I poured myself a coffee heavy on the cream and a water heavy on the lemon. Malcolm Crowe had just talked me into violating my most sacred principle: don’t work with Malcolm Crowe. At bare minimum the bastard could afford to be generous with the amenities.
“Next order of business,” Yaritza continued, watching as my coffee mellowed from black to beige. “You’re going to have a partner on this operation. We told him to arrive a few minutes late so we could get you caught up.”
“You said this was just us.”
“I said this was need-to-know. But. Someone… figured it out.”
“Kid’s a cheat,” Malcolm muttered. “Nothing but a cheap card sharp.”
“Cheap? Somebody hasn’t seen my per diem,” Curt said as he walked in. He wore an immaculate white suit and a pair of mirrored shades engraved with a sun and moon, one on each lens. Generally, people in this job were either completely unassuming or so outrageous their mere presence was a form of misdirection. I liked to think I had a skill for going back and forth- big girls learn to control their visibility. Curt was solidly in the second camp, one of those guys with stop-you-in-your-tracks good looks and a style of dress that stood out more than anything else about him. Exactly as he wanted it.
This mission was starting to look up. Mr. Cash was far from being our smartest operative but he was an expert card counter and sleight of hand artist with a gift he called prescriptive tarot. He was also one of the few people in the agency who remembered being a super spy was about having a good time. “Agent Arcana,” I greeted him. “How’s New Bayonne been treating you?”
“What happens in Maine stays in Maine, baby.” Last I’d heard, Cash was keeping tabs on the Thermidor crime family, a job that no doubt included taking advantage of the state’s sprawling “pleasure industry.” The Lobster Thermidor case was a long-standing time-sink for VICEFRONT and RADFRONT both.
Rationally speaking, Thermidor and his cronies had to be the result of some reality retcon. There was no way that Maine could have been the playground of a gang of crustacean-people since America’s founding. That kind of nonsense plain wasn’t possible before Space Brother showed up. But there were frustratingly few leads as to when, how and why the Thermidors got written into our history. It was a perfect assignment if you just wanted to burn your per diem on an endless stream of designer drugs, high-stakes gambling and exquisite seafood.
It must be maddening to be a historian these days- having to sift through evidence of all the competing timelines, figuring out which version of reality begat all the others. Thank God for the simple everyday problems of international super-crime.
Curt made his way to the mini-bar and prepared himself a drink. Or, didn’t prepare it so much as bullshat it into existence. He spoke as his hands roamed the assortment of bottles and garnishes, not even pausing to check which ones they grabbed onto.
“Lobster Cove’s been a damn slaughterhouse recently,” he added. He poured the shaker into two glasses of ice and handed me one. I took a sip. A perfect white Russian. Cute. “How about you? Been giving those Moscow boys a workout?”
“Had been,” I replied, giving Yaritza the side-eye as I took another sip. “So maybe it’s time to figure out why I’m here instead.”
Yaritza cleared her throat. “RADFRONT operates on what used to be the site of the Gaia-Dome Project in Oracle, Arizona. It’s one of the most classified areas on the planet but Cash has got an in for us.”
Curt shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “One hell of an in,” he muttered. “I have a body. Dumb kid pissed off some secret police and now he’s on ice in Boston. Idiots nearly dumped him on King Crab’s doorstep.”
The Thermidors were a long-time thorn in the Regime’s side. Two artificial centuries of organized crime hadn’t dulled the Lobster’s revolutionary instincts. Every now and then The Big Man would send a few of his goons to poke the bear. Well, poke the Lobster.
“So Cash is bringing prince crawdad in for the pencil necks to dissect. That must mean I’m sneaking off to find out more about Gammon while he distracts them, but what’s my cover?”
Crowe chuckled. “Our specimen has a surviving accomplice- one with a conveniently amputated crab claw. We’re hoping you could use your power to shed some more light on how these crustacean people work.”
I turned my attention towards the phantom limbs, an ocean of clenching and twitching always at the edge of awareness. It’s hard describing what it’s like to feel something so vast all of the time. It’s a bit like knowing words. You don’t really need to look through a collection of words that you have- you either know them or you don’t. And I definitely didn’t know any wayward crab claws.
“Not sure it works on these guys, but maybe they can slap some electrodes on me and check.”
“He hasn’t conveniently lost it yet,” Curt said, glaring at Crowe.
“Eeeeesh. What’s this guy actually in for, Curt?”
“Stole a couple cars. Might’ve killed a convenience store clerk.”
“I never woulda pegged a man-crab to have an itchy trigger finger, but I guess that’ll have to do. What can we expect at HQ?”
“Monsters!” Yaritza said brightly. Malcolm and Curt stared. “Well, you two kept me waiting to speak. And it is exciting. But, admittedly, dangerous and tragic. Nearly twenty years ago the site of the Gaia Dome was infiltrated by a coven of post-Thelemites attempting to summon the spirit of the earth mother to reconquer the planet.”
“Earth mama’s a subtle hand, I take it.”
“Let me finish. The Thelemites were using the Dome’s symbolic resonance to give the earth mother a body on earth. What they did instead was create a space-warping demiurge that believes the Gaia Dome to be the whole of creation. Inside it’s estimated to span a landmass about the size of the moon, with alien jungle on top and monster-filled caverns beneath.”
“Wow. Shoulda let you finish.”
“The Demiurge calls herself Hysterema and RADFRONT’s got a sweetheart deal worked out with her, courtesy of yours truly.” Malcolm added. “You could test an A-bomb in there and nobody on the material plane would even hear.”
“So, I just need to make contact our RADFRONT counterparts, stick ‘em with Cash, dodge the guards and the monsters roaming the facility, get a sample from Sleaze Gammon’s cursed jacuzzi and loop back to the cover mission?”
