EQUIPMENT: Standard team equipment PURPOSE: Brief Briefing
Nobody said it was going to be a nice, quiet mission, but everybody was thinking it. Bailey could tell, because he knew his team. When the mission wasn’t going to be nice and quiet, there was a lot more activity and a lot more attention. Usually that started with Nova getting this intense look, then Vanya getting this bounce in her leg she couldn’t stop, then Kim, Inigo, and Donny would start to discuss equipment and check and re-check everyone’s supplies. Roz would’ve been smoking in the breakroom, which was usually fine, but she personally preferred the parking garage, unless she was overthinking something. Ferris tended to be calm about it, but then again, Ferris could keep his calm about just about anything.
But right now, none of that was happening. Each team member was dressed in their definition of “casually” – Kim in an overpriced museum T-shirt with Van Gogh’s sunflowers on the front, Nova pristine as ever in a lab coat, Roz in simple brown tank top and khaki shorts, Donny approximately overdressed in a collared shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up and slacks, Ferris similar but with blue jeans, Vanya in daisy dukes and a crop top that read “I support women’s wrongs” in pastel font with a little purple heart, and Inigo in a faded “Empire Strikes Back” tee and cargo pants.
Nova had notes scattered around the long table Lepidopterists tended to use as a base of operations, working out her latest theory about her latest ontokinetic by talking to Roz, who interjected at points but seemed to know what she was talking about. Kim lounged in a chair with a sketchbook propped on one knee, while Inigo and Vanya discussed some soap opera Bay only recognized from exposure to their conversations. Ferris was reading a detective novel. Donny meticulously cleaned his rifle, not the nervous check-and-double-check of pre-mission nerves but the absent actions of someone performing a necessary but familiar task while his mind was elsewhere. Each member of the team had a butterfly somewhere on their person, which seemed as invested in their current activity as they were.
Bay himself was at the counter, steeping a tea bag. He had a t-shirt on that read “Plato’s Cave Search & Rescue Team”, dark blue jeans, and beat up brown Converse high tops. As he went about his work, anyone coming in would see him set the teabag in the sink –
and then it’d be gone, into the trash.
Same thing with the honey, and the book that had been on the counter that was momentarily forgotten until he was sitting on the table, where it rested by his left arm while he stirred the drink with his right. There was a butterfly there, wings twitching gently, and maybe it had always been there. As he looked at the insect, the book opened to his last marked page, and he rested his chin on his left hand to read it, tuning out the chatter from his teammates.
A good look at Bay’s face would catch the distraction in his eyes, like someone with far too much on his mind to remember something like “remembering the tea bag in the sink”, and she helped fill in those gaps when she could. Some people said it gave him a sleepy expression, like someone constantly daydreaming. Maybe he was, maybe he’d always been, maybe it was just the way his face was cast and he was always on the alert. Who knew? Certainly not the rest of the team, or if they did they’d always known. But they never really asked, instead focused on being unfocused until it was time for business.
They were still waiting on an additional team member, who’d be leading a quick experiment with ACF-707 and then join them on the day’s main collections mission. She wasn’t late, exactly, but then again the team hadn’t actually agreed on a time to meet, just told her “come around in the morning when you’re ready.” They definitely didn’t seem field-ready themselves, but if they needed to be, then they obviously would’ve always been.
Word had finally gotten to Butterfly about the potential reactions between an alternate plane of existence and the Butterfly Effect’s abilities, and yes, a little more preparation had been needed than usual, but everything for that had been checked and double-checked the night before following SV-2’s approval. If it didn’t work, or something went wrong, they’d be able to just use 707 or the van for transport. Like any STRH worth their salt, they always had a backup plan for unknown factors.
They’d all read the reports, after all, which was not something many FCRTs could boast.
Nobody was too worried about it, although Roz did express a lot of interest in attempting communication with the things-in-there and Kim had wanted to try out a memetic from the interior of their visors that might work as a perceptions-based translator, which might work to understand the screaming babble of the things inside ACF-7823-B. Right now only Roz and Bay had it, when they’d always been in their armor, which right now they hadn’t. Roz because she seemed fascinated by the concept and Bay because he was team-lead. They would’ve done Kim’s instead, but she seemed to have a resistance to her own memetics, so it was unlikely to work on her.
Besides, Bay tended to have a lot of questions that other agents might not think of. There were always ideas turning behind his distant eyes, he just tended to surprise people when he voiced them out loud.
There was a nervous energy in Pepper that she couldn’t seem to shake out. She had tried all morning to bounce it out, to jump it out, to dance it out, and yet here she was, still nervous. The cause of her nervousness lay just beyond the door to breakroom 7B. Today was the day that she was scheduled to take the Lepidopterists through the Dark Dimension to see what effects it might have on ACF-707. It had taken nearly two full years for them to organize this, and she was terrified of messing it up. She had seen the FCRT team hanging around before- she knew who they were, even if they didn’t know who she was.
She wasn’t really worried about the experiment itself- whatever happened, happened, and the point was to document what happened. As it happened, (was that even a real word anymore?) Pepper had a vague idea of the possible outcomes, as they had brought some smaller ontokinetic anomalies through already, with drastically different results. They would never really know what the outcome would be until they actually walked through that doorway and into the hell plane.
