Jim: “Dooo…I have a suspicion of who this is?”
Jason: “You can suspect anything you fucking like, but you do know what Chinese people look like.”
Me: “And you do know you’re looking for one.”
Jim: “Right, but does she fit my perception of the appearance of the person I’m looking for?”
Jason: “Well she’s probably not Norton. And if it’s Perpenna, well…he’s had some work done.”
Georgia and the Void Engineer lieutenant are making their way back across the stark landscape when they notice something up the cliffs, catching the fading rays of the already dim sunlight: the opening of a tunnel, large enough to have been bored by something like the massive worm they just left behind. The lieutenant wants to continue back to the rest of the team, but Georgia can’t pass this mystery up and leap-climbs up to investigate. The other woman sighs and follows.
The tunnel is round and almost perfectly smooth, a straight shot down into the mountain, losing itself in the darkness. Georgia and the Void Engineer peer down it quietly.
Georgia turns to her. “So, shall we investigate?”
The woman glares back. “Do you have any idea which version of Pluto we’re on?”
“Then no! We’re not in any of the major polyrealities, so who knows what the hell we’ll find down there.” She pauses, glaring into the dark. “I really hope we’re not in some sort of personalized shard realm, because if this is, it means Snodgrass is powerful enough to make one, which means we’re all screwed.”
Georgia shrugs. “Assuming he’s here.” Georgia realizes they should make at least a cursory effort to look for him before returning, so despite the lieutenant’s protests, she continues climbing up to the top of the ridge.
Razor-sharp peaks extend in every direction toward a horizon strangely foreshortened and curved. There’s no sign of Snodgrass’s ethership, but in the far, far distance, Georgia spots a golden building towering over the mountains, shaped like an orthodox onion dome and glowing against the backdrop of stars.
As the lieutenant scrambles up next to her, Georgia radios back to the captain, reporting on the discovery and saying they’re heading toward it. Before the lieutenant can protest, Georgia leaps off the peak and starts making her across the landscape toward the building, like some particularly cold and forlorn level of Tiny Wings.
An hour or so later, the rest of the Void Engineers—Jawahar in tow—intercept Georgia and the lieutenant on their way across the landscape and join the trek. Unfortunately, now with more people—some of them injured—their progress slows considerably. Georgia gets impatient and pulls ahead on her own, eventually getting comfortable enough in the low gravity to leap directly from ridgetop to ridgetop.
As she approaches the tower, realizes it’s more a palace, gilded and domed, with multiple small towers and minarets surrounding a large central one. A beam of light, tight like a laser, shoots from the pinnacle of the center tower up into space. Giant glowing crystals the size of a cars sprout from the icy soil, get thicker closer to the palace. There’s no sign of movement anywhere. Georgia sits down to wait for the rest of the group, losing herself in the panoply of stars.
(Jason: “If you were a Toreador you’d be done.”)
Finally the group catches up, joining her on the ridge. The Void Engineer captain pulls out a device and points it at the building, frowning at the screen. “Scanners aren’t picking anything up, the thing looks deserted.”
Georgia shrugs. “Well, what do you want to do?”
The captain stares across the razor-tipped landscape. “We don’t even know if this is where Snodgrass is going, or if it’s the location of those whales you mentioned. But, still, it’s the only thing in sight.”
“Maybe there’s a garage with a new ship in it!”
“Possibly.” He puts away the device. “Let’s have a look.”
They approach cautiously, passing between the glowing crystals, entering through an arched gateway into a courtyard in front of the palace. The Void Engineers fan out scanning the area with a variety of equipment.
After some searching, Georgia finds what looks like a door and gropes at it. It opens with a puff of condensed air, revealing what looks like an airlock. A few crew members follow her inside. They find some controls in the wall to cycle the airlock, and step through the far door once it completes.
The inside of the palace is, in fact palatial. A corridor spreads before them, with marbled tile floors and columns, vaulted ceilings, and what appears to be Arabic calligraphy decorating the walls. They make their way through, footsteps echoing clearly in the giant space. At the end of the corridor they enter a larger, even grander hall, lined with curtained alcoves.
In one of these alcoves, the curtain is moving, billowing slightly in an unfelt breeze.
Georgia strides over and sweeps the curtain aside. The alcove beyond is empty and appears identical to the others they passed, but instead of calligraphy, the mosaic wall is decorated with a strange spiral pattern. Georgia recognizes it as some sort magical circuit, some “hermetic nonsense,” that takes one type of energy and converts it to another, but details beyond that are beyond her.
So, Georgia does what any rational person would do: she smears some of her blood on it to see what happens.
The pattern glows, then the entire wall groans and shifts, sliding aside to reveal a hidden passage disappearing into the dark.
The Void Engineers walk over as she stares down it, activating headlamps on their helmets. The light only penetrates a few inches before getting swallowed up by the nothingness that fills the hall. Georgia peers into the darkness, then shrugs, conjures a palm of flame in her hand, and strides into it.
Darkness engulfs her, thick like a Nocturne but not cold. She can feel walls brushing past but the light from her hand is barely enough to illuminate her face. The mages behind her don’t seem to have followed, but she continues forward anyway.
Suddenly there is a sound from far behind, but it’s not the mages. An undulating howl slides across octaves and sends chills down her spine. Georgia hesitates…then keeps moving forward.
After some minutes of this, she senses something big and heavy following her. She stops, turns, and holds her firelight out in front of her.
Something huge and fur-covered looms in the small circle of light, with massive dragging arms like an ape. She looks up to its head, but there is none. As she stares it lifts its hands, extending them toward her. They’re five-fingered like a humans, but fanged mouths split the palms, snarling and slashing inches from her face.
Georgia shrieks, throws her handful of flame at the thing, and runs the fuck away.
