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13. Of Spiders and Androids

The group chased down the source of Spiral Dust to the mountain township of Nederland, Colorado.  There they used all their skills to discover the world-wide network being managed from an unassuming gemstone store.  Confronting the owner, they convinced her to close up her side of the trade and start the task of cleaning house.

  * * * * * * *    

Two days in Nederland and  Bruce was in his element. Lydia Lance rang the two store assistants, Delsey and Everett, and gave them a two week holiday.  Her explanation was that extensive building works needed to occur to fix the electrical fault. She also gave the group her set of keys to the shop.  As soon as they saw Lydia off on a flight to Seattle, Bruce drove everyone down to Home Depot and spent the afternoon perusing the options.

“How about frag grenades on a trolley, “ Algernon was also shopping, but not having a lot of success, “Tie a group to the trolley set one off, push it down the stairs into the room and close the door. Or maybe a stack of pesticide cans strapped to a trolley with a frag grenade in the middle. ”

“Frag grenades are not available to civilians, and we don’t want to do structural damage if we can help it.”  Bruce pulled a fisheye door viewer off the blister pack display and dropped it into his trolley.  

“They live in the dark, maybe the don’t like light.”  Rain found an LED torch with a high lumens rating. Bruce plucked it from his hand, adding it and the required batteries into the trolley.

“We steal a pest extermination truck and…” 

“No… but the pesticide is a good idea.” Bruce quickened his pace.

“…just for the night and then drown them in pesticide.  Or even better find a pesticide we can set alight!” Algernon’s fertile brain was buzzing with the many possibilities for the spider’s demise.

“…we are not breaking the law if I can help it.”  Bruce replied, squashing the ideas machine flat. He found the power tools and dropped a sturdy looking cordless drill and a set of large drill bits into his trolley.

“Could we not just blast them away with some heavy guage rifles or shotgun?” Celia chipped in a suggestion, “Wouldn’t a quick kill be better?”

“We’ve been asked to conduct a little experiment in regards to the effectiveness of readily available pesticides on these things, but firearms are an option if things go poorly.”

Rain winced at even the mention of the guns and sulked at the back of the group.

“We could buy pesticide and distill it down….”  Algernon suggested again, this time with a little less enthuiasm.

“The distilling is probably more dangerous than the end product.”  Bruce found the gardening section with an array of pump action, pressurised vessels for watering, fertilizing or poisoning.  His eyes alighted on a 30 litre backpack style container with a long thin spraying wand. Conveniently, insecticide were displayed the next shelves over.

“I have an idea.”  Bruce turned to the group who were following with varying degrees of interest.

“Can we still steal a truck?”  The ever hopeful Algernon asked encouraged by Rain.

“No, we don’t need to.”  Peggy added

“But…”  Algernon tried for a cute look, making himself seem smaller and more fragile.  It was probably something he’d seen some female character do on one of his television shows.  On a gangly 15 year old boy frame it had the effect of making him look constipated.

“That only works when you have boobs.”  Peggy added matter of factly before turning back to Bruce.

Bruce’s plan was a good one.  Mostly because it was simple, and only required him to be in any potential danger.  That night the group let themselves into the shop via the back door and down the stairs leading to the basement.  Bruce drilled a large hole, large enough to fit the door viewer, fisheye lens and all. A hairy clawed foot reached up and poked the fisheye back through the door.  Bruce quickly gave the offending spider a squirt of pressurised insecticide through the hole and the spiderfoot disappeared with a skitter.

He drilled a second hole, this time big enough to poke through the torch. The narrow beam of the torch filled the basement and through the spyhole the two spiders were visible high up in opposite corners.  As the third hole was being drilled for the insecticide wand, the spyhole was poked out a second time. Bruce set a jet of insecticide into the creature’s face this time and it skittered haphazardly back to it’s corner showing signs that the poison was taking effect.

“If the crow lady is connected to these things, will she come through if we kill them?”  Algernon asked from up the stairs, at the back of the group.

“We can only hope.”  Bruce replied gleefully as he lined up the spray wand, ”Let’s try and see.”

The liquid filled the whole space with a hissing jet hitting both spiders.  They jiggered and thrashed violently unable to escape the poison.  

One spider launched its huge body from the  wall to the door, the whole stairwell echoing with the force of its blow against wood frame and steel hinged.  The whole door shuddered and groaned, its hinged stretched. Peggy, Celia and Algernon all brought their handguns up, Algernon added the cold ammunition to his weapon.   Bruce leaned against the door as support.  

