Curt lay sweating on the bed in the hotel room. He was busy digesting an info-popper, a data file transformed into a foul-tasting jalapeno popper by the spirit of a government database. Sweat mingled with the moondust on his still-crescent face, trickling white onto the sheets. At least we’d give the maids something to talk about.
I looked at the other goodies I’d scored from the egregore. Two more poppers and a pastry, all imbued with the egregore’s data. I decided to save the pastry for Yaritza what with her birthday coming up, which left a pair of greasy poppers for Malcolm and myself.
‘Mind-leavings,’ the egregore Radhub had called them. That smelled about right. I positioned myself somewhere comfortable and followed Curt’s lead, pinching my nose before sending the popper down the hatch.
What a revolting texture. The breading held together in my fingers but dissolved into something like rancid tres leches in my mouth. The jalapeno itself was rubberier than a bicycle tire, stretching between my teeth more than it shredded. Uneven globs of cheese sloshed through the grease and fibrous tissue.
I choked it down and inhaled sharply. Big mistake. The rush of air across my tongue awakened my tastebuds with a sour-savory wave. Everything was bile. Reality melted away.
For a moment, terror. I was floating through the mishmash. Was my mind digesting itself? Shattered glass and globs of dairy sloshed with me through the liminal max of a hallucination asserting itself. I braced myself for concrete.
No impact. My vision solidified. I was floating through a stone-hewn castle. Stale gorditas and moist chains drifted below. As I turned my gaze my memory swelled with data encoded by the info-popper. This was a vision of Skull Island, I realized. I was inside Sleaze Gammon’s Florida home.
The air stank. There was something more, too. A hum? No, moaning, lots of moaning, coming from the ground. I fixed my gaze on the thin gray chains that ran along the floor. The chains wriggled as my vision focused. Weeping eyes and parched mouths crystallized from the fuzz.
So, I wasn’t alone. I was surrounded, in fact. There were no chains on the ground at all, not metal ones at least. It was some trick of the light, some illusion of scale, possibly a form of data compression for the egregore. The ‘chains’ below were people, boneless and grey, knotted in loops and straining against each other.
And then I looked just a moment too long. The moaning clarified just as my vision had and I heard instead names, pleas and accusations. “I can’t help!” one boneless man screamed. His boneless arm wrapped around the throat of his neighbor. He was strangling her. The more he stretched and screamed, the wider her eyes bulged. “I can’t help, I can’t help, I can’t-”
Something rattled. My limbs. All of my limbs, not phantoms at all but floating zombies, putrid arms and legs tangled in the human chains, George Romero drowned in Lilliputians. I tried to fly one arm closer to me. It pulled the chains taut, made a deep leathery twang, but stopped, trapped, in the air.
Bullshit, I wanted to scream. This isn’t inside the data, this is inside me. But my esophagus still ached from the popper’s spiced grease and the walls themselves were laughing.
“I can’t help, I can’t help, I can’t help, I can’t-”
Even with my limbs entangled I could still move around. It was a bit like shifting my weight and a bit like teleporting in that way dreams let you teleport, not so much moving in space as willing different space to happen around you. It took much of my willpower. My brain was all clenched up. The barely-audible parts of me were overwhelmed by the egregore’s data.
“I can’t help, I can’t help, I can’t help, I can’t-”
One of my phantom arms was just close enough to the tiny screaming man whose voice I couldn’t tune out. My limbs were sickening to slip on in this state, phantom underskin all slimy and rotted. But I needed peace. I took the tiny man’s head between two fingers. “I can’t help, I can’t help.” I gave it a little pop.
His muscles went slack. His neighbor began to breathe. I pressed on.
Gammon’s castle wound on. This dream-space mapped his physical, real-life home but it connected to his other properties and assets. One room opened up into a massive press office, the BiteBack News banner hanging on the opposite side, the daisy-chain of tiny people wrapping around the arms and necks of the reporters inside. Other rooms contained what looked like secret prisons, sex dungeons, human slaughterhouses and cramped meth labs. Each contained some simulacrum of Gammon’s original body, neck wrapped in human chains and eye sockets weeping ground beef.