No, what Pepper was worried about was disappointing Cody people. A lot of people had worked hard to set this up, and returning without any cohesive conclusions was Pepper’s worst fear. So she stood, just outside the door, trying to psyche herself up. She bounced on her heels and paced a little, her headphones bumping away in her ears. She was listening to a new playlist she had made, and the particular song that was playing was only helping her to shift her nerves to a different issue she had to deal with at some point.
Finally, she pulled the headphones out of her ears, wrapped them up, and tucked them into the zipped pocket of her overalls. She adjusted the floral belt and straightened the short sleeves on her rainbow top. They had told her this was a casual mission, so she had dressed down a bit more than she usually did for the ACF. She was by no means adherent to the gray color that served as most of their dress guidelines, but she avoided the rainbow and floral ensemble she was currently wearing. Then, after tucking her hair behind her ears, Pepper pushed open the door and walked into the room.
“Hi! Sorry to keep you guys waiting. I know we didn’t really define a time to show up, I was just a little busy this morning. Had to sign off on some stuff before coming.”
"Ey, there she is!" Inigo cut his conversation with Vanya short with a wide grin. Most people wouldn’t expect him to be the most perceptive on the team, not with his bad eye, but there was a pair of green wings over the white scar and his other eye had a spark of genuine pleasure at seeing Pepper come in. Vanya shared the expression, and added a quick wave.
"Don’t sweat it," Kim said as she flipped her notepad shut, and then it was gone, along with her pencil. "I’ll bet Bay didn’t finish ours until this morning either."
"Hey, this time it wasn’t my responsibility." The team lead looked over his tea at Snow. "Nova probably got it done last week."
"If it hasn’t always been done," she answered him, in that ominous tone that indicated she’d likely just gotten it done last night, which was much more reasonable in either direction.
"Well? Don’t let these weirdos scare you off, take a seat." Roz started to help Nova collect up the papers, and of course there had always been nine chairs at the table, the empty one between Vanya and Donny, who was reassembling the rifle with professional care. Ferris and Bay both bookmarked their pages, and the books were gone, too.
Bay sipped his tea, and Kim unwrapped a piece of gum and popped it into her mouth. They both stood up and then stepped toward the counter. All heads turned toward them.
"Okay, Fourteen-One – and Peppers, it’s very nice to have you – we’ll keep this quick. Mission parameters: one, check ontological boundaries in the Dark Dimension. Two, test memetic responses to Dark Dimension denizens–"
"You just wanted to say ‘denizens,’" Donny interrupted, teasing. Kim hid a smile behind a green bubble, and Vanya put her face on her arms on the table.
Bay just trucked on, "– two point one, establish contact with them if we can. Three, anomalous collections. We’ll brief more on that one after one and two–"
"Yes, Roz, and two-point-one are done. Any questions from anybody?"
"And he means any," Nova added, to Pepper. "We’ve got time, if you haven’t been briefed on 707 and the rest of us, now’s the time to get it out of your system."
“I suppose I do have a question. Or a few I suppose. I know a bit about 707– I’ve read the papers, or most of them anyway– but correct me if I’m mistaken, have they ever effectively been taken between dimensions or realities? Just so I know the base answer to what is the most pressing issue regarding the Dark Dimension. We still haven’t exactly determined its extradimensional status. Would going into a pocket dimension be different for it than traversing between realities?”
Pepper took a few steps further into the room, officially joining the team. She would be lying if she said they didn’t have an air about them that immediately put the young researcher at ease. There was a vibe, to put it in layman's terms, a vibe of familiar energy. Everyone in the room was at ease and at ease with each other. That kind of atmosphere was where Pepper felt the most comfortable.
She couldn’t help the way her eyes passed from butterfly to butterfly. They were fascinating to see in person. One second they would be somewhere, but then it was like they were never there at all, and they had always been somewhere else. Some of them were calm and didn’t flutter around as much as the others, but the one attached to the woman with the blonde hair– Vanya, Pepper thought– that one was particularly active. It was constantly where it hadn’t been and constantly where it had always been. Pepper had been somewhat prepared for the perception issues, but it was honestly almost enough to make her head spin.
“And, of course, I would love to answer any questions you guys might have as well. Two-way street and that. I’m sure you’ve reviewed my files, but there might be some stuff I know that isn’t in there.”
The tortoiseshell half of Aesop liked to get new perspectives, and the Vanya half didn’t mind the alterations to her appearance, so it wasn’t uncommon to see the butterfly moving from her hair to her shoulder to her hand to her knee to the words on her shirt to the end of her ponytail. Most people could just tune it out, but she felt Pepper’s eyes on her, and immediately shifted positions. It wasn’t quite distracting, but it was enough to make sure that it was her that was being watched, and not the other way around, whatever the original way around was.
"It would, actually," Bay said, ignoring the display as he nodded toward Dr. Neves. "Nova, if you could do the thing?"
She smirked. "Which thing? There are a lot of things for this thing."
"The– the tapestry one."
"Ah! The Councilman’s favorite." Nova sat back in her seat, and started to talk a bit with her hands as she began to explain, the Snow Apollo resting on the back of her left wrist. "Pocket dimensions are fine. They’re just sub-dimensions of our reality, but extra-dimensional spaces are a different place entirely. Imagine that everything is a tapestry. Everything in our world, at least – time and space are the backdrop, and matter is made up of embroidered figures that can move about in two dimensions. Seven-oh-seven is a series of threads woven directly into the backdrop, but is also capable of moving about on its own, creating new embroideries as she goes. Now the other figures can be removed from the backdrop and put on another backdrop. Some figures are more iron-on and can move freely between realms, some have to be cut out, and that’s nasty business but doable. But the Butterfly Effect is threaded and tied into the original backdrop, and cannot move between backgrounds. A pocket dimension works like a patch or extension stitched on to the original tapestry, which the figures can move onto, and which belongs to the same weave as the original. That makes it different. But without connection to the original – unless, say, two realities were to start to bleed together – 707 isn’t able to move to the new background at all."
