“Fascinating,” Dr. Breyers whispered, retrieving a penlight from one of the Elvises.
“Gnarly,” Dr. Dale confirmed, holding a biohazard container beneath the avalanche of cheese and moondust sloshing out of Cash’s mouth.
“Blerghlobbleobbleop!” Cash cried, trying to speak through the moonpuke.
We’d slipped into the nearest RADFRONT medical lab just a few hundred yards into the caverns of Hysterema. Something about Hysterema was throwing Curt’s powers out of whack and now his body was feverish with arcane symbols. The bones in his skull groaned as they twisted into the shape of a crescent moon. Curt, usually the model of unflappable glitz, whimpered on the table.
“Whatever ritual brought Hysterema here must have weakened the boundary between the material plane and the Other-petals.” Dale was operating what looked a protractor with a miniature cow-skull at the top of it. “Instead of giving probability a few nudges here and there the major arcana are taking direct power over your body.”
Breyers, meanwhile, directed the Elvises as they scooped samples of Curt’s wormpuke into tiny petry dishes.
“Don’t spill a drop of that,” Breyers warned. “It’s our ticket to the lacto-cosmic boundary petal.”
“Uh-uh-huh,” Elvis replied.
Now, I don’t ‘get’ the whole nerd thing, but I know it when I see it. Back in the day, Xander was obsessed with this stupid video game, Organ Shock or BioCrash or something like that. Mom couldn’t get him to the dinner table without threatening to physically break his computer. But if Roselia wanted to bring a boy over without risk of Xander tattling, well…
Point being, nerds are easy to divert. I decided to test the waters. “Sorry Cash had to go and ruin our plans for a fine afternoon of-”
“For fuck’s sake, number twelve, could you have taken a larger metal sample?” Breyers snapped at a passing Elvis.
“I’ll go powder my nose,” I muttered. As good as invisible.
With the doctors’ noses buried in their work, I made my way to the door. As soon as I began walking I could feel my new phantom crab arm reach to get the door for me. Squinting my eyes, I managed to seize control before it made any noise. Hopefully the RADFRONT nerds would be able to psychically amputate the thing when they were done probing Curt.
The lab’s tile, glass and stainless steel soon gave way to the irregular stone of Hysterema’s caverns. Out there you could more easily hear the cries of monsters within. Lovely. While I wasn’t afraid of a little rough-and-tumble here or there, this was supposed to be a stealth operation. Breyers and Dale may have been wrapped up in Curt’s weird illness but their coworkers could be a different story. Fighting off any beasts would draw unwanted attention.
I pressed myself flat inside a nook in the wall and sent a few phantom limbs out to scout. It was time-consuming but running a few hands along the floors and walls let me get a rough map of where I was without being seen. Crowe had been able to give us a sketch of where Gammon’s jacuzzi was supposed to be but it hadn’t included the lab Cash was in. What I needed was a big arrow to shout “you are here.”
While I was searching, something crept around the bend with a low gurgle and a sour smell. Instinctively I made a barrier of arms in front of myself. Phantom biceps and thunder thighs stacked together in front of me, girded by the arm of the crabman. It wouldn’t help me hide any better- the shadows and a bit of MatronTech in my coat would have to handle that. But if the thing tried to strike at me, I’d be better defended.
Soon it rolled past, an amoebic shamble carpeted in empty veins. Hook-lined frogstongues beat around its sides like so many cilia, digging into the rock and yanking the creature forward. No part of it looked like a head. At best, some kind of snout poked from the middle, tripod jaw decorated in black-red thorns.
Clench though I might, one of its tongues brushed a leg, catching on its phantom flesh. It paused, yanking the hook very gently, teasing at the edges of the tear. Sharp pain took hold of me. I wanted to go away, like in the time right after the crash, but I had to concentrate to maintain my wall. More tongues joined its investigation and soon probing turned to slashing. It had no way of harming the phantom limbs but that wouldn’t stop it from trying.
Agony followed. The creature was curious, enraged even at this wall of flesh that refused to recede no matter how much it chewed away. Wads of tongue lashed my limbs with chainsaw ferocity.
I tried to focus on the things I’d done wrong: the targets I’d been too cruel to, the Regime I helped support. There’s always another self-flagellation coming around the bend. Might as well blow its load while the cat-o-nine is whipping.
Phantom skin screaming, I wondered where we’d have ended up if I’d stopped Roselia that day. The cancer would have gotten Xander. One hook hit an invisible bone.
Maybe the car crash was punishment to her for selling her soul. Hooks paused, shuddered, stretched the flesh to its ripping point.
Maybe surviving was my punishment for trying to stop her. A flurry of laceration.
Sudden air. Relaxation. The monster, frustrated, bored, shuffled forward on its idiot path.
