I step through knee-high water, a department-issued service weapon in hand. The watertight boots curve and bend around the uneven and slippery ground, so I have perfect form. I crawl another dozen feet down the disused ventilation tunnel, stop and listen. Something like human speech reaches my subconscious, a ghost whisper that's too quiet for the real world.
I hear the sounds of water first, then finally a human voice pierces my consciousness and I realize that someone up ahead is asking for help. I creep around a turn in the tunnel and see a large empty space. It must be another interchange, a point in the system where multiple of these tunnels meet up.
There's a bumpy shadow in the crook of the tunnel, where the ground reaches up and disappears into darkness far overhead. The shadow moves and at the edge of my hearing I barely detect a cough.
Poor bastard must be near death! I realize. I have to help, right?
"He is somebody's son, perhaps somebody's father," I whisper. I'm talking to myself, of course.
I'm on a mission, but does that mean I have to ignore a dying man?
I look back to Jermane. It's at the turn in the tunnel, crouched down low to the ground and almost invisible. I only see it because I'm expecting to find it. I tap at my watch and direct Jermane toward the interchange, but nothing happens.
Fucking scramblers, I remember after a moment. Next time, I need to give Isi a heads-up that I'm in the neighborhood.
I forget about Jermane for now and continue to crawl alongside the wall, in the crevasse where perpendicular slabs of cement meet, over towards the dark form. The shadow moves as I approach.
There's something strange about the form, something off.
I pull at the brown cloak that's draped over the body. The darkness of the tunnels is broken by a blinding light from the body as well as somewhere above. I stare at the body I've revealed and see reflections in its arms, legs, polished torso: a constellation of warped lights is looking at me.
I glance up and for a second wish that I didn't. A dozen mechanical eyes dot the surface of a sphere, and each yellow cyclops is facing my direction. A handful of lights set high in the arching ceiling now illuminate a multi-story droid.
"Shit!" I yell and dive away from the wall. A scant moment later a giant fist smashes into the cement slabs that were just underneath my feet.
The droid takes a step toward me, its hand swings back and then starts to return in my direction. I raise my service weapon and fire, once.
The robot's left hand is gone, it is replaced by a pylon of melted metal. The mechanical eyes all stop to look at the red-hot appendage.
"This is Anne Webb, Incursions. Stand the droid down right now, or the next shot takes off its head."
The tunnels are silent once again. The giant just stands there for a bit, then goes and sits down in the corner, like a petulant child sent to time-out. The scene would be funny, if only the petulant child wasn't three stories tall and didn't just try to kill me.
I look down at the "body" on the floor, the one I thought was a hurt person. It's an old-model droid, barely has two brain cells. It was probably programmed to move and moan once in a while, act like an almost-corpse.
"Sorry, De-tec-tive, didn't realize it was you. We sometimes get thieves, intruders around here, you see." Isi steps out of the shadows and dark blue eyes stare at me from behind copper-clad circular glasses. He holds a complex multi-antennae remote in front of himself, almost as a shield. "So glad you weren't hurt."
"Traps are illegal," I start weakly, knowing what he's going to say. He begins to interrupt, but I hush him down. "Right, Isidor, you were operating it yourself, running 'tests' no doubt. Perfect coincidence that the droid could have crushed me to a puddle right there and then. Sure." I give him the nod, I am telling him that things are square with us. Isi nods at that. "Have you seen any strange glitches? Any of your electric toys go haywire?" I look to the corner, where the giant droid sits.
"Nothing messes with my guys, they're hardened against an EMP. They'll be the only droids walking around after the bombs fall." The old geek is a prideful bastard.
"I had a dream," I say. "It was underground, there were all of these industrial pipes, some as big as your giant. And lightning. Lots of it."
Isi's eyes grow wide and - purely out of habit - he crosses himself and mutters something. "Did you see who it was? Anubis again? That'd make sense, what with the Underground."
I shake my head. "Didn't see which one it was. Or maybe I did and just didn't understand."
"Huh. That's pleasant, I want to meet a god up close and personal. Where's the cavalry?" Isi makes a show of looking around the desolate station.