"And reality bleeding together would be cataclysmic," Roz added, helpfully. "I have questions about the people in there – what they’re like, their culture, if they seem to have any kind of artifacts to their dead god, what their names might mean if they have defined leadership, maybe even language patterns and how they might roughly translate."
This was nothing new for Roz, with a BA in historical anthropology. These were questions she’d have for dead cultures if they weren’t – well, gone. To have a living culture separated from the current not by time, but by dimensions? She was a kid in a candy store, even with her deep voice and gentle lisp. The sandhill skipper on her glasses frames eagerly fluttered her agreement.
"I’ve whipped up a design that might help us interpret them, since it’s perceptions-based," Kim added, "but it’ll be nice for us to have a baseline so we’re not asking obvious questions."
Pepper fiercely nodded along as Nova presented the facts to her. A tapestry was a brilliant way to explain things. It made it very simple to understand where 707 could go and why. It also perfectly answered her question regarding alternate realities and pocket dimensions. Having 707’s butterflies step through a doorway would clear it up once and for all what kind of place the Dark Dimension actually was. This was very good news. Pepper’s personal hope was that they were dealing with a unique dimension, but a pocket dimension was always good. She just wanted to know where to take her future research.
Then, the one she thought was named Roz started pitching questions to her. They were all good questions, good things to get out of the way now. Where to start was the real question. Pepper touched the palms of her hand together as she began to think.
“Good questions. Okay. Let’s start with what they’re like. I know we haven’t really put this down in paperwork, but the ones we’re going to be seeing today are, what we presume to be, a death cult. There are dozens of other kinds of denizens, but most are hostile toward us. I call the ones we’re going to see Shadow Birds, but that’s just because whatever they have on their skin absorbs all light that touches them, and they’re winged. I honestly have no idea what they really look like. They’re nomadic in nature, but they always come to wherever I am as soon as they sense me. There are a few theories as to why this is. Hopefully, you’ll be able to help figure that out today as well. They definitely have artifacts of their dead god. In fact, you’ll be able to see the dead god when we get there. Their leader is one named Mikulass. He’s always the first to approach, the first to talk. I’ve spent hours talking to them and trying to learn what I can, but as you’ll hopefully see, their language can be a bit tricky to understand. It’s not that they use any complicated language. They just have a way of talking that, well, I wish I could describe.”
Pepper paused to breathe. This was a lot of information, and Pepper had a feeling that it might lead to even more questions. She tried to think if there was anything else she could tell them before they asked more questions– and then she paused. “I do think I should warn you that they might be a bit cagey at first. They don’t like anything that looks like the Goddess, who apparently looks human. Before you ask, they don’t worship her, not really. But they have acknowledged her as their creator.”
The tapestry explanation rarely failed. Pepper seemed to be excited at the notion of using 707 to figure out which her Dark Dimension was. There was passion in the way she was handling it, and Roz and Nova exchanged a smile from across the table as soon as Pepper got the pondering look of a researcher getting into the down and dirty of what she loved.
Roz had a notebook and a Foundation standard ballpoint pen, and she started to write furiously as soon as Pepper started talking. The name Mikulass, a vague sketch of a shadow bird, and the phrase “Life Goddess, Dead God?” were all interspersed with Polish words. If anyone else in the room really wanted to understand it, they would’ve always spoken Polish, but they’d also have access to the report when Roz was done with it. That was much more polite than reading over her shoulder.
"Cagey I can do," she said, finally, with a triumphant click of her pen. "It’ll be just like Egypt."
"Didn’t you get arrested in Egypt?" Ferris asked.
"Yeah, what’s your point?"
"Like I said," Kim interrupted, "Roz and Bay have a memetic in their visors that will either help them interpret it or make them completely deaf for twenty minutes, depending. We also have disruptive memetic patterns on the exterior of all our armor. If it turns out 707 can’t follow we’ll have to step back out and do a quick re-design so nobody throws up, but that won’t take more than a minute if it comes to it."
"If that happens, we’ll have to regroup and discuss more than that." Bay looked serious, but not concerned. He glanced at the team, and then made a gesture with his hand.
And then, in a way that was both sudden and subtle, FCRT-14-1 had always been ready to go, casual clothes gone, helmets and visors down, dust masks pulled up over their noses and just leaving their eyes visible. Inside of Moth and Bay’s visors was what looked to be smudged chalk paint that left them just enough space to see, patterned after what might’ve almost been a written language but upon closer inspection was just barely off from any kind of cursive anybody would recognize.
Checkers’ armor was the simplest, checkered white and orange and brown across the shoulders of the black armor. Without suppression it would leave an afterimage, making him much harder to hit in CQC unless he was completely pinned down. And beside him, Peacock’s was the most complex, dizzying emerald and sapphire brush strokes and lines that if you stopped focusing on them looked like feathers with eyes that followed you, but if you tried to look too close they stopped making sense entirely. Without the suppression of 707, it could be completely hypnotic to the unprepared. It made her a good distraction.
