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.
It was a beautiful day for everything in Cincinnati that didn’t belong to Malcolm Crowe. After our morning negotiations I walked as far as my stolen legs would take me, hoping to put a little space between myself and the gloom of the Twin Saints offices. Even once I was past the edge of the ever-present clouds and bathed in the morning light I could feel the shadows behind me.
After a mile and a half I realized I’d spend my entire break wandering aimless unless I forced myself to stop so I grabbed breakfast while I waited for our meeting. I sat at the window, restless, nothing but cheap eggs and grungy magazines to keep me company. Groundcars roared in the street outside and a little girl ran ahead of her parents. A chill rippled through me. It would take so little force to ruin that family. So little time.
A few short hours later it was time to return to Crowe’s office to touch base with the others. Curt was waiting with Malcolm when I arrived, a green tea and a cold mineral water both waiting on the table. I swiped the water. “How’d you know?” I asked. My cells sang for joy as pure, clean water filtered through them. Maybe it was time to go easy on the drinking.
“Didn’t need to,” Curt replied. “You got the jalapeno poppers?” I patted my bag and nodded. The morsels inside were as psychoactive as they were repugnant, regurgitated by the lanky data-monster born from RADFRONT’s old archives. Curt nodded with approval. “Malcolm here doesn’t believe they taste as bad as I say.”
Crowe held a glass of dark liquid in front of his face. “There’s nothing a well spiced rum won’t cover up.”
“Won’t help,” Curt replied breezily. “Though it might be good for the headache.”
Malcolm sighed. “I miss reading. Speaking of.” He reached backwards to produce the notebooks I’d delivered to him that morning. “I got copies of these back from Lily about an hour ago. Interesting stuff. Almost makes up for the fact that you botched the actual mission objective.”
Curt and I exchanged a look. “History will vindicate us,” he said.
“Damn straight. We’ll be greeted as liberators.” I raised about a dozen phantom fists into the air before realizing that nobody could see them.
Soon after we were joined by Yaritza. She arrived in her butterfly form, thousands of butterflies swarming from the vent in Crowe’s office to make a human-shaped swarm in the middle of the room. Even before all of them had assembled they started melting together into feet, legs, torso, arms, face. “Sorry for the wait,” Yaritza said. “Malcolm, you were right about the ghost meadow. Mind if I pass a pollen sample down to Barleycorn?”
“Go ahead,” he replied.
She looked down at the tea steaming on the table. “For me?” She plucked it from the saucer and took a sip. “Wow, perfectly steeped. Good work, Agent.”
“Enough small-talk, folks.” I pulled the info-popper and info-pastry from my bag. I placed the pastry on Yaritza’s saucer, “For the birthday girl.” I placed the popper in Malcolm’s hand, “for the… you.”
“Thanks,” they replied in completely different tones.
“Make sure you’re seated somewhere comfortable before you dig into those,” Curt warned. “You’re going to drop out of your surroundings just as the flavor becomes unbearable. Try laying down on your side in case you throw up.”
Crowe sat at his desk while Yaritza curled up sideways on the couch next to Curt. “Bon apetit,” he told her.
“Bon voyage,” she replied. She scarfed her morsel down, wincing only slightly.
Malcolm was less stoic. “Great gristle of Golgotha,” he hissed through cheddar-drenched teeth. He filled his mouth with rum, swished the mix between his cheeks, buckled over with eyes bugged out and pounded on the table as he made one final heroic swallow. “Glack!” he cried. He fell face forward. His head thunked the table and he was out.
Curt and I shot the shit for an hour or so while Crowe and Yaritza were trapped in their data-dreams. We managed to stick to safe topics- weather, sports, which secret prisons the Executive kept various ex-wives in. Typical chit-chat. Between two spies that was no easy feat. It takes concentration to say nothing.
Before long we were greeted by dry heaving from Yaritza and much wetter heaving from Malcolm. “Zut alors!” Curt cried with a start. He pat Yaritza gently on the back while black rum and depleted queso splattered on Crowe’s desk. “You okay, Flutterby?”
“Don’t get so friendly, Agent,” she managed to choke out. “Bring me a fucking pencil.”