“Keep pumping!” He yelled at Rain and he doubled his efforts to keep the pressure up on the canister.

The door slowly cracked and splintered under the spider’s increasingly frantic attacks.  Pieces of frame were now flying off over the group as Bruce dropped the spray gun and braced the door with his crowbar as well.

“Rain, get the gun!”  He yelled gesturing to the spray gun on the ground.

Rain did as he was told, leaving the canister and crouching beside Bruce.  He swiveled the spray gun around at the spider through the door and poured the drench wherever he could reach.

More of the frame tore away from the brick work and now there was only the wood of the door between Bruce and the spider.

“Get ready, they’re coming through!”  Bruce retrieved his crowbar and dove free of the door.  Peggy threw down a glass bottle of glue, a cipher of extreme adhesion.  The glue splashed the spider who seemed to use their last burst of effort to knock through the door.  It crashed bodily into the stairwell, the last of its strength spent as glue afixed it to the door. Now the other spider started crawling over its defeated comrad to attack the party.

“Shoot straight Celia!”  Called Rain huddled down against the broken door frame still clutching the spray gun.  She did, as did Peggy. Algernon’s icy shot went wide and hit the brickwork above Rain’s head.  Rain squeeeled and ducked down further wedging himself between the dead spider and the wall.

Celia shot again, this time shooting the spider through one of its primary eyes.  It reared back and turned to face it’s tormentor, mouth parts distending. It launched itself at Celia as she turned to defend herself.  The spider bit deep into her raised arm, pushing her back onto the stairs.

“Hulk Smash!”  Bruce roared swinging his sledgehammer off his back.  He stepped between the party and confronted the beast, but found Rain cowered and in his way.  Adjusting his stance, he swung his hammer side on and brought it down squarely on the spider’s head.  The spider twitched once and the legs gave way, and its huge body collapsed on its partner in the doorway.  A black swarm of spiderlings crawled out of the second spider. The spiderlings did not do anywhere near as well in the split insecticide as their parents, but some did reach the party.  Peggy and Algernon couldn’t get out of the way in time and received bites on the legs before the spiderlings collapsed and died.

“Team Work!”  Roared Bruce brandishing his Sledgehammer at the dead spiders, “Spiders!  Time you split.”

A cracking sound from above and a fine showering of dust caught everyone’s attention.  Rain, having successfully wall-run out of the way of the spiderling swarm was now clinging to a hanging light fixture.  It couldn’t support his weight for long. Bruce dodged, deflecting much of the debris off his shoulder as Rain, light fixture and much of the ceiling fell to the floor right in front of the head of the second spider.

“Rain drops and falls on Bruce’s head.”  Sung Algernon as his companion’s groans of pain turned to yelps at the sight of the dead spiders beside him.

“Get  them off! Get them off!  Get them off!” Rain cried scrambling ineffectually to get free as the hooked feet of the spiders clung to his coat.

“Stop squirming…look your getting all tangled…here let me do it.”  Bruce bent down the pushed the remains of the door into the spider room, the bodies of the two spiders with it. 

Celia pulled out her own torch and filled the space with light once more.  The buckets remained where they’d been last visit, but fortunately the insecticide had taken out the mosquitoes as well as the spiders that had fed on them.  Spiderweb hung from the walls coating them in a now damp whispy softness. That was, except for the far wall where another door stood clear of web. The torch light also fell onto a number of white wrapped cocoons, six in total.

“Didn’t Lydia say she’d brought only a couple of hobos down here?”  Celia said.

Peggy was already taking extensive samples of tissue from the spiders, impressed at their toughness and ability to grow so large outside of their magically imbue world.  At Celia’s words she took her scappel and cut into the nearest of the cocoons. Inside, a desiccated body lolled out, dressed in the trendiest of hipster fashion. It was hard to tell, but the body did not look to belong to someone who had ‘lived hard’.  Peggy checked the body and discovered a wallet that she handed to Celia. Inside she found a student ID for the name George Parks.

“This guy was no hobo.  But how did he end up down here?”

The group went to work examining the other five bodies. Four were definitely individuals who had seen hardship, worn clothing in multiple miss matched layers, unkempt and with no identification.  The group went silent as the last was revealed to be a young woman, also with a wallet and student ID for the same university as George Parks. Her name was Mayer Haskins. Bruce made a note to mention this to Katherine next time he checked in.

