Shadow Ops: Breach Zone
The Great Reawakening did not come quietly. Across the country and in every nation, people began “coming up Latent,” developing terrifying powers—summoning storms, raising the dead, and setting everything they touch ablaze. Those who Manifest must choose: become a sheepdog who protects the flock or a wolf who devours it…
In the wake of a bloody battle at Forward Operating Base Frontier and a scandalous presidential impeachment, Lieutenant Colonel Jan Thorsson, call sign “Harlequin,” becomes a national hero and a pariah to the military that is the only family he’s ever known.
In the fight for Latent equality, Oscar Britton is positioned to lead a rebellion in exile, but a powerful rival beats him to the punch: Scylla, a walking weapon who will stop at nothing to end the human-sanctioned apartheid against her kind.
When Scylla’s inhuman forces invade New York City, the Supernatural Operations Corps are the only soldiers equipped to prevent a massacre. In order to redeem himself with the military, Harlequin will be forced to face off with this havoc-wreaking woman from his past, warped by her power into something evil…
It’s Good to Be Home
My predecessor’s involvement in the Shadow Coven and FOB Frontier scandals has shaken the public’s faith in honest government, and rightly so. But this is no time to point fingers. Former President Walsh will have his day in court, and like all of you, I am looking forward to seeing the truth come out. Today is a day for looking forward, for starting down the road to restoring the people’s faith in their government, in matters of arcane security in particular. Today, I recommit myself to enforcing the provisions of the McGauer-Linden Act with total certainty, severity, and transparency.
—Vice President Howard Porter
On his inauguration as president
following the impeachment of President Walsh
Swift eased up the hood of his sweatshirt and kept his head down. The crowds in the financial district were thick at lunchtime, hundreds of people with eyes on the pavement, on their way to grab cigarettes, or food, or to run errands in the few precious minutes they had before heading back to their desks, the richest slaves in the world.
Swift sighed internally. He’d never been comfortable among the corporate wage serfs who made up most of the city, but a big crowd was best. It was easy to get lost in the throng, one more data point in a stream, nothing to draw the eye.
He felt his magical current thrumming, the scar of his ruined tattoo itched on his chest, an old reminder of older fights. He’d won them all and somehow still lost. His girlfriend, his baby were still gone, the man who’d killed them still alive.
He’d had Harlequin dead to rights, had looked down the barrel of a gun straight into his old enemy’s eyes.
The moment had hovered, time frozen as Swift faced a pair of choices, each resulting in very different people. He’d let Harlequin go, watched him walk away, still breathing, and hoped the person he’d chosen to be was the better one. Even all this time later, he still wasn’t sure.
He moved through the crowd, keeping his elbows in, not wanting to draw attention to himself by shoving anyone out of the way. At last, South Ferry Terminal hove into view, the water of the bay sparkling beyond.
Oscar Britton had wanted him to stay in the Source, to build a new life in the goblin village. Swift had insisted Britton send him back. The Supernatural Operations Corps had taken everything from him—his life, his love. They wouldn’t take his home.
He’d found the broken remnants of the Houston Street Gang, the band of magic-using revolutionaries deemed criminals for their refusal to submit to government control. Criminals or no, they’d bloodied the government’s nose for years until the SOC had replaced their beloved leader, Big Bear, with a monster. The deception caught them completely unawares, and the SOC had broken their spine, scattered them to the winds.
The survivors spent the intervening months hiding in the homes of sympathizers, trying to rebuild what they’d lost when Big Bear had turned out to be . . . someone else. Months of jumping at shadows, of desperately hoping the SOC had bigger fish to fry.
But Swift found time to come down to the water every day, to give himself a few minutes to look out over the glassy surface, to feel the breeze slide over his ears, whispering in his hair. Sometimes, he imagined it was his girlfriend Shai, speaking to him from beyond the grave.
Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. Swift allowed himself a quick glance around to make sure no one was watching, then headed back toward the posts that ringed the entrance to the South Ferry subway station.
He saw the can beside the third post, only got close enough to confirm it. Beer. Britton would be coming tomorrow. No can meant no visit. A soda can meant they’d been found out and had better run.
Swift made a mental note to tell the others. Britton promised that the moment would be coming when they could finally step out of the shadows, live free and open, but each time he visited, the answer was always the same: Be patient, wait. Things were taking time.
Most of the gang worshipped Britton, they would have waited until Judgment Day if he asked. But Swift was one of a growing number who were getting tired of waiting, and he still wasn’t sure that Britton could be trusted. If Britton didn’t . . .
