Boarding the plane is the same ordeal whether you’re leaving from Pulkovo or JFK. Walk through the metal detector, check your bags, and in my case, get your limbs felt up while some acne-riddled security agent checks for explosive residue. I technically couldn’t feel his greasy palms crawling up and down my prosthetics but it certainly felt like I could feel it.
The plane-ride itself was cushy. Deluxe, even. VICEFRONT covers all expenses, from the double-wide first class seating to the double shots of mid-shelf gin. I tried to relax and enjoy my in-flight movie but Yaritza had given me too much to brood about.
Malcolm fucking Crowe!
Malcolm Crowe, the man who brought magic to the world. Malcolm Crowe, the man whose cigarettes give the proletariat cancer. Malcolm Crowe, the man whose carelessness turned President Bigley into God-King Bigley. Malcolm Crowe, the man who bought my sister’s soul.
Oh, I couldn’t wait to see Malcolm Crowe.
Roselia’s heart had been in the right place. Road to hell, good intentions, you know the drill. Our brother A.J. was sick. This was right when folks were starting to lose health care. Mom and Dad were some of the first to sign up for chronic employment but it wasn’t enough… so Roselia made a deal. Not with Crowe, technically, but with that demon that used to ride him, the one called Malphas.
Anyway, she danced with the devil in the pale moonlight, and A.J. started to get better. His fluids went back to normal, his strength returned. Our folks were ready to call it a miracle. Our family was ready to heal. Then Roselia began to slip away.
Turns out, the devil didn’t want her soul in a lump sum. He took her in little bits. One morning, she couldn’t taste sweets anymore. The next day she forgot the name of one of her dolls. By the time mom and dad got Roselia to confess we were already out of time. There was one meeting with a lawyer and then the crash.
Black night. Biblical rain. Me, the middle child, pinned in the middle seat. There was one of those old autotrucks on our ass and we realized, too late, its motion sensors couldn’t see through the storm. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe it was some curse the demon cast to keep its prize. Didn’t matter. None of it mattered. Not after they cut me out of that middle seat and whisked away the corpses.
Hello gin, old friend.
I woke up in Cincinnati, slumped in my seat and aching all over. It was 11 AM local time. Just enough time to hydrate, caffeinate and pick up a couple sandwiches. I wolfed them down while waiting for a SkyCab. A line of yellow taxis waited outside. Deathtraps, the lot of them.
After about twenty minutes my Cab arrived, a light pink force field projected around a man in a black chair. He twisted a dial on his armrest and the bubble flattened out into a platform for me to step on. “Just you?” he asked. I nodded. He pressed a button and the bubble curled back up, slightly larger to accommodate us both. We took to the air.
The Cab zipped through the Cincinnati sky, straight to the heart of the city. There stood the Twin Saints Corporate Headquarters, a twisted spire of medusaflesh and glass. It stood on a massive roundabout, only slightly smaller than a city block with broad roads feeding into it from all four directions. The SkyCab dropped me off across the street.
Dark clouds hung over the building. Dark clouds always hung over it, which could look pretty ridiculous on a sunny day like this one. Some said the corporation was so unholy that the sun would refuse to look at it. Official PR claimed that the clouds were a ‘meteorological manifestation of the building’s resonance with repressed energies of the superconscious,’ which meant basically the same thing.
When it went up in the early 2000s, Metropolis Magazine called it a ‘literal and aesthetic blasphemy.’ Marilyn Manson called it ‘desperate.’ Only Malcolm Crowe could call it home.
No, I told myself. That was the lie that powered men like Malcolm Crowe, the idea that they were special. Audacity was the cheapest form of mystique. I would know. But making a deal with the devil didn’t make you special.
Granted, having that devil manifest his bloody wings and help you found a billion-dollar business made you a little special, but not nearly as much as it used to.
Walking the grounds, I had to admit that Crowe was an equal opportunity monster. I’d never seen so many New Pandemonians in one place. Kappas, greys, cyclopes and so-on milled about in shirtsleeves and khakis. They bore spirographic tattoos on their foreheads: power suppressors, another one of Crowe’s innovations. They were mandatory for infected civilians. They were double mandatory for New Pandemonians coming to the mainland.
Of course, it wasn’t my place to judge these folks based on how they made a living. I was just three levels beneath Bigley himself. In a twisted way I could see how you’d justify working for Crowe. The normies were never going to let these guys onto the mainland otherwise, so power suppression gave New Pandemonians the option to capitulate. But what kind of man would go out and actually make that offer?
Whatever. Stupid. Above my paygrade. Nobody puts bread on the table with clean hands, yours truly included.
Crowe’s office was on the 113th floor in a large glass dome jutting from the tower’s tip. He sat with Yaritza between two venus fly-traps. One of Yaritza’s hands had shifted into a small swarm of butterflies lapping nectar from a silver tray.
Malcolm sloshed a highball glass of something brown as if to wave. “Ms. Jacobs!” he called. “Ritzi here has told me so much about you.”
“There’s so much to tell.” I walked over to stand between them. “Is this a private meeting or have you got some sugar for me?” It wouldn’t do to show contempt, at least not directly. Yaritza blushed while Malcolm made a grab for his mini-bar.
“Is whiskey alright?”
“It’ll do.” I grabbed the glass with a phantom hand as soon as he was done pouring. Thankfully my power is relatively stable. I can touch things and people without worrying that I’m going to infect them. There are Other-naturals out there who can barely wear clothes or leave their homes without fear of leaving some kind of artifact behind. They don’t tend to last long.
My headache trickled away as the whiskey poured in. I rolled the glass in my hand. “Delightful. Now, what’s say we dig in to whatever it was you two decided was more important than making sure those Russian kids get justice.”
