselves for evidence of recent refurbishment - which there is - containing glyphs or other memetic content - which there isn't. They tag onto a tour party to get a brief history of the area (the parade ground and archers were built towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war in the late 1980s; and there was a museum, now empty and disused, under the monument itself). Ram records the scene; Marianne chats with a falafel seller, who explains that the parade ground is now largely unused, but that the honour guard on the monument is a permanent fixture (changed every six hours or so). He doesn't seem too worried by the recent murders, but then he doesn't hang around here at night.
She looks around the mound for other exits - there are several possibilities, both ventilation grilles and hatches that might be emergency exits, but the only official way in seems to have been under the tilted shield.
Ram goes up to the monument; he's intercepted by one of the soldiers, who chats with him briefly (explaining some of the odder symbolism) and allows him through. After Ram's paid his respects, he asks about the old museum; the soldier looks a bit edgy, but grudgingly admits that it's acceptable to enter if he has a torch, though it's now empty. He unlocks the gate, and Ram walks down the stairs. The rooms inside are small, but not cramped, and there's still some glass on the floor, though otherwise it looks thoroughly cleaned out. Ram starts to trace air movement, since there's a gentle breeze in through the entrance corridor, but hears a sound of hard footsteps (perhaps heavy boots, or hooves) and retreats carefully, with a distinct feeling of being followed. The soldier locks up behind him, and (while not admitting anything himself) comments that it's a bit spooky down there.
Ram briefs the others. The next points of attack seem likely to be the brothel that Corbelan was visiting, and whatever nastiness is in that museum.
However, with Paul off trying to work out where Seth has got to, firepower for the latter seems a bit lacking at present.
Thinking again about Nile International, the team rents a house and garage in Mahmoudiyah, a mostly-Sunni city about twenty miles from Baghdad, and hire some Lebanese movers to shift the personal effects out of their current container and into the house. They then present themselves to Nile International with Ram as a slightly dodgy Egyptian businessman, Stacie (with darkened skin) as his trophy wife, and Marianne (who could, just barely, be either of their mothers) as the secretary.
They speak to Aban, who's friendly and helpful. Stacie slips in a hint about certain items needing ``special treatment'', and for a suitably high price Aban is happy to sort that out. (Ram mentions that ``they are not dangerous, radioactive, gaseous, etc.'' and Aban, after a second or two's thought, chooses to take this as a joke.)
The team thinks about putting in bugs and tracking devices, but since they're a new customer for Nile International they decide to play it straight this time - someone in the Logistics Branch with a sense of humour included a couple of coin-belts full of Krugerrands in the ``personal effects'' shipment, and these make suitable ballast as well as a good excuse for off-the-books shipping in case Nile International look inside.
The various crates are picked up the next day - Aban comes to supervise in person, though he doesn't do the heavy lifting - and start their journey to London.
The team heads back into the centre of Baghdad the next day, and finds checkpoints on the ways into the Green Zone; there were checks before, but they were cursory, and now there's a serious delay. There also seem to be a lot more military personnel on the streets. At the hotel, the newspapers don't mention anything wrong at all; indeed, they're all full of stories on the upcoming Festival of Culture. (Stacie scans these and realises that they're undated filler, to be dropped in when another story has to be pulled.)
Chatting with people in the hotel reveals that, around two o'clock this morning, the honour guard at the Unknown Soldier monument were all decapitated. The heads are missing. The police and the Ministry of the Interior are all in headless-chicken mode.; there are BMP-1 personnel carriers parked near the monument, and the whole south end of the park is closed. This will make getting into the museum much more difficult...
Ram puts out some feelers about the brothel among other bodyguards - and is discouraged, as the Perfumed Garden only takes US dollars and caters primarily to Americans. Stacie, disguised as a man, asks elsewhere, and gets a bit more detail - it's all local girls, and there doesn't seem to be much else dodgy going on (drugs, people trafficking, etc.); she gets the impression that it's a high-priced establishment, presumably paying off the police quite a bit already, and wouldn't want to draw attention to itself. The team reckons for now that this is probably a red herring.
The team gets satellite feeds of the decapitations last night. Coverage is limited, but there's something out there which shows up on about one frame in five; this can't be glyph techniques, but could be a really good ability to hide. They're about human sized, definitely two of them but probably three, and the wings on their backs mark them as Of Interest.
Headquarters reckons they're Girtablullû, ``scorpion-men'', usually footsoldiers in the irruptor forces. They have chitinous torsos and tails, but are otherwise unarmoured; they're fast, especially in the air; they don't normally have this much hiding skill.
