“Violence isn’t the answer, it’s the question. Got violence?”
-Special Agent Doyle L. Johnson, ID: Hotel-Plumber-Lima, 3-15-3
Captain Thulisile Mahlangu sat cross-legged on the dirt floor. She’d been there many times before. Everything was the same: the crack of the fire from the nearby pit, the way the embers rose into the air, dancing along the currents like tiny chaotic ballerinas, even how the smell of the smoke and cooking meat mixed into a succulent masterpiece—just like it always was in her dream.
In her dream, this particular dream, she wasn’t Captain Mahlangu. She wasn’t in charge of the Alpha Team serving the Bureau of Investigation, Observation and Defense of Extraordinary, Extraterrestrial, Demonic and Paranormal Activity. In her dream, she was a little girl, five years of age living in the Zulu Nation. In her dream, she was scared. She was always scared.
She stared at the fire, the warmth of the flames licking at her skin, pondering what could possibly make the noise coming from outside. It was a noise that sounded like a human screaming, but much, much worse.
The screams were primal, shrouded in hate and pain, coming from the depths of Hell. The kind of Hell the Bible thumpers always warned her and her family about; the kind with fire, brimstone, and red-skinned devils brandishing pitchforks ready to torment her soul for infinity. Especially her soul—she was her mother’s daughter.
The screams of her father burning alive were all of that and more.
“It will be okay, Thuli.”
It was her mother’s voice. In her dream, her mother tried to stay strong for her, but fear always cut through her tone. Her mother stood in the doorway of their small abode, clutching something at her chest. Thuli wanted to go over to her, cling to her body until the screaming stopped, but fear kept her planted on the floor. Fear of what was out there just beyond the threshold.
Her father finally stopped screaming, and it was in that moment, in that silence that Thuli wondered which was worse. He was gone.
“You got to be strong now, you hear me, Thuli? You be strong. Never let them see your fear. You bring the silence. Bring the fear,” her mother said.
She was about to say more when two men dressed in finely tailored suits came to the doorway. Their faces were wet with perspiration and they both had wide-eyed looks. Crazy looks. They grabbed her mother and dragged her outside.
Moments later, her mother started to laugh. It was a deep laugh that reverberated through the walls and into Thuli’s core. It was a haunting laugh that would stay with her for the rest of her life.
The laugh turned into a scream, much like her father’s. That’s when the tall shadow appeared in the doorway.
She woke covered in sweat, shivering underneath her covers. The room was dark, with the exception of a small strip of fluorescent light underneath the bathroom mirror. It provided enough illumination so she could navigate; however, she didn’t need it. She could move through the room with practiced ease in complete darkness. Thuli could get dressed and field-strip her carbine without needing to see a thing.
There wouldn’t be any more sleep that night, so she got up and padded across the floor without making a noise. The motion tracker caught her movement as she entered the bathroom causing the overhead lights to flicker into life. She squinted through the brightness and turned on the faucet.
Thuli ran her hands under the cool water and then splashed her head, running her fingers through her short, black hair. The brisk water was nice on her neck, and for a moment, she reveled in the sensation. If she could have found a mountain waterfall to stand under, she would have. Pure water, running free and wild did amazing things to cleanse the spirit. Yet she wasn’t in the mountains, nor was she anywhere near a stream, so she had to make do with what she was given. The water ran down her chest and seemed to avoid a leather pouch hanging around her neck as if it were made of oil. It diverted into two separate streams running along either side of the pouch before coming back together on the other side.
The pouch began to shake. It was a slight tremor, but enough to get her attention. She grabbed it. There were symbols carved into the leather, ancient symbols in a language long dead and forgotten in the modern world. She didn’t know what they meant, but she knew what they did. They kept her in check—kept her normal.
Thuli took a deep breath, focusing on her breathing. The bag stopped trembling.
The tremors were coming more and more frequently. Perhaps it was due to the increased mission-load she and her team had taken on as of late. Perhaps it was something else. Whatever it was, she’d have to figure out a way to keep it in check. She couldn’t afford to lose control. Not again.
She splashed more water on her head. Thuli was drying off when a loud buzz sounded off back in the bedroom.
Thuli dropped the towel and padded to the bed. A small black device buzzed on the nightstand. It was her personal communicator issued by the Bureau. The device was a cross between a radio and a cell phone but worked on a different spectrum. Thuli asked the technicians how it worked once and ended up getting a migraine from their explanations. All she knew was that it worked flawlessly no matter where she was on the planet, regardless of location or weather. It never needed to be charged. They also told her to never, under any circumstances, put the device in a microwave.
The audio fed directly into an implant in her ear. Mr. Oberon’s smooth voice entered her head. Even after many years, hearing his voice inside her head was still strange. She had enough demons inside her head already.
“Captain Mahlangu, we’ve received reports of an Alpha Protocol.”
“Sir, it’s very early in the morning and my humor doesn’t really kick in until after 0730.”
“This isn’t a joke. Get your team together and report to the Operations Room in one hour.”
The transmission went silent.
In her twenty years of service her and her team had responded to many other protocols and missions, but never an Alpha. Thuli radioed her next in command, Sergeant Fergus Galbraith.
The transmission picked up after a couple of rings.
It almost sounded like he said something that was a mix between hollow and holler. He had a heavy Scottish accent which had taken Thuli years to overcome. It still made her giggle a little. Now she could pick out every word he said with ease, at least until he got excited or angry. Then he switched to Gàidhlig, the Scottish version of Gaelic.
“Get everyone ready and to the Operations Room. Forty-five minutes. Tell them if any of those slack-asses are late, they’ve got tunnel duty for the next month.”
