The police barricade was halfway up Ast Street. Greta dropped back into a walk. Her heels were killing her. She’d probably bled on the back of her shoes, maybe even through the shoes. Stupid blisters didn’t matter now, but she wasn’t going to live this down with Ruby, who’d yelled at her for years about footwear.
Hans was in trouble. That cleared her head. Years of trying to keep him out of trouble took care of that. She limped to go around the barricade. An officer stepped into her path to stop her. She straightened up and managed to look him in the eyes. She knew this man.
“Sorry, ma’am,” he said, not really looking at her in that stunned sort of way that people got when they saw something they didn’t think existed. “Area’s restricted. The sewer backed up. Burst pipe and water everywhere.”
He’s mixing up cover stories. Wonderful. “Dayton, look at me.” She could be patient for ten seconds. He blinked, focused, and recognized her.”
“Greta, I didn’t realize—“
“Save the apology, Dayton. What’s going on? My brother’s up there.”
He winced. “It’s that store again, the one it always is. I can’t see why it’s still running.”
“I didn’t ask your opinion on retailers. What’s the status of things? Report.” She was going to hit him or do something quite drastic with a shoe if he kept stalling. No, those would waste time. She’d run.
“We got a bit of a thorn forest growing.”
“Only kindergarteners are scared of those. Talk.” She was easing herself around him, inch by slothfully annoying inch. “A burst of Farmer’s Helper that failed quality control will do that or one of those frightfully over prices Lair-Be-Growin kits. What else?”
“When it started growing, nobody was coming out anymore. Whole building sort of stopped, Greta. Phone calls in dropped signals like something big was there.”
“Stopped? Like they were sleeping?”
“No. We put spotters on the roof next door like you guys always tell us to. They could see the people . They were awake. At least, they saw them blinking.”
“Not a spindle situation then,” Greta muttered. “Do the spotters still see people in there? No toads, frogs or unfortunate guinea pigs?”
“Don’t rightly know,” Dayton said with a shrug. He was looking past Greta, scowling fiercely. Probably some snoopy kids were getting brave.
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“Lost the spotters, ma’am. They left position almost a half hour ago and went into the building. Didn’t come out, ma’am. Your crew didn’t either.”
“Where’s Pribbenow? He called this in.”
“He was a block closer than here. Phones are going wonky, Greta. Radio too. No idea if he’s still there—“ Dayton broke off and took two steps away from Greta. “Hey kids,” he yelled. “Off that bumper. I see you. Nobody passes this point.” He glanced sidelong at Greta. “Nobody without purple hair and a badge that is.”
“Hey, have you seen anybody else from MCU come through? New guy, purple shirt, hair in his face? Possibly carrying equipment?”
“Didn’t see him. Heard him on the radio though. He came through from the eastern blockade. They were directing him to Pribbenow’s spot.”
Greta wanted to scream. That wouldn’t help a bit. She went for cheerful instead. “Keep that brain going, Dayton. We’ll pull through. We always do.”
He looked at her balefully, then stood aside so she could pass. Greta ran. She heard feet behind her, knew the kids were trying to make a break for it past Dayton. They were going to learn the hard way that was a bad move. Dayton played street rugby.
She ran to the next set of orange and white barricades. The lights weren’t blinking. Interesting. One her way there, she passed a few more officers. None of them challenged her but she made sure to flash the badge at them in case. They were trying to rig antennae or something. Sirens wailed in the distance, then fell silent. The city had a policy of going in quiet when magic got involved; it just took a long time for individual cars to learn there was magic involved because of the stupidity of the scanner censoring. The brambles around the current, temporary home of Quests R Us were about as high as a fire hydrant at the moment. It was a slower growing variety, which was both good and bad. Good in that it was scalable; bad in that these brambles would be harder to hack through. The building was dark against the bright sky, though something blue flickered inside the windows. At least it wasn’t a dragon. Greta had never seen one or even been on the attack site of one, but it was a back of the mind fear.
