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“The Beltway’s backed up. Find another route and, if you’re lucky, you’ll get there before SWAT does.”
Connor’s nasal voice blared through the Bluetooth. Diallo winced and stabbed at the smartphone wired up to the dash, trying to lower the volume. “Trust me. I’ll be there.”
Connor ended the call and Diallo yanked the Bluetooth out of his ear. The John Hanson Highway it was, then. He pulled into a cul-de-sac and reversed direction, heading back past the ATF building.
Sometimes, Diallo thought wryly, he wondered if the ATF had kept him on mainly for his ability to manipulate traffic.
The highway was better than the Beltway; not great, but not at a standstill. As Diallo threaded his sedan through traffic, a tingling, electrical feeling built up behind his eyes. A brown Nissan hovered at his left shoulder; ahead, a red mini hovered just over the speed limit. He tapped the gas a little harder and pushed with his mind. The red mini bumped up a foot, just enough space for Diallo to accelerate and slide in front of the Nissan. The mini dropped back again almost immediately, the driver no doubt wondering about the surge of power from his engine.
Nudging cars was easy. They were already going so fast. It required only a small amount of concentration to push them forward a bit or slow them down just long enough to merge. Too much pushing, of course, could have disastrous consequences, so Diallo only pushed in emergencies. Like right now.
More stabbing at the smartphone finally coaxed some jazz out of the speakers. As Dave Douglas and Aoife O’Donovan filled the air, Diallo relaxed back into his seat and thought about his breathing. Magic was never easy. Pushing and driving at the same time was a dangerous combination. Soft music and breathing helped. Diallo tried not to think about what awaited him at the end of his drive, focused instead on keeping his breathing slow, his heartbeat steady.
Some idiot in a white van roared up beside him just as Diallo began changing lanes. A flash of irritation cut through his focus. Diallo reached out with his mind. Just a tap to slow the van down for twenty seconds while he finished—
Blinding pain scored his mind, like needles pressing on the backs of his eyes. Diallo let out a strangled cry and the wheel stuttered in his hands. The blare of horns rose up around him as the sedan wobbled back and forth between lanes. The taillights of the car ahead of him gleamed red, brighter than they should look in the afternoon sun. As Diallo wrestled for control of the car he saw the taillights grow brighter and deeper, a muddy crimson like the stained-glass windows in old churches. A voice whispered in his left ear.
Careful there, G-man.
He blinked rapidly and straightened the sedan. With a final aggravated honk, the white van passed him and sped ahead. The taillights ahead of him were ordinary plastic lights, nothing more.
Diallo passed the back of his hand against his forehead. Must be working too hard, he thought. Stress headache.
That voice, though. It had been so…external.
No voice spoke now, though, and his headache was gone. Diallo let the hum in his head die away and concentrated on driving. He’d have to get to the site the old-fashioned way.
* * *
Just under an hour later, Diallo pulled up against the sidewalk in a run-down neighborhood. Paint flaked off of siding, giving the houses a moth-eaten look. What lawns there were looked weedy and overgrown. Cars seemed held together with rust. The neighborhood was quiet for a sunny afternoon.
Two other black sedans were already there, these ones Bureau cars judging by their plates. Diallo killed the motor and stepped out of his car, looking for the feds.
They got out of their own cars immediately, three agents in smart black suits and mirrored shades. They looked ready to go to a funeral, or to generate the need for one.
“I didn’t know this was a cross-agency operation,” Diallo said, leaning against his car door.
“We’ve got some new intel for you,” one of the agents said. She was a broad-shouldered woman in a pantsuit, every strand of her pale hair meticulously combed back. She offered Diallo a slim manila folder. A wind kicked up as he flipped through the pages, ruffling the edge of the documents. After a few minutes in which the feds stood patiently and in total silence, Diallo closed the file.
“You think they’re doing more than selling black-market weapons,” he said.
The woman nodded. “SWAT’s been called off. Too much potential for collateral damage. Instead we have a specially trained unit inbound who are used to dealing with unsuppressed civilians.”
Diallo handed the folder back. “Sorry, what’s your name again?”
“Well, Agent Lawson, I’m not specially trained and I’m not used to dealing with unsuppressed civilians. We determined that the suspects in this house have been constructing semi-automatic weapons illegally and then selling them to criminal elements. My position here is to enter the facility after SWAT has cleared it and collect evidence for my department. If the operation was going to change like this, you should have notified my department so that they could have sent the kind of agent you need.”
“You seem to be exactly the agent we need. You’ve been with the government since before your…change. Haven’t you?”
Diallo fought to keep a straight face. He was one of the few “institutionalized” agents in DC. Men and women who had held government positions before an experimental drug contaminated the water supply and unlocked strange, sometimes frightening powers inside their minds. Rigorous drug therapies and psychiatric care had left Diallo in control of his powers, so long as he took a little pink tablet every morning. The ATF had kept him on and even made use of his powers from time to time.
But nothing like this.
“I’m not a field agent,” he clarified. “I’ve never been in a firefight before.”
