Commander Woodward’s glare was a sharp wind on a steep cliff, grey eyes piercing above white mustache. “Troubling. Baffling.” He punctuated each word by slamming a tabloid magazine onto the table. Each cover showed our latest embarrassment: a beachball-sized wad of ants and crusted syrups floating above a gilded pool full of outraged septuagenarians.
It had barely been two weeks since we’d started visiting the singularium and we’d managed to fuck up more days than not. Woodward had put us on full-time Resort Duty as punishment for showing up late and shirking it the first time. It was killing our sleep schedule and our latest mistake there had been a doozy. The commander sat directly ahead of us, indigo uniform stained brown in the light of the setting sun. “What do you have to say for yourselves?”
“It wasn’t our fault the place was crawling with ants!” Mina protested. It all started while we were schmoozing with the kitchen staff. Mina happened to hit it off with one of the swampers while I was consolidating all of the sugar-pollution from the humid Florida air. The swamper mentioned that it had been a while since they’d done a deep clean behind the cupboards freezers. Mina suggested that we could put a dent in the filth… and I decided it’d be easier to go along with it rather than make the kid do his own dirty work.
Turns out, there was over six months of spilled honey, fudge, old ice cream and more lurking in the kitchen’s nooks and crannies. Cue one giant glob of congealed syrups coated with ants floating over the resort’s swimming pools, courtesy me.
The tourists screamed. The kid from the kitchen laughed. Mina and I stood there like a couple of dumb lumps, knowing this was going to go over like a fart at a church social. And now we were seated before the commander, waiting for the axe to fall.
“It was our fault we listened to some idiot kid in the kitchen,” I said. Mina pursed her lips. “My fault, ultimately. My Staff, my choice.”
“Correct.” Woodward replied. “Here’s the dilemma. You were one of my most reliable teams. Now, you show up to work sleep deprived, make mistakes, and even call in sick.” That last remark was directed at Mina. She’d been hit with a bad migraine a few days back and I had to work with a substitute navigator. “For a moment I thought you’d just gone soft…” the commander continued. “But then we uncovered irregular annotations in your navigation charts. Coordinates nowhere near your assigned routes. I’ve seen it before, ladies. I don’t like it.”
Mina shifted uncomfortably in her seat. The Fairy Corps had only existed for a short while but in that time at least one high-profile team had gone rogue. Used offensively the sugar staves could send dozens of people into diabetic shock at a time. One team had even set up shop overseas, working with petty warlords to control the flow of food and fuel through their territories.
“That’s not us,” Mina protested. “That’ll never be us.”
“I certainly hope so. But the mission is bigger than my hopes. I need to protect the Corps.” He must have seen my eyes, because his stare softened just slightly. “You’re not fired. But you are on notice. And you will be under surveillance.” He reached into his desk and pulled out two small bronze objects. One was a globe with a white ball the size of a pinhead on it. The other was a compass attached to a leather strap. A Jarrad’s Compass. It was like one of those GPS trackers from the olden days, back before the IntElect ate all the satellites. “You’ll need to attach this to your staff. I want to know where Corps property is at all times.”
Corps property. Nevermind that my mother had passed it to me or that it was bound to me on an Other-natural level. Nevermind that I had served that same Corps now for five years. Still, it was better than being fired. I nodded sheepishly and accepted the compass. “Yes, sir.”
“I hope this is the last conversation like this that we ever need to have,” Woodward said. “Dismissed.”
With the sugar staff under surveillance, our already tight schedule had just gotten tighter. Brundelzebuub’s threat had been clear: show up to the Singularium every day, or he would send his man-bees to raze the Mountain. That gave us precious little time to find new transport to the Singularium… and probably meant another night with little to no sleep.
If we’d been smarter, or just braver, maybe we could have pulled the plug on our plan to transfer ownership of the Singularium over to the Ivory Guardian. But we’d been working on less than zero free time for the last two weeks, and neither of us was sure the Ivory Guardian was willing or even capable of taking the thing over from Brundelzebuub. In a weird way, this relentless schedule of dragging ass and taking orders felt less daunting than trying to make a change.
Mina met me next to the sugar-pillar less than an hour after our meeting. “Just got off the phone with a friend. He’s got a LiteBoat we can take to the island, but it’ll cost us.”
“Everything does,” I sighed. “Hopefully once we get to the singularium we can have one of the sub-singularia build us our own.”
“This is all because we didn’t take that Brundelzebuub creep down when we had the chance. I say we cram him into the ark with Deluge and be done with it.” Deluge, what a disaster. Rumors hadn’t begun circulating yet, but that shoe had to drop sometime. Even we weren’t stupid enough to believe we could throw a HOMEFRONT operative into The Error Zone without consequences. And now we were talking about throwing someone else in there too.
“What chance?” I countered. “You saw that monster. Brundelzebuub could explode our heads into a pile of maggots faster than we could sneeze.”
Mina gave me a hard look, then shook her head. “Anyway… The boat should be here soon.”
* * * * * * *
The LiteBoat was a teardrop shaped craft, solar powered and sleek. The bottom was flanked by two slick hydrojets with a pair of solar ‘wings’ sweeping the sides. Mina was right that it had cost us a pretty penny but I was excited to pilot the thing despite myself.