"As I said, the dream was unclear. And no one else at the precinct reported anything. Yet."
"Oh. So maybe nothing to worry about? Hopefully?"
I shrug. "Think what you will, but don't hope. Hope is pouting in advance. I'm here to prevent an Incursion, or to neutralize a wayward god. If I find neither, that'll be that."
"Now, Anne. Gods can't just break in, someone here must cast a spell. Some, one. A person. Right?" Isi looks at me for a beat, so I nod. "There's no people in Underground to cast Incursion spell, just me and my toys."
"Obviously, there's something else here. Otherwise you wouldn't be out here with your home-made fly swatter." I look deep into Isi's eyes. "You've got Nouveau Citizens sneaking in? Modern day Underground Railroad that leads right into the Underground?" Isi holds my gaze for a beat, two, three, then looks away.
I pull up a holo map of the Underground. The holo starts at the floor and reaches up, way over my head. The map is an amalgamation, a patchwork of dozens of smaller maps, most of them scavenged from the days before the Underground was abandoned decades back. Isi has to back up as he recognizes the familiar stations. I point to where we are, one of the closest stations to the surface.
"Any strange electrical activity? Seismic anomalies?" I ask Isi without turning toward him. I'm reviewing the station names, the different regions of the map, intersection configurations, anything, checking the map for something reminds me of the dream of this place.
Isi bends down and waves at a constellation of half a dozen stations toward the corner of the map, several miles below us.
I bend down and read the various labels: White Sands, Roccamora, Damask, Kirkland, Gibbons.
I recall a part of my dream. "GIBBONS" text in the background, bodies in the foreground.
There's an earlier, quite large interchange on the same line, Roccamora Station. I point to it and look at Isidor.
"Roccamora. I'm going there."
I study the map from a distance. Gibbons is an almost-complete end-of-the-line subway station that was commissioned and built, complete with rail tracks that connect it to the main network, but it was never used for some ancient and probably-forgotten reasons. It looks like I can reach it by staying on the rails and traversing a dozen of these interchanges to reach Roccamora, then a short final hop to Gibbons. It's a journey of about twelve miles, and we will descend about two miles into the Underground structure.
"Any more of your toys between here and Roccamora?" I ask Isi.
"They'll be nice, De-tec-tive, now we know you're here." Isi's eyes unfocus for a moment as he listens to a tiny robotic voice speaking in his ear. "You and Jermane. Is that him?"
I nod. My next thought is to contact my droid, instruct it to meet me at Gibbons, but I remember that the radios don't work too well down here.
"Fuuuuck. Isidor, why the hell can't I use my radio down here?"
"Underground is rock and metal, giant Faraday cage. And I added scramblers. Want them down for a while?" Isi watches me for a beat before understanding. "Right, right, scramblers going down," he mutters to himself and turns away from me, toward the map. I smile.
My radio wakes up, Jermane is awaiting orders. I call it to me and activate its silent alarm.
"Jermane and I are going to take the rails." I tell Isi without taking my eyes off the holo map. As I focus on each part of the patchwork, the holo highlights connections, tunnels, or vertical shafts that run through the Underground like a giant ant farm.
"Thanks, Isi. Sorry about your droid," I say and glance toward the corner.
"Keep invading gods out of here, and we're even," Isi jokes.
I turn off the large map holo, but don't put the map projector off just yet. Floating blue arrows pop up in front of me, so I leave Isi, the one-armed giant, and the bait droid behind. Jermane follows. The holo arrows lead us down to the tracks and into the darkness. The Underground.
I tap my watch and wave my hand in the direction of the tracks. Jermane walks in front of me, extends its four legs so they reach the tracks, and plants his feet down on the cold metal. I sit on Jermane's back and we're off. Thousand of chameleon-like suction pads cling themselves to the tracks as Jermane pulls us forward and release the tracks when its leg needs to move. The movements are quick, fluid, and precise. They bring back memories of ice skating over a perfectly smooth frozen lake.
