(6.1) Roxanne Atlas wakes up in Mountie Hell

Mountie Hell rang with dueling player pianos. They floated above the maze of railroad tracks pounding tense, old-timey tunes. Every few minutes a stray cackle would pierce the cacophony before melting away. Thick knots of rope dug into my arms and legs. The hot iron of the railroad track rattled against my helmet.

 

You’re just astrally projecting, I reminded myself. It’s only spiritually real. Why wasn’t that more reassuring? There wasn’t any sign of the others in sight. I was tied up on my side facing the oncoming train. Scraps and bubbles of the real world were still disappearing from my sight as my projection completed. The train barrelled forth.

 

A voice called out behind me. “Torchbearer!” Dad’s voice. The other dad, the girl-dad. And Torchbearer was supposed to be me, which would take more than a little getting used to. “You gotta untie the knots!”

 

I strained to get my fingers around the ropes on my wrist. They were all crammed and smashed together, and the rope didn’t reach nearly far enough. The train kept bearing down. “But I can’t untie the knots!”

 

“Young lady! You MUST untie the knots!” Her voice was closer that time. With it came the threat of disappointment. I couldn’t let Dad down. I remembered back to all our times tying knots together- girlscouts, yacht club- yacht club? Where the hell did Dad get that kind of money? But it was all in vain- the ropes were still too far away.

 

“But I can’t untie the knots!” I screamed.

“I’LL untie the knots!” A voice in the distance. A galloping horse. Blonde tresses, square teeth and a scarlet uniform came into view. My hero!

 

The mountie leapt from his horse and knelt down to attend my bindings. Dad cheered. Breath caught in my chest. Then, a snag.

 

The mountie began to sob. “No…” he muttered. He held his hands up to his face. His fingers were a mess of rubber spaghetti, knotted together in a tesseract of bows. “I c-c-can’t untie the knots…” he sniffled.

 

That was one option out, not to mention precious moments wasted. Air rushed to escape the coming crash. Dad landed at my side, shoving the forlorn mountie away. She started undoing my wrists. There was no time! The mountie’s hair and scarlet uniform began to fade to black. A curling mustache crept from beneath his nose. “I m-m-must untie the knots…” he snickered. We needed a new approach.

 

“Get down!” I yelled.

 

“Shut up, I’m trying-!” Dad replied, the last few words swallowed by the train’s whistle. The Mountie’s fingers began to untie themselves as his features grew long and wicked.

 

“Well, stop!” I replied. I snapped my fingers and the Torch swung off my belt and into my hand. Then Dad jumped back.

 

I angled my wrist back as far as I could, glaring at the oncoming train. The mountie had transformed completely. His square, generic smile was gone. In its place was the crooked leer of Snidely Whiplash. The train was so close I couldn’t see anything behind it. I threw the Torch.

 

The power rocking through the tracks was more than enough to bruise the left side of my body as the Torch ploughed through the train with railgun force. Molten iron and torso-sized pieces of shrapnel splattered to the sides as the Torch sliced through each individual car. The sound was like a lance. It started shrill, deepening and broadening as it moved farther away. Everything else was drowned out.

 

I threw up. The dust began to settle. The ruins of the train were just a few feet away. The Snidely screamed in pain as molten iron drenched his face and villainous black peacoat. After a quick flight over the wreckage the Torch landed gingerly in my palm.

 

I could hear Dad laughing as the tinnitus faded away. She began to undo the knots tying me up. “Good arm, sport!” she slapped me on the back. “Remind me to take you for ice cream after.”

 

My arms and legs were still sore from the bindings but it felt good to be out. “Any sign of the others?” I asked. She pointed overhead. Timmy was flying a few hundred yards in the distance.

 

Tim’s left hand was surrounded by the green ghost of an atomic bomb. He launched it to the ground below. What followed was so bright that for a second I could only see white. When my vision returned, Timmy was doing his victory dance in the shadow of a mushroom cloud.

 

I was suddenly grateful we were upwind. “That’s him accounted for. Any sign of Hans or Truman?” I asked. Gail shook her head. I scanned our surroundings. Everything looked the same in every direction: rows upon rows of railroad tracks, knotted-up damsels and Dudleys Doright going bad.

 

I pointed the Torch at Gail. “Point in a direction and say, ‘Aaron Truman’s astral projection is over there.’” She nodded. I activated the Torch.

 

Gail pointed. “Aaron Truman’s astral projection is over there.” Several unhelpful whispers overlaid her voice, one disputing the application of material space to the Other-petals, another asking what our definition of ‘is’ was. More saliently, a shrill voice cried out “NOT” right in the middle of her sentence.

 

“Let’s follow that one.” We repeated the procedure a few times until we triangulated a direction where the obnoxious voice didn’t interfere. As we ran that way, we passed by Hans and Timmy. Hans was covered with ash, badly sunburnt and visibly irate.

 

“You may have given me brain cancer!” Hans screamed.

 

“Pft. Soul cancer at worst,” Timmy replied. He nodded at us as we approached. “We’re doing a sweep of the area. You’ll have to follow us.”

 

I shook my head. “We’ve got a lead on Aaron, there’s no time for a sweep.” I kept running ahead with Gail.

 

“Are you sure you know how to use that thing?” Timmy asked. When I didn’t reply, he followed. He floated along for a few seconds, before saying, “Torchbearer, I authorize you to pursue this lead.”

 

“Uh, thanks.” After a few minutes of running we found him, tied up with the train just two hundred feet away from his body. I grabbed for the Torch.

 

“Handled,” Timmy declared, leaping into the sky and nuking the train from above. The explosion was tremendous. It was also immediately nauseating. Even if we were just souls projected into an Other-petal, our souls were very used to residing in bodies and didn’t appreciate being irradiated. Gail, Hans and I all staggered to our feet before retreating behind a nearby hill.

 

“Fuuuuuck,” Gail moaned.