She stumbles out of the tunnel into a large chamber, gloomy but bright-seeming after the oppressive abyss of the tunnel. She’s perched on a walkway encircling a large pit, almost completely filling the chamber. Other tunnels lead into new directions on the far side. The headless yeti doesn’t seem to have followed her, yet, so carefully, she scoots to the edge of the pit and peers over.
Something churns in the darkness below, felt more than seen, deep rumbles and sick wet slithers. Georgia stares a moment, then clears her throat delicately. “…Hello?” she calls. “Are you dangerous?”
More rumblings, and an echoing gurgle.
“Would you like to come up here?” Another rumble. “…Or would you like me to come down there?”
The darkness stills. Georgia leans over further….
…Till something flies out of the pit, followed by a shriek like the rending of the universe. Georgia stumbles back and blasts a gout of flame at the object. It falls to the walkway and rolls to a stop against the wall. Georgia approaches carefully, peering at the smoldering figure….
“Paul!” She hurries over and tries to smother the flames with the folds of her umbrella-suit. He yells and rolls against the ground till the fire goes out. Blearily, he sits up, alive, though medium-badly burned.
(Jason: “Paul, to explain what has happened to you in the last day or two would be very very hard, because it’s been a riotous assemblage of transportation and craziness.”
Kara: “Like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles?”
Jason: “Yeah, but sort of even worse. It’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles crossed with Labyrinth…and Event Horizon.”
Chris: “Arggh!! Nope, line crossed!”
Jason: “Yeah. It’s been that kinda night. You’ve been everywhere and nowhere. In fact you may have been thrown into the sarlac pit before emerging here.”)
Paul grabs Georgia’s face and pulls her close. “Are you real!?””
“Argh, yes!” She protests and tries to pull away, but his grip is a vice.
“This is like the fourth time I’ve found you tonight! Are you the real Georgia!?”
“Yes!!!” she yells.
He lets go and grabs his ears. “Arrgh! Not so loud…”
Georgia glances at the pit, which rumbles again ominously. “How long have you been here? Did you find the whales?”
He curls up, murmuring to himself. “Where’s here?”
“We’re in the palace. On Pluto.”
“…Which Pluto?” he whispers.
Georgia beams. “This one.”
Paul gropes at his clothes, pulling out and peering at an assembly of instruments, each more baroque than the last. Most of them appear to be made out of kitchen implements.
Georgia stares at the pile. “Did Dr. vonNatsi send you?”
Paul ignores her, staring at something that looks like half a BlendTec blender glued onto a tablet. Georgia carefully tries to take it from him, but he whips it away. “NOPE! This is very important! He said it keeps me from getting unstuck in time!”
Intrigued, Georgia is about to ask how, when a commotion erupts from the tunnel behind her, a sound of thumps and scrabbles against the stone. Paul and Georgia freeze.
“Georgia,” Paul whispers, “Who else is here?”
“Um, well there’s a creepy headless yeti with mouths for hands.”
“…Really,” Paul says flatly. “Was it nice?”
“Yeah.” She hesitates. “Well…until I lit it on fire.”
“…I feel you should perhaps be more careful with throwing the fire in the future.”
They get up and hurry down another tunnel, one not making horrible noises, Paul lighting the way with the light from his phone, and arrive in a large cavern. Stalagmites and stalactites loom from the darkness, some veined with alien ores that glitter in the cool light. Georgia steps forward, entranced by the beauty, but Paul sees movement at the edges of the shadows, followed by a strange hissing noise.
Having seen enough, he grabs Georgia’s hand and drags her back down the hallway to the pit room. They’re followed by an unearthly yowling that echoes down the tunnel. Paul and Georgia stare around, torn between heading back toward the headless-yeti, the unidentified enemy, or facing some new horror down one of the other hallways. As they stand there, a new noise joins the cacophony, echoing down a tunnel to their left.
It’s yelling. Human yelling.
Paul and Georgia race toward it, bounding in long, slow leaps in the low gravity. They fly through the dark tunnel, focused on the light at the end of it, till suddenly something steps in front of it—
Paul braces his feet to skid to a stop, Georgia crashing in behind him. A misshapen thing looms at at the end of the hall, studded with baroque limbs and armaments.
“I come in peace,” Paul shouts with his full force of Majesterial-authority, “Do you come in peace also?”
The thing staggers back…then removes its helmet with shaking arms. Dr. vonNatsi’s face appears, staring at Paul from behind one of three sets of goggles on his head. “Paul?…Ms. Johnson!?”
Paul staggers in relief and slumps to a seat. “Doctor. We found her.”
Our wine country weekend over, Team Tom is now vacating Marin. Sophia and I are back in the humvee, making our way to Berkeley as fast as reasonably possible, to find Leeland before the Talons do first. Slayer, meanwhile, has been sent off with the taco truck and most of the arsenal to find a new hideout for us, the desired real estate variables being, A) not werewolf territory, and 2) not an asshole part of the city.
(Jason: “So…where’s that gonna be?”
Me: “I don’t know, he’ll figure it out.”)
Sophia and I are quiet on the drive. I’m still reflecting on what happened with Marcus. Considering her feelings about the kid, I don’t even want her to know about her imaginary involvement in his hostage scenario. She, meanwhile, is staring out the window, lost in her own thoughts. Part of me wants to ask what they are, but right now the silence in the car is actually companionable. I decide to just enjoy that feeling, for awhile.
We cruise easily along an empty Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, passing the fortress of San Quentin, but as we round the point to approach the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, flashing lights in the distance make me slow.
A National Guard checkpoint. Shit, I forgot all about those….
“Tom?” Sophia says nervously, sitting up.
