Authors: Tim Lees
For my wife, Charity Blackburn
was laying cable on the south side of the altar, working by instinct now, rather than planning. There's a point when the brain goes quiet and the hands take over. That's the point I like. I felt the wires grow warm beneath my fingertips. They pulsed and trembled; once or twice they caught a gleam of color from the windows high above, and then a spark would seem to flash along their length. I'd move them one way or the other, depending which felt right.
The tools of my profession can be beautiful, seen from a certain angle, in a certain frame of mind.
So when Shailer called, “Watch this!” I didn't look up straightaway. I swung the second braid of wire off to the left, put a loop into the third, then took the fourth and held it, searching for my next move. I sucked my lower lip. I could have guessed and got it right, most likely, but the rhythm had been lost, the sense of things had gone.
I turned around, pretty sure I wasn't going to like what happened next.
Shailer was standing in the aisle. He wore baggy shorts and a long, sloppy T-Âshirt, which might have been the fashion back at home but left him with the look of a collapsing tent. He'd put a chalice upside down upon his head. It pushed his hair into his face. He grinned at me, waved, and started goose-Âstepping back and forth for all that he was worth. He raised his right arm. He sieg-Âheiled gleefully and bellowed in a dreadful German accent, “
I told him, “Cut it out.”
Lebensraum, mein FÃ¼hrer!
“Cut it out!”
But it was my fault, I suppose, regardless of how inadvertently. Last night, I'd tried preparing him. I'd had him watch the newsreels, the old stuff, to get him in the mood, get him acclimatizedâÂgiven the place we were, the history; a quick reminder of the power of thought en masse. What my old mentor Fredericks, in his pompous way, would no doubt call an
Invocation of the Deity,
for all that's worth. Still, I'd been hoping it might resonate, set a few thoughts spinning where there'd probably been precious few before.
Shailer hadn't seen it that way. No, to Shailer, it had all meant something very different: a bunch of funny-Âlooking guys in funny-Âlooking uniforms doing funny-Âlooking marches, much too long ago, and much too far from home to be of any interest now.
Especially to him.
He put his fingers up under his nose, the other arm still raised in a salute. It was more John Cleese than Hitler, to be honest, and perhaps not even that; more somebody impersonating Cleese, reality a dozen times removed.
I stood up, crossed to him in six quick steps, and slapped him hard across the face.
That got his interest, anyway.
The chalice toppled from his head and clanged onto the floor. The echoes shivered; it was as if the whole church suddenly breathed in, scenting something was amiss within it. The hairs upon my neck began to prickle. I recognized that moment, knew it instantly. I glanced around.
The going can get sensitive at this stage. Things get raw.
Shailer stared at me, shock and disbelief caught in the slack O of his mouth, the water welling in his eyes. Then his shoulders tensed, his fists came up, his eyes went thin and hard. I waited for the rush of anger to die down. I told him, “Be professional.”
His eyes stayed hard.
I said, “You fool around on one of these, then we could both die. You, I don't much care about. Me, I do.”
His mouth squeezed tight. A muscle flickered in his jaw. I turned my back and walked over to the altar, giving him lots of time to jump me if he'd wanted to.
He wanted to, all right.
He didn't try it.
“Fetch the flask,” I said. I said it in a neutral tone. Business-Âlike. I kept my head down, bending to the work. Footsteps on the stone floor. I heard him coming, closer, closer. He set the flask beside me. It was a thick metal container, like a strongbox with a socket in the top.
“OK,” I said. “That's our receptor. Once we're done, we double seal it, just for luck, and walk away. I'm hoping that it won't take long.”
He didn't answer. I was talking to myself. I linked the last few cables, showed him a third time how to do it, carefully explained it all, reciting from the manual. My heart rate was up. Breathing, too. The talking helped to calm me, normalize me once again. I like to stay cool when I'm working; no stray emotions, nothing to latch onto. It's like a meditative process. I tried to focus on the task, to let that side of my brain come to the fore. Signs were, we'd got a pre-Âincarnate here. Tricky. Or worse. And Shailer was the last person I wanted with me. All rightâÂto be fair, perhaps it wasn't his fault he was such an idiot. But if it wasn't his, I'd really no idea who else to blame.