Snow’s armor was predictably white, with a pair of red spots on her back where her shoulder blades met. She tended to know when there was a problem behind her, but now the problem would get this unsettling sense of dread just by being there. Moth’s was desert brown, and if you squinted, you might be able to see the grains of sand moving in waves, or maybe it was just the illusion as she shifted in her seat. Like ocean waves, watching that for any amount of time was enough to put most minds at ease. Widow’s was black. Very black. Looking too closely would show fractal patterns along its surface in a different black, and then a wave of drowsiness would follow. Grayling’s armor was, well, rock gray, all except for the palms of his gloves, which had been painstakingly traced with the capillaries of the human palm. Kim called them a healer’s hands. Holding the palm up beside an injury could perhaps help him gauge some things he shouldn’t be able to. She was very proud of that one.
As for Aesop, the patterns inside her joints looked almost like soft orange fur painted in gentle strokes, while the plates had larger fractal patterns that were done in dull brownish green, like a real tortoise shell and not the color tortoiseshell. If she stopped moving – she didn’t, always twitching a hand or flipping her ponytail or bouncing her leg – she would fade completely into the background, completely overlooked until she moved again. And finally, Brimstone’s armor was painted bright, reflective red and yellow over probably either a black or gray base, and it always managed to catch the light just perfectly so he practically glowed. Staring at him for too long caused nausea, and in sudden flashes like, say, an explosion? He could be blinding.
Of course, with the butterflies on their shoulders or elbows or hands, all effects of the memetic were disrupted as soon as the light caught them. They were only dropped for the final phases of most missions, or when going in to new territory, like now. Their effect on the “Shadow Birds” was a complete unknown, but Pepper would definitely be affected if the butterflies couldn’t go through. Kim had a few different ideas for what to do if 707 did have to stay behind – the team had already discussed the possibility, and they’d decided that, still being fully operational as an FCRT without the anomaly, they’d press on with a few touch-ups and meet the Butterfly Effect on the other side, at the listed coordinates.
The team was also fully geared up, complete with weapons. While it was well known that ACF-707 refused to provide weapons, with one exception, the arsenal was part of the fully equipped kit. Inigo had an added duffel bag full of demolitions equipment, Donovan had his long-range rifle, Roz – a doctor, typically unarmed – had an old desert eagle at her side, and Peacock’s guns had equally disorientating patterns splashed across them. Bay, noticeably, did not have a combat knife. In the case of emergency, he might have always had a balisong, and he’d collect it when or if he had to leave Little Bay behind.
Bay turned his visored head toward Pepper, and gave her a solid nod. "Anything else you need before we go?"
Pepper watched in fascination as between blinks, the team was outfitted in gear. That certainly had not been how they were before, but now she couldn’t shake the sense that they had always been like that. She bit her bottom lip in excitement as she took in each of their distinct armor sets. Kim’s armor set was by far the most distracting to Pepper, even with the butterflies dampening what she presumed were intense visual effects. The way the details shifted in and out of focus depending on where Pepper focused her eyes was a marvel.
Bay turned to her and asked her a question. Pepper thought for a second and looked down at her own civilian clothing. She had her notepad and pen tucked into her overalls pocket, a pair of safety scissors, her phone, her cassette recorder, her heavy gloves, and she had her own face covering. If they strayed from the path at all, she would need it. The other Denizens weren’t as kind to her as her own personal cult. While she wasn’t nearly as geared up as the team was, she had everything a researcher of her caliber required for the field. If she could have brought her mobile examination kit, she likely would have, but she figured lugging that thing around would have been detrimental to their progress.
“I think I have everything I need. Do we want to go outside before I open the doorway, or do we want to jump straight in from here?”
Vanya downright tittered at the suggestion they go outside. It was the first sound she’d made since Peppers had come in. Sometimes it was hard to tell how young she was, but with the giggle she seemed even younger. She was looking at Pepper’s expression, and she was also thinking about her question.
"Weirder [EXPLETIVE] than a little portal happens in here every day."
Bay couldn’t object, but he did give the Class-C agent a sidelong look before looking at Nova. "She’s technically right. In here should be alright. Dr. Neves, do you mind making sure we don’t get any wanderers while the portal’s open?"
Nova nodded, and snapped her fingers twice toward the door. Maybe there’d always been two more Apollo butterflies over there, clouded and false, but the room was being monitored. Anyone who came in would never have come in. A little disorientation in the hallway never hurt anyone, and would be indicative enough that they should pick a different breakroom.
While that happened, or processed, Donny and Inigo both stood, and Bay helped them move the table aside. The other team members moved the chairs around so that they were lined up against the wall, leaving enough space for Pepper to work with. For that part, they didn’t need to speak to coordinate. That being done, everyone stepped back and looked at Bay. Vanya and Kim both clicked on shoulder cameras – while the recording equipment might not work inside, it was still good to keep as much of a record as they could.
"Okay. Initial entry, March 7, 2021. Checkers will be taking point with Herald. Grayling, Moth, Snow, keep to the middle, Widow and Peacock take up the rear. Brimstone take left side, Aesop right side. Keep formation until otherwise indicated. If ACF-707 cannot follow through the portal, we step back in here and regroup. Field team ready?"
The field team echoed ‘ready,’ more or less in unison. Bay looked to Peppers.