“It’s alright.” I glance in the back. The weapons I brought with us—mostly Vera and some of the Panzerfäuste—are covered by a tarp, and I tuck the sword out of sight. “I got a plan for this, just stay calm.” Sophia nods mutely, but she straightens further and buckles her seatbelt.
Fatigue-clad men and women stand in a halogen-lit area at the base of the bridge, surrounded by military vehicles and flashing lights from CHP cruisers. They stare as a humvee identical to their own rolls to a stop in front of them. Sophia and I sit tensely as they mutter among themselves and into their radios. Finally, a woman with an assault rifle on her shoulder walks over and gestures for me to roll the window down.
(Garvin: “Wait, is this a military-issue humvee?”
Garvin: “It won’t have power windows, the ones I had were plastic panels that zipped up.”
Me: “Zipped up!?”
Garvin: “Yeah. Oh also, there’s no heating or AC, so have fun with that. And you should also be aware that military vehicles don’t have keys.”
Me: “Oh, shit, really? So Sophia didn’t have to jump it for me?”
Garvin: “Yeah, they just have levers to start. They’re very easy to steal, which is why we usually post guards around them. Oh, and your seats suck.”
Cameron: “And the suspension.”
Garvin: “Ha-ha, what suspension would that be!?”)
The woman watches me cooly as I unzip my window and fold it down. “Evening. You, ah…got a nice ride here.”
I grin weakly and pour energy into Awe. “Uh, thanks, I was just taking it back to…the depot.”
“The depot? Which depot?”
My mind races. “…Camp Parks.”
She scans the side of the car, hesitating on the mud splattered across it from our ride through Marin, and from being parked in Lake Merritt before that. “You’re at Camp Parks? What unit?”
Mind running again, I suddenly realize, “There…are no units at Camp Parks, it’s a training facility.” I resist the urge to beam in triumph.
“Yes, but units have been stationed there since the governor called us.” Her fingers drum on the butt of her rifle.
“Oh, yeah. Sorry, I mean….” I cast around the vehicle, looking for any identifying marks, “….TH3-54-80,” I blurt, reading out a number stenciled on the dash.
The woman stares a long moment. “…That ain’t a unit I’ve ever heard of…” She jerks her chin at me, “…And that ain’t a uniform. And…who’s she?”
Ice climbs through me. I glance at Sophia. She’s slouched in her seat again, face half-hidden in her hands.
“Sir, if you could get out of the car, please,” the woman says firmly. I glance around. More soldiers and cops are wandering over, a few reaching for their weapons.
Moving slowly, calmly, I lean out the window, glancing back. “Okay, but I should probably back out of the road in case someone else comes, is there anything behind me?” The woman follows my gaze back, gesturing some of her men out of the way.
And then I floor it, leaping forward, crashing through the blockade of cars in front of me, racing onto the bridge.
(Me: “LEEEEROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOY, h-JENNNNNKIIIIIIIIIIIINSS!!!!”)
Dr. vonNatsi puts his suit helmet down, still shaking. “Ve are never doing zat again! Ze etheric transportation unit vas never meant to do zis!!!”
“Dr. vonNatsi!” Georgia throws up her arms excitedly. “Did you know that Pluto is a dwarf planet?”
vonNatsi freezes. “Says…who?”
“The IAU,” Paul mutters.
vonNatsi stares, then falls to his knees, thrusting balled fists to the ceiling. “…VILE BETRAYAL!!!!”
Georgia hurries over to calm and help him back to his feet. “Doctor, Doctor…I came here with some reality police—“
“—After Snodgrass blew up their ship. They’re here to get Snodgrass. I think we’re in his palace.”
He gapes at her, then shakes his head, resettling the goggles on his face. “One thing at a time. Vere are ve?”
“Ja, und do you know vich Pluto?”
“It’s got big worms, and some sort of Arabian-esque palace with a labyrinth inside it.”
There’s a muffled bong, and they turn to see Paul talking into his phone. “Siri, which Pluto are we on?”
A hideous burst of gibberish spews from the phone, sending shivers up their spines. Georgia frowns, perplexed, but Paul frowns thoughtfully. He doesn’t understand the words, but some of them seem familiar, like something he read once.
vonNatsi waves it off and turns to Georgia. “You’ve gotten to Pluto, how did you get to Pluto?”
“I made a circle.”
“Ja, vere did you make ze circle?”
“The reality-police’s ship.”
“You keep speaking of ze reality-police, who are ze reality-police!?”
“They’re these mage-dudes who don’t like other mages, or vampires—“
His suit clatters as he stumbles back. “…You were with the Technocracy?!”
“Yeah, that’s them. Anyway, they agreed to work with me because Snodgrass blew up their engines and I had the only way off their ship. Which was the blood circle.”
“What is a Technocracy?” Paul asks, still fiddling hopefully with his phone.
“The mages I was with. They hunt down reality deviants.”
“And what is a reality deviant?” he asks.
“Us, apparently, and other mages,” Georgia says.
“And this Snodgrass?”
“Nein…he is a reality malefactor,” vonNatsi grumbles. “I have encountered the Technocracy before, zey do not like mein theories. They are the fascists who suppress SCIENCE!!!” He thrusts his fists to the ceiling again, then returns to the conversation as if nothing happened. “Ve must discover vhich form of Pluto we are on. Vat else have you seen?”
“A giant worm,” Georgia says flatly.
“Zere are giant worms on many Plutos. Vat else?”
“Umm, craigy peaks…tunnels in the mountains…golden glowing palace, which we are in…a headless yeti…a sparkly cave…oh, and hissing noises, back that way.”
“Hissing?” voNatsi’s eyes widen, comically-enhanced by the goggles, and he slowly draws a deathray from a pouch too small to have contained it. “Show me.”