 

“I know, right?” Hans replied before puking blood onto a nearby patch of grass. Timmy landed moments later, holding Aaron in his arms.

 

“You know that radiation is dangerous, right?” I asked him.

 

“Pft.” Timmy rolled his eyes. I couldn’t see it behind the mask but believe me, I knew. “We’re astral right now. It’s fine.”

 

“It doesn’t feel fine!” Gail yelled.

 

“Your soul gets just as much radiation eating a cursed banana.”

 

“That’s not a thing that I do!”

 

“Well, now you can start.” He crossed his arms while we staggered to our feet. “If you’re all done feeling sorry for yourselves we can head to the return rig, now. Mission’s basically done.”

 

“We still need to find the return rig,” I replied, wiping blood from my mouth. “And collect the ‘living mustache’ of a Snidely, whatever that means.”

 

“Probably means the Snidely needs to be alive,” Hans said. That might be easier said than done- so far both of the Snidelys Whiplash we’d seen had met firy ends. “Most of the Other-petals work a bit on fairy tale logic. Or cartoon logic, if you prefer. Think, WWBBD. What Would Buggs Bunny Do?”

 

Dad smacked her forehead. “Why didn’t you say so?” She pulled a straight razor from her pocket. “You kids ever seen Rabbit of Seville?”

 

“Where did you get that?” Truman asked.

 

“Part of my powers. Can’t have a schtick without props, Hypno-bro.”

 

“It’s… Slumberjack,” he said, first defiant, then defeated.

 

“So, Red Snow,” Timmy pointed at himself, “Dad, Slumberjack, Torchbearer. What do we call you, Kaplan?”

 

“Wunderkind.” God, I hated that guy’s smile.

 

“Right, Timmy declared. “I’ll scout a nearby Snidely from the air. Dad will do the Rabbit of Seville routine.”

 

“I guess I can help if we need the Snidely to unwind a little,” Aaron muttered.

 

“That’s actually not a bad idea,” I replied. “Get his guard down.” I didn’t like where that led us next but this was no time to let personal feelings get in the way. “If Red Snow can coordinate from the air, Wunderkind and I can figure out the location of the rig the same way Dad and I found Slumberjack.”

 

“I’m so glad you didn’t dead-name me,” Kaplan said, batting his eyelashes. I fantasized, briefly, about ripping them out.

 

“I’ll fire my laser once to signal a team has completed their objective, twice if we need to gather together, three times if there’s immediate danger,” Tim concluded.

 

We deployed. Well, the others deployed. Hans and I stayed put while we dutifully ran through the same method I used with Gail to find Truman. Except this time the voices from the Torch screamed “NOT” no matter which direction we searched in.

 

“Are you sure you know how to use that thing?” Hans asked as I clicked it off in frustration.

 

“I explicitly am not,” I grumbled. “Why, starting to think you should have shown your face at the trial after all?”

 

He snorted. “No way. I’m holding out til I can get beta class or better. You can keep your Torch.”

 

“Of course I can. Okay wiseguy, enough about me. What’s your brilliant plan for finding the return rig?”

 

“Oh, well, first we probably need to put it back together.” He pulled what looked like a crooked black funnel from the inside of his coat. “Nabbed this on my way up with Timmy. He was so busy basking in the glow of that fireball he didn’t even see it. We just gotta trek back to the other part, slap this back on and feed it a little human blood.”

 

He dangled the funnel expectantly, waiting for a reply. I gave him one. “What do you get out of being like this?”

 

“To be honest, I’m not sure myself.” He waved the funnel up to Timmy, who nodded and signaled our success to the others. We began to head their way. “Really though Atlas, you should be on my side. The two of us are the only folks here who actually earned our meal ticket.”

 

“That so?”

 

“Sure. Truman’s just Popper’s favorite, and the other two were born into this. Hell, near as I can tell, Timmy’s here as a demotion. But you won the Torch’s little trial or whatever, and I got recruited on the basis of my senior thesis.”

 

Dad and Truman came into view not too far away. Dad and a Snidely both had their faces covered with shaving cream, and Gail was demonstrating proper shaving technique under the Snidely’s adoring gaze.

 

“When I grow up, I wanna be just like you!” the Snidely hissed to his teen girl father.

 

I dropped my voice just slightly as we got closer. “You’re a smart guy, Kaplan. Smart enough you know that nobody wants to rely on an asshole.”

 

“Counterpoint, people rely on their assholes every time they-”

 

“You know what I mean.” I gestured at the funnel in his hand. “If you want to work together, you need to show that you’re actually able to work together, you get me? And maybe tone down the whole neo-Nazi schtick.”

 

“I’m a st8boi, thank you.” He shook his head. “I see you’ll have to grow a sense of humor before this will work out. Shame!” He jogged ahead of me to meet the others.

 

Dad gentle coaxed the Snidely’s mustache off his upper lip with her straight-razor. He took a moment to admire his newly smooth face in the mirror before Truman waved his ‘Slumber Axe’, coaxing the Snidely to sleep. Dad smiled as she wiped the shaving cream off of the mustache, which wiggled around her finger like a worm. “Sure looks alive to me,” she said.

 

“Alright, team!” Hans snickered just slightly as Timmy’s voice cracked. Timmy cleared his throat. “What’s the status on the return rig?”

 

“Just over that hill,” Hans said, pointing. Then he gave me a weird look out of the corner of his eye and added, “Roxanne found it.”

(6.0) NASCARnage

There was an ad in the Star last month. I get the Star every morning, along with the Times, the Herald and the Daily. It’s amazing how much reading you have to do to stay normal. The papers splintered out years ago. Each one found their audience and started saying the things the audience wanted to hear. But I know all about echo chambers.

 

My brain some days sounds like one big echo chamber, so loud and hollow I can’t even tell where real voices stop and the echoes begin. So I read every paper every morning. It piles the voices up for me, muddling them all out before the obsession can ring through.