Ram loads up on tracer; if the stealth is an influence effect, he may be able to give targets to the soldiers. The team plans to mount a night watch in the park. Marianne calls for an increase in satellite cover. If possible, headquarters will get some drone images too.
After some further discussion, Stacie and Ram head out to get a rifle for Stacie. This isn't too hard to achieve; after a little while, they emerge from the back streets of Baghdad with two damaged weapons, an AKS-74 and an AK-74U, and Ram takes working parts from the latter to fix the former. Meanwhile Paul runs up a pair of glyphs, SANGUSH (I belong here) and GU.SHUB (do not look at me).
The Iraqi APCs are parked around the mound facing sideways, with more soldiers standing between them, and the team moves in after dark to hide underneath one of them. They have to stay quiet, using their throat microphones to communicate; Ram sticks another microphone onto the side of the APC to record what's going on outside.
For the first few hours nothing happens. Then there's an odd sound, hard feet on hard ground, and the team spots a winged human figure moving down the side of the mound. It's hard to track, and they get the feeling that if they looked away and back it would be tricky to spot it again. Ram aims and fires, hitting it; it takes to the air and returns fire with a sub-machinegun, but the cover of the APC's tracks and the team's abilities to get out of the way keep them safe. Marianne gets in a good hit with her pistol, and Paul's second burst finishes the thing off.
This has all happened in a couple of seconds, and the Iraqi soldiers are just starting to react. There's a lot of shouting, and small-arms fire from the undisciplined troops; the engine of the APC the team's hiding under is started, and the main gun fires a high explosive shell at the corpse.
Ram steps out, still hiding, to try to get a better impression of what's going on. Gunfire continues, but it now includes a machine-gun, and it appears to be being fired from another APC into the Iraqi infantry. Ram looks at the figure behind the gun, and it does seem to have wings. Ram aims on it, but it takes off, climbing nearly vertically. He shoots at it, but it gets away, heading south-east.
The gunfire gradually calms down; there's a competent officer among this lot. There's a quiet hissing sound in the distance, followed after ten seconds or so by explosions closer than is really comfortable; Ram gets back under the APC and the team checks the real-time satellite feed, where it's visible that about ten trucks with improvised launch rails have salvoed rockets in the general direction of the American Embassy, and are now dispersing. It looks as though that's where the second girtablullû went, too.
The soldiers are starting to shine spotlights onto the mound, and the team starts to think it's time to leave. One of the grilles that they spotted earlier is slightly ajar, and they head in that way in a gap between lights; there's a narrow tunnel beyond, just wide enough for two but a bit cramped, so they end up going single file. Ram spots the girtablullû waiting to ambush him at a corner, rolls in a flash-bang, and shoots his target while he's still stunned. A hand weapon clatters to the ground; Ram grabs it up by reflex, and realises it's a kukri.
As the team starts to move along this new corridor, an angel steps out ahead of them - at least, a four-winged, unreasonably beautiful human figure. Everyone, even Stacie who's at the rear of the file facing the other way, feels a momentary wave of adoration and worshipfulness - but they manage to shake it off, and the front three Sandmen open up with their readied weapons. The šedu flicks on a light, revealing an intricate and fascinating pattern sprayed onto the wall next to it, but even this isn't enough to distract the trio, and they kill the creature with more gunfire. Stacie, in the end, is the only person caught by the NAM.HILI (fascination) glyph, and Ram restrains her while Paul effaces it.
The gunfire has attracted attention, and Ram and Stacie (armed with the SANGUSH glyph) head back to the entrance to talk to the group of soldiers who are approaching. They're called on to come out with their hands up, but the glyph takes hold on the officer and he immediately agrees that Stacie is as she claims from the Ministry of the Interior and offers his assistance (his men are a bit less sure, but follow orders). Stacie calls for body bags.
She also tells the troops not to stand down yet; there's still one more bad guy out there. ``What's going on?'', asks the officer, who's glad to find someone who seems to know this; ``I'm not allowed to tell you'', replies Stacie. ``Oh no, not again.''
Ram and Stacie scrape up what's left of the girtablullû that was hit by a 73mm high-explosive shell. Inside, the whole team searches for anything that shouldn't be left behind. One room is clearly the nest for the girtablullû - it contains supplies of meat (somewhat rotted), spare SMG magazines (gathered up), and a crude wooden framework with the nine missing heads on spikes. There's no obvious central location or glyphic significance, though the whole place has memetic content that Marianne reckon is aimed at a non-human psyche.