Georgia leads them back to the cavern. vonNatsi steps into the lead as they enter the space, deathray at the ready, gaze tracing the perimeter of light cast by Paul’s phone. As before, things move at the edge of the shadows, now accompanied by small flecks, like reflective eyes, darting in and out of view.
“Hello?” Paul calls. The hissing happens again, coming from multiple points in the dark. Paul stifles a squeak and ducks behind vonNatsi’s armored suit.
“Ve must draw zem out, carefully. Slowly….” vonNatsi murmurs. He steps forward, Georgia next to him, peering into the darkness…
…Until the darkness flies at her face.
She screams and stumbles back, but the assailant—small, furry—lands on her shoulder, digging claws into the umbrella-suit to steady itself. Georgia screams again and Paul brings his phone around to illuminate them—
—It’s a cat.
Georgia stops. “…A cat!” she cries.
(Me: “YOU’RE A KITTY!”)
The cat wobbles awkwardly on her shoulder. Georgia reaches a hand up carefully and it bumps its head against her, purring.
“Well…that worked out better than I expected,” Paul mutters. More cats are now slinking out of the shadows around them.
(Kara: “It’s a cavern of kitties!?”
Chris: “A cat-vern?”)
“This is why you don’t shoot first,” Paul says as the whitest, fluffiest cat in the room comes over to rub itself on his dark clothes.
“Yes, I think we should paw-se before making any decisions in the future,” Georgia agrees.
Paul glances at the tunnel. “We might have to claw our way out of here.”
(Me: “I don’t know, I’m not really feline it.”
Chris: “Well you’re not very sharp.”
Cameron: “These are all just purr-fect.”
Chris: “Don’t worry, I’m sure we’re at the tail-end of the jokes. We’re kinda just littering them around now.”
Kara: “I’m sorry, I’m just kitten started.”)
Dr. vonNatsi, meanwhile, is starting wide-eyed at the cats. “Mein Gott….”
Georgia stops petting the one on her shoulder. “Doctor, are you ok?”
“I can’t believe it….ve have done it.”
“We have done what?”
“Ve have done it….do you not see?”
vonNatsi scoops a cat up and hoists it aloft. “VE’VE FOUND THEM!!!!”
“Found—“ Georgia’s eyes go wide. “—Are these the Plutonian space whales!?”
“JA!!!” One of the cats wanders over and vomits on the floor in front of them. Dr vonNatsi gasps and falls to his knees next to it.
“Well that explains a lot,” Paul mutters, then frowns. “Georgia, look at their auras….” Georgia hesitates, remembering the hallucinations and shit she had the last time she tried to read auras, but her curiosity overcomes her caution. The cat’s auras are bright, radiant like opals, and sparkling like a mage’s aura, which is strange enough, but extra-so when Georgia remembers that, in most cases, animals aren’t supposed to have auras at all.
“Look!” Dr. vonNatsi holds up a vial of cat vomit in a shaking hand. “Plutonian ambergris!
(Me: “Oh my god, Chris, Indy is worth millions.”
Jason: “Only if he’s a Plutonian space whale.”
Me: “Have you seen him?”
Jason: “…That’s a good point, he is a big fucking cat.”)
Paul, meanwhile, thrilled by being around animals who seem to tolerate his vampiric presence, is moving around the room, squatting to pet the cats, who immediately walk away the moment he does. “So…why are the…Plutonian whales…in an Arabian palace filled with headless furry monsters?” he asks as he moves between the cats.
As if on cue, a warbling, wet growl echoes from the passage behind them. The cats in the room freeze, then slink back to the edges the darkness, except the one still perched on Georgia’s shoulder. As one, Paul, Georgia, and Dr. vonNatsi turn to the tunnel.
The headless yeti is there, holding out its fanged hands, but it’s not alone. Behind it is something massive, dark and tentacular, filling the space like a writhing ball of worms. Georgia’s cat arches its back and hisses, but Georgia steps forward.
“Hello, Mr. Monster,” she says. “We met under unfortunate circumstances before…would you like to have a seat?”
The yeti steps into the room, then moves aside to let the monstrosity behind it advance with a squelching scrape on stone. The thing writhes faster, it’s very presence almost painful to look at.
“Hello, Tentacle Thing,” Georgia says. “Would you like a seat? Or a cat?”
The abomination writhes and lashes tentacles into the corners of the room. There’s a yelp from one direction, and the tentacle recedes, dragging with it a dead cat. Paul, Georgia, and vonNatsi stare.
(Kara: “It killed a cat?”
Kara: “…I light that fucker on fire.”)
Having earned the tentative blessing of John the Puma Man to pass through his territory—meaning he can now get to and from the Twilight’s Revenge using the circles—Anstis gets to work on the next steps in his elaborate plans. He’s finally gleaned some new necromantic knowledge from the book he recovered from Gus and is anxious to put it to work. Specifically, he wants to get in contact with the Shadowlands again, on his own terms.
Because he wants to talk to Carlos.
In the Shadowlands, Carlos’s base is Fort Gunnysacks, one-time headquarters of the Committee of Vigilance. The building doesn’t exist in the real world anymore, but a plaque marks its old location at Sacramento and Front, in the heart of the Financial District.
The street is empty at Anstis soars down toward the plaque, allowing him to pop back into human form without problem. He paces around, considering his plans, and tries to give Georgia a call. She doesn’t answer. Unperturbed, he next tries to call me.
RICHMOND-SAN RAFAEL BRIDGE
My classic rock ringtone suddenly blares from my phone. I grope at my pocket to shut it up, cause ain’t nobody got time for that right now. Gunfire erupts as our humvee races away, first the sputtering of pistols and rifles, followed by a deeper stattacco rumble I’ve now grown familiar with.
The M-2’s on top of their humvees.
(Jason: “Garvin, are the humvees armored?”
