The way mom would tell it, back before everything, before the Big Rock Candy Mountain and the Sugar Plum Fairies, there was Space Brother. And before Space Brother, things were boring.
“Things are boring now,” I’d reply. That’s when she’d do the loop-de-loop. That, of course, never got boring. It usually got nauseous. On the worst days mom would shift some of the sugar crystals apart so I could blow chunks into the stratosphere where I guess they drift frozen to this day.
Everything leaves its footprint, or barfprint, in my case. Mom was more of a girl scout than most. She left the world her candy crook, a cluttered San Diego apartment, and a neurotic mess of a child. Two out of three’s better than most. Years back, when I finally thought I was ready to pick up her crook, Commander Woodward told me there might not even be a Free Coast if it hadn’t been for mom.
Of course, there really wouldn’t be a Free Coast if Stewpot Joe had never whistled the Big Rock Candy Mountain up from the ground and sky, cutting us off from the rest of the continent. It was an insane thing to do but easy to understand. Stewpot Joe conjured the mountain right when Bigley was first elected. People were scared. One time over coffee, Mina suggested he could only do it because the whole country was out of its mind. Something about Joe’s abilities being powered by the ‘national spirit of whimsy.’ I couldn’t really talk about any of that, though- I was just in kindergarten when it all happened.
People call Stewpot Joe a hero, yet here we were cleaning up his mess years later. See, it turns out you can’t leave a mountain range of candy out in the sun without having its surface melt and sublimate. Since the Big Rock Candy Mountain’s magic keeps it at a certain size, that means it’s constantly growing back lost mass.
Mina once calculated that the mountain sloughs and regenerates forty thousand tons of sugar per day. Most of that settles somewhere on the mountain itself but every day several hundred tons escape into the atmosphere where the winds can carry them worldwide.
Captain Woodward called in over the radio. “What’s your status, team Foxtrot?”
Woodward was one of the founders of the Sugar Plum Fairy Corps. He and mom were the first people to find the lemonade spring, to hear the song of the Rhubarb-Willow. They made these candy crooks to corral and contain the mountain’s dust, keeping the caloric influx from completely warping the environment. Those of us bound to a candy crook could hear the sugar singing in our surroundings and control it with our minds. It was a full-time job, poorly paid, and the only life I’d ever known.
“Closing in on a cloud over Long Island,” Mina radioed back. “We should be starting the next stage of our route by lunch-time.”
“Make sure you don’t head back to drop-off until you’ve cleared Florida. POTUS says it’s getting sticky down at the resort. Said he’d consider the extra attention a personal favor.”
“Did you tell him we consider him personally repugnant?” Mina asked.
“Don’t get cute, Flores. Save the politics for your downtime.” Downtime, that was a laugh. The captain’s voice was strained. It wasn’t hard to see why. When Stewpot Joe summoned the Big Rock Candy Mountain, he cut the west coast off from the rest of the nation. It was like an overnight secession with a magically-enforced border. The difference, of course, was that nobody actually got to vote on it. On the one hand, this made plenty of folks rightly pissed. On the other hand… Well, it meant we got to live outside of Bigley’s reach without personally giving him casus belli.
Still, it was a tense situation. As one of the few groups with free reign to traverse the Mountain, the Fairy Corps invited heaps of suspicion. Woodward didn’t want us setting anything off.
Mina tapped the console. We were closing in. I grabbed the radio. “We’re getting close to touch-down, captain. This is West, signing off.”
I slid off my glove and gripped the candy crook. Our ship’s sugar body became my own. With the crook’s power I could perceive the position and speed of each individual granule of sugar as clearly as I could perceive my own hands.
Some Long Island suburb reflected against the ship’s sugar-glass underbelly, glittering with crystal fog. Houses and trees were sticky with it. Bees, ants and butterflies swarmed in Biblical numbers. Early morning joggers stopped to hack and cough, the phlegm in their throats saturated with fructose and its cousins. Left unattended, a fog like this could soon become a minor ecological crisis.