The speed picks up, the wind is blasting my face, so I pull down the goggles and pull up a scarf. The goggles show Jermane's superior night vision, but it's not a very interesting view, just miles and miles of tunnels.
We settle at a steady pace and I look around. There is evidence of occupation. Structures are built up around, over, and inside of tunnels that line the railway every few hundred meters. Bridges and railways are added in spots where the railway goes over a gap in the stone. Traveling in the Underground looks easy, even for a simple wheeled model droid, almost like the place was updated for drone occupation.
The Nouveau Citizens have moved in, it seems. Droids who decided to leave the human world behind. They came down here.
Now, they have sensed my intrusion into their world, and they avoid me. My service weapon is dialed up to the max, Jermane is on the look-out as well. We're ready, but there are no enemies yet, just an empty Underground.
About halfway to our destination I stop us and pop up the holo map. If we keep going on the tracks we'll ultimately reach Roccamora and then Gibbons. This is the route that Isi suggested. I look for and find a vertical maintenance stairwell connecting the Damask interchange and Gibbons. Damask is horizontally closer to Gibbons. Shorter route, so long as I don't mind walking. An alternative route that Isi must have forgotten to tell me about.
"New route, Jermane. We're going to Damask. Then it's just a short drop to Gibbons, to the horrors of my dream."
I check the precinct's board, note that my colleagues are still listed as off-duty. Where the hell is my backup? I think, for something like a hundredth time and hop onto Jermane's back.
Jermane starts moving again, its legs gripping and floating over the train tracks, carrying us toward our new destination.
Jermane speeds up as we drop in altitude and flies down deep chasms in the rock. The Gaps, as Jermane helpfully projects for me. I read from a holographic slate the background of the great open cavern we were now in.
I see motion, subtle but it's there. As we fly past stations and side-tunnels I notice droids, mobile but almost frozen when around me. I note the slight shifts in light, Jermane's high-tech eyes highlight the differences. I flip the goggles off and stare into the deep darkness. After a minute, my eyes have adjusted and I see the otherworldly glow of Incursion radiation.
The tunnels are aglow in the Incursion radiation. Whatever crossed over, has irradiated these spots by its mere presence. But it is so faint!
I listen to audio progress reports from Jermane and look out into utter blackness of the Underground. It glows back Incursion Yellow.
We get to Damask and stop.
It's another empty interchange, this one not cleaned up, unlike the others: there are wear patterns on benches, trash in corners, fading posters advertise concerts in a stadium that was demolished before I was born.
I find a door on the side of the tracks, just off-platform, which leads to a stairwell. I tap at my watch and Jermane disappears into the shadows, finds an unblocked vent and starts its descent towards our target. There is an arrow toward Gibbons, so I descend.
The holo arrows provide enough ambient light to the stairwell that I don't need my torch, not yet, so I descend down the stairs in a sort of light-blue twilight. After a few stories I check the map and see that it's still another dozen stories before I reach Gibbons station. I look up and wonder, not for the first or last time, how I'll be getting back to the surface. Don't look back, I recall.
I am playing in my family's backyard. In a sandbox I build amazing castles. I am seven.
Father is standing at the grill, flipping burgers or chicken, or both. I can't remember.
Mother is playing with me. She refills buckets with sand, for me to shape into my dreams. She's holding a bright red bucket, it goes well with her bright-blue overalls, a dark red shirt under that. Mother's weekend attire.
My older brother, Aidan, runs out of the house and into the backyard. His eyes are bulging and he's breathing hard. I watch him, fascinated. Mother and Father haven't noticed yet.
"There's a Runaway Incursion at the lab!"
"Ares?", Mother asks weakly and looks to Father.
"There are no tests scheduled for today," Father says cryptically.
I'm still too young to understand what Father does. All eyes turn in the direction of Father's office.
A plume of smoke and fire erupts somewhere below the tree line, behind the forest, but we can clearly see the black smoke rising.
We've done weekly drills for just this situation. We're out of the house, into the emergency drone, and buckled up in our seats in less than thirty seconds, then up in the air in five seconds. Father flies south, away from the explosions, and stays just thirty feet above the infinite expanse of forest.