'd put in a request. I'd typed it up and printed it and had it ratified the usual way, then sent it to the usual office by the usual means and waited to see who I'd end up working with. I'd made a number of provisos that seemed relevant, keeping them short and flexible. Firstly, I'd wanted somebody who spoke Hungarian, to ease things with the locals (though German would have done, or even French). Secondly, I'd wanted somebody with tech savvy, to make up for the bits I lacked. And thirdly, most of all, I'd wanted someone with a track record, who'd keep their cool if things got rough. Sensible requests, I'd thought. Nothing too weird, arcane, or difficult.
Well, like they say: naught out of three's not bad.
There were a Âcouple of ops I'd easily have chosenâÂeven named them in the prelimâÂÂpeople I knew well and had partnered up with other times; a half a dozen more whom I'd have taken without qualms. But no. For reasons still unclear to me, I'd ended up with Shailer. Adam Shailer, barely out of college, barely off the trainee ramp. Shailer was special, I'd been told. “You want to work with him. Be good for you.” Shailer wasâÂmore emphasis, in case I hadn't got it first time aroundâÂShailer was
I found out how special that first day, when I met him off the airport train in Budapest. I'd been in town a week already, doing recce, getting it all organized. He turned up wearing shorts, a backpack, and a T-Âshirt that read,
Discipline Your Bitch
. It had a picture of a cartoon dog with its eyes crossed and its tongue lolling out. I didn't comment. I shook his hand and welcomed him to Field Ops, did my little speech. Cautioned and encouraged, like I always do with newbies. And then, halfway through, his phone rang.
He didn't say a word. Not even an
. He flipped the phone out, checked the ID, put it to his ear.
“Hey, bro. What's happenin'?”
“Hold it,” I said.
He put a finger up like he was pressing Pause.
“Yeah, that's great. I love that .Â .Â . Christ, you guys are lucky. Nah, it's like, backwoods here. It's fucking Europe, man! Yeah, yeah .Â .Â . No, they don't card you .Â .Â . Hey, really? You serious? Oh, she's a skank, man! She is
.Â .Â .”
He was laughing, chuckling with his buddy some four thousand miles away.
A frat party. That's what I'd landed. They'd given me a frat partyÂ .Â .Â .
I let him finish off the call. Then I sat him down, stood over him, and gave him both barrels, full on: how this was work, and it was dangerous, and he had better take it seriously or get straight back on the airport train and get the hell away from me, right then and there.
“Yes, sir!” he told me, shuddering to a salute. But I knew, the moment that I turned my back, he'd be giving me the finger. He was that kind of a kid.
Shailer was connected. That's what
meant. And I was treated to the lot, in full regalia.
His phone kept ringing through the evening. It rang through dinner. When it didn't ring, it did a little
to tell him he'd a text. Three times he stepped outside and made calls of his own. Once, I caught him calling someone “sir” and saying he felt “very positive about the whole enterprise.” This, presumably, was not a frat pal. I'd have liked to find out more, but once he saw me eavesdropping, the conversation dwindled into low grunts, yes's, no's, and one-Âword answers. Deliberate or not, I couldn't say. But I could guess.
Shailer was twenty-Âtwo and tipped for big, big things. He'd seen the future, and he'd seen his place in it.
I only hoped I'd live to see it, too.
In those days, they had mandatory six-Âmonth fieldwork for all aspiring Registry officers (it's since been cut to two). No matter if you spent the rest of your career behind a desk, you had to do your time in field, to get a sense of things, and learn the business from the ground floor up. It didn't necessarily amount to much. A few weeks in research, a bit of travel. But somehow, Shailer'd drawn the ace card here. And me, I'd drawn the joker.
Someone was pushing him. Well, that was clear enough. Somebody had got him in on what looked like a major jobâÂ
job, as it happened, and I didn't want him there. I didn't even care just who had pulled the strings. Back then, I used to think about the work at hand and not a whole lot else. A failing that the coming years would only partly rectify.
So in the evening I ran my little DVD, gave him a history lesson, talked a fair bit about psychic resonance, embedding, and the other concepts he should really have known inside out. I tried to show how each affected what we might find in the field, and how the right researchâÂknowledge of place, culture, history, et ceteraâÂcould make a difference between whether you did well and stayed alive, or fucked the whole thing up and died.
Shailer said, “So what we looking for, then? Hitler's ghost?”