“You know we’re not just dropping your case, Litework. Besides, you got our leads. We’re in clean-up mode now. Let Pierce do what he’s good at.”
“We’ll put a pin in that. You two explain to me what’s going on, first.”
“You want the long version or the short version?” she asked.
“I want the short version from him and the long version from you.”
Crowe smiled and pulled out one of his trademark cigarettes. The man was rarely seen without one but his teeth were bleach-white. All the tar and grit had been whisked into the aether and planted on some poor sod a few blocks over, thanks to the fancy sigil on its filter. Said poor sod- or poor sods, technically- would bear matching sigils somewhere on their skin.
“The short version,” Crowe began, “is that someone has dragged a demon to the material plane, and we think that someone was Salazar Gammon.”
“Dragging demons seems more your style, Crowe.”
“Technically Malphas only manifests in Malcolm’s body,” Yaritza explained. “He’s bound by certain conditions. But P!ss Frog appears to be a free agent. We suspect that’s his true body he’s in, not a manifestation from local matter.”
“The free agent part’s bad news. Especially if what you’ve said about the memory alteration is true.”
“Memories and documents. Official HOMEFRONT registry has him listed now as a founding member. It’s a soft reality rewrite.”
“Like when Fat Man and Little Boy showed up.”
“Not as extreme. There’s nothing like the fingerprints on the bones of the Hiroshima victims. But the documents are all retconned.” She pulled a few newspaper clippings from a folder, all dated from the last few years. “Meet the Lean Amphibian About to Take America by Storm,” “From Blogger to Frogger: One Enfant Terrible’s Rise to Fame,” and, my personal favorite, “Warm Spot: P!ss Frog Talks About His Childhood.”
“That’s quite the PR campaign.”
“It has something to do with the attack in Topeka. That mass fugue didn’t just cloud minds. It broke down the barriers between things. That’s why the infection rate is so high; psychic immune systems are compromised. In fact, we think reality’s immune system may be compromised. That would be how Gammon was able to get P!ss Frog through.”
“Sounds like Gammon’s had a very active retirement.”
“Retired doesn’t mean gone, Litework. Gammon left his mark on the administration. He’s got agents of his own scattered everywhere.”
“More like drones,” Crowe cut in. “I hired an employee to analyze a few. They look normal, act normal… but microscopically they’re all wrong. Mostly filler. The only living part of them is this spongey framework that holds it all together. And the sponge samples are all genetic matches for each other. I suspect they’re matches for Gammon, too.”
“So… what, he’s like the borg now?”
“Oh, grosser than that. That filler I mentioned? It’s compacted garbage. One guy was 80% Burger King, wrappers and all. And if you keep one of them too long they start to deteriorate. Physically and mentally. Incontinence sets in and soon they’re calling everyone ‘globalist cucks.’”
“The Decoherence Strategy’s powers seem to accelerate the speed at which the drones deteriorate,” Yaritza continued. “That’s how we ended up catching a few after the fugue. We might have thought they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but they had a printer.”
“You laugh, but drawing sigils by hand is near impossible,” Malcolm said. “Especially if you’re incorporating more than one, which is exactly what we found when we looked at its recent print-jobs.” Yaritza pulled another sheet of paper from her folder. I didn’t recognize the underlying seal, but the troll-face that had been superimposed upon it was a once-common sight back on the internet.
“…Of course,” Yaritza added, “it helps that the ink cartridge was soaked with piss and frog-blood.”
“You’d think we could just sniff our perp out in that case, but then you wouldn’t have hired me.”
“It’s definitely Gammon,” Crowe replied. “We just need proof. A DNA sample of his to compare against would do it. Trouble is, Gammon’s like a ghost. Had all his old homes and offices scoured back when he got infected. Which may end up being our only hope.”
“There’s an inside man at RADFRONT, one of ours, a well-placed lab assistant.” Yaritza explained. “He says he’s heard things about a jacuzzi somewhere in their HQ, one with bits of Gammon living inside it.”
“Well, this is starting to sound unpleasant. Not to mention high profile. You’d think Director Branch would be in on this.”
“We don’t know how high this goes. Gammon and Bigley may be colluding and our source tells us that RADFRONT is compromised by Gammon-Drones. We have to assume everyone is part of the conspiracy until we’re given reason to believe otherwise.”
“Perfect. So you have no choice.”
Yaritza sat up straighter. “What do you mean?”
“This fella-” I motioned at Crowe with my drink, “-or the evil bird that lives inside him, they’re a couple of monsters, of course.”
“Why, thank you.”
“Not as cute as you think it is, Mal. You may have found some kind of civic duty in your beef with Gammon, but you and me? We’re not friends.”
With the tensing of just a few muscles his smile turned from a devil’s to a chimpanzee’s: openly aggressive, ready to snap. I continued, “You bought my sister’s soul, Crowe. She was dead just over a year later. I don’t know what you do with a soul but if you expect me to help, then you let that soul go.”
Malcolm rubbed his palms together. “Why, Ms. Jacobs, that sounds eminently reasonable.” He extended one hand towards me. “When our work together is done, your sister will be free.”
“You can do better than that or you can put that thing away. No open-ended weasel words. I get you a sample of Gammon’s DNA, you release my sister’s soul to… wherever it is that souls go when they’re not in hell. You do it right and you do it that day.”
“Of course,” he said, twirling his outstretched hand slightly. After a moment’s hesitation, I grasped it with a phantom limb.
“It’s a deal.”
Read Next: (3.0) Ambassador Ratman
Want to skip ahead to Sophia’s next entry? Go to: (3.3) Litework