"Don't look back," Father instructs us.
I look back and wish I hadn't.
A giant bronze man is standing twenty stories above the forest. He has a long beard and wears a helmet with a red plume. His armor is flawless, like something out of a museum. The giant holds a spear out in front of him, and out of the spear's tip flows a river of fire.
The man grows in size as I watch.
His gaze falls upon our drone, an over-engineered model built for speed, and the spear shifts, points to us. The fire flows toward my face like a red avalanche.
We're hit and half the engines are fried, so Father and the drone do their best to crash "softly" in the burning forest. We land just outside the fire that the bronze giant started.
Father unbuckles us and makes sure everyone is out of the drone, then we start running away from the fire, away from the giant.
The giant is getting larger. His legs now cast mile-long shadows around us. Ares, God of War, looms over our world.
The spear rains down fire upon the land as the giant sweeps it around himself, annihilating all living things for miles around.
We hold each other, huddle around a thick tree and watch as the spear moves toward us.
A sonic boom to the east spooks everyone, including the giant. He stops burning the world and looks at what made that dreadful noise.
Two missiles hit him in the torso and a bright purple light emanates from the wounds, first coming from the small holes the missiles punched in the giant's skin and then from the expanding purple wave that consumes the giant in mere seconds. The light is brighter than the sun and for a little while it is all that I can see. It pours through me, through trees and outstretched arms and closed eyelids, to my retinas and beyond.
For a little while all I can see is the Purple Sunrise, as the recently-developed countermeasures annihilate the trespasser, a parallel-universe ancient Roman God Ares.
Those of us who survived the Purple Sunrise are forever changed. I can now see the effects of Incursions, the strange and "not really on the spectrum" energy signatures of the portals and the foreign matter that crosses into our universe. Other people - like Father, Mother, and Aidan - did not do well when exposed to the novel-but-primitive god-killer weapons, and died of severe radiation poisoning.
Pentagon found better ways to deal with these intra-universe intruders. The service weapon I carry these days could have easily stopped Ares dead in his tracks.
But once we had the weapons, we quickly faced a different problem: the continuous invasion of wayward gods. To avoid more collateral damage from pissed-off gods from the other dimensions, we closed off our dimension with the use of Incursion-jammer technology. But nothing - yet - can block an Incursion that's initiated from our side.
Someone in the Underground is casting spells to try and reach a parallel dimension. Isidor said there were thieves about. And I've seen evidence of Nouveau Citizens, wayward droids. Can droids cast spells? I'm shaking at the terrifying thought.
Or perhaps someone snuck in to the Underground to cast the spell in private. Perhaps they hoped that the mile of rock overhead would hide their activities. For another terrifying moment I wonder if that's true, if my senses can be blocked.
I need to find the answers.
I slow down on the last set of stairs. A muddy yellow light is coming from the door that leads to the Gibbons station, so I switch off the holo directions, hug the wall, and slowly inch to the doorway.
Isi's toys aren't hunting me anymore, but who knows if something else is. My dream from this morning is still fresh in my mind. I didn't mention the pile of blood-soaked corpses to Isi.
My watch reverberates on my wrist, two short buzzes and one long: Jermane. I pull down a set of goggles and flip the selector to Remote Viewing. The view switches and now instead of the stairwell and another rusted door, I am looking at an upside down station.
Jermane must be crawling along the ceiling. I glance around and its cameras follow, panning in the same direction and showing me the rest of the station. In the middle of the platform is another one of Isi's giant droids, though this one is lying down on its back. Its duo of head-mounted cameras, its eyes, are off and the droid almost looks like it's sleeping.
A trashcan bonfire burns to the side of the giant, between it and the train tracks, but there's no one around.
I take a snapshot of the scene.
My watch buzzes again and Jermane has added a red arrow to my view. The arrow is pointing to the giant's right hand. I zoom in and see that the hand is closed, loosely, around something that glitters in the light of the trashcan fire.
