Jesse Faden knows exactly what she's looking at, but she lets her Head of Research do the talking.
"We found this after a House Shift in Research. It opened up a lab which we think had been completely disconnected from the rest of the House, for years. Inside the lab we found cabinets of old files — duplicates of files we already had, nothing new — and some, ah." Emily Pope shivers. "Bureau staff. And this."
It's a projector slide, a two-inch square of beige plastic with a transparent image mounted in it. The image on the slide is a mess, an unfocused blur of dark green and dark brown. In the foreground, there are three extremely distorted black lines, almost meeting at a point. The opposite of a triangle, Faden supposes. It's hard to be sure, but the three lines look pointed, like arrows.
Pope goes on, "The design of the slide is exactly the same as the slides associated with the Slide Projector Object of Power. There's no doubt that this was part of the original collection. The slide is numbered. We're calling it Slide-55."
"I burned all of the slides except for Slide-36," Faden states. Slide-55 is pristine.
"You burned all of the slides you had," Pope explains. "We think Dr. Darling's team found this in the Ordinary landfill, after they transported the landfill to the Research Sector and began combing through it. We know that Darling himself knew it existed. We've found his fingerprints on the slide frame."
"So why does none of Darling's research mention a Slide-55?"
Pope smiles humourlessly. "Maybe it does. We think a lot of his research may be in other Shifted rooms, where we can't get to it. But then again... maybe he had a good reason not to document it."
She's been Bureau Director for two years. Quiet years, considering. The Hiss has long since been eradicated from the Oldest House, burned out Sector by Sector using intensely amplified Hedron resonance. Her staff don't need to wear personal amplifiers anymore, and the building lockdown has been lifted. Since then, her directorial role has been much less frenetic, and much more bureaucratic.
She adapted to office life; she is nothing if not highly adaptable. And she's made changes which have significantly improved Bureau operations. But, privately, she has missed action. Her brother, Dylan, is still comatose. And the lack of firm answers to many of her questions, and the lack of contact from the Board or via the Hotline, have left her feeling as if she is missing much more. And this thing in front of her is... well, definitely something.
"I'm going to need gear," she says.
This catches Pope off-guard. "Ah. What kind of gear?"
"Tell Arish to augment my extradimensional suit with Bureau trooper armor. And prep the Dimensional Research lab."
"...You want to mount an expedition into Slidescape-55? Jesse, are you sure about this?"
"Casper Darling is missing," Faden tells her. "Not dead. He disappeared without a trace. And I think this could be where he went. And if he's alive, that would make him the last surviving member of the last generation of Bureau senior staff. I think that's worth trying to save."
Wearing the armour is like driving a tank. It takes her a long time to suit up, with two Bureau technicians helping her. There is a basic form-fitting undersuit, padded at the joints and pretty substantial in its own right. Then ribbed orange foam rubber, then heavy Kevlar plating, and finally white ceramic resonance-damping shielding. Most of the armour is two inches thick. The collar rises high and protects her throat well, but severely restricts her vision... and then the helmet is like a white cannonball, seemingly completely opaque from the outside, providing only a small transparent plate to see through on the inside. It's claustrophobic, and very hot.
Faden stands up awkwardly, finding that she is about twice as heavy as normal. Moving is a workout. She turns slowly, giving a thumbs-up to the Bureau technicians, and then looking over at Simon Arish, her Head of Security.
Arish nods, approvingly. "How're you doing in there? Breathing okay?"
Faden says, "Feels good." Her voice is heavily muffled, and has to be relayed through a speaker on her chest.
One of the technicians says, "Standard weapons complement with the trooper gear is an adapted minigun. We have one prepped in the next room if you need it. And some other options. But, uh. Chief Arish said you wouldn't need it."
"Actually, what I said was that we should watch this," Arish says.