She had to get to the building. Hans was in there. Anne as well. If she could get inside, everything would be right. They could out maneuver whatever it was that had run things awry. She only had to run another block, but she better conserve her strength. She slowed down.
“Greta!” a voice yelled in her ear moments before a pair of hands grabbed her wrist. Her balance pulled askew, momentum still carrying her. She fell to the ground taking her assailant down with the assistance of gravity rather than any intent on her part. Her back burned from where it slid across the sidewalk. Limbs tangled together. The other person grunted. Greta saw a hint of bright purple cloth.
“Marcus,” she growled. “What in the name of wolves are you doing?”
“Preventing your mistake,” he said, rolling up onto his knees. Rising the rest of the way, he extended a hand to her. She ignored it and clambered to her feet, though she did use his shoulder to catch her balance.
“You were going to run all the way in alone and unequipped for the danger. That’s a mistake, right?”
She shook her head. “We can’t wait around.”
“That’s the magical interference talking, not you,” Marcus said.
“What? No. Time is of the essence.” He’d taken her wrist again. She tried to shake him loose, but he had a good grip.
“I’d listen to him,” another voice called over. Ferdinand Pribbenow waved from where he stood next to another one of the barricades. “Half of us stationed here were almost drawn into the building before he came along and stopped us. Took some doing; we were bound determined to go in. Thing is we didn’t even remember getting close.” Greta stared. Was the man handcuffed to the barricade?
“It’s, uh, taken a little longer to get things up and running,” Marcus explained. They kept having to get convinced all over again that they shouldn’t just run over there. It was easier to cuff the ones more likely to run.”
“Smart for a newbie,” Pribbenow said. “It’s our newbies that are in there. They went first. My nephew included.”
“They were doing their job.” She twisted and got her wrist free. Marcus dove and caught her by the ankle. Greta kicked, and got him in the shoulder. He didn’t release her. Somebody had taught him well. Why was he fighting her?
“You’ll be helpless in there,” Marcus said. “Trapped. Caught like a kid in a gingerbread house.”
That stopped her cold. Greta couldn’t abide being helpless. She thought of that toasty place reeking of melting frosting and spun sugar. The tiny pen she had to sleep in and feeding Hans through the bars. She closed her eyes. She had to help her brother but not stupidly, not like that. She bit her tongue hard, tasting blood, taking control again. “We cannot sit here idle.”
“Nor will we,” Marcus assured her. “A few more seconds and I’ll have everything recalibrated, provided nothing got broken.” He said nothing about the possibility of her having broken anything. She wanted to be mad at him for what he made her remember even at the same time she recognized its effectiveness.
“I thought you said you fixed the MRFs,” Greta snapped. She pulled herself free and this time Marcus didn’t make a grab at her. Guess he thought her fired up enough to stay put.
“I did,” he said. “However, they were calibrated too strongly. I had to adjust once I saw the situation.”
“Don’t we want them strong, boy?” Pribbenow asked.
“Not like this,” Marcus said. “The feedback onto the store itself could cause an implosion. I don’t think the PD budget would cover a five block debris field.”
“I don’t know. This looks like a pretty big thing. Slapping it on the finger won’t stop it.” Pribbenow nodded his head at the light now starting to pool outside the building’s windows.
“I have to disagree, sir,” Marcus said. “There’s a magnification factor because it is picking up on ambient magic around it. That and there are probably two or three of them in there. The existence of multiple fowl is creating a warp. That’s why everything stopped and the electronics are going wonky, the unshielded electronics that is.”
“Did you say fowl?” Greta asked.
“The culprits for this accident appear to be geese. I only saw one of them, but I cannot have caused this all on its own.”
“You saw one? How? Did one come out of the building?” She loomed closer to him, eager for information and churning with growing suspicions.
