The booth was called the Interactive Environment System, or EYE-SYS for short (but most everyone had settled on "Isis," especially Jama, who found the nickname rather suitable). It sounded real impressive, but Jamadagni Renuka knew it was just a fancy name for a glorified multimedia display and data retrieval system. There was a line of about a half-dozen along on wall, each one a rounded vaguely egg-shaped ovoid that gull-winged open to reveal the user couch nestled inside. XSWAT had a full virtual reality room as well, but that was downstairs and only usable for training missions and special cases. It also only worked best for those who had a datajack—otherwise the "reality" presented tended to come up short of the user's expectations.
Peering at the well-padded couch, Jama gave it a critical analysis. The headset—combining goggles and headphones into one unit—sat next to a set of gloves, which in turn were wired into the processor at the base of the couch. Once enclosed, the user would be sealed into their own world, as the booth's shell kept out ambient light and sound, allowing for the best possible audiovisual experience.
Glancing at the couch, and her own uniform, Jama make a quick decision. There was no way she was going to spend the next few hours in there dressed as she was. Apparently, this was a common conclusion, as a rack stood next to each booth. Her belt went on one hook, her armored jacket another, followed by her boots. Starting at her socking-encased feet, Jama then pulled then off, wiggling her toes and enjoying the sensation of the cool floor on her feet.
Once inside she hit the button that dropped the door down and then settled herself on the couch. A fan whirred into action, wafting a faint breeze over her skinsuit-encased body. She shivered slightly, but knew better than to turn it off, the booth would warm up soon enough. The goggles and gloves on, Jama reached out and tapped the activation key, sitting back as the world flashed into light and color around her.
EXTRA SPECIAL WEAPONS AND TACTICS
Access To Authorized Persons Only
The words floated over a representation of the XSWAT insignia. Below were two words familiar to just about every computer user for the past 130 years or so.
Raising her hands, Jama started typing on the keyboard that appeared before her. J-R-E-N-U-K-A then *-*-*-*-*-*-*-*. She clicked Enter and everything dropped away.
When she'd first set up her account on "Isis," Jama had spent a little time making it look the way she wanted, meaning her 'office space' looked like a hut on the shore of a bright blue ocean. Waves crashed, seagulls called out, and the wind sighed through palm trees. It reminded her of home and helped her relax while reading extensive lists of on-line files and the like. But she was no Visonaire cruising the networks snapping up data-bits and the like. While nice to look at, the hut was little more than a static backdrop—she certainly couldn't go out the door and take a swim, for example.
Today, however, she was engaged in far more serious research, and couldn't afford distractions of any type. A quick series of commands brought up the default settings for an account—a featureless screen of pale blue, followed by number of icons representing XSWAT's servers. Taking a deep breath, Jama held it, counted to ten, and then exhaled. She was going to be here a while.
First the basics: Omega Sector was a rough-formed circle which covered about 85% of what used to be Kappa Sector. It was enclosed by a tall wall of reinforced ferrocrete, the top of which bristled with emplaced weapons, searchlights, alarm systems, and sensors. Almost all of it pointed in, as Angelus was far more interested in keeping things from getting out of Omega than stopping anyone from going in.
Jama gazed at the file footage her search brought up, noting the wide road that now ran around the base of the wall, the empty houses and offices across the road from Omega, the distinct lack of pedestrians and street traffic, and the small clusters of police at each observation tower. Angelus posted officers to select points of the wall, to keep a human eye on things—just in case. They were rotated out on a regular basis, with postings of two to four weeks (based on some sort of complex psychological eval that Jama was sure little more than guess work), less if the officer in question started to call in sick more than three days in a row. It apparently didn't help—officers on wall duty had a disturbingly high suicide rate, with some going so far as to take their families with them.
Pausing, Jama entered in a request and then scanned the result. Most suicides tended to shoot themselves while off-duty, at home, but not all.... Some had done it while on duty, simply drawing their sidearm, putting it to their head, and pulling the trigger. Worse, were the ones who let themselves down into Omega and then ran off, never to return. But most disturbing of all where those who stepped out of an observation tower for a break, to catch a smoke, get lunch, head home, or to another tower, and were ever seen again.
Death and madness. It seemed to follow Entities where ever they went. Hadn't Burton said something about that? About how they might feed off of such emotions? She would need to check.