 

Recovery’s never a straight line. You slip and backslide and get turned around until the little tricks they teach you become your new bad habits. That’s what happened last month. I was scanning the Star as I usually do, soaking in the thoughts the normal folks trade in, drinking up that banality and distraction. On page four, there was a story about a dog who dialed the phone to save its owner. On page five, reviews for restaurants I’d never go to. Mental clutter. Memetic insulation.

 

Then the ad hit me. A full color blow-out, gloss shellacked over two thin pages. “GET READY, INDIANA!” it promised in huge red letters. “NASCAR IS BACK.” Underneath sat an artist’s sketch of the new race car track they were building, just four miles out from the ruins of the old.

 

My first tell was the scent of burning rubber. It hits every time I’m on the brink of an episode. It poured up my nostrils, equal parts meaty and artificial. With it came the sound of roaring engines and panicked crowds. The foodie ramblings and hero dogs melted away. In their place was a voice, what I sometimes fear is the only real voice inside me. And that voice was shouting, “Sunday, Sunday, SUNDAY!”

 

Flare ups like this were always bad, but I didn’t panic. Instead, I called my sponsor. Each number chirped as I punched it in; each chirp struggled to drown out the sounds of NASCAR, to complicate my echo chamber. Soon they gave way to a voice on the other end of the line. Derek, my sponsor, saying “remember what the Space Brother said.”

 

There it was. An old echo, but a powerful one. I thanked him, hung up, and ran those old words through my skull. They came in the voice of the Space Brother- the real Space Brother, not that imitator they’ve got in the White House nowadays. They came the day he melted my hand. The day he said, “I sure hope you’re better than this.”

 

That day turned my life around. For the better, though I didn’t know it at the time. That was the thing about the real Space Brother, Ted Truitt. He’d stomp you down hard, but if you wanted to get up after he’d be ready to help. So long as you were willing to walk on your own two feet, anyway.

 

Don’t get me wrong, here. We know now more than ever that Truitt was no angel. He’s a symbol of a better time, sure- certainly a better time than now. Used to be, if you had an Other-natural infection and it was sending you out of control, HOMEFRONT had to either kill you or fix you, and so long as you didn’t really push ‘em, they’d fix you. Maybe that meant counseling, maybe that just meant getting your infection suppressed so you could think clearly again.

 

That’s what folks don’t realize about being a Strawman, see. A lot of us are just good folks who need help out of the confusion. It’s not like you wake up one day and decide, “hey, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looks like strong hostage material.” You don’t just start out by taking control of the Indy 500 and declaring all races will now be to the death. These things start small. You might live with an infection for years before you even start to go Strawman, and once you do you won’t notice ‘til you’re too far gone. So let me break down how it works for you a bit, so we can raise some awareness.

 

If you haven’t caught on yet, then congratulations- you’re talking to Indiana’s most feared laughing stock, the Accelerator of Death, the head of the devil’s pit crew, the one and only NASCARnage.

 

Before I continue, let me say this: I know. I know it all sounds stupid. I know it sounds goofy. I know it sounds crazy. You know why?

 

Because I was crazy. I was sick. I had an infection in my mind, and it made me do things and think things I get embarrassed about now that I’m better. And you know what? Crazy will always be right there, waiting to take my life over.

 

Maybe something will trigger a flare up like the ad last month, only I won’t get help in time. Maybe something bad will hit me and I’ll be too weak or depressed to keep up my care. Even now, sitting here on my porch defending myself in a diary to who-even-knows, my powers suppressed by the newest generation of sigils available, I can hear a tiny voice wondering what Dale Earnhardt III’s home security looks like.

 

Not everyone who’s infected gets identified right away. If your power is super strength, you’ll know as soon as you carry in your groceries or try to open a jar of jelly. Some of us aren’t so lucky. My infection let me transform people into NASCAR commemorative plates. Not exactly something that comes up a lot in one’s day to day, you know? Which meant before I even knew I was infected, it was already too late.

 

All I really knew at first was that I needed to be surrounded by NASCAR memorabilia. This was before my powers manifested, before I had any idea something was amiss. I started collected racers’ hats, commemorative plates, posters, toy cars anything I could get my hands on to scratch the itch. From there it moved like an addiction. I’m told that’s pretty standard.

 

Once you start going Strawman, you covet something connected to the Other-petal that powers your infection, and then you get pickier and pickier about the things you collect. Something- human obsession maybe, or perhaps the infection itself, starts upping the ante. It gets harder to calm the urges. After a few weeks, it’s no longer enough to just buy every commemorative NASCAR plate you can. Pretty soon the only thing that’ll do is one that you’ve stolen from Jeff Gordon’s own kitchen. Not long after that, the only commemorative plate that will suffice is one that’s actually drawn a driver’s blood.

 

That’s when things usually go bad. See, pretty soon you start to realize it’s not about the stuff anymore. The memorabilia is just something to focus all of that need and energy that’s burning inside you. It’s your body’s first response to the fact that you are helplessly, ruthlessly about NASCAR now to the exclusion of all other things. That’s usually when you make yourself a stupid costume.

 

You ever hear of that disease, toxoplasmosis? Folks with cats can get it. It’s a parasite. The little critter needs to be inside a cat to reproduce, and the best way to get inside a cat is through a mouse. So the toxoplasmosis parasite wiggles up into the mouse’s brain, flips a few switches and pretty soon that mouse is running up to every cat he can find, practically begging to be eaten, all so toxoplasmosis can make more of itself.

 

Once you’ve made the costume and given yourself the stupid name, that’s when you’re the come-at-me-mouse working as a gonad for the Other-Force. When it stops being about stuff and starts being about identity, or more accurately, when the stuff defines your identity, that’s when you become a Strawman.