“Aye, Captain. But what’s the rush?”
He was still sleepy, but her tone must have put him on alert.
Thuli ended the transmission before he could ask any questions. She didn’t have any answers.
Thuli was dressed and ready in ten minutes. She wore black tactical trousers with a matching blouse. They were worn, faded, but comfortable, not to mention great in the field. She donned her tactical uniform because there was nothing casual about an Alpha Protocol. If an Alpha call was raised, then the shit had already hit the fan and fecal matter was spread to all four corners of the proverbial room. It would be her team’s job to go into said room and try and clean up. If she couldn’t clean up the mess, then the job would fall to an Omega Team. Nobody wanted the Omega Team to get involved because their clean-up method generally involved scorched-earth philosophies.
Thuli was the first of her team to arrive, and wouldn’t have had it any other way. She couldn’t expect people to fall in line if she didn’t show them where the line started. However, she wasn’t the first person there.
Mr. Oberon and his assistant, a woman known only as Sister, sat at the end of a large conference table. Mr. Oberon was tall, had chiseled features, and sported a cleanly shaven face. He had short, brown hair that was always immaculate and combed to side in a fashion that bespoke an earlier time. His dark eyes lit when Thuli entered the room.
On the other hand, Sister always wore the same expression—pissed off. She was just as tall as Oberon, which meant she generally towered over most other women. She was athletic and liked to wear clothes that fit a little too well. In this case, she wore an off-white blouse that looked as if it were painted on. Her blonde hair was pulled up into a tight bun and not a single strand of hair was out of place. Rumor had it she doubled as Oberon’s personal bodyguard. Thuli was pretty good at reading people, and she didn’t doubt that Sister could hold her own in a tussle. The way she moved was predatory.
“Captain, thank you for coming early. I was hoping that you would be here so we could discuss the matter before your team arrived.”
Mr. Oberon’s voice was almost musical. Not like he was singing his words, but the tone and cadence had a certain magic to them. It was hard not to get lost in his voice.
Thuli didn’t like him.
There was something false about him. Something she couldn’t place, but it put her on edge. He was her boss, though, and he was her connection to the Bureau’s management, so she always played nice.
Oberon smiled and put his fingers together like a steeple. He nodded to the nearby chair.
“Please, sit. Coffee?”
Thuli moved into the chair while Sister kept her watchful gaze pinned on every movement Thuli made. Sister was a viper ready to strike, indiscriminate of allegiance, race, gender or age. A moment later a woman wearing an outfit matching Sister’s walked into the room holding a tray of coffee. She was one of Mr. Oberon’s lackeys. They were all the same. Thuli nodded thanks as she placed the coffee on the table.
“What do we know?” Thuli asked.
“We received a radio transmission of an Alpha Protocol early this morning. It came in broken and almost unreadable, but our techs were able to clean it up. I would have called you in sooner, but we had to verify the authenticity of the message.”
After he finished talking, Sister pulled out a keyboard and mouse from under the conference table. She hit a few buttons and a recording of the radio transmission started to play.
“Break! Break! Break! This is Special Agent Johnson, ID Hockeystick-Papa-Lemming-3-15-3. We have a situation. Alpha protocol. I repeat we have an Alpha protocol.”
Thuli’s breath caught in her throat. Could it really be Special Agent Johnson? Johnson was her personal trainer when she was recruited by the Bureau. He’d taken her under his wing, and while he was kind of crazy and didn’t follow the rules, she found his presence and kindness a comfort. He’d disappeared while on mission years ago and was presumed dead.
“Yes, Captain, we’ve run voice analysis and the technicians assure me it is him,” Oberon said, with a smile on his face.
“I thought he died while on mission.”
“MIA was the official report. The rest was rumor. It seems as if he is very much alive, and in Salt Lake City.”
What on earth could cause an Alpha Protocol in Salt Lake City? As if he read her mind, which he quite possibly could do (Mr. Oberon was still somewhat of an enigma), the large screen behind him powered on.
A satellite feed of the United States appeared with a live stream of meta-data scrolling across the bottom.
“If you could be so kind, please play the anomaly,” Oberon said.
Sister typed some commands on the keyboard and the map zoomed into the State of Utah. She overlaid meteorological data on the map and then hit play. Clear skies turned into a mass of red, yellow and black centered over Southern Utah and then the weather cell took a winding path up the state until crossing over Salt Lake City. After staying stationary over the capitol city for ten minutes, the storm grew, moving out from the area in a circle.
“What was that?” Thuli asked.
“It’s unlike any storm we’ve ever seen. Images show intense rain, wind, and electrical disturbances. Supernatural energy spikes off the chart in the regions it touched. Then there’s this.”
Sister zoomed in on a suburb situated in the foothills of the Salt Lake Valley and hit play. A small section of the neighborhood disappeared from view as it fell into a large sinkhole. The video fast-forwarded until orange lights appeared in the hole and shot out into the sky in a brilliant display.
“We have reason to believe that this was the cause of Special Agent Johnson’s Alpha call.”
“What am I looking at here?” Thuli asked.
She wasn’t sure what the orange ball of light was, but deep down, she knew it couldn’t be good.
The ball split into seven separate motes and sped off in different directions, with one ball falling back to the pit. Sister paused the recording and zoomed in again. The picture wasn’t very clear, but there was a faint outline of a winged, bipedal creature in the ball of energy.
“We’re not sure,” Oberon said.
His musical voice faltered ever so slightly. Sister remained deadpan but stopped typing. They knew something. The single drop of sweat rolling down Mr. Oberon’s forehead was enough to tell her that whatever they knew, it wasn’t good.