Things were bad. I was deep inside the RADFRONT catacombs, surrounded by security guards and god knows how many monsters lurking in the wings. The guards were pretty monstrous themselves. Their once-human faces had degraded into patchworks of fast food leftovers mortared together by Sleaze Gammon’s liquid flesh. Worse still, the super powerful Doctor Zeno was there and I’d just tipped her off that she had a visitor.
A vial floated in the air. Sleaze Gammon’s DNA sample bubbled inside, clasped in one of my phantom hands. Unfortunately, Doc Zeno had trapped said hand in one of her patented time warps. I had precisely zero seconds to figure out my plan and a sucker’s choice to make. I could stick around, retrieve the vial from Doc Zeno and hightail back to Cincinnati to exchange it for my sister’s soul. Or I could save my ass.
You’re welcome, ass.
I threw a volley of phantom limbs towards every angle of the chamber. With full force and grit teeth I kicked, slapped, banged and threw every rock as hard and as loudly as I could in as many different directions as possible. Chaos reigned. The Gammonoid guards, already jumpy, shot at every noise. The chamber’s nooks and crannies lit up with gunfire. Doctor Zeno screamed for them to stop.
I ran. There were monsters in the halls, an elevator at the far end of this floor and far too many tracks to cover. I took a sharp turn down a random hallway. A few yards within, three giants lumbered, knotted fists of shark-skin and giraffe-bone. With luck, they could be the perfect distraction, so long as they weren’t too fast.
I threw three sharp kicks to the one in the back. He roared. The two in front scrambled over uneven limbs to escape their brother’s wrath. I summoned the fastest legs I had at my disposal and booked it for the elevator, three mutant behemoths hot on my trail.
The guard from before lay face-down on the ground before me. Could I just leave him to be captured by monsters? The biggest of the giants nipped at his brothers, mouth flapping open like an armpit full of fangs. Feeling like an idiot, I swept the guard into the elevator with me. In my rush to shut the grate behind us I smacked his leg and he let out a low groan.
One of the monsters crashed into the elevator. Its massive shoulder pinned us against the wall, bending the grate that held it back. We weren’t going up. The creature had us pinned to the wall, its strength too much for the elevator cable. Judging by the howls and screeches in the corridors it seemed like our commotion would only draw more monsters in time.
As its massive shoulders dug deeper into our elevator I spied a constellation of eyes along the creature’s trunk-like legs. With stooge-like precision and timing I gave its eyes a series of sharp pokes. Greasy clear jelly burst and run along invisible fingers. The monster rocked backwards, howling with pain. The elevator began to rise.
“Nnnggh,” the guard groaned. I grabbed him by the shoulders and rolled him face-first along the far wall, making sure there was no way he could see. When we finally got to the surface, I left Hans and Franz to pin him there until I’d slunk out of sight.
Rounding the corner, I spied a door I’d propped open earlier: the archive habitat. Doctor Zeno had been lurking around in there right before I followed her to the pool where Sleaze Gammon was sleeping. As much as I wanted to bail to the surface, I also knew I’d just blown my mission… and with it, my hope of freeing Roselia’s soul. Which meant the archive habitat was my last shot if I didn’t want to return to Malcolm Crowe empty handed. I slipped through the door.
Rows of frosted black servers towered in the mists of the archive habitat. They’d been hollowed out for over a decade, ever since the internet started to unravel. Back in ‘19 a few hackers leaked the Central Grimoire of the Twin Saints Corporation which caused a cascading Other-natural infection across most of the world’s major databases. Soon pieces of the internet began to transform into… well, I think the technical term is ‘egregores’ but ‘demons’ works fine enough. If the stench of fresh sweat and hot plastic was any indication, RADFRONT had managed to keep theirs alive all this time.
Pale blue LEDs snaked across the ceiling, casting a dim glow on the mist. The thin blue light was enough to move safely but not enough to make out the room’s walls or ceiling. I could feel the weight of the servers bearing down as I crossed. It was hard not to see a maze of crushing dominoes waiting to fall. Phantom hands traced them as I walked, feeling for clues.
There. Straw was scattered on the floor in a few of the rows closest to me, growing denser denser as I went Southwest. Plunging further revealed apple cores, mangled circuits, piles of dog food, etc. I paused to listen. Somewhere not far off I could hear the labored breathing of some beast splashing under a spigot.
