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Monday, August 11, 2016

Emerald City, Oregon

 

The long, ragged line of passengers spilled out of the jet liner, six hours of flight time taking their toll on legs and patience and attention. Tona Baudin did her best to keep her face together until she was able to get away from the crowd. She stood alone by herself for long minutes, focusing on her breathing and her thudding heart. Flying through the air -- such an impossible thing that people here handled so blandly! -- always got to her, and crowds always got to her, and the two together for so long left her feeling twitchy and breathless. For now she was just happy to be on the ground.

 

In time she followed the signs and the crowds out to the main terminal of Benjamin Jacobs International airport and towards the luggage carousel. That, at least, was easy for her. No one else had brought along a bright orange hiking pack with a solid bow case webbed onto the side. No one else could probably heft it one-handed like she did, either, which earned her plenty of empty room when she swung it onto her back.

 

Out on the street, Tona briefly wondered how she was supposed to go about hiring a taxi cab before she saw the big man with her name on a sign. He was broad-shouldered, with greying hair and a powerful, wearing the sort of brightly patterned tourist shirt the archer previously thought only existed in movies. He waved at her, pointing at a black SUV. "Antoinette Bawd-in, is that right? Glad as hell to meet ya, girl!"

 

Edited by Raveled

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Tona glanced at the offered hand for a moment before shaking it. "Bow-din," she said, emphasizing each syllable clearly. There was a moment of muscle tensing as their hands gripped each other, then the big man pulled her around to the back to the car. He used the motion of opening the tailgate to disengage from her hand without actually getting go or admitting conceit; for her sake, Tona didn't want to be responsible for crushing an old man's hand.

 

"I'll remember that," he said, helping her lay the stuffed backpack in the back of the car. "I'm Isaac Campbell, from Danger International." When he turned to take her others bags, she met his expression with a quiet question on her face. "You only brought one bag?" he asked, incredulous. "You're over here for a whole week, and you only brought a single bag?"

 

Tona snorted and reached past him, unhooking the hard case from the side of the backpack. "It's not going to take a week to walk through the forest I saw on the way in," she said. "Don't worry, I'm not going to put the search for DI's specialists on hold while I go shopping."

 

Campbell shook his head, laughing quietly. "Fine, fine. If you can find my people in just a couple of days, I'm not going to whine about you not bringing enough clothes. Let's get into town."

Edited by Raveled

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Isaac closed the tailgate and slid into the driver's seat of the truck, Tona taking the passenger side and looking out the side window. He slid easily into traffic and expertly navigated the winding knot of ramps and roads at the center of a modern, busy international airport. Tona closed her eyes before it all gave her a headache, but that didn't stop Hayes talking to her. "You have some pretty impressive references, young lady. Rescuring AEGIS agents in the south Pacific, going into Canada on some UNISON black-op and surviving a plane crash, and doing all of that before you can even drink."

 

Tona opened her eyes slowly and turned to regard the big man in the loud shirt. "How did you hear about those things," she asked, suddenly suspicious. "I didn't think those sort of things would be publicized."

 

Isaac barked a laugh. "They're not, trust me. But I know people, and they know people -- hell, I used to go drinking with Harry Powers's old man. Most folks couldn't find out half the things I've heard about you." He flashed a smile at her, all teeth and confidence. "'Course, most people haven't taken a Phantom from flame-out to a carrier deck, either. Takes all sorts in this world, you know?"

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Tona regarded Isaac suspiciously as they moved out from the airport and into the city. The glass and steel towers that soon rose all around them weren't too dissimilar from Freedom City's urban vistas; a student of architecture could probably talk for hours about the subtle differences between a colonial town grown into a metropolis and a city that had its roots as a boom town, but to Tona it was all concrete canyons and anchor points. She perked up when the car started down a highway that ran along the big river -- the Columbia, according to the map in her backpack -- but across the bay was just more urban development.

 

Isaac, for his part, never seemed to notice that Tona was being quiet. He kept up a steady patter, effortlessly weaving in facts about Emerald City ( "See that statue the sun's shining off of? That's the Devestoid, or Devlin as the mayor keeps calling him.") and Danger international ("And that's why you you always buzz a runway before landing in Borneo!) spiced with anecdotes from his own life ("Never did take to the Stoof. I always preferred something that could fight back."). If anything he seemed grateful for the chance to have a captive audience.

Edited by Raveled

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As the car twisted and wound through the city, the massing bulk of Mt. Stanley came into view. It loomed above even the tallest buildings in the southern city, not casting a shadow due to the timing but an obvious presence in the sky. Tona's eye instinctively followed its lines down to where they began to be fuzzed by trees, and then to where they finally disappeared behind the nearest buildings. She automatically tuned out Isaac's words, her mind deep under the trees of the forest, anticipating its coolness, its darkness. She sought out specific features, noting them without really seeing them; the crooked line of a river with its headwaters deeper into the Atlas range, a brighter spray of rock where a covering of unstable mud had come lose in some summer storm, leaving unstable scree in its wake.