Garvin: “Ahh, no, if she’s in a National Guard vehicle, there’s more canvas than metal on that car.”)
Holes the size of my fist rip through the canopy around us. I jerk as a slug punches through my seat and hits my back, but it doesn’t do more than bruise. Trying to dodge only slows us down, so I floor it again, trying to get over the arch of the bridge—and out of their line of sight—as fast as possible.
“Girl!” I shout over the roar of the wind. “Can you give us some cover fire?” Sophia groans in response and I glance over.
A gaping crater the size of a softball has been blown through her chest, spraying blood and viscera over the dash. I jerk in shock, weaving the car. “SOPHIA?!”
Anstis frowns as my phone goes to voicemail and hangs up. No matter, he can work on those other parts of his plans later, because right now he’s—
—Not alone. A woman has suddenly appeared, standing in the middle of the empty street a block away, where just moments ago there was no one in sight. Anstis stops, watching her cautiously. She’s dressed in a green brocade dress, hands clasped in the long draping sleeves, the patterned silk shining like scales in the light from the nearby shops, her long black hair hanging still despite the cold breeze.
And her face, watching him with cool serenity, is unmistakably Asian.
(Jim: “Dooo…I have a suspicion of who this is?”
Jason: “You can suspect anything you fucking like, but you do know what Chinese people look like.”
Me: “And you do know you’re looking for one.”
Jim: “Right, but does she fit my perception of the appearance of the person I’m looking for?”
Jason: “Well she’s probably not Norton. And if it’s Perpenna, well…he’s had some work done.”)
Anstis can’t pretend he hasn’t seen her, but he turns and calmly walks away, moving up the street. A block away, he turns to look at her again.
She’s moved forward as well, keeping same distance from him, statue-still in the middle of the street. Anstis tries jogging away, but when he turns back she’s moved up again, her posture unruffled.
Anstis stares a moment, then, straightening his coat and hat, approaches her. Her eyes track him, unblinking, and as he gets closer she unclasps her hands and draws a small knife out of her sleeve.
Anstis stops a few feet away and meets her gaze. “You will tell me who you are and what you’re doing here,” he growls.
She inclines her head in a light bow. “My name is Xia,” she says in smoothly-accented English. “I am here to do what must be done.”
RICHMOND-SAN RAFAEL BRIDGE
I grab Sophia’s shoulder with one hand, shaking her. She groans again, then suddenly explodes up into full-on werewolf, seven-foot form crowding her seat and shoving against the canvas roof. Her eyes blink blearily, but the crater in her chest starts to heal before my eyes.
Relief floods me, but it’s short lived. She’s in no condition for a firefight, if nothing else because we can’t let anyone see her like this. I return my hands to the wheel and focus on driving. Behind me, the guardsmen have pulled some of their cars around and are giving chase.
(Me: “Garvin how fast do the humvee’s go?”
Garvin: “Uh, I’ve gotten one up to 110.”
Cameron: “I believe you managed to get one airborne, if I recall?”
Garvin: “Yeah, that was a fun time. They didn’t let me drive after that.”)
The car radio suddenly crackles, yelling about a checkpoint breach heading south on the bridge. I smirk, imagining the chaos left in my wake.
Then the radio sputters again, “Get the far team ready, set up the crash barriers!!”
My grin falls. Uh-oh….
(Jason: “You didn’t think about that did you?”
Me: “Yeah…well, you know what I got a lot of in this car?”
As we reach the crest of the bridge, I see more lights and commotion at the far end of the causeway. Concrete barriers are being dragged into place. Grimly, I grope behind me for one of the Panzerfäuste. It may not blow up the things, but if I angle it right, I might shove them out of the way—
And then I see the soldiers, at least a dozen of them, positioning themselves on vehicles behind the barriers. My grip on the rocket slips. I really don’t want to kill these men—and women—just for doing their job in the face of my incompetence, but we can’t stop with Sophia still in gut-shot werewolf form. Even if she wasn’t, we’ve gone too far for things to go smoothly if we surrendered.
I have one more hope, though, so I wedge the rocket on my lap and grope for the radio. “You’re gonna wanna get out of the way!” I bark into the handset. There’s no response, and the people on the roadblock don’t move. I put the radio down, grim determination settling over me.
(Me: “Garvin, does the front windscreen fold down?”
Garvin: “I’m not sure. It’s not glass, though, it’s plastic, and I’ve seen it kicked out rather easily.”)
I smash out the windscreen with a single punch, sending it clattering to the road, then brace the Panzerfaust against the dash, watching the approaching roadblock carefully. Gunfire pings around us, but I ignore it, waiting till the hood of the humvee aligns with the blockade, then fire.
Time slows (but not in a Temporis way) as the rocket shoots forth, washing my car briefly with afterburn as it leaps ahead. The soldiers stop firing and look up as the missile flies overhead, landing directly on the engine block of a humvee behind them.
The car—and all of the arsenal it was carrying—instantly explodes.
A massive ball of fire consumes the roadblock, spilling over the edges of the causeway, mushrooming into the night sky. It twists on itself for a few seconds, then the flame clears, leaving the smoldering, red-hot skeletons of the cars, knocked onto their sides and twisted like abstract sculptures.
All the soldiers are gone.
(Chris: “Does Tom have to roll Humanity now?”
Jason: “Not yet, we’re still in combat.”
Julian: “Yes, let her finish committing the atrocity, then we can judge how severe it is.”)
I stare at the carnage, openmouthed, then realize it’s approaching, rapidly. The concrete barriers are still in place, so I grab another rocket and fire again, aiming lower this time. The explosion crashes across the center-most one, knocking off chunks and skittering it back. We glance off the side, bouncing and jerking, but keep moving forward. Once we’re clear, I floor it again.