So the question was now one of... "how did it get that way?" How had Kappa become Omega. The actual event itself had happened, literally overnight, on 31 October, 2093. But the roots of the incident stretched further back.
In 2032 a massive earthquake struck the west coast of the United States of America, as the San Andreas fault finally let go in cataclysmic burst of energy. Measuring nearly 10.0 on the now outmoded Richter Scale, the earthquake was even more powerful than the Indian Ocean quake of 2004, dropping much of California into the ocean and creating tsunamis that devastated the Pacific Rim. The death toll had been in the millions, making it the worst natural disaster in human history.
A few years after, while man was still trying to rebuild the nations shattered by the Cataclysm of 2032, science was forced to admit that "magic" was real. Having already been given proof of the existence of espers, it now had to deal with even more bizarre paranormal powers. This was followed by the first reports of Entities in 2040. Jama found that to be interesting. Carpenter had asked about earlier Entity incursions, but she wondered if he meant earlier than a mere 75 years ago. She also had to wonder which had come first... magic or the Entities... and had one brought the other? And how did the Cataclysm figure into all of this?
2046—the opening of Angelus. Jama pulled up a menu and cycled through a series of promotional videos showing the wonders of this marvel of the 21st Century. It seemed strange to see Angelus so empty and clean, with Kappa sector just another part of the city, and not a walled-off circle of insanity. The audio portion she killed quickly, cutting off the inane patter in mid sales-pitch. There was only so much of that she was willing to take for research.
Some thirty years later, in 2074, Dominic Van Goren comes to Angelus. Jama opened a picture, showing tall man with a thin build, gray hair combed back fro his face and a neatly-trimmed goatee, holding his daughter, Hope, who was born the same year. Intrigued, Jama scrolled a series of images for Van Goren, showing him on a dig near the Aegean, with the King of Spain in Angelus, the famous photo of him in mid-incantation, summoning the barrier that saved the life of the Spanish King from Basque separatists, of him giving a speech, shots from his TV appearances, standing with various celebrities at some function, at his daughter's funeral....
Jama paused. Hope Van Goren had been killed in 2090 in what the media called the "Tyrell Disaster." A malfunction in a Tyrell Industries nanofactory released a swam of nanites, resulting in a dozen people suffering neural disruption resulting in instantly fatal strokes. Hope Van Goren had stopped at a red light while driving by the Tyrell complex and had been caught (as well as some other drivers) in the swarm. Her funeral was attended by a number of dignitaries from around the world, including several well-known sorcerers and the Spanish Crown Prince. Van Goren had retreated into his home after that, becoming somewhat reclusive. Then, on 31 October, 2093, Entities had come pouring out of his home, destroying everything in their path.
Jama paused again. What had Van Goren been doing in the three years between the death of his daughter and the Entity invasion? And what significance, if any, did All Hallows Eve have? Had he been trying to raise her form the dead? Doubtful, as the time between her death and the attempt had been too long. Or was he simply trying to raise her shade to speak with her? That seemed more likely. Necromancy was the art of foretelling the future by speaking to the ghosts of the past. Jama mulled than one over, then typed in a third option—Van Doren had attempted to summon an Entity to perform some task for him—which might have related to his daughter Hope, or... was he trying to get revenge on the company who'd killed his daughter?. Of course, there was also the final option—it was all coincidence and the death of Hope Van Doren and a date of 31/10/2093 meant nothing.
The arrival of Entities in Kappa Sector had touched off wholesale slaughter. Opening a file, Jama found al list of names that seemed to stretch on forever, giving everyone who'd been killed, wounded, or driven insane. She opened several at random—Jenny Kishiyama, age 34, who'd vanished that night, her body never recovered. Jim Chu, who'd lost an arm to something he described as a huge frog-like thing. Manfred Klement, reported as being cut in two by something akin to a lobster or scorpion. Jeff Dion, age 8, found wandering in a daze, naked and covered in blood, no longer able to scream. He'd died in an asylum in 2101.
The police had responded almost immediately, for all the good it did them. Yes, they'd won the fight, else she wouldn't be writing this, but at a horrific cost. Over 48 percent of the officers involved ended up either dead or wounded. It had gotten so bad that Angelus had pressed into service just about anyone they could find who could pull a trigger or swing a blade—fighters from the Lace and Steel, mercs on layover, and PA pilots from the offshore area. At the same time, combat engineers, construction cyborgs, and industrial cyberdroids were used to set up a perimeter, dropping buildings and building the initial retaining wall.
