Ever had a story idea that you just couldn't get out of your head? This one wouldn't leave my imagination alone until I put it into writing. Just so you're warned, I deliberately copied the first chapter of the actual book Ghost Story very, very closely (go here for the real thing). SPOILER ALERT: this will spoil the hell out of the Dresden Files book Changes, which would suck 'cuz it's a great read and better than anything I might write. Go read that first! Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 The Life and Times of LtCmdr John Shepard Salarian Reality Hacking --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- It got dark. It got quiet. Die alone, a bitter old man’s voice whispered. “Hush, now.” The woman sounded familiar. A light bloomed in the darkness, and I could hear the roar of an oncoming train. Typical, I thought sourly. Even when you’re dead, it doesn’t get any easier. I faced the oncoming train squarely, planting my body on the tracks and my hands on my hips. Get the girl, save the day, live happily ever after without gaping chest wounds: why couldn’t the world follow the damn script properly? “Hey! Cut!” I yelled at the howling light. “We’re doing another take!” “The hell’s up with you, boy?” roared a voice beside my head, and a sudden pull yanked me from the rails and the blazing power flying along it. The train roared past as I lay sprawled on the platform, snarling like the hungry wolf that’d just missed a juicy rabbit. Its sheer force pulled me along the cold cement, air whipping by as the unstoppable force hurtled down the tracks. My unseen guardian pinned my arm further, keeping me steadied while the train shot into the distance. Gasping for air, I chanced a look around as my heart rate stabilized. I lay sprawled under fluorescent lights in a completely nondescript Chicago train station. I felt like I’d seen the place before, but there was nothing to identify it: no posters, no graffiti, just worn and chipped cement. That, and a pair of polished black shoes near my head. I looked up past cheap trousers and cheaper suit to find a thirty-something man staring back at me. He had a piercing gaze, a thinning hairline, and the eyes of a man who’d seen the world’s worst but hadn’t broken under it. He radiated quiet strength, helped by a linebacker build – hit him and you’d probably break a finger. “Didn’t your mama tell you not to play on the train tracks?” he admonished gently, mock-waving a finger at me. “Careful ‘round the southbound trains, they’ve been running lickety-split lately.” I remained silent, staring up at the dead man. Add a few decades and a couple dozen pounds, and he was… “C-Carm…” I trailed off. The day had been too much for me. He chuckled, a deep bass rumble. “And you charge how much for that private eye work, again?” “Um, you’re,” I trailed off again. “Y’know, dead. And stuff.” He grinned again. “Look who’s talking, Dresden.” Sergeant Ron Carmichael, formerly of the Chicago Police Department, Special Investigations Division, reached a hand down. I took it in a daze, standing and desperately trying to get my bearings. Carmichael had been Murphy’s partner, over ten years ago. He’d given his life to save her from a loup-garou, a Schwarzenegger-sized cursed werewolf. I had watched him die. “You look pretty good, for being dead.” He cocked his head. “Could say the same to you, pal.” He tapped my uncovered left hand, and I glanced at the pink skin. My hand had come a long way since a vampire’s psychotic thrall had turned it into charred steak, but it had remained a scarred mess that I wore a glove to cover. Emphasis on had. The scars, and Lasciel’s seal, were gone like they’d never been. I gaped silently at the miracle, trying to wrap my head around it. Carmichael let out another bass rumble. “Kid, you’re not the first one to do that. C’mon.” In a daze, I let the probably-not-Carmichael lead me out of the train station, across a darkened street towards a waiting car. As the cop produced a set of keys from his pocket, I glanced around at the scenery. We and the old, gold Mustang were alone on a long, dark street. Shadowed buildings towered forebodingly above us, the only light a dim glow from the train station’s fluorescents and weak city lights nearby. I turned slowly, trying to see a landmark and finding none. That was fairly strange; I know Chicago damn well. Carmichael saw me looking around. “Don’t try. Those’re all the buildings that coulda been, racked ‘n stacked with the ones that are. It’ll give you a headache thinking ‘bout it.” He blew air through his teeth. “Been here a long while, and it still gives me the heebie-jeebies sometimes.” I slowly climbed into the car, and we took off down the dark