“Hopefully you won’t be in one today.” Lawson removed her sunglasses, revealing surprisingly warm honey-brown eyes. “We want you to observe. Stay out of the action as much as possible. But if there are unsuppressed civilians in there with unexpected talents, you might be our best backup.”
Diallo thrust his hands in his pockets and tried to look unconcerned. “Fine. But this is now an FBI operation. If things go south, my department’s not taking the fall for it.”
Lawson replaced her sunglasses and turned to instruct the two agents with her. Diallo worked on controlling his breathing. This was going to be a tense situation to say the least and he would need every ounce of concentration he could get. Even experienced agents with years of suppression therapy sometimes slipped up. Like that stress headache on the highway…
He remembered the strange voice, a small and rasping sound. Careful there, G-man.
It must have been his own thought, he decided. It sounded external but really came from his own mind. His fear and the shockingly painful headache played with his sense of reality, that’s all.
He couldn’t help but think, though, that he never referred to himself as a G-man. To Diallo that appellation meant an agent of the FBI. A strange thing to hallucinate.
But he’d taken his pill this morning, just like every morning. He knew better than to mess around with suppression.
A van pulled up behind him and a passel of agents spilled out. They wore bulletproof vests over dark long-sleeved jumpsuits. Yellow-lensed goggles protected their eyes. To an outsider the agents could easily be mistaken for SWAT, but Diallo had been working with SWAT for years. He expected to be here with officers he knew and trusted, and these agents were all strangers. At this point Diallo would even welcome Connor’s nasal diatribes just to have at least one ally.
While Lawson began coordinating the officers, Diallo refastened his Bluetooth and gave Connor a call. Voicemail picked up immediately.
“Hey Connor,” Diallo said quietly. “I’ve got a fed named Mackenzie Lawson here taking over the operation. Paperwork’s good but I don’t like the feel of things. Wanted to check in with you and see if you had any special instructions. Call me back.”
He killed the call and slipped the Bluetooth in his pocket. Part of him wanted to leave now, get out of this operation before it started. But if things did go well, ATF would need to be on the scene. And if things didn’t go well, he’d make sure Lawson was the one to take the heat for it.
Diallo popped open his trunk and donned his vest while the agents finished preparing for the assault. A few curious neighbors came to their windows to watch but most windows showed only drawn curtains or plywood coverings. When the team was ready, Lawson gave a sharp order. The special agents scattered, moving around the corner of the block to their target. Half broke off to circle around.
Lawson patted her side to check for her piece and then looked at Diallo. “Ready, Agent Dee-allo?” She gestured to her car.
“It’s pronounced ‘jallow’.”
He slipped in the passenger side. “How exactly did you get this intel?” he asked.
“We have connections. I’d be happy to discuss it further after this operation concludes. If this goes well, there might be the potential for us to work together in the future.”
“I like my mostly-desk job, thanks.”
She shot him a sidelong glance. “Not a Mars, then?”
Mars, or S-06 agents, tended to be hotheads who loved action. Diallo hesitated for a moment before deciding that whatever information on him Lawson wanted, she could probably get. “Mercury,” he said.
She raised an eyebrow over the rim of her sunglasses. “Really. But you didn’t know what was going on in this arms lab?”
“No,” he muttered, “I didn’t.” S-03 operatives—Mercuries—were known for their ability to gather intelligence. That Diallo had missed the presence of unsuppressed civilians in this weapons manufacturing ring…
An uneasy feeling settled at the base of his skull. Missing key information like this could happen to any agent, but it happened far less to S-03 operatives. When it did happen, the information was often radically unpredictable. The presence of unsuppressed civilians didn’t strike Diallo as an unpredictable element. Unsuppressed civilians often took to crime or opposed legitimate governmental authority. It was part of their mental breakdown.
The other reason S-03 operatives sometimes missed information is because someone was actively hiding that information.
Lawson and Diallo rounded the street corner and pulled up to the curb. Another row of depressed houses stretched along a street that had been patched too frequently with asphalt, leaving a jigsaw puzzle of road. The agents had already taken positions behind the few scraggly bushes that could offer cover.
Lawson slid out of the car and Diallo did the same. Lawson looked across the roof of the car and lifted her radio. “Theta team, go!”
Two agents ran to the front door, one carrying a breaching shotgun. The blast ripped through the door lock with a boom and splinters spat out in all directions. Two other agents followed behind them and all four disappeared into the room beyond. Diallo heard shouting and the quick report of gunfire. He took a nervous step toward the back of the car, suddenly aware of his lack of cover. “Maybe I should—”
A tremendous boom rattled the windows of the house. Lawson’s radio crackled with unintelligible jargon and she shouted orders back. Diallo doubled over, pain searing behind his eyes. He grabbed his head and gritted his teeth, trying not to scream.
Now comes the fun part, G-man.
The front door of the house flew open and a woman shot out onto the front lawn.