He wouldn’t look at her. “I was in the revolving door. I assessed the situation. A copper goose waddled into the lobby. That’s when Officer Pribbenow and his men showed up. I got busy with them and couldn’t see where the goose went after that. I know it stayed inside, sir, uh, ma’am.”
“I told you not to go in. What do you think you were doing?” Greta demanded.
“Reconnaissance. I never went into the building. I never left the doorway. Therefore, I followed your orders.” He tinkered with a small metal cylinder in his hands. It was attached to an arm band that a runner might use.
“That’s rubbish and you know it,” Greta said. “What if you had gotten stuck in there with all our equipment?”
“But I didn’t.” There was a hint of pride there, a smile he couldn’t quite douse. She would knock that smile right off except then her brother would still be stuck inside that building and the whole of Bremen PD might end up in there too. There was no way she wanted to spend possible eons with all of them.
“How did you manage to get out?” Greta asked, both angry and curious.
Marcus pointed at a carbineer dangling from his belt loop. “The newest MRF self-calibrates. It detected the various threats and adjusted. It was enough to cover my person, but the relay web it is supposed to create with the other units failed to initialize because their sensors were overwhelmed. My mistake will be resolved shortly.”
“What do you think the geese are doing to everyone in there?” Greta asked as she watched Marcus pocket a screwdriver so tiny it had existence challenges.
“Probably looking for food?”
“They eat people!” That was a voice Greta didn’t know, probably another young one from Pribbenow’s group. He did seem to end up with the rawest officers.
“No,” Marcus said. “The geese are probably looking for things they would normally eat. Not humans.”
“Then why the light show? Why does everyone want inside?”
“Catch,” Marcus said, tossing the device at her. He walked over and gave another one to Pribbenow. “I think the geese really don’t care one way or another about the people inside that building. You know the golden goose, right? Where everyone gets stuck? I think these geese are sticky to, just not in the same way. We got to restrict their field.” He moved on to an older man in Pribbenow’s unit. Greta thought the man’s name was Fletcher and she noticed he was not handcuffed to anything. It was good to have a man with his head on straight about.
“Check your units,” Marcus said. “Everyone have a green light?”
Greta looked at her display as she tightened the arm band. It was lit green. “All good,” she said.
Marcus made some adjustments. “You should have a second green light now.”
Everyone did. “Good. Now if for any reason one of those lights goes amber, let me know. Your MRF will squawk when that happens. Let me know immediately. If it goes red, let me know yesterday. Now, Officer Henkel, what is your plan?”
He was ceding control back to her. Interesting. “We need to stick together at first while the relay builds,” Greta said. She flicked her eyes toward Marcus and he barely nodded. Good, she remembered that much from that in-service two years ago. “We go in through the entrance, together. As the web gets stronger, we can spread out. If this is some sort of orchestrated crime, they’ll be watching the front revolving door where you were earlier. Any sign of watchers when you were there?”
“Negative,” Marcus said, as he unlocked Pribbenow’s handcuffs. The older man rubbed at his wrist. Greta noticed it was red; he must have kept trying to get away as well.
“I didn’t see any one suspicious,” Pribbenow said. “I wasn’t at my most observant at the time.”
“There’s a back way in,” Fletcher said. “I used to be a delivery boy years ago and had to drop packages here.”
“Then that’s where we’ll start from. Let’s move.”
“A third light will turn green when the web is at full strength,” Marcus said.
“The rest of you remain here. We’ll get a call to you when the web’s going and we have a handle on what kind of situation we’re facing. Until then, stay here. Wait. Count to 500 and then start moving the barricade closer ten paces for each 500 you count. Then you’ll be closer when we need you but you won’t get too close too fast. Keep those handcuffs ready.”
There was some grumbling at this, but it wasn’t too bad. These guys either knew MCU well enough to expect weird or were too new at this to question what she was saying because they’d seen too little. Greta waved a signal to her small strike force and they began to advance, Greta taking point. Pribbenow was back and to her left, giving directions. Normally she would have let the grizzled veteran lead, but she wasn’t trusting the MRFs too much at this point. Marcus she put in back in case he had to get any of them out of the way.