We touched down in the playground outside of a school, collapsing the ship into a solid pillar of sugar next to our cockpit and navigation rigging. At the far end of the playground the school doors burst open. A man stormed out- brown suit, red hair, grey eyes. The principal. Guillermina brushed off her jumpsuit and slicked back her hair, putting on her best smile. “What seems to be the problem, sir?” she asked. I tuned both of them out, gripped my crook, and got to work.
The sugar crystals sang, my crook triangulating the source of every tiny voice. With just a little focus each individual crystal came under my control as surely as the parts of my own body. I wasn’t limited to perceiving and controlling the sugar sticking in the fog and floating in the air. Theoretically I could use my powers on the sugars buried inside candy, food, even organisms.
“-so you see, sir, a humid climate like this one is particularly prone to picking up the mountain’s run-off.” The principal stared at Mina, vaguely comprehending.
Grains of sugar rose gently from the ground and converged onto the pillar of sugar that had made up our ship. Bugs and small animals fluttered wildly at the confused, impossible winds. The school’s windows were filled with children pressing their faces against the glass. A white breeze wound around the pillar.
For a good hour I stood that way, carefully pulling the sugars together. It wasn’t that I couldn’t move faster, but with so many folks around I had to pull carefully. Wouldn’t want to cut someone or send them into glycemic shock.
Whatever Mina had said, the principal shook her hand and thanked us. Other onlookers were less impressed. Bits of hair, dirt, phlegm and so forth were sealed into the pillar’s structure as the sugar stuck stronger than gravity. The whole thing was a faint grey color, speckled with random grit and hundreds of doomed pests.
I willed the pillar of sugar back into the shape of an airship of sugar-glass, albeit dirty sugar-glass. Mina spent a few minutes saying goodbye to the principal while I checked our itinerary inside. There was a small thud and a flurry of mumbled apologies right before Mina climbed aboard. When she did, there was a sheet of paper in her hand. “What’s that?” I asked.
“How are we doing for time today?” she asked, eyes scanning the page.
“Uh, well, we’re technically ahead of schedule…
“Perfect. I need to see a friend.” She folded the paper and stuffed it into her pocket. “It’s actually kind of urgent.”
“Oh, right! Sure thing.” I took our craft into the air. “Where are you meeting him?”
“We’re both meeting him. Head to the Rutgers campus in Newark. You’ll need to stash the ship somewhere discreet.”
“Discreet? Are we hiding something?” Mina put her hand over her mouth. “Oh. Fun. Okay. Out with it. You know I’m good for whatever it is so you ought to just tell me now.”
She nodded slowly. “I know you’ll help… But you won’t like it.”
“Okay. I have a friend, name of Jereme. He’s… from the olden days, back in New York.”
I shook my head. Mina had always been cagey with the details, but I knew she’d had an interesting life before we knew each other. Black bandannas and fist-fights with neo-nazis interesting. It must have been the Posse Communitatus.
“Uh-huh…” I replied.
It wasn’t that I didn’t agree with the Posse. Bigley was terrifying and fighting Fascist goons sounded great in the abstract… but it never seemed like something I should be doing. After all, if you’ve never thrown a punch in your life you don’t want your first go to be against a fully-strapped officer of the ‘law.’
“Anyway, he… needs us for something. I don’t know what, but I met someone who works with him. It sounds like it might be important.”
Time to take a deep breath through the nostrils. “Mina, I would go to a hell for you, even the one that ate that film student in Atlanta. But what on earth makes you look at me and think, ‘Faye’s the kinda gal who likes to get mixed up with federally registered terrorist groups?’”
“They’re not terrorists, Faye!”
“Registered terrorist group. As in, it doesn’t matter what we think. It matters what the cops and the guns and the scary dudes with whacked out superpowers think. And what they think is that your friend is a terrorist, and we’re going to seem a lot like terrorists if we get caught hanging out with him.”
“He’s not actively wanted, or anything. At least, not for any kind of violent felony. He just… knows some people.”
“Yeah, like a hornet knows a nest.”