The heads are gathered into a spare body bag, and the team moves into the next room, where Ram is taken with a brief urge to worship its occupant - which is Paul, at that moment. He shakes it off, and the team effaces the glyphs and other memetic cues.
The team uses the wooden framework, apparently constructed from bits of exhibit cases, to burn the meat stocks, then heads out and tells the soldiers to stay clear for a while as there are some dodgy chemicals in there that need to be made safe. Marianne reports in to HQ as Stacie arranges to borrow a BMP-1 (the nearest vehicle).
The satellite feed shows the last girtablullû heading towards, and into, the US Embassy shortly before the bombardment started; it hasn't been seen coming out again. Ram drives the APC somewhere less observed, and Stacie and Paul pick up the Land Rover; the body bags are transferred.
At the US Embassy, it's clear that they're in lock-down and recovery mode: US Marines guard the gates, plumes of smoke rise from several damaged buildings within the grounds and occasional emergency vehicles wail past, but there's no sound of gunfire. The team listens in, military encrypted radios not being a major challenge, and hears the expected chatter of recovery work. There's some surprise that ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an Iraqi insurgent organisation) really went for the attack, and less surprise that the missile defence system didn't do its job.
Marianne attempts to arrange cover for the team as a Special Reconnaissance Regiment group, but headquarters calls back to say that the embassy's secure comms are down, and no working channel is sufficiently trusted. Instead, the team cautiously approaches the front gate until it gets speared by a searchlight, then stops; Stacie does some fast talking, backed up by SANGUSH, and the officer of the guard calls for them to come on in.
The communications building is one of those that took a hit; there are about two and a half floors left above ground. It looks from satellite information as though the girtablullû may have gone in there. Stacie talks to the civilian leading rescue efforts, explaining that they're pretty sure there's an insurgent inside the building; he explains that there are at least three people unaccounted for inside, possibly more. He's edgy about letting these outsiders in, but her persuasive skills win him over.
Paul and Stacie search in one direction, Marianne and Ram in another. It's the latter who come across movement in a pile of rubble in the basement, possibly one concealing a stairwell leading further down; Ram moves up and readies his weapon, and fires at once when a girtablullû emerges. He's more accurate than the scorpion-man, and using a better weapon, and the fight is short and one-sided. The girtablullû is carrying, as well as sub-machinegun and kukri, an envelope decorated with a variety of colourful warnings about security clearances. Ram kicks it to one side, but Marianne's more curious, and takes a look at the contents - several pages of apparently random letters and numbers, probably cryptographic keying material.
Stacie and Paul come running when they hear the gunfire, then head out to prevent further response from the Americans - explaining that all's well, they've got their bad guy, and they need another body bag. Prompted by Ram, they also say that cryptographic material may have been compromised; the scene leader says various codewords into his radio, and a few minutes later three men in suits and sunglasses turn up.
They start muttering about ``thermite'' and ``acceptable losses'' and start shifting rubble, and the team gets away with giving statements to a Marine Corps Military Police investigator, on the general theme that the rocket attack was cover for this infiltration.
The team gets out, shuffles around vehicles, and returns the BMP-1 (also handing over the heads, explaining that they were recovered in the museum but had to be checked in an unspecified manner). The irruptor bodies are dropped off at a meat-packing plant near the airport; the team hangs around and spies a refrigerated van picking them up and taking them away. The team heads back to the Ishtar Sheraton with the beginning of the morning rush hour, and gets some much-needed sleep.
With the news that the packages sent by Nile International have arrived intact, the team feels that there's no special irruptor taint associated with the firm; if they're the conventional criminals they appear to be, they might even become useful. The team takes a few days off to check some dig sites that are open to the public, noticing that the newspapers are full of the triumph of Qamar Asir in stopping the beheading murders.
After some time for training in England, the team's given a new assignment. A new augmented-reality game, Equilibrium, has some potentially disturbing content, and needs to be looked into further. The basic premise is a science-fictional overlay on the real world: using a smartphone or tablet as a viewing device, players are assigned missions (starting with going to a particular place and taking a photograph), and can gradually upgrade their capabilities, getting higher-level missions and minions of their own to work with. It's all done with code names and a cell structure, but appears basically harmless... though the high level of Sumerian imagery in the augmented-reality overlays is a grave concern, since some of it indicates that the art designer has done some pretty intensive research.
The game company, Hot Ice Studios, is a new firm based in Birmingham. They've got a few known names working for them, but nobody really famous.
Public response is muted so far; the usual panickers are claiming it's bad for their children, but quite a few people praise it for not being focused on combat like most games.
