(8.3) Agent Litework, Kidnapper

“Let’s talk transition options,” Malcolm said chipperly. He’d interposed himself in front of Malphas while my sister Roselia buried her face in my shoulder. We stood inside the Twin Saints astrologenius, situated at a crossroad in a crossroad. Everyone dripped with the blood of an impossible bird. Roselia was free from the devil’s clutches. So why didn’t I feel better?
 
“You say you had a contact in heaven,” I reminded him. Roselia had given so much, suffered so much. If anyone deserved some time inside the pearly gates…
 
“Yes!,” he replied brightly. “One of the heavens, at least. I’ll call Goldbeard to escort you to the Pirate Heaven Purgatorium. After I’ve finished my business with Malphas, of course.”
 
“Purgatory? You said she was going to heaven.”
 
Malphas cackled. Malcolm shot him a dirty look, then shrugged. “The Purgatorium is a part of heaven,” he said with what he thought was reassurance.
 
“But I was already in purgatory!” Roselia rasped.
 
Crowe sighed. “A common misconception, but no. The Purgatoria scrub your soul clean so it won’t disrupt the heavens. It’s like recycling. All the inapplicable cruft goes to make raw substance for the appropriate Other-petal. You were in a hell, which does opposite. Hence your, uh, condition.” He waved at her body, its limbs bent like the claws of a broken bird. “But! After a few brief centuries you’ll have a nice clean soul and a beautiful pile of booty to go with it! Unless you’d prefer a less ambitious afterlife. I’m pretty sure Yiffing Valhalla would take you as-is.”
 
We asked him to describe Yiffing Valhalla. Our answer was a big no thanks.
 
“Isn’t there some Other-petal where I can be myself again? Where things go back to the way they were?”
 
Crowe waved a hand and snorted. “Sure, somewhere. In, you know, infinity.”
 
“I’m dead. Don’t I have eternity?”
 
Theoretically, yeah. So long as you don’t sign that eternity away.” He lowered his voice. “And so long as the entire World-Flower doesn’t unravel first.” A cough and a shrug. Voice back to normal. “…Regardless, you’d be stuck hitchhiking unless you found a sponsor.”
 
“A sponsor like you?” she asked.
Crowe, silent, tapped his chin and pretended to think.
“I’ll hitchhike.”
 
“Roselia!?”
 
Malcolm held up his hands. “Girls, this is a family matter. I have business to attend to with my colleague.” He nodded towards Malphas. The enormous bird devil stood panting by the giant crow’s gaping ribcage. “So unless you need me…”
 
“Go,” I said, and he skipped away to talk to Malphas. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Malphas produce a book from under his wing. A black rose was depicted on its cover and the whole thing was bound in leather.
 
Roselia sighed. “Sis, thank you. You saved my soul. You’ve given me more than anyone ever has. And I promise, once I find a place that’s good for us, I’ll find you. Wherever you end up. And I’ll find mom and dad and Xander and we’ll be together again.”
 
“Rose, you can’t wander like that forever. This isn’t fucking Sliders. We need a better plan.”
 
She shook her head. “Sister. I’ve literally been to hell and back, here. And every ‘better plan’ we’ve heard so far sounds like more of this.” She gestured to her yellow-scaled legs with her twisted bird-arms. “I know more about this stuff than you realize.” She looked over her shoulder. Malcolm and Malphas were shaking hands. It was time. “We’ll be a family again. I promise.”
 
“I would like that. I’ll believe that.” Even as I said it I flashed back to Malcolm’s little caveat. Could reality fall apart like he said? It seemed ridiculous, but the Other-Force had only infected the world about 35 years ago. Already its influence had snaked back hundreds of years to alter history. There was no way to guess what the long-term effects would be. Couldn’t infections kill things?
 
Still, if that happened Roselia would be no worse off than everyone else. Even now, mutated and resigned to wandering the layers of reality, she was better off than she’d been yesterday. Wherever she was, whatever she was, she could begin healing.
 
There was a sharp pain. Imagine a guitar string snapping. Imagine that guitar string was one of your temples. There was a flurry of curses and cries as it hit the others. Blood dripped out from one of my nostrils, blossoming on the tiles. They were cracked like spider-webs, the blood flowing through. “Clock’s ticking, kid.” Malcolm warned. “The ontological tides are gonna rip this whirpool apart. Where are we taking you?”
 
“Whatever the magical equivalent of a Greyhound station is, I guess,” Roselia said.
 
“Ah yes. Pauper’s Limbo,” Malcolm replied. “Malphas here can handle that, I think.” With that Malphas pulled aside one flap of the sacrificial crow’s ribskin. Roselia and I hugged one last time before she marched through, disappearing forever into its neck. Malphas plucked a single bloody feather from his wing and tucked it behind Malcolm’s ear before following Roselia inside. The air in the astrologenius grew stuffy as the portal in the crow’s neck sealed over again.
 
* * * * * * *
 
We made our plan the next day after reviewing the information from Malphas. The tome he handed Malcolm included everything he’d extracted from the vision. There were instructions for a ritual, something that would let us leave the material plane. It didn’t lead to the Other-petals but something deeper, closer to the source of the Other-Force. Unfortunately, the ritual itself required a piece of Space Brother. We’d be better off trying to capture a piece of the sun.
 
The second lead was a reference to something called Czernobog’s Swamp. All we knew was that it was somewhere in Siberia. This was only slightly more helpful than knowing it was somewhere on earth.
 
We’d break into three missions. Malcolm would visit some of his tech pals for help figuring out the schematics from my vision. We had a few vague ideas as to what the device did and how, but huge chunks of the picture were missing. Curt, meanwhile, would try to figure out what became of Cormac Stevens’ heart and what connection, if any, there was between the Torch and P!ss Frog.
 
That left me and Yaritza to investigate the Russian super-mercs. Mister Siberia and Stalokovy were involved in this somehow, and they were never involved in anything good. Putting two of us on the mission would slow our investigation. On the other hand, going in alone was bound to get me killed.
 
I’d done fieldwork with Yaritza once or twice before and she was always a dream to work with. She was Assistant Director of VICEFRONT, so we could skip a few hours of falsifying paperwork. More importantly, she’d earned the job. The lady was a model agent: meticulous, knowledgeable, and so sweet you’d never expect her to rip a man’s face off.
 
In fairness, she always warned them.
 
According to our intel, we’d have to go to New Pandemonium to contact the super-mercs. There was a domovoy there named Vosha who kept house for a reptoid madame. Gammon’s notes said to order a room, make a mess, then cut a deal with Vosha.
 
There was no way we could wait for Siberia and Stalokovy to come to us, of course. We had no way of making them come, no way of keeping them quiet. Instead the plan was to shake Vosha down to figure out how he made contact, then use that to track them down.
 
So long as Vosha played it cool, everyone would leave this meeting alive. We’d have to contain him for a while, of course, but Yaritza had ways of keeping folks in storage. It wasn’t not a human rights abuse, but it was a lot better than that blasted Error Zone.
 
Step one was getting to shore. There were official channels but they’d take too long, raise too many questions. Instead we decided to infiltrate under the cover of darkness. On wing.
 
We anchored our LiteBoat just outside the Q. Grid. Once it was secure Yaritza grabbed my shoulder. “Ready?” she asked. I nodded. “Stand still.”
 
Her hand melted into butterflies. Fingers split, shimmered and crystalized into a growing swarm of Monarchs. Where they touched, my own skin followed suit. I didn’t dare disobey her order to stand still, even as my shoulders flaked into wings. Raw flesh flickered and melted in the gaps between the teeming bugs. So long as I let the transformation progress, it’d be nice and gentle. If I started scraping the butterflies off, I’d be reduced to whatever untransformed flesh they left behind.
 