Pepper took the center of the floor. While she didn’t really need her hands for this, it had become such an ingrained habit that she lifted them and waved them in a circle. Across from her on the wall, a matching doorway opened up. It was tall enough that everyone would be able to fit through, though the taller members of the team would certainly have to duck to make it through. After all, they were always the perfect height for Pepper- and Pepper was not very tall. In fact, she was the shortest person in the room.
On the other side of the portal, pitch blackness awaited them. For not the first time, Pepper looked at it and remembered a time when it had once been colorful. But that couldn’t be right. The path had always been through the Dark Dimension. But part of her brain insisted that once, there had been multiple entrance points. Once, there had been color and bright lights. Once, there had been water and amazing deep sea creatures. Once, there had been trees in a forest full of strange cat-looking creatures.
But that couldn't be right.
She stepped forward and entered the darkness, calling back over her shoulder, “I hope you have night vision on those helms of yours. You’re going to need it.”
On the other side, she was greeted by pitch blackness. Then, just as it always had done, light rose from the ground like a line of candles being lit. It wavered in the sky in curtains around her. The moment her feet touched the ground, she knew that her friends were already on the way to see her. Maybe they also saw the path as it lit up? Or maybe some part of her was a beacon, and it echoed throughout the world when she stepped in? Pepper turned to face the doorway and waited for the team to come through.
Checkers glanced at the darkness beyond the portal, and then glanced at his team with a nod. He and Moth would have to go without, for the memetics, but everyone else had a different helmet on. Even the doctors would have a more Stormtrooper helmet than the usual visor used in field armor. The lights in the room turned off as Checkers ducked through, followed by Moth, and the rest of the team switched to night vision before following.
Or, well, half of the rest of the team.
Checkers felt it immediately when he passed by. He looked back through the dark into Break Room 7B, and fluttering behind Moth were two small pairs of wings. Checkers felt something else wash through him without Little Bay. He recognized the anxiety before he could even think of its name.
But the butterfly was an aid, not a crutch. Checkers took a deep breath of the odd dimension’s air. Four seconds in, seven seconds held, eight seconds out. The anxiety dispersed. And without full visibility, they wouldn’t need to regroup back in 7B for memetic adjustments. Checkers did just reach back in with one hand, and when he pulled it back, he had his knife. Exercising with it would help keep his mind and hands distracted. He flipped it around once as Peacock passed him by. She looked at him, head tilted slightly, barely visible in the dim light. A query. He shook his head, and flipped the knife around again. She nodded, then signaled behind her, and the others started to filter in as Checkers resumed point. A voice crackled over the internal comms.
"Holy [EXPLETIVE], she wasn’t kidding about it being dark."
Checkers could just barely see Brimstone better than the rest as Kim’s design caught the slightest hints of light. He probably should have had him in the front as a beacon of sorts, but with his bad eye the team lead had to take into consideration his perception. Besides, everyone but Checkers and Moth could see right now. It was just barely enough that they could make out the symbol patterns on the interior of their helmets, and the movement of the other team members, but that was it.
"Internal comms functional," Peacock noted. It was a closed system, like walkie-talkies, so maybe that was why they still crackled through. Or maybe they were still close enough to the portal that it mattered.
Moth adjusted the backpack over her shoulder with one hand, with a field sample kit. She had to have thought of it before she stepped through, which was good. Her other hand went around Grayling’s arm, just for guidance. Snow moved behind them habitually, as it was usually best to have her eyespots toward Widow. Without color, however, the memetics weren’t a real hazard, although it did render Widow himself nearly invisible in the darkness. Aesop and Peacock stepped into formation with weapons ready but at ease, and Checkers let everyone take a moment to adjust to the butterflies’ absence before he looked at temporary-designate Herald and nodded again.
"Lepidopterists all present and in formation. Ready to move forward when you are."
Pepper waited as the team got organized upon coming through, and almost immediately noticed the butterflies hitting the wall. So it was another dimension. She quietly pulled out her cassette recorder and made a note of that, her voice a little excited. “First finding- the butterflies cannot enter the doorway. Dark Dimension is in fact a different reality.”
As she put the device back in her pocket, she started to walk. As they walked, she chatted a bit with the team, asking about their days and how they liked working on the team. About halfway down the path, the sound of wings descended around them. Pepper stopped and nodded. Down from the dark skies came Mikulass and his cult.
"A thousand greetings Heraldess of the Dead God, we are blessed by the presence of your steps. Tell us the shape of your walk. You have brought newcomers with you."
“Mikulass! It’s good to see you, my friend. I have brought some of my other friends here to meet you. They wish to ask you some questions, and I would have you cooperate with their efforts.
“As you ask, so we shall. Bring forth those made of stone and whose colors offend our eyes.”
Pepper turned to the team behind her and gestured with her arms. “They say they’re willing! Could you guys understand them with your memetics?”
Checkers maintained quite a bit of the conversation with Peppers, mostly to keep track of her in the dark. She seemed to know exactly where she was going, and he didn’t want to stumble over her by accident or worse, wander too far. Once, he paused for about twenty seconds and repeated the breathing exercise, followed by a soft sigh, then resumed until Widow’s voice crackled across comms.
"Bogies, direct above. Appear to be dark birds, mostly, if a little complex."
Checkers made a gesture with his hand. Close formation. While Herald didn’t seem worried, the team had no way to know that this was the death cult. It was best to close formation and wait. Widow kept an eye through his scope on the foremost one until it landed with a shriek, and Pepper addressed it by name.