The team picks up a selection of new phones and tablets and starts playing the game in different styles. The AR overlays do seem to contain very low-key memetic content; it's hard to tell just what it might be pointing at, though extended exposure might well have some effect.
While in-game communication is restricted by cell structure, there are unofficial message boards which are more flexible.
The team looks into Hot Ice's financial situation - they're funded by a number of investors, and they're still mostly paying them back rather than making serious money for themselves - and looks into the possibility of joining. They're advertising for a junior sysadmin and a 3D artist; with appropriate Renshawed skills, Marianne and Paul set up convincing CVs and portfolios and apply for the posts.
Marianne studies the in-game media, teasing out the memetic content; the message is lower-key than most memetics the Sandmen have met, broadly on the theme ``hierarchy is good''. The game doesn't seem to be taking pains to avoid other structures with memetic attributes.
While one can get ahead in the game by putting more time into it, it's clearly aimed at people with jobs who can play it while commuting or in the evening. None of the team members has ended up in the same cell as any other. When not actually playing, they read the forums. There's some fan-fiction, mostly of the wish-fulfillment kind (there aren't any major NPCs to be written about).
Marianne has a rummage through the Police National Computer: the game is tagged on some case notes, but it's because someone was playing it and not paying attention to his surroundings when he was mugged rather than because the police find it of professional interest.
One of the forum posters, Plastic Bee, mentions that he's had actual courier missions: pick up a sealed box from behind a dustbin, move it across London and put it under some stairs. There's speculation about whether he's really running drugs or something else illegal; he hasn't opened the boxes, because then he'd lose points. Nobody else mentions having done the same thing.
Marianne analyses the locations the game tags as significant. On the first order, they're distinctive shapes: not necessarily major landmarks, but structures that are easy to recognise. Washing against that, there's a second-order effect that suggests they often tend to be close to, but not on top of, police stations, hospitals, and other emergency service locations.
A few days later, Plastic Bee comments that his cell leader, Steadfast Otter, has suddenly retired from the game: there was a status message, and now he's got a new cell leader. Marianne chats with Plastic Bee by private message on the unofficial forum: is he worried? No, but it's a bit odd, since Otter didn't say anything about retiring and was still giving out missions the previous day. Otter wasn't on the unofficial forums. Marianne asks if there was anything interesting in his posts on the in-game forums, but Bee doesn't want to answer that - he's nearly to level six and doesn't want to jeopardise his score.
Most of the players are in London, and generally the player numbers are proportional to square of population, but Birmingham where the game started (and where the beta was conducted) has more players than this would indicate.
Paul goes to Hot Ice to interview for the 3D artist job. It's on an industrial estate next to the M6 and A38(M), occupying two windowless warehouse-style units (not next to each other). It's apparent that an internal first floor has been bodged in with scaffolding; the whole place is fairly noisy, both from passing traffic and from other activity in the estate. The receptionist looks a bit short of sleep and food; he points Paul to the break room to wait, where a pinball machine and football table are gathering dust. The interview itself goes smoothly, though the interviewer's attention is largely elsewhere and he's clearly keen to get back to work. Paul's briefly introduced to Sean Baring, the chief designer, who like the interviewer is also showing signs of malnourishment and lack of sleep. As Paul leaves, he notices a well-executed graffito on the shuttered unit next door: ``The Tygers of Wrath are Wiser than the Horses of Instruction''. On the way back, he looks it up: it's from William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Sean Baring is a name known to the sort of gamer who pays attention to credits lists; he's worked on a few other games, but tends to move on after launch. The last thing he worked on has a little Sumerian content, but not enough to be a concern.
A few days later, Marianne has much the same experience, except that she's talking with different people (the lead, and it later transpires only, sysadmin is Steve Marriott). The main hosting facility is Datatech Alvechurch at Bordesley Hall, just south of the M5 and about half an hour's drive away when traffic is light. As she leaves, Marianne checks the company's building in the game viewer: there's nothing major, but there are some small tags at ground level.
Both Paul and Marianne are hired. Meanwhile, back in London, Stacie (in her Apple fangirl persona) manages to set up a real-world meet with another member of her cell. He suggests the British Museum, and turns out to be Gerald Wilmer, a recently-retired accountant in his sixties who's using the game as an excuse to get out of the house rather than pottering in the garden with his wife. He's got slightly further ahead in the game than Stacie, and mentions some missions involving getting from place to place as fast as possible (though using cars is banned, presumably to limit the company's liability). New interesting sites turn up randomly every now and then, and the first person to find them gets a big bonus.