“Jesus, Tom!” I look over. Sophia is conscious and back in human form, the only sign of her injury the hole in her shirt and the blood stains on her jacket. She’s braced against the frame of the car, twisted around to watch the burning wreckage recede behind us.
“Yeah….” I say grimly. I don’t know how much she saw, but she probably didn’t have to see much. She looks at me, wide-eyed, and my gut wrenches. “Look, if we had stopped, it would have been something similar, it just would have taken longer.”
“I know, I just—“
She’s cut off by a new burst from the radio. Our chase cars have apparently spotted the wreckage of the blockade and are shouting for instructions. Through the chaos, I hear someone identify us as moving south along I-80, and ask about something called the “fast mover.”
I glance at Sophia in confusion, but before I can ask, a new voice chimes in on the radio. “Time on target, 30 seconds….”
Sophia whips around and I glance at the mirrors. All pursuit has stopped at the blockade, and there’s nothing visible in front of us for miles, so what could—
A bright light suddenly blinks into existence, far out over the bay. It bobs a moment, then heads toward us, moving fast, accompanied by an ascending, whirring roar.
(Jason: “Don’t worry, it’s not an Apache.
Me: “…Why, cause Comanches exist in this world!?”
Jason: “No, no, it’s something much simpler. It’s just a Cobra.”)
Staring death at the monster before her, Georgia raises her arms, conjuring up a massive ball of flame like a miniature star, and hurls it forward. A shriek echoes across the cavern as the fire splashes over the abomination. Tentacles whirl like bullwhips, but rather than smashing the stalactites and stalagmites, they pass through them as if they weren’t even there.
Paul starts digging through his pockets, pulling out various devices and objects from his travels with vonNatsi, eventually coming up with a vial of something he was told was sandworm shit. He chucks it at the mass of tentacles and it shatters into a rotting, rancid cloud that fills the cavern. Any cats left in the area bolt, and a few of them start to vomit. Including the one on Georgia’s shoulder.
The yeti-monster—its lack of nose leaving it unaffected by the stench—lunges toward Paul. “STOP!” Paul commands with full Majesty. “Stop the tentacle monster! It is our duty to stop the tentacle monster!”
The yeti stops, staring at Paul sightlessly, but next to Paul, Dr. vonNatsi immediately gropes for a deathray and shoots the burning tentacle monster. Coiled beams fly out with suitable 1950’s sound effects and blast the creature with new explosions. It shrieks again and writhes faster.
Georgia lunges for another deathray strapped to vonNatsi’s suit, this one looking like a super soaker. She has a feeling it’ll do more than just shoot water, so as she pumps, she wills it to be something dangerous, aims, and fires.
Hydroflouric acid arcs across the cavern, traveling much further and straighter in the low gravity, splashing onto the wall above the creature. Acid and smoking rock rain down in an acrid cloud. The creature shrieks, then shrieks again as the yeti suddenly throws itself at it, rending the tentacles with claws and fanged-palms. Georgia fires the deathray again, drenching both monsters with acid.
“Surrender, and no harm will come to you!” Paul yells. Neither monster seems to respond, but before Paul can shout something else, there’s a gurgling burst, and suddenly the tentacle monster dissolves into a sticky, rancid green sludge.
The tentacle monster sludge fills the cavern with rank stench. Paul and Georgia immediately stop breathing, and Dr. vonNatsi struggles not to add to the collection of Plutonian ambergris on the floor.
The yeti-thing is still pawing at the sludge. Paul walks over and pats it on the shoulder. “Good job.”
“Could ve…get out of here…?” vonNatsi heaves. Georgia, though, realizing that the tentacle-sludge is now essentially a liquid, casts a brief bit of thaumaturgy to turn the entire mess into water. The smell clears not long after.
(Jason: “…And without realizing it, you totally just negated this horrible thing I was going to do.”
Jason: “Well as you approached the tunnel to leave, you were going to step in the sludge and it was immediately going to rear up and try to eat you. But…that was a totally correct action and I should have realized that.”)
Now that he can breathe, vonNatsi goes back to collecting ambergris from the floor, Georgia helping enthusiastically. Her cat remains perched on her shoulders, even as she bends over to scoop cat vomit into whatever vessels vonNatsi produces.
Finally vonNatsi stands up, suit clinking with filled jars and vials. “Zere. Zis should be enough to build ze golem eight times over! Ms. Johnson, do you know vat this means?”
“We just have to make sure Snodgrass doesn’t get his own.”
vonNatsi’s face darkens. “Ja, you are right…how should ve make certain of zis?”
“We should take the ca—the space whales with us!” Georgia suggests brightly.
“Nein! Ve cannot do this! Zey cannot live on Earth! Ze extended gravity would kill zem.” He see’s her perplexed expression and sighs. “Ze space vale on your shoulder, vat does it veigh?”
“Um…” Georgia bobs to test the weight. “Like twenty pounds?”
“Ja, now imagine vat it veighs on Earth! You understand? Zey have the approximate density of granite.”
Georgia nods stoically, but can’t hide a sliver of disappointment as she strokes the cat on her shoulder.
Paul, meanwhile, having been unsuccessful in communing with the yeti, returns to them. “Okay, so you say you came here with reality police? Do they need saving now?”
vonNatsi gapes. “Vhy vould ve vish to save ze Technocrats? Zey vill kill us all!”
Paul glares at him. “Are they people? Do they think, do they have feelings?”
“Adolf Hitler vas a person who thought und had feelings!”
“Yes, and it would be wrong to kill him too, or leave him to die!” Paul snaps.
vonNatsi stares at Paul, shifting experimentally between his multiple pairs of goggles. “Ms. Johnson, are you certain zis is a vampire? “
Georgia clutches Paul’s arm protectively. “He’s nice.”