“No, no, don’t mind me,” Malcolm muttered once his guts stopped spasming. He rang the buzzer on his desk. “Lily, get me clean-up and a pitcher of lemon water.” He looked down and made a disgusted sound. “And another tie. One with a happier skull on it.”
Yaritza scrawled into her journal with the same mad drive that had gripped Curt and me earlier. Malcolm was in no such hurry. “What’s the hold-up?” I asked.
“It’s Malphas. He… stole the vision, for lack of a better word. Let me keep the nausea, of course.” He spat a bit of vomit into a nearby trash can. “He must be mad that I signed a contract without consulting him.”
“Why would you need to do that?” Cash asked. Yaritza mouthed words to herself as she stared wide-eyed at her paper.
“We’re legally entangled at a metaphysical level. Any law that binds me binds him and vice versa. If I go to prison in the material world, he gets sentenced in Bird Hell.”
“I thought he ruled Bird Hell,” Cash protested.
“Nobody’s above the law in Bird Hell. Otherwise, what’s the point?” He shrugged. “I’m communing with him tonight anyway. I’ll have to get the details then.” A sly smile took his face. “It would do to have some company. Litework, you could probably use some more first-hand experience with magic.” Smooth. Now I’d have cover when I came back in the evening to finalize the contract to save my sister’s soul. No sense letting the others catch on to our arrangement.
“I’ll be there,” I replied.
Not long after a pair of janitors came in to clean the vomit from Crowe’s desk. With them was Lily, Malcolm’s secretary, a stern-eyed succubus with a pitcher of lemon water. Crowe thanked her with unusual politeness while she directed the janitors in their chores.
Shortly after they left Yaritza reared up from her notebook, blew out a huge breath of air and finished her entire cup of tea in one go.
“YOUTHFRONT!” she cried, tea dribbling from the corners of her mouth. “It’s what they’re calling that project in Westchester. Some kind of… super-teen internship. Doc Zeno’s running it.” She held her notebook out and I plucked it up with a phantom hand. “Seems she was accessing files on three of the kids before visiting Gammon. Codenames Slumberjack, Wunderkind…” She cupped her face in her hands. “…Torchbearer.”
Malcolm laughed. Cash just looked confused. I scanned our earlier notes for context. The Torch had been dormant ever since the New Years Eve attack. Most folks assumed it would never find a new host. There was an entry about it in the schematic I’d written after my popper-vision. “Looks like the Torch lit itself up in RADFRONT headquarters the same day P!ss Frog defeated the Decoherence Strategy.”
“Right. And just one month before that, Mac Stevens’ heart disappeared from storage,” Malcolm added.
“Damn, nobody’s mentioned a thing about that at VICEFRONT,” Curt said. “They must have covered it up.”
“Of course they did. If these are connected then Gammon’s inside woman was behind it,” I replied. “Which means we need to figure out who she got that heart to.”
“Have we got anything else on the super-interns?” Crowe asked.
Yaritza snatched back her notes and flipped through them. “Slumberjack and Wunderkind are both unusual cases. I’m not even sure if they technically count as supers. Wunderkind’s profile lists no powers or artifacts. Slumberjack’s mentions something called an ‘Othernatural Dermal Substrate,’ whatever that is.”
“Ahhh, a skinjob!” Crowe said with delight. “That was one of ours. Beautiful concept I developed with Dr. Dale.” He poured himself another glass of lemon-water. “We’ve got ways of turning a man into a suit, body and soul. Very handy if you’ve got a super-criminal you can’t rehabilitate, or if you just want the benefits of a power without committing to an infection.” He smacked his lips after a long sip. “I’m amazed to see one finally get deployed.”
“I don’t want to ask this,” Curt began, “but what do you mean, turn a man into a suit?”
Crowe shrugged. “You know,” he mimed the act of skinning a man with a knife, injecting just a bit too much detail into the performance. “Hollow ‘im out, keep him alive and semi-sentient with a bit of magic, then slip him onto a loyal soldier or valued customer. It’s very promising work. Theoretically, you could steal anyone’s powers… so long as they’ve got skin, at least.”