That took me off my guard. For a moment, he was showing interest, and it was almost,
a good question.
“Not Hitler. Not just Hitler. Anywhere there's been a surge of energyâÂmass emotionâÂ maybe politics, religion, war, whatever. If it's imprinted on the earth, or in a building, or some specific place. If it's condensed, it could have turned into a pretty potent force by now. Dormant, usually, although the place itself'll have a kind of air to it, you often findâÂa rep around the neighborhood. Good luck, bad luck, hauntings, all those kinds of things. Or maybe it's a shrine, a place of pilgrimage. In this case .Â .Â . this one's not so dormant. Which makes it interesting. And could be dangerous, as well.”
Could be. Well, there were stories. Operators' gossip. Talk that maybe the official line didn't properly account for them, these gods we flushed from hiding, bottled up, and sold to run TVs and street lighting and fast-Âfood joints. But I never got around to that. Because Shailer's phone rang and he jumped up, and he was gone into the back room chattering and dropping names and jabbering about who knows what else.
Which set the tone of it. Accordingly, I'd made him leave his phone at home today, a stricture that did not go down well, not at all. It was a long drive out to Esztergom, and he twitched and fidgeted the whole way, and even when we spoke, he never looked me in the eye.
e set the cables around the church, a filigree draped over pews and taped to pillars like crawling silver ivy. It's a spider's web, a trap, a beautiful, beautiful trap. And to the target, it's a funnel. There's a gradient set off by the accelerating charges, a slope the victim tumbles down before he's even half aware what's happening. That's if you're lucky. The flask, right at the center. The containment unit. Insulated, self-Âsealing. You can run a city on the contents of a flask, they say. Just for a night or two.
I walked around the circuit, checking everything. All the connections, all the boxes. Each box had a light. Each light was on. Shailer stood back, near the door. He kept his head down, watching sulkily from beneath his brows. When we were done I'd talk to him. I'd tell him at least part of what had made me angry. I'd be a father figure, stern but kindly; a mentor. Someday, anyway.
“OK?” I said.
“Check again,” I said.
He looked at me.
“It's not a game,” I said. “You go round, do exactly what you've seen me do. Every cable, every link. You need to know this. It's how you stay alive. Got that?”
He seemed to stick an instant, then started moving around the circuit, threading through the pews, into a side chapel and out again. I watched him for a few minutes to make sure he was actually doing it, then went back to the flask and double-Âchecked the linkage there.
I'd set it down right in the center of the building, right under the apex of the dome. Not strictly necessary, but it felt true, and proper. Like it would help. All the spatial elements in line. It's almost an aesthetic thing. One part leading to another, everything joined up, everything combined.
There ought to be a better way of doing it. Simpler, safer, easier. But no one's found one yet.
I picked up Shailer's chalice, ran my finger around the rim; it was rough and bitten at. I put it on a bench. Glanced at Shailer. He hadn't gone as far as I'd expected.
“Problem?” I said.
There was an echo on my voice, like calling down a well. That was new. An hour ago, I'd not heard that.
Shailer looked up, shook his head.
I made my own last checks and I was ready for the off.
hey're tricky, pre-Âincarnates. You can gauge their strength, but not their will, and that's what counts.
It isn't consciousness. Not in a sense we'd recognize, at any rate. Call it drive, want, lust. Will. In Shakespeare,
are synonyms, they're interchangeable. And that's the way gods are, too, they say. Lust, and will. The longing of a million souls, tied up in a million prayers, or a million fears; one or the other. At that level, the two are pretty much the same.
Plus, you've got whatever happened to be there to start with. Opinions are split on this. The official view is, all we're dragging up are imprints. Worship at a certain site for long enough, you charge it up. The power gets compressed, like coal. But talk to anyone who's done the job a while, you hear a different story. Operators' gossip, like I said. And here's the one big question when you're on a site: why worship there to start with? Why this place, nowhere else? Don't try telling me it's urban planning, because it never is. In Canterbury, Lourdes, or Delos. There's a reason. Go back far enough, you'll always find a reasonÂ .Â .Â .
“Done?” I said.
Shailer didn't look up right away. He was either very thorough, or else very slow.
He eyed me. “Yeah .Â .Â . yeah. I'm done.” Then, “Looks good, far as I can tell.” He nodded, squared his shoulders. “We're finished, right? Now we can go?”