 

Strawmen account for more mass infection crises than any other cause. Once you go Strawman, you’re a puppet of the Other-Force. Learning that helped me come to grips with all this. Now I understand it wasn’t just me that did all of those things. I was being manipulated. Puppeted by… well, by whatever the Other-Force actually is.

 

There was a time at least when HOMEFRONT understood that too, and I’m lucky to have done my crime in such an enlightened era as that. Early on, when all I’d do was interrupt the occasional NASCAR game and maybe threaten a few folks until I got my hands on Richard Petty’s hubcap or some petty shit like that, they’d actually try and recruit me. Even a limited infection like mine has crazy possibilities if you’re clever enough. HOMEFRONT thought maybe they could get me some counseling and turn me into an asset.

 

I had to go and fuck that up, of course. I regret it now but at the time it felt so right. Felt like I’d play those HOMEFRONT goons for the suckers they were. Felt like I could, ought to do whatever I wanted, and whatever I wanted was to force every man, woman and child witnessing the Indy 500 to race to the death.

 

Being a Strawman feels great. Your brain balloons with outlandish ideas and you never feel a moment of self-doubt or low confidence. You ‘know’ you can do it. You ‘know’ that you deserve to do it. Consequences, ethics, logistics, none of it enters the mind except as a fragment to be dispatched. You’re clean. Clear. Correct.

 

At least, that’s how it feels until Space Brother flies in and obliterates the nuclear force holding your hand together and pretty soon you’re watching flesh fly off the stump of your wrist, your own carbon atoms irradiating your skin from the sudden change in the local laws of physics. You’re collapsed on a small pile of wrecked racecars and commemorative plates that used to be people. You’re puking your guts out and still you think, what kind of fool could hope to defeat me?

 

And that’s when he makes all of the air around you super susceptible to gravity, so it’s literally piling at your feet and you can’t get enough suction from your lungs to drink them in because the air is just too damn heavy, and after you pass out from oxygen deprivation you wake up on a Twin Saints restraining table wondering why all of your chakras are sore.

 

Keep in mind, I was one of the lucky ones.

 

There was prison, of course. A regular prison, or at least a mostly-regular one. None of this Error Zone crap. Space Brother himself paid for my lawyer. He got them to reduce my sentence as long as I agreed to mandatory power suppression, regular psychiatric evals and community service. I was over the moon. Space Brother understood I was human under all that pomp, and that I needed help.

 

Folks nowadays want to look at the man’s politics. It’s hard not to, given what followed. Even before we saw how bad Bigley would really be, Space Brother’s endorsement was a shocker. Keep in mind, the guy had stayed out of it for years. You could always tell where he stood- he was a Kansas boy, fond of his little church, fond of the soldiers. But before Bigley he tried to keep his mouth shut about these things.

 

Maybe he liked Bigley’s swagger, or, God forbid, some of the man’s actual opinions. Maybe he hated the guy, and figured ‘his team’ needed the boost when running such a weak candidate. Everyone has their theories. Nobody knows for sure.

 

A few folks actually tried to drag me into the whole mess. I guess a few years before he saved me, Space Brother went up against this fella by the moniker Chainlink, a Latino strawman with some kind of chain fetish. Similar story to mine, but that time around Space Brother didn’t stay his hand. Chainlink got atomized.

 

Was it an accident? Maybe the guilt from the death got to him so bad he swore to find a better way next time- my time. Plenty of folks thought it might have been a warning sign. They could be right. It could be that Space Brother just didn’t care about folks like Chainlink as much as he cared about folks like me. It wouldn’t be the first time God made a man kind and brave, only for that man to forget all that goodness around folks he never learned to really see.

 

But I figure, I can leave it for other people to worry about that. Truitt’s dead, I’m alive, and frankly I have a hard time arguing that’s a more just state of affairs, even if I do have all the ‘right’ opinions. There’s other people out there doing real work who can criticize, maybe. People who don’t owe him anything.

 

I’m Christian, now. All us ex-Straws started a special bible study while I was in prison. You’d laugh, but there was a couple years there where every Sunday I’d sit between Captain Aneurysm and The Crimson Mist, trying to get a better grasp on Paul’s letters to the apostles. I think some of us were hungry for forgiveness. All of us missed that feeling of being part of something greater.

 

Saw a shirt last week. I guess the kid-punks are wearing ‘em now, ever since that Quran-burning scoundrel joined HOMEFRONT. Years ago he was burning one and it transformed into this young woman, still burning but peaceful as can be. The pastor ended up tackling her (which Captain Aneurysm has a great rant about on his radio show) and she just disappeared into this cloud of ash and paper. Good ol’ Pastor Dan got some 3rd degree burns and a potent infection out of the deal.

 

For the first time that day, I noticed there was some Arabic writing on the bottom of it. I’m a much shyer guy than you might expect, but for some reason in that moment I had to know. Redemption makes you a little hungry, maybe a little crazy. You start hoping every small mystery might hold the key to your purity.

 

The kid was a little taken aback, of course. I don’t think he recognized me, but I’m a burly dude and I probably looked a touch manic. You know the look- Scrooge leaning out the window, hassling passersby about dead geese. Still, the young man helped me out and I’m grateful.

 

I didn’t get the perfect absolution I needed, of course. Just in the week since, I’ve written three more apologies to the Gordons that I know I’ll never send. Three more drafts of something that can never erase the memory of what happened in that kitchen. But the quote’s helping me get my head around things a bit more. Not just the stuff I did, but the stuff Space Brother ended up doing- and not doing.

 

The kid stretched the cotton shirt out at his waist. “It’s what She said as she whispered in the pastor’s ear,” he explained. “I don’t think it’s from the actual Quran.” White light glared off of black vinyl in an ocean of red fabric. “God doesn’t forgive,” the kid read to me slowly, translating the Arabic to English in his head. “He understands.”

(5.3) Litework

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.

 

Sorry, sis.

 

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.