Yaritza gave Crowe a hard stare. “…That vision. I saw a place. People cut up and covered in zippers. You did that?”
He shrugged. “Like I said, joint effort. What about the other kid? Wunderkind?”
Yaritza seemed reluctant to speak. Then Malcolm did that thing where the corners of his eyebrows curl up like the Grinch and the temperature drops in the room. Ice twinkled in his lemon water. Yaritza pressed on. The temperature returned to normal. “Wunderkind farms ghosts, basically. Uses old videogame servers like beehives for dead Vikings. A kind of virtual Valhalla.”
“Derivative,” he snorted. “Not to mention lowbrow. Regardless, it sounds like we have our \ next steps. We’ve got to figure out where Mac Stevens’ heart went and get Malphas to choke up my vision.”
“There’s names in my notebook we should track down as well. Any one of them could blow this wide open,” I noted.
“All in due time,” Yaritza said. “We’ll nail assignments down after Malcolm has his midnight meeting with the bloody crow.”
“Agreed.” Malcolm said. Then, looking at me, “see you tonight.”
* * * * * * *
Malcolm had instructed me to meet him in the sub-basement where the New Pandemonium villa lay. He had arranged the entire floor into an artificial town, complete with plasma screens on the wall and ceiling to simulate an open sky. The whole town was arranged in four blocks with a black dome sitting at the center of the crossroads. Since the Twin Sants offices were themselves situated at the middle of a crossroads that made this dome a crossroads within a crossroads, perfect for communing with devils.
A few Twin Saints employees allowed me inside, a sasquatch with a hand-held metal detector and a human being in a hazmat suit with a strip of paper attached to the forehead. Therein I saw a massive black crow laid out on its side, about eight feet across at its breast. Around it was scrawled the Pentacle of Malphas in what appeared to be a mixture of ash and some kind of fat. Malcolm stood nude by the bird’s massive throat, two live crows tied to chains around his shoulder and a silver blade in each of his hands. Overhead hung another artificial sky, this one showing different constellations from the one right outside the dome.
“Welcome to the astrologenius,” he called. “The stars are right and the sacrifices are ready.”
For a moment I simply scanned the room, taking in the scope of Malcolm’s conjuration scheme. This was what happened when you dove into the occult with full industrial infrastructure and corporate backing. It seemed so involved. And somehow even more sacrilegious. “Is this the only way to summon him? Earlier you said you can do that on command.”
“I can, if we want him and not an avatar of him. We don’t want that. We really, really don’t want that.”
“Gotcha.” I nodded. “Then let’s go.”
I took a seat inside the circle while Malcolm recited a dark prayer in some patois of ancient tongues. The crows chained to his shoulders cawed wretchedly and flapped as hard as they could. Their chains pulled taut as they screamed. Malcolm wound his arms in semi-circles to reel in the struggling birds.
When they were close enough, he slit one crow’s throat with each knife before scraping the blades against each other. Their blood mingled together and he plunged the blades into the top of the giant crow’s breast. He yanked them down with all of his weight, producing a great gash that rained blood over his head.
Once he was painted head-to-toe in blood he took a step back. Something inside was moving. From out of the giant crow’s wound stepped two figures. The first was scrawny, hunched and bald all over. It staggered on long yellow talons and held warped arms to its chest. They were bent and crooked like birds’ wings stripped of feathers. It was only when she looked up and gasped, green eyes framing her ragged mouth, that I recognized Roselia.
We embraced. The crow’s blood was hot and sticky against her skin but I didn’t care. I kissed her cheeks and forehead. She first tried to hold me in her twisted bird-arms before pressing them against her chest and leaning into my shoulder. Phantom arms gripped her tight, as many as I could summon without crushing her. I wanted so badly to have arms with flesh and bone of their own. She shook. Short screeches burst from her throat, but her eyes made no tears.
“Oh sis,” I whispered. “You’re free.”
Her eyes were so much older than I remembered. “I don’t think that’s how it works,” she rasped. Her voice was a dry, tortured sound. An animal choking.
