(1.0) Alex

My eyes were bloodshot the night I met the man from Heaven. The sun had set and I was submitting my last set of story revisions before dinner. One of my reporters had been covering illegal campaign contributions to the mayor. Looking back, it’s baffling to think about what used to be important. I was so wrapped up nitpicking little words about little men doing little things that I barely noticed when the gravity changed.

First, everything became incrementally lighter. My pen scraped dry on the page as the ink trickled to a stand-still. Scratching it to see if it would work sent my now-weightless arm smashing into the wall next to me. Stars filled my eyes as I heard the soft tap of feet landing atop our staircase.

Ink splattered onto my fingers. My bangs fell over my eyes. The building groaned with the sudden return of its stolen weight, gravity now even stronger than before. Even through my hair I could see the warm glow of Space Brother’s aura. Paperclips and stray staples drifted off of the table to melt and disappear into his skin. This was in the days before he’d learned to control his infection so well, when he was more like an open doorway to the raw power of the Other-Force.

I didn’t have those words for it then, of course. I hardly had any words at all. The first that went through my mind after he entered were his. “Evening, Miss Alley. My name’s Ted.” I had to repeat them in my head eight or nine times before they sank in as language at all, before my brain registered them as anything other than music. There’s a man under all this, I thought distantly. Or maybe just on top.

Life has shown me some crazy things since that day. There’ve been magic hobos whistling up mountain ranges and flying cities made of robots. History itself has been rewritten at least two or three times by my count and there could be plenty more I haven’t noticed. Fear and death are distant memories, things I remember with about as much urgency as I remember homework and missing phone calls. They’re problems for a smaller time, the walls of a smaller self.

But God, if you could give me the chance to shed the baggage and see the Space Brother like I did that first day, unvarnished and whole and pure, that light would grip me with the same primal power it did back in 1999. As I interviewed him, he described this power that had entered our reality and how it chose him to be its champion. He called it the Other-Force, claiming it knew everything about us and wanted to guide us to greatness.

It sounds hokey. It sounded hokey then. But it was hard to figure out where to draw the line while the fella was standing right there in my office, skin magnetizing every scrap of metal in the room and melting it into the plasma that streamed off him. So I did what any good reporter would do and I listened. I asked questions. I fed him every angle I could, frayed every thread of conversation until he’d unraveled his whole life in front of me.

He claimed to have been a pretty simple guy and after a few hours of conversation I was inclined to believe him. Normally I wouldn’t have been very impressed. He was old-fashioned for one thing, and not always in a charming way. He raised a burning eyebrow at the tattoo on my ankle like he was my old man, even though I was pretty sure I actually had a couple of years on him. He was also kind of a putz. Lived in a small town, never went to college, ran a comic book shop that struggled to stay open. Turned out he’d only come to see me because he picked up a newspaper and mine was the first name he saw. Seemed like the type to flip straight to the funny pages.

Ted had a hell of a story to tell, though. And something about the Other-Force demanded your attention, like the gravity he controlled was just the physical part of some deeper pull he could exert. When he started to seem bored or run out of ideas for what to say next I did everything possible to keep the conversation going. I strung probably an extra three hours out of him just asking him his plans, helping him figure out who else to tell about his powers, what angle of attack he wanted to take on his PR campaign.

At one point when he tried to go home, I physically intervened to stop him. It didn’t even occur to me it might be dangerous. I’d seen his skin vaporize just about every coin and thumbtack in the room but none of that was as pressing as stopping him right there. When I realized what I’d done I was terrified to think of how badly it could have turned out. Fortunately, his chest didn’t burn or atomize me or anything like that. It just pulsated warm against my skin as he chuckled and moved my hand.

I must have made an impression because he kept me on as his spokesperson after that. I was the one who came up with the name ‘Space Brother,’ though Ted didn’t like it at first. In time we became something more. I started to advise him on more than just P.R. Ted was too innocent to become so important all of a sudden, see. He needed someone with a hard nose by his side.

I’m not sure I ever fell in love with him, not properly. But I did get to see the kind of person he was. Regardless of his hick attitudes or the godly power infecting his body, he really was just a regular guy. He had fears and he had hopes. He wanted, deep in his core, to see everything turn out alright for people, even if he had some dumb ideas about what that looked like.

In fact, Ted Truitt might’ve been the last ‘regular guy’ I ever cared about. Before long it became clear that the Other-Force was infectious. It wouldn’t make you a glowing God quite the way it did for him, but it could still turn you into something weird. Something dangerous. Juno’s been looking through other folks’ eyes for so long she’s lost all sense of distance. Meanwhile silly Tyaun has to experience every moment one eternity at a time.

I don’t really feel bad for them, though. I can’t. I haven’t felt bad in about two decades. The Other-Force let me fix all that nonsense. Maybe it sent Ted to me because it knew I would need him. It knew this stupid world and my stupid body would become too weak to persist. Maybe I just lucked out and Ted could have just as easily found some other name in the paper, ended up saving some other life instead.

See, with all the personal time I spent with Space Brother I was bound to get an infection of my own in time. It took over fifteen years. Fifteen years of scheduling his labs and press conferences. Fifteen years of guiding him through the messy process of showing mankind a god walked among them. Fifteen years watching him gain greater finesse. Fifteen years watching him forget the boundaries he once lived by.

It happened the night he pulled me into his dream. Maybe the waking part of him didn’t have the courage to face his feelings so his dreaming mind had to reach out. Maybe the Other-Force was just playing matchmaker. Regardless, I know it was him dreaming of me and not the other way around because I’d been awake when it happened, chewing out a colleague in the newsroom. They said I collapsed mid-sentence, some goofy smile spreading across my face while I slept.

It was a beautiful night we spent together. I appeared in what looked like a farmhouse, what I’d learn later was based on a real house in Eudora. The air was kind there. He was kind. Even I felt kinder than usual.

We didn’t talk about it afterwards. I tried once, but he insisted the whole thing was improper. Unreal. He started by begging me to forget it and after a few minutes it sounded like he’d actually convinced himself it was a lie. That didn’t drive me crazy, though. Guys blow ladies off all the time and not even Ted was so kind that I’d have expected much different. It hurt, sure, but the worst storms always come from inside.

Maybe the infection helped drive me to the breaking point. It was too much power to have all at once. With Ted’s infection living inside me, I gained the power to carve words into things. Granted, I could always carve words into things, but now I could make those words true. I could carve ‘fast’ into a car to make it go faster. I could carve ‘tall’ on a sapling and it would grow. I even tried the HOMEFRONT gig for a while, stopping riots and super criminals with Ted, Petra, Tyaun and the others.

They needed my hard nose there, too, or so I told myself. They needed somebody who wouldn’t hold back all the time.

Even then, though, I knew fear. When my power first manifested it terrified me. It somehow seemed more dangerous to have complete control over my life than none at all. Surely chaos had to have some kind of deeper intelligence, something more reliable than my own stupid brain.

Idiot thoughts from the mind of a coward. As soon as chaos snarled even a little I had forgotten my higher-minded anxieties. Six months after I got my powers I was attacked by that monster, Milkboy Alpha, and nearly died in the rain. Six months and one day after I got them, I carved the word ‘immortal’ into my arm.

Maybe I could have looked death in the eye if I were just afraid for myself. But fear was still my enemy and it’s skilled at diverting your attention. There was something else I was afraid of losing when Milkboy Alpha slashed into my chest with his bone spurs. She was still three months away from being born and I couldn’t deprive her the world.

Ted never acknowledged my growing belly or the child that followed. Even the hospital nearly turned me away, reasoning there was little point prioritizing a woman who couldn’t die over the ones in real danger. That was one of the first times I began to perceive the wall that was growing between myself and normal people. Not when they turned me away… but when I swore to carve ‘infanticidal’ on the wall of the building.

Maybe it was extreme. No more extreme than the fist of loathing that pressed down on my head. No more extreme than the gut-deep urge I felt to hold the baby’s face against my distended stomach and seal off its nose and mouth until it stopped moving. The hospital tried to feed me pills and explanations. They suggested it was a kind of mutant postpartum depression, the traumas of childbirth enhanced by the nature of my daughter’s infection.

She’d be like me, they promised. Like her father.

A mother can’t afford to think what I thought then. I knew my terror and revulsion weren’t normal or real but that didn’t justify letting my daughter suffer them. I needed peace and objectivity. I had terrible decisions to consider and was too miserable to think straight. So I took another blow to my humanity. I stretched out my legs and I carved the words “happy” and “fearless” into my skin.

My thinking became much clearer, then. I found a purity I’d never experienced since that night I first saw the Space Brother. Ted made sure to let me know he was concerned about my behavior, disappointed, even. The last time I ever saw him, he said he’d pray for me.

I wondered then, and I wonder now, what on earth could a man like that pray to?

It was too late for the two of us at that point, anyway. I was still drawn to something inside him, still wanted his approval in a distant way, or at least wanted a feeling of ownership over him. But perfect contentment blunts every other feeling. It’s hard to feel longing or regret when everything is fine as-is.

On New Years Eve 2019, nearly 5 years after I got my powers, Truitt was murdered.

It was impossible, of course. Everything about Ted always had been. Even if he was kind of a jerk sometimes he’d shown enormous restraint as a God living on earth. In fact, discipline might have been his most superhuman quality and it seems clear nowadays that all of that was down to Ted, the man. When the dust from the New Years Eve attack had settled, Ted and our friend Mac Stevens were both dead. Worse, Mac and Ted had been guarding that purple ogre, Bigley. Somehow in the attack, Ted’s powers had been stripped from his body and transferred to the president.

Few of the little people wanted Bigley to be their leader, let alone their hero. In the months that followed you could hear the other members of HOMEFRONT talking about the scandal. Tyaun suggested we should disband, even pool our powers together to contain him before it was too late. Others disagreed, insisting it would be too dangerous, too political.

Intervening seemed like it would be more work than fun so I was glad when the others talked Tyaun down. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so blase. Even if I couldn’t make myself care about things, I could tell that Bigley was different. He barely had the discipline to take control of his mouth let alone the fundamental forces of reality. Leaving the powers of Space Brother in his hands was worse than leaving them with a child. A child doesn’t have an old man’s insecurities or resentments. A child can only barely hate.

That’s hindsight for you, though. At that time the idea that the human president could really matter to us was entirely foreign, like caring which queen got to command a hive full of ants. We never knew he’d go so far as to throw his enemies into The Error Zone… and it’s only within the power-dampening space of The Error Zone that I can even begin to care.