“He is not nice, he is crazy!”
“Yes, but he’s our crazy.” She pats the arm.
“Ze technocrats vill kill you. It is in their charter!”
“Yes, and they denied their charter several times to get here with me.”
“Zis is because ze alternative vas starving to death in deep space!”
“Well, that is still their alternative. We are their only way off of Pluto.”
vonNatsi stares at her, then snatches the super-soaker deathray back and shoves it in a pouch next to his vials of cat-vomit. “HAS THE WHOLE WORLD GONE MAD?”
Footsteps suddenly echo down the hallway. They freeze, vonNatsi leveling two deathrays at the tunnel. The footsteps continue approaching, till a figure steps into the cavern.
“Reginald!” Georgia exclaims. “How very good to see you! Where is Snodgrass?”
Reginald scans the room, apparently completely unperturbed by the cats and the vomit and the lingering stench and the headless yeti wandering in the back of the cavern. “The master attends, madam.”
“Oh,” Georgia glances nervously at the cats, scooping off the one on her shoulders. “Do tell him not to come in here, we will be out presently.”
Reginald bows. “My apologies, madam.” Another set of footsteps echoes down the tunnel, heavier than Reginald’s, and Professor Snodgrass steps into view, clad in his trademark khaki, his musket rifle strapped to his back and a riding crop in his hand. He scans the cavern imperiously under the shadow of his pith helmet.
(Chris: “…I immediately hate this man.”)
Georgia rushes forward to intercept him. “Professor! I am so sorry, but there is not a spot of game in this cavern! We should move on!”
He stares at her. “Georgia Johnson? What is the meaning of this, this is most unorthodo—“ He freezes as his gaze lands on Dr. vonNatsi. “…Nazi….” He growls, the sound low and sinister.
“It’s spelled N-A-T-S-I,” Georgia corrects him.
“Teutonic menace!” Snodgrass brushes past her to face vonNatsi, who is staring back with equal rancor, deathrays still cocked.
“Ms. Johnson,” vonNatsi says slowly, keeping his goggled eyes on the taller man, “Ze professor und I must settle zis business now. Ve shall engage in a proper contest to see who is vorthy of taking the ambergris.”
Georgia looks between them. “Oh, dear, I don’t know if—“
“REGINALD!” Snodgrass bellows, extending a hand. “Fetch me my fighting trousers!”
“Very good sir.” Reginald bows and disappears up the hallway.
“Ms. Johnson!” vonNatsi snaps, voice uncharacteristically firm. “Locate your…associates…und return here after I have dispatched zis…hooligan!!” vonNatsi shoves the deathrays into their pockets and holsters, then draws himself up tall before Snodgrass. “Ve shall do zis in ze proper style of an Etherite und a gentlemen!”
Their glares intensify, neither of them admitting which of them is which.
Xia smiles at Anstis from a few feet away…then instantly she’s there, inches in front of him, swiping the dagger. Instead of gashing, though, it pricks, drawing just a bare welling of blood.
Anstis jerks his arm back, out of surprise rather than pain. Xia continues to smile. Anstis snarls and swipes at her with his claws—
—Which pass through empty air as she smiles at him from ten feet away. She tucks the dagger away in her sleeve, then instantly she’s even further away, halfway down the block. Irritated now, as well as confused, Anstis bolts down the block to lunge at her. She remains motionless, watching him calmly, continuing to smile as his claws snap through the air, ripping gouges in her dress and the chest cavity underneath.
Masses of coiled tendrils, dark like dried blood, burst from her wounds like a disemboweled fish, lashing grasping at Anstis. He staggers back as they amass, unfolding and writhing up over Xia, forming into a twelve-foot column of twisting, heaving things. One tentacle whips out, catching Anstis across the head and smashing him against a wall on the far side of the street.
Groaning, he levers to his elbows and stares. The mass continues to spin, whirling unsteadily like a dervish about to collapse, then suddenly disappears into the ground.
Anstis climbs to his feet and cautiously approaches the street. There’s no fissures, no cracks in the asphalt. Xia, and the thing she became, are just gone.
(Chris: “You’re really enjoying the tentacles tonight, aren’t you?”)
Anstis stares at the ground, then looks at his talons. Dark ichor drips down them. He carefully scrapes some into a bottle and tucks it away in his coat before retracting the claws. With that, he straightens his coat and swaggers back to the plaque about the Committee of Vigilance.
I get us off the freeway at the first opportunity, diving into the warehouses and industrial parks of northern Richmond. I find an alley between two abandoned-looking buildings, pull in and stop. “Girl,” I shout as I jump out, “Can you use that app of yours to jump us a new car?”
She climbs out too, jumping as the distant whine of the helicopter echoes off the buildings. By the sound of it, it’s reached the bridge and is following the freeway south. “Yeah, if we find one! Tom, there’s nothing here!”
I open the back of the humvee, slinging Vera on my shoulder and grabbing the remaining Panzerfäuste. “There’s gotta be some beater car somewhere. They won’t be looking for something like that. Here, can you carry some of these?” I hand out a Panzerfaust. She glares at me. “…I’ll let you keep some,” I add. At that, her eyes go wide and she starts grabbing rockets.
Once loaded, we abandon the humvee and jog awkwardly into the dark. Sirens have joined the helicopter’s roar, and by their sound, they’re getting off the freeway and fanning out into the industrial district. We move in silence, sticking to the shadows, and fortunately see the boxy shape of a car just two blocks away.
(Me: “What kinda car is it?”
Jason: “It’s, ah—“
Me: “Ooo wait! Can it be an El Camino?—NO wait! That’s super low and has an open back, not an El Camino!”
Jason: *grins* “It’s an El Camino.”)