She faced an agonizing moment of decision when she saw a small group of people headed toward the front door. They were carrying cameras and ids—journalists. Getting them out of the way would mean getting very close to the front door. She knew they should get them, they were civilians. The PD was supposed to protect and serve. But, as MCU, she knew that sometimes protecting had to look like not protecting until everything was done. Pribbenow started to veer off, to help the journalists. Greta ordered him to return.
“You’re going to leave them?” Fletcher asked incredulous. “They’re going to get stuck.”
“As we might very well do if we go in too early and too obviously,” Greta said. “Marcus saw a goose. That doesn’t mean there’s no one in there meaning harm. So far no one’s been hurt that we know of.”
“We haven’t had any news from the inside at all,” Fletcher protested. “We’ve only heard what the spotters saw early on and had a peek in the windows.”
“Take us to your entrance,” Greta urged him. “Then we’ll rescue the people.”
“She’s right,” Marcus said. “We need to contain first, then extract.”
“I don’t like it,” Fletcher said. “They’re almost kids, them. They had intern tags.”
Pribbenow, “We don’t have to like it. You know that. If you wanted a job where you liked things you’d still be testing ice cream flavors like you did during the strike.”
“Hey,” Fletcher said, directing Greta to take them under an overhang and away from the hapless press. “There’s no need to get nasty.”
Greta motioned for them all to shut up. The last thing she needed was a recounting of every odd thing that had ever occurred to any officer in the history of the force since her birth. No thanks. They needed to concentrate on the task at hand. There were too many windows on this side of the building, too many vantage points on their approach. Her brain was screaming at her to get under cover but there wasn’t any to be had. Not that she thought riot shields would help the situation, but there was something comforting in having anything, even a piece of poster board, between her and a menace. Coming around a corner, Greta heard a sound, a crunching that squeezed her heart tight. She dropped into a crouch, minimizing her profile. The men behind her did the same. Greta surveyed the surroundings. There was a faint whizzing sound; she hoped that was Marcus getting stats off some infernal gizmo.
The service entrance was in sight now, ahead and to the left at about ten o’clock. It was a slab of concrete, not a fancy loading dock like the newer stores. Right at its drop off was part of the bramble forest. The crunching sound was it edging its way upwards, thorns and vines expanding with an inexorable strength. Greta sized up the odds of making it over it in a leap without getting cut up. Her vertical wasn’t as good as it could be. Fletcher could make it, Pribbenow was a possibility. She had no idea about Marcus. This could be problematic. The regular officers could hack away at it with their truncheons, but that’d be slow and would scatter the brambles further. That could make getting out hazardous as there was no estimating how long they’d be inside dealing with suspicious geese. She was scoping out the rainspouts to see if any of them were within range when she heard a faint click and a projectile whizzed past her head.
Greta flung herself down against the pavement. The scrape from her earlier collision with Marcus stung sharply. A motion caught her eye. A small blinking ball rolled into the brambles. The projectile had come from behind her? Greta half rose to glare accusingly at Marcus. He shrugged and gestured for her to look forward. “Next time warn me before you starting wielding technology like some guy with a club,” she hissed.
A beeping came from within the brambles and the lights intensified in speed and brightness. There was a sharp pop and a rush that turned into a high pitched whine. One of the vines began to shake and another. Thorns dropped to the ground, then a vine. A minute passed. Then the brambles stilled and the device went dark and silent.
Pribbenow whistled. Fletcher muttered something under his breath that might have been some kind of prayer. Greta started to get up. “Wait,” Marcus said. “It’s not ready yet. They’re still all in our path.”