There’s no way of knowing how long I’ve been here. Time in the Error Zone spirals backwards, forwards and through neighboring timelines. It’s like you’re line-dancing through time instead of walking, moving constantly but never getting anywhere. Worse yet, your parts don’t age in the same direction. One hemisphere of your brain might start sliding back and ‘leftwards’ in time while the other goes forwards and ‘right.’

When the lobes of my brain are all on the same timeline and I can scrape a few thoughts together, I manage a few hopes for our daughter. I hope she keeps her wits about her, whatever the world may look like now. I hope she keeps her feet firm on the ground. I hope that she’s ready for a time when nothing is normal. I hope that she isn’t afraid.

Next: (1.1) Roxanne

Want to skip to our next guest narrator? Read (2.0) Roshan

(1.1) Roxanne

Summer was fast approaching the academy and the jig was finally up. We were supposed to meet in Director Popper’s office at 1600 hours. We’d found out from Sergeant Glass after she’d finished dissecting Kaplan’s embarrassing attempt at the obstacle course. Nobody said it directly but everyone knew where this was headed. At least one of us would be getting super powers.

Whispers had been thriving ever since that infection crisis in Topeka. Nasty stuff. An Other-natural terrorist calling itself Decoherence Strategy struck the whole city with a mass fugue state. A couple of suits, looked like a mix of RADFRONT and HOMEFRONT guys from their armbands, stopped by to talk to Popper the week after. Our coterie, the top five students in the academy, had been under scrutiny ever since.

In the two hours since we got news of our meeting, word spread to the entire school. Curious eyes crawled down my back as I made my way through the halls to Popper’s office. Everyone was assembled: Aaron Truman, Hans Kaplan, Elizer Kim and Heidi Tovar. Popper was nowhere to be seen.

“Do you think this is about my proposal?” Elizer asked.

“I don’t think the Director cares about your camping trip,” Heidi replied.

“I dunno, I bet Poppa bear likes to spend some time in the great outdoors.”

“Criminy, Truman, don’t ever let the man hear you call him that.” Kaplan snickered into his hands. “He’ll have you evaluated.”

“Evaluated for what?” the director asked from the doorway. Then, “at ease,” as we snapped to attention. He was tall, trim and bald with a Sigmund Freud beard over the spotty wattle of his neck.

He pulled a cigarette with the Twin Saints logo from his case and took a long draw before addressing us again. “You kids have been given a rare privilege.” His tone was carefully neutral, his eyes searching us for a response. “A new artifact has been approved to bond with an academy graduate. One of you academy graduates. Gamma class, righteous strain.”

“Hooooooly shit.”

“Cadet Kim!”

“Sorry, Director! But, you know- I mean, it’s a big deal!” Elizer was right. The whole purpose of the academy was to prepare us for the Supreme Service. For most students this meant taking on one of the support roles at the Twin Saints or in one of the FRONTs. Sometimes though the government would find new Other-natural artifacts or procedures that it wanted to deploy. When that happened, the academy was where they found recruits. And if you got powers, that was it. You were the guy your classmates were on the support team for.

What’s more, this was righteous strain. The righteous strain of the infection came from Space Brother himself. It wouldn’t make you lose your mind and become a strawman as easily as the sinister strain would. And if it was gamma class… Well, Fat Man and Little Boy were only epsilon class and they were literal nukes.

Of course, none of that made talking back to the director a smart thing to do.

“That’s latrine duty and an 8 pm curfew til graduation, cadet. Any more color commentary?”

Elizer melted in his seat. “Sir, no sir.”

“Correct. As I was saying. This is a big deal for everyone at the academy. We trust you not to muck it up, past transgressions aside.” He gave a hard look to Elizer and then, strangely, to me. “The artifact’s picky. It requires a two-stage competitive trial to bond with a new host. Convene at the end of the month at the Ouroboros in Area 51, 600 hours.”

I did the math in my head. That was less than a week. “What kind of trial do you mean?”

“Can’t say. But be clear: you will be competing against your coterie mates. It’s every man for himself for here on out. Understood?”

“Sir, yes sir,” we replied in unison. Truman and Elizer stared straight ahead. Hans looked down at his lap and smiled. Heidi was scoping out the rest of us, which I only knew because I was doing the same.

“Dismissed.”

We gathered afterwards in the academy cafe, all of us save for Heidi, who had run off from the meeting with barely a word. Elizer picked gloomily at his croissant.

“Man, the year is basically over. If I was in regular school I’d just be chilling with movie days and waiting for summer.”

“Get your head in the game, soldier.” I gave him a pat on the back. “One of us might just end up in HOMEFRONT by June. You could meet P!ss Frog.”

“Nooooo! What if he didn’t appreciate my sweet street style? I could never.”

“Maybe you could ask him for some fashion tips,” Aaron offered.

“Never, ever. The hubris!

“Well, maybe you’d get a sweet uniform, like Midas,” I said. “Plus, you know, the whole protecting your country thing.”

“Christ Roxie, do you really believe that garbage?” Kaplan being Kaplan, again.

Roxanne.” Hans was the conversational equivalent of drinking a glass of live leeches: draining, slimy, and destined to go bad places.

“Whatever. Kim here’s got a tattoo gun with his name on it down at the Twin Saints office.” The Twin Saints Corporation used magical tattoos for their so-called ‘chronic’ employees. They weren’t proper employees. They didn’t do any labor. It was more like a social program for poor folks. Chronics would magically absorb the toxins smoked by Twin Saints customers. While the customers got a nice nicotine hit, the chronics got lung damage. Not the kind of job you’d sign up for if you had much to offer. “Frankly, I didn’t even know they made Asians as dumb as him.”

I sat up straight. “That’s inappropriate, cadet. Maybe we should get a sergeant.”

“Rock, don’t-” Elizer began, but Hans barely seemed to notice.

“You think those Good Ol’ Boys care?”

“I don’t know about the boys, but Sergeant Glass hasn’t been your biggest fan lately. What was your time on the horizontal bars again?”

Elizer chuckled. Truman made… some kind of noise, a bit like a whining dog. Hans just waved a hand. “A nobody like her? I’m terrified.”

“And I’m sure that ‘nobody’ can make sure that your egregious-”

“Uhhh, guys?” Truman shook off a bit of his usual bovine haze. “Maybe we should cool it.”

“That was barely anything,” Kaplan hissed. “Besides, I’m RADFRONT track. The shit I’m working on? You got no idea. Basically a shoe-in. Running, climbing… The meat is obsolete.” He kept mumbling from there, but he’d long stopped looking at me. I don’t think I was the one he was trying to convince. I packed my things and walked off.

Truman was just a few steps behind me. “I thought you were better than that.”

I turned around. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me. You know how sensitive Kaplan is about his… course time.”

“Doesn’t seem Kaplan much minds what people are sensitive about.”

Truman shrugged. “You know that Kim doesn’t care and that Kaplan doesn’t mean it.”

“No, I don’t know that.” I scanned his eyes, brown and pleading. Did he really believe what he was saying? Or did he just want to? Give him the benefit of the doubt, I scolded myself. It was stupid to be picking fights, stupid to just jump into these things without thinking. I rubbed my eyes. “Look, Aaron, I get it. You don’t like seeing folks fight. But you have to know that Kaplan’s the problem here.

He shrugged. “Nobody’s perfect, right? We all got into the academy, so none of us can be worthless. Wouldn’t it make more sense to look for the good in each other?”

He was waiting. He wanted an actual answer. I looked back at Kaplan, fuming at the table, and fought down a wave of disgust. “What’s to say I haven’t looked?”

“Well, a nice girl like you ought to be able to find something.”

About four different responses came to mind then, none of them productive. ‘Nice’ isn’t a word people use for me, not even Dad. It’s strange, and by strange I mean infuriating, how some folks will try to control your behavior by treating you like you’ve already done what they wanted.

Maybe for Aaron that made sense. The boy definitely knew how to follow an order. Unless that order was, ‘leave me alone.’ Instead I just shook my head. “I guess not everyone can see good everywhere quite the same way you can.”

He smiled. “Hey, thanks!” I fought the urge to correct him.


Dad was elated when I told him the news at the gym. The place was old and lived-in but not run-down. Gino was training a new customer over by the punching bag. “Does this mean we can get back into sparring?” dad asked.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re competing to be a superhero, right? You’ve seen TV. Those guys duke it out all the time.”

I shrugged. “I mean, sometimes. HOMEFRONT definitely does. But I could end up in ARMFRONT, probably even RADFRONT considering my grades. There’s a lot more than just fighting.”

“You’re not gonna tell me that fighting’s not a part of it, though. Lemme see if I can still keep you on your toes.” He saw me hesitate. His voice softened. “Hey, the doc said I’m good to go in the ring, at least for a bit. Just make sure you don’t aim for the head. You can finish up with Gino when I’m too pooped.”

He wasn’t going to let this go without a fight. Literally. “Alright, alright,” I relented. “Grab your gloves, hotshot.”

We geared up and minutes later we were at it in the ring. Dad was more sluggish than I remembered but still quick for over three-hundred pounds and seven feet of Samoan geezer. His reach was positively wicked. Statuesque as I am, he still had over six inches on me, and it made a difference. I took two fierce blows before I was able to sneak a few punches in and dart away. He lumbered after me but I surprised him with a blow to the thigh and he lost his balance. He went down, lightly rapping his forehead against the floor.

“Dad! Are you okay?” I knelt down to help him up.

“I’m fine,” he grunted. Long iron-grey hair clung red and sticky to his forehead. “Keep hitting like that and you’ll prove yourself to them in no time.”

“I’m not worried about proving myself to them.” I thought about the cold look Popper gave me during our meeting. “What matters is proving myself to the artifact.” I helped him back up. He swayed a bit on his feet.

“Attagirl.” He tapped his gloves together, or tried to. His face was red, his breath a wheeze. He brushed back his hair, revealing a navy-colored bruise under the trickle of blood. “Aight slugger, one more round. Let the old man redeem himself.”

“…I think it’s been enough training for one night.”

“C’mon, you’re not even gonna give me a rematch?” He tapped his gloves together, sniffed his nose. Blood trickled along his eyebrow.

“Nope.” I began to pull off my gloves.

He punched me on the shoulder. “Whassamatter, you chicken?”

I snorted. “Okay, now you’re acting childish.”

“Buh-bawwwwwk buh-bawk baww-”

“Dad!” He stopped clucking. “I’m sorry you lost. I know it’s weird. But we both know it’s done.” For a moment he grinned like he was going to make a joke, but then he got that far away look in his eyes that he gets when he doesn’t want to show that he’s feeling something. I put my hand on his cheek. “Let’s save your next heart attack for when I bring my first girlfriend home, yeah?”

That got him laughing, finally. “You really know how to knock a man down,” and then, “let’s pick up a couple of those rotisserie chickens from the corner store,” as if that settled the matter.

