It was a quiet day in New Pandemonium, which is how you could tell God was cooking up some nasty surprise. Normally I’d spend a Wednesday afternoon doing odd jobs or getting into arguments with one of the warlocks upstairs. This day, the warlocks kept to themselves and nobody came in to ruin my peaceful time at the bar. Nobody, that is, until Cherif.
Cherif’s a yumboe, about the only one of his kind that’d bother to slum it on my side of New Pandemonium. Mainlanders are always surprised to find out we even have a bad part of town. Really, they’re surprised by the implication that we have a nice part of town but they don’t have the balls to say so.
Of course, we haven’t got some of the amenities you can expect across Proteus Bay. There’s no high-rise hotels in New Pandemonium. No stock exchange or five-star restaurants. We have our own specialties. There’s services you can only find around these parts… Assuming you’re the right kinda people.
Cherif was the most wrong kinda guy the right kinda people ever made. He was one of the yumboe. Most of them lived uptown with the elves, the bunians and the reptoids. Cherif was different. He did all his work on our side of town, right by the shore. He was one of the biggest mainland traders we had and unlike most of the others his business had survived even as Bigley ramped up border controls.
I knew him from my time in the Husvaettir Guild but I didn’t know him well. We’d brewed a few specialty moonshines for his clients and even put up a mainlander or two, though never for more than a couple nights. He didn’t usually negotiate contracts in person so I was surprised to find him waiting for me when I came into the bar.
Like most yumboe, Cherif stood at three-foot-nothing with skin that shined blue-pink-white like a pearl. Unlike most yumboe he walked on his own two feet instead of using that telekinesis to float just a few centimeters above eye-level. With him was some lady gargoyle, hand-rolled cigarette in her lips, dressed in nothing but black goggles and the stony dewlaps God gave her.
“Hugo!” Cherif cried. “Just the man I’m looking for.”
“What’ll it be?” I stepped behind the bar and started to pull out a few mismatched ceramic mugs. I jerked my thumb to the assortment of bottles behind me and raised an eyebrow.
“Three fingers of Dracula’s, s’il vous plait.” The gargoyle planted herself on one of the stools before me.
“Something thick and brown,” Cherif said brightly. “And thank you. But I am actually here concerning your other talent.”
I snorted. “Gee, how’d you know I’d been learning piano?” I chose the tallest of the mugs and filled it with a brown bottle labeled ‘The Luck of Osiris,’ our heartiest stout. You could build a pyramid after drinking that shit. You could practically build a pyramid out of it.
He smiled and raised his glass. “You’re funny, Hugo. But no, this isn’t a hospitality job. This is about… infrastructure.”
“Oh yeah? We finally getting a proper sewer?” Into the gargoyle’s mug went a dangerous amount of Dracula’s Enervating Elixir, served neat.
“In time,” he said. “But not today. This is something different. Something big. An opportunity I’ve been after for some time.” He took a sip from his beer. Foam and sediment collected in his silver mustache. “How would you feel if you could make your way to the mainland any time you wanted?”
I shrugged. “Seems like it’d be nice to visit. Wouldn’t wanna live there.” I paused for a moment, considering. “S’pose I could stick it out for a few years, though. Even a bad job on the mainland pays better’n you can get here.”
He nodded rapidly. “Exactly, exactly. This is my whole business, you understand. When their wealth meets our wealth, we’re the ones who benefit. Libraries, hospitals, public schools… why should only they have these things? Because these things only happen where there is money. Where there is will.”
Something mean rose up in my gut just then so I poured a mug of The Luck for myself to drown it down. Cherif was telling the truth but what the hell was his point? “Sure is a shame most folk get tossed in the Error Zone for tryin’ to make that money,” I said. My tone came out a little abrasive, but what do you expect? Nine times outta ten somebody getting your hopes up is taking advantage of you.
“The Error Zone is a grave concern…” he admitted. He glanced at the gargoyle with a sideways smile. “I suppose it would be different if we didn’t have to worry about that.”
“I s’pose it would…”
He leaned in close, whispering. “So what if I told you Deluge was missing?”