The door was all that remained to investigate.  From what they knew from Lydia, beyond was the preparation room and where the blue rock was translated to process for shipment out to dealers like Caine.  Celia checked for traps as Peggy checked for presence of The Strange. Neither found anything of note.

“I think I should go in first.”  Bruce stated to the group getting no argue from Algernon.  Celia just watched as Peggy picked up her things and walked through the door.  

The room was much like the rest of the storage areas, full of shelving and crates, the only exception being that this room also contained a large taped in space with a sign saying “Stand Clear”.  To one side a bench stood with equipment meant for processing the grey blue rocks into Spiral Dust. Everywhere the group looked, a fine layer of dust covered everything. This was definitely the place.  Without a word, Peggy got to work taking samples and recording the space for future study.

Once it was established that there was no obvious clues to be had, Algernon kept himself amused filling the taped off area with pieces of spider.  Visuals of Dona Ilsa or one of her cronies translating into the decomposing innards of the Night Spiders seemed to fill everyone in the room with a type of dark glee and even Bruce joined in.  As they worked, Algernon, Bruce and Peggy contemplated ideas on how to trap the room for the next delivery.

“Could we lay the trap in the translation space, maybe a poison?” Algernon started dragging a spider leg trailing eviscera into the pile.

“This room is underground.  It wouldn’t take much to make it  airtights.” Bruce mused out loud.

“We could fill it with nitrogen and suffocate anyone who translates in.” Algernon added.

“Or we could fill the place with the insecticide…or some sort of contact poison on the spider guts.  Yeah, that way they take it back with them…” Algernon added warming to the subject.

“Mercury would be nasty, or maybe Phosphorus.  Yes…they’d try to wash it off and it would burn.”  Peggy joined in with her suggestions taking equal delight in the idea.

“I think I could probably make a contact poison from what we can gather here and at Home Depot. Not too strong that I would hurt myself making it, but strong enough to make anyone who translated in ill.”

“At least they’ll find themselves deep in spider if nothing else.”  Bruce grinned looking to share the joke with Rain, not finding the little man in the room.  Putting aside the spider part stacking for the moment he walked back through the basement and found Rain sitting on the stairs.  

Bruce nearly walked into Rain he was so still on the near darkness of the stairwell. The shaking mess that was usually Rain after a physical encounter was absent. Missing too was the black puzzle box.  Instead Rain just sat staring down the stairs, his fists balled in front of his expressionless face.

“What’s up?”  Bruce asked almost eye to eye with Rain.

Rain sat silently for a moment.  Eventually the violet eyes turned to Bruce and he was surprised to see anger there.

“I’m sitting here listening to my friends.  They’re so excited about poisoning some woman they’ve never met.  They’re making jokes and fooling around about mercury and phosphorus.  They’re excited about making new poisons that work through contact.” The eyes slipped from Bruce’s as the anger went internal, “She’s horrible.  I know and…I don’t have an alternative… so I said nothing. But… I don’t want to be that person, Bruce.”

“She’s not actually a human.”  Bruce defended, unsure with this new dynamic between the two of them, “I’m just trying to find a way to defend us against …”

“But it’s like the Spanish deliberately poisoning the Indians with smallpox.  Greed, fear and genocide over and over again.”  

“What if it was the other way around?”  Bruce retorted surer of his moral footing, “What if the Indians were defending themselves by poisoning the invading Spanish?”

Rain shook his head in sadly.

“It doesn’t matter who does it. Don’t you get it?  It’s the thinking that they are less, that they deserve extermination like…insects.”

“Hmm. Yeah.”  The realisation of Rain’s words hit home.  Bruce had been thinking of ways of hitting back at the Beak Mafia who were attacking his world with Spiral Dust  The desire to defend at all cost had blinded him to a whole nation of intelligent beings, not just a blind force for evil.  

“Dona Ilsa and her people are intelligent.  We can talk, reason, bully, threaten even…”

“You’re right.”  Bruce admitted, “I see what you mean. … Actually, … now I’m ashamed.  I’m ashamed. So what should we do? What do you suggest?”

Rain shook his head, now frustrated that he couldn’t see a path forward.

“I really don’t know. I don’t have any alternatives. I’m sitting here racking my mind…all I know is I don’t want to lose what little…humanity I have.”

“Ok.  Look, we won’t do the poison.  We’ll hold off, and phone it in and get instructions.”