After what felt like hours of wandering, the halls of the castle opened up onto a granite beach under a angry sky. Gammon-muck washed against the shore, his face bobbing in the shape of every wave. Muck beat ceaselessly against the rocks until the collecting residue sloughed off, splashing back into the froth that bore it. As the sloughed muck fell it solidified into more of the boneless Lilliputians who were soon tangled with the rest in the chain.
A ring of nuclear smokestacks loomed over the the ocean of Gammon, just above the horizon line. His juices washed against their walls, foam and fingers of gunk clinging at the sides and rims. Above that rotated a massive island city. Skulls, black roses and balls of pink fire rained down into the smokestacks from the city’s hanging sewers. New Pandemonium, I realized. I’d recognize the sky-line anywhere. The real New Pandemonium floated just off the coast of New York City and its streets teemed with monsters. The Regime cited New Pandemonium whenever it needed some boogeyman to justify its latest crack-down or cover up its own deeds. I may have even blamed a few of my own operations on New Pandemonian terrorists, back in my time.
Lilliputians wound tighter against my ankles and wrists.
As New Pandemonium floated, its rotation gained speed. The faster it spun the harder it wobbled on its axis and soon a whirlwind formed around it. Strands and streams of grey-green Gammon-batter sluiced up into the city’s swirling sewers. The whole mess rolled in the sky with greater and greater fervor until it formed a manic ball of iron, concrete and slop.
The rolling city continued to accrete mass and soon I could see bricks of Gammon’s castle flying out to meet it. The daisy-chains of boneless Lilliputians rose into the air like a great billowing net of leather. I twisted my phantom-limbs wherever they were tangled and clung on for dear life as everything was sucked towards the center.
Soon the muck rose past the smokestacks as the whole ocean bulged to meet the spinning city. They shook and snarled and some kind of fire deep inside them shined bright through the brackish goo.
There was an eruption. A spike of lavender lightning punched up through the muck, burrowed deep into the core of the spinning city, and exploded.
Light and dark crackled in and out of each other in the sky. A feeling came like anti-weightlessness, like being pulled everywhere-but-here at once. Then splattering. That foul and foaming ocean blew towards smithereens. The air and muck were one.
An almost-luxurious hotel room. An aftertaste like death. My first conscious thought on coming back to reality was, “grab a fucking pencil.” A schematic unfolded in my brain, something I could never, would never, invent or comprehend. If I didn’t write it down I was sure to lose it. My phantom limbs rushed to rummage a pen and paper from the desk, floating past Curt as he scribbled in the corner.
Over the next few hours each of us managed to fill an entire notebook with information, gazing into our pages with time-warping focus. Writing was like scouring my nerves, purging them of the residue from my vision. Ink poured onto the page in a slurry of protocols, equations and indigestible sketches. Even once it was all out, my system completely hollow, the pages slick and discolored, I dry-heaved over the page, scratching an inkless spiral in the corner.
When I was finally able to breathe and take stock I flipped through what I’d written. They contained schematics to god knows what. Chemical equations I didn’t understand sat comfortably on the page next to the true names of demons with whom I was not on a true-name basis. No one page seemed to contain a complete picture of the device under design. Whatever it was, it was huge and its blueprints referred to virgins’ blood far too often for my liking.
Curt grimaced at the notebook in his hands. His skull had returned to its regular shape though his skin still had a rough and rocky texture. “I miss reading,” he said. “USB drives were a delight over these data-shaman headscrews.”
“Agreed. Thanks for taking one for the team, Cash. We can let Malcolm and Yaritza take theirs when we get back.” I wiped my mouth. There was nothing on it; in fact, I was completely parched. How long had we been out for? I waved my notebook weakly in the air. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. As bros, of course.”