(5.2) Faye West

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.”

 

“This one?”

 

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.

 

“Shit.”

 

“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.

(5.1) Roxanne

Aaron stared dumbfounded at Hans. “Did you say Mountie Hell? Like, Dudley Do-Right in the lake of fire Mountie Hell?”

 

“Oh my God,” Hans whined. “Stop needing explanations for things.”

 

“But why would Mounties need their own hell!?”

 

“Gee, Truman, maybe-ngh!”

 

“Chill, Kaplan,” Jake said as he tousled Kaplan’s hair. Hans twisted from beneath Jake’s grasp, batting at his hands. Jake simply replied with cracked knuckles and a lizard smile, which Hans tried and failed to return. “To answer your question, very few things need their own hell, but we’re pretty sure that everything has its own hell. Wiloughby’s even floated the idea that there are as many Other-petals as there are combinations of words.”

 

‘Other-petals’ are the closest thing we’ve found to a spirit world. Or worlds. The name comes from the fact that they grow out of our earth, surrounding it like petals around the stigma of a flower.

 

Unfortunately, that’s about all we learned about the things at the Academy. We were still civilians then, though it was starting to sound like Hans had gotten deeper intel somewhere. The rest of us were restricted to what had been public knowledge. It definitely wasn’t public knowledge that there were as many hells as there were words you could combine with hell.

 

Despite myself, I had to wonder… Did that include names? Was there a whole hell out there somewhere just for me? And if so… what was in it right now? No wonder they didn’t want people thinking about this.

 

I had to brush those thoughts aside. There was work ahead of us. I gestured at the obsidian pillar covered in runes and animal mouths, averting my reflection’s gaze. “So, how exactly does this thing work?”

 

“Eh… how it works is complicated.” Jake admitted. “How you use it is easy. This puppy is attuned to over three-hundred separate verified hell-petals. By dialing the cylinder just so and feeding the correct sacrifice to one of the mouths you can astral project anyone in the room.” He brandished a worn, rolled pamphlet from his pocket. “There’s a manual and everything.”

 

“Hell is boring,” Timmy warned. “You’ll hate it.”

 

“I’m aware that Carnie Hell made a lot of promises it couldn’t keep, but Mountie Hell will be better. There’s trains!” Jake clapped his hands together. “Alright, kids. Good tour. Let’s get you to the cafeteria so you can get a good meal before tomorrow’s trip.”

The cooks were willing to make just about anything we could think of, and had plenty of catered snacks readied besides- chicken wings, pizza, etc. I filled my plate with a healthy pile of wings and a couple of sandwiches before finding a place to eat. Hans was standing over the shoulder of the guy cooking his steaks while Aaron and Tim continued to browse the selection. Gail walked my way.

 

“Hey, you seem alright. I wanna get out of here before Ouija Boy back there finishes breathing down the chef’s neck. Join me?”

 

I nodded, grabbed my plate and followed her to the entertainment room. There were a few games set up- foosball, air hockey, that kind of thing- along with a movie projector and some recliners. I kicked back and dug into my food. “Hans is a serious creep. I know him from The Academy. He might be one of the worst people I know.”

 

“The Academy, huh?” She whipped her tie over her shoulder and brought a rib up to her mouth. “So you signed up for this, then.”

 

“Well, yeah. Didn’t you?”

 

She shook her head. “I was born into it, a bit like Timmy I guess. Except, you know, I was actually born. Had a mom and everything.”

 

“No dad?”

 

“That part’s… complicated.”

 

“Oh… I think I understand. My birth mom left so long ago I don’t even know what she looks like.”

 

“No… I was conceived in a dream.”

 

What.”

 

“I know. Funky, right? But I prefer not to talk about it.” This girl was a tease. Her look sudenly grew a bit more serious. “Look, Rock, I don’t normally apologize, but I’m having trouble understanding something and there’s no good way to bring it up.”

 

“…Go on…”

 

“I just can’t figure out why you’d sign up to work for the Regime given that you’re… you know.” I arched an eyebrow. “…not exactly Bigley’s demographic.”

 

This girl had some nerve. A perverse part of me wanted to see just how deeply she could dig herself. I was mad enough to give in to it. “Oh, because I’m Presbyterian?”

 

“I uh, did not know that. No. But, I mean, you Academy kids are smart. The guy with the stick in his ass-”

 

“-Aaron.”

 

“-Aaron seems dull but I’m sure he knows his periodic table backwards and forwards, or whatever. And you’re not nearly as sleazy as that Hans kid. So I know you know Bigley’s literally been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.”

 

Yesssss?”

 

“And doesn’t that bother you? Because… you know?”

 

“So, three things. One, we’re in the Supreme Service. The Supreme Service doesn’t work for Roy Bigley the man. We work for America, the country. Two, Bigley’s been president literally my whole life. What am I supposed to do, abandon our country ‘til he’s out of office? And three, of course it bothers me. It should bother everyone. It should bother you.

 

“Of course it bothers me!”

 

“But it should bother me more, right? Because ‘you know.’” She squirmed in her seat. “And yeah, it does bother me more. But I don’t see what that has to do with my job.”

 

“Uh-huh…” she chewed thoughtfully, a bit like she was expecting something more.

 

“We’ve got terrorists with super-powers and literal demons trying to find ways into our world. We learned minutes ago that there’s infinite hells out there, just waiting. We’re stronger together. Safer.”

 

Gail snickered. “Of all the things that ever made me feel safe, I don’t think Bigley’s ever been one of them.”

 

“Yeah, well, I don’t exactly see a better option. Nor do I feel great about you coming at me like that.”

 

She nodded sharply. “You’re totally right. That was shitty. Um.” She steepled her fingers. “Thanks for being willing to talk this out. Sorry for making it weird. I guess I don’t really understand.”

 

“Nobody really understands anything. But don’t do it again. And learn to say what you mean. Right now I’m just angry. But my anger’s a lot more gentle than my judgment.”