I crept closer to the sound, thankful for the mist and darkness around me. At the center of the habitat was a clearing filled with straw and garbage. There was a jungle gym in the center. It appeared to be built for some kind of chimpanzee bureaucrat, monkey bars and climbing walls co-mingling with adding machines and typewriters. At the far end splashed the egregore itself. Three of its almost-human arms tugged on a long chain attached to a spout that belched water onto its back.
“Rrrggglaaaacchh!” it hissed, twisting its pale body this way and that beneath the steaming stream. It didn’t appear injured but it was clearly very tense. I touched it very gently with a phantom hand. It was too distracted to notice at first as I caressed its slimy skin carefully. Among my hands were lovers, veterinarians, butchers- everyone who could diagnose pain with a touch. Several of the muscles in its snake-like torso were bound in tense little knots.
Now, I personally know little about chiropractic, but masseurs lose limbs the same as everyone else. I summoned several phantom hands and arms that I knew to be skilled at massage. With their muscle memory and learned tactile feedback I began to search the creature’s body for cramped limbs and tender areas. For a moment it seemed to worry, dropping its chain to thrash in the water. As the hands gently the knotted tissue the creature slowed its spasms. Soon it began to pur, sprawled on its back at the bottom of the pool.
“Feelin’ better?” I called out to it. Its eyes snapped open in alarm, several lights blinking in different colors across its body as it searched for the source of the voice. Yet, it stayed put. Perhaps it realized the same hands massaging its muscles could also pin it to the ground. Perhaps it was too relaxed to get up. Some folks said the egregores were naturally helpful, created like dogs to be our friends and protectors.
Then again, some folks had never been mauled by dogs.
“That is a nnnnice-feel,” the creature said, the word ‘nice’ coming out halfway between a pur and something more vulgar. “Are you new-friend?”
“Sure thing, darling.” I stepped all the way into the clearing. “I’m just a friendly friend with some friendly questions. That alright with you?” I dug deep into the tissue between one of its shoulders.
“Oooooo yes,” it sighed. “Delicious queries always, please. And many such rubbings. Quite a good friend.”
“I sure am something, that’s true. What did the lady who came in before me want?”
“Mmmmm… Madame fed me records.” A stubby purple tongue slobbered along one of the round mouths crossing its body. “Juvenile flavored, for me to make mind-leavings.”
Some questions you regret even as you’re asking them. “Mind-leavings?”
“Mmmm! Watch.” Something gurgled in one of the caverns of its body. Its eyes blinked rapidly again before one of the mouths puked out a tiny pastry puff. I plucked it gently from the egregore’s tongue. “Still small morsel,” it apologized. “Input minimal. But output: war-flavored!”
War-flavored. That sounded like something to sample later. I put it in my pocket. “That’s a heck of a way to store data.”
The egregore giggled. “Radhub’s trick! Clever Radhub.” That must have been its name. “Tasting is knowing.”
“Duly noted.” RADFRONT guards were rushing outside. They’d be freeing up Dr. Zeno before too long, and there was a decent chance someone would end up in here with me. Time to cut to the chase. “Alright buddy, you’re gorgeous. I just need one last favor. I need everything there is you know about Salazar Gammon.”
“Gammon? Hmmm… “ Radhub’s eyes dimmed for a moment before its lips curled up mischievously. “Oooo, Gammon, yes… There is much to tell. Here.” Its pink-grey body rippled and one of the tubes on its back began to unfurl, engorged with blood. I held two hands beneath it as three golden-brown jalapeno poppers fell out. They smelled awful. I stuffed them in my pockets. “Let’s be friends,” it giggled, pulling my eyelids apart to gaze deep into my pupils. Then it kissed my stomach before slithering beneath the surface of the pool.
Its haunches hadn’t even disappeared before I was on the ground heaving. Massaging it had been one thing; I was in control and technically wasn’t even touching it. Its little kiss goodbye, however, was a step too far.
You see, the thing’s touch made my skin crawl and the crawling of my skin felt too much like the ceaseless twitchings of the unused phantom limbs. Usually I could tune out any part of my collection I wasn’t using. I could tell myself the phantom limbs weren’t really real, that their constant squirming didn’t demand my brain’s full attention. So I rarely noticed the psychic ocean of thumb-twiddling and restless leg syndrome that fed into my mind. But the egregore’s touch was just that little bit more real. Now that I’d noticed one piece of physical discomfort, the rest was impossible to tune out.
Guards were already sweeping the facility. It was only a matter of time until they came to check the habitat. I couldn’t be found. But wiggle as I might, I couldn’t move. The dam had broken and my control over the phantom limbs was gone. There was nothing but clenching, stretching, wiggling, drumming. Ninety-nine-point-ninety-nine percent of my body was limbs at that moment and all of them were cramping.