Screaming reached him from uptown. It sounded like a lot of people. The crowd raised their heads, began moving north, bunching together, trying to see what the trouble was.
Swift cursed and went with them. He wasn’t going to risk being the only person on the waterfront for the cops around the ferry terminal to grow suspicious of. Besides, curiosity was getting the better of him. He’d allow himself to go as far as Bowling Green, then disappear into the station once he’d gotten a look at what was going on. The tall buildings rose around him as he moved north, gray-white facades ornate with decorative stonework evoking Gothic cathedrals and European palaces. He glanced at the suit of the man in front of him, the fabric so fine that it nearly glowed. Such unimaginable wealth. So far beyond his reach. Not because he was lazy, not because he was stupid. Because he was Latent. Because he wouldn’t knuckle his forehead and kill at the government’s bidding. I never had a chance, Shai. Just like you. I’m sorry.
The crowd moved up past the entrance to the subway, and Swift went with them, driven more by curiosity than anything else, walking up Broadway until the crowd slowed to a stop as they turned onto Wall Street.
A shout echoed through the corridor formed by the buildings, followed by a sound like overripe fruit being smashed against stone.
The crowd stopped and began to surge backward, the people around him shouting. Swift fought to hold himself upright as they jostled against him, carrying him backward. He stumbled once, almost went down, was held up by the tight packing of the bodies around him.
It would be so easy to use his Aeromancy, to Bind his magic and rise above the panicked mob. But he couldn’t risk it. To be discovered now would be to undo everything he’d fought for since he’d escaped the Suitability Assessment Section. He Drew his magic anyway, kept it ready, just in case. It rushed to him, rising in his own gut, buoyed by the panicked crowd. He could feel his heart racing and struggled to calm it. Limbic Dampener would have made the process easier, but only the SOC had access to the expensive drug. He’d fought against the SOC during his long tenure in the SASS, but he had learned this much from them: Skill beat will. Panic helped no one in a crisis. He centered himself, kept his cool, felt his magical tide recede to a low throb, still present and ready.
The crowd broke, parting to either side, streaming into the alleys, leaving the street clear before him.
The street ahead was dominated by a shimmering curtain of air, large as a cathedral door, bending and wriggling like a heat mirage. Another crowd of people stood frozen around it, staring in disbelief as the shimmering patch blackened at the edges. The black faded to green, and the curtain peeled wider, smoking as if a hole were rotting through the very air.
The stink reached Swift even where he stood, making him gag as the curtain rotted wider, and the first creatures stepped through and out onto the street. They were small, brown humanoids, no bigger than large children. Their ears were pointed, their noses long and hooked. They mostly clutched swords and spears, but a few brandished guns. The crowd finally broke, running as the goblins came on and on, an endless flood of them, many riding wolves the size of small ponies. One of them hefted a spear and threw it at one of the fleeing traders. It caught the man in the shoulder and sent him to his knees, screaming, as blood began to spread across his white shirt.
Swift knew he should run, but his body refused to obey, frozen in disbelief at what he was seeing. He stood rooted to the spot as the first sorcerers emerged, their skins white with the chalky paint the goblins used to mark their magic users. One of these spit something in its own language and gestured at the people fleeing up the steps. A fireball shot from its hand and slammed into them, sending a woman flying, her gray suit-skirt crisping to ash as she tumbled through the air.
The crowd shrieked and pelted back into the building.
The goblins poured out of the portal until they filled the entire street and began to pile up the steps of Federal Hall. Here and there, standards bobbed, poles topped with the giant skull of a bird, striped red and orange. One of the goblins climbed up to stand astride the pedestal beneath the bronze statue of George Washington. It was slightly bigger than the rest, its face dotted with white, a long, leather cape around its neck sewn with shining bronze discs. It brandished a spear at its fellows, shouting.
The throng of goblins began to shift left and right across the street, clearing a path to either side of the curtain, leaving the cobblestones bare save for streaked blood and the bodies of those traders who hadn’t gotten out of the way in time. A goblin walked among them, stabbing down with a spear wherever one of them twitched or cried out.
At last, one of the wolfriders raised a horn to its lips and sounded a long, low note. It was answered by a shriek from inside the gate. The sound cut through the crowd, they surged with even greater fervor, running frantically. The first of them reached Swift, and he stepped out of their path, numb with horror.
Then the first new creatures came through.