Not everyone heard shrieking, however. Moth tightened her grip on Grayling’s arm so hard their armor creaked.
"Ferris. Ferris, I can understand him. Ferris–"
"Yes, I can tell," Grayling replied, dryly, as he gently peeled her hand from his arm. She immediately put that hand to the side of her head.
"Kim, you brilliant artist, Kim, they work."
She looked in Kim’s direction, and in the dark, she could just make out Peacock’s helmet bobbing emphatically. Her voice practically vibrated.
"I knew it. Perception! That’s the key to a lot– okay, I’m being normal about this, but also ohmygoditactuallyworked–"
Who could blame them, really? The Lepidopterists didn’t exactly have this experience every day. They weren’t an L-9 Team– partly because Butterfly strictly forbade it. While they had their little shared breakdown, Checkers had to be the adult. That was fine by him. He repeated his breathing exercise once, settling his nerves. Then he straightened his back and stepped toward Pepper, away from formation toward the unknown creature.
"A greeting, Mikulass, head of the Herald’s followers." Checkers was good at going with his instincts, and, while his stomach was still in knots for unrelated reasons, his tone was even, his voice clear. He had faked his way through the disorder for months before it became too much – a few minutes without Little Bay wouldn’t kill him. "I’m Checkers, I’m the leader of this group."
He waved for Moth, who was still vibrating, but had calmed down enough to start fishing her notebook and pen out of her satchel.
"This is our primary diplomat, Moth."
Roz nodded as she finally settled down for business. "Hello, Mikulass. I can’t express in words how happy I am to be able to speak with you and your people. I’ve studied many of the cultures of my world, and would love to hear more about yours. But first for the sake of Peacock, our armorer –" she gestured in Kim’s direction "– which color do you find most offensive, and why?"
The rest of the group had remained within formation. Brimstone was mostly confused, although he did keep turning his head to make sure he caught everything in the dark, even with the night vision, and the duffel bag was conveniently unzipped. Widow remained alert, eyes on Mikulass and the diplomats, rifle still in hand. He was feeling…tense, he decided, which was the natural way to feel with suppressed emotions. He wasn’t anxious, as Bay was, but there was an undercurrent of wariness, paranoia, and slight impatience. He did not act on these emotions, but he felt them, recognized them, and categorized them.
Snow could not tell if the cold feeling was her usual premonition when she was being watched, or the strange sense of separation from the Apollo after so long. The receptivity – synergy – had been artificial at first, but their experiments had created a tight bond between the two. She distracted herself with the knowledge that this was an entirely new plane of existence – a different world with different laws of ontokinetics. The loneliness faded as she pushed her mind to considering new theories.
Peacock’s joy was only matched by her curiosity as she looked at the cultists’ wings. The material that made them was so black it made everything around them seem bright, making them almost full voids on the night vision. She picked out features, however, and she knew what her next portrait was going to be, if she could just retain all the details.
The only team member who broke off was Aesop. She left formation to circle the area, moving around the team, cutting on occasion between them and Checkers and Roz. She was doing what she did best – not sitting still, staying in sight while also picking out the places that were out of sight, and being overall very nosy. She might not share the thrill the others had in their success, but she did want to know what was going on. She should’ve had Kim give her one, damn it. She did note and patch back about the issue with the armor – apparently, the birds found some of it offensive. She’d be ready to patch back the answer based on Roz’s response, too.
Pepper giggled a little bit at their excitement. She allowed them to take over communication with Mikulass, pulling out her own recording device and reciting notes. She documented the advancement in communications and the success of contact. After that, she simply waited as Mikulass tilted his head to the side. For a moment she thought they would answer the question, but instead, they turned to her. “Heraldess, do they speak not the language of the sphere?”
“Oh, right. They do not. But you can still understand them, right?”
Then, in halting English, Mikulass began to speak. “For today, the day your steps have led you to me, I will speak the language of the Goddess. You ask what color offends? It is the black one, whose blackness is more than just blackness. It offends our eyes. Its patterns, the ones that move, they cause us. What is word? Dizziness?”
Mikulass fluffed his feathers, and to those who could see, they would notice the eyes on the hinge of each wing. They rotated around wildly, looking in each direction. Except for Mikulass, whose eyes simply looked down upon the team. He tilted his faceless head to the side and ducked his beakless “head” under his wing.
“We greet you, whose feet have traveled far to we. Our Heraldess asks of us to assist you. We shall.”
Pepper knew that Mikulass could speak English, but this was the most she had ever heard of it. His voice was smooth, but halting, in a strange cadence that seemed to almost bounce on a beat. The moment he started to speak, she had hit record on her cassette player. There was no way she wasn’t providing an audio log of this for her personal files.
Aesop’s head snapped up when the thing started to speak slow, ponderous English. They had no problem hearing through an accent – neither Inigo nor Roz had spoken English as a first language when they came on, and even with the accent Mikulass’s voice was lovely to hear, deep and oddly pleasant. She was about to turn toward Peacock, but she saw Kim was already stepping forward of her own free will.
"That’s good to know." Peacock looked up at Mikulass as she took her place at her team lead’s side. "We seek no harm against you or your people, but if other denizens see what you do, then we will know for the future if they attempt to harm us or the Herald. The designs are meant to be disorienting, although I’m not sure you can see the colors on the others. Knowing to work with shades of dark is going to be good for future endeavors, although nothing I design can ever match the beauty of your wings, Mikulass."