Then, more stirring from inside the fallen beast. Ribs and meat parted as the devil prince Malphas stepped through. He was massively obese, nearly twice the size of me, five hundred pounds of flesh in a coat of bloody back feathers. His beak curled sharply downwards, seemingly too crooked to even open, yet open it did to let loose his terrible voice.
“Beware, girl-ape.” It was the same sound I’d heard before in Malcolm’s office, someone sawing meat at the bottom of the world. “You bargain with sin.”
Roselia tensed even more in my arms. “It’s not worth it, Lucilla.” Malcolm smirked to hear my name. “Nothing is.”
I filched a pack of cigarettes from Malcolm’s coat, folded at the edge of the summoning circle, and brought it to my lips. “ That’s right, corkscrew. Your boy here already signed on the dotted line.” I stared Malphas in the eye. “So you’d better not fucking disappoint me.”
Then, in defiance of all geometry and aesthetics, the blood-drenched crow bent its beak into a smile.
Jereme stepped gingerly around the fallen man-bees. Some of them had died in the frenzy that Brundelzebuub unleashed, others were merely comatose. Mina and I monitored the surveillance hologram in the command room while our uninvited guest winced at the sight of a burst and oozing thorax. “Think he’ll come quietly?” I asked.
“He’s never quiet,” Mina sighed. “We can’t leave him in there unattended.”
If only I had my wand. With it, restraining Jereme safely would be a peace of cake. But now it was locked away where Commander Woodward could keep an eye on it. That left one other option.
I took a deep breath. “Erica?” The Singularium manifested an additional hologram, this one representing the part of its intelligence we could talk to most easily. “That doohickey we replicated from the dead kid’s head-
“The pheremonic radio jammer-”
“Sure. Can that be used to turn the man-bees… back on?”
There was a moment of silence. “Returning the creatures to baseline does not seem to be within our current abilities. However, the device itself is still operational.”
“Can you use it to make them follow my verbal commands?”
“Make it happen,” I said, a bit sickly. I looked around at the man-bees lying in the hallway and cleared my throat. “Get up guys.” They snapped to attention, then immediately froze in place. Each man-bee in earshot stared dead ahead, waiting for direction. Gone was the aimless wandering from before. In its place was perfect obedience. “Follow me.”
At least thirty man-bees surrounded us as we approached t the room where Jereme was kept. We unsealed the door to find him pulling data from the singularium and transferring it onto the hard drives. His body-builder physique was gone and back was his shimmering plasma screen skin. Streams of data trickled across his arms and shoulders, soaking into the disc in his opposite hand.
The comatose man-bees in the room snapped to attention as soon as they smelled their brothers’ pheromones. Jereme’s eyes grew wet and large. He stared at me. “I understand that it might seem a bad time for reasonable explanations,” he began.
“Seize him,” I muttered.
Before the next sentence was even out of his mouth the man-bees had him. “Whoa!” he yelped. They grabbed him by his arms and legs. “I had a ‘but’ coming!” he wheezed. One man-bee, utterly expressionless, pinned him to the wall by his diaphragm.
“You got a storm coming if your explanation ain’t fucking stellar, asshole.” Mina waved her gun at the scene around us. A few man-bees still lay dead on the floor. “Because I don’t see a good excuse for all this.”
“This obviously wasn’t anyone’s plan.” Jereme’s tone was slow and careful, even as he struggled for air. Dead-eyed man-bees stared at his every move. “Brundelzebuub proved to be faster than we realized. Things backfired.”
“Things backfired? You broke in!”
“In fairness, we had a deal which you guys never made good on.” I opened my mouth to reply but Mina put a hand on my shoulder. Jereme continued. “The Posse has no idea what happened here, guys. Schilling’s in a whole snit. You gotta remember, the most important part of a superpowered political revolution is clear communication and mutual-”
We learned they were grenades later of course. At the time we just knew that something was pounding against the hull of the singularium with a sickening rock and a terrible kaboom. We ran back to the command center, Jereme flanked by man-bees.
When we arrived we pulled up a hologram of the outside. There was a young woman decked out in biker leathers perched on a nearby cliff. She had a rifle slung over her shoulder and what appeared to be a sack full of grenades in the other.