Once we were entirely transformed Yaritza was in the driver’s seat. All the butterflies, even the ones transformed from my body, became an extension of her will. It was just as well. We were a swarm of eyes, feelers and proboscises. Yaritza somehow managed to make sense of the million inputs. I mostly wanted to hurl.
 
Something incomprehensible throbbed red as Yaritza guided us between the gaps in the Quarantine Grid. Hard light and electro-pulses tickled our many feelers. One wrong move and Border Patrol would know that something Other-natural had crossed. Once we were through, we coalesced back into our bodies.
 
Now it was my turn to take over. A small squad of phantom arms hoisted us up by our armpits. They carried us over the waters and towards New Pandemonium’s shores. A small herd of kelpies stamped on the sands below but they had little interest in flying travelers. We touched down in a small grove by the beach.
 
Dry land introduced our next complication: fitting in. Our powers made it easy to look inhuman, but neither of us mapped well with any New Pandemonian citizens. Still, there’d been reports of ‘spontaneous generations’ within New Pandemonium for years. Sometimes whole neighborhoods would sprout up, stretching the space where once there’d been a stray alley.
 
We had a decent shot as long as we matched. I ditched my coat while Yaritza transformed her arms and legs back into butterflies, her torso held aloft by a Hans and Franz. She swarmed our faces with butterfly bodies. To any observers, we’d look like a couple armless, legless women with butterflies for faces. Maybe we wouldn’t look local, but at least we wouldn’t look American.
 
With that, we were on the New Pandemonian streets. I did my best to walk with purpose while Hans and Franz jerked Yaritza’s body in crude mimicry of confidence. A passing cyclops gave us the side-eye but otherwise we reached the brothel without incident.
 
“How many?” asked the girl at the counter. She didn’t seem fazed by us in the slightest. I wasn’t sure what kind of… person she was. She looked mostly human, save for her long goat legs and hairy white arms.
 
“Two,” Yaritza replied.
 
“Altogether or each?”
 
Just one altogether,” I corrected. “Puddin’ here’s getting ahead of herself.”
 
“Oh!” Yaritza forced a laugh. “You’re right, what do I think I’m made of?”
 
“Who?” the goat-girl waved a quill at the men, women and others seated around us. I couldn’t help but notice a Golem with perfectly sculpted proportions.
 
“Him,” I pointed. The goat-girl nodded and sent us up.
 
“Night,” Yaritza whispered to the Golem as soon as we were through the door. The butterflies leapt from our faces and swarmed over him, taking his mouth first so he couldn’t cry for help. He struggled in vain to rip them free but in seconds she’d assimilated his whole head. Massive arms fell still to his sides. Not long after that there was no trace of him, save for a swarm of butterflies lingering in the room.
 
“Right, so now we’ve got to make a mess.” I looked around. This place was so depressing there was hardly anything to make a mess with. A sink in one corner, a thin yellow mattress in the other, next to it a nightstand. Inside I could find handcuffs, lube, condoms and toys. They would have to do.
 
We set apart shredding the bed into springs and fluff which we then saturated with lube. When this didn’t work we tore open all the condoms and threw them around the room, wrappers tossed like confetti.
 
Still nothing. And then I realized, “the damn thing won’t come in here when it thinks there’s people fucking. Not unless they pay extra at any rate.”
 
“What should we do?”
 
I tilted my face towards her. “Hide?”
 
We melted into butterflies again, and soon the Domovoy entered the room to begin cleaning. The stooped creature was human-adjacent, features distorted and its skin like ash. It bounced on legs more kangaroo than human, long nose scraping the ground.
 
We nabbed him. He yelped and muttered with fear but his stubby arms couldn’t reach onto his back where Yaritza had started. His screams grew louder and soon there were footsteps rushing down the hallway.
 
<<Help!>> the thing cried in guttural Russian, but it was too late. When the doors swung open all the gawkers saw was a cloud of butterflies escaping.

(8.2) Faye West Wrassles an Old Lady

After nothing came fire. I was the sky and the sky was a blue-black blaze. Something shuffled, a putty deck made of everything. Things slipped back into place. Fuck-ups, hungers and fears flared to life, gave shape to the blazing blue mass. Faye West, probationary Sugar Plum Fairy and man-bee slavemaster. Not as good as I remembered it.
 
I was falling. What had happened? That girl, a gun to my forehead. A black abyss. Then fire. Then falling. Then-
 
I bounced hard on the grass before taking a tumble to the rocks. The roll wasn’t as fierce as the fall but the ground turned hard and sharp. Nothing broke but I had cuts all over. And some burning pain right behind my forehead. Jesus H. Christ in a Chuck E. Cheez, that hurt.
 
The ocean roared a few hundred yards away. This was still the same island the singularium was on though now I was a long jog away. In fact, if I had to guess I’d say I was about one rifle’s range from the technological fortress. Son of a shit. I pulled myself to my feet.
 
Had I been dead just then? Mom used to argue with her friend Lisa over Star Trek. They could never agree: did the transporters move you around, or did they kill and replaced you? This definitely wasn’t the time to worry about that. It would take forever to get back to Mina and one of my ankles had rolled in the fall.
 
There wasn’t enough time to worry about Mina, however. A plane touched down between the camouflaged singularium and myself. Faye, you incompetent idiot, I thought. Kori must have signaled for the plane before even coming on board. She’d been stalling that whole time. It was a sleek, nondescript craft with black solar-absorbent skin. It could have been any one of the millions like it.
 
I stood my ground, ready for someone to exit. Instead my body started hurtling towards the plane in rips and jerks while the door opened. It felt like falling except it was happening sideways. Then regular ways, then upways for a second, then sideways again. I would shoot towards the plane for a few seconds, then gravity would change directions and I’d fall a few feet towards the ground. I tumbled in this way for over five hundred feet in dusty, nauseating loop de loops.
 
“Satan,” I belched as I hurtled through the plane door.
 
“In the flesh,” Winifred Schilling wheezed. I’d never seen her in person but I knew what to expect at this point. She was a melted remnant of a woman, hairless and artificially ventilated. It was hard to tell how much of her was cutting-edge medical technology and how much was hate. To her right stood a large Indian woman who appeared to be middle aged. Her hair and dress were business casual but she sported a ruby nose ring. Around her neck hung a brick on an iron chain.
 
Then there was the lion-man. He was nearly naked but it took a second to notice because his head was crowned by a very distracting mane of fire. His features were mostly human, handsome even, but not so human that him being handsome didn’t feel weird.
 
Also, some girl was there.
 
“Thief,” the lion-man purred.
 
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” some girl said.
 
“No, let’s,” Schilling snarled. “Our sticky bandit here was the last one seen with our property and then our property disappeared. Seems evidence enough for me.” Her eyes brushed over the holster around my waist. “Frisk ‘er.”
 
As quick as that I was on the ceiling. Some girl gave me a pat down and handed my machine pistol to nosering.
 
“Mina’s still a woman of taste I see,” nosering laughed. Then she looked me up and down. “In some matters, at least.”
 
“Hey! That’s not- well. It’s complicated!” This was a stupid time to be blushing, but why would that have stopped me?
 
“Your friend Mina’s led you astray, girl,” Schilling said. Her voice sounded bored but her stare was one of the heaviest things I’d ever carried. “I don’t think you realize what you’ve gotten yourself into here.”
 
“Oh, I’ve got an inkling,” I grunted. Were they making the gravity stronger, or was that my nerves? I sat up on the ceiling to look Schilling in the eye. My stomach lurched. My brain and my gut had different ideas about which way was supposed to be ‘down.’ “So far today I’ve survived a feral demon, a shot to the head and a swarm of man-bees.”
 