Now everybody was saying ‘denizens,’ but Checkers didn’t seem to notice. He had looked down for a moment, and taken another deep breath. He felt Peacock’s hand on his shoulder. That helped. That was the third time since coming in here – it’d only been two minutes, if even that. But it was under control. Peacock wasn’t just flattering Mikulass, either. Her expertise in color theory gave her a deep appreciation for light and its absences.
Several meters off, Widow sat down on the ground where he was. As long as they didn’t look in his direction, the shadow-beasts wouldn’t be a problem. And he was always more useful at a distance anyway. They needed someone to keep an eye open, a human pair that could see in the dark and had the benefit of a military grade sniper rifle, just in case something more dangerous came up.
"The Goddess speaks English?" Snow asked, coming up as Moth scribbled a mixed-language note with her pen. Both women hmmed. "That’s a language of our world. It’s an interesting choice."
"But we’re not here to speak of the Goddess," Moth corrected. "The one you worship is the Dead God, isn’t it? Killed by– the Goddess? A predecessor of hers?"
Brimstone and Grayling stepped up closer to the rest of the team, but didn’t crowd the giant bird monster. Vanya maintained rounds between the main groom and Widow, occasionally transferring information between the two. If Widow saw something off, Inigo would quickly know and be able to pass it on. If there was a complaint about Widow’s continued existence, it would be brought to his attention and he’d be able to deal with it accordingly.
Mikulass crooned softly at the praise, then fluffed his feathers some more. He nodded his faceless head toward them and said, “Goddess did not kill. She consumed.”
With that, he spread his wings wide and gestured above them. “Behold, above you, the corpse of our God, and see what she has done.”
Just then, a red gas emerged from within the planet in a rush, illuminating the area. A massive form orbited above their heads. It was easily the size of a moon, with writhing tentacles and dozens of eyes. Its form was distorted and bloated, as though dead despite its movements. It was illuminated in the sickening light in a way that emphasized its strange form. The light also illuminated the immediate area, revealing dozens of the shadow birds, including several smaller ones who had nestled into the back of Mikulass’s wings.
“Behold with your eyes, the body of the Dead One, he whom we follow into the eternal darkness. May our eternal suffering be swift and bitter.”
Pepper looked up, unfazed. She had seen the corpse before. It was hard not to see it, to be honest. The thing was massive enough to be its own planet. But then, she supposed that must be an ordinary size for a god. She had never seen the Goddess of the world, but she imagined her to be equally as massive, maybe orbiting the other side of the planet.
“Mikulass, when did she consume him? What did she consume?” She had asked this question before, and she knew what the answer would be.
“As long as our memories know, her steps have been heavy with his spark.”
The technology took a second to catch up with the sudden flash of light, which meant that for a second, only Moth and Checkers could see the… thing in the sky. Tentacles and eyes that barely twitched, but the body was clearly an empty vessel. Roz only gave it a glance before scribbling a quick sketch. Dead Eldritch thing in the sky. That would be good to send to L-9 and make their problem.
Suddenly Checkers was nauseous. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe. In the initial wave he recognized the symptoms for what they were, but he couldn’t think clearly. He felt everything, from the pain in his chest to the tingle behind his knees to the pressure in his shoulder against Kim as his weight became too much. His vision swam and his ears rang. It had been a very long time since he’d experienced this. He wasn’t used to it anymore. There were things to be said about the butterfly becoming a crutch after all, but he was in too much pain to let the thought take root.
Inigo, who was taller and also blindingly bright in the sudden flash, was up at his other side. Kim helped shift Bay’s weight to him, and they both lowered their team-lead to the ground. Neither of them said a word to him. Quiet was best right now, obviously.
He knew that technically this was a rational response to seeing a not completely dead indescribable horror in the sky, but he also knew that was just the trigger. He’d had attacks like this for incidents way less justifiable. He knew he had to accept it, let it pass. Anything else said or done was ignored as he looked at Kim’s helmet in the light. She was, after all, a very good distraction.
"Sorry, I…sorry…" His voice was hoarse, but he was starting to feel his lungs again. The pain started to recede, and he used the fuzziness seeing Kim’s armor brought to help him stay grounded.
"Don’t. Save your breath. It’s not your fault." Kim sounded patient, then turned toward Ferris. "Doc?"
Grayling knew about each of the team members’ physical and mental issues. There was a reason why he had insisted that the Lepidopterists get a real doctor of medicine on their team, despite their dependence on the butterflies. Calmly, he flicked open the first aid kit he carried, and removed a brown wrapped package. He carried it to Checkers’s side and pressed the M&Ms into Bay’s palm. The armored hand closed around it. Normally he’d take Bay’s helmet off, but he had enough presence of mind to know better than to risk that in the presence of the death cult. Instead he just turned Bay away from Mikulass as the mask came down, although the visor remained. He helped keep the team-lead’s arm steady as he forced the sugar down. Grayling remained beside the team-lead as Peacock and Brimstone stood again, this time to keep him flanked and help obscure a good view of his face from the shadow-birds.
Moth and Snow watched, not impassively, but knowing that if they moved in they’d be in the way. The moment Grayling reached for Bay’s mask, Roz spoke up again. Even if he was out of sight, he would not be out of mind, and she didn’t want a curious birdling to try to get a closer look, not with what she knew.