Rain winced.  Asking for advice to him was like admitting defeat.  It said something about how strongly he felt about his that he finally nodded his head in agreement.

“But don’t tell Algernon.  He’s so excited about his poison idea, and I don’t want to let him down.”

“I’ll settle it with him, I’ll be gentle. It’ll be alright.”  Bruce assured the smaller man, now sitting on the stairs with his arms wrapped around his legs.” … Are you coming down?”

He shook his head again and looked away like a wounded child.

“I don’t think there’s anything down there for me.”

Down in the preparation room, Algernon was busy adding a motion sensitive camera that he could monitor via WIFI. He added a silent alarm to the setup so if anyone translated in unexpectedly, he’d know about it.  Bruce walked back to the group looking serious and headed over to Algernon.

“Listen guys. Rain’s made a valid point about us dealing with Crows Hollow people.  I’m going to ring in and get some advice on what to do, but Algernon, we’re going to hold off on your poison idea for the time being, okay?”

“Sure.”  Said Algernon, now concerned where his friend was.  It was one thing for Rain to be upset by the bodies and mess they’d made of the spider, that was just Rain.  But, Algernon was now worried he’d alienated Rain with his throw away suggestion. “Well, if Rain thinks it’s a bad idea then I’ll forget it.”

“Good lad.  Well, first things let’s see if we can fix this place up a little.”  Bruce pressed Algernon into helping him fix the door to the spider room.  Though the door was relatively intact (held together as it was by glued spider parts), the frame was shattered, the hinged torn apart and all of it was smeared with insecticide and spider goo.  Try as they might they could not make the door stand in the opening and eventually resorted to just taping it in place with the red and white striped keep clear tape from the preparation room. As the last of the tape was applied, a noise from up in the shop disturbed Rain.

“…Hello?”  Came a woman’s voice, a query not a demand for attention.  Rain climbed the stairs and from the hallway saw Delsey Robinson standing in the shop.

“Hi!” He replied cherrily stepping out of the hallway so she could see him.

“What’s going on here,” She asked a worried expression  creasing her face, she pointed at the front door. “I walked past and saw the door was open.”

Rain looked to the door standing ajar knowing that they’d entered via the back door.  It had been more direct and less obvious than the front.

“Sorry, about that.  We’ve been contracted to deal with the basement issues, by…Miss Lydia.”  He replied in the slow drawling local accent, “Rising damp has done the two-step on the electricals for this place.”

“Oh,” Delsey physically relaxed when her bosses name was mentioned, “She did mention something about that. I work here.”

Oh hearing the conversation, Algernon crept up the stairs behind Rain and out the back door to catch a glimpse of Delsey through the shop front windows. Once he could see her he tapped into her surface thoughts and saw that though she had been a little worried about the door being open, she was assured by Rain’s words.  She was not the one who had opened the door. He made a gesture to Rain behind Delsey’s back that she was “all good” with two raised thumbs and snuck back. Rain nodded.

“Is that right. Miss Lydia must be proud to have such diligent staff as you watching out for her store like this.”

“I was just walking home from the pub, “ She accepted the compliment honestly.

“The pub!  Hah, well I hope you had one for me and the crew as we’re going to be pulling an all nighter on this one.”  Rain started walking Desley to the door.
“Better you than me.”  Desley joked as she walked out and locked the door behind her.

At the same time, Peggy was having a surprise of her own.  Still on the stairs waiting for the all clear she was thinking about Dona Ilsa and how she related to everything.  Her open mind touched The Strange and it replied.

“Cornaro.” She said out loud, “Cornaro?  What’s a Cornaro?” Bruce glanced up at Peggy perplexed but filed away the little snippet of information.

“Where did you get that from?” Celia asked quietly as they heard the front door close and lock.  She touched her hand to Peggy’s arm to get her attention, but something else quite unexpected happened instead.

I don’t know, it just seemed to pop into my head. Peggy thought and Celia heard it inside her own mind. Cornaro, Cornaro family.

Did she say that or just think …?

No need to shout at me!

You heard that!

She’s in my mind.   At the sudden realisation that they were now linked telepathically, Peggy panicked and tried to run up the stairs.

“Slow down, what’s going on?” Bruce asked catching up with the distraught Peggy.

“She’s in my mind! GET OUT! GET OUT!”  Peggy wheeled on Celia the later groggily walked up the last of the stairs shaking her head to try to clear the link.