 

She smiled. “Understood.”

 

I still felt strange, caught in some mix of embarrassed, tired and mad. After a few minutes of awkward small talk I bailed to my room. I’d put a few decorations up since moving in- the old pair of gloves dad used to knock out The Philadelphia Phist, a failed attempt at a painting from my one failed attempt at a boyfriend and a vintage poster of the original Torchbearer that Jake had hung up before I arrived.

 

The argument with Gail wouldn’t stop bouncing around my brain. Parts of me were still wound up and angry, other parts were convinced I’d blown the whole thing out of proportion. She never came out and said ‘you don’t belong here.’ But did she need to? It was written all over her face.

 

Maybe this was why the original Torchbearer had avoided politics. I’d have given anything to stop ruminating on some hokey white girl’s remarks and just get some sleep. Instead I was seated on the desk, maglight in my hands, staring at a dead man’s face.

 

Nope, I decided. Cram it all back. Flush out the doubt. But brains are terrible listeners. How do you just not think about something? Even as I sat up and rubbed my eyes I couldn’t help but think that there was a way of dealing with these self-doubts. Answers were available.

 

I turned the Torch over. The word “TRUE” was carved on its side in witchly scratches. Before it had occurred to me what I was doing I had already pulled the stationery from my desk and written the phrase “I am unworthy” on the biggest piece of paper I could find. It made perfect sense in the moment. Why agonize and reflect when you can just get answers?

 

There was the crisp click of the switch as I turned the Torch on, followed by familiar disappointment as the page flooded with a rainbow of annotations and marginalia. In lime ink, an actuarial estimate of the value of a human life adjusted for my skillset, age and ability. In lavender, the script of an old Thor comic. In scarlet, goldenrod, turquoise and onyx there was nothing but nitpicking, puffery and needless diversion.

 

I turned the Torch off and threw it onto the bed. It went exactly as hard as I wanted- which in that moment was more than enough to shatter the bedframe. Stupid. Worse still, seconds after throwing it the damn thing returned to my hand.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Sleeping in the wreckage of my bed didn’t quite make me feel better, but it dulled the angry voices in my head to a dragging moan. I’d be able to talk, walk around, function… but there was a heaviness in my chest that I could tell would be there all day.

 

We met inside the chamber from our tour, everyone fully suited up for the first time. Dad dressed exactly as she had the night before with the addition of a slick black jacket decorated by a YOUTHFRONT armband. Timmy had no armbands on at all, and judging by the red-and-yellow threads poking from his sleeves they’d been ripped off in haste. Truman looked appropriately embarrassed in his costume, while Hans argued with Jake about the alterations he’d made to his.

 

“The trenchcoat stays,” he insisted.

 

“You look like a school shooter.”

 

“Good!” Underneath, he appeared to be in a form-fitting mylar suit, chest emblazoned with a giant pink brain wearing a horned viking helmet.

 

Jake shrugged. “Kid, when we have our first press conference you will be in authorized dress. It’s up to you if you want to delay the inevitable.” He clapped his hands together. “Okay! Take your stations, kids.” We each sat in a circle of ash around the pillar while Jake bent over to open the briefcase at his feet. Inside stood a tiny cage, about the size of a shoe box turned on its side, with an even tinier horse contained within. Along with the horse were two weird mice or maybe baby rats.

 

He twisted the segments of the central pillar into the right sequence and crouched down next to the vulture’s beak jutting from the bottom. “Now, you’re only going to be astrally projecting into the petal, so don’t worry too much about getting hurt physically.” He tossed the baby rats into the vulture beak and slit the horse’s throat. A tiny whinny pierced the air. “You might suffer some passing spiritual injury, but nothing we can’t help you recover.” He tossed the horse in with the rodents. It choked the whole mess down as if alive. “You’ll start off scattered, so your first objective is to join back up. Afterwards, you’ll need to collect the living mustache of a native Snidely and find your way to the return rig.” Before we could ask what a lick of that meant, smoke rushed forth from the vulture beak and the world got all wiggly.

 

My back ached like it was strapped to a metal bar and the air was crackling with too many colors. Jake walked slowly around the pillar sprinkling pink Himalayan salt and muttering something in a language I didn’t understand. The smell of burning hair filled the room. Everything in my ears was screaming, and soon the world went black.

(5.0) Deathoscope

I was waiting in the backyard of a burnt-out house on the north side of town when Squatter came to get me. He was a good forty minutes late, time I’d spent brainstorming album cover concepts. Right now I had a wicked sketch of Dracula the Red conducting a band made of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln impaled on spikes. The back door of the building swung open, Squatter standing backlit in the threshold.

 

I held out the sketch for him to look at. “How do you like it?”

 

He squinted. “Lincoln should be on guitar because he used an axe.” He reeked of weed. “You ready to go?” Squatter shut the door behind him. Then he reopened it, revealing a horrible-smelling apartment somewhere in New York City. Squatter had the power to travel between abandoned properties, which often meant hanging around the homes of the recently deceased.

 

“Damn, you’re right. Yeah, I guess.” I tucked the notebook into my pocket, grabbing my backpack and my duffel. My buddy Tooms had said to pack for a long trip. He’s Schilling’s contact in St. Louis, which means he speaks up for us if we need something from her, and he gets to deliver the bad news when she needs something from us. I was feeling pumped, though. What’s the point of being in a super-powered resistance if you never see any action? Not that there wasn’t plenty of action at home, of course. But who doesn’t love field trips?

 

We stepped into the apartment living room, where you could see a single dead hand poking into view through the bedroom door frame. “Should we call somebody? Get her picked up?”