We finished the evening with rotisserie chickens and a couple of cokes. Dad insisted on watching that old movie Steel on the classic film network. ‘Classic’ seemed like a stretch, but it was fun. Dad sank deep into his chair, coke perched on his belly, laughing into the neck as we talked. He asked questions about the test, about how I thought I’d do against my classmates.

That night, trying to sleep, I stared at my poster of Muhammad Ali. He sat in full color, muscles relaxed. His face was kind but his eyes were not at peace. The night drifted away. Each hand was protected by a bright red glove.

Next: Read chapter (1.2) Faye West

Not interested in the other narrators? Roxanne’s story continues here with chapter 2.1!

(1.2) Faye West

 

The way mom would tell it, back before everything, before the Big Rock Candy Mountain and the Sugar Plum Fairies, there was Space Brother. And before Space Brother, things were boring.

“Things are boring now,” I’d reply. That’s when she’d do the loop-de-loop. That, of course, never got boring. It usually got nauseous. On the worst days mom would shift some of the sugar crystals apart so I could blow chunks into the stratosphere where I guess they drift frozen to this day.

Everything leaves its footprint, or barfprint, in my case. Mom was more of a girl scout than most. She left the world her candy crook, a cluttered San Diego apartment, and a neurotic mess of a child. Two out of three’s better than most. Years back, when I finally thought I was ready to pick up her crook, Commander Woodward told me there might not even be a Free Coast if it hadn’t been for mom.

Of course, there really wouldn’t be a Free Coast if Stewpot Joe had never whistled the Big Rock Candy Mountain up from the ground and sky, cutting us off from the rest of the continent. It was an insane thing to do but easy to understand. Stewpot Joe conjured the mountain right when Bigley was first elected. People were scared. One time over coffee, Mina suggested he could only do it because the whole country was out of its mind. Something about Joe’s abilities being powered by the ‘national spirit of whimsy.’ I couldn’t really talk about any of that, though- I was just in kindergarten when it all happened.

People call Stewpot Joe a hero, yet here we were cleaning up his mess years later. See, it turns out you can’t leave a mountain range of candy out in the sun without having its surface melt and sublimate. Since the Big Rock Candy Mountain’s magic keeps it at a certain size, that means it’s constantly growing back lost mass.

Mina once calculated that the mountain sloughs and regenerates forty thousand tons of sugar per day. Most of that settles somewhere on the mountain itself but every day several hundred tons escape into the atmosphere where the winds can carry them worldwide.

Captain Woodward called in over the radio. “What’s your status, team Foxtrot?”

Woodward was one of the founders of the Sugar Plum Fairy Corps. He and mom were the first people to find the lemonade spring, to hear the song of the Rhubarb-Willow. They made these candy crooks to corral and contain the mountain’s dust, keeping the caloric influx from completely warping the environment. Those of us bound to a candy crook could hear the sugar singing in our surroundings and control it with our minds. It was a full-time job, poorly paid, and the only life I’d ever known.

“Closing in on a cloud over Long Island,” Mina radioed back. “We should be starting the next stage of our route by lunch-time.”

“Make sure you don’t head back to drop-off until you’ve cleared Florida. POTUS says it’s getting sticky down at the resort. Said he’d consider the extra attention a personal favor.”

“Did you tell him we consider him personally repugnant?” Mina asked.

“Don’t get cute, Flores. Save the politics for your downtime.” Downtime, that was a laugh. The captain’s voice was strained. It wasn’t hard to see why. When Stewpot Joe summoned the Big Rock Candy Mountain, he cut the west coast off from the rest of the nation. It was like an overnight secession with a magically-enforced border. The difference, of course, was that nobody actually got to vote on it. On the one hand, this made plenty of folks rightly pissed. On the other hand… Well, it meant we got to live outside of Bigley’s reach without personally giving him casus belli.

Still, it was a tense situation. As one of the few groups with free reign to traverse the Mountain, the Fairy Corps invited heaps of suspicion. Woodward didn’t want us setting anything off.

Mina tapped the console. We were closing in. I grabbed the radio. “We’re getting close to touch-down, captain. This is West, signing off.”

I slid off my glove and gripped the candy crook. Our ship’s sugar body became my own. With the crook’s power I could perceive the position and speed of each individual granule of sugar as clearly as I could perceive my own hands.

Some Long Island suburb reflected against the ship’s sugar-glass underbelly, glittering with crystal fog. Houses and trees were sticky with it. Bees, ants and butterflies swarmed in Biblical numbers. Early morning joggers stopped to hack and cough, the phlegm in their throats saturated with fructose and its cousins. Left unattended, a fog like this could soon become a minor ecological crisis.

We touched down in the playground outside of a school, collapsing the ship into a solid pillar of sugar next to our cockpit and navigation rigging. At the far end of the playground the school doors burst open. A man stormed out- brown suit, red hair, grey eyes. The principal. Guillermina brushed off her jumpsuit and slicked back her hair, putting on her best smile. “What seems to be the problem, sir?” she asked. I tuned both of them out, gripped my crook, and got to work.

The sugar crystals sang, my crook triangulating the source of every tiny voice. With just a little focus each individual crystal came under my control as surely as the parts of my own body. I wasn’t limited to perceiving and controlling the sugar sticking in the fog and floating in the air. Theoretically I could use my powers on the sugars buried inside candy, food, even organisms.

“-so you see, sir, a humid climate like this one is particularly prone to picking up the mountain’s run-off.” The principal stared at Mina, vaguely comprehending.

Grains of sugar rose gently from the ground and converged onto the pillar of sugar that had made up our ship. Bugs and small animals fluttered wildly at the confused,  impossible winds. The school’s windows were filled with children pressing their faces against the glass. A white breeze wound around the pillar.

For a good hour I stood that way, carefully pulling the sugars together. It wasn’t that I couldn’t move faster, but with so many folks around I had to pull carefully. Wouldn’t want to cut someone or send them into glycemic shock.

Whatever Mina had said, the principal shook her hand and thanked us. Other onlookers were less impressed. Bits of hair, dirt, phlegm and so forth were sealed into the pillar’s structure as the sugar stuck stronger than gravity. The whole thing was a faint grey color, speckled with random grit and hundreds of doomed pests.

I willed the pillar of sugar back into the shape of an airship of sugar-glass, albeit dirty sugar-glass. Mina spent a few minutes saying goodbye to the principal while I checked our itinerary inside. There was a small thud and a flurry of mumbled apologies right before Mina climbed aboard. When she did, there was a sheet of paper in her hand. “What’s that?” I asked.

“How are we doing for time today?” she asked, eyes scanning the page.

“Uh, well, we’re technically ahead of schedule…

“Perfect. I need to see a friend.” She folded the paper and stuffed it into her pocket. “It’s actually kind of urgent.”

“Oh, right! Sure thing.” I took our craft into the air. “Where are you meeting him?”

“We’re both meeting him. Head to the Rutgers campus in Newark. You’ll need to stash the ship somewhere discreet.”

“Discreet? Are we hiding something?” Mina put her hand over her mouth. “Oh. Fun. Okay. Out with it. You know I’m good for whatever it is so you ought to just tell me now.”

She nodded slowly. “I know you’ll help… But you won’t like it.”

“Dude…”

“Okay. I have a friend, name of Jereme. He’s… from the olden days, back in New York.”

I shook my head. Mina had always been cagey with the details, but I knew she’d had an interesting life before we knew each other. Black bandannas and fist-fights with neo-nazis interesting. It must have been the Posse Communitatus.  

“Uh-huh…” I replied.

It wasn’t that I didn’t agree with the Posse. Bigley was terrifying and fighting Fascist goons sounded great in the abstract… but it never seemed like something I should be doing. After all, if you’ve never thrown a punch in your life you don’t want your first go to be against a fully-strapped officer of the ‘law.’

“Anyway, he… needs us for something. I don’t know what, but I met someone who works with him. It sounds like it might be important.”

Time to take a deep breath through the nostrils. “Mina, I would go to a hell for you, even the one that ate that film student in Atlanta. But what on earth makes you look at me and think, ‘Faye’s the kinda gal who likes to get mixed up with federally registered terrorist groups?’”

“They’re not terrorists, Faye!”

Registered terrorist group. As in, it doesn’t matter what we think. It matters what the cops and the guns and the scary dudes with whacked out superpowers think. And what they think is that your friend is a terrorist, and we’re going to seem a lot like terrorists if we get caught hanging out with him.”

“He’s not actively wanted, or anything. At least, not for any kind of violent felony. He just… knows some people.”

“Yeah, like a hornet knows a nest.”

“Nobody’s said anything about whacking a hornet’s nest. But I owe this guy big. I need to at least hear him out, see if there’s anything we can do to help.”

“We can help him move or something. We can take him to Disney Land. I’ll deliver all the pizzas we can carry. But I’m not getting the Corps tangled up with enemies of the state.”

“Faye. I can’t leave Jereme hanging, not without hearing him out first. If you’re not going to come with me, can you at least drop me off?” Aw, damn. Mina was a dangerous combination of open-hearted, bull-headed, and genuinely sweet enough that I couldn’t leave her behind. “Faye?” she asked after a long while.

“Fine.” I began to push the ship towards Newark. “It’s fine. But if we get a lethal injection at the end of all this I am going to be so peeved.”


We ended up stashing the bulk of our sugar-load in the sewer, just a quarter mile from the train station. After a short walk Mina paid for the train and the bus, until we finally landed at Rutgers.

The campus itself was sealed, of course. A gauzy white bubble wrapped over it, so you could only see faint outlines of the activity inside. The Ivory Guardian stood at the gate, just as he stood at the gate of every college across the country. Looked a bit like an elephant-man with too many eyes, trunks, tusks. Nobody knew what he was but chances were the Regime would have ruined the University system by now without him. Not that I’d ever have enough time to go to school with this job.

Before we could walk past, the Guardian scooted his bulk down, such that the point of one of his tusk-fangs rose to about mid-chest level. One of his trunks faced us, a human mouth  where nostrils should be. “There is a small test for entry. One drop each should be sufficient.”

We pricked our fingers one at a time, letting the blood roll down the curve of the Guardian’s tusk before the color evaporated out of it, leaving a milky white that dried on the tusk’s surface. Mina rubbed her finger. “What’s this for?”

“It’s so I know who belongs.”

“Belongs?” she asked, but the Guardian had already turned his attention away.

Inside the bubble was… a campus. You couldn’t even see the Guardian or the bubble itself from the inside, despite having just walked through it. The students, most of them younger than me, milled about as if they hadn’t just passed by a ton of translocated pseudo-Ganesha.

The shit people can get used to.