“Ya didn’t survive the shot, kid,” Schilling laughed. “There’s a headless broad waiting for you wherever you left. Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life.”
 
My stomach sank. That was that answered, at least. It was a weird kind of sinking feeling. One where I felt like there was no bottom to sink to. Like flying but in reverse. “Then I’ll survive being dead.” My voice was smaller than I’d have liked.
 
Schilling was unmoved. “Let’s see you try that twice in one day. Dedun here would be happy to barbecue the flesh right off your bones and eat it in front of you.” She nodded at the lion-man. “Or I could have Stonewall toss you outside. Let her flip your gravity one last time so you fall into outer space. Your call, kid.”
 
While I processed that, the lion-man shuffled awkwardly. “Schilling, I can’t eat her,” he whispered.
 
“Not now.”
 
“It’s just not my brand.”
 
“Fine!” Schilling snapped. “Outer space it is. Any problems with that?”
 
“Not at all,” Stonewall replied.
 
Some girl said, only ethical ones.
 
“Perfect. No problems. So, now that we understand the situation, what’ll it be? Do you wanna talk your buddy Mina into coming quietly? Or do you wanna see what the weather’s like on Pluto this time of year?”
 
“Spoiler alert,” Dedun purred, “cold.”
 
My courage trickled down into my ankles, meaning it landed somewhere on the plane ceiling. Fucking superpowers. Fucking superpowers. I realized then I’d been hit by two supers in one day, both times without the Sugar Staff to protect me. Could I be infected too? If that happened my bond to the Staff would be permanently broken. The singularium, the Staff, my life… in the span of less than an hour everything had managed to slip away.
 
“I’ll talk to her,” I said.
 
“Smart girl,” Schilling crooned. She turned to her goons. “Get us over there!”
 
Some girl took the controls and the solar plane hovered high into the air. We were in the air less than a second when Dedun cried, “incoming!” I stretched my neck to look through the plane’s windshield. Man-bees burst through the singularium’s cloaking device as if from thin air.
 
“Stone-”
 
“On it.” Stonewall stretched out both hands and knelt onto the floor of the plane. Man-bees began to wobble in the air as their personal gravity tossed and turned from Stonewall’s power. She could only disrupt small chunks of the swarm at a time, however, and the man-bees adapted quickly to the unpredictable gravity. They pressed on.
 
“Fire!” Schilling screamed. Some girl fired laser cannons hidden under the solar plane’s wings. Those weren’t standard. Green light struck a cluster of man-bees, immolating several who then rained down on their brothers. Even as they burned and fell their wings flapped in defiance.
 
Then, contact. The first wave of man-bees gripped the plane. Dedun threw open the door. Air rushed through the cabin and wind whistled outside. A roar of fire. A ball of flaming man-bees went whistling past the tail of the plane while Dedun slapped his chest.
 
Not all of them, though. One on the windshield, carrying something, some kind of grey box. He pounded the button. A small explosion cracked the glass, flinging the man-bee backward. The lights and instruments throughout the plane flickered off. Our momentum lurched in the air. Some girl struggled in the cockpit.
 
This wasn’t a rescue mission, I realized. Mina thought I was dead. This was revenge.
 
We began to fall. I fell first, as Stonewall forgot about pinning me to the ceiling. She used her powers to control our descent but that only freed up more of the man-bees to swarm us. “I’m here!” I screamed. Dedun roared at the incoming man-bees but there were too many. Several gathered at one wing of the plane and gave it a push. Dedun lost his balance and went tumbling through the door of the plane, clinging to the side.
 
My chance to escape- everyone who could do something was struggling to keep from crashing. I struggled to walk straight on the rocking plane. My shoulders banged first one wall of the craft then the other as the man-bees jostled the wing. Almost there. I gripped one of the seats for balance just as a leather old hand took my wrist.
 
“You’re not going anywhere,” Schilling snarled.
 
Just a woman. Just a bitter, broken, ruthless old woman. I snapped my wrist away and took hold of the hose to her oxygen machine. I yanked it out of the machine and grabbed her shoulder with my other hand. The plane rocked. We went flying against the wall.
 
She was on top of me and heavier than she looked. She dug her knees into my stomach. Thick yellow slobber dribbled onto my face as she hissed. Outlast, I told myself. Old hands crept up towards my throat. I held my elbows out wide and she staggered to get past them. Her eyes rolled up in the back of her head. I threw her aside.
 
The plane landed. A lion’s roar and the sound of machine pistols filled the air. I rushed out the door, just in time for Stonewall to shift her attention back to me. Gravity yanked me back to the plane but I hooked an elbow over the edge of the doorway. I hung horizontal in the air.
 
“Hey!” I screamed at the man-bees. “I’m here! I’m not dead!”
 
I had to repeat myself several times before they could hear me over the gunfire. Someone gripped my left foot in their hands, their grip breaking after my right foot met their face. Furry yellow arms grabbed hold of me. We were flying. Schilling’s crew struggled on the ground. The man-bees took me behind the cloaking device.
 
* * * * * * *
 
Mina gave me the tightest hug of my life once I was back on the singularium. Kori and Jereme were both bound and bruised in the corner, the man-bees still alert and ready to kill. She couldn’t see any of that. She just held my face in her massive hands and cried. “I thought you were dead,” she sobbed. I then remembered the place on deck where I’d first been shot, the place where my body lay.
 
Was that a foot at the edge of my vision?
 
I turned my back on it. “I don’t wanna talk about it right now. But thank you.” I pointed at our captives in the corner. “I’m tired of these people. You dropped that EMP on their plane, right? I vote we drop them here and leave.”
 
“Agreed.” She whistled, and soon the man-bees had whisked Kori and Jereme to their feet.
 
“Your girl’s got a hell of a right hook,” Kori told me. There was a fresh gap in her teeth. “She’s a keeper.”
 
Jereme glared, eyes full of hate and betrayal. The man-bees dragged them off to meet the others outside. Once they were out, Mina and I headed towards the control room. We signaled for the man-bees to gather onto the singularium for departure. Then I ordered the control brains to find the most remote location the singularium could possibly colonize.
 
“Most remote? We gotta get home somehow, Faye.”
 
I rubbed my hands against my neck. It felt solid. Normal. Flesh, bone, all-too-vulnerable vein. My fingers had their familiar hairs and moles. Everything ached that always did. But pain still burned in my forehead. With concentration I could force it into the background, but it wouldn’t disappeared. There was the memory of the moments that surrounded oblivion.
 
“I did die, Mina. In a way. That lady killed me and brought me back, I think.”
 
Mina’s eyebrows knit together. She put her hand on my shoulder. “…Jesus. Did you get as far as an afterlife?” There were some supers who said they could talk to the dead, or to the demons and angels imprisoning them. Of course, people were saying that before we had supers, too.
 
Just this one,” I smiled. “But I was thinking about what Kori said before she killed me. We keep running away from things. Now we’ve got the most powerful device on earth and nothing to stop us.”
 
“…where are you going with this?”
 
“I want to run towards something instead.”
 
“Mars!” the sub-singularia chirped happily. They had just completed their analysis.
 
“Faye, we have lives. Jobs.”
 
The burning in my skull. “I’m not so sure. I’ve had powers used on me three times today. My head feels funny. I might not be able to use the Staff anymore… And even if I can, don’t you think we could do more good with this thing? What if this is what we’re meant to work on?”
 
“But… Mars.”
 
“Not forever. Long enough to plan. We don’t want war, right? So let’s figure out how to wage some peace.”