“Perfect. Might be time to tell the fellas down in Boston to whip out the claw hammer.”
* * * * * * *
I was still adjusting to my phantom crab claw when our chopper touched down in Oracle. It felt wrong, even more so than the other phantom limbs. Over long years I’d learned to drown out the clenching the phantom limbs get up to when I’m not using them. Snapping was a new sensation entirely. The flavor of the limb was all weird, too. I couldn’t really take conscious control of it; it existed in a space between reflex and dream, acting on idea rather than intent. Which is why the damn thing made a stupid grab for my prosthetics as I was getting out of the chopper.
I always keep my “real” arms and legs packed if I’m alone with coworkers for a while. Going out in public floating on a couple of phantom legs would draw attention, and not in a useful way. The legs start to itch, though, so when it’s all ‘safe’ folks I like to let the girls breathe. Just as I was thinking, “I should probably start to unpack,” Mister Krabs decided to leap to my rescue.
Turns out, crab claws are bad with straps. I pinned Krabs down with Hans and Franz, a beefy right and left, while I set a few of the others to open my duffel and set me up.
As Krabs buckled against Hans and Franz’s grip, it occurred to me that, not only did I now have an alien phantom limb, I had an alien phantom limb that used to belong to an (alleged) murderer. That was bound to end well.
We were greeted just outside the facility by Dr. Dale, Dr. Breyers and a half dozen Elvises in RADFRONT Service uniforms. That was Breyers’ doing. His infection allowed him to summon a flying saucer to drop a batch of Elivses off or pick up the old ones when they started to get ragged. Civvies called him Mister Mothership.
His partner, Dr. Dale, was known in the field as Peel. She was one of Malcolm’s creatures- a misguided med student he talked into housing some kind of skin demon. In her case it actually worked out alright. She’s cogent, nonviolent, mostly human. She could have turned out much worse. She could have turned out like one of the Milkboys.
We shook hands with our counterparts and let a few of the Elvises grab the crabman’s bodybag before approaching the Gaia Dome.
“Hysterema’s going to give the pair of you the once-over,” Breyers warned at the entrance. “It might tickle.” Behind the door was an echoing chamber. Light passed through a yellow membrane, the white skin around it crawling with veins and vines. Creeping lines converged at the center, a tangle of colorful kidneys and flowers around a tiny, shining porthole.
Cash started singing ‘jeepers creepers’ under his breath as a pair of Elvises readied the lift. It occurred to me it would be faster to go up myself, and because of that rascal crab claw I felt a massive pincer struggling to lift me by the shoulder. It wouldn’t do to let the thing cramp my style, so I summoned Hans, Franz and a few of their buddies to help him out. Soon I was soaring towards the pupil, draped across four invisible arms.
“Showing off?” Cash asked.
“If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” The pupil was just a few feet in front of my face. Up close, I could see frond-shaped feelers like a moth’s lining the pupil’s edge. “You said she’s safe, right?” I called down. The feelers whipped and roiled.
“Yeah, you’re fine,” Breyers called back up.
I swept low, dipping my face where the feelers could reach. They brushed my eyelids, rubbed my face, and even pried at my lips until I breathed on them a little. After a few moments they swept to the side with a light susurrus. I crawled through.
It was nice that I’d managed to shake the others for a couple of minutes, even if it was due to crab-shenanigans. First, it helped test the doctors’ boundaries. They didn’t seem too concerned leaving me unobserved, which meant I’d just need some plausible excuse to stay unobserved. Could I get away with ‘running off to the bathroom’? I dared not dream.
Secondly, the clearing outside the entrance was beautiful, and it’s no good if people see you lose your cool. Looking at it, you could recognize pieces of the world; things had petals, feelers, eyes, etc. But the pieces were put together completely without prejudice, like you handed a baby a jumble of parts and told them to make a planet. Swarms of goats’ eyes fluttered on rose-petal wings above a giant pitcher-plant that slithered around on its tentacles. I knelt low to the ground to gaze close at the lush fur that grew there, its color changing with my breath.
I managed to rebuild an air of nonchalance before the others crawled out from Hysterema’s eye, itself growing from the side of a mountain like some jellyfish made of lichen. “Mother Mary Joseph,” Cash declared.
“You gents ever camp out here?” I asked.
Dr. Dale snorted. “Yessir.” Her voice was deep and scratchy, like she’d been smoking a pack a day since fire was invented. “Nature soothes a savage beast. There’s a branching goat-leg a few hills over that grows cherryjuice bladders, if you’re hankering.”
“Eugh, no, I’m good. Is the uh… is the air in here normal?” Cash asked, panting.
“Yup,” Breyers replied. “Let’s head down.”
It was a short walk down to the Caverns, but Cash continued to straggle the whole way. I slowed my pace to let the doctors get ahead of us. “What’s the deal, Arcana?” I hiss-whispered.
“M-my powers.” He was sweating badly, wrapping his arms tight around his sides. “They’re flaring up in here, look!” He held out his hand. The point of a sword was protruding from his wrist. “The Ace of Swords. I drew it this morning.”
“You’re not bleeding.”
“That doesn’t mean I couldn’t use a little sympathy-”
“No, I mean… How long do you think you can stay like this?”
He shuddered. The doctors seemed to be busy shouting at the Elvises to be careful with the body bag. He coughed into his outstretched hand. He pulled it away, full of stinky white cheese and grey powder. “Ugh. The Moon.” He shook his hand clean and wiped it off on the inside of his coat. “Look, I’m not going to die, but this is the worst.”
“This is the best. Hold off until we get into the caverns. Then we’re going to make sure the doctors perform every test on you that they can while I find Sleaze Gammon’s cursed jacuzzi.”