roads. Leaning back, I tried to think through my fragmented memories and the events of the past few minutes. My subconscious is the part of me that analyzes the scary monsters while my consciousness gets on with the important tasks of panicking and running, and the black-wearing bastard had some things to say now. “This isn’t Chicago.” “Knew those detective skills would make an appearance eventually.” “So, where are we?” “Between,” Carmichael responded cryptically. “Between what?” “Between what,” he answered amiably. “Between who. Between where. Between when.” I glanced up. “You left out ‘why.’” He grinned, white teeth reflecting the streetlamps’ light. “Nah. We like why a lot around here. Real interested in it, you could say.” I mulled it over for a minute. “Why am I here?” “No beating ‘round the bush? Shame.” My glower at the detective slid off like water. “Why am I here instead of…I dunno, being where I should be?” Carmichael tapped his fingers against the steering wheel. “Hmm, maybe you’re still in the water and this is all a hallucination. Maybe you shouldn’t’a tried those shrooms from the local dealer. My money’s on a delusion, personally.” “Being here? With you? I’ve met my subconscious and he’s not that sick.” The detective let out another laugh. “But that could be what’s happening. And that’s the point.” “I don’t get it. At all.” “And that’s the point, too.” My glower could’ve melted steel by now. Still grinning, he said, “Kid, you’re seeing as much as you can handle right now. We’re in a place that looks a lot like Chicago, driving through the rain in my old Mustang, because that’s how far your limits go.” He tapped his chin in contemplation. “Unless you really like drooling and straitjackets. Me, never saw the appeal much.” I snorted. “Bring it on.” “No.” He looked dead serious. The rest of the ride passed in silence. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Carmichael parked the Mustang in front of a building that could’ve been lifted straight from an old cop show. As we left the car and headed towards the entrance, I slowed as old paranoid instincts reasserted themselves. “You haven’t said where we’re going yet.” “The office. C’mon.” I glared at him again. “Can’t say any more than that?” He looked around. “Not here. Not safe. Too much listening in.” I glanced down the street. Darkened buildings with empty windows stared back, faceless shapes leering at me like something out of Heinlein’s nightmares. A forest of streetlights and traffic signals stretched out as far as I could see, unblinking lights illuminating yet more deserted streets. “Real scary neighborhood around here. Better watch my wallet, with all those cutthroats hanging around.” Carmichael looked over at me, face lacking even a hint of a grin. “There are Things out here, Dresden. There are Things worse than death, and if you’ve got two grains of common sense you’ll get away from that empty night before it gets you.” I snorted in disbelief, but… Some Thing had caught my eye, lurking down yet another deserted side street. It looked like shadow, but no shadow I’d ever seen was so…fluid. There was intelligence in that darkness, a purpose that I sure as hell didn’t want to meet in person. I shuddered and followed Carmichael into the old-school building. Carmichael didn’t give me any shit about my fear, which frightened me in some way. Trying to dispel the chill, I glanced around the well-lit hallway. It was blank and whitewashed, deserted except for the front and back doors, fluorescent lighting, and the cop watching the door. His uniform was Perfect with a capital P: every crease in place, lily-white gloves and an unfamiliar badge on his hat, with a single service revolver hanging from his belt. A sheriff’s star and a small nametag adorned his chest, with no hint of lint or dirt anywhere. His features followed the same pattern: strong, steady, and utterly calm. I looked over the guard again, and reached for my Sight. Wizards like me get quite a few freaky powers, chief among them the Sight. Whether you call it the Third Eye, Evil Eye, or Googly Eyes (my personal favorite), it’s the ability to see things as they are. No illusions, no bullshit: with the Sight open, you see the flows of power that are hidden from regular old mortals. It’s dangerous. See something in your Sight, and you’ll never forget it – the image stays burned into your head permanently. See the wrong image, and you’ll end up a drooling wreck. I’d seen Mab with my Sight when she unleashed her full power, and it’d nearly killed me. Still, this Chicago was a very thin veneer over a very long drop, and I needed something better to stand on. Opening my Sight, I concentrated on something nice and safe: Carmichael’s