When Marianne starts work, one of her first jobs is to go to Datatech and replace failed discs - they get a lot of failures, possibly because of the amount of data being shifted. The hosting facility is part of a larger building, apparently once a big country house before it was turned into an office park in the middle of nowhere; judging by the business names, there's a fair bit of mail-order business done from here.
Hot Ice's servers take up the lower of Datatech's two floors, but there aren't any staff on site as Marianne lets herself in. She's startled to meet a gust of warm air, particularly as the thermometer hanging on the wall reports a steady fifteen degrees. There's a smell, too, of asphalt and baked clay. These are some of the warning signs of a reality subduction zone (which may also be an explanation of the disc failures, since high-tech often doesn't work reliably in them).
She keeps a careful eye out as she does the disc swaps, spotting the two obvious cameras in opposite corners, but nothing goes amiss. On her way out, she spots a woman getting out of a car emblazoned with logos of herbal weight-loss products; they start to chat, and Marianne is invited in. The four-person office is for answering phones and packing up the placebo pills, and everyone there knows it. Debbie Lewis offers coffee (good instant) and they talk about how isolated the place is; Marianne mentions, non-specifically, that she felt a bit odd inside the data centre, and Debbie casually says that it was probably the ghost. Apparently this is a running joke among people who work here, starting when the property company got planning permission to put the office space in, though nobody's actually seen it or has any more details about what it's supposed to be.
When she gets away, Marianne puts in a request for the plans filed for the site when the change-of-use went through. She also starts smuggling out data, a chunk at a time, and makes plans to lift or copy a set of backup discs (the servers are backed up in the data centre, but an employee has to take those discs out and hand them over to the archiving company).
Marianne gets some good-quality food (from Selfridges food hall), and leaves it out in the break room. It does eventually vanish, but it takes a couple of days. She gets a copy of the staff list, and finds out about the history of the company (Sean Baring met some of the coders at his last big-company gig, and they left together and set up this company specifically to launch Equilibrium).
She thought about being the first person in and last out, but this turns out to be effectively impossible: turning up an hour early still puts her arrival after half the company, and leaving two hours late often has her as the first out of the office (though nobody's criticising her for it).
A new team member has been assigned: Christopher ``Ratty'' Bridge-Lee is a wetware hacker, mostly on the hardware side rather than the squishy bits.
Given possible associations between the party members' cover identities, Ram destroys the device he's been using to play the game, and gets a new one.
Paul's experience at work is odd: he's working with other artists, but they have the same driven work ethic as the other company staff and keep the same long hours. His job at the moment is to take reference photos of buildings, and construct 3D overlay structures that will fit with them while maintaining the game's theme. It's clear from version control logs that Sean Baring is adding refinements; a bit of diffing reveals that this is where the memetic content is coming in. Paul does his job and tries to keep his head down, though it's clear that his natural talent (combined with Renshawed skill) is standing out a bit; Sean asks where he's worked before that Sean hadn't heard of him, and he spins his cover story about an industrial modelling project that went bankrupt before launch.
Marianne is getting all the more boring sysadmin tasks, including being disc monkey. She intercepts the backups from both the server site and the office, swapping in fresh blank discs to go off to the storage facility and diverting the real backups for Ratty to analyse.
He starts by looking up Steadfast Otter (Dave Willis); it certainly appears that he came up with the package transfer missions himself, using his discretionary reward budget, rather than having them handed down from higher ranks. Willis was an early adopter when the game expanded to London, and has been doing this more or less from the first day.
Checking with the Police National Computer, he seems to be missing, as of a couple of days after the discussion on the message boards. The police have heard of him before - they think he's involved in the cocaine trade, though they haven't been able to pin anything on him - and aren't looking too hard into his disappearance.
On the evening of the day he was last seen, he was sent a mission from his cell leader, to photograph the wind turbines by Waterloo Bridge. His cell leader was logged out at the time, and the mission was entered with admin access to his account; all this has been deleted from the logs, but it's still in version control records. Someone wasn't sufficiently careful.
Stacie and Ram camouflage themselves as police detectives and visit Willis' flat on the borders of Neasden. Mike Coulthard, his landlord, who reported him missing, lives downstairs - and turns out to be an ex-copper himself, requiring some fast improvisation from the pair.
