The transports rolled through a ravaged landscape, the region having been devastated by war. The scraps of what were once towns coasted by, never less than a half-klick from the road. Some people could be seen driving dusty, rickety vehicles into the towns, each carrying sparse supplies to the fragmented populace within. Despite the remaining settlements, however, rebel-held territory had been inhospitable for the past two decades, riddled with mercenaries, militants, and the destitute.
Tarek explained that Baa’j was lost in the late-eighties, when IS invaded northern Iraq and destabilized the government. A month ago, the Kurds had secured the area east of the city—including the Q. According to Kurdish spies, IS fighters had never approached the Q; none of them knew what to make of the beast, let alone its cadaver. It had come down on Kurdistan like a hammer, but then turned on the Khilafah. IS forces confronted the creature to no avail, only to be saved indirectly by Dajjal. There were many opinions within the nascent caliphate as to what the Q might be—whether angel of Allah or agent of the Adversary—but, ultimately, they kept their distance.
The three transports crossed the perimeter of a Kurdish outpost. Near the center of the encampment, the vehicles let their passengers out. The area was open, with little to serve as cover, save for a few cliffs and crags. A tattered road ran through the middle, though the shattered asphalt had become as rough as the terrain beyond. A number of tents and makeshift guard towers had been erected, forming concentric circles, all surrounding the reason this encampment existed—the half-buried body of a massive, fan-shaped creature.
Rashid looked up and down the broken highway as the rest of his team began to disperse around the camp. Each of them appeared occupied, seeing only the tents and the great cadaver at their center. But he saw more. He could see through the years—an overturned moving truck, full of refugees, burning on its side in the night. A firm pat on the shoulder from Heinrich broke his thought. With Heinrich, he followed Sam and Lucas further into the camp.
Logan gathered with his science team near the Q, quickly finding the senior-most member—a specialist from Argo, a tall and gangly Canadian by the name of Renato Aguirre. Carrying a number of cases together, they approached the body. Even embedded in the earth, the Q was still about four or five meters high, and several more meters in length and width. This close, Logan and Aguirre both felt as if they were standing beside a beached whale.
“They certainly do look even bigger up close,” Logan quipped, his excitement overcoming any anxiety he might have had. “Let’s get to it.”
One of the cases was meant to store samples retrieved from the Q. Inside were a number of plastic bags, sanitized and sealed airtight. There were also a number of surgical tools, meant for delicate work. Aguirre sanitized a patch of the Q’s side, then used a thin pick to scrape off flecks and chunks of solid exterior; each piece chipped off like paint, and the larger chunks had the same consistency as packed dirt.
“Do you think it was like this when it first emerged?” Aguirre asked, returning sealed sample bags to their case. “The Q’s exterior has likely undergone some sort of necrosis the past four years.”
“Maybe,” Logan said, tapping his chin in thought, examining the Q as a whole. “Though, of course, even if this thing is organic, there’s no telling from its exterior alone. We’ll have to continue.”
Aguirre opened another case, pulled out a cold saw and a protective mask, and handed both to Logan, who put on the mask and examined the circular blade. They both agreed on a point of entry—though neither of them was quite sure if the spot would be better than any other—and Logan spun up the saw. With far less precision than with the tools used before, he pressed the saw’s edge into the Q. The blade kicked a few times before sinking in. He held it in place for a few seconds, allowing the edge to chip away at the Q’s solid exterior, spewing sparks and shreds. He then stopped the blade and examined his work. Sweeping his fingers over the first cut, he found that the blade had only made a shallow sliver.
With a sigh, he looked at Aguirre. “This is going to take a little longer than we thought.”
“I’ve got time,” Aguirre said, shrugging in a way that made Logan scowl.
Pulling the mask back over his face, Logan returned to cutting into the Q.
Sitting together on a hunk of limestone, Heinrich and Sam stayed out of the way for the time being. For the most part they were alone, listening to the sounds of a busy military installation, with a saw blade occasionally whirring in the distance.
“So,” Heinrich began, his voice low but casual, “shall we discuss why you think the Security Council sent us here? I understand the supposed motive, but even the secret beneath all that cover-up feels like another cover-up to me.”
“You’ve picked up on it, too,” Sam said, keeping a close eye on the people nearby. “It’s a little odd, to be sure, sending Rashid and Lucas here. They could’ve accomplished this with a few marines.”