They towered twelve feet in the air, their skins liquid black and cut only by a slash of white smile, showing dagger teeth. Their humanoid bodies were topped with long horns, their hands dragging longer claws. They flashed through the gate, moving across the street in discrete blinks, one second in one place, another in the next. They lit among the stragglers streaming around the building, cutting them down with great sweeps of their clawed hands. The goblins drew back from them, shivering at the cold they exuded.
Gahe, the Mountain Gods of the Apache. Relentless, vicious monsters that froze with a touch or killed with a swipe of their dagger claws.
Swift’s eyes widened as a woman step through the curtain, the giant black creatures parting respectfully around her.
She wore a suit of black leather armor, edges crudely stitched with strings of hanging beads, dotted with white patterns much like the skin of the goblins around her. Her own skin was milk pale, her black hair cut in a severe bob, almost jutting to points along her jawbone. Her eyes were wide, dark, and hauntingly beautiful. She surveyed the scene, the corner of her mouth quirked in satisfaction. A shimmering pulse passed through the air from her head to one of the huge black creatures surrounding her. It nodded, more pulses passed, and they began to fan out into the street, now eerily quiet.
She nodded back at the monster, then turned to the curtain behind her, extending her hands. The air pulsed and the curtain’s edges began to rot once more, faster now, fading from green to purple to black in rapid succession, tearing ever wider, until the ragged hole in the air stretched beyond the edges of the buildings, easily admitting more of the slick black monsters, horned heads tossing, dagger smiles grinning, fanning out into the charnel-house corridor that had once been Wall Street. Training or no training, the panic won out then, and Swift was airborne, streaking through the sky back to his safe house.
Because he knew that woman. Because he knew what she could do.
What she would do.
She could have had a roc carry her the forty stories up. One of the goblin Aeromancers would have been happy to oblige. But this was a homecoming, and Scylla wanted to walk in the front door, just like old times.
For the most part, it was. Naeem, the doorman, showed no sign of recognizing her as she strode in, one of the tall Gahe beside her, a small cluster of goblins coming behind. He backed up behind the counter, mouth agape, eyes dinner-plate wide.
The building was just as she remembered it, wide-beamed hardwood floors and cast-iron sconces giving the lobby a stately splendor that served as a reminder: This wasn’t a building for everyone. Only the greatest of the great lived here. The ceiling was hand- painted in rococo style, pompous and overblown, replete with gold leaf. Fortunately, this was one of the few buildings in the city with ceilings so high that even a Gahe’s horns wouldn’t scrape them.
“Hello, Naeem,” Scylla said, “any mail for me?”
Naeem blinked, recognition dawning on his face. “You’re . . . You’re dead.”
Scylla laughed. “Yes, well. Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”
He snatched up a phone, punched three digits, held it to his ear for a moment before pulling it away and looking at it.
“I think you’ll find the lines tied up, old friend,” Scylla said. She looked at her feet. He had been an old friend, after a fashion. It was all gone now. Ruined. She shrugged off the emotion. The die was cast. It was no time to go soft. “I’m heading up.”
Naeem shrank behind the counter, uselessly punching those same three digits over and over.
She headed to the elevator bank. A single car occupied the end closest to the counter. It only serviced one floor: the penthouse, where Scylla had lived before magic changed everything. She pressed the single, stainless-steel button.
The doors didn’t open.
She turned slowly toward him. The goblins surrounded the counter. One slapped a javelin down on the reflective surface and struggled to scramble up the smooth front with little success. Scylla guessed it might have been comical under other circumstances, but Naeem only stared at the javelin, face slack with horror. The creature finally rolled up on one elbow and mantled up onto the counter. It snatched up the weapon, jabbing it at the doorman’s throat. Naeem screamed and backed into the corner, pleading in his native Urdu.
This wasn’t the time for sentiment. She was a war leader now. But Naeem had served her faithfully all the years she’d lived here. He’d delivered her packages, taken her messages, made sure to send her holiday greetings for occasions counter to his own faith. He had, in his way, cared for her. He didn’t deserve to be harmed.
But she hadn’t won the goblin Defender tribes to her banner by promising mercy. They wanted revenge on humanity, and they would have it. She knew no single life was worth losing the loyalty of half her army.
She had to sacrifice a few for the good of many. She need only allow it until victory was secured, then she would turn her cheek, give the good cop control. She thought briefly of Mao’s axiom: The people are the sea, and the insurgent is the fish. So long as the sea is hospitable to the fish, you will never catch them all. First she would hurt them, then she would win them.