By the time we got to the library, the silence was already feeling a little uncomfortable between Mina and me. Like one second we’d been in this shared sort of awe, and the next we were already bored and boring. I decided to get down to business. “So what should I know about your friend?”

“Uh, what do you mean?” she asked.

“Is he a… I mean, do we have a special motive for taking this so seriously?”

She snorted. “Smooth, West. ‘Special motive,’ real romantic. But no. He’s… not my type. I just owe him. Big.”

“So I don’t get to play wingman today?”

“I thought I was your wingman?”

“Mmmm, for that to be the case you’d actually need your own craft.”

“Ouch!” Mina laughed as we found the stairs to the library’s bottom stacks. A voice called to our attention as soon as we reached the bottom level.

“Ms Flores, what a delight!” The voice was male, with a firm sarcastic edge, one of those that made everything sound like a joke, though not by being funny. The guy it belonged to was thin, balding and pale, round glasses repaired in a few places with a thin black wire. His skin had a pastel sheen to it, a bit like someone had taken a magnet to an old TV screen. He was almost completely covered, save for his face.

“Jereme, good to see you again.” Mina went in for a hug but Jereme rolled under her.

He wheeled back a few feet in his chair to get some distance, pulling off one of his gloves. Then he pinched a bit of skin on the back of his hand, pulling tight so that a dollop of the prismatic effect wobbled between his fingers. “No can do, honey. I’m infected nowadays.”

“What, you can’t control your powers?” she asked incredulously.

He shrugged. “Restraint was never my strong suit. I mean, even if I could turn ‘em off… are you really sure I would?”

Mina laughed nervously. “Fair point I guess. I gotta say, Jerry… It’s kind of crazy, you finding me like this after all these years.”

Jereme shrugged. “I keep my ear to the ground. People tell me things, and I know when to listen. I heard tell there was a small recon job in the works, and figured it was time to put a few lines out for the flying folk I know. Now, it turning out that you’d be the only fish to come biting… That might just be fate.”

I snorted. He snapped his attention towards me. The sneer melted off his face as he gazed at the crook sticking out of my backpack. “I take it you’re bound to that thing?” he asked.

“Darn tootin.” Technically, I wasn’t infected with the Other-Force, but the crook was. So long as I was bound to it I couldn’t be infected myself, a bit like a condom for the soul. 

Jereme shook my hand. It tingled. Images of fingers and eyes- my fingers and eyes!- rippled across his skin in a rush of binary code. I was careful not to flinch, keeping my focus on him as he spoke. “So if you’re the actual Fairy, what does Ms Flores over here do?”

“Mina is my partner and my co-pilot,” I replied. “She’s also the only reason we’re even listening to you right now, so you might want to speak carefully.”

Jereme smiled and pulled his glove back on. “Mea culpa.” He motioned for us to sit and slid a photo onto the table. I felt Mina tense up next to me as she looked down. “This here’s Brundelzebuub. Half man, half fly, half devil.” Judging by the photo, three seemed like the right number of halves. “He works for a friend of ours. Recently went a little feral on us, and we need help drawing him out.” He glanced at me from the corner of his eye. “I’ve got a meeting with a Vinegar Plum Fairy in an hour, but something tells me you guys are a better bet.”

Mina laughed. I didn’t. “So he’s a bugman?”

“Technically he’s one of Dr. Bugman’s monsters. The good doctor gets very testy when people mix that up. I’m hazy on the details, but he was trying to work out that experiment from The Fly when something went wrong.”

“Isn’t the whole point of The Fly that something goes wrong?”

“Something went wronger, and the test subject ended up interfacing with an Other-petal, real nasty place full of flies and fire. Needless to say, guy’s a loose cannon.”

“Why not just have the other… Dr. Bugman’s monsters get him?”

Jereme rubbed his hands. “That’s part of the trouble. He’s got them all held hostage, right in here.”

He produced another photo with a flourish, one that looked like it may have been taken on a cell phone back in the day. It showed a floating island, one carpeted with mechanical carcasses, communication towers and esoteric generators. Humanoid figures crawled all over it, impossibly beautiful even at the distance shown in the shot.

Heat rose in my stomach. Anyone past kindergarten would feel the same. A singularium. For a brief time, thousands of them filled the sky, serving as charging stations, databases and fortresses for the IntElect.

You could still find leftovers from the IntElect incursion if you looked hard enough. In the end, their goal had been to get humanity to like them… by any means necessary. News reports would show up now and then of folks finding old IntElect ambassador-drones in prostitution rings and heroin dens. Nobody had heard of any singularia surviving, though. They had all self-destructed after HOMEFRONT scared the fuckers away. The crazy one, Witchblade, carved the word ‘Disliked’ into their most central server.

Who knew what technologies could still be hiding up there? The forty-day reign of the IntElect had been overwhelming, drones displaying new upgrades on an hourly basis. One remaining singularium could contain decades’ worth of technological breakthroughs… If it ended up in the right hands.

“I don’t know where this is going but it is twelve-hundred percent above our pay grade.” I pushed my seat back from the table. “We might as well just ask Bigley to throw the Corps into the Error Zone.”

Mina shrugged her massive shoulders. “Sorry, bud. We’ll be sure not to tell anyone we met you here. Our lips are sealed.” She gave me a warning glance and I nodded slightly.

Jereme’s smile remained. “So, here’s the thing: I wasn’t born yesterday, yeah? And I know that about the only thing more important than your precious neutrality is keeping outsiders off that mountain of yours.”

The little twerp paused, knowing he had us. I caved. “Where are you going with this?”

“Right now, the singularium’s not far at all from the Free Coast. According to the last transmission we could get from Dr. Bugman’s tracking-implants, Brundelzebuub is very near to reactivating the singularium’s flight systems. And as soon as he does, he’s headed directly to your sugar bowl.”

Read Next: (1.3) Agent Litework

Can’t wait to see what’s next with Faye? Read: (2.2) Faye West

(1.3) Litework

It was late night in St. Petersburg and I had borrowed the legs of a former ballerina. My pants billowed a bit around their ghostly silhouettes but the woman ahead neither saw nor heard. I wondered distantly how the original owner’s legs had died. They were so graceful, so quiet. What a tragedy it must have been. That was something that had distracted me ever since I got this power, standing under a hail of roses and silver on New Years Eve. I could summon any phantom limb on earth to do my bidding. They all came from somewhere.

This was no time for distraction. The woman up ahead wore a long trenchcoat draped by her wiry black mane. Intel hadn’t disclosed her legal name but her working alias was Provoloka. She was a mid-tier super-criminal, loaning her services out to VICEFRONT’s latest target abroad. Some human traffickers decided to fly a little close to the sun and start kidnapping people with Other-natural infections. Now they’d slipped up. Provoloka was tough but she was a newbie. A newbie who didn’t watch her back.

Aa car backed up behind me as we rounded a corner and Provoloka looked backwards in my direction. I manifested a third leg Northeast of her and gave a trashcan three sharp kicks. A family of cats yowled. She jumped, hastened her pace, and in a matter of minutes we were at her building.

The scene was dingy. Mutant dogs howled from behind a razor-wire fence at the black brick building’s rear. She disappeared past them and they followed briefly, mouths bubbling with some kind of purple gunk. There was the creak of a wooden door followed by a sharp snap. The dogs yowled and retreated to their original spot.

I assessed the situation. As it was, I could subdue the dogs safely from my position but not without hurting them. Critters like this really needed specialized care and attention, someone to help manage what looked like a nasty Other-natural infection of the face. Fat chance of them getting that, but I wasn’t going to throw a couple of concussions on top of it. Looking both ways before approaching, I snuck up to the door and manifested a hand on the other side, letting myself in.

The building reeked of drugs, dogs and unkempt humanity. Lights were off throughout. Looking towards the kitchen, I rummaged through the meat drawer of the fridge. Ground… something. It would do. At the top of the stairs I spied a bathroom. With a dozen or so phantom hands I nabbed every bottle in the medicine cabinet, discarding each of them until I found a bottle of sleeping pills. Jackpot.

The dogs eyed each other restlessly, the purple gunk on their chops dribbling into the flowers and making them wilt. I rolled the sleeping pills into two wads of ground meat, making sure to include enough to knock them out without making them too sick. Phantom hands carried the drugged meatballs out the front door and into the backyard where two hungry dogs jumped to attention.

Gobble, gobble. It took a few minutes but the dogs began to drowse, their fractured eyes sealed over in a puffy grey film. I radioed a cautionary signal to my support team as the dogs drifted to sleep: entering danger, extract if no signal in 15 minutes. The agent on the other end of the line sent the return signal and I crept into the back yard.

There was a cellar door, black and wooden. It creaked sharply when I opened it but the mutant dogs slept steadily, breath heavy with drugs and flesh.

At the bottom of the stairs was a cavernous basement, thick with mildew and furnished with concrete. Some kid was shivering in the corner, bony frame wound tight with a long black wire. Their eyes were huge. 

Something slashed my mid-section. The old woman with the long black hair pounced on my chest, prehensile black wires snapping from her hair and fingertips.

<<Stupid cow!>> she snarled in a voice like chewing glass. My side throbbed. The protective sigils tattooed on my skin kept it from being a mortal wound but something was probably bruised. Hopefully nothing I needed in the next few minutes. She wound a single black wire into a screw-shape and slowly brought it towards my eye, cackling.

Take a deep breath. Timing is everything. The wire was millimeters from my eye. I sucker-punched it out of the way, prepared to strike again before she could react.

About one percent of the planet lives with limb-loss nowadays, the total number up several million since feuding super-beings became a part of daily life. As it happens, a surprising chunk of that comes from absolute badasses, the kinds of folks who actually put their limbs on the line. Firefighters, daredevils, icefighters, etc. So when it came time to put Provoloka down for real, I had little trouble. I summoned eight of the beefiest arms in my library, their donors a mix of athletes, models and bona fide warriors. Invisible fists wrapped around her wrists, her ankles, her hair.

She stopped cackling. That demon screech in her voice withered away and all that was left was the thin whine of an old woman. <<W-wait, no->> she was confused. I pulled, just a little. She screamed. <<Fat whore>> she screamed. I pulled again.

<<You’re not in the position you wish you were, Provoloka.>> She lashed at me then, black wire tentacles snapping the air as they unspooled. Predictable, but still more forceful than I’d expected. While my phantom limbs were able to wrangle the wire back, they were caught in a wrestling match.

I swung my feet onto the floor and approached her. Her breathing was harsh and her face red with strain. It was taking all she had just to hold my powers back. I steadied myself on prosthetic legs, slightly out of balance with my powers tied up, and prepared to head-butt her. One quick smack to get it over with.