back. Nothing happened for a second, then… Gleaming white wings burst from the former detective’s back, his cheap suit transforming into robes of white and gold. Carmichael’s service revolver lengthened in time with the faded holster, the gun’s handle becoming straight while a cross guard sprouted from the barrel. The drab hallway around me swam in my Sight, cheap whitewash turning into gleaming marble while the lights became– and then the gleaming figure on my right turned from the door from a second and stated simply, “No.” My Sight vanished, and I found myself left in a small hallway with two Chicago cops. I looked over at the beat cop looking at the door: his nametag read “Amitiel.” “Thanks, Officer Amitiel,” Carmichael rumbled, tipping a nonexistent hat at the guardian angel standing by the door. Amitiel did the same, smiling at some hidden joke, as Carmichael guided me away from the outside. I was too stunned to protest, the crystal-clear memories of my Sight still bouncing around in my head. I found myself in a precinct room, the type with desks instead of cubicles. It looked like any Chicago PD office, populated by men and women wearing uniforms or plainclothes that screamed “cop.” All of them were busy writing, answering phones, or engaged in other cop-ly duties, except for a man in the corner whose bearing reminded me of…well, me. As Carmichael steered me towards him, I studied the strange newcomer. He had dark buzzed hair, piercing brown eyes, and a bearing that might as well have held up a sign saying “Military here!” I shuddered slightly as I approached: the last ‘military’ person like him I’d met, who I’d nicknamed ‘Buzz,’ had tried to kill me and steal a Sword that I guarded. This man, however, had none of Buzz’s tenseness and still energy, replaced instead by an eerie tranquility. He was young, too young for the deathly stillness that seemed to surround him like a miasma. If he didn’t have PTSD, I’d eat my nonexistent psychologist’s license. He wore a strange, skintight body armor, and a holster-less pistol rested on his hip. I could see him giving me the same once-over as I approached. Recognizing someone as lost as me, I stuck out my hand: “Harry Dresden.” The too-young veteran did the same as we shook hands: “John Shepard.” “You boys done checkin’ each other out?” Carmichael drawled steadily. I glared at him again, getting another grin in return, and together Shepard and I followed the burly detective deeper into the precinct. As Carmichael threaded his way through the semi-crowded building, Shepard and I in tow, I glanced around at my new companion. He was wearing a small arsenal on his back: I could recognize at least three different weapons there, discounting the holster-less pistol on his hip and the flat disks on his chest that were clearly grenades. “Loaded for bear?” I asked as innocently as I could. “Bear?” he responded in surprise. Inspiration struck him after a few seconds: “Oh. Right. Earth mammal.” I left the remark pass, distracted by Carmichael apparently reaching where we were supposed to go. He knocked, immediately getting a muffled reply from inside. Shepard and I followed the detective in. “Boys, this is the captain,” announced Carmichael. “Name’s Jack.” I gave him and the room a once-over. It was a small office, well-used but clean. It had a wooden desk with an inbox and outbox, a rotary phone, but lacked a computer. Two sheets of paper were placed at the center of the desk, the man behind it studying them intensively. The man behind the desk, like Carmichael, was at the thirtysomething intersection of youthful energy and the experience that follows age. Built like a boxer, he had a nose that’d been repeatedly broken, forearms that resembled tree trunks in both texture and strength, and a white shirt that’d been unbuttoned and rolled up. His eyes were blue, his hair blonde, his jawline shaped like a bulldog, and his features were familiar somehow. “Captain,” said Carmichael. “Dresden and Shepard.” Jack looked us both over, saying nothing. He didn’t stand. “Don’t mind the captain, he’s like this ‘fore he’s had some coffee,” muttered Carmichael in a stage voice. “I’d murder for some coffee, or caf at least,” answered Shepard. I honestly couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. “Dresden, Shepard. You hungry?” “Nope.” “Thirsty?” Shepard shook his head. “That’s because you’re dead,” responded Jack. “No need for it. No coffee.” “I stand by my statement,” responded Carmichael brightly. He glanced at Jack and hooked his thumb. “I should get on that rakshasa thing, shouldn’t I?” Jack didn’t look up. “Go.” Carmichael strode confidently out, a man on a mission. Shepard and I sat, both of us too tired to fidget. Looking