“Ah, we’ve seen this before,”  Bruce reminded them of the first time Algernon realised he could read minds.” Just try breaking the link.”

Peggy squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath but nothing.

“She’s still in my head!” She panted as she started to hyperventilate.

“Right…Rain.” Bruce called as Peggy came out in a cold sweat.  “You take Peggy and I’ll take Celia and we’ll see if a little distance can break this connection.”

Bruce took Celia out the back door, all the time coaching her on what to think to provide a little interference.  Rain lead Peggy through the shop and out the front door all the time Peggy’s making comments on what she was experiencing.

“Oh… I don’t like this …penguins?  Why are you thinking of penguins? Get out of my head…that is a highly inappropriate thought about Rain…”

“What…?”  Rain had been paying attention to where they were going, turned when he heard his name. They had walked down most of the main street and were out of sight of Celia and Bruce.  This was not the same as Algernon. Time to try something else. He grabbed both Peggy’s arms and made her face him.

“Peggy.  Listen to me.”  Though his grip was strong, he his voice was low and gentle, “What is your safe place?”

“My…my garage at…at home.” 

“Picture your garage.  What’s the first thing you see….”

As Celia focused on nonsense songs and popular movies, Peggy reconstructed her garage and equipment piece by piece. Her breathing slowed and stabilized as she could hear nothing but Rain’s slow, steady instruction.  As time past Celia realised she could no longer hear the thoughts from Peggy and the group reunited.

Still shellshocked from their experience, Peggy and Celia were in no fit state to drive the group back to their hotel.  Bruce took charge and herded everyone back to the van. Rain looked silently from Celia to Peggy trying to make sense of this new ability. Not just the ability to read another’s mind but full mental telepathy, where no secrets could be hidden from the other.  He shivered.

That night Rain did not sleep.

The next morning the incident of the mind link was no more than a vivid nightmare. Over breakfast Bruce called in reporting the death of the spiders.

“Didn’t give you any trouble them?” Katherine asked over the phone.

“ It took ninety seconds of spraying to take down one of the brutes, the babies were not a problem.  All up we used 30 litres of insecticide and broke a door. Celia was bitten by one of the adults, nasty but doesn’t seem to be poisoned.  Peggy and Algernon took bites from the spiderlings you warned about, but also seem fine this morning.” He looked to the group who winced at their wounds but all gave a thumbs up.

“There’s something else, Lydia had admitted to sending a couple of homeless people to be spider food.  We found six bodies, including two college kids.” He gave her their names and student ID numbers, “Either Lydia was lying or someone else also knows about the spiders.”
“And the door was open, “ Rain added, “That what had drawn Delsey to the store last night.  Algernon checked her thoughts, she was telling the truth.”

“I’ll send the clean up crew to take away the bodies and fix the door.  So, what are your plans now?” Katherine asked 

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.  There was a plan to add a contact poison to the space set aside for translation by Dona Ilsa.”

“The Estate would always prize information over extermination.  If you can, capture her and find out what she knows.”

“These crow people have been…difficult customers in the past.  Do you think we can handle them?”

“It’s up to you.  McCain and his team are available, I can always send them up to take over if you don’t feel up to it.”

Bruce looked around the group in front of him.

“What do you guys say?  Do we let McCain and his team take over?”

“Sooner we leave here, sooner I’m back in my lab.” Peggy pounced on the chance to get back.

“I think capturing her is a good idea. I’d like to see this through to the end.  I’d like us to try.” Rain disagreed as did Algernon and Celia.

“We can do it, Peggy.”  Rain said to Peggy hoping that he could encourage her to join the others.

“It’s not a matter of being capable.  Many are capable. I want to get back to my lab and my work.  All this is merely a distraction.” She waved her hand at the room and by extension the town outside and the current mission.

“Could Peggy fly back to Seattle, set up a few experiments and then join us in time for the next delivery?”  Bruce suggested to Katherine over the phone.

“Tell Doctor Martin there will be plenty of lab time on her return, “Katherine replied pragmatically, “I will not approve the expense of a return flight for her.”

Much to Peggy’s protests, the group were to stay in Colorado for the next scheduled delivery of Spiral dust.  It meant they had time to kill and Bruce thought he knew how to spend it.

“That other job, the Morrison fellowship award winner, has that been given away?”

“No, I haven’t put another team on it as yet.  Are you thinking of picking it up again?”

“We have a week, Boulder’s not that far away.”