“It’ll do!” I shout as I run up. “Can you start it?” Sophia comes up, shoves her armful of weapons at me, and pulls out her tablet. I stand awkward guard with my precariously-balanced arsenal, till the engine suddenly coughs and roars to life.
I dump the gear in the back, realizing then how obvious it looks to anyone we might pass. There was a tarp in the humvee, but as I turn to run back and grab it, a scream splits the neighborhood. The helicopter appears two blocks away, targeting the humvee in its spotlight. The sirens start to circle closer.
Time’s up. “Girl, get in,” I shout, but she’s already climbed across the bench seat. We pull out carefully, lights out, trying to avoid catching the helicopter’s attention.
Which unfortunately only makes us more suspicious when we turn the corner and run straight into another humvee patrol. They squeal to a halt in front of us, bringing their own M-2 around. Men jump out, approaching with weapons drawn.
I blink into their headlights, barely registering their shouts, resignation settling in. Even if I killed them all, the helicopter—armed with rockets of its own—is just seconds away. Maybe I can run for it, not to escape their artillery but to draw them away so Sophia can sneak off….
“Tom,” she whispers. I glance over. Instead of sitting paralyzed, she’s tapping at her tablet, face focused. “Stall them.”
“What?” I hiss back.
“Trust me, I just need a couple more seconds….”
One of the men whacks his rifle against my window, shouting for me to get out. With one last glance at Sophia, I climb out slowly, keeping my hands visible.
“Down on the ground!” they shout. I kneel, obediently folding my hands behind my head. One man in front of me grabs a radio. “This is the guy, we got them!”
(Me: “Goddamn Unforgettable Face….”)
Another humvee rolls up, its 50-cal already trained on me. My eyes dart around, trying to keep all the soldiers in sight, but there’s too many of them, and my heart sinks as I hear them call for the helicopter. There’s a roar over the warehouses as it circles a few blocks away….
…And then heads in the other direction.
I stare at it, perplexed, but the men don’t seem to have noticed yet. They order me flat onto the ground. I comply, glancing through the open driver’s door at Sophia in the car. She’s scrunched down out of their lights, tapping furiously at the screen.
One man drops a black duffel next to me and pulls out a pair of zip-cuffs. “Really?” I say, lifting an eyebrow, “That’s some cheap-ass fetish gear there, son, that the best you can—“
“SHUT UP!” he yells, kneeing me in the back and wrenching my arms back to secure them. “You crazy motherfucking—“
“It’s alright, Tom!” Sophia calls suddenly. “They’re done!”
Everyone looks at the car, apparently just noticing her. A few lift their rifles. “You sure, girl?” I call back warily.
“Yeah, I shut their guns off.”
I blink. “Oh, well….” With that, I get back to my feet, knocking off the soldier, and break the zip-cuffs with an easy snap.
“Motherfuck—“ Clicking erupts around me as the men trigger their rifles and the roof-mounted 50-cals, but not a single one fires.
I meet Sophia’s gaze. We grin at each other.
I turn to the men. “Right, okay, do one of you have a tarp we can borrow?”
The soldiers stare, grabbing for pistols, but those click uselessly too. Since no-one seems willing to help me at the moment, I brush past them to investigate their cars myself. I open the first humvee and dig around in the back, ignoring the guy up-top as he struggles to unjam whatever the hell is wrong with his M-2. One of the men on the ground finally tosses his gun away and tries to tackle me, but I pick him off with one hand and toss him back to the asphalt five feet away.
(Julian: “You know when they tell this story, Tom’s going to be half a foot taller.”
Jason: “No, there’s going to be seven of Tom.”
Me: “Ha! That sounds like a party.”
Chris: “That sounds like a nightmare.”)
Finally finding a tarp in their mess of gear, I grab that, as well as a few boxes of 50-cal rounds for good measure, and head back to the El Camino. Now the soldiers duck out of my way as I pass. I toss the ammo in the back, next to Vera and the rockets, and tuck the tarp over the entire thing.
Sophia watches me quietly as I get back into the car, then asks, “Why don’t we take one of the humvees?”
“Thought about it,” I mutter as I kick the Camino into gear. “But I seem to have better luck with the Douche-mobiles anyway.”
I wave jauntily out the window as we pull away, choking down laughter at the soldier’s expressions. One of them is yelling into his radio, whacking it against his leg as he realizes it’s not responding.
“Good job, girl!” I thump her on the shoulder as we pull out of sight. Sirens still echo in the darkness, but the helicopter is gone, and right now the neighborhoods look abandoned. Time is of the essence, but I decide to take surface streets down to Berkeley, just in case.
“Thanks,” she puts her tablet away and frowns the massive hole in her shirt. “I’m sorry I didn’t think of it before, but there wasn’t time at the first checkpoint, and then on the bridge I wasn’t really….” She trails off, picking at the dried blood.
“Girl, it’s fine…” …It’s not like I’m always making winning decisions, I think, “…You weren’t out that long.”
“Yeah, well if I had been Stormwalker I wouldn’t have been out at all.”
I snort. “If you had been Stormwalker, this whole trip would have gone very—“
Without warning, Sophia, the El Camino, and the road ahead of us are gone, instantly replaced by icy, crushing darkness.
Cold seeps through me, and not just physically. Oh, shiiiiii—
“Hello, Tom.” I turn. Marcus is standing before me, somehow lit in this lightless space, dressed in the same pure-dark armor he wore when he appeared at Orlando’s gladiatorial games. His sword is braced before him, but it too is a shadow-facsimile of the real one, black like a tear in the universe.
As impressive at it is, my eyes are drawn to his face, framed by the darkness of his helmet, serious as final death.
I lift a placating hand. “Boss, I can explain….”
END OF NIGHT