Having fought Entities, Jama had to wonder what it had been like for the first responders. None of them had survived the night, although a few had been able to radio warnings back to the next wave. But as the night went on, communications became more and more spotty. The numbers were staggering. Over 1,000 Class One Entities destroyed. Twenty Class Two (or more), and at least two Class Three Entities had been encountered. Jama shook her head, causing the screen to shake for a moment. There was no real video footage, even from camera-equipped spinners and police units. Well, not exactly, there were a few clips in one directory, but all of them showed mostly static, shaky and out-of-focus shots of Kappa's streets, bright flashes, and dark shapes. And none were more than a few seconds. Jama wasn't even sure if they were from the night in question, and the Read Me stated the quality had rendered all attempts at identification impossible.
Another directory yielded up a list of AARs as well as "artist's renderings" of what had happened. There were 2D drawings, 3D models, some CGI clips recreating some of the action, as well as a host of maps and diagrams. The drawings showed mostly Class Ones—armored slugs, worms with teeth, spiders with far too many legs, the aforementioned scorpion and frog things. The 3D models were attempts to render the Class Two and Threes. Jama grabbed one and began to move it around in her hands, looking at it from all sides, working the limbs, watching the play of muscle, skin, and spines as she did so. It was a "typical" Class Two, with didgitgrade legs, long arms ending in claws, a narrow head, and a forest of spines on the back.
The last directory contained sound files and a flashing warning. Analysts had found many of the sound files "disturbing." That was the word used, "disturbing." Jama let the floating sign blink off and on for a few moments then touched an icon.
She'd try just one.
The audio was patchy, broken by static and the sounds of weapon fire. As the file played out, a transcript scrolled past.
Audio Log 1257, 31/10/2093
1st. Voice: Movement!
2nd. Voice: Position?
1st. Voice: Can't lock up...*static*
2nd. Voice: Talk to me, Paxton!
3rd. Voice: There's nothing on IR!
1st. Voice: Back up! Let's get the fuck out of here!
4th (female) Voice: Watch it! *static* Move it! Behind you!
5th Voice: *static*...lay down...*static*...by pairs to...*static*
2nd Voice: Scott? Tipping? Steedman? Come in!
1st. Voice: Get if off! Get if off! Get if off!
*loud winding howl*
Jama switched off the file.
Her hand hovered a second file, labeled "animal noises." There was a deep bass grunt that made the headphones buzz, followed by a wet noise and then what could only be described as chewing sounds. She turned that off as well.
It seemed Omega played hell with sensor systems as well as minds. Compasses would spin and refuse to point north, a GPS gave back false readings, chronometer—even digital ones—would run backwards. Jama tagged this with a note reminding herself to do draw up a comparison between Omega and the fabled "Bermuda Triangle"—a lot of the stories sounded the same. Probes had been sent into Omega on many occasions, and as Sergeant Hemelshot had said, none had returned, even the esper and magical ones. Up to about a city block from the wall one was "safe," beyond that... well, no one had ever returned. Hmm... it seemed Tyger had seen action in Omega, having engaged Class Two Entities near the safe zone. She'd have to ask him for the AARs (provided he'd written any) or the video feed from his Armor.
These days Angelus used the cover story of "in 2093 terrorists detonated a dirty low-yield neutron-based weapon" in Omega Sector, hence the need to seal if off. Right. Jama found that one hard to believe. There were news feeds from the incident, all filmed from far outside of Omega, showing clouds of smoke, the lines of emergency vehicles, and construction crews. But no one had reported a flash, no mushroom cloud, no EMP pulse (although the havoc the Entities played with communications systems helped). Were the people of Angelus so willing to ignore Omega they'd swallow such an obvious fabrication? Did accepting the official explanation make people feel better, giving a "face," no matter how horrible, to the unknown? She had to wonder at that one.
Almost done now. The previous 9th Squad had gone into Omega. 05/10/2111, in search of one Michael Hart, son of the current Councilman. The younger Hart had managed to crash his spinner somewhere in Omega, and the father had demanded his rescue. Director Cadbury had refused—Jama couldn't blame her, based on Omega's history, but she'd been overruled and 9th Squad had been sent in.