(8.1) Roxanne the Bone Breaker

Things were bad. There was lead in my shoulder and everyone else was down for the count. Truman and Dad both dangled useless on their valkyries while Timmy hurtled towards a watery grave.
 
So fast. We’d been in the middle of discussing what to do when they ambushed us.
 
Screaming. A woman screaming and a tiny man with pearl skin doing something awful to Timmy.
 
“Anyone still awake?” Jake cried.
 
“I’m here.” I gasped. “Send the valkyries to save Red Snow.”
 
“No way, the banshee’s priority,” Jake said.
 
“Let me worry about that.” I unclipped the Torch. This was either going to save the day or break my neck. My plan was to hit the banshee in the gut. If I was careful I could knock the wind out of her without killing her. That wasn’t the stupid part of my plan. The stupid part was when I didn’t let go.
 
We were falling. Flying? Shooting. The Torch and I shot through the air. The cold wind of the bay whistled through my ears as we slammed into the banshee. As I’d hoped, the Torch protected me from the impact. Unfortunately that didn’t make my landing any more graceful. I came to a dead stop on top of her. The way the Torch canceled my momentum was both anticlimactic and uncanny. There was no skidding or tumbling, just a sharp, emphatic stop.
 
The banshee threw up all over my jacket.
 
“Oh, come on!” I grumbled. But there was no time. Once I was on my feet I knew the banshee would be up again soon. The bullet still burned in my shoulder and the gargoyle flew overhead. I could feel its gaze through the scope of its rifle.
 
“Vive le resistance, motherfucker!” it screamed. A female voice. Block your face! A small explosion, too loud for real life. A bullet bit into my elbow. Burrowed, more like. I could feel flesh rip and bone splinter. Our handlers had decked me out in alchemical kevlar and magical tattoos. None of it was enough to make me bullet proof. Blinding pain. Reeling brain. The imperative urge to stay alive. I threw the Torch.
 
It wasn’t the same. My concentration faltered, my intentions wavered. I didn’t want to kill the gargoyle but I didn’t want to not-kill her either. All I had done was lash out. The Torch zagged stupid in the air before taking a corkscrew fall back to my feet. The gargoyle fired again, bullet whistling past my ear as I spun backwards onto the ground.
 
Stairs to my left, a place to seek cover. I grabbed the Torch and took a dive while the Gargoyle’s bullet grazed my ass. I could hear Jake screaming on the radio for Gail and Truman to wake up. The steps rushed past my face and grazed my chest before I crashed.
 
“Fuck!” I roared. No clue how Timmy was doing. That was Kaplan’s problem now. Blood scabbed at an alarming rate over my wounds as the sigils tattooed on my skin did their work. I wasn’t about to bleed out but everything was going to hurt.
 
Something gasped to my left. Almost killed him. Instead I snapped the Torchlight on and lit up his face. “Augh! You! What can you do?” My social graces went out the window somewhere after the first bullet wound.
 
The little man was hideous in the light. Red blisters sprouted all over his skin. His legs were on backwards, crossed behind his back while he leaned forward on his butt. “Eh?” he stammered. He held his hands up to block the light.
 
He had earplugs in. I yanked them off. “What! Can! You! Do!?”
 
“Illusions!” he yelped. “I make stuff look like other stuff, that’s all!”
 
“But what if he’s just an illusion of a guy who makes illusions?” The Torch asked. Useless thing. My only options were to trust him or come up with something brilliant, and I was all out of brilliant. “Can you make it look like I’m running out to the other side of the boat? Like I’m attacking that little white guy?”
 
Automatic fire ripped through the air, different from the gargoyle’s gun. Hans had either saved Red Snow or given up. I didn’t like the odds. The blistered man’s face hardened. “That… No. I’ll go quietly. But I’m not helping you pigs.”
 
Gunfire drowned out the Torch’s commentary. The muffled sound of an explosion in the water. Waves rocked the vessel and bounced us back and forth. “Quiet time is over.” I gripped his arm. “You’ve heard the best option you’re gonna get.”
 
I didn’t like saying it. I didn’t like the sound of gunfire either. The blister covered man’s eyes grew wet and small and he nodded. I peeked past the staircase. There I was, or a perfect imitation of me, rushing for the far side of the boat.
 
Wings flapped. The gargoyle fired. My doppelganger ran and the gargoyle followed in hot pursuit.
 
“Good work,” I said. No time for wrong moves. I waited for the Gargoyle to pass through my line of sight and I sent the Torch flying. It landed with a grotesque crunch against the small of her back. Wings twitched. She fluttered to the water with a splash. The illusionist cried out behind me.
 
Everything up-top was terrible. Dad’s valkyrie had crash landed and she lay sprawled out next to it. Was she alright? No noise, no motion, no time.
 
Hans was shooting the little white man who now stood at the center of a dome made of bullets. The more Hans fired the larger the dome grew and already it had formed a thick lead crust.
 
The third valkyrie flew in a circle overhead, Red Snow and Truman draped on opposite wings. Truman hung on, not much stiffer than a rag doll. Red Snow was one jetpack poorer, his laser beam aimed at the side of the little man’s dome. Molten bullets dripped down the dome’s side, pooling at the bottom and causing the floor to smolder.
 
“Aim for the top!” I screamed over the radio as I raced for the boat’s railing. A gargoyle drowning. My fault. Nothing I could do for Gail right now. If I took too long to hesitate one person for sure would die.
 
The Torch returned to my palm as my eyes searched the waters for the gargoyle. Could let her drown, part of me said. Your teammates need help. There she was, thirty yards out from the side. Claw though she did, her legs floated dead in the water. The water yanked at her wings. Shit.
 
I launched. For a single moment I sat on the water, my momentum canceled by the power of the Torch. Gravity soon took hold and I was bobbing in ice water with a panicked gargoyle. Even with her gun dropped her claws were sharp and her fangs were long. Blood trailed from my shoulder and elbow into the water. Only one good arm left.
 
With my remaining hand I held the Torch tight. While I couldn’t freeze it in place I could use it to reorient myself as needed. The gargyole was a mess of sharp points and wings churning in the water.
 
No time to do this elegantly. Timmy was still firing his laser and hadn’t adjusted his aim. He was going to set the boat on fire if he didn’t change tactics quick. I wrapped my legs around the gargoyle’s torso, wincing as she slashed at my shins. Then I gripped the Torch as it propelled back to the deck. We shot out of the water.
 
My grip faltered. The gargoyle went skittering a few more feet. I’d probably compounded her injuries but at least she wouldn’t drown. The pool of melted lead had completely burned the patch of floor beneath the tiny man. Flames began to light the deck below his feet. He floated in mid-air, still shrouded in a halo of melting bullets. The fire was small but it would only grow if Timmy didn’t change tactics.
 
I turned on my radio. “Timmy! The melted bullets are flowing right off his force field.”
 
“I can see that!” he snapped.
 
“Then fire at the top so they-”
 
Jake’s voice broke in over the radio. “Wait, no!”
 
“Mmmm shut up,” Truman slurred. He sounded groggy from the banshee’s attack but he was finally rearing back up to a sitting position. He gave his axe hand a clumsy, almost drunken swing.
 
It looked so casual considering the chain reaction that followed. The little pearlescent man’s eyes rolled up into the back of his head and his powers faltered. Bullets rained to the ground around him. Kaplan’s valkyrie continued to fire. Drugged and without his force field, the man was a sitting duck. Arcs of blood danced up from his body as it fell into the fires below.
 
“NOW you wake up!?” Jake yelled.
 