“One of yours?” Mina asked.
“Kori. Or Deathoscope if you’re into that. Girl’s certainly got… gumption,” Jereme offered.
“No way that girl comes knocking on our door without a plan,” Mina whispered to me.
I rolled my eyes. “Erica, get me on whatever kind of PA system you guys have got.” Another grenade rocked the hull. “You!” I cried. “Stop… that.”
The girl, Kori, paused, finger hooked inside the pin. “Says who?” she called after a moment.
“Stand down, dude!” Jereme called. “We’re having a parley.” Another pause. Then, “dammit! This is serious!” as a grenade rocked the hull again.
“Itchy finger,” she said. “Let me in.”
After a few minutes we met on the deck. It occurred to me, and thankfully hadn’t occurred yet to Jereme, that the only control we had over the singularium came from being human. As far as we knew the IntElect would do anything it thought would make a human being like it. Which meant we had to keep Jereme and his friend as far from the deck as possible.
“Man-bees,” I bellowed “seize-”
Kori reached into her bag of grenades. “Uh-nuh-no. No. Bad witch.”
“-stand down,” I finished.
She pulled her hand out of the grenade bag. “So. I see you’ve got Jereme contained. Where’s the cute one?” Her eyes scanned the horizon above my shoulder. I hated when people did that.
“Eh, about that.” Jereme slouched visibly in the man-bees’ grip. “Squirt got taken down by Brundelzebuub. That’s why his radio stopped.”
She rattled her bag, grenades clinking inside. Were they just loose in there? This nutcase was going to blow us up by mistake. “Well then where is that bug-eyed piece of demon garbage and how do I teabag his stupid corpse?”
“He’s already dead,” I told her. “The man-bees didn’t leave much behind.”
“Fuck. Right.” She slammed the bag of grenades against her leg. I winced. “So what’s the deal here, then? Feels like I should be, you know, hurting some of you guys.”
“Nobody needs to hurt anybody,” Jereme insisted, “because I think I can explain where we are coming from and that Ms. West and Ms. Flores are two reasonable folks who will listen to, uh, reason.”
“Does ‘listening to reason’ mean letting Schilling turn the singularium and the man-bees into her personal army?” I asked.
“How about you listen to it first and see?” he pleaded.
Mina and I shared a sidelong glance. Part of her wanted to hear him out. After taking a second to scream internally I took a long breath out through my nostrils and said, “we’re happy to listen if your friend puts down her grenades.”
Her eyes scanned the sky again. “How about I keep my grenades but I take a seat in this corner so we can all enjoy a bit of storytime with Jereme?”
Mina nodded just barely. “Could I maybe have my hands free first?” Jereme asked.
Another sidelong glance with Mina. “Nope.”
“Of course not. Silly me. Silly billy Jereme.” He cleared his throat. “Here’s the deal, kids. War is coming. America’s got a humanitarian crisis on every side but Canada’s and nobody knows where they went. Bigley’s a tornado of bad impulses and no amount of ‘executive insulation’ can manage that forever. At some point the Mad King’s word will break through and that word will be ‘war.’”
“Do you rehearse this nonsense?” Kori asked.
“I just have a very active internal monologue.” Jereme’s plasma screen skin flushed turquoise.
“Bigley’s gonna have a much easier time getting a war if people see an army of man-bees and a goddamn robot mothership floating in Schilling’s back yard,” Mina protested. “A singularium like this is so powerful, we’re only safe if we give it to someone who doesn’t want it.”
“Well friends,” Jereme said, in a tone no friend of mine would ever use with me, “you seem to have gone through a lot of trouble getting this thing you don’t want. And the Posse would really love to take it off your hands.”
I shook my head. “You guys would get us all killed if we gave you this thing, assuming Bazooka Joe over here doesn’t accidentally blow us up first.”
Deathoscope smiled. “‘Bazooka Joe,’ huh? Thanks, sister. Maybe now people will stop making fun of my real name.” She slung the bag over her shoulder. Another series of clinks. “You’re both right. War’s gonna happen. And it’ll happen sooner if Schilling gets everything she wants. The question is, do you want to meet the tiger charging or falling?”