“That’s not all,” Heinrich said. “Suddenly deciding to gather all of us out at sea? And then there’s your ‘demotion.’ Either the Security Council or the General Assembly is making some bold moves, and quickly.”
Sighing in resignation, Sam said, “Maybe we’re being paranoid. Most people prefer their circumstances to remain the same; even the brain becomes complacent, using less energy. Then things change, and neurons and synapses suddenly have to fire off more than before.”
“I doubt this is just a neurological tantrum, Samuel.”
“If we’re going to say anything about the UN, we need to be cautious. It doesn’t take much to make a rumor, especially with a—”
“A global government?”
“Shaking things up on nothing more than a hunch is a bad move—nothing’s too big to fail.”
Pinching the top of his nose, Heinrich replied, “It’s not as if the UN has a pristine reputation at this point. You and I both know the Stockholm Convention is losing support, even among allied nations like Israel. They’re all afraid the UN is exceeding its jurisdiction.”
Taking another cautious look, ensuring no one would overhear them, Sam added, “We aren’t doing anything to help assuage those fears, either. Bringing two psychics into territory where international law gives us zero authority, just to sample a Q—who knows what other black ops the Security Council’s sent NATO on?”
“I’m not sure how all of this comes together,” Heinrich said, “but I’m certain this is all related. Your dismissal from the directorate, consolidating the program to Argo, and this…”
Scanning their surroundings, they caught sight of Rashid, followed closely by Lucas. They looked less like military personnel and more like high schoolers, each one unsure what to make of the other.
“He doesn’t like Rashid, does he?” Heinrich observed. “Your client.”
“It’s not that he doesn’t like him,” Sam countered, though he didn’t sound sure himself. “He doesn’t know how to act around him. From what I’ve seen, combined with old case reports, Lucas is the kind of person who needs time to adapt to people before he can feel comfortable around them.”
“Rashid is actually much the same,” Heinrich said, his tone growing less stringent. “The problem is, he doesn’t often make the effort to adapt.”
“Has he expressed any concerns to you about working with other psychics?” Sam said, speaking like the chief director he once was.
“You mean Lucas,” Heinrich said. “I’ll confess, I’m uncertain how this will work out.” He then looked back at Rashid, narrowing his gaze. “Rashid is quiet, but he’s an extrovert. He spent years leading guerrillas, but I wonder if he had such an alpha mentality before then. In any case, though he may appear docile, he’s used to being a leader. I suppose he would have to be in order to lead radicals of his own.”
“Rashid was fighting against radicals, no?” Sam said, glancing at Heinrich.
“They may have fought IS,” Heinrich said, “but they were willing to fight Kurds, too. While everyone else discriminated on nationality and ideology, he and his boys divided people up only on the line of whether or not they were a threat or an asset to the Yazidis.” He then looked straight into Sam’s eyes with an intensity comparable to that of Rashid. “Mark my words: Rashid was no knight in shining armor, nor would he want to be thought of as such. He was a terrorist. The only difference between him and IS was that he fought for the people of the Peacock Angel.”
After Sam and Heinrich disappeared together, Lucas was adrift. Logan had vanished as well to carve open the Q, which Lucas had no interest in seeing. That left Rashid. And so he followed him, though he tried not to look like it. Their game of hopeless cat and unaffected mouse went on for almost an hour before Rashid turned back, facing Lucas directly.
“You’re following me.”
This was only the second time Rashid had spoken to him. He sounded the same as he did in the helicopter before—agitated, though composed. Slightly embarrassed to hear it put so pointblank, Lucas felt on edge.
“I just thought it might be a good idea to stick together, you know? In case of an attack or something.”
“You’re not a strategist,” Rashid said as a matter of fact. “You look more like a lost puppy.” His eyes were fixed on Lucas, though it was uncertain whether he was glaring daggers at him, or if he had simply focused entirely on him. “Your eyes dart in every direction. You end up staring at places where no one is standing.”
Rashid had been watching him more than he had presumed—and he was probably talking about the occasions when Lucas would look at Sera, he guessed. He noted that Rashid, a psychic like himself, could not see Sera—he wasn’t sure what to make of that, though.
The scuffle of boots caused both of them to break eye contact. They found Tarek standing between them. He examined Rashid closely, receiving as much scrutiny from Rashid.
