Brundelzebuub held Deluge several feet above the deck of the ark, maggots crawling off of his hand to wrap her in a fleshy blanket. Over the last few hours we’d gone from knee-deep in shit to in over our heads, watching as an unstable bug-demon threatened a government official atop a flying WMD that none of us knew how to operate. And somehow I had managed to implicate myself in every criminal misstep along the way.
“I will eat her!” Brundelzebuub roared to the triumphant buzzing of his man-bee army.
“Yeah, and you’ll bring the wrath of HOMEFRONT on your head slicker than snot,” Mina warned.
“We have this… contraption. This fortress!” he protested.
“HOMEFRONT defeated these things before, and that was when they were fully operational,” I countered.
“Yeah, Space Brother can warp the fundamental forces of the universe. He just has to touch this thing and he can crush it into a ball of blood and metal.”
Brundelzebuub bared his teeth, flies crawling inside his curled lips, but he set Deluge down. “Fine. We will kill her later.” He ran his fingers through her hair, probing her ears and nostrils. “Perhaps Lady Mothra can lay a few eggs in her skin.”
That was right. In the chaos I had totally forgotten that there were more of Dr. Bugman’s monsters on board. Where was Brundelzebuub keeping them? And why? This whole situation was spiraling out of control and we still weren’t even clear on what that situation was. One thing was clear, though. Brundelzebuub was dangerous and right now Mina and I were the only source of sanity on this thing.
Deluge stirred slightly in Brundelzebuub’s grip. “She wakens!” he snarled. He began to shake her. “Make her sleep again! Make her sleep!”
“It’s not good for her!” I shouted. “She’s old. If we keep putting her into glycemic shock- or shaking her, for that matter- she’s not going to last long.” Brundelzebuub threw her to the ground, smoke flaring from his nostrils. I looked over to the ark. “We can store her in there.”
“Uh, Faye?” Mina poked me on the shoulder. “You know that leads to the Error Zone, right?” I could understand the hesitation in her voice. The Error Zone was a notorious human rights concern, one of the things folks would bring up back home to explain why it was so important for the Free Coast to remain free.
There were different scientific explanations for The Error Zone, but it was generally known that time passed weirdly there. If time on earth is shaped like an arrow, then time in The Error Zone would be shaped like a maze. You don’t just age forward and backward- you sometimes age sideways, taking on traits of your counter-selves in parallel timelines. The legal argument ran that you could store suspects therein nigh-indefinitely, since there was no legally determinable means of measuring Error Zone time.
It was basically impossible to exit The Error Zone without any help. Those that did were chronologically bent, their parts aged in all different directions. Still, it was a damn sight better than letting Brundelzebuub keep pawing at her, and it’s not like she’d have done us any better. “Seems like the perfect place for her,” I said.
“I… yeah, okay.” Mina shrugged, but her gaze lingered on me for a little longer than I’d have liked.
Brundelzebuub barked at a pair of man-bees who came to drag her to a hatch on the side of the ship. “Hey, whaddaya thinkin,” she murmured as the man-bees hoisted her up. They threw open the hatch. A dense grey void crackled on the other side, its space webbed with arcs of conflicting space like the static on a TV screen. It smelled heavy.
Deluge’s eyes fluttered open. Weakly at first, but with gaining strength she thrashed at the Man-Bees. “Hey! Hey, let go of me you furry yellow cocksuckers!” Storm clouds gathered overhead.
“QUIET!” Brundelzebuub roared, kicking her through the door. The Man-Bees slammed it shut. The clouds stopped growing, but hung heavy where they’d gathered.
Mina’s brow was dark in the shade. “So, throwing her in the ark solves one problem. But there’s no way HOMEFRONT won’t come looking for her. Not to mention the ark itself. We’ve got to find some way to hide this thing.”
“She’s right.” I looked to Brundelzebuub. “We’re two very conspicuous objects floating in the sky right now. Mina and I should stay here a while longer and see if we can figure out the stealth systems.”
“Break nothing,” he warned. He retreated to his chambers.
As soon as he was gone Mina turned to me and hissed. “Faye, what the hell are we doing here?”
“Hey! This whole fiasco was your idea. What was I supposed to do? Let him eat her?”
“No, but… we’re collaborating with a demonic fly-man here. We can’t just hand him a friggin’ space station or whatever this thing is. We need a plan now, not when we get off this thing.”
I nodded slowly. “I’ve been thinking about that. Turning it over to the U.S. is right out.”
“I just can’t help but think… Could handing this over to the Posse make things worse?”
Mina frowned. “You think it’d go to their head? Start a civil war?”
“Am I crazy?”
She shook her head. “Yes, but you’re not wrong. That Schilling woman’s running things now. She doesn’t want a revolution. She wants revenge. And she’s got connections with The Welfare Group and The Liberation Front, so they’re not much better. But what’s the alternative? Keep it ourselves? Lie back and let the Regime grow?”
“What if we made, like, a buffer? Gave it to someone who could help push back against the Regime but who wouldn’t just rush into war. Someone who’s got some… higher mission.”
Mina laughed. “Like a church or something?”
“Or something. I was thinking more like… The Ivory Guardian.”
“That elephant creep?”
“Yeah, he’s weird, but he’s also the only thing keeping the Regime from taking over the Universities. And he isn’t about to start a war about it.”
“Maybe he isn’t. We don’t know a thing about him. You’re assuming he doesn’t have his own agenda.”
“I’m assuming he’s the least worst choice we have. And it’s the best way of keeping the Fairy Corps’ hands clean without handing this thing over to Bigley.”