 

The car grew quiet as the older man realized Tona wasn't paying the least attention to him. As the car slid to a halt at a red light, he took the opportunity to study her profile, her intent gaze, her slightly parted lips. "You know," he said, breaking the silence loudly and making Tona freeze up for a moment, "the last time I stared at something like this a big ol' Filipino guy threw me out the bar for making eyes at his girl." He returned his attention to the road as they started driving again.

 

Tona felt herself coloring under the insinuation. "I'm going to be spending a lot of time there. I should know what the lay of the land is like. That's easier to do from... far away." The justification rang hollow even in her ears, and Isaac just grinned from ear to ear.

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Tona shook her head, trying to banish her embarrassment. "Why don't you tell me exactly why DI wants me over here?"

 

Isaac shot her a look. "We told you all that. In the email. Couple of DI folks went up Mt. Stanley, haven't come down again. That was a good fourteen, fifteen days ago."

 
Tona watched him carefully for a moment before answering. "I know that. I also know Emerald City has a police force and an AEGIS detachment. And I know that Danger International specializes in going into dangerous places, so you must have some people who can find other people. What I don't know is why you're turning to me instead of one of those, and what DI was going up Mt. Stanley."
Isaac sighed heavily. "The rocks around here are... weird."
 
"Weird how?" Tona demanded.
 
"'Weird' in the kind of way that Danger International doesn't recognize, and so we sent two people with PhDs in geology into the forest with a half-dozen other folks just to keep them working in the field." For the first time since he had picked the young woman up, Isaac's voice lost its joking quality. Now his tone was sharp and angry; this topic was cutting through his habitual joviality.
 
Tona, blind as she usually was to social cues, picked up on that. "So your people are missing. Okay. Why call me?"
 
Isaac ground his back teeth together for a moment. "We know where the group made camp a week or so ago. They missed their check-in so a couple of DI's, ah, field consultants went to investigate. The camp was ripped to hell and the tents were shredded, but there were no bodies left around and no tracks leading out. AEGIS is sitting on its hands until we can show beyond a doubt that there's a threat out there -- and the fact that both of the PhDs were foreign nationals aren't exactly lighting a fire under their collective ass." Isaac's hands were gripping the wheel tightly enough to turn his knuckles white. "So I called up a few old friends and someone let your name drop."
Edited by Raveled

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The archer was quiet as they continued towards the forest. They drove past hospitals, big corporate campuses, and increasingly larger and fancier houses, eventually leaving the city behind entirely. The SUV stopped in an asphalt lot at the edge of a park, a few wooden kiosks and benches overshadowed by tall trees. Tona jumped out and went to the back of the vehicle pick up her bags, while Isaac took the opportunity to stare into the darkness of the forest.
 
The young woman hitched her pack up to a more comfortable position and paused at the edge of the parking lot to double-check the lacing on her boots and the straps on her back. All of that was nearly automatic; instincts and repetitive actions drilled into her through long practice and life under a terrible threat. Her movements were quick, assured, professional, and in moments she was stalking straight towards the trees. Isaac almost didn't notice her leaving. At the last moment he opened the door and half-stood, calling out to her. "How are you going to get a hold of us when you find our people?"

 

Tona turned and held up her smartphone, walking backwards towards the treeline. "I'm not totally helpless," she shouted back. "I'll find your people and give you a call!" With that she walked into the trees and soon disappeared.

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Gary opened the door to the cabin and staggered out, the astringent chemical smell following him. His head swam from the fumes of meth production; he always meant to bring masks when he and Henry came up here to cook a new batch, but he always forgot and they ended up using rags or handkerchiefs. That was never good enough, and once again Gary made a mental note to pick up real masks.

 

He was almost at the treeline before he could breathe clearly again. The young man dug a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one, sucking on the nicotine greedily to overpower the remaining chemical stink. The tip flared and one harsh smell was replaced by another. He turned to look at the ramshackle hut with the plastic-covered windows, which is why he never heard her sneaking up behind him.

 

Sometime later, inside the hut, Henry looked up at the clock and wondered just how many cigarettes Gary was going to smoke. He made sure nothing was going to boil over and stepped outside, looking around the clearing. "Gary?" The forest was totally still and silent. "Gary, you out here?" Henry started walking slowly towards the forest, looking around warily. The quiet was getting on his nerve, and all of a sudden the fact that a bustling metropolis was an hour or two away didn't seem to matter so much. Right now he felt very, very alone.

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Henry crept to the edge of the forest, calling out for his friend. At the edge of the cleared space he spotted something on the ground; leaning over he realized it was a pack of Gary's cigarettes, with a lit one still in the pack.