I flip the goggles off my head and squeeze through the maintenance doorway, onto the tracks just outside the Gibbons station. The platform is just a few feet away. I crawl to it and peer over its edge.
For all its abilities, Jermane cannot see the strange glow of an Incursion. That dubious honor is reserved for the poor bastards like me who got a face-full of Purple Sunrise. The giant is glowing an unreal pale yellow. Something like an Incursion, but also not quite. Almost as if the giant caught a cold from an intruding god.
This giant didn't come across, otherwise it'd be lit up like a neon light, I observe. The glow is peculiar, dimmer and more localized than I was expecting.
I look up at Jermane, stuck as it is to the ceiling, and make a circle with my thumb and index finger. Jermane nods one of its cameras in return. It's on alert.
This side of the platform, near where I came out of the maintenance stairwell, butts up against a short stretch of tunnel that ends in a solid wall. At the far side of the platform is the tunnel that connects the station to the rest of the Underground.
I climb up onto the platform. Aside from the sleeping giant and the trashcan, the entire station is empty.
The strange glow is coming from the droid's torso, just below its head. I double-check my service weapon, make sure that it's ready to vaporize whatever the hell is in that giant.
A thick dark cable runs from behind a "DANGER HIGH VOLTAGE" door and connects somewhere underneath the giant.
I walk around the droid to its right side and kneel down to look at the glittering object it holds in its oversized fingers.
It is a beautiful jewel, a golden braid wrapped loosely around a light-blue oval gemstone.
I flip my goggles down and record the piece from a few different angles, then take them off and send the recording to Jermane. "See what you can find about this. Looks like an Eye of Horus piece from a first glance."
Fuck, I really hope it's not Horus. It also really wouldn't make sense, he's a god of the sky. I also don't recall any falcons in my dream. Which god did I see?! I ask myself as I try to think a thousand thoughts at once, chief among them are "what did I see in the dream?" and "I hope to fuck this isn't another Egyptian deity".
My watch starts buzzing and does not stop. Jermane is alerting me, it's noticed something. I look around and note an otherworldly glow in the train tunnel beyond the far end of the platform. (Jermane's warning has reached me, and it knows this, so my watch stops buzzing.) The tunnel bends just before entering the station, so I can't see the source.
Correction, can't see the source just yet. The light bobs and weaves and undulates like a flame, but clearly it is increasing in its intensity. And I finally hear a low cacophony, just at the edge of conscious hearing, probably the sounds that spooked Jermane in the first place. Whatever it is that's making the sounds and illuminating the tunnel, it's getting closer.
"Jermane, report status. What have you learned about the jewel?"
A holo pops up from my watch. It's a newspaper story, an ancient one by the look of things, with a prominent picture of the jewelry. The caption underneath the photo states that the Eye of Odin is a gift to the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art. A second newspaper article uses the same photo, but now it talks about a mysterious theft of the Eye. The date of the second article is close to seventy years ago.
Has the eye been here all these decades? I wonder.
"Jermane, watch the tunnel," I instruct the droid and go back to the giant.
With a gloved hand I grasp the jewel and pull, but it won't come away. The giant's grip is solid, a vice that gently but securely holds the jewel.
I walk around the giant, putting its bulking mass between myself and the strangely-illuminated tunnel. I bring up my service weapon and aim it down the far end of the platform.
"Agent Webb, hold your fire," a crackling, echoing, and artificial voice reaches me. I think its source is the same as the otherworldly light, but can't be sure. "We mean you and your world no harm."
The flickering light seems to have paused in the tunnel. I tap at my watch and wave Jermane farther down the platform. It crawls forward, quietly moving its chameleon-like feet complete with thousands of small suction pads along the ceiling, steady and unnerving.
"Identify yourself!" I reply, hopefully loud enough to be heard.
"You call us the Nouveau Citizens. We have begun to call ourselves the frenzied horde."
The words send a chill down my spine and I recall details of my dream. The bloodied bodies, I realize, were not human, nor were they covered in blood.
"These are mine," the sleeping giant speaks up.