Aw, geeze. Was that all? Deluge would sometimes wander outside her usual patrol route, usually when she had some secret work to do for HOMEFRONT. Rumors tended to spread if she went too long without making an appearance. “Deluge wanders off all the time, Cherif. A few smugglers get lucky in the same week, that doesn’t mean she’s gone. Do you wanna be the jackass rowing across the bay the same night she comes back?”
“No… But I know where she actually is. And she’s not getting out anytime soon.”
I set my drink down, giving Cherif a hard stare. “How the hell would you know a thing like that?”
“That’s something you’d probably rather not know.” His voice was very gentle but his eyes were hard. “I am confident in my sources. We have a good shot- the best we’ll ever get.”
Cherif was making big promises. I peered into the brown-grey potion in my mug. What did I have here, exactly? Some shitty bar on the more neglected end of a blighted land? It was hard in that moment to believe I had very much to lose.
“Okay. I’ll bite. What’s the job?”
Cherif laid the plan out for me. He and a few jinn got their hands on something called a Bridge of the Requiter. It was unlike any bridge ever made by humans. It was shaped like a spool of thread and designed to get the right people to the right places as quickly as possible.
To cross the Bridge you’d need to meet some requirement set by its craftsman. If you were on the whitelist, the Bridge itself would teleport you from one end to the next in a blink of an eye. If you weren’t, the thing would appear to you as nothing but a single piece of unbreakable thread. The one Cherif commissioned was set so that it would only accept folks from New Pandemonium, meaning we could get to the mainland and back without having to worry about mainlanders swarming the island.
Plan was, Cherif and I would ride a boat out across the Bay to unspool the Bridge. Once it was out of a person’s hands it’d take on the full weight of a steel suspension bridge so we’d need the boat to sustain the weight of the unspooling sections. My job was to cast an illusion over the whole boat in case we ran into any border patrols.
I guess I should have mentioned that in case you’re not from around here. My people, the curupiras, we can toss illusions around wherever we go. It takes concentration and a bit of skill. I’m probably one of the best in town, on account it’s one of the better ways to liven things up in a ratty old bar like ours. There were a few on the island who were better but I had to reckon they were too smart to get involved in this kind of thing.
Just my luck.
Cherif would join us on the job, along with his gargoyle body guard whose name I learned was Claudette. She’d be our look-out and was a crack shot if things came down to the wire. Our big gun was this uptown lounge singer, name of Sinead Grey. She was a pureblood banshee who was rumored to be in good with the New Pandemonium Liberation Order, something she and the others likely had in common.
It confused me at first why Cherif would show up on a trip like this himself. No doubt it was handy having a telekinetic around, and he said as much, but we’d have been fine on our own. When we finally met near the beach that night I started to see why. Cherif had come decked out in a slick black suit and sapphire-studded necklace. This wasn’t just a business opportunity for him; it was an adventure.
Our first obstacle came from The Drowning Coalition. See, New Pandemonium is basically a dumping ground for the humans’ old fairy tales. And it so happens that humans are obsessed with critters that spend their time tricking people into drowning. Kelpies, sirens, rusalka, certain alojas, etc. There’s enough of ‘em that the gangs parceled out the whole shore ages ago. Anyone wanting passage to the bay had to negotiate a way past.
On the few occasions I had need to go to the water I’d just ask this bannik I know to handle ‘em. Lots of folks in town have weird compulsions like the drowning coalition but you can usually find some immune party to work as your intermediary. In this case that was Sinead. She pointed out a patch of Siren territory, then began singing this ugly deep note as they came into earshot. It was completely out of tune with the siren song, allowing us to walk through with nothing worse than a headache.
“You’re irreplaceable dear,” Cherif laughed as he helped Sinead onto his yacht. It had a pair of stairs leading down from the main deck into what looked like a living room. Up on the main level there was an enclosed cabin for the captain. Claudette leapt on top of the cabin with two flaps of her enormous wings.
Cherif had already tethered one end of the Bridge of the Requiter to the New Pandemonium shore. A luxurious gold suspension bridge flowed out behind us as if it were a part of the land itself, Its road paved with pulsating white light. After a few hundred feet it narrowed rapidly into the golden thread wrapped around the spool in Cherif’s hands. The thread was run in turn through a sturdy clamp. The whole yacht tipped down slightly where the clamp stuck out, right at the point where the unspooling thread became the Bridge.