over, I could see the telltale signs of deep weariness: slouched in the chair, eyes boring into the wall, hands slumped against his side – Shepard hadn’t died easily. Jack continued his calm stare. Slightly unnerved, I responded with my usual defense. “Hmm. Dying. Not what I expected, really.” “You’re not dead. Yet,” responded Jack. Shepard spoke up. “We died. Afterlife. Not the club.” “No,” answered Jack. “This is between. Purgatory. In-the-middle.” “Sooo…we need to clean our acts up?” I was fairly confused. The Powers That Be hadn’t taken too much of an interest in me before. Well, aside from Uriel. That archangel had some serious issues. “No,” Jack stated. I had a feeling he said that a lot. “You’re here because your deaths were irregular.” “I got shot. Didn’t go alone,” responded Shepard. “Sounds simple to me.” “Got shot too, just on my lonesome,” I said. “Or drowned. Still pretty regular, though.” “No,” Jack replied. Definitely his favorite response. “You both died because the other side cheated.” We blinked nearly in unison. “The other side? You mean…actual Fallen angels?” I don’t know how I managed to speak the capital F, but it came out somehow. Jack shrugged. “If you want. The important part is that they’re the enemy.” Shepard spoke up. “Because they…broke the rules, somehow?” “You were both in the way. They broke the rules to make you disappear. Now you’re my problem.” “How’d they break the rules?” Shepard seemed interested. Jack glanced at him. “You? They fixed a fabricator. One batarian carried a weapon that should’ve broken.” He turned to me. “You? A cop went out for donuts.” I didn’t know what to say. “Then…fuck donuts.” Jack gave a short bark. “Heh. You’re dead. Get used to it.” Shepard and I blinked again. Shepard stood rock-still, while I fidgeted alongside him, trying to wrap my head around it. I felt the leather duster draped over my shoulders. It’d been shredded during the battle in Mexico, and had been more of a fond memory than an actual object when I’d been shot. Yet here it was, its warded surface keeping me warm from a deep chill. That’s when it hit me. I’d been shot. I was dead. Holy shit, I was dead. My apartment, my city, Maggie, Murphy – they were all gone. I found my legs shaking, and collapsed into a nearby chair. Brown eyes gazed into mine steadily, and I raised my head to meet Jack’s gaze. “Son, you’ve got to deal with this on your own. It happens to all of us, but that don’t make it any easier.” I looked to my left, and saw Shepard standing still. His flint-grey eyes softened at my collapse, and he sighed slightly. “Did that earlier. Cried my lungs out. Felt like Akuze all over again.” He paused. “It gets better.” His terse response, oddly enough, actually helped slightly. Gathering my legs, I stood next to the traumatized veteran and faced the Captain. “Alright. I’m ready.” He chuckled. “For now.” His tone annoyed me, and I used that to anchor my bearings. “So what happens next? Where do we go?” Jack’s cop face showed nothing but a slight tinge of disapproval. “Look, kiddies, you’re both stuck here ‘till-“ His speech was cut off by the ringing phone. Looking irritated, Jack grabbed it and answered tersely: “Here.” His voice lowered, and I found myself unable to hear Jack talk without Listening in. Considering what had happened when I’d tried to use my Sight, I decided to not risk it. Instead, I turned to Shepard next to me. “You died shooting, yeah?” Shepard nodded once. “Slavers, pirates. They went for a colony. Tried to hold them.” He looked at me. “You?” “Vampires.” “Vampires?” “Vampires.” “Bullshit.” I couldn’t blame Shepard for thinking that. Then again, there were a lot of things that went bump in the night around here – and he didn’t believe that they existed. This could be bad. I made up my mind, and looked Shepard straight in the eyes. It took only a few seconds to trigger the soulgaze. Ever looked into someone’s eyes, long enough that you saw something in them? You both might look away, embarrassed by such a social faux pas, but for an instant there’s a connection between you two. Gazing into a wizard’s eyes takes that a step further. You see their soul – such as it is – and they do the same to yours. Since souls can’t be seen or heard, you’ll interpret it in different ways according to how you interpret reality. Ramirez, a Warden buddy of mine, said that his soulgazes always took the form of a song. Mine were, in typical me-fashion, completely screwed up. When I gazed into Shepard’s soul, I found myself standing in a room of mirrors. Glancing down, I saw myself wearing an unfamiliar suit of armor, similar to the gear Shepard had been wearing earlier. “N7” was painted on the chest, and a red stripe snaked down