Get a grip, girl. As quick as it started, the pain was gone. There was no still-torn flesh to scream. But the memory was too fierce and immediate to ignore. It was like hurtling out of the back seat and through the windshield onto a stormy road. It was like seeing the family car catch fire.
I went away for a bit, just long enough to catch my breath.Everybody who was dead was going to die anyway. The world’s a home for bastards.
I stood. With luck, that would be the worst part of the whole operation. Besides, there was no use feeling sorry for myself, or feeling sorry in general. I took a deep breath and returned to plan A, tracing the corridors of the facility with my phantom limbs.
They felt along the walls a little more. There. Just the right branches twisting at just the right time to help me find the path. After all of that, I wasn’t far. In just a few hundred feet I would be on the map.
As I stalked around the corner a door in the corridor before me swung open. I threw myself behind a stalagmite, head angled just so to peer past the edge while revealing as little of myself as possible. The window on the door read ‘ARCHIVE HABITAT’ and the handle bore a keypad. As it swung shut behind the purple-clad woman, I interposed a phantom foot to keep it ajar.
The woman wore a purple power suit with matching rectangular glasses. We had never been introduced though occasionally we found ourselves in the same room for Inter-FRONT missions and projects. Her name was Dr. Misenhelter, but to most folks she was Dr. Zeno, Regime-backed warper of spacetime. She continued down the corridor, headed in the exact same direction as me.
Promising. I waited for her to get just out of sight before stalking after her, gliding down the path and between a pair of boulders. Just as I arrived she keyed a code into the grate of an elevator- the very same that I was supposed to take to Gammon’s hot tub. I’d have to wait even longer before following. If she heard the elevator coming down there’d be no way of hiding.
Thankfully, Crowe had supplied the code for the elevator and so once enough time passed I was able to follow her down. The elevator ran deep into the belly of the complex, thousands of feet of rock and earth swishing past the grate as I descended. When I came to a stop, it was to find a RADFRONT guard leaning on a post nearby.
“Hey!” he yelled, scrambling to his feet. The gun in his hands was huge. “Authorized personnel-”
He took a karate chop to the back of the head while a phantom knee slammed his guts. He made a sound like a whining bear before he was out cold on the ground.
That would buy me just a few moments. And hopefully enough light brain damage that he wouldn’t be able to provide a good description of me later. I stalked off. Monster sounds raged in every catacomb but I paid them no mind. I made a bee-line for the jacuzzi.
I arrived at a spiraling canyon, with floodlights and RADFRONT guards standing at the perimeter. Most of them looked completely normal but a few were falling to pieces. Peeling skin turned to burger wrappers as it curled away from their bodies. Crumbs of rancid taco beef and moulding french fries poked out from underneath. Gammonoids.
At the bottom was Misenhelter, kneeling next to Gammon’s jacuzzi. Even from this distance, it was disgusting to behold. Sleaze Gammon’s face was a figment in the jacuzzi’s foam of boiling pus and gravy. Worse still, it was smiling.
I tried not to focus on Gammon’s mug or on the wretched stink lurking throughout the chamber. I tuned out the guards who could murder me at any moment if they saw my huddled shape in the shadows. This was for all the marbles.
If I could just get a bit of that Gammon-goo, we could pin him to the Gammonoids who summoned P!ss Frog. Alternatively, I could fuck it all up and turn into target practice for these burger-faced goons. I focused on watching the scene unfold, until my chance to take the sample arrived.
Misenhelter’s voice was barely loud enough to hear, and even then only in snatches. “Goody two-shoes… Skinjob… true man… Wunderkind.”
Gammon said something in reply, but his voice was even harder to make out than hers. At first I thought she was leaning in to hear him better. Then she kept going… and going…
She disappeared up to her knees in the Gammon-muck, calves bucking and kicking as they stuck into the air. Gammon’s eyes were closed, his mucous boiling, a burst of tongue brushing his foam lips. Now or never.
I slipped a tiny vial from my pocket and watched it flutter down the canyon. It was tiny grey matte-plastic, dull enough to escape notice. By the time it was at the bottom Gammon was already regurgitating Dr. Zeno back out. Prehensile muck crawled off her clothes and glasses, save for one lingering spot that she scraped off of her finger.
The vial broke the surface. I tried to go unnoticed but my timing was off. Misenhelter’s gaze shifted rapidly from pleasure to curiosity to rage as the vial floated in front of her. I tried to snatch it up as quickly as I could. The doctor shot her hand out.
Around the vial a bubble formed where time flowed like sap. There the vial froze, falling slowly before the doctor’s eyes.
“Intruder!” Doctor Misenhelter screamed. The guards swept the ground with lead and light.