The flat's small, one of three that used to be the upper floor of the not-overly-large house, and seems reasonably well-kept, though things are getting a bit dusty. The fridge has been emptied, but otherwise the landlord says he hasn't touched the place. A thorough search reveals several stashes of cash in the thousand pound range, though no obvious sign of drugs; there's a broadband router, but no sign of a fixed computer. A laptop power supply reveals that Willis has had a Dell machine, and the charger for his Android phone is also left behind. There's no sign of missing clothes, luggage, or bathroom items, or of any intention to leave for an extended period.
Coulthard last saw Willis on the morning before he disappeared, heading out to work as normal with his backpack (Coulthard doesn't know what Willis' job was, but he paid the rent on time, which was why he reported the disappearance after only a couple of days).
The team, especially Ratty, starts searching through camera footage from the most-surveilled city in the world. There's no sign that Willis ever made it to Waterloo Bridge. Further record checks reveal that he had a registered Oyster card, and that was tracked in at West Hampstead on the evening he vanished, and not out again. Since there's a direct line from there to Waterloo, that's where the search is concentrated; he's picked up on a Jubilee Line train at Baker Street, and with the specific train ID he can be tracked getting off at Waterloo. He walks off the platform into a short pedestrian tunnel which leads to the exit escalator, but he doesn't show up on the next camera that looks down that escalator.
Ram looks at the station plans; there are two equipment storage cupboards in that tunnel. Late in the evening, he and Stacie visit; the padlock on one cupboard has clearly been in place for a while, judging by the amount of dirt on it, so Stacie picks the other. The cupboard is small and crowded with stuff (emergency stretchers, obscure tools, and so on), just about large enough for both of them to stand inside; there's nothing obviously amiss, so they close the door, don goggles, and spray luminol to check for traces of body fluids. There's been a large pool of something on the floor, and there are three or four spatters reasonably close together on one wall (checking with the Project's experts will reveal that these are low-velocity cast-off, perhaps from a weapon being swung back after hitting).
Ram and Stacie take samples in the hope of determining the type of fluid and maybe even getting DNA. Ratty searches through the recordings of the local cameras between Willis' disapperance and now: thousands of people have come and gone every day, but none of them with luggage big enough to hold a body. At least not a complete body. The samples match DNA recovered from the hair-brush in Willis' flat.
Investigating the game further, it appears that cell leaders can try to recruit particularly promising players; with access to the game's code and logs of what they're looking for, Stacie, Ram and Ratty start playing so as to attract this kind of attention (though not blatantly).
Paul gets called into Sean's office; Sean (who's still as tired and strung-out as everyone else here) is impressed with his work, and puts him onto working symbols into the 3D overlays. (``They're part of my vision'', he explains.) Paul analyses them, and spots two new memetic messages: a sort of low-power version of the NAM.HILI fascination glyph, and one that will encourage people to hang on to the thing they're holding and not let it be taken away.
Paul spends some of his time away from work designing countermeasures, and getting Project experts to work on them too.
Stacie starts to set up and advertise a big party for players of the game.
Talking about this on the unofficial forum, a few hundred people seem to be interested. After some discussion on the venue, the team decides to hire the disused Aldwych Underground station, as well as some Project-affiliated staff to be bouncers, barmen, DJs, etc. This is set for a bit over a week ahead.
Ratty spends most of this time arrange network coverage. Stacie advertises further, mostly on gaming forums - while this is mostly for existing players, there's some suggestion that it might be interesting for potential new players too. Ram checks out the existing cameras in the station, and adds a few of his own.
During her sysadmin work, Marianne notices a large email message that's been held up on the server for a while. It's from Sean Baring to an anonymous gmail account, and seems to consists of several megabytes of recipes (in plain text). She passes a copy to the Project, who rapidly come back with the datum that the recipes are invalid; they seem to make sense to casual inspection, but they wouldn't actually make food worth eating.
The Project has snooper boxes inside Google, of course, but there's no mail left in the account. The owner seems to be on a BT IP address block, somewhere in Scotland. They aim to track this down further, but getting the information out of BT will take a while even with full cooperation.
Some of Marianne's co-workers are starting to show distinct signs of the strain they're under - consumption of non-prescription painkillers has gone up tremendously.
As part of the party preparations, Stacie tells Hot Ice's marketing department, and they offer various promotional possibilities: a substantial sum of money to go behind the bar, some banners and posters, and a sneak preview of new game content (which will be delivered by hand on the day, as they don't want it to leak).
Paul gets loaded with extra work putting the banners together, and does another stellar job. Ram and Ratty amend the technical setup so that the projectors and speakers can have their power cut instantly from the station control room if there's any sort of problem.