Then, blessedly, the crab claw beyond my control grabbed me by the collar and scooted me across the room. Its alien origin freed it from my own inhibitions, which apparently included my sense of disgust. The sheer relief I felt as it dragged me onto my ass distracted from my immediate revulsion long enough that I could stagger back to my feet. As the first of the guards began to enter the room, I slipped behind them and back into the hallway.
Cash was standing again by the time I returned to the lab. “Litework!” he called. His head was a crescent moon, his shoulders studded with diamonds. It looked like the Tarot energy was still warping his body. “There’s been a monster breach downstairs. Are you okay?”
I nodded sharply. “Got accosted by a critter on my way back from the ladies’, but I’ve gotta be doing better than you. Is one of your feet a wheel?”
“The docs say it should wear off once we’ve been back in normal space for a few hours. It’s not so bad once the, uh, transition period’s over. Ready to run the tests we came here for?”
“I was just thinking it was time we stopped lollygagging.”
* * * * * * *
In the end, the hardest part of the day proved to be enduring the boredom of our cover mission, especially with three jalapeno poppers and a pastry burning a hole in my pocket. Cash and the doctors were eventually to garner some obscure data from the corpse we brought in, enough at least to sever my bond with the phantom crab claw. As much as I’d appreciated its help, the damn thing never stopped feeling like centipedes crawling down my back.
It was late by the time we were done so Cash and I spoiled ourselves with a swanky hotel in the city- as swanky as we could find, at any rate. We’d had to sneak Cash through the lobby with his head still a crescent moon so as not to draw unwanted attention and ended the night by unwinding with drinks and a few little pills.
“I’m so embarrassed,” Cash laughed. I’d just finished impersonating the first mouthful of cheese and powder he’d barfed up earlier. Even with his face a rocky white crust, Cash had perfect eyes and teeth.
“I dunno, hoss. I didn’t mind seeing you laid out there, all tender and vulnerable.” I ran a phantom finger along the edge of his collar, leaning back across the room. Curt was fun. Notorious fun. Every femme fatale and doe-eyed dame in New Bayonne said the same: Cash was more lucky than good in every part of his life but one. And it had been a very long day.
He laughed nervously. “Hey, Litework.”
“Sophie.” Another hand spider-walked up his nape to tousle his hair. A finger began to circle his knee. He yelped. I smiled.
“No, seriously.” His voice was sterner than usual. I let go of him, abashed. Generally anything Cash said sounded like it was half a joke or like he was flirting with you. Maybe it had been both. I tried to figure out what to say next. Cash tried too, which turned out to be a mistake. “I mean, you have a nice face and everything, it’s just…”
“It’s just,” I thought to myself. Boom. Pow. Right to the self-image. “Just what?” I asked.
His eyes opened wide. “Just your… Um, I mean… Lots of guys like bigger…” he slapped his hand over his mouth. It must have been ages since the man had sat through a seduction without the charm and suave his powers could give him. He wasn’t coping well. “I don’t know how to say this,” he admitted.
I forced a laugh. Not a nice one. “I don’t know how you should say it either but you sure don’t say it like that, honey.” At least his lack of tact put less pressure on me to be gracious. I went across the room to make myself a drink.
Ice clinked and gin trickled into the shaker. Now, if you’re snooty about gin, you know that James Bond orders shitty martinis. But if you’re flustered and frustrated you’ll find that a steel canister full of ice becomes a great outlet for your aggression.
“Shit, I’m so sorry,” he moaned. Oh Jesus, he was about to keep talking. We needed a critical change of subject.
“No idea what you’re talking about, Agent.” I tossed him one of the poppers the egregore gave me, like a ninja escaping in a cloud of smoke. “But for your punishment, you can sample one of these fried little turds.” The rattle of ice nearly drowned out my voice.
He took a bite, then immediately spat it out. “That’s hot dogshit!” he yelled. “Augh, it’s so bitter I can see it.”
“Waste a bite of that and I’ll waste more’n a bite of you.” I stopped the shaker, feeling flush if not necessarily better.
“Yes, ma’am.” He grimaced, pinched his nose, and downed the whole thing in one go. I put on a record as the full force of the flavor racked his body. He tumbled to the ground.
“Haaaaate,” he rasped, his eyes rolling backward as his limbs curled close to his torso.
Wonderful. I couldn’t wait to feed one to Malcolm.