“Nobody’s said anything about whacking a hornet’s nest. But I owe this guy big. I need to at least hear him out, see if there’s anything we can do to help.”
“We can help him move or something. We can take him to Disney Land. I’ll deliver all the pizzas we can carry. But I’m not getting the Corps tangled up with enemies of the state.”
“Faye. I can’t leave Jereme hanging, not without hearing him out first. If you’re not going to come with me, can you at least drop me off?” Aw, damn. Mina was a dangerous combination of open-hearted, bull-headed, and genuinely sweet enough that I couldn’t leave her behind. “Faye?” she asked after a long while.
“Fine.” I began to push the ship towards Newark. “It’s fine. But if we get a lethal injection at the end of all this I am going to be so peeved.”
We ended up stashing the bulk of our sugar-load in the sewer, just a quarter mile from the train station. After a short walk Mina paid for the train and the bus, until we finally landed at Rutgers.
The campus itself was sealed, of course. A gauzy white bubble wrapped over it, so you could only see faint outlines of the activity inside. The Ivory Guardian stood at the gate, just as he stood at the gate of every college across the country. Looked a bit like an elephant-man with too many eyes, trunks, tusks. Nobody knew what he was but chances were the Regime would have ruined the University system by now without him. Not that I’d ever have enough time to go to school with this job.
Before we could walk past, the Guardian scooted his bulk down, such that the point of one of his tusk-fangs rose to about mid-chest level. One of his trunks faced us, a human mouth where nostrils should be. “There is a small test for entry. One drop each should be sufficient.”
We pricked our fingers one at a time, letting the blood roll down the curve of the Guardian’s tusk before the color evaporated out of it, leaving a milky white that dried on the tusk’s surface. Mina rubbed her finger. “What’s this for?”
“It’s so I know who belongs.”
“Belongs?” she asked, but the Guardian had already turned his attention away.
Inside the bubble was… a campus. You couldn’t even see the Guardian or the bubble itself from the inside, despite having just walked through it. The students, most of them younger than me, milled about as if they hadn’t just passed by a ton of translocated pseudo-Ganesha.
The shit people can get used to.
By the time we got to the library, the silence was already feeling a little uncomfortable between Mina and me. Like one second we’d been in this shared sort of awe, and the next we were already bored and boring. I decided to get down to business. “So what should I know about your friend?”
“Uh, what do you mean?” she asked.
“Is he a… I mean, do we have a special motive for taking this so seriously?”
She snorted. “Smooth, West. ‘Special motive,’ real romantic. But no. He’s… not my type. I just owe him. Big.”
“So I don’t get to play wingman today?”
“I thought I was your wingman?”
“Mmmm, for that to be the case you’d actually need your own craft.”
“Ouch!” Mina laughed as we found the stairs to the library’s bottom stacks. A voice called to our attention as soon as we reached the bottom level.
“Ms Flores, what a delight!” The voice was male, with a firm sarcastic edge, one of those that made everything sound like a joke, though not by being funny. The guy it belonged to was thin, balding and pale, round glasses repaired in a few places with a thin black wire. His skin had a pastel sheen to it, a bit like someone had taken a magnet to an old TV screen. He was almost completely covered, save for his face.
“Jereme, good to see you again.” Mina went in for a hug but Jereme rolled under her.
He wheeled back a few feet in his chair to get some distance, pulling off one of his gloves. Then he pinched a bit of skin on the back of his hand, pulling tight so that a dollop of the prismatic effect wobbled between his fingers. “No can do, honey. I’m infected nowadays.”
“What, you can’t control your powers?” she asked incredulously.
He shrugged. “Restraint was never my strong suit. I mean, even if I could turn ‘em off… are you really sure I would?”
Mina laughed nervously. “Fair point I guess. I gotta say, Jerry… It’s kind of crazy, you finding me like this after all these years.”
Jereme shrugged. “I keep my ear to the ground. People tell me things, and I know when to listen. I heard tell there was a small recon job in the works, and figured it was time to put a few lines out for the flying folk I know. Now, it turning out that you’d be the only fish to come biting… That might just be fate.”