<<I’m sorry,>> she wheezed, and with a shudder her wire tentacles went limp. My phantom limbs were briefly thrown into disarray, dragging her by the wire as they adjusted. She let out a small cry as her body banged against the floor.<<I’ll tell you everything I know. I’ll…>> she looked down at her hands, withered but wound tight with black wire.<<I’ll let you take one of my arms, for your… collection.> She shuddered. <<Let me live.>>

<<If you really want to live, hold that arm straight out and make no false moves.>> She winced and did as commanded. Relief colored her face as the needle of the tranq slid in. I hit the signal for the cleanup crew with one hand while four more hands made sure she was cuffed and bagged. It wouldn’t stop her if she woke up and decided to lash out, but it’d help to slow her down.

The kid was still shivering in the corner. No obvious signs of infection but most of us were invisible, unlike Provoloka and her dogs. The cleanup crew would have to handle the kid’s bindings. Instead, I just whispered, “Shhhh, we’ll have you out of here soon,” first in English, then Russian.

It’d be no good to let the cleanup crew see me. The fewer folks who were able to ID me the better off I was. Instead, I left one hand on Provoloka’s shoulder while I went to the building across the street, tracking her for movement that way until the cleanup crew finished making their way in.

Sure I wasn’t followed, I made my way to the safehouse in Pushkin. Crystal veins of medusaflesh ran through several of the buildings on my route, occasionally branching into whole rooms and structures. Big cities always suffered more super damage than anywhere else.

As I passed through the neighborhoods of St. Petersburg I could see the last several years charted in different colors of medusaflesh, different super-crises corresponding to successive generations of the medusawyrms. In my last assignment I’d known a man who worked in reconstruction. His company had a small clutch of medusawyrms to help speed up their work, strange mineral resins brewing in their guts, but it was never enough. He once complained, “the kids are breaking the toys faster than I can put them back in the box.” That was back in Edinburgh. Of course, the situation there was nothing compared to the situation back home.

The safehouse was an unassuming little place with a blood-stained cauldron in the kitchen. I grabbed a bag of dried moths and a rat from the hutch on my way in while two of my other hands grabbed the athame and Yaritza Magnan’s homunculus from the next room. Homunculi were the most secure form of communication these days, if you knew an alchemist with the chops. “Shhhhhh,” I whispered as the rat panicked at hands it could neither see nor smell. Yaritza’s homunculus sat cross-legged in the cauldron. I slashed the rat’s throat, sprinkling the moth bodies over its surface.

Blood simmered at the bottom of the cauldron as I cranked the heat on the burner. I poured a drink while it bubbled, blood vapor washing over the homunculus. It whistled. It didn’t have to do that, but Assistant Director Magnan had a strange sense of humor.

“Agent Litework,” she called. Her body was back in America but through our homunculi we could have a regular chat. I’m not sure if it was due to the construction of the cauldron or the homunculus, but despite her size her reverberating voice sounded like the regular thing. “Impeccable timing. You’ve seen the news?”

“I am the news. Provoloka is down as of one hour ago, and willing to talk so long as I don’t tear her limb from limb. And she even said I could have one of those. We can have the whole ring taken down by year’s close.”

“That’s great news Litework, but someone else is going to have to seal the deal. You’re needed stateside.”

“I’m sorry, I think something’s wrong with this homunculus. I’m going to have to smash it.”

“Don’t get cute. You’re dangerously out of the loop.”

“Local library’s quarantined after their PC got haunted again. Some local kid uploaded an Other-natural virus onto it and the damn machine grew legs. Dog legs. Hasn’t been caught since.”

“Look- if you really haven’t heard anything, then I need to run a test. What do you know about P!ss Frog?”

“The Frog Who 💛s Piss? He’s that creepy little toad-goblin that always appears at riots and stuff. Makes people’s bladders explode.”

Yaritza’s homunculus nodded slowly. “So… would you say he’s a ‘troubled bad boy’ or ‘the frog-prince of the st8boi vanguard?”

“I don’t know. Am I having a stroke?”

“No, but apparently everyone else is. At the end of April there was a Decoherence Strategy attack in Topeka. HOMEFRONT quarantined the city… And P!ss Frog saved the day. Every news article talks like he’s been a member of HOMEFRONT for years. There’s no mention of terrorist activity, white supremacist ties, any of it. In fact, they think he’s sexy as hell.”

It was time for a cigarette. And a massage. And maybe a bazooka. I set three of my arms to the first and second as I slumped onto a stool. “So there’s some kind of media cover up pushing for people to love P!ss Frog?”

“It’s deeper than that. Sophie… I was taken in by it until Crowe was able to disenchant me. This is rewriting folks’ actual memories.”

“Why wouldn’t my memories be rewritten? Is it because I’m too far away?”

“Maybe… But you’re not the only one. Another member of HOMEFRONT, Red Snow, he apparently tried to take the Frog down during the Topeka attack. Sounds like he didn’t understand why everyone was treating him differently. And Crowe said his memories have been in tact from the start.”

“There it is again. Crowe. Tell me you don’t mean Malcolm Crowe.”

“There’s a lot going on in VICEFRONT right now, Sophie.”

“But Malcolm Crowe? He’s a jerk. Hell, he’s a literal devil.” Malcolm Crowe, aka Blood Crow, aka Malphas, had to be one of the most wicked men on the planet. He’d invented the Twin Saints cigarette, designed to let smokers off-load their cancer and emphysema to his employees. He’d streamlined the process of demon summoning, helping countless people make terrible decisions faster than ever. All of that would be trivia, if he hadn’t also taken= my sister’s soul.

“The Malphas entity hasn’t appeared on earth in years, Litework. And there are bigger fish to fry. We can tell you more once you’re back in America.”

“So that’s it? I abandon taking down human traffickers on some vague promise it’ll be worth it?”

“No. You’ll surrender your assignment to a qualified replacement, because you have been ordered to do so by your commanding superior. Is that much clear?”

Dammit. Yaritza was friendly but she didn’t back down. “It’s clear, Flutterby. “

“Report to the Twin Saints headquarters in Cincinnati at 4 pm America time tomorrow,” she said. I turned the heat down beneath the cauldron. She sank back into a cross legged position as the pool of blood began to cool. “And remember Litework: unless you hear otherwise from me personally? Everyone you talk to is suspect.”

Read Next: (2.0) Roshan

Want to skip to the next part of Agent Litework’s story? Read this next: (2.3) Agent Litework

(2.0) Roshan

(cw: police brutality, magical suffering)

Coffee soaked into the McDonalds napkin and I was transfixed. The drugsight came into focus. Caffeine molecules clung to the golden arches like barnacles on a great ship, gold slowly turning to brown as the paper firmament disintegrated. I practiced the big trick once more, willing the caffeine molecules to first multiply, then transform to alcohol, then morphine, before winking out of existence completely. I sneezed and wiped my nose with the damp napkin before tossing it out the window. It turned to pulp in the rain.

To be honest, my powers scared me. Ever since I got that sting, I could see the drugs floating inside people. Folks walking down the streets are thick with chemical information: medications, hormones, narcotics. A whole vocabulary had opened up in my brain and the world screamed it everywhere I went. My own thoughts were a trap. If I wanted coffee, caffeine molecules would start growing in my blood. What if I accidentally thought someone looked like they could use a drink? Hell, what if someone ended up infected because of me?

My hand certainly didn’t help. My best guess was that the oily black pus that inflated it made some kind of chemical brain, memorizing all of the different substances that showed up in my drugsight. That part worried me the most. My hand looked downright grotesque, and power suppression didn’t affect the deformities your infection had already inflicted.

It was hard coming in. Sure, an infection is dangerous, but I grew up on superhero stories. Who wouldn’t want to be the big special guy, helping people with abilities only they have? Even I knew it didn’t work like that, though. Maybe it used to for a little while, back when Spacebrother first showed up, before Bigley made everything so political.

The sound of rain disappeared as I rolled into SubTropolis. When I was a kid they used to have a sort of science park down here that we’d go to on field trips. They’d ‘grade’ our class on how much waste our packed lunches generated. That was years back, though. It was all Twin Saints auxiliary offices now.

Diana would never have let me sign up for suppression if she’d known about it. Other-natural infections are like gold in the Posse. It was already treachery not letting her know that Purrgle had an infection of its own. Too bad for her. I wasn’t about to wind up a pawn in some punk’s rebel fantasy. If that meant acting like her new pet had ‘merely’ maimed and disfigured my hand, so be it.

Besides, who ever read a story about a superhero with drug powers? What would I even call myself? Doctor DARE? The Booze Hound? Captain Crack-Baby? I’m sure the comics code authority would love that. Maybe someone could do something good with powers like mine but it wasn’t gonna be me.

My heart rattled as a cop waved my car into the lot. I briefly, stupidly, wondered if I had any drugs in my car before remembering that I was basically a walking possession charge. Still, they can’t just arrest you for what you are, right? Oh yeah, Shan, the cops would never. Idiot.

Of course a cozy operation like Twin Saints would have police backing. Chances were there were two or three secret police for each uniformed cop on-hand. Just don’t give them any pretext. Stay calm.

Careful to keep my mutant hand tucked in my jacket, I crawled out of the car. It was awkward going but I figured the sight of the thing would only draw unwanted attention. This plan felt very cunning for all of the twenty seconds it took the cop to notice the nervous Iranian kid with his hand tucked in his coat.

“Sir?”

I began to walk faster.

“Hey, freeze!”

I did. Not because it was the smart thing to do, not because I could feel the gun pointing at my back, but as a genuine panic response. Maybe I had some opossum DNA. Maybe God needed me alive for something worse. Measured footsteps closed in behind me. “Hand out where I can see it, kid.”

My hand stung as it grazed the zipper of my coat. The gauze was thick and sticky with black pus. I couldn’t stare at it for too long. With my new sight, the mess of chemicals looked like a Bosch painting made of glowworms. I focused on the pavement instead. Even here I could catch traces of molecules with the drugsight, scattered patches of pharmaceutical run-off tracked in from the rain. The cop slowly circled into my peripheral vision.

“You infected?” he asked. I nodded. I told him about my powers: the stew growing in my hand, the chemicals I could see and name for the first time in my life, the way I could turn a cup of coffee into a cup of heroin. I told him I didn’t want any trouble. I wanted to be a good citizen.

I was a man. I did not cry.

He listened, face hard, before barking at me to keep my eyes on the ground and my hands behind my head. He radioed for backup and soon six cops joined him to escort me down a white hallway.

They took me into a room with no furniture and instructed me to sit on the floor. A TV panel glowed on one wall while a giant mirror hung opposite next to the door. One of them wrapped a tight plastic collar around my neck.