Pilot? Captain. It couldn’t be that different from flying a telekinetic aircraft made of sugar, right? I took the steering while Mina directed me, just as if we were on the airship. Once we were on the water we sank into a sort of momentous quiet, the peace of the empty ocean undercut by the LiteBoat’s terrific speed.
The LiteBoat handled like a dream, but it couldn’t distract me from the absence of my Staff. I had never been more than a couple of miles away from it before and I could already feel it tugging at my cells. It was more than feeling naked. It felt almost like bleeding.
About half-way through the ride, Mina nudged my arm. “Jesus christ!” I screamed. She had a pistol in her hand, a big one. “Do you wanna blow a hole through the engine?”
“Relax, Faye. The safety’s on. This one’s yours.”
She opened the inside of her jacket, showing an identical pistol to the one she’d just handed me. “I picked these up on my ‘sick day.’ I was hoping we’d never need them but… Well, we don’t have a magic staff to bail us out anymore if things don’t go our way.”
“The Staff is nothing like a gun.”
“No, you’re right. It’s more like… I dunno, a scythe or something. A tool that can also protect you. But we still need protection.”
“I’m not touching that thing.”
“Faye, you have to understand-”
“Nope. I don’t care if it’s dangerous. I’m not… I won’t.”
“That may be plenty brave for you, but I’m not going to live in a world where you’re dead just because I wasn’t persuasive enough,” Mina said. Her voice was unwavering but her eyes were deep with fear. Very gently, she grabbed my hand and wrapped my fingers around the gun’s barrel.
“C’mon, girl. Don’t make me co-pilot for some square-jaw like Benson or Crutler.”
“Okay, okay.” I took a deep breath and strapped the holster on. It didn’t fit too poorly, but the pistol itself weighed heavily, pressing on my sternum like the onset of a heart attack.
Soon after we arrived at the singularium we got to work with the sub-singularia. Thankfully it would be possible to replicate the LiteBoat we had rented, though we’d have to drag it out into the water ourselves.
Through small projects like that we’d started to figure our way around the singularium’s systems and operations. We had no idea how to access most of its data, including any of its original designs, but we had mastered moving it, hiding it and getting it to replicate objects we could show or describe. Most frustratingly, the singularium seemed to only have limited ability to make repairs. This had been the first task taken over by the ‘stupid meat-brain’ the singularium designed for itself and so far it had no idea what it was doing.
Once the LiteBoat was scanned we proceeded with our regular work. The hours passed quietly until one of the surveillance units screamed over the com system, “INTRUDERS.”
“Izzie, display!” Mina shouted. The sub-singularium projected a hologram of a nearby corridor. Inside, a little deformed person was assaulting a pair of our man-bees with a cat-o-nine tails of electric eels, syringes on steel cables and fanged tentacles. Behind him crouched some kind of bodybuilder who was busy wrestling a barbed cable into the wall. The cable was attached to the little guy’s head. Also attached to his head was the cord of a black-and-silver device shaped a bit like a furry lobster tail, which the bodybuilder held in his free hand. Green dots across its surface lit up as he sank the barbed cable in.
“Oh my stars and garters,” Mina gasped. She grabbed her pistol from its holster. “I have no clue who those folks are, but I don’t think they’re playing.”
“Comms!” I shouted. “Project our voices into that room. We need to reason with-”
I was interrupted by a rush of chitin through air. Throughout the entire singularium the man-bees had suddenly snapped to attention. They abandoned their usual milling for sugar granules and, as seen in the hologram before us, began rushing in one direction. “Stop!” I shouted. My voice rang out over the comms system. “What in the hell are you doing!?”
The man-bees continued their rush, but the bodybuilder had heard us loud and clear. “Okay, okay, hold up!” He waved the device once in the air and the rush of chitin came to a sudden halt. The Bodybuilder looked around the room where he’d appeared, trying to find the source of my words. “I recognize that shrill voice. You’re that candy witch or whatever. Put my man Mina on the phone.”
Mina leaned over the comms system. “Jereme, you son of a bitch!” she shouted. Jereme? That weirdo who’d gotten us into this whole mess? Man-bees were frozen just outside our door, poised as if ready to pounce. “What the hell’s your problem?” Mina did not sound pleased.
“What the hell’s your problem?” Jereme countered. “I try to help you get back on the right side of history, and you up and steal our Manhattan Project? Come on, woman! Now here’s the rub. We own your man-bees. Pretty soon, we’re going to own this whole singularium. Squirt here’s not just disgusting, he’s compliant across all digital and biological platforms.” Jereme motioned towards the deformed little guy. There were wires dangling from the little guy’s face and he was rapidly splicing them into the Singularium’s walls. “Believe you me, sister, in just a few seconds my man here will be up your-”
“GGRRAAAAAHHHH!” came the roar, starting off-screen and howling to its apex as Brundelzebuub rampaged into view. Black trails of smoke and flies streamed from his back as he seized a pair of flaming claws around ‘Squirt’s head.
“Attack!” Jereme shouted, waving the device frantically at Brundelzebuub. The man-bees turned towards him, now running at top speed.
“PURGE!” Brundelzebuub hissed, crumpling Squirt’s head into a putrid, flaming ball.
Jereme screamed “attack!” again but to no avail. The the man-bees stopped in their tracks, gripped with palsy. As the initial shock of Squirt’s death subsided, their mouths grew wet with foam. They turned towards Brundelzebuub, Jeremy, even each other. In moments the air was screaming, filled with yellow blood.