With something of a growl, Tarek said, “You’re Rashid Qasim—the one the Khilafah calls Dajjal—antichrist. We had a name for you, too: Ifrit. A creature of fire, who fought with magic and could only be fought with magic.” Rashid did not respond, but Tarek insisted. “Are you or are you not the one who devastated Iraq and Iran?” He turned to Lucas. “You must know. You work with him, yes?”
“I am,” Rashid finally answered, drawing Tarek’s attention from Lucas.
“I knew it,” Tarek said, lighting up. “I thought I recognized your face.” He took a cautious step toward Rashid. “You do not know me, but we met a few years ago—the night this Q attacked. That night, I was driving rescued POWs back to Kurdistan. Women, Yazidis. There was a blockade ahead of us, but it was destroyed. And I saw you. Your face was covered, but I never forgot those eyes… You tried to save us.”
Rashid gritted his teeth, looking back at Tarek as if he were an enemy. “No one was saved that night. Not one.”
“Some survived,” Tarek said. “I was among them. The Iraqi provisional military broke through Khilafah territory to fight the Q. And when you… pulled the Q from sky, and killed it… The Iraqis helped us escape to Kurdistan, myself and a handful of women who survived the crash.”
Though he didn’t know what they were talking about, Lucas knew what night they were discussing. Whether the two men accepted it, whatever happened that night touched them both.
“What do you want?” Rashid asked.
Turning grave, Tarek took Rashid’s hand, stuffing a crumpled paper into his palm. “West of here, on the new highway, there is another truck. My people managed to free a number of Yazidi women and children, ones held captive for months, perhaps years. They managed to head off Khilafah forces, but they are now being pursued. Their transport is slow, and they are only lightly armed. Their pursuers will overtake them soon. My men and I are not enough, not to guard this camp and go to their aid. Please… They need help.”
Rashid looked down at the paper pressed in his hand. After some thought, he took Tarek’s hand and the paper. “This is all the information?”
“Wait, what?” Lucas interrupted. “Rashid, you can’t mean—”
“It’s all there,” Tarek said urgently. He left the note, then walked away. “Please, hurry. There is not much time.”
Lucas turned, hoping to find Sam or Heinrich, but they were nowhere to be seen; and he knew Logan wasn’t close. Turning back, he found Rashid already walking away. Against his better judgment, unsure of what else he could do, he trotted after him.
The saw continued slicing the Q’s tough shell. Logan traced a wide square, then ran over the shape a number of times, moving slowly, methodically. At last, he felt something give—the shell had broken.
Wiping the sweat from his brow, he took a deep, satisfied breath.
“If it’s this tough to get into,” Aguirre said, squatting beside him, “then how did he manage to kill the thing in the first place? All he did was run it into the ground, right?”
“Who knows?” Logan said. “Maybe he shredded its insides before grounding it.” The thought sank in and he grimaced, then turned to Aguirre. “When I open it up… You don’t think some Q puree is going to pour out, do you?”
Aguirre stared at him for a moment, then together they looked back at the Q.
“God, I hope not,” Aguirre said.
“Only one way to find out, I guess.”
With thick gloves, Logan and Aguirre grabbed the edges of the cutout in the Q, working their fingers into the gaps. As they lifted the piece, squishing noise and the sensation of opening something airtight followed. Setting the cutout aside, they looked inside the Q. Neither knew if they should be pleased or disgusted. Beneath the square cutout were what appeared to be ribs—two cracked lengths of bone, parallel to one another, with reddish-purple muscle between them.
Feeling disgusted then, Aguirre went in to sample the muscle and bone. Trying not to breathe, he said, “I guess you were right.”
“Yeah, I guess I was,” Logan said, already lost in thought.
A sucking noise squelched from the monster’s insides as Aguirre peeled a piece of muscle from the bone, bagging it quickly. “Can we call it quits here, then? We’ve got some good samples…”
“No, no,” Logan said absently, staring through the gap in the ribs. “We came for more than samples. We can’t take this thing back with us, so I want to make sure we wring it for every bit of intel we can. Where’s the hazmat gear?”
“Here.” Aguirre pointed to their last container, holding a handkerchief over his mouth and nose and sitting down. “You can’t possibly intend to go in there. That’s why we brought the rest of the team, you know. Let them do the dirty work.”
“You and I have very different definitions of dirty work,” Logan said, already slipping into the hazmat suit. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world. Now get your radio. We’ll maintain constant communication.”