A boat on fire. No combatants left. I ran to the railing to get the right angle. The Torch shot into the water. A tidal wave of cold water arced over the side, drenching my hair, turning the inferno to steam.
 
Salt from the water stung the wounds in my arm and I crumpled to the deck, exhausted. As I drifted out of consciousness I heard Dad puke onto the deck and croak, “go team!” The sound of patrol boat sirens crept into the air.
 
* * * * * * *
 
When I came to I snapped my head side to side. A fight. Fire. Sirens. But we were on land.
 
We’d been carried onto shore by the border patrol. Reporters and gawkers leaned against the Supreme Service barrier a hundred yards away. The rest of YOUTHFRONT sat with me at the scene. Medics looks after Gail and Truman while Timmy talked to some cops. Everyone was alive. Everyone except for the tiny man with the pearl skin.
 
Shit. “You’re awake,” the medic tending my bullet wound said. I started crying. “You must be really awake. Better take a moment to compose yourself.” He took out a spool of Quick Stitches and started sealing over the puncture. He must have already gotten the bullets out while I slept. Mutant stem cells hibernating in the thread of the Quick Stitches unfurled in my skin. “Your shoulder got lucky, your elbow not so much.” I looked down. The cast encased my whole forearm, elbow to wrist.
 
“Shouldn’t I go to a hospital?” I asked. I pulled up the collar of my costume to wipe the tears. My first bullet wounds. My first murder. I hadn’t done it but the tiny man would have still be dead if they’d followed my plan.
 
“Yeah, uh, we got orders from up top to keep you here.” He looked sheepish. “The big guy wanted to make an appearance, see, but-”
 
A high pitched giggling filled the air. The crowd went wild. What was that smell? Somewhere in the distance, I heard Timmy howl “son of a goddamned BITCH!” I looked in his direction. He was soaked, head to toe, in piping hot urine. Never a good sign.
 
“Did somebody say pisssssssss?” P!ss Frog asked with a horrendous giggle. The malformed green frog-man bounced over the crowd. His fans screamed with delight. His face looked as if Kermit the Frog had made love to a melted Richard Nixon mask. He opened his mouth impossibly wide and amber yellow piss flowed forth like a geyser. Its mist coated the adoring crowd.
 
The medic chuckled and shook his head. “-but we got this loveable rascal instead.” He hastily knotted up my stitches before jumping up and down in the air. “Piss in my mouth, P!ss Frog! I deserve it! I need it!”
 
P!ss Frog obliged. That was more than enough for me. I jogged over to Gail and Truman, desperate to be anywhere but right next to P!ss Frog’s bullseye. “So… This is our big premiere, huh?”
 
“This is great,” Aaron cackled. “Do you think he’ll do me?” His mask was only half-way on his face, showing one unfocused eye and an idiotic grin. “Hey! Roxxxxxie! I learned a new word today. Hyyydrooocooooodoooooooone.” His voice began to slur like a tape recorder losing power. Then, “I can make it go off!” His eyes suddenly snapped to attention. Clarity was soon broken by obvious agony. He screamed for a single second before crashing back into his mellowness. “IIII kerrrn turn ert berk ernn,” he gurgled.
 
“Is he gonna OD or something?” I asked.
 
Gail shook her head. “He’s been doing this since the medics dosed him. I was giving him suggestions for new drugs to try ’til it stopped being funny. I don’t think he can OD.”
 
Timmy joined us moments later. “Outrageous. Our grand premiere upstaged by P!ss Frog of all people.” Then, with a clenched fist he whispered, “my nemesis.”
 
“The Frog’s just a warm-up act,” Jake explained over the radio. “I’m bringing our whiz kid over to the rest of you for a team photo.” I forgot I’d had my helmet on this whole time.
 
“Isn’t the Frog the whiz kid?” Dad asked. “Or is he a whiz man, I guess?”
 
Gail making dumb jokes. Timmy covered in piss. Truman doped up to his gills and me bandaged and bloodied with Banshee barf all over my coat. What a sight. And even in that piss-stained moment, I was naive. My hopes were low. But I had no idea that the next year could turn out so completely and utterly wrong.
 
Look out, America. This was YOUTHFRONT.

(8.0) Hugo Clears the Bar

It was a quiet day in New Pandemonium, which is how you could tell God was cooking up some nasty surprise. Normally I’d spend a Wednesday afternoon doing odd jobs or getting into arguments with one of the warlocks upstairs. This day, the warlocks kept to themselves and nobody came in to ruin my peaceful time at the bar. Nobody, that is, until Cherif.

 

Cherif’s a yumboe, about the only one of his kind that’d bother to slum it on my side of New Pandemonium. Mainlanders are always surprised to find out we even have a bad part of town. Really, they’re surprised by the implication that we have a nice part of town but they don’t have the balls to say so.

 

Of course, we haven’t got some of the amenities you can expect across Proteus Bay. There’s no high-rise hotels in New Pandemonium. No stock exchange or five-star restaurants. We have our own specialties. There’s services you can only find around these parts… Assuming you’re the right kinda people.

 

Cherif was the most wrong kinda guy the right kinda people ever made. He was one of the yumboe. Most of them lived uptown with the elves, the bunians and the reptoids. Cherif was different. He did all his work on our side of town, right by the shore. He was one of the biggest mainland traders we had and unlike most of the others his business had survived even as Bigley ramped up border controls.

 

I knew him from my time in the Husvaettir Guild but I didn’t know him well. We’d brewed a few specialty moonshines for his clients and even put up a mainlander or two, though never for more than a couple nights. He didn’t usually negotiate contracts in person so I was surprised to find him waiting for me when I came into the bar.

 

Like most yumboe, Cherif stood at three-foot-nothing with skin that shined blue-pink-white like a pearl. Unlike most yumboe he walked on his own two feet instead of using that telekinesis to float just a few centimeters above eye-level. With him was some lady gargoyle, hand-rolled cigarette in her lips, dressed in nothing but black goggles and the stony dewlaps God gave her.

 

“Hugo!” Cherif cried. “Just the man I’m looking for.”

 

“What’ll it be?” I stepped behind the bar and started to pull out a few mismatched ceramic mugs. I jerked my thumb to the assortment of bottles behind me and raised an eyebrow.

 

“Three fingers of Dracula’s, s’il vous plait.” The gargoyle planted herself on one of the stools before me.

 

“Something thick and brown,” Cherif said brightly. “And thank you. But I am actually here concerning your other talent.”

 

I snorted. “Gee, how’d you know I’d been learning piano?” I chose the tallest of the mugs and filled it with a brown bottle labeled ‘The Luck of Osiris,’ our heartiest stout. You could build a pyramid after drinking that shit. You could practically build a pyramid out of it.

 

He smiled and raised his glass. “You’re funny, Hugo. But no, this isn’t a hospitality job. This is about… infrastructure.”

 

“Oh yeah? We finally getting a proper sewer?” Into the gargoyle’s mug went a dangerous amount of Dracula’s Enervating Elixir, served neat.

 

“In time,” he said. “But not today. This is something different. Something big. An opportunity I’ve been after for some time.” He took a sip from his beer. Foam and sediment collected in his silver mustache. “How would you feel if you could make your way to the mainland any time you wanted?”

 

I shrugged. “Seems like it’d be nice to visit. Wouldn’t wanna live there.” I paused for a moment, considering. “S’pose I could stick it out for a few years, though. Even a bad job on the mainland pays better’n you can get here.”

 

He nodded rapidly. “Exactly, exactly. This is my whole business, you understand. When their wealth meets our wealth, we’re the ones who benefit. Libraries, hospitals, public schools… why should only they have these things? Because these things only happen where there is money. Where there is will.”