“We are not going to help start a war,” I hissed.
She shrugged. “See where that gets ya, then.” And then her face was twisted, screaming. Her arms were a flurry and the bag of grenades was hurtling through the air.
Time slowed down. Kori scrambled. Jereme assumed the fetal position like a crab claw snapping. Mina threw her body full-force, coming between me from the blast. The man-bees stood perfectly still.
Crashing. Kori, across the room, rifle rattling in her still-resolving grip. Mina, into my solar plexus, stout frame shielding most of my organs against the wall. The sack full of grenades, too fast to stop, metal banging against metal.
Every muscle tensed. Time to be blown apart. Mina’s tears streamed into my shirt. The silence was terrible, then beautiful. We weren’t dead. I opened my eyes. Kori leaned forward, grinning wicked as she pressed the rifle’s barrel into my forehead.
“Just casings,” she said. A tremendous pressure. Blue-black fire ate the world and for a moment there was nothing.
When our astral bodies returned from Mountie Hell our regular bodies woke back up. Jake was seated next to the room’s central pillar, gently tickling the chin of a cat muzzle that protruded from its bottom segment. For once he wasn’t wearing his sunglasses but instead a yellow silk eyepatch with our logo emblazoned on it. A thick black cord ran from the eyepatch, across his ear and into his coat-pocket.
He stuffed the patch into his pocket as we came to our senses. “Very nice work, team!” He pointed at Gail and Truman. “You two, loved the Rabbit of Seville routine, very unexpected. Not exactly the most efficient choice but in this career, style sells.”
“Sells? We’re public servants.”
“That’s right Torchbearer,” he punched me on the arm as he said it. Just before the sunglasses went back on I noticed deep bags and pale green eyes. “And your public can be very picky. Can’t ride a tiger without catnip. Speaking of! I have treats.” He waved his hands and then began to jog backwards towards the kitchen, polished black shoes clicking the polished white tile.
When he stopped he ran his fingers along a steel panel in the kitchen until he found a thin groove along its side. With a fierce tug he pulled the panel off, revealing a six by three foot refrigerator hidden in the ceiling. Inside was an array of beers, wines and liquors along with a freezer full of ice.
“Ugh, finally!” Timmy shouted. He grabbed a bottle of Everclear from the freezer, then stalked over to one of the main fridges for a 2-liter of orange cream soda. He popped the lids off of both bottles and tossed them in the trash before retreating to his room.
“That should be illegal,” Truman muttered.
“This totally is,” Jake said. “But you guys did good. It’s gonna be tough work doing everything we ask, I get that. So I, personally, want to reward you guys for your good behavior. It’ll be our little secret.”
Hans grabbed a six-pack of brown bottles for himself. “Breaking the rules is the best part. Other than the hops, of course.” He opened a perspiring brown bottle. As he drank you could see him suddenly become aware of two things. First, that everyone was looking at him. Second, that he didn’t like beer nearly as much as he expected to. He spat discreetly into his sleeve. Not discreetly enough.
Jake took Hans to fetch some napkins while the rest of us recovered from our laughter. Eventually Gail yawned and said, “I think I could use a snifter of brandy after a long day.” She filled her glass with ice before grabbing a big brown bottle. “Care to join?”
Truth be told, I still wasn’t in much of a mood to hang out with Gail yet. I was partially still irritated from our last conversation, partially exhausted with her relentless schtickiness. Was she going strawman or was she just kind of full of herself? So far I’d seen her attempt one honest conversation and she stuck her foot in her mouth right away. Maybe acting like a cartoon was her best bet.
Still, the bottle of brandy dangled in the air. Was I really about to be that girl? Surely I had to cut loose and have fun eventually, right? If only I could cut loose somewhere else.
Truman spoke up before I had to. “This is nice Jake but it’s kinda… redundant, to be honest. I don’t drink. Even if I did, with my power I could just make myself drunk, you know?”
Gail took a long look at the super-suit draped across Aaron’s arm. “…Have I ever told you that you’re my favorite?”