the right shoulder. I looked ahead, and saw my own face, wearing the strange armor, gazing back from the cockpit of a massive starship. Creepy. I looked to the right and saw myself again, similarly dressed, firing weapons at…bugs? Another mirror, and I was shooting at a massive thing that had burst from the ground, sprinting away as the cover I’d been hiding behind melted into goo. Another mirror, and I was a wasted shadow, a shriveled man that clutched at a tattered robe while unfamiliar creatures squabbled over hunks of trash nearby. Another mirror… The images rushed by me, overwhelming my senses and sending me toppling. I felt myself clutching the swivel chair with an iron-strong deathgrip, knuckles white from the strain. Hearing a gasp, I looked up to see Shepard doing the same. We looked at each other silently. “Oh.” Whatever else Shepard might have said was interrupted by the clunk of Jack’s rotary phone hitting the receiver. We mortals both gathered what remained of our strength and turned to see Jack glaring at us, a wrinkle carving a groove deep into his forehead. “You boys are in a mess of trouble,” he began. I ignored his baritone, trying instead to fit the world around me into something recognizable. A place with an honest-to-God guardian angel at the door, the boss getting a ‘call…’ I gulped slightly. Jack noticed, but gave no sign other than a slight smirk. “Like I said, orders from On High just came down. You’re going back.” Shepard and I waited for the inevitable catch, but heard nothing. I grew suspicious. “You didn’t say where we’re going ‘back’ to.” For the first time, Jack grinned. It wasn’t a pleasant sight. “True. The boss is mixing things up. Take a guess.” Shepard and I reached the conclusion at the same time. I heard a strangled gasp on my left even as I tried to cope with the latest revelation. Something in my head snapped: after a fun day of assaulting and destroying the entire Red Court, rescuing my daughter and killing her mother, dying and narrowly missing a ‘southbound train,’ and getting sent to a new universe…something in my brain just gave up. My subconscious took over. I turned to Shepard even as he looked over at me: “Shepard, where’d you die, what was your mission, what enemies were you facing, anything I-“ “Colony called Terra Nova, attackers are pirates and it’s an asteroid, shoot anything that looks funny and don’t trust all the humans, shut down the fusion…rockets and watch out they have shields.” All in one breath, too. Back on the lifelong subject of shooting things, I recovered slightly. “You’re headed to Earth, year is 1996, Chicago, USA. All the old bedtime stories are real: ghouls, vampires, demons, elves, wizards. Assume they want to eat your soul, most of them do anyway. Head to St. Mary’s Church, center of town, ask for Father Forthill. Say that Dresden sent you…” my voice trailed off. No one would believe Shepard’s story without proof. Could I send anything to prove it? I looked over my possessions: my leather duster, my hat, my blasting rod, a few coins. From Shepard’s description, I’d need the duster and my blasting rod, and nothing else I had was instantly recognizable as mine. Acting on a whim, I closed my eyes and silently asked Someone above for a little help. Apparently God has a good sense of humor, because when I stuck my hand into my pocket I pulled out my old windup Mickey Mouse alarm clock, in its original battered glory. I’d had it since I was ten, and no matter how many hexes I promised to deliver on its head every morning, I had missed the little thing after it was destroyed in the fire. I handed the old alarm clock over after a bad twinge of nostalgia, although Shepard just looked at it quizzically. “Ask for someone named Murphy, Chicago police. Tell her Dresden really wanted to go on that date.” Shepard nodded, understanding what I meant. He looked around his own gear, likely planning something similar, before pulling out a small gold coin and tossing it to me. I caught it and turned it over, seeing nothing but a holographic bar on one side and a logo saying “N3” on the other. Shepard spoke up at my quizzical look: “Important. Use it.” Truly a man of few words: if he brewed amazing beer, I could’ve mistaken him for my bartender Mac. I nodded, but was interrupted by Jack again: “Ready to go?” We mortals looked up at the angel in horror: “Now?” Jack simply grinned again. “Yep.” My sarcasm defense immediately kicked in: “Well, Mr. Angel, do you expect me to talk?” Jack grew serious again. “No, Mr. Dresden, I expect you to survive.” He picked up the two sheets of paper that had been on his desk, placed them in his outbox, and my vision went black. Again. Stars and stones, it’s been a long day.