 

Something mean rose up in my gut just then so I poured a mug of The Luck for myself to drown it down. Cherif was telling the truth but what the hell was his point? “Sure is a shame most folk get tossed in the Error Zone for tryin’ to make that money,” I said. My tone came out a little abrasive, but what do you expect? Nine times outta ten somebody getting your hopes up is taking advantage of you.

 

“The Error Zone is a grave concern…” he admitted. He glanced at the gargoyle with a sideways smile. “I suppose it would be different if we didn’t have to worry about that.”

 

“I s’pose it would…”

 

He leaned in close, whispering. “So what if I told you Deluge was missing?”

 

Aw, geeze. Was that all? Deluge would sometimes wander outside her usual patrol route, usually when she had some secret work to do for HOMEFRONT. Rumors tended to spread if she went too long without making an appearance.  “Deluge wanders off all the time, Cherif. A few smugglers get lucky in the same week, that doesn’t mean she’s gone. Do you wanna be the jackass rowing across the bay the same night she comes back?”

 

“No… But I know where she actually is. And she’s not getting out anytime soon.”

 

I set my drink down, giving Cherif a hard stare. “How the hell would you know a thing like that?”

 

“That’s something you’d probably rather not know.” His voice was very gentle but his eyes were hard. “I am confident in my sources. We have a good shot- the best we’ll ever get.”

 

Cherif was making big promises. I peered into the brown-grey potion in my mug. What did I have here, exactly? Some shitty bar on the more neglected end of a blighted land? It was hard in that moment to believe I had very much to lose.

 

“Okay. I’ll bite. What’s the job?”

 

Cherif laid the plan out for me. He and a few jinn got their hands on something called a Bridge of the Requiter. It was unlike any bridge ever made by humans. It was shaped like a spool of thread and designed to get the right people to the right places as quickly as possible.

 

To cross the Bridge you’d need to meet some requirement set by its craftsman. If you were on the whitelist, the Bridge itself would teleport you from one end to the next in a blink of an eye. If you weren’t, the thing would appear to you as nothing but a single piece of unbreakable thread. The one Cherif commissioned was set so that it would only accept folks from New Pandemonium, meaning we could get to the mainland and back without having to worry about mainlanders swarming the island.

 

Plan was, Cherif and I would ride a boat out across the Bay to unspool the Bridge. Once it was out of a person’s hands it’d take on the full weight of a steel suspension bridge so we’d need the boat to sustain the weight of the unspooling sections. My job was to cast an illusion over the whole boat in case we ran into any border patrols.

 

I guess I should have mentioned that in case you’re not from around here. My people, the curupiras, we can toss illusions around wherever we go. It takes concentration and a bit of skill. I’m probably one of the best in town, on account it’s one of the better ways to liven things up in a ratty old bar like ours. There were a few on the island who were better but I had to reckon they were too smart to get involved in this kind of thing.

 

Just my luck.

 

Cherif would join us on the job, along with his gargoyle body guard whose name I learned was Claudette. She’d be our look-out and was a crack shot if things came down to the wire. Our big gun was this uptown lounge singer, name of Sinead Grey. She was a pureblood banshee who was rumored to be in good with the New Pandemonium Liberation Order, something she and the others likely had in common.

 

It confused me at first why Cherif would show up on a trip like this himself. No doubt it was handy having a telekinetic around, and he said as much, but we’d have been fine on our own. When we finally met near the beach that night I started to see why. Cherif had come decked out in a slick black suit and sapphire-studded necklace. This wasn’t just a business opportunity for him; it was an adventure.

 

Our first obstacle came from The Drowning Coalition. See, New Pandemonium is basically a dumping ground for the humans’ old fairy tales. And it so happens that humans are obsessed with critters that spend their time tricking people into drowning. Kelpies, sirens, rusalka, certain alojas, etc. There’s enough of ‘em that the gangs parceled out the whole shore ages ago. Anyone wanting passage to the bay had to negotiate a way past.

 

On the few occasions I had need to go to the water I’d just ask this bannik I know to handle ‘em. Lots of folks in town have weird compulsions like the drowning coalition but you can usually find some immune party to work as your intermediary. In this case that was Sinead. She pointed out a patch of Siren territory, then began singing this ugly deep note as they came into earshot. It was completely out of tune with the siren song, allowing us to walk through with nothing worse than a headache.

 

“You’re irreplaceable dear,” Cherif laughed as he helped Sinead onto his yacht. It had a pair of stairs leading down from the main deck into what looked like a living room. Up on the main level there was an enclosed cabin for the captain. Claudette leapt on top of the cabin with two flaps of her enormous wings.

 

Cherif had already tethered one end of the Bridge of the Requiter to the New Pandemonium shore. A luxurious gold suspension bridge flowed out behind us as if it were a part of the land itself, Its road paved with pulsating white light. After a few hundred feet it narrowed rapidly into the golden thread wrapped around the spool in Cherif’s hands. The thread was run in turn through a sturdy clamp. The whole yacht tipped down slightly where the clamp stuck out, right at the point where the unspooling thread became the Bridge.

 

Once we were all aboard Sinead asked if she could hold the spool and Cherif was happy to comply. Claudette pulled a deck of cards out from under her dewlaps along with another cigarette.

 

Just about everyone in town knows how to play Ombre. The names and faces change depending on which neighborhood you’re in and the rules get switched this way and that but the game scratches the same itch however you play. General courtesy says the deck’s owner sets the rules but Claudette just looked at Cherif who replied, ‘ottocento.’ We partnered up.

 

Claudette and I lost the first hand. Claudette and I lost the second hand. Cherif put a hand on Sinead’s knee and she giggled. Claudette tossed her cigarette into the water and leapt on top of the captain’s cabin. “Grid incoming,” she warned. “Better get ready.”

 

I looked out. There across the water was the edge of the Grid. Crisscrossing laser beams made what Cherif called a ‘geodesic dome,’ which I guess is like a ball but broken up funny. The whole contraption was MatronTek, energy-hungry and hugely expensive. Once we’d passed through it would signal border patrol with the results from its scan: four life forms, one vessel and zero visas.

 

“Do we have a way past it?” I asked. I tried to sound brave, but Claudette snickered at the crack in my voice.

 

“Don’t need one. HOMEFRONT’s all the way in D.C. and Deluge is out of the picture. Blueshift himself couldn’t get here in less than sixteen minutes, assuming he’d even answer the call. There’ll be a few patrol boats, maybe some normal cops once we get to shore. Nothing we can’t handle.”

 

I nodded but felt no relief as the laser beams washed over our boat, our bodies, our unspooling cargo. Sinead giggled as red light shimmered up her skin. “Like being scanned at the supermarket.” Cherif gathered the cards back together. I let the rustling of the shuffling deck draw me in while I sucked in the cold air of Proteus Bay. My illusions were already in place. To any outsider, we’d appear as another blank patch of water. There was nothing more I could do but enjoy the night and avoid thinking about the inevitable.

 

My first draw of the new hand came. Seven pentacles, five wands, the Tower. Nothing but bad omens. So much for cards. I dropped mine to the table. “Nope, nope. You guys might need to try Black Jack or something.” I turned instead to look out over the waters. Black in every direction, save the humming Grid and its reflection.

 

It was nice to get a few seconds of peace before things went all pear-shaped. Shame it couldn’t last. Claudette whistled twice to give us the signal, then circled low over the boat before we could cram our earplugs in. “We are in the mess, nanas!” She waved her rifle as if for emphasis. “Daddy’s coming with Little Brat and some of their buddies!”

 

“What? Daddy? Who’s daddy?” Cherif asked angrily.