“We could kick them out of the way now,” she said. The techie stepped up beside her, fiddling with a remote. He jammed a few symbols and then hit a large gray button. Mist arose from where the little sphere lay among the cut branches. Before she could ask why he playing gardener, a little spark leapt from the device. There was a whoosh of flame. “Or not.”
Marcus lobbed another device in, this one larger. When it hit the apex of his throw, vents clicked open and began dispersing foam upon the fire below. Wherever the foam touched, the fire went still. When the steam dissipated, there was a clean path in to the loading dock. The remaining brambles at the edges were twitching as if they wanted to pick up and run far far away. Greta couldn’t blame them.
“Don’t use all your tricks on the first obstacle, kid” Pribbenow said, recovering first.
“It’s bad for the budget,” Fletcher said, a little shaky.
“It’s bad for surviving,” Pribbenow said, firmly.
“I wanted to see if they worked,” Marcus said.
“You’d not tested them?”
“Not since the trial version right before I finished training. It’s not like I run into a magic bramble forest every day.”
“Those were personal supplies?” Greta started the group walking again.
“Yes. I always carry a stash of supplies. You never know when they’ll come in handy.”
“Keep it out of the report when you write up. The part where they are yours. Some people get funny about that.” By people she meant city officials rather than the commissioner but she was not going to explain that right now.
“People get almost as worried about gadgets as they do magic,” Pribbenow said.
“Wonderful,” Marcus said, kicking some foam covered branches out of the way as he retrieved what was left of his devices. The foam dispenser had taken quite the dent on its nose. The little sphere looked charred and a bit oozy around the edges. They disappeared inside one of the satchels Marcus was carrying after he wrapped them up in some linen cloth. “At least I will know why people will be nervous.”
Greta hit him on the shoulder. “Don’t be like that. We’ve no need for morose. Keep thinking.”
“Don’t hit the techie,” Marcus said. “Do you have any idea what would happen if I dropped all these bags at once?”
“Something loud,” she hazarded, already hoisting herself up onto the landing dock.
“Ok, yeah, probably something loud. Not even I know what will happen if all this gets mixed together because I didn’t make your emergency kit. But it wouldn’t be good. Don’t hit the techie.”
“Later, Marcus. You can tell me how your kit would be better later.” She didn’t look to see if he scrambled up behind her. Fletcher and Pribbernow were up on the loading dock platform now. She stepped forward, pulling out the small aerosol she favored. With her other hand she drew a small, hefty blade. It was best to be prepared.
The door was solid, no window, not even a peep hole. She laid her head against it, but all she could hear was an echo of the air circulation system that emptied out not far away. She was considering the merits of peering under the door when Marcus put a hand on her shoulder. “All clear,” he said.
“How do you know?”
“That’s my job,” he said, waving a handheld tablet in front of her. “I collect the data, carry the explosives and do all sorts of dirty work.”
She put her hand on the door handle and started to pull. Pribbenow stuck his foot in front of the door, blocking it. “You know, Greta, I’d feel better if I was the one opening the door and you were the one ready to take out any beasties or baddies.”
The gesture proved unnecessary chivalry when they entered Quests R Us and found themselves in a quiet corridor. There was nothing dramatic about it though shifting blue light did make the entire building seem to move and pulse. The overall effect was a bit dizzying, like swimming through a cube of gelatin.
Their footsteps echoed, sending a shiver up her spine. There wasn’t even the thrum that sometimes came from a group of people breathing at the same time. Greta glanced down at her MRF unit. The third green light had lit. At her signal, the group spread further apart. Within their formation, light grew brighter. Electric lights above them worked better when they were near, indicating a reduction in the atmospheric magic.
Greta found herself almost face to beak with a large goose. It gleamed copper light a new penny. It honked and then waddled back the way it came.
“Marcus,” Greta said, when she could breathe again, “You didn’t tell me the geese were larger than some ponies.”
“The one I saw earlier was quite small,” he said.
“You didn’t tell me it weighed more than you,” she said.