I snorted. He snapped his attention towards me. The sneer melted off his face as he gazed at the crook sticking out of my backpack. “I take it you’re bound to that thing?” he asked.
“Darn tootin.” Technically, I wasn’t infected with the Other-Force, but the crook was. So long as I was bound to it I couldn’t be infected myself, a bit like a condom for the soul.
Jereme shook my hand. It tingled. Images of fingers and eyes- my fingers and eyes!- rippled across his skin in a rush of binary code. I was careful not to flinch, keeping my focus on him as he spoke. “So if you’re the actual Fairy, what does Ms Flores over here do?”
“Mina is my partner and my co-pilot,” I replied. “She’s also the only reason we’re even listening to you right now, so you might want to speak carefully.”
Jereme smiled and pulled his glove back on. “Mea culpa.” He motioned for us to sit and slid a photo onto the table. I felt Mina tense up next to me as she looked down. “This here’s Brundelzebuub. Half man, half fly, half devil.” Judging by the photo, three seemed like the right number of halves. “He works for a friend of ours. Recently went a little feral on us, and we need help drawing him out.” He glanced at me from the corner of his eye. “I’ve got a meeting with a Vinegar Plum Fairy in an hour, but something tells me you guys are a better bet.”
Mina laughed. I didn’t. “So he’s a bugman?”
“Technically he’s one of Dr. Bugman’s monsters. The good doctor gets very testy when people mix that up. I’m hazy on the details, but he was trying to work out that experiment from The Fly when something went wrong.”
“Isn’t the whole point of The Fly that something goes wrong?”
“Something went wronger, and the test subject ended up interfacing with an Other-petal, real nasty place full of flies and fire. Needless to say, guy’s a loose cannon.”
“Why not just have the other… Dr. Bugman’s monsters get him?”
Jereme rubbed his hands. “That’s part of the trouble. He’s got them all held hostage, right in here.”
He produced another photo with a flourish, one that looked like it may have been taken on a cell phone back in the day. It showed a floating island, one carpeted with mechanical carcasses, communication towers and esoteric generators. Humanoid figures crawled all over it, impossibly beautiful even at the distance shown in the shot.
Heat rose in my stomach. Anyone past kindergarten would feel the same. A singularium. For a brief time, thousands of them filled the sky, serving as charging stations, databases and fortresses for the IntElect.
You could still find leftovers from the IntElect incursion if you looked hard enough. In the end, their goal had been to get humanity to like them… by any means necessary. News reports would show up now and then of folks finding old IntElect ambassador-drones in prostitution rings and heroin dens. Nobody had heard of any singularia surviving, though. They had all self-destructed after HOMEFRONT scared the fuckers away. The crazy one, Witchblade, carved the word ‘Disliked’ into their most central server.
Who knew what technologies could still be hiding up there? The forty-day reign of the IntElect had been overwhelming, drones displaying new upgrades on an hourly basis. One remaining singularium could contain decades’ worth of technological breakthroughs… If it ended up in the right hands.
“I don’t know where this is going but it is twelve-hundred percent above our pay grade.” I pushed my seat back from the table. “We might as well just ask Bigley to throw the Corps into the Error Zone.”
Mina shrugged her massive shoulders. “Sorry, bud. We’ll be sure not to tell anyone we met you here. Our lips are sealed.” She gave me a warning glance and I nodded slightly.
Jereme’s smile remained. “So, here’s the thing: I wasn’t born yesterday, yeah? And I know that about the only thing more important than your precious neutrality is keeping outsiders off that mountain of yours.”
The little twerp paused, knowing he had us. I caved. “Where are you going with this?”
“Right now, the singularium’s not far at all from the Free Coast. According to the last transmission we could get from Dr. Bugman’s tracking-implants, Brundelzebuub is very near to reactivating the singularium’s flight systems. And as soon as he does, he’s headed directly to your sugar bowl.”
Read Next: (1.3) Agent Litework
Can’t wait to see what’s next with Faye? Read: (2.2) Faye West