“Good thinking.” Katherine approved, “Well get driving.  I’ll have the Chief of Public Relations get in touch.”

“Cheer up Peggy,” Rain said as Bruce hung up with Katherine and let the group know her decision, “Think on the bright side.  This teen prodigy may be the real thing. Imagine what we can learn from her. Might be useful for your battery project.”

“Yes, I wonder how she’s doing it.”  Peggy wondered out loud and kept herself amused trying to work out how the young girl was powering electrical devices with only her body’s bioelectricity, “The numbers just don’t make sense.”

The trip between Nederland and Boulder should have taken the group little more than half an hour on the highway.  With Bruce driving and the van’s own idea of what speed was appropriate, the trip was closer to half a day. Rain dosed in the back seat lulled by the movement of the van as the others sporadically talked about low wattage bulbs and the human body’s ability to generate electricity.

Waiting for them in Boulder was Eliza Banks, Chief of Public Relations of The Estate.

“I’m so pleased your group has made time to help the The Morrison Fellowship vet their latest candidate, Gwendolyn Wurtz.”  She welcomed the group as they stepped out of the van not far from Gwendolyn’s house. For the presentation they had been asked to wear neat business attire.  Bruce and Algernon had suits and collared shirts, Celia and Peggy were pencil skirts and pumps. Rain had raided the Nederland Good Will, called “The Shop”, and was dressed head to toe in vintage 1950s clothing.  A short brimmed fedora that he wore pushed back, a crisp white linen shirt, yellow checkered vest, a plaid sports coat and wide legged slacks. Algernon was in the process of swapping out his suit new suit jacket for his red motorcycle jacket when Bruce caught him.

“You can’t wear that, you’re representing the public face of The Estate.”  Bruce argued holding out the discarded black suit jacket.

“I wear this when I represent the Estate all the time.” Algernon complained pulling on his jacket with pride.

“This is not the jacket of a respectable person.  In this jacket, you are making a threat.” Bruce tried reasoning, “Don’t you want to be safe?”

“But Rain gave me this jacket.” 

“We need to blend in.”  Bruce insisted not unkindly,  and eventually Algernon took off his beloved motorcycle jacket a put on the black. 

“Right, now that that’s sorted, “Eliza continued in a crisp presenters voice,”As you’re probably aware, the Morrison Fellowship Prize is a prestigious award given to individuals who are  working in… the more fringe fields of study. In reality the Prize is a chance for us to covertly check up on unusual activity that may be linked to The Strange. When Gwendolyn’s science fair project came to our attention it became a candidate for the prize and your…unique skills.”

“So will you be joining us?”  Asked Bruce

“Oh no.” Her red lips smiled, but her eyes didn’t mirror the expression. “I’ll leave all that tedious and potentially dangerous legwork to you.  You’ll report to me when you have your findings.”

It wasn’t clear how speaking to a 15 year old girl about her science fair project was going to be dangerous.  Compared to horse-sized spiders, a walk down a suburban street in daylight sounded a good change of pace.

“Right -o and off you go!” She cheered and set the group down the street.

The house was not that different from any of the others in the neighbourhood. The only glaring difference was that every light seemed to be on in the house in the middle of the day.  When Rain knocked on the door it was answered promptly by a woman who epitomizes the American housewife. Immaculately dressed and styled she wore a frilled apron over the top of a dress which looked like it had never seen a days work.  Rain never got a chance to start his spiel as she flung open the door and smile broadly, 

“And you must be from the Morrison Fellowship.”

“Yes we are, we’ve come to interview Gwendolyn, is she available?”

“Yes.  Please come in.”  She gestured and the party stepped into the pristine home.  It was like a house from a magazine, nothing was out of place, everything was spotless. 

“Gwendolyn they’ve arrived.”  Called the woman they could only assume was the girl’s mother.  A few moments later, an average looking teenage girl carrying a homemade looking flashlight joined them in the lounge.

Silently all the skills and talents of the group went into effect.  Algernon focused on the girl, listening in on her surface thoughts, Peggy concentrated on The Strange, Bruce kept an eye of everything and Rain turned to face the girl with a smile.

“Gwendolyn, we’ve been so looking forward to meeting you and seeing your amazing discovery at work.”

“Yeah…um, here it is.”  She said holding the metal body of the device to her bare hand and the bulb suddenly lit up.  It was a bright as a regular flashlight, much brighter than other contemporary experiments and much too bright for the standard amount of energy created by the human body.