 

“Eh… just… Daddy!” Claudette cried helplessly. She looked over her shoulder. Our pursuers were just barely visible now, four gleaming dots growing brighter.

 

“Okay, okay. We don’t lose our heads.” Cherif insisted. “Let them get close. We get one sneak attack and then our cover is blown. Hugo, for the love of god keep that illusion running. You two, wait for my signal.”

 

Claudette and Sinead nodded their assent while I jumped down to the bottom of the deck. No way I was getting sucked into the middle of a bonafide superhero fight. I looked out through the porthole and focused all of my willpower on maintaining the illusion around the boat. Our attackers, some kind of superteam I’d never seen before, came into view.

 

Their leader was the only one I recognized. Little Boy came in at the front, alongside a young lady in a suit, an American flag in the shape of a man and some girl dressed up as Torchbearer. Little Boy flew on his jetpack while the others rode gleaming crafts with silver wings and bird-skull faces.

 

They paused in mid-air and my breath caught in my throat. Cherif wasted no time. Red Snow hadn’t even lit up his laser cannon before he was caught in the Yumboe’s telekinetic grip. Sinead, meanwhile, unleashed her scream. Even with the earplugs it was the worst sound I’ve ever heard, like you dropped an orgy of cats into steel drum. It broke my concentration. Nausea wracked my body and the illusion fell away.
It’ll be fine, I told myself as I curled up in pain. Sinead had taken out two in one blow and Claudette opened fire on the remainder. Soon this junior border patrol would be sleeping with the fishes.

(7.3) Agent Litework At the Crossroads

It was a beautiful day for everything in Cincinnati that didn’t belong to Malcolm Crowe. After our morning negotiations I walked as far as my stolen legs would take me, hoping to put a little space between myself and the gloom of the Twin Saints offices. Even once I was past the edge of the ever-present clouds and bathed in the morning light I could feel the shadows behind me.

 

After a mile and a half I realized I’d spend my entire break wandering aimless unless I forced myself to stop so I grabbed breakfast while I waited for our meeting. I sat at the window, restless, nothing but cheap eggs and grungy magazines to keep me company. Groundcars roared in the street outside and a little girl ran ahead of her parents. A chill rippled through me. It would take so little force to ruin that family. So little time.

 

A few short hours later it was time to return to Crowe’s office to touch base with the others. Curt was waiting with Malcolm when I arrived, a green tea and a cold mineral water both waiting on the table. I swiped the water. “How’d you know?” I asked. My cells sang for joy as pure, clean water filtered through them. Maybe it was time to go easy on the drinking.

 

“Didn’t need to,” Curt replied. “You got the jalapeno poppers?” I patted my bag and nodded. The morsels inside were as psychoactive as they were repugnant, regurgitated by the lanky data-monster born from RADFRONT’s old archives. Curt nodded with approval. “Malcolm here doesn’t believe they taste as bad as I say.”

 

Crowe held a glass of dark liquid in front of his face. “There’s nothing a well spiced rum won’t cover up.”

 

“Won’t help,” Curt replied breezily. “Though it might be good for the headache.”

 

Malcolm sighed. “I miss reading. Speaking of.” He reached backwards to produce the notebooks I’d delivered to him that morning. “I got copies of these back from Lily about an hour ago. Interesting stuff. Almost makes up for the fact that you botched the actual mission objective.”

 

Curt and I exchanged a look. “History will vindicate us,” he said.

 

“Damn straight. We’ll be greeted as liberators.” I raised about a dozen phantom fists into the air before realizing that nobody could see them.

 

Soon after we were joined by Yaritza. She arrived in her butterfly form, thousands of butterflies swarming from the vent in Crowe’s office to make a human-shaped swarm in the middle of the room. Even before all of them had assembled they started melting together into feet, legs, torso, arms, face. “Sorry for the wait,” Yaritza said. “Malcolm, you were right about the ghost meadow. Mind if I pass a pollen sample down to Barleycorn?”

 

“Go ahead,” he replied.

 

She looked down at the tea steaming on the table. “For me?” She plucked it from the saucer and took a sip. “Wow, perfectly steeped. Good work, Agent.”

 

“Enough small-talk, folks.” I pulled the info-popper and info-pastry from my bag. I placed the pastry on Yaritza’s saucer, “For the birthday girl.” I placed the popper in Malcolm’s hand, “for the… you.”

 

“Thanks,” they replied in completely different tones.

 

“Make sure you’re seated somewhere comfortable before you dig into those,” Curt warned. “You’re going to drop out of your surroundings just as the flavor becomes unbearable. Try laying down on your side in case you throw up.”

 

Crowe sat at his desk while Yaritza curled up sideways on the couch next to Curt. “Bon apetit,” he told her.

 

“Bon voyage,” she replied. She scarfed her morsel down, wincing only slightly.

 

Malcolm was less stoic. “Great gristle of Golgotha,” he hissed through cheddar-drenched teeth. He filled his mouth with rum, swished the mix between his cheeks, buckled over with eyes bugged out and pounded on the table as he made one final heroic swallow. “Glack!” he cried. He fell face forward. His head thunked the table and he was out.

 

Curt and I shot the shit for an hour or so while Crowe and Yaritza were trapped in their data-dreams. We managed to stick to safe topics- weather, sports, which secret prisons the Executive kept various ex-wives in. Typical chit-chat. Between two spies that was no easy feat. It takes concentration to say nothing.

 

Before long we were greeted by dry heaving from Yaritza and much wetter heaving from Malcolm. “Zut alors!” Curt cried with a start. He pat Yaritza gently on the back while black rum and depleted queso splattered on Crowe’s desk. “You okay, Flutterby?”

 

“Don’t get so friendly, Agent,” she managed to choke out. “Bring me a fucking pencil.”

 

“No, no, don’t mind me,” Malcolm muttered once his guts stopped spasming. He rang the buzzer on his desk. “Lily, get me clean-up and a pitcher of lemon water.” He looked down and made a disgusted sound. “And another tie. One with a happier skull on it.”

 

Yaritza scrawled into her journal with the same mad drive that had gripped Curt and me earlier. Malcolm was in no such hurry. “What’s the hold-up?” I asked.

 

“It’s Malphas. He… stole the vision, for lack of a better word. Let me keep the nausea, of course.” He spat a bit of vomit into a nearby trash can. “He must be mad that I signed a contract without consulting him.”

 

“Why would you need to do that?” Cash asked. Yaritza mouthed words to herself as she stared wide-eyed at her paper.

 

“We’re legally entangled at a metaphysical level. Any law that binds me binds him and vice versa. If I go to prison in the material world, he gets sentenced in Bird Hell.”

 

“I thought he ruled Bird Hell,” Cash protested.

 

“Nobody’s above the law in Bird Hell. Otherwise, what’s the point?” He shrugged. “I’m communing with him tonight anyway. I’ll have to get the details then.” A sly smile took his face. “It would do to have some company. Litework, you could probably use some more first-hand experience with magic.” Smooth. Now I’d have cover when I came back in the evening to finalize the contract to save my sister’s soul. No sense letting the others catch on to our arrangement.

 

“I’ll be there,” I replied.

 

Not long after a pair of janitors came in to clean the vomit from Crowe’s desk. With them was Lily, Malcolm’s secretary, a stern-eyed succubus with a pitcher of lemon water. Crowe thanked her with unusual politeness while she directed the janitors in their chores.

 

Shortly after they left Yaritza reared up from her notebook, blew out a huge breath of air and finished her entire cup of tea in one go.