 

“Leave ‘er,” Squatter said sadly. “As soon as her people find her and divvy this place up it’ll be off my RADAR.” He closed the door behind us, then opened it again. This time it opened up exactly where it was supposed to- into the hallway outside the apartment. “HQ’s five blocks North, three blocks East underneath Dawnbreak Books. It’s late and you look sketch as hell, so you’ll have to take the hatch beneath the dumpster in the alley.”

 

“Who says war ain’t glamorous?”

 

“Schilling doesn’t want war yet,” Squatter warned.

 

“Heh. Bigley’s patient, right?”

 

The smell was starting to get overpowering at that point, so we said our goodbyes and I made my way towards the alley. He was probably right that I looked sketch as hell. There’s a delicate balance to traveling as a young, super-powered woman in a strange city. If you’re too dangerous looking, you may end up having to hurt a cop. If you’re not dangerous looking enough, you may even end up having to hurt some other creep. That’s why I like the biker get-up. It’s iconic enough that I could be a super-powered rebel assassin, but plausibly deniable enough that I could just be some biker home from a trip. End result- a little extra scrutiny in exchange for a wide berth. Just walk cool.

 

Finding the secret hatch behind the dumpster proved easy enough. Some kid in stained sweatpants and a shabbily-patched blazer was hauling two giant cages full of rats out of the thing when I arrived. He set the cages down just so he could shoot me a pair of finger-guns as I approached. “Deathoscope, I presume.”

 

“Yup.” I looked him up and down. He was probably homeless, definitely a dweeb, but not one of those dweebs that knows they’re a dweeb, which made him The Worst.

 

“Let me guess… evil mouthwash powers?”

 

“Sure. Was gonna go by the Gargle-goyle but saying it too fast makes me gag.”

 

He nodded. “Righteous. Ambassador Ratman, nice to meet you.” We shook hands. His palms were sticky. Not fresh-sticky, but low-grade, chronic, taken-for-granted sticky. He paused, and perked one ear to the side. “Also, Schilling is complaining that you’re late. We both better hustle.” With that, he grabbed a cage full of rats in each of his hands and leapt straight into the sky.

 

The hatch was long and deep and slippery, eventually widening into a vast bunker of caved-in concrete, twisted rebar and medusaflesh. I’d arrived onto some kind of stage, set with a massive oak table and three seated.

 

At the head sat Winnifred Schilling, the closest thing the Posse Communitatus has to a leader. I still remember the days before Schilling signed on. We were definitely more radical back then, both in our goals and our deeds. We had also been a lot more rag-tag. Schilling brought organization, and more importantly, cash.

 

Towards my left there was seated a man dressed neck-to-toe in black, balding and slightly pudgy, skin glowing like some fucked up computer. To my right sat a seriously deformed little guy wearing a robins egg blue track suit.  

 

“Well what have we here?” monitor-man asked as I walked in. He had a sleazy look in his eye, a bit like some of the divorced dads down by the Safeway. I sacrificed one second to scream internally. Whoever this guy was, I already couldn’t wait to shoot him in the head.

 

“Evening,” Schilling said, thin arms crossed. Up close she looked like a witch in the grips of chemotherapy, oxygen mask barely concealing a permanent scowl. Her eyes hadn’t seen a full four hours of sleep in as many days, one partially clouded with cataracts. “This is Jereme and Squirt. I’m not calling you by that ridiculous street-name Tooms provided, so you’d better have a Christian one ready.”

 

“Is Squirt that guy’s Christian name?” I pointed to the kid in the tracksuit.

 

“Does that look like something a Christian God would make?”

 

“Fair point.” Is it possible to be cute in a kind of Cronenberg way? The guy looked a bit like a blue-pale Charlie Brown, bald head nearly as large as the squat little body it rested on. He even had a button nose and big fat baby cheeks. The only thing that ruined it was the eyes. One stared dead into space, half-closed with the pupil dilated. The other… well, there’s no good way to put this. The other ‘eye’ was the biggest sphincter I’d ever seen in my life, and it had this grey tendril of slime just… whippin’ around outside of it, like a snake tasting the air.

 

But other than that, cute kid. “Give us a name and take a seat.”

 

“Kori.” I set my backpack and duffel down, grabbing the closest chair.

 

“Alright, Jereme. Would you please kindly explain your mess for these… persons?”

 

He gave her the side-eye as he steepled his fingers. “Yes, ma’am. Ahem. A couple of weeks ago the Posse’s ally Doctor Bugman approached us with an opportunity. His monsters had managed to commandeer an IntElect singularium, only for one to rise up and overthrow him. He offered the Posse access on the condition we help him get his monsters back.”

 

“Now tell them the part where you were stupid.”

 

“We don’t even know- hrmph! Okay.” Safeway Dad- or ‘Jereme’ as he was allegedly named- cracked his knuckles in agitation. “So. For completely intelligent, rational, maybe even genius reasons I saw this as a chance to bring an old ally back into the fold. I’d heard tell one of our former members had joined up with the Sugar Plum Fairy Corps. I figure, sugar powers are the perfect thing for wooing a swarm of man-bees, right? And once Mina saw the good we’d been doing under Fred’s leadership, she’d sign back up with her snazzy sugar staff.”

 

“A worthless stick compared to the tech on the singularium, and not even one that Mina herself owns.”

 

“Yes. Thank you. As Fred has so graciously indicated, we’ve hit a snag. Dr. Bugman was supposed to contact us as soon as the operation was over, but we haven’t heard back from the crew in nearly a fortnight-”

 

Schilling arched an eyebrow skeptically.

 

He sighed. “We haven’t heard back in nearly two weeks, and signals from the man-bees’ tracking devices show they’ve landed on an island in the Pacific. Either they can’t make it back to us, or they won’t.”

 

“Is it possible the doc decided he doesn’t need you guys now that he has his man-bees and a flying science island?” I asked.

 

“Not likely,” Fred wheezed. “Unless Bugman’s changed his mind about… certain collateral.”

 

“The Sugar Plum Fairy Corps was not a secure alliance,” Squirt observed. “They fear the Regime too much.”