Once they filed out, I was alone with my churning guts. You’re just here for a simple procedure. They’ll want to help you stay out of trouble. I racked my brains for anything they might have on file for me, any ill considered books I might have checked out, purchases I might have made. Nothing came to mind. I had nothing to hide. Could Diana or one of her friends be traced to me? God, would they try and make me rat?

The screen blinked on. A middle-aged white woman with large glasses and a short perm gazed down at me. “Name?”

“Roshan Shirazi.”

“The officer described to me the nature of your infection. Pharmognosis and transmutation. Mister…. Sir, to better assess your condition it’s critical that you are honest, and that you listen carefully. Do you understand?”

I nodded.

“Think of your transmutative power specifically. Can you recall a point in time where you’ve used it on any living animal or human?”

“Just myself,” I admitted. “That was how I first found out. I uh, felt like I really needed a drink, you see.”

She didn’t laugh. “Does anyone else know you’re here today?” I shook my head. “And what is your place of work?”

I coughed, and indicated the tattoo over my sternum. “Twin Saints, chronic.” I’d had to sign up a couple of years back when my loans kicked in. Turned out that one year of college was the worst amount of college. 

Her eyes narrowed. “I’m afraid you’ll have to get that removed first, unless you consent to a waiver..”

“What? Why?”

“Twin Saints’ chronic employment and power suppression programs work with the same tech. Interfacing two of the Other-petals at once is unpredictable. Depending on which petal your infection is attuned to, there could be complications.”

“Geeze. How much does it cost?”

She told me.

“Holy shit!” Then, after a moment. “How frequently do people die of these complications?”

“Well, there’s not really good data on it yet. But I haven’t seen it happen since I started here.”

My hand pulsated. “Fine. I’ll do the waiver.”

She nodded and clicked a button off-screen. “Now, how did you come to acquire this infection? Do you know the strain and symptoms of your vector?”

I looked down at my raw, gigantic hand. My own stupid fault. Diana said, don’t touch the damn shoggoth. She said even if it was playing at being a cat it would never have the mind of a cat inside. It happened so quickly. One minute my hand was hovering above its back like I was about to pet it, the next I was tangled in a black forest of wet, pumping stingers.

The truth would probably get us all tossed in the Error Zone. Shoggoths only came from the Posse. Diana shouldn’t have been hanging out with terrorists and rioters, but Diana was good. She cared about things. She didn’t deserve to end up in a federal prison, not because of my worthless ass.

Time to say something stupid instead. “I was visiting Topeka last Tuesday. I got caught in that mass fugue attack.”

That got her attention. The surge in adrenaline was as sharp to my eyes as if she’d been sitting right in front of me. “Sir, our people were on the ground after that attack. We’ve already discovered three personality subverting sinister-strain infections. How did you escape the quarantine?” She slowly slipped one of her hands off-screen. Was she rummaging for something? I knew ‘sinister-strain’ was bad news. That meant my powers came from New Pandemonium, which was a goddamn nest of spacemen and Draculas. Everybody knew that sinister strains were more likely to make you go all strawman.

“I uh, dunno. I woke up from the fugue outside of city limits. I don’t really know how I got there.”

“Sir, I need you to be honest with me.” Her adrenaline continued to spike. She was pissed. I probed at the collar around my throat. Could it be some kind of lie detector? “How did you escape the HOMEFRONT quarantine?”

“I’m sorry, I lied!” Don’t be a snitch. “I was stung by a monster. One of those shoggoth-things the Posse uses.”

A pause. She took a hard look at something just off-camera. Then, “Go on.”

Of course. She wasn’t going to let me just skip how I wound up bumping uglies with a terrorist weapon. “It… One of them was robbing a liquor store near my house. He stung my hand to make a point.”

She sighed. “Sir. Do you not understand the gravity of our work? The mercy we provide? We are trying to manage a public health crisis of unknowable proportions. We are putting ourselves at great risk to offer you treatment. Surely you understand that we insist on your cooperation.”

“No, no, no.” She was agitated. Paranoid. I could calm her down, right? I imagined alcohol molecules assembling in her blood. “It’s the t-t-truth. See, the guy had it disguised as a cat, and I went to pet it and-”

“The lies, sir, are… uh…” She slouched in her chair, face flush. “What are you doing?” she slurred. “Shit.” She lurched back up and fumbled off-camera until the viewscreen shut off. As she blinked out, five of the cops stormed in, now armed with rune-inscribed riot shields.

“On the ground!” one of them screamed. Oh, no. I triggered a massive dose of heroin in the first one through the door. He dropped to his knees in an instant but I took a baton to the jaw before I could try a second one.

My teeth were a clusterfuck ringing in my skull. I staggered back. I took another blow to the temple. I was down.

Three cops went to town on me while the other checked on his colleague. Tasers bit my skin and boots smashed into my kidneys while the stray cop shouted, “call medic!”

Over the roar of my own pain I could hear the cop I juiced seizing violently on the floor. “Motherfucker!” another cop yelled. He jabbed the tranq right in my neck.

Black bag over the head. Angry muttering. The words “Carnation Room.” Pain swimming in a fang-lined loop from torso to brain. The sedative. I could hear it swimming inside me- Benzodiazepine. A beautiful name I’d have never learned otherwise. Disintegrate, I begged. Break down into particles and sublimate to somewhere else.

They planted me in a chair. My mind swimming back. The drugs were out of my system, but that only made the pain and panic worse. “Carnation like the flower?” I managed to ask. Stupid. They laughed. One of them snatched the bag off my head.

Oh dear God.

I saw this video once, back during the Internet. It showed this dish you can get in Japan, a name I can’t remember now. They’d cut a fish apart real carefully, laying its flesh out in raw petals without letting it die. It was like someone had done that to the three folks hanging before me, then attached thin silver zippers at the edges of each cut.

“Tranq him again,” a new voice rang out. It was scratchy, like it was coming over an intercom. The cop who first stopped me in the parking lot was rolling out a table outfitted with three obsidian blades and a nest of silver zippers. I tried to conjure some benzodiazepine into his bloodstream. He faltered. Electricity pierced my side and I lost my grip of the cop’s blood. Another one loaded the tranquilizer gun.

“Please don’t,” was all I had left in me.

Some of the cops cursed. Others just laughed. “You can get away with two out of three: Aggressive, powerful, disloyal.” The cop with the taser growled. “You’ve already attacked three of our people. Three strikes.”

The cop with the tranquilizer took aim at me again. “Don’t worry.” He smiled. “This isn’t technically an execution.”

I stared up at the hanging skins, searching for some sign or reassurance. My neck stung. Their eyes bulged, their mouths quivered, and I fell asleep to the tinkling of zippers.

Read Next: (2.1) Roxanne

Want to skip to our next guest narrator? Read (3.0) Ambassador Ratman

(2.1) Roxanne

The day of the trial we arrived at the Ouroboros, sunlight shining from its infinite windows. Supreme Service agents led us through the site. It was a sort of knot in reality, looking a bit like a luxury shopping center designed by MC Escher. The streets branched and helixed into more dimensions than were supposed to exist, miles of territory shifting suddenly into view as you followed the streets’ non-euclidian curves. Nobody knew where it ended. If it ended.

Concern crossed Truman’s face. “Where’s Kaplan?”

“Who cares?” Elizer asked. “Do you really want to see that guy on HOMEFRONT?”

I shuddered. “Let me put it this way: if I have to lose, I’m glad it will be to one of you.”

Heidi gave me a thumbs up. “Good attitude, Rock. And you know what? If I have to beat somebody for this opportunity, I’m glad it could be all of you guys.”

Popper whistled for our attention. In his hand was a charred human femur. “The task ahead is meant to test your wits, your guts, and your thick heads. The artifact site is a half hour’s walk from this location if you take the most efficient route possible. Good luck on that front.” We chuckled.

As Popper continued, the agents began to distribute tiny pieces of paper bearing complex magical sigils. “These tabs of paper contain a microdose of lysergic acid diethalymide as well as a fully charged seal of Saturn. You will perceive emanant Other-natural entities as you travel. Tread carefully.”

Even before the effects of the drug started to come on the environment was overwhelming. Not thirty feet from where the Sergeant was standing, a street lined with a dozen consecutive tanning parlors intersected the ground at a 60-degree angle. Another street stretched upside down directly above us, a pack of coyotes raiding one of its boutique German butcher shops.

“Until the artifact is acquired you’ll be on your own. Per the rules of the ritual you’re allowed one clue: the ritual site is located somewhere that people go to forget.”

The clue was obvious and therefore maddening. ‘Clearly’ we were supposed to be thinking along the lines of drinking. Would this be a needle in a haystack situation, with too many bars and liquor stores to go through? Did the clue mean something else? Or were their expectations of us simply so low that I was about to screw myself by overthinking it?

Like I said, maddening.

“I’ll be waiting at the ritual site with the artifact. As soon as the first of you arrives for the Final Rite I’ll radio a signal to the base crew. They’ll activate a system of yellow flares at strategic points throughout the area. When our second and final participant has arrived, they’ll unleash the red flare to signal that the rest of you may turn back.”

“At least they won’t leave us to get lost out here,” Aaron whispered. There was something so phony in his voice. Smug, even. I pushed it out of my head. I needed to be more fair to the kid. He may have been phony, but he was an honest phony, right? The kind that’s too thick-headed to realize they’re disingenuous.

Well, so much for being fair to the kid.

“Uh-huh,” was all I said.

“Your packs each contain some basic supplies, a few stopwatches, and our best attempt at a map.” He gave us a few minutes to confirm the contents of our bags before continuing. “Mark your trails, cadets. If you get lost in there we’re not fishing you out.”

And with that he snapped the charred femur in his hands and an enormous sigh blew through the air. We poured out. Nine separate streets branched away within sight from our starting place, most of those verging sharply or gradually into the sky, each with other streets spiraling out from them. Within minutes I could see some of my classmates racing overhead, trying to rule out different possible paths as quickly as possible.

I set a stopwatch and strategized as I jogged. I saw some of my classmates diving into the turns, doubling back, hunting actively to find the ‘right’ route first. The acid was doing none of us any favors. Already, Elizer kept picking up his chalk, looking at it, then forgetting what he was doing.

No use minding them. My first task was to get the lay of the land and figure out the scale of the project ahead of me. We were looking for a target roughly a mile and a half from the starting location- a mile and a half on-foot, at least, disregarding any pesky issues of up and down. In my last marathon I managed a steady pace of a mile every eight minutes. I ran until the stopwatch hit the 12-minute mark, counting the number of branch-points along the way.

