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“I think we’ve got a situation here.”
Brigid O’Connell jerked upright, twisting toward the sound of Antony Bridger’s voice as it cut through the hum of activity in UNSETIC’s Midwest operations hub. Bridger usually didn’t come up to the hub—he stuck to the Portal Corps areas on the lower levels of UNSETIC’s complex on Printer’s Row—but when he did, the interim bureau chief had quickly learned to take notice. “What’s up beyond the cascading grid failures, Tony?”
The young man pointed to the cell phone pressed to his ear. “It’s Hadrian. Said that hell’s about to break loose. Beyond the power situation.”
“He saw something?” That was Tim McConaway, Brigid’s longtime field partner, now one of her most valuable field assets. They’d been putting their heads together for the last few hours, since power grids started going down across Chicago without warning, without threats from one terrorist group or another, or claims of responsibility from someone or another. She’d had her people on alert since the second grid went down. They’d been starting to see a pattern, and now Hadrian Bridger had called his little brother from Detroit to tell them he’d seen something from three hundred miles away.
Antony nodded. “Some kind of monster, he says. He sees you fighting it, Major, with Ridley, Burn, and the commander. Everyone else is hazy, but he thinks there’s at least one go team with you.”
“When?” Brigid asked. “And where? Can he give us that?”
“Somewhere on Kinzie, he thinks. Near where it dives.”
Tim swore softly and pushed away from the screens he and Brigid had been looking at. “I’ll send John with a go-team.”
“He says to take your sword, Merlin,” Antony said. Tim’s lips quirked into a grim smile and he nodded, already pulling out his own phone.
“What about when?” Brigid pressed, hazel eyes fixed on Antony.
The younger man winced. “He’s trying to get you that.”
Operations plunged into darkness. From his seat at one of the corner consoles, Ridley Thys cleared his throat.
“Something tells me, Commander, that the when is now.”
Brigid took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly. Operations was dead silent without the buzz of electronics. Somewhere beyond its walls, she could hear the sound of the other staff in the complex moving around, yelling to each other in the blackness.
The emergency lights buzzed to life.
Fits the pattern. Cascaded to our last backup grid from the one west of here. Took us down with them. Whatever this thing is, it’s staying out of sight, probably through the tunnels, and it’s heading northeast—toward Kinzie and State, like Hadrian said. The only question is why. “Tony, give me your phone,” she said calmly. “Ridley, get with—”
“Already on it. Patrick’s on his way to the generator room right now. Good instincts there, Commander.”
“Very good. The phone?”
“Here.” Antony handed over his cell.
She raised it to her ear. “Hadrian, are you still there?”
“I’m still here.” There was only a bare tremor in the psychic’s voice. “It’s started?”
“Seems like. Power just went out.”
His voice strengthened. “Then it’s started. Tell Merlin it feeds on energy—electricity seems to be its favorite right now. It’s gorging itself on some heavy-gauge lines feeding a transformer when you guys find it and it’s charged like a freaking battery. Be careful.”
“What is it?”
“It might have been human once,” Hadrian said. She could almost hear the shudder in his voice, feel it through the phone from the man standing three hundred miles away. “But it’s not anymore. It’ll look more like one of those things you guys ran into on Desmara a few years back.”
Brigid looked sidelong at Antony, who shook his head slightly.
“It’s a thing, Commander.”
One corner of her mouth quirked into a quick smile that faded a moment later. “So big and ugly gray humanoid with teeth and claws.”
“Built like a slightly smaller version of the Incredible Hulk.” There was a trace of wry humor in Hadrian’s voice. “Hopefully easier to kill.”
“Will it bleed?” she asked.
“It seemed like it was in my vision. Merlin ran it through and I could see where you’d shot it, too.”
Brigid nodded, though he couldn’t see it. “We’ll be careful.”
“If you hurry, you might be able to ambush it,” Hadrian said. “It’s not there yet, but it will be. That’s where you catch it.”
Damn. I wonder if this is one of those ones he gets that we can head—no. No, he’d have said something if he thought we could change it. “And if we intercept before that? Do you know where it is now?”
“Don’t know. It’ll come from the tunnels. Tell them.”
“You know I will. Got anything else for me?”
“No, ma’am.” Hadrian took a deep breath. “But I’ll let you know if something else comes up.”
“Roger that. Be careful, huh? Call my line, not Tony’s.”
“Right. Understood.” He gave a nervous little laugh. “Still forget sometimes.”
“It’s all right. Hasn’t been that long.”
“Yeah. Be careful, Brigid.”
“We will.” She lowered the phone and handed it back to Antony. “Head down to the Corps levels and tell Scott to lock it down. There’s a tactical situation we need to deal with and the bogie could be running loose in the tunnels beneath the city. Don’t open up again unless you get the all clear from me or from Jim McCullough in New York. Clear?”