There was another audio log here, but no warning sign. Jama took a deep breath and opened it.
Voice log #839392
Sgt. Weston: "This whole place feels... hungry, somehow."
Sgt. Kinkaid: "All the angles look wrong. Makes my eyes hurt."
Cpl. Saffron: "What time is it? My chronometer's gone crazy."
Officer Omar: "Did you see that? Scanners malfunctioning. I can't get a lock on the locator beacon. No, wait—there it is. Fuzzy readings, though."
Sgt. Weston: "What is that? Just what the hell is that?"
Cpl. Saffron: *screaming*
Sgt. Weston: "Warden, give us some damn cover fire!"
Sgt. Weston: "Saffron, come in. Saffron!"
Sgt. Weston: "Keep close people, we've got to get moving."
Sgt. Weston: "(interference makes this message difficult to understand)...this way!"
Sgt. Weston: "(interference) ...dark. Get out of... (interference)"
TO LIVE AND DIE IN OMEGA SECTOR
Part 2: Outside The Wall
Jamadagni Renuka lived in a top floor three bedroom condo. She hadn't picked it out, and would have been happy in a far smaller place. Director Cadbury, in fact, had presented her with her new home in Angelus, and Jama suspected she's pulled some strings to get it. Either that or Angelus subsidized housing for is police and XSWAT personnel, since there seemed to be a higher than normal percentage of police officers in the local area.
When confronted with such a (relatively) large space, Jama had been quick to make do. She lived out of one bedroom, while the second became her study and library, and the third become a multipurpose room, where she often practiced new spells and sorceries.
It was into this third room that Jama now walked, her body bare of any clothing, her hair undone and falling far down her back. The blinds hand been drawn, the lights were out, and the only source of illumination was the dim glow of joss sticks and coals in the brazier in the center of the room. Green eyes focused on the glowing embers, Jama knelt before the low dish of hammered brass, tossing in a handful of incense and dried herbs as she settled herself.
Closing her eyes, she murmured a barely audible mnemonic over and over and over, her hands reaching out to almost caress the faint wisps of smoke before her. Reaching out, she picked up a small clay pot and removed the brush leaning against the rim. With uncanny precision, she painted a black line over each eyelid and then drew an eye-shaped outline on her forehead. Her breathing deepened, her body relaxed, her heart rate slowed—her trance was complete.
Jama opened her inner eye.
So this is realm of the void, where all becomes one. She could see herself, as if looking in a mirror, noting with some satisfaction that Hemelshot's exercise regime was paying off. She looked to be in better shape now then she'd ever had, a life time of swimming and surfing off of the cost of Bali not withstanding.
She let herself drift slowly, getting used to the idea of floating freely in space, walls and doors no obstacle to her mind's eye. Hemelshot would love to know what happens when I Gaze Upon the Void. I should write up a report on its utility for observation. She paused, considered her current state of undress. After I determine if I can open myself to the Void and still remain in uniform.
Exiting her apartment by simply flying up through the roof, Jama turned in a circle before finally settling on her target—Omega Sector. The Sergeant said not to go in, so I won't. I go up to the edge, look over. See if there's any activity. See if Ysarille is making his presence known or if he's hiding.
* * * * *
The wall surrounding Omega Sector loomed before her as she approached. Built up over the years, it had lost much of its original patchwork look to become a smooth-sided solid barrier against the crawling horrors of Omega. It stood some four stories in height, the top cut into crenellations and lined with searchlights and weapons systems—none of which were visible from the outside. Here and there towers poked up, their tops lined with sensors and antenna. Inside the wall, police officers made their rounds along a parapet, masers slung at the ready. A few of the patrolling figures were the bulky shapes of cyborgs, who carried massive C-90s—just in case.
Jama had seen Omega Sector many times—but only in pictures. Her course at the Academy had covered law and procedure, and while Omega had been mentioned, they'd never taken any of the cadets there. For a moment, Jama had to wonder about that. Perhaps potential XSWAT officers should spend a few hours on the Omega wall, just to give them a taste, albeit brief, of what they would have to face later.
Rising over the edge of the wall, Jama took note of the lights, the guns, the guards, and wondered how long it would last when Ysarille decided to make his move. Would the wall hold? Would it slow down the Entity and his minions? Or would Ysarille simply ignore all of Angelus's attempts to hold the unknown at bay? Realizing she'd been putting off the inevitable,and with Hemelshot's stories of what happened to previous attempts to scry into Omega running through the back of her mind, Jama turned and took her first real look into Omega Sector.