She wore baggy jeans and a faded pink tank top that showed off her muscular arms. She whipped her head left and right, searching for an escape. An agent sprinted after her, P-90 cradled in his arms. Lawson came around the side of the car, shouting, drawing her pistol. Diallo straightened and leaned against the trunk as the headache mercifully eased.
The woman pointed one arm at the agent careening out of the door and another at Lawson. Diallo saw her lips moving but couldn’t make out words. Gunfire still rattled from inside the house.
Lawson screamed. The woman slumped down to one knee. Her dark hair fell on either side of her face, obscuring her features. The agent holding the P-90 stumbled and jerked the weapon around, pointing now at the ground and now at the sky.
Diallo slid around the back of the car, trying to reach Lawson. She clawed her mirrored shades off with one hand and Diallo saw blank white pupils staring out from her face.
“I can’t see,” Lawson said, her voice strangled with fear. She slapped her empty hand down on the hood of the car and knelt down to take cover.
The P-90 went off with a burr. A line of bullets raked down the car and Diallo dropped to the ground. The rough asphalt scraped his knees through his dress pants. The burr slowed to a few ragged pops and died entirely. Diallo slowly rose until he could see the agent leaning against the wall of the house, weapon held tightly to his chest. He’d pulled his goggles off and though Diallo couldn’t tell from this distance, he had a feeling the agent’s eyes had also gone pure white.
The woman was jogging down the street. Instinct took over. Diallo sprinted out from behind the car and drew his pistol. “Hey!” he shouted. “Hey you! Stop!”
She slowed for a second and spun around on one foot before resuming her jog backwards. Her hair spilled wildly over her shoulders.
Was there something under that hair, perched on her shoulder? Diallo shook his head as if to clear his vision. He leveled his weapon at her chest.
“You’re under arrest!”
She raised one arm and pointed at him. Her lips started to move.
With a flick of his arm, Diallo pushed a garbage bin sitting on the curb. The plastic bin flew through the air and slammed into the woman. She stumbled back and her muttered words morphed into a loud string of curses. Diallo ran forward. “Lie down on the ground!”
The woman glared at him and Diallo’s steps faltered. Was she…bigger? No, it had to be a trick of the light. He hadn’t realized before how physically powerful the woman was, how defined her muscles were.
Her eyes flickered red, like taillights, like stained-glass windows.
She curled her fingers at Diallo, as if beckoning him forward. The world titled sideways, sky to the right and ground to his left. Diallo’s breath left him with a whoosh as he hit the pavement. Somehow he had gone from standing upright to prone a meter away. His head spun as he tried to orient himself, his brain working frantically to place him properly in the space he now occupied.
She was coming for him and her fingers were too long and her nails too sharp. Diallo rolled onto his back and took a wild shot that pinged off the pavement. She swerved to avoid the shot, slashing down at him but missing by inches.
Get up, G-man! We’ve got work to do!
He hauled himself onto all fours and thrust a hand out. The woman lifted a half a meter into the air before he released the spell. She slammed to the ground, rolling with the impact. She raised herself on her forearms, glowering at him.
Then she was gone.
A soft pop marked her departure, and a rush of wind filling an empty space that just a moment ago held a woman. Diallo slumped to the ground again, panting. His head throbbed and his vision doubled. He closed his eyes, willing himself to come back to reality. That something was very wrong with him seemed obvious. He must have hallucinated it all. Her eyes. Her claws.
That shape on her shoulder, the one with scales and fangs…
The gunfire had stopped. He rolled over and saw agents escorting people out of the house. Lawson was giving orders, her sight apparently restored. Diallo let his head slump back onto the pavement. Hallucinations. That was all.
Just keep telling yourself that, G-man.
* * *
Back at the ATF building, Diallo sat outside the agency infirmary. He stared unseeingly at the brochure in his hand: Your Stabilization Leave.
The receptionist coughed. “Agent Diallo? He’s ready for you.”
Diallo let himself into the sterile room where his test results awaited. The doctor, the same brisk, whip-thin man who’d treated Diallo when he first showed symptoms, shook his hand. “Well, Agent Diallo. It seems that your symptoms have been getting worse.”
“I don’t understand it. I take my pills every single morning. It’s routine. Could this be stress related?”
The doctor picked up a half-filled pill bottle, the tablets Diallo had brought from home. “We tested your medication for impurities and found something strange. When did you last refill your prescription?”
“Two weeks ago. I get them refilled five days before month’s end, every month.”
“We’ve sent investigators to the pharmacy,” the doctor said. He set down the pill bottle. “I’m not sure how this happened, but these are sugar pills.”
Diallo sat unmoving for long moments, his brain working at top speed. The doctor kept talking about modifying his dosage and the amount of leave he would be granted but all Diallo could think was: this isn’t a coincidence.
Looks like we have an enemy, G-man.
Diallo brushed absently at his left ear, as if shooing a fly. First the hidden intel on the weapons dealers. Now this. Someone had substituted those pills. Someone in the agency had an agenda that didn’t include Diallo.
We gotta find out who set you up, the voice whispered.
Don’t worry. I’m here to help.