“Outstanding. How did you come up with such an amazing idea?”  Rain prompted and Algernon heard, 

I really hope they like it. In reply, though, she said,

“I’d heard about bioenergy at school and I just started tinkering around.”

“Could I try it?”  Asked Bruce and she handed the device over.  When Bruce held the body as she had the bulb lit up, working at least as well as it had for her.

Algernon could hear Gwendolyn searching for words and concepts seemingly at random, like she was making up her explanation as she went along.

Peggy, having no luck detecting anything of The Strange and started asking technical questions of the device.

“The hardest part was finding the right metal.”  Gwendolyn said, but her thoughts were racing as she tried to keep up with Peggy’s more insightful questioning.  

When Gwendolyn started to struggle to answer the questions, Peggy stepped back and concentrated on the girl herself, who she was and where she had been in life.  She got a feeling that the girl was quickened like they were, and was no stranger to other worlds. 

She’s controlling the mother, not the other way around. She said to herself not sure where the impression had come from.  

 Bruce looked at the immaculate mother and was about to say something to her when his eyes caught something out of place.  He kept watching her, trying to work out what was wrong when the woman turned and he noticed that she didn’t just have a healthy glow about her, her eyes were faintly glowing.

Bruce reached out and touched Peggy’s arm and she flinched as the telepathic link was once again made.

You’re in my head!  Breathe…breathe… 

Focusing his thought to one clear statement, Bruce replied,

Quiet.  What’s going on with her mother’s eyes?

I should tell you, I know the mother is not in charge here, the girl is.  She replied as she turned to watch the mother.  

Now it had been drawn to her attention it was obvious, why hadn’t they seen it before.  The mother was obviously an android. Peggy stepped up to get a closer look fascinated by the detail.  So close in fact, Bruce had to pull her back.

You’ll get a close look later, but we need to report back what we’ve found.

But do you see, the blink rate, the movement as if breathing, even the dilation of the iris is so natural… and general movement and responses…  Peggy bubbled excitedly in a very unPeggy way.

“So these clever metals of yours.  Do you pick them up from Walmart? Home depot?”  Rain was still asking questions of the girl as Algernon listened silently to her thoughts.  She showed images of other places…other worlds where materials and knowledge were far advanced.  It was nowhere that Algernon recognised and he was unsure how to get the information to the others.  

Celia had been quietly listening to everything that happened.  She too slipped into a type of trance, listening to the girl as she spouted technobabble at Rain.  Suddenly, as the girl tried to describe where she got her supplies from, a thought entered Celia’s mind.  Graveyard of the Machine God. Started out of her trance she was just in time to hear Bruce whisper to Rain, 

“The mothers an android.  Wrap this up.” 

Rain nodded and smiled as if to a private joke and then turned to the mother, 

“And your mother here, she is a remarkable invention.”

Many things happened at once.  Algernon heard from Gwendolyn, But how do they know!

Sensing the growing tension behind him, Rain stepped aside to let Peggy move forward once more, now fidgeting with excitement.

“Oh thank god, I thought I was going to burst!  This android is astounding in its sophistication.  I can’t tell you how impressed I am…”

“Don’t make Mommy mad!” Finally Gwendolyn said terrified as the faint glow that Bruce had first spotted turned red and intensified.

Mommy is built very protective.

“We’ve triggered a safety feature.”  Bruce said just as Mummy’s hand came down on Rain’s shoulder, pinning him in place.  

“Gwendolyn, we can find you a perfectly safe place to work and study.”

“See Mommy, they don’t want to hurt me but keep me safe.”  Gwendolyn almost begged the android. Thankfully Mommy listened who let go of the squirming Rain.  Rain couldn’t move back fast enough from the machine’s grasp.

“Wonderful invention.  I’d truly love to look at this in more detail…”  Peggy cooed as Mommy’s eyes faded back to something like a semblance of normal.

“I’m sorry, mother guardian is programmed to protect.”  Gwendolyn looked distressed.

Peggy, leave that for somewhere safer.  Bruce again pulled Peggy back.  He said out loud to Gwendolyn, “We need to deliberate, but I can assure you that there is a place for you with our scientists.  Do you think you could walk us to the gate?”
“Yeah, sure.” She said leading the group out the front door with Mommy walking along behind.

“Fill Eliza in?”  Bruce whispered to the group as soon as he considered them out of earshot.

“Not yet.”  Rain scowled, rubbing away the bruise the android had inflicted, “I want to know what happened to her real mother.”