With a heavy sigh, Aguirre got up to help. He placed a mask and hood over Logan’s head, securing them to the suit. “The mask has a camera, so try to look directly at everything. If we can’t take the whole thing back, we can at least take some visuals.”
Aguirre buckled a rope to Logan’s waist, and they tested the radio headset under his plastic hood. Once they confirmed the channel was clear and the tether secure, Logan faced the open side of the Q. The space between ribs was enough for him to squeeze through—and so he entered.
Lights on the sides of his head cast everything in blue, giving Logan enough visibility to navigate. The inside of the Q was cramped; everywhere he went, he was pressed in by muscle and tendrils. Every step he took squished, carrying with it the sensation of unstable footing. The farther he went, the more confused he became. He had assumed that if this Q was organic like the one in Chicago, then their insides would likely resemble one another, at least superficially. Yet this felt less like a corpse and more like a marsh, and everywhere he went appeared to be more of the same.
His disappointment notwithstanding, he bagged several samples of the tendons and tendrils. As he did, he recalled what Aguirre had said when they took their initial samples, how he had wondered if the Q had decayed at all in the past three or four years. Though it was certainly inert, everything appeared to be in reasonably good condition. None of the muscles exhibited any signs of degradation or even atrophy. Swallowing his shock, he muttered to himself as he worked, wondering what other world he had wandered into.
Preparing to radio Aguirre, he pushed past a wall of tendrils, which gave way against his hands more easily than the others. Stumbling forward, he entered an open cavity. Though there wasn’t much space, there was one distinction, something which commanded his attention.
“Aguirre, do you read me?”
“I read you. What is it? Have you found something?”
“I think so,” Logan said, captivated.
Suspended by what appeared to be long spinal columns, each growing from the wall, hung a fleshy wad. Upon closer examination, Logan recognized the shape: there was a lower lobe, out of which bloomed two larger, wrinkled lobes. Though he did not know what to make of it, he knew the organ was mammalian.
“What is it, then?” Aguirre said, tired of the radio silence.
“I think…” Logan searched for the words. “I think I found its brain.”
“Don’t follow me.”
Rashid’s command was firm, but it seemed void of any force now that Lucas had found the bravado he needed to follow him.
They made it to the edge of the camp without being noticed, though there was no saying whether Tarek had called his men to stand down. Even so, Lucas played along, considering it wise not to attract attention.
“You can’t be serious about this,” he hissed at Rashid, keeping close. When Rashid didn’t answer, he added, “All you’re going to do is make trouble for the UN. The Iraqis will get more paranoid knowing NATO was here without permission, IS will get more violent—and for what?”
“It’s not for you to decide.” Rashid stopped walking, his eyes forward and hidden from Lucas. “I didn’t ask you to come with me. If you’re so worried, stay here.”
Lucas had expected a sharp rebuke, but his words were sincere. That sincerity caused his own fight to leave him. “What will you do when you get to the highway?” Lucas asked—another question Rashid answered without words.
Sera stood between them, her eyes on Rashid. “It’s obvious what he’ll do.” She then turned to Lucas, unease in her eyes. “If he draws too much attention—if they learn a NATO psychic is here… Who knows what the UN would do with him? Or us…”
Though her eyes were cast down, Lucas could still see her fear. No matter what she was, they both knew she needed Lucas, and he needed her, if either of them was going to figure out what was happening to them. The idea was so broad, the mystery so vague, that it felt almost silly insisting upon each other after so short a time. Yet the question was tangible, even if it had yet to reveal itself. Whatever they were being dragged into, they knew they would need each other.
Under Lucas’ gaze, Rashid stepped into a light infantry mobility vehicle. Without a key, he turned the engine with his mind.
Lucas huffed, “What the hell…”
Rashid watched as Lucas hopped into the passenger seat next to him. The two shared a look before Rashid resigned himself and drove out of the camp. By then the sun was setting. Rashid told Lucas they would likely make it to the highway west of Baa’j by nightfall, then fell silent again.
At an urgent stride, Sam and Heinrich approached the Q. They found the opening in its side as Logan was stepping back out, pulling the mask and hood from his head.
“Logan,” Sam called. “Have either of you seen Unaone or Terrathree? We can’t reach them over the radio.”
“I haven’t seen them. I’ve been ‘scuba diving’.” Their apparent worry gave Logan pause. “Why? Is something wrong?”
“It would seem so,” Heinrich muttered, turning on a heel and walking away.