On my first sweep through, I passed through four patches that could be called intersections. The number of streets branching from each one varied but they all had at least five branch-points and one had as many as ten. Which meant if I took the wrong road all the way to the end the first time- something I had an 80% chance of doing- and ruled out every path as efficiently as possible, and ran into only a minimal number of branching paths, it would still take me over two and a half days to figure out I’d been in a dead-end, assuming I ran day and night at marathon speed. No good.

Turning back from my first run-through, I gazed at the storefronts for answers. The clue they’d given us was worthless. This was one of the highest stakes trials of my life and here I was trying to get into my teachers’ heads. It was like a bunch of army guys got together and asked themselves, how can we really make these stuff-shirted, egg-headed, neurotic cadets sweat in the worst possible way?

Duh, Rock. Of course that was what they had done. What did I know about the men running the academy, really? It was no secret Popper was disappointed in the lot of us. He complained constantly that you couldn’t teach what the Service really needed- that we were sheltered Frankensteins stitched together with red tape.

And then the impossible. A yellow flare launched out from a cannon nearby. Its light filled everything, yellow seeping into my vision even after I looked away. Panic settled in. We’d been released less than half an hour ago. Someone had managed to run almost directly to the ritual site. Could it be an inside job? Blind luck? Or had the real route been completely obvious, and I was too nervous to see it?

My head started to pound. The ground was wobbling beneath- no, wobbling with my feet. I would slam my foot down and it felt like the ground would fall away beneath it, only to rise up and strike my other knee. Breathing wasn’t getting hard so much as foreign. And it brought the smell of brimstone. Eyes started growing on the street.

Now, I’m not going to front with you: the people that know me would tell you that I’m a square. I don’t even like to drink coffee if it’s an option to just get a good night’s sleep instead. But I could tell you without a moment’s hesitation that more than just the acid was starting to kick in. Those sigils they had us ingest were doing something heinous, summoning hateful eyes and whispers into the air. Stupid, I heard. Fumbling and stupid and weak.

Stupid was right. Stupid head games. I staggered to my feet. My knee was screaming, no, singing? A loverly pack of half-way people were giggling and clinking mimosas at a nearby cafe. I tried to stagger past but their table followed me, the way the moon follows you while you drive. It was like their little scene fit in wherever I looked, their faces made of bloody paper and marmalade spilling from their mouths.

“It’s all a tangle, isn’t it dear?” asked a man, no, a demon, his paper face shaped like an origami stork, his polo shirt filled with swollen muscles.

“What’s a girl to do, all scared and without any clues?” asked another demon, a paper bulldog with gloved human hands and a top hat. “Who’s to say they didn’t make a special little hell just for you, luv?”

My chest was tight. Some demon spell? An effect of the acid? Maybe it was just my own panic. I grabbed the baton from my bag. “Ggrrrrah!” I screamed. The baton was fully extended with a single swing. The demons skittered back with my approach but I was able to grab the stork-man by the beak. It crumpled in my hand, leaving a rusty residue.

“Cut the hellraiser act.” The demon stork yanked back against my hand, something rustling out of the crushed tip of his beak. “You!” I began to fold his mouth back into place. “I don’t know if you’re inside of me, or outside of me, or what, but you can say something useful or you can bother someone else.”

The demon hissed. “You passed a RadioShack on your first run past here.”

RadioShack? The sergeant had said something. “He will send a radio signal.” Of course. The faculty wouldn’t design a challenge around a riddle. They’d design it around a trick. They wanted a soldier, not a student. Popper was at the site and Popper said he’d send a radio signal, which meant there was a transmitter at the ritual site that I could track down. That must have been how the first person had done it, someone who’d been paying attention right out the gate. Someone who was fast.

No time to wonder who. The demons followed me as I rampaged into the RadioShack, their chairs and tables gliding on origami wings. Once inside, free from the looping geometry of The Ourobouros, I could almost pretend I was inside a normal store. I just needed to focus on hunting for equipment rather than on the snide catcalls of the paper demons. Within a few minutes I was able to jury-rig a crude directional antenna, hopefully one powerful enough to lead me where I needed to be. Thank God for Engineering 104.

I tuned in. I listened around. There wasn’t just one, but two signals I could make out. Popper and, presumably, the radio my counterpart had put together to find him. They weren’t far, and I detected nobody else pulling a similar trick. I’d have time.

The signal came from one of the streets that stretched out into the sky. Air hung above and beneath it like a twisted concrete ribbon. Unfortunately gravity twisted along with the streets. I could feel the light pull of the competing gravity overhead. As I ran towards the intersection I veered too close to a wild curve and fell sideways nine feet, right onto the concrete.

My body rolled, knees striking a fire hydrant with a force that rattled my tailbone. I fumbled for a nearby rock and tossed it to test the gravity. It went up a few feet too high, and again fell sideways back to the stretch of road I’d been running down. The demons cackled but I paid them no mind. I just had to follow the signal, and keep an eye out for sudden drops.

Someone on the faculty had a cynical sense of humor. Probably Glass. “Somewhere people go to forget” turned out to be a store boasting ornate granite headstones. Eight or nine just like it lined the street, perfect to delay cadets even if they did interpret the clue. I took a deep breath before entering. Inside was waiting someone who had been preparing for this while I chased wild geese. They’d been steeling themselves, trying to anticipate my identity. They may have even known the final test already.

They were waiting when I opened the door. I threw my rig down: the antenna, the battery, all of it. Seeing Truman surprised me. Offended me, if I’m honest. This kid had figured out the trick before I had? But the plexiglass case Commander Popper held blew me away. Inside was an extra-hefty steel flashlight, over thirty inches long, the word “TRUE” carved into its side. The Torch. Torchbearer had been dead for years of course… but if they could just give the Torch to someone else, why had they waited until now?

“Hey Atlas,” Aaron said. He was blushing. No, not that. He was flush. Anxious. “I knew it would be you.”

“I wish I could say the same.” This was ludicrous. One of us was going to be Torchbearer, the beacon of truth? There was no way Truman had figured out the trick to tracing this place before I had. In fact… Looking around, I didn’t see an antenna setup similar to mine anywhere in the room. What I did see, poking out from under the zipper of Aaron’s pack, was an ear piece.

Oh, hell no. I hadn’t unlocked ‘the trick’ they were looking for a cadet to stumble upon. I just overthought my way into coming in second in a game that was rigged from the beginning.

No, not second. Not yet.

“I’m sure you’re curious about the final rite…” Commander Popper began.

I wanted to scream, but I had to play it cool. I focused my indignation on Aaron, keeping my face still. “Yes, commander.” Aaron refused to look me in the eye. “Exceedingly curious.”

“Well, cadets, we’re gonna do this one the old fashioned way. Seems the Torch wants to see you kids duke it out.”

“Director, may I ask something?”  I asked. The paper-faced demons began to rustle and hiss.

“Proceed.”

“Have you made your peace with God?”

“Young lady!”

“You intend to trick the power of capital-T-Truth, director.” I nodded towards the dangling earpiece. Sweat trickled down Truman’s neck. “I don’t think it will go well.”

The director’s gaze darted to Aaron’s hastily-zipped pack. His eyes went dead save for a slight twitch on the right. “Very astute, cadet. We apologize if you are offended that we would not leave the allocation of key strategic resources to magic flashlights… Or little girls.” That stung. It’s shitty to admit it, but my blood pressure spiked. And he could tell. “We are not here to learn an important lesson, cadet. Sensitivity training is over. Everybody got the trophy. Now we are here to achieve this academy’s mission. Understood?”

Aaron’s eyes kept darting over my shoulder, then towards his peripheral, and back again. Taking the easy route here had weakened him. He’d been trapped with the commander through the entire onset of his demonic acid trip. Popper wasn’t one for reassurance or small talk. Looking at them now, it was clear Popper scared Truman witless. The boy looked like he wanted to jump right out of his skin and into someone else’s.

I looked the director in the eye. “I am ready to satisfy the requirements of the artifact’s rite, sir.”

“Perfect. Then declare that you surrender.”

“Excuse me?”

“The fight’s over as soon as one of you surrenders. That’s all the artifact needs. So, surrender.”

The director’s mouth was a firm, angry line. I couldn’t play into his expectations. I had to let his boy drop the ball first. Aaron could barely look at me, cheeks burning with shame and resentment. I closed in to whisper in his ear, “You deserve nothing.”

A sharp cry. Then, he swung at me. He was fast but I was ready. I blocked his fist with my shoulder and swept his legs. Then I ran out the door.

He came through. I was waiting. My baton struck the back of his skull but Aaron barely noticed. I swung again but he lunged after me, catching the baton in his hands, again absorbing the force.

His shirt shifted up as we struggled for my baton. There, on his skin, was an array of sigils we’d studied at the academy, a complex interweaving of 3 pentacles of the moon with two of Mars. It was the state-of-the-art in spirit channeling tech, the standard defensive array inscribed on all Supreme Service agents. His skin could probably stop a small bullet with that ink.

“Jesus!” I whispered. “They really did everything they could do to tip things in your favor.” He was supernaturally tough and naturally plenty strong, but he was tripping bad and still just a person. “How did it feel, letting the commander almost talk you out of a real fight?”

“I didn’t want it like this,” he grunted. He jerked wildly at my baton but didn’t let go. “Stop! Stop!” I wasn’t doing anything. Something only he could see- something flying directly above my head seemed to torment him. I twisted my baton and my torso in one smooth motion before letting go. He twisted with me, then went tumbling away, my baton in his hands as he skittered out into the street. I walked after him.

To his back was a charming fountain nestled between a Korean grocery store and a patio winebar. On the other side of the fountain was empty air. There weren’t any other streets for a good ninety feet in either direction. One wrong step could lead to a nasty fall.

Aaron’s eyes were dilated and still fixed on some point above my head, his face this knot of fear and resentment. He really wasn’t a bad kid, even if I did want to keep hitting him. Maybe he was ready. Maybe he’d listen to reason. “Surrender, Truman. If you really don’t want this- if you want this to go to someone who’s earned it, if you want it to mean something- you can surrender.”

“This is me earning it,” he roared. He came at me, a baton in each hand. I leapt back. Plan B wasn’t going to be kind, or pretty. I tried to lead him around the fountain but he ran right through it, splashing me and soaking himself. He swung for me. The baton in his right hand missed, but the left jabbed me straight in the jaw, bad enough that I could feel it in my neck.

Still, I ran. I had one last gambit. I darted underneath one of his arms and over towards the patio wine bar by the edge of the street. A wooden deck hung off the edge and into blue sky. He barreled after me, thoughtlessly following up the steps, across the walkway and over the side. As I leapt over the side of the deck, I hooked one arm around the railing and clung on for dear life. Aaron’s hands were full.