 

Henry straightened up, fingering the cigarette, and turned back to the cabin. He looked up and found himself nose-to-elongated nose with a human-shaped thing. "Boo," it whispered; all of Henry's unease rushed back in an instant and he screamed, running off into the forest. He fled blindly, not caring where he was going or how much noise he was making

 

Blue Jay sighed, and looked down at her feet. The thermal visor in her mask easily picked out the burning cigarette. She picked it up and carefully pinched off the end, then started shredding the the cigarette while she set out through the forest. It was simplicity itself to follow the man's crashing path through the underbrush. It didn't take her any time at all to find him hanging underside down, suspended by a foot caught in a thin line. Jay walked up to the whimpering man and poked him hard with two fingers. "And I don't even have a hunting license for Oregon yet."

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Henry slowly fought his way back to consciousness. At first he thought that it must be night, but after a moment he realized that it was simply the sun filtered through the thick forest canopy. He tried to sit up, but his hands were bound behind his back and his feet were tied together by something. "Welcome back." He looked up and saw Henry sitting opposite him, his arms and feet also bound by plastic zip-cuffs. Between them was a woman in a short jacket, tight green pants, and a mask with a weirdly elongated nose. "Good to see you're up. Ready to have a talk, Henry?"

 

Henry tried to shift to a more intimidating position, but it was hard to feel scary when wet leaves were soaking through his pants. "Who wants to know? Who are you?"

 

The woman crouched in front of Henry and suddenly there was a large knife in her hands. He hadn't seen her draw it, and there certainly didn't seem to be enough room in her pants for the weapon, but now it was just inches from his nose. The woman handled it casually, cleaning her fingernails. "I'm a woman with questions. I've already asked Gary some questions, but Gary's rude."

 

"Henry, don't tell this f---ing bitch a single thing!" Gary shouted from her other side. "Keep your mouth shut if you know what's good for you!"

 

The woman turned in a single lazy motion, and suddenly the knife was out of her hand and quivering in a tree next to Gary's head. "Don't interrupt your friend, Gary. Quelle rude."

Edited by Raveled

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Jay retrieved her knife, rocking it unnecessarily next to Gary's head. His eyes were shut and his lips were moving in a soundless prayer, but she wanted to make sure that he would stay quiet. Turning back, she began cleaning it thoroughly while she watched Henry. "I'm looking for some people who disappeared, Henry. They were up on this mountain, and they were supposed to call in, and then they were gone." She began to walk towards the bound man, her movements lissome and rolling and seductive in any other situation, but not when she had a knife in her hand and he was tied up to a tree. "These people had some friends and the friends talked to me and I came up here and found you two." She crouched down in front of Henry and put the tip of the knife under his chin, forcing him to look up and meet her eyes. "What I want to know from you, Henry, is: did you kill them, and where did you put the bodies?"

 

Henry was more terrified of this woman than anything else he had experienced in his life. His breath came in short gasps, the point of the knife on his chin felt like it was about to slice his face off, and he was suddenly sure that the dampness in his pants wasn't just from loam. "I, I, I never killed nobody! I don't know what you're talking about, me and Gary don't kill people! We just, you know, we cook up meth and sell it to folks in the city. We're not violent!" Jay sighed and Henry felt the point of the knife moving, forcing him to bend his face in different directions while she watched him. The mask painted her as being indifferent and alien; the knife painted her as being sadistic and dangerous. "I didn't kill anybody, but... Maybe it was the monster? The Monster of Arcadia Mountain?"

 

"You expect me to believe that the Bogeyman showed up and snatched these people?" She shook her head with a tut tut tut. "You're going to have to do better than kiddie stories, Henry."

 

Henry felt the knife pressing up against his chin and he was forced to hold himself up off the ground, lest it draw blood. "It's the truth! Couple of weeks ago, me and Gary were up here cooking and there was this, this huge noise up the hill. Like a big fight or, or something, with people screaming and even some gunshots. We turned off the lights and kept the doors closed and after awhile it all went away, but that had to have been when your folks got got!"

 

The pressure against his chin was suddenly gone and Jay stood up, twirling the knife in her hands. "Thank you for your help, Henry. See how nice things can be when we all help each other?" She bent down and saw briefly at the restraints on his ankles before doing the same to his wrists, then quickly released Gary from his bonds. "If you both follow the riverbed," she said, pointing out a dry riverbed that sloped away from the little space, "you'll come to a road. Stay on it as it goes downhill, you'll run into a ranger station or a cop car or town before long." The knife disappeared somewhere under her jacket and Jay began walking into the wood, slowly disappearing behind the foliage.

 

Gary and Henry stood together, rubbing at their wrists and toying with the snipped ends of the plastic restraints. Gary leaned in close to whisper, "We gotta go back to the shack, man. Get our stuff."

 

Jay, some distance away, stopped and shouted over her shoulder, "The shack blew up while you were out. I made sure the fire went out, so that's not your problem. The cops are probably coming up to check it out, though!" As the pair moaned and bewailed their situation she stepped into the forest and disappeared.

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