Faden moves clumsily over to the rack where she deposited the Service Weapon. As she lifts it, it transforms, flexing and growing, suddenly becoming much heavier than before. It becomes an abstraction of a minigun, the basic concept stripped down to just a few essential geometric solids. Three long barrels spin idly and frictionlessly in the air. Behind the barrels, the Weapon has a roughly cylindrical body made of solid black metal discs, which shuffle back and forth, vibrating uncertainly among themselves. Like a flock of birds, a temporary shape formed by independent pieces with independent minds all acting in concert.
With the sudden weight, Faden almost drops the Weapon. Its long barrels bounce off the floor. She grabs the Service Weapon's new handle with her other hand and hauls it back to horizontal. The Weapon rests naturally at about hip height. She isn't able to easily lift the thing much higher. She feels like she could drill a hole in a battleship with it.
"Whoah," she says.
"Yeah," Arish grins. "I figured something like this could happen. The Service Weapon emulates iconic weaponry. I heard it was Excalibur in a past life, and crap like that. I don't know mythology. But my guys watch a lot of action movies and there aren't too many weapons more iconic than the M134 minigun."
Faden turns away from the others, swinging the Service Weapon's muzzle around in an arc, trying to get used to the weight. It's inconvenient at best. "I don't know if this is going to work," she says. "I can't use my telekinesis unless I have a free hand." She shapes the Weapon back into its Grip form, which appears and behaves more like a generic pistol. It looks comically tiny in her hand, but at least she can raise it and aim it steadily.
"The point is, you have options," Arish says. "You can improvise. I've seen you do it a bunch of times."
"And the kind of thing you're going to find in a Slidescape isn't going to be the kind of thing you can shoot," he adds.
"Yeah," Faden says. "Everyone on the team is bringing HRAs. We'll be protected from resonance-based attack too."
"Ma'am, uh..." Arish says. "Take care out there. I've served under two Directors. That was enough. And I don't think we've got anyone lined up."
Slide Projector activated. Slide-55 loaded. The gateway opens, three storeys tall, rectangular, blue-white, luminous.
Nine of them go through, including Faden. Faden goes first. Behind her are four Bureau rangers, combat experts trained for hazardous environments. And behind them are the researchers, with packs full of gear.
Faden is prepared, or thinks she's prepared, for nearly anything. She's visited more Slidescapes than anybody alive except perhaps her brother, and that was before she even joined the Bureau. Since then, she's crossed any number of Thresholds into wildly incomprehensible, alien landscapes.
But this is... a forest. A pine forest, like she might find anywhere in the American heartland. It's night, and there's a clear sky, and above the trees there is a fairly familiar-looking crescent Moon.
Faden activates the flashlights on her helmet. Her people follow suit. She leads them straight on through the forest, shoving undergrowth out of the way as she goes. The terrain dips, and then rises. The trees become denser, then start to thin out. Everybody is under orders to call out anything unusual they see. Nobody sees anything. Nobody says anything.
After after a few miles, Faden stops and turns to her navigator. "Let's get this straight. We're on Earth. Right?"
"Yes, ma'am," she replies. Her name is Walsh. She looks upwards. The trees are thinner here, and she has a reasonable view of the sky. "I don't need my equipment to recognise these stars. It's nothing like the Quarry Threshold starfield at all. This is home. The Big Dipper is right there, and there's Polaris."
"What? Oh." Faden has kept Polaris' existence a secret from all but the most senior Bureau staff. In the base of her mind, Polaris herself ripples briefly, acknowledging her confusion. Then Faden realises what Walsh is pointing at. "The North Star. Got it."
"That puts us in the Northern Hemisphere. And based on the plant life, we're in North America, not Asia."
"Why would a Projector slide lead back to Earth?" Faden wonders aloud. "Are we in the U.S.?"
"One moment, ma'am." Walsh takes what appears to be a sextant out of her pack. She moves to somewhere she has a better view of the North Star, and measures its elevation. Then she consults a paper map. No GPS unit — the Oldest House would never allow such an advanced piece of technology to pass through it. "...Yes, ma'am. Without knowing what time it is on this Earth, I can't get you a longitude. But we could be anywhere on this parallel here. Colorado, Kansas, Missouri..."