“Of course.” We made the exchange. Cash was able to interpret some of the occult bits of my notes while I recognized some of the names from his. He appeared to have ‘downloaded’ Gammon’s rolodex of supers with full write-ups including their capabilities, means of contact and contingency procedures in case they betrayed him.
Two in particular stood out: Mister Siberia and Stalokovy, a pair of Russian super-mercs. A few others were suspected Gammon allies, namely P!ss Frog and Doc Zeno, along with an assortment of low-rent super criminals and infiltrators within the Posse Communitatus.
One last name stood out, someone I didn’t even know was still working, let alone infected. Guy by the name of Trenton Clearwater, one of the last big names to come from the crumbling FBI. I’d worked with a guy who’d worked with a guy who worked with him but generally the Supreme Service didn’t deal too much with traditional intelligence. You ask me, they seem kind of obsolete. Rumor was, Clearwater had been involved with sparking the Super Gang Wars in the mid-2000s. Some kind of rogue accelerationist operation that never got fully uncovered.
“The half of this I can read only makes sense if the half I can’t read is making impossible promises,” Cash said after a while. “Whatever this thing does, step two involves cramming as many Other-petals together as you can and stuffing them through a single material breach.”
“Okay, hotshot. Try it in English.”
“It’s basically trying to create a doorway to raw, unfiltered Other-Force. Like creating Space Brothers on demand.”
“Army of Gods. Very impossible. Got it.” I tapped the notebook he’d given me. “Did you get an eyeful of some of the leads you’ve got in here?”
“I recognized Underbelly Clementine, she’s been through New Bayonne a couple times. And you’d mentioned Zeno on the ride over here. What’s up?”
“Gammon’s got his goo in every pot, it seems. Two guys out of New Pandemonium, a handful of crooks, one member of the Posse, an old FBI renegade and two Russian supermercs.”
“Russia’s a long way to go from Skull Island,” Cash said. I flipped to a drawing he’d done of the mercs. On the right was Mister Siberia, two hundred eighty pounds of Slavic muscle with the head of a white tiger for a right hook. On the left was Stalokovy, a jagged silhouette made entirely of interlocking steel fishhooks. “Oh, well judging by the resemblance I have to assume they’re family.”
I shook my head with mock sadness. “Their poor mother.”
“You try to raise ‘em right these days.” We continued to go over the notes for a few hours before it became impossible to avoid bed. I wrapped the info-pastry and the remaining info-popper in a small piece of Tupperware before going to sleep. That night, I dreamt fitfully of human daisy-chains holding down Roselia.
* * * * * * *
I slipped out early the next morning, left Cash a note that I’d meet him in Cincinnati. It looked like this case was going to get wider before it finished, which meant I’d be stuck with Crowe for a while. There was business to resolve before he and I went a single step further.
The sun was just peeking over the horizon when I barged into Crowe’s office, not quite yet so high in the sky that the clouds overhead could obscure it. Crowe was in the middle of his yoga routine, saluting the sun with a cigarette dangling from his lips. “Sophie darling,” he puffed. “Care to stretch your legs with me?”
“I’m back. Let’s go. I don’t want her in hell a moment longer.”
He rolled his eyes and curled his spine. “Spare me your lake of fire stereotypes. Malphas isn’t some Wes Craven imp. She’s practically fine.” Then, “hey!” as phantom hands hoisted him by his armpits and ankles. His cigarette fell from his mouth. I caught it with another phantom hand and took a drag.
“I’m happy to get worse before this gets better,” I told him.
He rolled his head around on his neck once, twice, before cracking the knuckles in each hand. “Fine,” he said. “You’re no fun. Put me down and show me the sample.”
I pulled the remaining info-popper and the notebooks from my satchel. “No DNA sample, but a whole mess of leads. This thing’s bigger than you think.” Crowe continued to dangle in the air. He wasn’t touching the floor until the two of us had an agreement.