Sam and Logan ran after him as he made his way to the camp’s central command tent. He found Tarek outside. Though he attempted to remain calm, he already sensed that Tarek would know precisely what was happening.
“Tarek,” Heinrich said, his tone authoritative, his face set like stone, “have you seen the two young men we were traveling with?”
Raising an eyebrow, Tarek said, “Do you mean the American? Or are you perhaps speaking of Rashid Qasim?” He could see this name had struck a chord with Heinrich; the German had not expected him to know that much. “He’s left the camp, I’m afraid.”
“Where is he?” Heinrich pushed, speaking through his teeth.
“There is a rescue going on west of the city, POWs taken from Khilafah death camps,” Tarek said. “A number of Yazidis are among them. They’re being pursued and are not likely to make it back to Kurdistan. When Rashid heard of this… he wished to help.”
Though flabbergasted, Heinrich didn’t bother to ask how Rashid had learned of such an operation. All he could do was glare daggers into Tarek, who returned the gesture.
“Did you not think we would recognize the one they call Dajjal when we saw him?” Tarek asked, taking a step closer. “The one who put the fear of both God and man into the hearts of every Khilafah fighter from here to Pakistan?”
Stepping in, Sam attempted to draw the two apart. “Tarek, please. The American that was with Rashid—where is he?”
Tarek stared at Sam for a moment, then said, “They must have gone together.”
Heinrich and Tarek continued their standoff, leaving Sam and Logan to watch idly from the sidelines.
“This was not part of our arrangement,” Heinrich stated, his lips thinning.
“Smuggling a psychic into Iraq was also not part of our arrangement,” Tarek said. “But this is a good way for the UN to make up for their deception.”
“If this falls apart,” Heinrich said, his tone sharpening, “NATO will eat you alive. They won’t care about international relations, not if one of their most important assets is compromised.”
Tarek took another defiant step toward Heinrich. “NATO does not frighten me, nor do they frighten the Khilafah.” He looked to the west. “They fear only one thing.”
A soldier then emerged from the command tent, calling unceremoniously to Tarek in Sorani; however, the look on his face spoke volumes anyone could read. Tarek followed the soldier back into the tent, with Heinrich, Sam, and Logan in tow. The soldier handed Tarek the receiver to a large, outdated radio as a transmission came in. A tinny voice convulsed across the channel in another Kurdish dialect, their words quick, panicked even. When the transmission ended, Tarek confirmed his receipt of the message, then set the receiver down.
“What’s going on?” Heinrich asked.
“We need to evacuate you from this area immediately,” Tarek said, already heading for the mouth of the tent.
“That’s not an answer,” Heinrich said, chasing after him. “Why do we need to leave?”
Growing more frustrated, Tarek faced Heinrich. “A Khilafah insurgency is on their way to retake this site. They were hoping to ambush us in the night, but one of my scouts spotted them en route from the south. We need to relocate you and your people. Your work here is finished.”
“We aren’t going anywhere without our people,” Sam told Tarek, stepping forward.
“Rashid Qasim has nothing to fear,” Tarek said, “and anyone with him could not be safer.”
“Okay, maybe they can leave, but I can’t,” Logan stepped in. “We haven’t finished harvesting the Q.”
“What part of ‘insurgency’ do you not understand?” Tarek said. “You must have gathered enough samples by now, Doctor. As of now, your science experiment is over.”
As Tarek turned to walk away again, Logan called after him, “We found its brain.”
Tarek appeared unimpressed by this, though he turned back to Logan.
“The whole reason we came here was to find some way of effectively and permanently rendering the Q extinct,” Logan explained, taking advantage of what little leverage he had. “The very fact that this monster has a brain could mean everything to our efforts.”
“What can a dead brain give you?” Tarek asked, unconvinced.
“Anything that can teach us about the Q is imperative,” Logan said, drawing closer. “If this Q possessed complex or even simple neurological functions—if the Q are thinking, if they’re somehow conscious or self-aware… then it is critical that we harvest this brain. Given the chance to research it in a lab, we may find some means of attacking the Q other than through brute force.”
Tarek studied Logan’s unchanging face before responding. “The insurgency will likely arrive in thirty minutes.” As he walked away he called back, “You have ten.”
With that, Logan sprinted back to Aguirre and the Q. Now alone, both Sam and Heinrich remained quiet as the encampment grew busier.