After a long period of thought, Mina grunted. “I’m not convinced, but I don’t have anything better. Just make sure you know what you’re getting us into.”
“Excellent.” I smiled. “Now, before we can arrange any of that, we need to leave, and before we do that, we need to figure out how to hide this damn thing.”
Lacking better options, we began to wander the singularium. It was clear that something about this one had to be different from the others. For starters, we were able to walk around the thing without tearing our hair out. Back in the day, Witchblade had carved the word “Disliked” into one of the other singularia. Ever since, the sight of anything that was networked with the IntElect inspired axiomatic hatred and revulsion.
Plus, the thing was still flying around. Most of the IntElect chose to sublimate into the world-petals rather than face humanity’s dislike. At the end of the day, our approval was the only thing the IntElect knew how to seek. With that goal removed, the best they could do was flee the earth in search of some new purpose.
I checked my watch. We were pulling into the wee hours of the morning. Commander Woodward would notice if we weren’t on-duty by dawn. We wouldn’t be the first folks in the Corps to blow a day off here or there, but it would be a first for us. If we were lucky he’d tell himself we deserved it and not give it another thought. If we weren’t…
“We’re never getting out of here in time,” Mina grumbled. There was no apparent rhyme or reason to the layout of the singularium. It was more like a jungle than a building, paths shaped by the needs of the haunted robots that once crawled inside. No wonder Brundelzebuub didn’t feel the need to follow us. Even if we tried to pull something it’d take us days to get out on our own. Where would a thing like that keep its command center? A floating jungle designed to watch mankind…
“The bottom level!” I realized. “Everything the IntElect cares about is on the ground, meaning the bottom of the singularium will be where the majority of its sensors are. Probably near the center”
Mina nodded sharply. “Let’s go.”
Determining ‘down’ was easy, but determining the center was harder. The curving halls and lack of windows made it impossible to figure out where the perimeter was. After several minutes of wandering, we confronted one of the man-bees crawling through the facility. Like the others he held a portable comb in his arms, into which was mixed honey with spittle from the hairy black sacs on his cheeks. “Good morning, sir!” Mina called out. No response. “Quite a fine barrel of goo you have there.” Still nothing.
I pointed my staff. The man-bee’s comb leapt out of his hands, floating in the air between us. He leapt clumsily on top of it, his wings of little use in the cramped corridors. “Mmmmine!” His voice was shrill and nasal.
“Worry not sir, your goo is more than safe.” Mina replied brightly. “We just need a moment of your time.”
“Where’s the center of this thing, buddy?”
“Nnnngh, crystals,” he hissed.
Mina looked my way. I shook my head. “I’m afraid my partner here is going to need just a little bit more than that. Do you think you can manage to point?” With a grunt, the man-bee twisted his body around the floating comb, thrusting his stinger just over Mina’s shoulder.
“Smart man. Bee. Whatever.” I jerked the staff just slightly, and the man-bee bobbed in the air. “We’ll let you go once we find it.” We headed in the direction he’d indicated, rousing him occasionally to help with forks in the road. Eventually the path opened into a huge chamber containing a glass cylinder and over a dozen floating crystals on pedestals. An enormous brain floated in the center of the cylinder, connected by tendrils of spinal cord and fiber-optic cable to the crystals’ pedestals.
“Crystals!” he shouted again.
“Yep!” Mina chirped. I struck the ground once with my staff and the comb fluttered down. We walked to the center of the room while the man-bee began rooting in the corners for sugar the others had yet to scoop up. There were thirteen pedestals total, each shining a grid of red lasers onto the crystal in the second. I probed the brain. It was definitely alive. I could feel the singularium spinning sunlight into sugar and presumably whatever other nutrients were in its fluid. It didn’t match the rest of the machinery in the singularium at all. This was something entirely different.
“So that’s what happened. It made some kind of big stupid meat-brain to replace its awesome robot brain. It’s like a baby learning to talk again.”
“You mean it’s still alive? Do you think it’s awake?” Mina asked, peering deeply into one of the cylinders. As she spoke, her finger brushed the cylinder and its laser flashed from red to green before firing a beam straight from the crystal into her eye. “It’s awake!” she screamed.
The pattern of lasers striking the crystal changed then, while an almost-human voice rang from hidden speakers in the ceiling. “Hello, friend-human. Please excuse safemode. Sanitation sub-singularium is active.”
“S-s-safe mode sounds good…”
“Sub-singularium. So this is like… some kind of janitor program you just woke up.” I began to walk around the other pedestals, putting a hand on Mina’s shoulder as she settled down from the surprise. None of the pedestals were labeled, but each crystal had a slightly different cut. “Maybe one of these knows something about why the one in the middle won’t work.”
“We can get the big picture later.” Mina was giving the crystal the side-eye. “We need to figure out how to hide and how to move, in that order.”
In the end it took five tries before we met the so-called ‘Extrospective Communication’ sub-singularium, which was able to direct us to Navigation. In short order we were cloaked, both the singularium and the ark parked atop it wrapped in a warp of the light. The singularium touched down on a nearby island, one far away from any human habitation.
It was well past dawn when we landed and we were at least an hour away from shore. “Woodward’s gonna chew our ass out when we show up late and sleep deprived,” Mina cautioned.
“Yeah,” I sighed, drawing stray sugar crystals from the singularium’s crannies to build our airship outside. “But at least the most stressful part’s behind us.”
We stood on the dock of the singularium, just inside the effect of the cloak. We passed through the edge towards the door of our ship, path crossing under the ark’s shadow.