Given the situation at Hot Ice, the team plans to have a Project ambulance on-call for when people do start collapsing. Indeed, during the week, Paul's office neighbour Dave starts giggling and won't stop. Paul gets him to the break room, uses his hypnagogic flash, and hypnotises him (``fingers!''); the problem seems to be a combination of cumulative memetic exposure with far too little food or sleep. Dave's nearest relatives are his parents in Hampshire, who are his next of kin but not an emergency contact, so he's whisked off by a genuine-looking ambulance to a Project secure facility. Other Hot Ice employees watch the departure, saying things like ``Ah well, better get back to work''.
Paul talks to Sean to ask about getting some time off to travel to the party. Sean agrees, and asks if he'll take the new game footage with him. Paul, of course, agrees.
Sean drops by Paul's cover-flat on the Saturday morning, drops off a large USB stick, then leaves. Paul immediately makes a copy of it, then leaves to catch the train; Marianne picks up the copy and takes a private flight to London, to give her plenty of time to work on the content.
Taking suitable precautions, she watches the five files. They're all much stronger memetic content than has previously been seen in the game. They're apparently intended to be shown in order.
With only an hour or so before things are due to kick off, Stacie plans an ``equipment failure''; she'll run half of the first video, then arrange for something to break, and run the last one at the end of the evening. These seem relatively harmless, and if the company's keeping an eye on what happens its spy shouldn't see any sign of deliberate manipulation.
Ram and Marianne check out the ``bonus cylinder'' site, an alley between two sets of offices in Soho. Ram disguises himself as a homeless man and wanders through; there's nothing out of place there. The Met can be called in easily enough, but if they're going to catch the people actually dropping these things off there's going to need to be observation; Ram and Marianne set up in offices overlooking the alley.
The party begins, and goes off according to plan; there's some objection when the projectors ``fail'', but there's still some cash behind the bar and people have a good time. Stacie, in the ``innocently sexy'' fangirl persona, makes contact with various higher-level players of the game, with a view to possibly getting recruited up the chain. The last video gets shown at the end of the evening, and Stacie takes advantage of the slack staring crowd to slip her in-character business card into some relevant pockets. The party breaks up, and people go home happy.
Over in the alley, nothing has happened all evening. Did Hot Ice discover that the videos weren't being shown?
The team makes plans, trying to account for the inconsistent levels of competence and tradecraft displayed by the opposition. Marianne cross-checks the list of players with the people who went to Advance House; there's some overlap, but not more than one might expect from chance.
On Sunday, Stacie gets an in-game message from one of the people she spoke to at the party; Brass Toad invites her to become a cell leader, and she accepts. While there are still photographic missions, some of them need to be timed and synchronised such that multiple cell members have to conduct them; all Stacie's subordinates are in London, and she has a rough idea of where they live and work. Some of the timings are such that Stacie's own missions may need dedicated trips, rather than being something one can accomplish in one's normal travel.
BT has come through with subscriber details: Alex Carmichael lives in a council flat in Glasgow. He's known to the police, having a record for various minor offences including a lot of pub brawls. Ram heads there to set up surveillance.
The team plans to interview Sean ``for the gaming press'', intending to throw in serious neurolinguistic interrogation.
Stacie gets an evening mission, to photograph the old BP wellhead outside Britannic House. She's approaching the middle of the square when she hears a suspicious chittering behind her and to one side; a quick glance reveals scorpion-men. She runs, initially for a small gap between buildings; she's shot with poorly-aimed automatic fire from behind and to one side. Much of the damage proves to look worse than it is; the glass frontage of one of the buildings shatters, and she heads towards that, planning to break contact and change appearance. Shouted memetic key phrases help to slow down the girtablullû; they have little resistance, but recover relatively quickly. With a live phone uplink, Marianne is already on the phone to the police.
The man behind the reception desk takes no interest in all of this, being apparently fascinated by one of his monitors, and Stacie, slowed by her wounds, eventually makes it to a bank of lifts; she pulls her pistol and returns fire while she waits for a door to open. Once they're inside, the scorpion-men take off, and dive at her with their swords; Stacie staggers into the lift, bleeding heavily, and kills at least two scorpion-men with gunfire before she succumbs to her wounds, falling on the reality shard she's been wearing...
...and finding herself talking to an ambulanceman about the fellow who was hit by a taxi outside Moorgate station, whom she stopped to help. There's no sign of damage to her. But everyone else seems to remember her a bit differently - she's not a fashion model, she does shoots for consumer electronics, and she certainly hasn't been calling for help this evening. She decides not to tell the rest of the team about this change for now.