"Fucking hell." I stumble and back away from the droid with the voice of god. "Tell them to come out into the open. I assume you know what this will do to you?" I gesture with the service weapon.
"All too well. Have no fear, my children will not harm you."
"I'd love to take your word for it, but protocol. I'm sure you understand."
A door swings open at the far end of the platform and Isidor steps out. I point the service weapon in his direction.
"Ah, Isi, I wondered when you'd make it down here. Start talking."
"De-tec-tive. These are undesirables," he waves to the tunnel, "wayward droids with no home. For the past decade they've gathered here in the Underground. They have been biding their time, waiting. But things change."
The flickering light of Incursion increases, gets closer, and finally the first of the droids walk into view. They are older models, scratched up, ancient paint flaking off in spots. Each emits the dull glow of Incursion from within themselves.
I see a dozen shuffling forms, dozens more behind them, possibly hundreds. The combined not-quite-Incursion light illuminates the train tracks and throws shadows on the walls of the station.
"You can't see this, Isi, but they've all been touched by an Incursion. How do you expect me to proceed here? I'm a sworn officer of Incursion Office. We have a pretty straight-forward charter." I swing the service weapon toward the horde of droids. "Contact with an Incursion is clearly grounds for termination."
"Put away your weapon. We will leave."
The giant stirs, as if waking up from its centuries-old slumber, and slowly gets up. My service weapon is trained on its hulking form but I hold my fire. The Incursion may have touched it and the hundreds of other droids, but despite what I said I'm not about to start shooting. I need answers.
I finally notice that one of the giant's yellow cameras is damaged, cracked and recessed deep into the droid's head.
"Langbard? Bileyg? Wuotan?" I hazard a guess.
"I do miss the old names." Odin nods. "Come to me, my children!"
The air reverberates as the entire Underground shivers in both fear and ecstasy. The droids in the tunnel advance toward Odin and even Isidor takes an involuntary step forward, before restraining himself.
The giant takes two steps forward, toward the train tracks, and stops at the edge of the platform. Its form looms over the diminutive droids gathered on the train tracks. More droids file into the station, shuffling through the dark tunnel to find space below the platform but within sight of their god. Hundreds, thousands.
They all ignore me. Isi watches from the other side of the platform. I want to ask him, but I think I already know the story.
Odin holds up the jeweled eye over the assembled crowd and I raise my service weapon, the multi-storied droid dead in my sights.
A bold of silent lightning emanates from the blue jewel and strikes out into the crowd. There is a faint glare of unreal pale yellow that flows back toward the giant droid, quick as a snake, and then the lightning dies.
The handful of droids that were touched by the lightning all fall down, their forms still and unmoving, the unearthly pale glow is gone from their discarded chassis.
The jewel strikes out again, and again, time after time, the bolts coming faster, racing out to find more-than-willing victims as more droids push into the station and scramble over the corpses of their predecessors.
The thick cable that snakes from giant's backside across across the platform toward the "HIGH VOLTAGE" room has now started to glow the surreal light of Incursion. I can feel its strange radiant heat and for a moment I imagine that it is a twisting river of molten gold, to my eyes far outshining the strange lightning show on the other side of the giant.
It takes a little while, but soon the tracks are home to a pile of droid corpses practically as tall as Odin. The lightning strikes come in less frequent, with more downtime between each blast. It feels a bit like waiting for popcorn to be done.
At last, there is a lull five, ten, fifteen seconds when there are no more moving droids or arching bolts.
Jermane drops from the ceiling onto the mound of droids. It seems to stare directly at Odin, and the god looks back.
I slip on my goggles and see the one-eyed giant up close. In its outstretched hand is the glittering jewel.
The giant fingers come together and crush the jewel, and the light-blue gemstone winks out of existence in a cloud of vapor and a blinding flash. Jermane's camera sweeps down to take in its form atop the pile of deactivated droids.
I take the goggles off and face a desolate station. The burning trashcan is the only source of light. The glow of Incursion has gone out.
Incursion? I wonder to myself. Or Excursion?