 

“Mina’s hardly afraid of anything,” Jereme protested. “If anything, that… uppity stick-girl she’s working with probably talked her out of it.”

 

Fred waved a hand dismissively. “The Fairy Corps doesn’t recruit for grit. Besides which, they haven’t taken the singularium straight to the white house, either. Brundelzebuub and his man-bees most likely overpowered them.”

 

“But then why not take it to the mountain?” Jereme asked.

 

“It’s possible they’ve learned to manufacture candy on-board. Earth could be ass-deep in man-bees by Christmas. Excellent news, if the damn things were still under our control.” She gestured towards Squirt. “That’s your cue, mister.”

 

He squirmed uncomfortably in his seat. “The queen-signal is optimized, but unsatisfactory. Once it’s in place we should be able to reactivate the man-bees’ radiosensitive pheromonal programming, override their minds and take control as originally planned… but we’ll need to find an exterior power source on the vessel.”

 

“Right. Plug in the doohickey and do the thing first, Squirt. You got me? With the man-bees under our command we should be able to handle Bugman’s other monsters. Make sure to take down the hell-bug that started this mess.”

 

“What do we do with Mina if she’s still on-board?”

 

“Mina. Christ. Make her understand if you can. Bribe her to stay out of our way if you have to. If that doesn’t work… Well, don’t do anything unnecessary.”

 

“Of course.”

 

“Alright, Kori, want to explain how the boys are getting in?”

 

“Magic carpet ride, maybe?” Jereme asked. His eyebrows wiggled in a uniquely repulsive dance.

 

“Let’s let it be a surprise,” I said. “It’s basically teleportation, though. Line of sight. It can go through walls, but unless this place has got windows we’ll be firing blind, so you better pop in ready to rumble.”

 

“I like to think of myself as one of those born-ready types,” Jereme replied.

 

* * * * * * *

 

“So, is there a Mrs. Squirt?” The slightly undead-looking Charlie Brown kid was in the pilot’s seat, that grey tendril of his stuck directly into the plane’s console, edges consolidating into a mess of wires spliced into the controls.

 

His regular eye barely turned my way as he responded. “My physical sex is an expression of my chemo-digital whims,” he replied.

 

“Not what I was asking, but same.” Conversation had been like that for most of the ride. Jereme, thankfully, had respected the ‘fuck-off’ vibe I tried to throw his way, and spent the whole ride sleeping, figuring it might be his last chance for a while.

 

When we arrived at the source of the signal, there was nothing but a clear beach with not a man-bee in sight. “Do you think something happened to their trackers?” I asked.

 

“Ssshhhh…” Squirt said gently. He curled his tendril back into his head, the wires at its ends melting back into grey goo. When it extruded back out of his face, its tip had reconfigured into a black box about the size of a loaf of bread, its surface dotted with tiny MatronLite™ projectors.

 

They began to fire bright beams of different colors, some going up individually while others converged into pyramids of light. “Some kind of cloaking device…” he whispered. Then, “There. We’re in the right spot.” The strange box disappeared and soon we were landing on a nearby hill.

 

“What was that?” I asked.

 

“MatronTek metaspectrometer,” he murmured, eye still on the controls. The plane touched down. “They still haven’t mastered any of the singularium’s finer systems, it looks like. They’re impervious to the visible spectrum but the ship is fully materialized. Should be like hitting the broad side of a barn once I give you the coordinates.”

 

“Excellent. Spit the numbers at me while I set up my shot.” I grabbed my duffel and began to climb off of the plane.

 

“What do you mean exactly, shot?” Jereme asked.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, unzipping the duffel. The sniper rifle inside was matte black with a dark red skull emblazoned on the butt. I began to assemble it while Squirt and Jereme made their way off the plane.

 

Jereme continued to pester me like that until the shot was set up, huffing and puffing as he lugged two large black briefcases. It was a bit spooky- and to be honest, anti-climactic- shooting blind like this. There was virtually no chance of missing the singularium if it was really as large as Squirt said, invisible or not. The main challenge would be making sure the guys ended up somewhere near each other without being able to use the singularium itself as a reference. “You two ready to roll?” I asked.

 

They nodded. Jereme had some kind of minor shape-shifting power. I’m guessing it was people-only, because he had turned into some random buff guy rather than a dragon or a bear or anything like that.

 

Squirt was still Squirt, but the grey tendril dangling out from his face had branched into a tangle of prehensile tranquilizer darts, fang-lined tentacles and electric eels. I figured it’d be best to do him first. He looked scarier and you never know how people are going to react to this sort of thing. “Alright, Squirt. Line on up. Go ahead and just sit down with the back of your head against the barrel of the gun.”

 

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh no,” Jereme whispered as Squirt calmly walked over and knelt before the rifle.

 

“Relax,” Squirt said, glancing at Jereme through the eyes of an electric eel.

 

I fired. The bullet exploded from the rifle barrel and directly into Squirt’s bulbous head. Black and turquoise flame blazed upon impact, and when it subsided Squirt’s head had been completely incinerated The bullet disappeared into the invisible walls of the singularium, where Squirt was presumably reforming from a similar gout of blue-black fire.

 

His headless body slumped forward onto the ground. “Line on up!” I chirped.

 

“Mu-mu-mu-mu-”

 

“You heard the little man, relax.” Careful not to disrupt the rifle, I stood up and walked behind Jereme. I placed my hands on his back and gave a gentle push. He began to trot in front of me, eyes still fixed on Squirt, mouth still babbling about whatever. The trick was to move slowly, without rocking him from his daze. He sat in front of the barrel of the rifle, foot brushing the body. “Don’t forget these.” I wrapped his fingers around the briefcases.

 

“Murder,” he whimpered. I fired. Black and turquoise flames shot a meter into the air, leaving a charred neck behind.

(4.3) Litework

“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.