He blushed. “Sh-shit, Dad. I didn’t… Wait! No! Goddamn it, Gail.”
“Come on!” she whined. “You could just make your brandy non-alcoholic, then Jesus wouldn’t care!”
I slipped out of the kitchen while they continued to argue. There was no way I was getting drunk with any of these people tonight. Drinking alone didn’t sound too hot either. Timmy was hidden away somewhere handling a near-century of stress the 1940s way. That may have been well and good for him- the kid was immortal anyway. His liver was made of dreams, jingoism and shame. Mine was fragile. Flesh.
Jake managed to intercept me as I walked back to my room. His jacket was gone, his shirt sleeves rolled up and his glasses misty with club soda. “Leaving the party so soon? We just got the ale out of Kaplan’s jumpsuit.” He grinned. “The trenchcoat, sadly, couldn’t be saved.”
“A tragedy.” I smiled. ”But it’s been a long day. I’m more of a sleeper than a partier.”
He nodded curtly. “Suit yourself, I suppose. Just remember, you want to know your partners inside and out. We expect great things from you. And I mean you, Torchbearer.”
He kept calling me that. Insisting on it. I cleared my throat. “That’s good to know, sir.”
“Please, call me Jake.” With that he was back down the hallway. A trail of club soda footprints followed him.
* * * * * * *
The next few days were spent in rest and basic training. Jake, Dr. Misenhelter and Major Sedgwick had outlined some exercises that we could run through based on the research they had done on our powers. They promised they had some more exciting exercises mapped out for our future but in the near term we needed to go over the basics.
For me this meant memorizing what levels of force I’d need for certain tasks as well as what levels of force to avoid. Even then, it was more art than science. They’d quietly shelved the problem of getting useful information out of the Torch just yet. I tried not to feel like the failure was all mine.
Truman, meanwhile, was busy studying pharmaceutical textbooks and dosing labrats. While he’d already mastered a few simple drugs like caffeine, alcohol and so forth he hadn’t focused much on the medical side of his power. While an on-demand pharmacy was a far cry from a proper medic it was a hell of a lot better than nothing.
The others barely showed up in the training rooms at all. Hans continued to tinker with his machines and continued to farm ghosts, of course, but he’d also spend long hours completely unsupervised. Gail and Timmy, meanwhile, sounded like they were receiving something more like therapy than proper training.
It made sense. Timmy had nearly a century of practice using his powers and a century of trauma to go with it. Meanwhile, Gail’s powers were too abstract to properly measure or quantify. Maybe they worked best if she spent some time every week unpacking her own issues with her folks. Maybe the therapists were just making sure she didn’t go insane.
For that matter, I probably could have used a little therapy myself. I’d been used to being the loner for a while. Ever since joining the Academy I’d adapted to living without my folks, living on the outskirts of the crowd. Now, though, I was supposed to be an adult. We all were. So why weren’t things any different?
Before long I started to have stress dreams. They always took place in this cold maze with wet chains in the corners. A deep sound like a giant stomach growling came from deep within. I knew I needed to find my way to safety but it was too dark to see my way, and the Torch just wouldn’t light.
One night, my dream was broken by an alarm. Had we been trained to know an alarm? Maybe a fire. I rolled out of bed. Jake’s voice cut into the alarm over the intercom. “YOUTHFRONT! We have an emergency. Suit up and gather at the hangar.”
That sounded real. Half awake, I pulled on my jumpsuit and helmet. The sound of a growling stomach still lingered in my ears.
“We’ve got a surprise situation,” Jake announced once we were all assembled. “You’re needed at Proteus Bay.”
“At this hour?” Dad asked incredulously. “I’ll be up all night worried sick about myself.”
Aaron groaned. I couldn’t blame him. Jake ignored the commentary. “We’ve got four terrorists coming in from New Pandemonium and we don’t know what they’re up to. Nobody can make it faster than you and border patrol can’t handle four supers.”
“How do we know they’re terrorists if we don’t know what they’re up to?” I asked as Hans typed into the keypad on the garage. The door slid open, revealing what looked like three giant robot birds with skulls for faces. Each was in a flying formation, massive engines hanging beneath outstretched wings.