 

“YOUTHFRONT!” she cried, tea dribbling from the corners of her mouth. “It’s what they’re calling that project in Westchester. Some kind of… super-teen internship. Doc Zeno’s running it.” She held her notebook out and I plucked it up with a phantom hand. “Seems she was accessing files on three of the kids before visiting Gammon. Codenames Slumberjack, Wunderkind…” She cupped her face in her hands. “…Torchbearer.”

 

Malcolm laughed. Cash just looked confused. I scanned our earlier notes for context. The Torch had been dormant ever since the New Years Eve attack. Most folks assumed it would never find a new host. There was an entry about it in the schematic I’d written after my popper-vision. “Looks like the Torch lit itself up in RADFRONT headquarters the same day P!ss Frog defeated the Decoherence Strategy.”

 

“Right. And just one month before that, Mac Stevens’ heart disappeared from storage,” Malcolm added.

 

“Damn, nobody’s mentioned a thing about that at VICEFRONT,” Curt said. “They must have covered it up.”

 

“Of course they did. If these are connected then Gammon’s inside woman was behind it,” I replied. “Which means we need to figure out who she got that heart to.”

 

“Have we got anything else on the super-interns?” Crowe asked.

 

Yaritza snatched back her notes and flipped through them. “Slumberjack and Wunderkind are both unusual cases. I’m not even sure if they technically count as supers. Wunderkind’s profile lists no powers or artifacts. Slumberjack’s mentions something called an ‘Othernatural Dermal Substrate,’ whatever that is.”

 

“Ahhh, a skinjob!” Crowe said with delight. “That was one of ours. Beautiful concept I developed with Dr. Dale.” He poured himself another glass of lemon-water. “We’ve got ways of turning a man into a suit, body and soul. Very handy if you’ve got a super-criminal you can’t rehabilitate, or if you just want the benefits of a power without committing to an infection.” He smacked his lips after a long sip. “I’m amazed to see one finally get deployed.”

 

“I don’t want to ask this,” Curt began, “but what do you mean, turn a man into a suit?”

 

Crowe shrugged. “You know,” he mimed the act of skinning a man with a knife, injecting just a bit too much detail into the performance. “Hollow ‘im out, keep him alive and semi-sentient with a bit of magic, then slip him onto a loyal soldier or valued customer. It’s very promising work. Theoretically, you could steal anyone’s powers… so long as they’ve got skin, at least.”

 

Yaritza gave Crowe a hard stare. “…That vision. I saw a place. People cut up and covered in zippers. You did that?”

 

He shrugged. “Like I said, joint effort. What about the other kid? Wunderkind?”

 

Yaritza seemed reluctant to speak. Then Malcolm did that thing where the corners of his eyebrows curl up like the Grinch and the temperature drops in the room. Ice twinkled in his lemon water. Yaritza pressed on. The temperature returned to normal. “Wunderkind farms ghosts, basically. Uses old videogame servers like beehives for dead Vikings. A kind of virtual Valhalla.”

 

“Derivative,” he snorted. “Not to mention lowbrow. Regardless, it sounds like we have our \ next steps. We’ve got to figure out where Mac Stevens’ heart went and get Malphas to choke up my vision.”

 

“There’s names in my notebook we should track down as well. Any one of them could blow this wide open,” I noted.

 

“All in due time,” Yaritza said. “We’ll nail assignments down after Malcolm has his midnight meeting with the bloody crow.”

 

“Agreed.” Malcolm said. Then, looking at me, “see you tonight.”

 

* * * * * * *

 

Malcolm had instructed me to meet him in the sub-basement where the New Pandemonium villa lay. He had arranged the entire floor into an artificial town, complete with plasma screens on the wall and ceiling to simulate an open sky. The whole town was arranged in four blocks with a black dome sitting at the center of the crossroads. Since the Twin Sants offices were themselves situated at the middle of a crossroads that made this dome a crossroads within a crossroads, perfect for communing with devils.

 

A few Twin Saints employees allowed me inside, a sasquatch with a hand-held metal detector and a human being in a hazmat suit with a strip of paper attached to the forehead. Therein I saw a massive black crow laid out on its side, about eight feet across at its breast. Around it was scrawled the Pentacle of Malphas in what appeared to be a mixture of ash and some kind of fat. Malcolm stood nude by the bird’s massive throat, two live crows tied to chains around his shoulder and a silver blade in each of his hands. Overhead hung another artificial sky, this one showing different constellations from the one right outside the dome.

 

“Welcome to the astrologenius,” he called. “The stars are right and the sacrifices are ready.”

 

For a moment I simply scanned the room, taking in the scope of Malcolm’s conjuration scheme. This was what happened when you dove into the occult with full industrial infrastructure and corporate backing. It seemed so involved. And somehow even more sacrilegious. “Is this the only way to summon him? Earlier you said you can do that on command.”

 

“I can, if we want him and not an avatar of him. We don’t want that. We really, really don’t want that.”

 

“Gotcha.” I nodded. “Then let’s go.”

 

I took a seat inside the circle while Malcolm recited a dark prayer in some patois of ancient tongues. The crows chained to his shoulders cawed wretchedly and flapped as hard as they could. Their chains pulled taut as they screamed. Malcolm wound his arms in semi-circles to reel in the struggling birds.

 

When they were close enough, he slit one crow’s throat with each knife before scraping the blades against each other. Their blood mingled together and he plunged the blades into the top of the giant crow’s breast. He yanked them down with all of his weight, producing a great gash that rained blood over his head.

 

Once he was painted head-to-toe in blood he took a step back. Something inside was moving. From out of the giant crow’s wound stepped two figures. The first was scrawny, hunched and bald all over. It staggered on long yellow talons and held warped arms to its chest. They were bent and crooked like birds’ wings stripped of feathers. It was only when she looked up and gasped, green eyes framing her ragged mouth, that I recognized Roselia.

 

We embraced. The crow’s blood was hot and sticky against her skin but I didn’t care. I kissed her cheeks and forehead. She first tried to hold me in her twisted bird-arms before pressing them against her chest and leaning into my shoulder. Phantom arms gripped her tight, as many as I could summon without crushing her. I wanted so badly to have arms with flesh and bone of their own. She shook. Short screeches burst from her throat, but her eyes made no tears.

 

“Oh sis,” I whispered. “You’re free.”

 

Her eyes were so much older than I remembered. “I don’t think that’s how it works,” she rasped. Her voice was a dry, tortured sound. An animal choking.

 

Then, more stirring from inside the fallen beast. Ribs and meat parted as the devil prince Malphas stepped through. He was massively obese, nearly twice the size of me, five hundred pounds of flesh in a coat of bloody back feathers. His beak curled sharply downwards, seemingly too crooked to even open, yet open it did to let loose his terrible voice.

 

“Beware, girl-ape.” It was the same sound I’d heard before in Malcolm’s office, someone sawing meat at the bottom of the world. “You bargain with sin.”

 

Roselia tensed even more in my arms. “It’s not worth it, Lucilla.” Malcolm smirked to hear my name. “Nothing is.”

 

I filched a pack of cigarettes from Malcolm’s coat, folded at the edge of the summoning circle, and brought it to my lips. “ That’s right, corkscrew. Your boy here already signed on the dotted line.” I stared Malphas in the eye. “So you’d better not fucking disappoint me.”

 

Then, in defiance of all geometry and aesthetics, the blood-drenched crow bent its beak into a smile.

Force Unfollow Them All and Let the Algorithm Sort Them Out

Hey, gang! For some reason I got a huge rash of bot followers yesterday. I force-unfollowed the lot of them out of generalized cyber-paranoia. If you happened to subscribe yesterday and coincidentally have an outlook e-mail address that looks like a string of random characters, please accept my sincere apologies and feel free to try again after the bot-wave has passed.