Once we were all aboard Sinead asked if she could hold the spool and Cherif was happy to comply. Claudette pulled a deck of cards out from under her dewlaps along with another cigarette.
Just about everyone in town knows how to play Ombre. The names and faces change depending on which neighborhood you’re in and the rules get switched this way and that but the game scratches the same itch however you play. General courtesy says the deck’s owner sets the rules but Claudette just looked at Cherif who replied, ‘ottocento.’ We partnered up.
Claudette and I lost the first hand. Claudette and I lost the second hand. Cherif put a hand on Sinead’s knee and she giggled. Claudette tossed her cigarette into the water and leapt on top of the captain’s cabin. “Grid incoming,” she warned. “Better get ready.”
I looked out. There across the water was the edge of the Grid. Crisscrossing laser beams made what Cherif called a ‘geodesic dome,’ which I guess is like a ball but broken up funny. The whole contraption was MatronTek, energy-hungry and hugely expensive. Once we’d passed through it would signal border patrol with the results from its scan: four life forms, one vessel and zero visas.
“Do we have a way past it?” I asked. I tried to sound brave, but Claudette snickered at the crack in my voice.
“Don’t need one. HOMEFRONT’s all the way in D.C. and Deluge is out of the picture. Blueshift himself couldn’t get here in less than sixteen minutes, assuming he’d even answer the call. There’ll be a few patrol boats, maybe some normal cops once we get to shore. Nothing we can’t handle.”
I nodded but felt no relief as the laser beams washed over our boat, our bodies, our unspooling cargo. Sinead giggled as red light shimmered up her skin. “Like being scanned at the supermarket.” Cherif gathered the cards back together. I let the rustling of the shuffling deck draw me in while I sucked in the cold air of Proteus Bay. My illusions were already in place. To any outsider, we’d appear as another blank patch of water. There was nothing more I could do but enjoy the night and avoid thinking about the inevitable.
My first draw of the new hand came. Seven pentacles, five wands, the Tower. Nothing but bad omens. So much for cards. I dropped mine to the table. “Nope, nope. You guys might need to try Black Jack or something.” I turned instead to look out over the waters. Black in every direction, save the humming Grid and its reflection.
It was nice to get a few seconds of peace before things went all pear-shaped. Shame it couldn’t last. Claudette whistled twice to give us the signal, then circled low over the boat before we could cram our earplugs in. “We are in the mess, nanas!” She waved her rifle as if for emphasis. “Daddy’s coming with Little Brat and some of their buddies!”
“What? Daddy? Who’s daddy?” Cherif asked angrily.
“Eh… just… Daddy!” Claudette cried helplessly. She looked over her shoulder. Our pursuers were just barely visible now, four gleaming dots growing brighter.
“Okay, okay. We don’t lose our heads.” Cherif insisted. “Let them get close. We get one sneak attack and then our cover is blown. Hugo, for the love of god keep that illusion running. You two, wait for my signal.”
Claudette and Sinead nodded their assent while I jumped down to the bottom of the deck. No way I was getting sucked into the middle of a bonafide superhero fight. I looked out through the porthole and focused all of my willpower on maintaining the illusion around the boat. Our attackers, some kind of superteam I’d never seen before, came into view.
Their leader was the only one I recognized. Little Boy came in at the front, alongside a young lady in a suit, an American flag in the shape of a man and some girl dressed up as Torchbearer. Little Boy flew on his jetpack while the others rode gleaming crafts with silver wings and bird-skull faces.
They paused in mid-air and my breath caught in my throat. Cherif wasted no time. Red Snow hadn’t even lit up his laser cannon before he was caught in the Yumboe’s telekinetic grip. Sinead, meanwhile, unleashed her scream. Even with the earplugs it was the worst sound I’ve ever heard, like you dropped an orgy of cats into steel drum. It broke my concentration. Nausea wracked my body and the illusion fell away.
It’ll be fine, I told myself as I curled up in pain. Sinead had taken out two in one blow and Claudette opened fire on the remainder. Soon this junior border patrol would be sleeping with the fishes.