“Is that a serious question?” Jake snapped. “They’re making illegal passage from a quarantine zone into one of the most populated cities on earth.” He pointed at the robots as he climbed into a command station on the right side of the room. “Grab a valkyrie and go. Save your questions for the air.”
My cheeks burned as we approached the valkyries. Everyone knew the quarantine was bullshit, I wanted to say. They basically admitted as much when it was announced. But we were in a hurry and Jake had more intel than we did. This was the time to be a soldier, right? Not some know-it-all girl with too many questions.
“Dang, Hans, did you program these?” Aaron asked as he climbed on.
“Oh please. The software doesn’t need to be any more complex than an old Nintendo,” he scoffed. “It’s the robotics you should be impressed by. And the fucking magic, of course.” He pat one of them on its massive wing. “These Vikings died centuries before the Other-Force arrived. Their geists are echoes of echoes hiding in echoes. It would have been easier to bind trilobyte souls from a tank of gas.” He paused. “Hey, somebody write that down. I should try that.”
“No time,” Jake insisted. “Quit the necrobabble and tell them how to ride.”
Hans sighed. “Just hop on and stay in contact.” In his hands he held a helmet built from some large animal’s skull. It had headphones on the sides and over the eye sockets rested a pair of those old phones that looked like little TVs. Red and green cables ran along a spine that arched from the helmet’s rear before disappearing into the back of a black leather E-Z Boy. “I’ll handle the rest from here.”
Once he was seated he activated the Valkyries. Their bodies had a smooth chrome polish and secure black seats behind the neck. Leather straps buckled us in at the waist and shoulders. Twin machine guns were mounted right at our feet. Their engines roared to life beneath us, absolutely massive compared to the tiny rockets of Timmy’s jetpack. We were off, Gail and Aaron on either side of me while Timmy flew ahead on his rocket boots.
“Alright kids, here’s what you need to know.” Jake was back to his usual practiced chipperness. I felt bad for not trusting him, for making him angry. He… wasn’t our friend exactly but he tried to do his job right. Besides, Hans gave him enough grief as it was. Did I really want to be like him? “Our bogeymen passed through the Quarantine Grid about five minutes ago. I’ve got some idea where they’ll be but you’ll have to look sharp in case they’ve adjusted their speed. We want as many of them taken in alive as possible.”
That last line was supposed to be reassuring but it knotted my guts right up. This was for real. This was a battle. I’d assumed there’d be more warning than this but what more could I have really expected? Pick up a weapon, join an army. Join an army, join a war. I put myself here. Now I had to make the best of it.
As many as possible.
I expected riding the valkyries to be a bit like flying a car but they didn’t move the way cars did. It was more like riding an enormous bat that was almost well-trained. Hans could direct their flight reasonably well from the control room but the viking ghosts inside bucked and meandered as they followed his instructions.
Despite that, we were on the scene in minutes. I’d have given anything for a longer flight, more time to weigh the job ahead. But there was no excuse for stalling when our nation’s safety cwas on the line. What was the value of keeping my hands clean if they let danger slip through? It was my duty to protect normal people living normal lives. The folks on the boat knew what they were getting into. They put themselves here.
That said… where was the boat? Our valkyries adjusted their jets to hover in mid-air as Hans and Jake scanned the perimeter. Timmy pointed ahead with one hand and began to draw his laser cannon. “It should be right-”
A sudden fall. A horrible sound. My helmet muffled most outside noise and I could still feel the scream rippling through my guts. The others were even less lucky. Dad and Truman both collapsed on their valkyries while some terrible force tried to drag Timmy into the water.
The night air melted and a yacht floated before us. There were people on board and a monster in the air. A woman screamed on deck while the little man next to her held out his hands. His skin was shiny like a pearl and he wore a dapper black suit. His eyes glowed silver as he stared at Timmy.
Just as my valkyrie turned to face the screaming woman a pain exploded in my shoulder. The flying monster. There was a rifle in its hands and the barrel was smoking. Blood ran down my arm. It smeared against the valkyrie as I braced myself for death.