He went tumbling over the deck’s railing full speed, hanging in the air for an eerie moment as he passed between two gravity vectors. Then, slowly at first but quickly gaining speed, he hurtled towards the streets below.

Aaron whimpered when he landed. There was nobody else around to hear it, but the cry of surrender was known. The Torch shattered its plexiglass cage and flew into my one free hand.

Next Chapter: (2.2) Faye West

(2.2) Faye West

I sank into the captain’s chair and formed the airship from our sugar. Mina and I had bickered with her buddy Jereme for hours in that library, but eventually he’d talked us into it. What choice did we have? It was that or let a singularium full of man-bees swarm the Free Coast.

Dr. Bugman figured that Brundelzebuub was headed to the Big Rock Candy Mountain for food. “The good doctor” had been running low on his monsters’ favorite sweets ever since he’d hatched the man-bees. They’d sniffed out the singularium’s carbon stores while hunting for food. Not long after, Brundelzebuub kicked the doctor out and declared himself King of the Man-bees.

Our best option was to get the Dr. Bugman’s monsters back under control before they stormed the Free Coast. We would fly in from above, send a trail of sugar out to Brundelzebuub as bait, and then trap him in a candy shell.

In theory, the whole thing would be clean and easy. Dr. Bugman would get his monsters back, the mountain would escape a plague of locusts (or whatever) and nobody had to hand game-changing technology to the Regime.

And yet, none of this felt clean. Or easy. First, we couldn’t agree on pay. There was nothing the Posse could offer the Corps without arousing suspicion, which meant we were doing all this for civic duty and a future favor. Second, there was no way we could tell Captain Woodward. If he got a whiff of what was going on he’d inform the Regime. There was no way the Corps could survive if it came out later that he’d known something and hidden it.

Even if we put all that aside, I had to wonder what the plan was once we finished. We were headed to an IntElect singularium. The tech on-board would be ground-shaking. Given enough time you could find designs for vehicles, weapons… All the things you’d need to start a civil war. We couldn’t leave this stuff in the hands of the Regime. Yet, leaving it with the Posse Communitatus didn’t feel great either.

I said as much to Mina before we arrived to pick up Dr. Bugman.

She nodded slowly. “You’re not wrong. I left the Posse for a reason. That Schilling woman they’ve got running things now is out for blood.” She bit her lip. “Still, what’s our better option? Narc on them? Steal it? We’re not exactly Bonnie and Clyde.”

“We’re not even Thelma and Louise,” I agreed. “Maybe we should just keep our heads down.”

“Yeah… The Posse might not be the best, but they’re the easiest option that isn’t pure evil.”

“Okay. Here’s the rub, then. Priority number one is not getting caught. We can’t put the Corps at risk.”

“Obviously. But what if we do get caught?” I tried to pretend I didn’t hear, but Mina was having none of it. “Faye? If we do get caught, what’s the plan?”

“I mean… We can’t let them believe it was a Corps operation, can we? We’d have to confess it was all on us.”

“So… we get seen, that’s it. One slip up and we turn ourselves in.”

“It’s the only right thing to do. So let’s not get caught.”

“Agreed.” We landed outside Dr. Bugman’s underground super-lab. From above it appeared as a humble bee farm. Below lurked whatever strange devices the doctor used to make his monsters. Nobody could know for sure what he might have down there. Super-science, or mad science if you prefer, barely resembled the regular thing. Regular science worked because the rules were the same across the universe. Mad science worked because the Other-Force could change those rules.

The doctor was waiting for us outside when we arrived, two heavy black leather bags in his hands. He was completely bald and wore an enormous pair of black-framed glasses. He also wore a lab coat even though we’d be doing precisely zero lab work on the mission. One glance could tell you he was definitely committed to his ‘mad scientist’ schtick.

The world had certainly gotten schtickier over the last decade, and not just because Americans are naturally tacky. See, the Other-Force knew all of mankind’s hopes and dreams. It knew our stereotypes, our archetypes, our cliches. Lots of folks had come around to the idea that if you leaned into a cliche hard enough, the Other-Force would help you do things related to that cliche. Cue all the super-dorks going whole hog on the mask-and-cape bit.

Still, unusual lifestyle choices were no excuse to be rude. Just… judgmental. “Welcome aboard,” I shouted as Dr. Bugman climbed through onto the ship. He squinted at me, then at the accommodations.

“No seat?” he asked. It was amazing how much fury he could pack into such a small question.

“Oh, right.” Most of the ship was made from sugar, save for an old cockpit we salvaged from a plane. The cockpit gave us a safe place to sit in case of a crash but it was only a two-seater. I rearranged some sugar from the wall to make a chair. “I’m afraid I can’t make you a seat belt, but it should be smooth flying.”

He rolled his eyes before pulling a device from his pocket. It was small and black with an enormous antenna wobbling at the end. Jereme had explained that, while the singularium itself was untraceable, the doctor had ‘chipped’ each of his monsters. He curled up in his chair while we consulted the screen. In his free hand was a flask of something acrid. Green steam washed past his lips as he took a sip.

Mina caught me rolling my eyes and punched me lightly in the side. I suppressed a snicker and took off. We flew for a couple of hours, saying nothing until the singularium was less than a mile away.

It was Mina who spoke first. “Did you hear that?”

The sound itself was soft, a light thump against our ship. But then the sugar glass screamed. Whatever struck us started chewing through the hull. Looking down through the fly-stained sugar glass of our airship I could make out silhouettes crawling along the bottom. First one, then three, five, too many to count hurtling up from the clouds to swarm the ship.

A yellow blur of fur and gossamer wings flit past our windshield. There were dozens of them before long, clinging to the side of our ship and chewing away at its structure, looks of pure joy on their faces.

“What the hell is going on!?” Dr. Bugman cried, pulling a pair of headphones off.

“They must be some of those Bugmen!” I yelled.

“DOCTOR BUGMAN’S MONSTERS!” he replied.

“Right!” I tried to concentrate. The screaming from the sugar was so loud. Our ship was large enough that they’d need to chew for days before we ran out of material. Unfortunately we were just minutes from someone making a hole big enough to kill our air pressure. I had to do something.

Doing my best to drown out the screaming sugar, I prepared for aerial maneuvers in my mind. “Buckle in, I yelled.” Mina did so, pulling her seatbelt tight.

Ideally, I’d be able to just reshape the ship to deny the monsters hand-holds, propelling them off with a few well-placed sugar-fists. But we were zooming through the air with high winds and a disruption in our aerodynamics would tax my ability to hold things together. I’d have to slow down if I wanted to change shapes. The better option was to throw them off.

I took a dive.

Mina hurled yellow and green as we corkscrewed through the air. Some of the monsters lost their grip in the first wave, but a good dozen managed to cling on. Dr. Bugman went tumbling into a corner of the ship and I realized with horror I’d forgotten he wasn’t buckled in. I sculpted part of our interior walls around him to keep him from bouncing as we dived straight towards the water.

“What are you doing?” Mina screamed. I continued to dive. One or two monsters lost heart but the rest held on, resolute. I had to pull up. The ship buckled into a steady, low-altitude flight, drenching a nearby boat as our corona of air slashed the water below.

But it was no good. The monsters clung on tight. If we stayed over the water for too long the ocean mist would dissolve our craft. I pulled back up.

It would do no good to lead the monsters anywhere on the boats or onto the land. We had to stay away from civilians. Our only option was to land on the singularium itself.

G-forces drove us deep into our seats. The IntElect singularium hovered just a quarter mile away now, its structure a twinkling mix of skyline, powerplant and spaceship. The monsters began to buzz, wings vibrating. A new terror entered the sugar granules now. They were warming up, melting and caramelizing in the heat generated from the monsters’ beating wings.

We were going to crash.

The whole mess of plane parts, sugar molecules and aggressive man-bees burst into a wave of parts as we slammed onto the singularium’s deck. Our cockpit bounced violently without the rest of the ship to keep it in place, windshield shattering into a spray of shards. The world was spinning. Ears rang.

A moment of blackness. Then, too much light.

“Are we dead? Is this hell?” I asked.

Mina smacked my face. “It will be if we don’t do something!” I’d been out less than a second. Some of the man-bees had already recovered from the crash and were advancing towards us with their taser spears.

Dr. Bugman lay a few feet away, unconscious. Mina made a dash for him, dragging his limp body while his monsters pursued. That was my cue.

I had more options now that we no longer needed my sugar collection to stay aloft. Clumps of broken sugar glass rose from the ground. Granules reconfigured into a cloud of vicious blades, their structure kept intact by my sucrokinesis.

The monsters stepped back as the blades zipped around myself and Mina. “Gentle…bees!” she cried. “We have come to parlay.”

* * * * * * *

The man-bees formed two separate huddles, one in front of us and one behind, as we marched through the labyrinth that was the singularium’s interior. I left a thin trail of granules behind us so we could find our way back, a bit like Hansel and Gretel. Hopefully we’d have better luck than they did. Mina huffed and puffed next to me. Dr. Bugman hung limp on her shoulders.

You couldn’t stare at any patch of the singularium for long without getting a headache. Up close it looked less like a robot city and more like a jungle of chrome. Machinery crowded like ancient rock formations melting together. Here or there you may see something recognizable as a tool but the singularium’s bulk was an indecipherable swamp of alloys, whirligigs and blinking lights.

“Is this thing breathing?” Mina asked.

“I’m more afraid of it thinking.”

“Quiet!” one of the man-bees hissed, voice like rustling leaves and breath pungent with hostile pheromones.

“Rude,” Mina grumbled.

Not long after, the man-bees before us stopped. One representative stood at the far end of the tunnel, bathed by the light from the chamber beyond. I could only just barely make him out through the crowd of man-bees but he appeared to be dancing. Our guards buzzed with approval and the air swelled with a sweet sweat smell. “I’ve read about this,” I whispered to Mina. “Bees communicate to others within the hive by-”

A roar of flies swallowed my voice.

Imagine razors, millions of them, scraping together in some steel drum. A blast of air washed past as the man-bees dropped to their knees. The stench of human excrement, rotting fruit and brimstone sank into my clothes, my tastebuds. With the man-bees prostrate before us we could see Brundelzebuub straight-on.

Compared to his photo, Brundelzebuub actually didn’t look half bad. In fact, he looked a lot like that guy from Jurassic Park, the almost-sexy one, except that his eyes and hair were replaced with teeming black flies. He stood in a giant pile of orange slices and black cats. Identical black cats, every one of them mutilated in a different way. With an animal scream, he pointed at the doctor perched on Mina’s back and fired a single fireball from the tip of his finger. The doctor’s head exploded in a burst of flaming maggots.

“Oh, okay,” I sighed. “I guess this is the kind of day it is.”

Read Next: (2.3) Agent Litework

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