The Gahe came to stand at her side, watching impassively. She suppressed a shiver. The things were damn cold. It thought-pulsed to her, pictures forming in her mind. The Gahe could speak to anyone with their thought-pictures. It was a useful trait, and had made it possible to communicate with the goblin tribes, to give them the words of inspiration needed to bring them to her banner. Revenge against the humans for FOB Frontier, that hated outpost in the Source that had brought such misery. Scylla had destroyed its perimeter, opened it wide for their plunder. Now she could complete their revenge. More importantly, she promised that with their help she could bend the humans to submission, ensure they never again set foot on goblin lands.
Even now, the creatures poured through the breach between the planes, eager to vent their rage. Too long had they been helpless in the face of humanity’s superior technology and magical might. Now they would show the people who had built a military outpost in their backyard the other end of the spear.
The breach was one of two in New York, rotted out of thin spots between the planes. The Gahe could sense them but only pass through singly when some lucky shift in the planar fabric permitted it.
But they could show Scylla where the thin spots were, and her rotting magic Bound easily to anything.
The Gahe flashed another picture in her mind. The second breach, opened out in the water off Manhattan’s tip. The other half of a pincer, closing around New York’s tender throat. She nodded, and the Gahe changed the subject to the third breach, in Mescalero, showing her an image of the dust-choked pass between red cliffs even now filling up with goblins, Gahe marching at their head. Few humans lived out in that wasteland, the least populated corner of a sparsely populated reservation. Those few ran out to the Gahe, grinning like fools, shouting greetings and wordless whoops of joy. The Apache Selfers, who worshipped the Gahe as their “Mountain Gods.”
The Gahe thought-pulsed the image again. The single Mescalero breach wasn’t enough. It pulsed images of the six thin spots it had shown her across the reservation grounds.
It didn’t care about New York beyond the chance to visit violence on the humans who had shunted its children, as it thought of the Apache, into desert prisons. Once, the Apache had ruled the mountains as far as they could see. The white eyes had stolen everything from them: their families, their lives, their land. And now they would do the same in the Source.
Scylla smiled at the irony; she’d always thought it was humanity who would be influenced by the strangeness of the Source, but the influence ran both ways. To the Apache, FOB Frontier was another Fort Sill, an enemy encampment in the midst of an indigenous homeland, and the Gahe saw it that way, too.
It wanted to be in Mescalero. All the Gahe did. But that wasn’t the deal. Scylla would rot the other thin spots open in Mescalero only after she was paid.
Her price was New York.
The goblin reached with the javelin, pricking Naeem’s neck. His eyes ranged over the creature’s shoulder, finding hers, pleading.
In spite of herself, Scylla hissed loudly, and the goblin froze, looking up at her. She motioned sharply and it stepped back, leaving Naeem gasping, a small bead of blood working its way down to stain his collar. The creature’s eyes narrowed, and she saw the dawning sense of betrayal. Revenge denied, a promise broken.
She knew it was a tactical error, a softness she couldn’t afford if she was to win this. She told herself that when Latentkind took its rightful place at the helm of the world, they would still have to live alongside humans like Naeem. There was no need to antagonize them needlessly. Let her begin showing mercy now.
But she saw the anger in the goblin’s eyes and knew the right of it.
Naeem fumbled frantically under the counter, and the elevator door chimed and opened.
“Thank you, Naeem,” she said, then turned and entered the elevator.
“Wait here,” she said to the goblins. They hungered for revenge, but they were terrified of her magic, and she’d shown her willingness to use it when she wasn’t obeyed. It would hold them, and do double duty in cementing her position at the head of this army. If she was to lead, she had to be obeyed.
The Gahe joined her as the doors slid shut, and the elevator sped skyward. It was precisely as she remembered it, save that the new owner had removed the end table she’d kept in the elevator car, along with the apple-shaped dish her sister had given her as a college-graduation gift. She’d used it to store change and keys for years.
The elevator rose quickly enough to put butterflies in her stomach though much of that could be anger, or satisfaction. Outside, her army was spreading through the streets of New York, beginning to make good on the debt she owed this government, this country— justice delayed but not denied. Her apartment was only one small sliver of that, and perhaps the least important, but it would feel so good to make this right.
And make it right, she would. The invasion was one small indulgence, the bite of chocolate cake before launching the new exercise routine. She gambled to win, not just for herself, but for all people, Latent and human alike. When the dust cleared, Latent people would be free to use their powers as they saw fit, and humans would understand their place in the genetic order, no longer tying themselves in knots to hang on to power they’d long since lost the right to hold. With magic decriminalized, there would be no more need to fight one another. Many had died to bring her to this point, but their numbers paled compared to how many she would save. The new order would be just. The new order would be peaceful. The new order would be free.
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