Meanwhile, Marianne and Paul have found things slightly odd at Hot Ice: Marianne's been promoted (no extra money, but slightly different responsibilities) and is no longer tape monkey. There's an all-hands email from HR: apparently West Midlands Police have warned about a gang of muggers in the area, and staff should take care when walking to the bus. (The HR people seem to regard passing this on as a standard anti-liability measure. Checking with the police reveals no such warning.) And generally people seem to be looking over their shoulders a bit - which is at least a break from constant work.
The next day, Aaron the chief programmer is absent; it seems he got mugged on the way back from the office last night, and is in hospital. He hasn't been able to give more than a very confused description of the attackers, but his wallet, phone and laptop are missing and he's been badly beaten. Marianne can't help but notice that he, she and Paul are the three most recent hires.
Ram's been to Glasgow; Alex Carmichael's council flat is also occupied by a young woman and two or three small children, which is consistent with benefit records. He plants a wireless sniffer. The GMail traffic is happening at the same time as other traffic is going in and out of the flat, but doesn't show up on the sniffer. Ram breaks in and lifts the laptop and DSL router, as well as the substantial stash of various drugs; there's a large flat-screen television but no other obvious electronics. The laptop was reported stolen a few weeks ago.
The team meets in Birmingham to consider next moves.
Stacie hesitantly explains her changed situation, and considers just who in the team may have been exposed. Paul and Marianne start driving to work, and car sharing. (Sean seems to get annoyed around then, but it's probably just coincidence.)
Ratty works on tracing the GMail traffic within the BT network, which takes several days; eventually he locates some custom hardware in the street cab near Carmichael's flat, which is relaying packets between Carmichael's connection and the rest of the network. Then it's a matter of tracking down proxy servers, leaning on the NSA for net surveillance logs, and so on. Ultimately he pins it down to a small western Scottish island, with three large houses (one used for weekends, one used for summers, and a third occupied full-time) and a satellite uplink; the prime candidate is Bill Carmichael, the full-time resident. Satellite surveillance shows just one occupant on IR, though there's something that might be another; it's hard to make out. Ram and Stacie arrange to be dropped off there at night by the Navy, climb the cliff rather than going up via the dock, and set up surveillance. With a laser mic, they pick up a voice in Sumerian telling someone else to ``go and make me some more tea''. That's enough.
Marianne and Paul leave work on Friday, stock up on lethal hardware, and join the others on the island. Prolonged observation shows three guards, very possibly scorpion-men, at all times, implying that there are more behind the scenes. Only one human has been visible, and his appearance matches the records for Bill Cameron - 55 years old, wealthy from investments.
There are at least two doors at the front of the house, and the team notices that it's built quite solidly against the hill. Ram and Stacie sneak over to the other side of the hill, where it falls off to the sea; something inside is thrumming, perhaps a turbine or alternator of some sort.
Surveillance photos of Cameron are uploaded to the Project, where they run reverse-aging software... and sound terribly embarrassed, not wanting to mention that Cameron is very probably a former Project operative, and at least a bit nervous. The team is advised not to allow Cameron to speak with them, at all. This pushes them from their thoughts about tranquilisers (and consequent worries about Cameron being carried away by the scorpion-men to whatever bunker he's got inside the hill) to going for a single kill shot. Much simpler.
When Cameron finally appears for long enough, Ratty kills the transponder on the satellite, cutting the island off from the Internet. Ram takes his shot, hitting Cameron in the heart and killing him instantly. The team then opens fire on the scorpion-men, who react to being wounded by leaping from their concealed positions and flying rapidly towards the team... not the most effective approach when facing two rifles and a shotgun firing heavy slugs. The five of them are shot down, and the team moves quickly into the house.
That does seem to have been everyone, though. There's a geothermal generator within the bunker, and enough food and air-renewal equipment to survive an extended siege. One of Cameron's neighbours turns up, looking a bit nervous, and commenting that it's a bit early for the Twelfth; Marianne charms him.
Another Project team is sent in to take possession; the group (Stacie and Ram in police uniforms again) arrests Sean on Monday (he thinks about making a break for it, nearly signing his death warrant as Stacie is still not happy about having been killed, but the generic industrial-unit window behind him doesn't open far enough and he gives up).
The Project takes over Equilibrium, buying out the current backers' interests, and using it as a testbed for counter-memetic programming to increase human resistance to Anunnaki control techniques. It also takes over Datatech Alvechurch, so that nobody's put at risk from the subduction zone (the genesis of which is unclear, but Cameron's notes indicate that it was something he was trying to promote).