The red veins in his eye pulsed into view once, twice, three times as he glared at the popper. His face was perfectly still. “Well now,” he whispered, a note of crow’s caw creeping into his voice, “I seem to recall someone being very specific about the circumstances of that agreement we made. And yet, here I am, not a single strand of DNA richer. Strange.”
“I gave you way more than what you wanted,” I protested. “We’re blowing this thing wide open.”
“We’re not here to rack up more charges on Gammon.” Crowe was defiant, even as Hans and Franz tightened their grip. “We know he’s a crook. We just need proof. What good is finding out more crimes exist if we can’t pin ‘em to him?”
“Bull and shit.” I sprinkled some ashes from Crowe’s cigarette into his carpet. “You don’t even know how this works well enough to bluff me on this. We both know you want to make this as big as possible. You can’t resist seeing every monster but you dragged to the bottom of the muck.”
“Hmph. Nobody said your help wasn’t appreciated, but that wasn’t the deal.”
“Oh, our deal?” I grabbed his wrists with two arms each and began to twist. I didn’t want to break them just yet, but I made sure it hurt. “Okay, Crowe. What if we make a new deal?”
Red veins bulged on his neck and head. He chuckled. The room grew darker. “You know how easy it would be for me to bring him here, girl. To flood this room with bloody feathers.” The crow-caw sound in his voice had fallen several octaves. When he spoke, it was like iron sawing through meat. “To purge myself of the gorged flesh of the damned.” His wrists cracked in my phantom hands. “This is not your tact.”
Blood trickled from his tear ducts. Shadows of blackbirds cawed from the rafters. “Dammit, Crowe. Let her go.” I set him down. The room’s light returned and the sound of crows faded. Malcolm slumped into his chair and lay his swollen forearms on the table.
“I don’t see how I can until you’ve found the dirt I need on Gammon.”
Of course. That was his angle. “What, you think I’m going to move on from this just because my sister gets her soul back? I want to see Gammon taken down at least as much as you.”
“Doubtful. Still, maybe you’re right that we could negotiate a new contract.”
“You have something in mind.”
“I can go ahead and free your sister’s soul tonight,” he promised. “One midnight meeting with the bloody crow and your sister can pass on to her final reward, whatever that looks like. If the young lady likes drinking, I’ve got a contact in Pirate Heaven who can make sure she spends eternity sailing the diamond seas with a bunch of hunky sailors… But I need some insurance of your cooperation.”
“Well, surely my kindness and integrity should suffice.”
“Cute, but you can’t fuck a motherfucker.” He pulled a roll of vellum and a feather made of brass from his desk. He tapped the vellum six times and soon its surface flooded with the details of a mystic contract written in calligraphic Latin. “You’re on my retainer until Gammon is dead, imprisoned or permanently exiled to a suitable hell-petal. No other conditions, so long as you perform any of the outlined tasks upon request in the meantime. If the fella commits suicide seconds after the blood dries, you’re still free.”
I looked the contract over. Despite the archaic Latin and diabolical legalese it seemed reasonable. It said he could ask me to go anywhere, look up anything or take down anyone so long as it didn’t severely compromise my safety, my job or the success of the mission against Gammon. I could also refuse any direction that didn’t have some relevance to taking down Gammon’s conspiracy. It left Malcolm much more wiggle room than I was comfortable with… but in exchange Roselia would be freed from her contract with Malphas.
I pricked my finger with the feather’s tip, filling its reservoir with blood. I signed my birth name on the dotted line and afterwards Crowe signed his. The ‘C’ in his name brushed the loop of a lowercase ‘g’ in mine, forming a tangent of blood between their curves.
Malcolm sighed with satisfaction as the blood dried in the contract. He read my true name out loud to himself and laughed. “Of course. I didn’t think you looked like a ‘Sophie’ at all.”