“Crystal,” Antony said. He gave her a tight smile before he sprinted out the door, shoving his phone into his pocket as he went. She glanced toward Tim.
“You’re coming with us,” he said.
He knew her far too well. “Hadrian said to bring your sword,” she told him. “Better go get it. Pull Kate out of the armory and tell her she’s in charge. We roll in ten.”
Tim tossed her a casual salute and ducked out the door to follow orders. Ridley appeared at her side. “Do you want me to tell John to wait?”
“No. We’ll catch up. He’s taking the tunnels?”
“Stupid to do anything else,” Ridley said, his nose wrinkling. “Streets are nuts. I was watching the feeds before everything went down.”
“Great,” Brigid muttered, then shook her head. “Get your gear and bring mine. We’ll meet back here.”
“You’re going to hold down the fort?”
“I have to let New York know before we roll.”
Ridley flashed her a faint smile. “Right.”
The generators kicked in a moment later and she turned back to a bank of flatscreens showing newsfeeds from across the area and the country—most of the local stations blanked out or broadcasting alternate feeds thanks to the current power issues—and grimaced.
Exactly one year on the job and this happens. Not that auspicious, is it?
She shook her head and called her boss. The least she could do was let New York know that Chicago was cheerfully marching to hell in a handbasket—and she was leading the parade.
A maze of tunnels, some predating the modern city, snaked beneath Chicago, and UNSETIC had mapped nearly all of them. That little piece of preparation came in handy in situations like theirs, where the streets were almost like a scene from an apocalypse flick, traffic at a standstill and public transportation completely shut down. John McCullough and his five-man go team met Brigid and her team somewhere beneath the Macy’s on State Street. In the dim of the long-forgotten tunnels, the team were shadows, lost in the darkness, their flashlights doused as they waited.
John’s voice whispered in her ear through the wireless radio. “We’re twenty feet in front of you, B.”
“Roger that. Any contacts?”
“Nothing yet. I can feel it, though. Merlin said you got a tip from Hadrian?”
She could hear his voice through more than just the radio, now. She signaled Tim and the rest of their team—Ridley, telepath Maggie Bridger, and Tim’s four-man go-team—to advance, their boots quiet against the old concrete. John motioned for his team to stand down, then snapped on the lantern sitting next to his booted feet.
“How far?” Brigid asked as John straightened.
“Few more blocks,” John said. “I sent Miller to scout ahead. Tunnel five’s sprung a leak. The emergency lock triggered before the power went down, but we’ll have to head topside to cross the river. That’s why we waited.”
Not good. Brigid grimaced. “Did you get a look at what it was?”
“It’s not human anymore, whatever it is,” John said, nose wrinkling, freckles standing out bright against his pale skin. Brigid could see faint echoes of her partner’s features in John’s face, bare hints of their shared heritage that few people caught—unless they knew to look. “It used to be, but it’s not anymore.”
Brigid’s stomach flipped. “A were? Vampire?”
“No. No, it’s something else, I’m just not sure what.” His gaze slid toward Tim, then back to her. “It’s nothing that came through the Portals, either.”
“Good to know,” Tim muttered. “I won’t have to take the Walkers to task over a breach.”
John grimaced. “What did Bridger tell us?”
“Kinzie and State. Let’s keep moving.” Brigid waved for them to follow, heading further down the tunnels, waving Ridley and Maggie on as the pair paused to look back. “The more time we waste, the more havoc whatever this thing is can sow.”
“Are you sure it’s a good idea that you’re along?” John asked as he fell into step with her and Tim, the other go team covering their back-trail.
Tim snorted softly. “I’m not even sure she should dignify that with a response, Burn.”
“I can lay down cover fire just as well as anyone on the go teams if not better,” Brigid said. “And I’ve never been someone to just sit and wait when I could be doing something.”
“Who’s minding the store?”
“Berkshire’s on watch.”
She saw Tim wince out of the corner of his eye. “She’s not going to be happy about that.”
“I’m not making your daughter an orphan if this goes sideways, Merlin.”
Her partner knew better than to counter with a jibe about her children, who’d never had the chance to know their father.
“We’ll come up just short of the river,” she continued. “Take the bridge at State, then go down. Frontal assault—or near to. If the cordon’s there, my credentials and John’s abilities should get us through the police line and down to where we need to be.”
“Going to let Ridley scout it out?” Tim asked.
“That would be the intelligent thing to do, yes.” She looked ahead of them. Maggie was between them and the go team. Ridley had vanished from sight—but that was his talent, his gift, an ability to vanish in plain sight. It had made him a target of unsavory groups in the past and made him one of her best assets now. Her thumb brushed against the toggle on her radio. “He’s probably halfway to egress now. Ridley?”
“Roger that, Commander,” Ridley’s voice said softly over the radio. “At the exit and I’m about to step out onto the street. Hold when you hit the door; sounds like there’s a lot of people out here.”