It looks like a ghost town. Like something out of a VR game or movie.
In fact, it looked as if a nuke might have gone off within the sector at one point. No one had ever gone in to clean up after it was abandoned, so Omega was, in a sense, a time capsule of sorts, forever showing a Angelus as it looked in October of 2093. Buildings stood, their windows mostly empty of glass, lining equally empty street where the only traffic was blowing leaves and other litter. A decade of weather had eliminated most trash, but there were still drifts of broken glass, scattered piles of rubble and debris, and the rusted and rotten wrecks of vehicles. Amazingly, there was plant growth as well, brilliant green masses of twisted weeds and trees poking up here and there. It all looked serene and very, very surreal.
--come to me--
Looking back and forth, Jama found the view fascinating, and wished she was allowed to go in further and get a closer look. For a such dead, still, an deserted visage, there was so much to see, to investigate, to discover. Such as... there! Something moved on the edge of her vision—something was out there, prowling amid the ruins. She paused, waited, patient, hoping to catch whatever it was in the act. There! It moved again! It was... a broken vehicle gate, swinging back and forth in the wind. Chagrined, Jama sheepishly glanced around, trying to convince herself it had been something else. That there really had been something moving out there. And it wasn't just a trick of the light, or the shadows of trees being blown in the wind.
--come to me--
In her present state Jama could neither hear nor feel the breeze, which was apparently blowing in gusts anyway, if dead leaves in the streets were any indication. It certainly wasn't blowing so strong as to bend trees and cause their branches to ripple and twist. To seemingly reach out, the end twigs grasping at... at...
Jama snapped her gaze up from the ground to the motionless stand of trees and quickly looked away. Even viewing Omega remotely was starting to affect her, so what was it like for officers on the wall? Or for those who had to go inside?
The first few hundred feet did look normal, if you could call a deserted mass of buildings in the middle of a teaming city of millions "normal." It looked like any number of abandoned regions the world over, to be honest. Almost tranquil in fact. But deeper, further in, Jama could see a slow progression as the air itself seemed to darken. People had talked about how things didn't look right the further you went in, and several transcripts, the previous 9th Squad among them, spoke of "incorrect" angles and "non-human geometry." Even now, she could sense something wrong with the depths of Omega. Her attempt to follow a road in with her eyes gave her a sense of nausea, as the ostensibly straight road seemed to twist and turn the more she stared at it. Distant buildings looked to lean over it, like vultures, while others looked to bend away.
--come to me child of Hecate--
Blinking her eyes, Jama shivered, and wondered for a moment what Omega would look like with her Mage Sight. She had a sudden feeling she really didn't want to know. And to attempt to Look Upon The Void within Omega might grant her access to vistas that her mind wasn't ready to accept, that might never be ready to accept, that might drive her mad in an instant, probably to run into the depths of Omega and to her doom.
The depths. What secrets did it hold? What was in there, hidden, lying in wait for those foolish enough to trespass where only the ghosts of those slain on that fateful night should tread? Could she see in to the center of Omega, from here, on the wall? The way seemed preternaturally clear and if she mentally squinted, willing herself to see more clearly, it seemed she could do it.
--come to me child of Hecate join me--
The empty windows and gaping doors made the buildings look almost like faces; greedy, hungry faces glaring out at the rest of Angelus. They loomed over her, twisting and bending, as if shoving each other out of the way in an effort to be the first to devour her mind, body, and soul.
Wings, ragged and translucent, fluttered behind the wreckage of a videoscreen, a multi-fingered hand snatched the corpse of a bird off of a ledge. A shape crawled back into the shadows, while a sinuous tentacle reached questingly from an open storm drain. She felt pressure to look further, come closer, to examine Omega first hand, to be able to see clearly what was only a suggestion of form amid the gloom. Omega was calling to her, urging her to join it, to answer its call and realize her destiny....
With a supreme effort of will, Jama turned her head away, breaking eye contact with Omega, her consciousness reeling across Angelus. There was a presence lurking deep in Omega, and ancient, evil presence, a presence who wanted her, and those like her, who wanted power.
She only hoped that when the time came, she'd be able to face it.