"Yes, ma'am. This is certainly Earth, but I can't say for sure if it's the same Earth. And even if it is, we can't rule out time travel."
"Time travel? You're kidding me." There are no confirmed reports of time travel in Bureau records. Yet.
Walsh shrugs. "I've been with the Bureau for a long time, ma'am. I try to consider all possible options."
Faden turns to one of the rangers, the radio operator, Sullivan. He carries a sizeable rectangular backpack, with an antenna sticking out of it. Old analogue technology. "You're still in contact with the House? Through the projection?"
"Okay. But that thing's got a pretty good range, right? Can you try to reach the nearest Bureau office, here on this side of the projection? We have offices in all of those states. Tell them to get in contact with Bureau headquarters, and get Emily on the line. I want to see if we can close the loop."
"Yes, ma'am." Sullivan sets his pack down and pulls out the microphone. "This is FBC Expeditionary Crew Gamma One calling... any Bureau agent who's listening." After a minute or two of trying, he doesn't get a lot more than dead air. "Any Bureau office. This is Crew Gamma One."
"We could be too far from civilization," Faden says.
"We could go back through the projection and get a vehicle," someone suggests.
Then the whole earth shudders violently, underfoot. It's like it jumps up a half-inch. Everybody stumbles. At the same time, a sound arrives, carried some distance through the cold night air. It is a deep, heavy DOOM, like something extremely large being dropped from a height. Something like a mountain.
Faden looks at another of her researchers, her geologist.
"That could have been an earthquake," he suggests. But it's clear that nobody is buying it, not even him.
There's a worried pause while everybody scans their surroundings.
"...Does anybody else hear that?" a ranger asks. He unslings his rifle and moves away from the group, looking into the forest.
"No. What do you hear?" Faden asks. Her armour muffles her hearing.
"Trees," the ranger says. His name is López. "Splintering. Getting closer."
"Back up," she orders him.
At that moment, another voice breaks in, a crackly voice through Sullivan's radio. "Stand down," it says. "You are completely surrounded. Lay all of your weapons down."
Sullivan fumbles for his microphone. "Uh, say what? Who is this?"
DOOM. Like footfall of a tyrannosaur. Hell, Faden thinks, it could be a tyrannosaur. Even she can hear the crash of trees being uprooted or crushed now. She concentrates her flashlight beams on the direction the sound is coming from. She can't see anything.
"There's something out there," López declares.
"López, get back here," Faden orders. This is a basic tactic, and López shouldn't need to be told twice. In a hostile engagement, all Bureau staff know, the Director goes first. The Director has the Service Weapon, and she wields Powers from a half-dozen other bound Objects of Power. She's fought the Board and lived, and some say won. But López doesn't move. DOOM. He's transfixed by a gap in the forest, a place where nothing is shoving trees aside like wheat stalks, stampeding towards them all. DOOM.
"Stand down!" the unknown on the radio says, again.
"Uh, we're in the middle of something here," Sullivan replies. Then, "Oh, shit." He drops the transmitter, and runs.
Faden bellows, to everybody, "Move!"
López says, "Contact—"
Faden stretches out her TK, latching onto a knot of earth and rock in the ground beside her. She wrenches it out of the ground and launches it overarm, on a flat trajectory past López's head and directly into the centre of the disturbance. It's a good shot, it hits whatever-it-is hard, but not hard enough. López takes one step backwards, aiming at the dark air, and then he implodes downwards into a bloody mess, a pancake of gore.
"Fucking hell!" Faden recoils in horror, almost tripping over. She scrambles away to one side, just dodging the invisible mass as it storms past her, almost crushing her too. It crashes violently into the trees behind her, rolling to a halt.
"I want them all alive," she hears someone shout. In fact, she hears it in stereo, once from Sullivan's still-receiving radio speaker, and once from a real human mouth standing somewhere behind her.
And then it gets loud.