“Heard.” She looked at John. “Ready to make a lot of people look the other way?”
“If I’ve got to,” John said, nose wrinkling slightly. “Did you call in a cordon?”
“I did, but god knows they’re probably overwhelmed. Not sure how far they’ll be able to be keeping anyone back at this point, or if they were able to get here.” If they did, I’ll be very pleasantly surprised. “Let me know what you’re seeing, Ridley.”
She got a double-tap on the radio in response. Brigid smiled grimly, breaking into a jog. Almost showtime. She checked her weapon, then toggled her radio. “Lock and load, people. We may go into this hot.”
A chorus of ‘yes ma’am’ and radio clicks answered her. Tim reached over to squeeze her arm as they came to the exit, the sound of people in the streets, of police trying to keep some order on the streets of Chicago. For a moment, Brigid thought back to the great blackout of her teenage years, back when the power failed from New York to Michigan. The idea sent a shiver down her spine.
I hope it takes less than two days to get the power back on out here.
Something told her that maybe they weren’t going to be that lucky.
She killed the lantern a few seconds before the door opened, bring with it a burst of humid summer air. Ridley faded back into view as the door closed again, pressing his back against the metal of the door.
“Cordon’s there,” he said quietly. “But there’s people on the streets and cars at a stand-still in front of the bridge. Going to need you and John to get us through, Commander.”
“Figured as much.” She looked at John again. “Do you need a minute?”
He shook his head. “I’ll admit that I’m hoping your DoD credentials will get us through this, though.”
“We can only hope.” She glanced toward the others in the dim. “Fall in and keep quiet until we’re through the police line. Ridley, fade out and take point.”
Ridley gave her a quick nod and vanished from view. The door opened and Brigid strode forward toward the square of fading light that was their exit from the tunnels and onto the streets of Chicago. To their right, along State, a line of cars sat bumper to bumper in front of the bridge over the Chicago River, wear and weariness showing on the faces of the drivers caught in the endless jam with nowhere to go. Brigid suppressed the urge to shake her head as she headed for the bridge, boots echoing dully against the metal and concrete. She knew those drivers were watching them—a dozen men and women, most of them in unmarked, dark clothing, armed with military-grade weaponry on the streets of a major American city.
One of the Chicago PD officers spotted them as they were halfway across the bridge and held up a hand to halt them, voice echoing across the distance between them as he told them to identify themselves.
“Commander Brigid O’Connell,” she shouted back. “On loan from US Naval Intelligence.” She held up a hand for the teams behind her to wait. “I’m going to take out my credentials, okay?”
By now, the young police officer’s brethren had noticed, their gazes wary and their hands on their weapons. At least they were trying.
Maybe I should damned well start wearing a uniform again, Brigid thought as she pulled out her ID and slowly moved forward. The officer who’d challenged them in the first place moved forward to meet her, his hand on his weapon. She allowed him to take her credentials from her hand and examine them, smiling with faint amusement she didn’t quite feel. Her stomach was in knots.
Should have asked for the cordon to be led by someone who knows us. Too late for that now. Remember it for next time.
The police officer squinted for a moment at her credentials in the dying light before handing them back. “OEMC said something about a special team coming in. You’re here to help?” he asked, eyeing her armed backup.
“That’s the idea,” she said. “What do you have?” Thank god we’ve got people in the Office of Emergency Management here—thank god the city centralized it twenty years ago. It makes life so much easier.
The police officer grimaced and started walking back toward the north side of the bridge. Waving for her team to follow them, Brigid fell into step with the young man, who took a deep breath before speaking.
“We got a report of someone or something big headed down into the tunnel,” he said, waving downhill, toward the place where Kinzie dove down beneath street level. “Got orders to stop anyone from trying to enter, not that anyone would want to with the power down. Heard there’s a huge mess on lower Wacker right now.”
Brigid winced. A mess on lower Wacker Drive while the power was out and the traffic snarled up was vaguely akin to a disaster. She made eye contact with Tim and John, who both grimaced. They’d grown up here in the Chicago area. Things were only going to get worse before they got better.
“What kind of someone big?”
“The report I heard was a shaved gorilla,” the police officer said, lips twisting in distaste. “People have bizarre imaginations, but OEMC said cordon it off, so we’ve got it cordoned.”
“They asked you to cordon it so my team and I could handle the problem. Keep folks back. OEMC will let you know if more of us are coming. Don’t go down that tunnel, no matter what you hear.”
The officer blanched as he moved a barrier aside to allow the team through. “What—”
John broke in, his voice like silk, barely more than a whisper. “That’s a question you don’t want to know the answer to.”
“...never mind,” the officer said. “I don’t want to know the answer to that question. Good luck, Commander.”
“Thanks,” Brigid said, and meant it.
She walked through the cordon and led her team into the darkness beneath Wabash Avenue.