"Of course. A god can’t be fully killed. Our cultures have stories similar to that. When Kronos, king of the Titans, consumed his godly children, they still grew immortal inside of him."
In the light, Aesop growing still might have been noticeable – or un-noticeable – to Peppers. She crept up to the researcher’s side, careful not to move suddenly or pull attention away from Roz.
"Pepper," she half-whispered, half-crooned to Herald, quickly distracting herself from the Eldritch Horror in the sky and leaving Bay to the others, who already had him. "You didn’t tell us there were babies."
"Kronos always feared the gods’ escape, and escape they did," Moth continued, over her. "They rose up and cast him into – as you said, eternal darkness, but he still lived. His return was part of that culture’s apocalypse myth. A vicious cycle of gods destroying each other, with their mortal creatures caught in between."
Pepper was suddenly very aware that Checkers was on the ground. She was looking in their direction for a moment before Vanya approached her, catching her slightly off guard. After that, she looked and saw that Mikulass’s children were visible, peeking out from behind their father's wings as he tucked them back into place. “Oh, that’s Tarwyn and Sofwyn. They’re twins, the youngest of the cultists. They’re Mikulass’s children. I wasn’t sure it was relevant. Is it?”
She had whispered the words, and then immediately turned her concerned gaze back to Bay. Something was clearly wrong with him, and she wanted to know if there was any way for her to help–
“Forgive me, but your companion. He is suffering. We can ease.” Suddenly, all of the cultists began to hum. In their speech, they began to convey the emotion of “calm”. The emotion threaded through the air like a miasma settling over them. At the same time, the red mist was sucked back into the planet, returning them to pitch black. Everyone in the area would be able to feel an immense wave of calming energy wash over them if they chose to accept it.
“We feel your suffering. We mean to ease it. Please accept.” Then, he returned his attention to Roz, his head tilting in the way only a bird’s ever could. He extended one of his clawed limbs as he spoke. “Your story is not far from what we hope to happen. We wish our god to rise once more and to bring the eternal peace to us all as he fights She Who We Fear.”
A wistful sigh passed from the speakers on Aesop’s helmet as the babies disappeared from view. "I don’t think it’s relevant. I just think it’s adorable."
And then the emotions came over them. In the distance, Widow tensed, resisted. It was easier than he had originally anticipated, which was good. Someone had to remain aware. But the song flowed through all the rest of them, and although Bay’s body attempted to resist it, he recognized the sense behind it. He had a lot of practice in being open-minded about this sort of thing, and while in words the command might have become far more frustrating, in pure emotion it helped to soothe the pain, ease his breathing.
And then he was tired. Tired like he’d run a mile. He felt Inigo get his shoulder under his arm. He couldn’t really tell if he saw Inigo, or if Inigo was talking to him, but he knew. Besides Widow, he was really the only one strong enough to hold Bay’s dead weight. He slowly eased that back onto his own feet, but that didn’t change the fuzziness in his mind. Even so, he knew better than to sleep here. Even exhausted, he was a professional, and as he pulled the black smoke mask back up under his visor, he nodded his thanks to Mikulass, still a little too winded to speak clearly.
Moth also nodded, slowly, as the darkness crept back in. Bay was going to be okay, and the rest of the team sensed the same thing. It was time to get back to work. "Kronos was the Titan of time, the father of all the gods. He consumed each child upon their birth, except the youngest, Zeus – in other cultures, Jupiter – who was hidden by his mother. Zeus could not defeat Kronos in a contest of arms, but when he grew up, he tricked him into eating something that would make him throw up the others, and they combined their strengths to win the war against the Titans."
She clicked her pen, then shook her head.
"I’d like to know more of both gods, if you don’t mind. I beg your pardon for my ignorance about all this. Are there only the two? Were there ever more? The Herald says that the Goddess created you – what has she done to you? Why do you oppose her and worship the Dead God?"
While Moth did her part of investigating, Snow took a step away, and Peacock left Checkers in Brimstone’s hands to join her as armed patrol. She knew Dr. Neves’ focus, especially now that they knew this was a new plane of existence entirely, would be a series of notes about gravitational pull, landscape observations, information gathered on the appearance and behavior of the cultists. The wave of calm especially interested her, as the emotion had been palpable.
Mikulass nodded his head in return to Checkers before he hummed low in his throat. He hopped down from his higher perch, landing on a much closer rock. There, he spoke. “Your ignorance, forgiven. You are strangers, strangers from the place our Heraldess hails. Expect you to know, we do not. There are and have always been two. No more than, no less than.”
Pepper turned her recorder toward Mikulass’s new position, her body language one of patience and calm. She had once been calmed by the cultists herself, and so she had allowed it to wash over her. Any remaining nerves she might have had were gone. She harnessed that calm and mixed it with her own joy, joy at being there and at doing the thing she loved, joy at existence, joy at everything. The feeling flooded back out among the cultists, who gradually raised their own voices in small chirps around them. Pepper, of course, had no idea this was actually happening. She only knew that everything was good and alright, and so she felt alright.
“The Goddess brought us into being on this angry sphere. The Red Sphere sings a song of anger and hatred that we must fight every day. Existence is miserable. We did not ask to be. Yet still, we were made, in a place void of light and warmth, we must survive. To die of our own hands, not a choice. We must die by the Dead One.” And then, he turned toward Vanya, and in an amused voice he said, “My children are a great pride to us. We bear so few in this world, that each one is… what is word? Precious.”