“Yeah, we’ll find that out.”  Bruce agreed nodded seriously.

Algernon, who had not stopped listening to Gwendolyn’s thoughts, walked just behind the girl as they all left the house.  As she contemplated a life outside the family home her thoughts drifted to her mother.

I haven’t fed her today.  She’ll be all right in the basement for a little while longer.  Again, the threat of violence from the android kept him mute and it wasn’t until the group were well away from the house that he was able to express his distress.

“Rain, from previous experience we’ve concerned ourselves when people were held against their will.”  He said as Bruce reported their findings to Eliza.

“Yes.” Replied Rain simply suspecting where this conversation was going.

“Her mother is being held in the basement.”

“Well that little detail is resolved.” He nodded and Bruce let Eliza know they needed to get back into the house.

“She’s also been to other recursions.  That’s where she gets the materials and the tech from.”
“What, the torch or Mommy?” asked Peggy.


“I think I got a name for that place,” Celia added, “When you were talking about materials it just came to me, Graveyard of the Machine god.  Mean anything?”  

Everyone shook their heads except Rain.

“And that just came to you?” He asked probing further into the experience and not the information, “Amazing, you’re all amazing!”

“I know I’m amazing, no need to trumpet it.”  She replied feeling self conscious at the hunch she couldn’t explain.
Rain shook his head astounded,

“What do you mean?  That’s the only worthwhile thing to do!”

When Bruce got off the phone he informed the group that Eliza herself would come by in an hour and pick up Gwendolyn and her ‘mother’ and take them to Seattle.  Not knowing what “Mommy” was made of could make her tricky to get through airport security so the drive was recommended.  

“Once they’ve left we can go in and look for the real mother.” Bruce explained and the group settled in for the wait. 

“How’s the mind link thing, Peggy?” Rain asked in a quiet moment.

“Okay.”  She thought as if trying to find the right words, “Slightly alien…very strange.”

“Everyone’s showing such amazing powers, even Celia.  I wonder what it means?”

“Should it mean anything?”  Peggy asked as Bruce’s phone rang.  It was time to go back in.

It wasn’t hard to find Gwendolyn’s real mother.  The group took it carefully,not knowing what they would find protecting Gwendolyn’s secrets.  In the end they found her mother strapped into a chair delirious. Without moving her at first, Bruce provided first aid and asked for a good cup of tea to be made.  She looked unkempt, had sores where her bindings had cut into the back of her hands and had lost weight to judge how her clothes fit. On the whole, she was not in great shape.

“Mrs Wurtz you’re safe.  Gwendolyn is safe.” Bruce told her as he assessed her injuries.  Algernon who was linked with the woman felt her relief at Bruce’s words, though she was unable to respond coherently. 

“Do you know how long you’ve been down here?”

Confusion from Mrs Wurtz and then a clear thought, 

I remember the Science Fair and then…  She had been down there a few weeks, it was lucky the group had come when they had, she may not have lasted much longer.

Slowly, with a little water and alot of gentle coaxing, she came round and was able to talk to the group.

“Gwendolyn has always been very sciency, very smart.  Unfortunately, my husband died two months ago and I admit I was struggling.”

“Have you seen the new protector?”  Bruce asked.

“Oh yes.  I met the new me.  One day Gwendolyn said I’d been…I’d been a bad mother and she made a better one.”  She said without anger, only a deep sadness which seemed worse to everyone listening.

“Yes, she is better.”  Algernon agreed with her and Mrs Wurtz started to cry.

“But it’s not her mother, you are.”  Rain added adamantly, focusing all his thoughts on Mrs Wurtz. “ As kids we don’t know how much we need our mother until their gone.”  

Bruce raised an eyebrow at this statement, but said nothing.

“This time of separation could be good for you and her.  Gwendolyn is safe with The Estate now and you can relax, heal and find yourself again.”  

Mrs Wurtz nodded her head and wiped her tears with the back of her bandaged hand. Slowly, she braced her arms against the chair she was still sitting in and stood up on shaking legs.  Bruce was there to help, but as soon as she left the seat, all the lights went out in the basement. In fact, all the lights went out in the house.

“Oh, she had her mother wired into the light circuit.”  Peggy commented without surprise or shock.

Without saying a word, Algernon took Mrs Wurtz’s place in the chair.  The lights went back on, so everyone could see Algernon pale and drawn.

“Algernon?!”  Rain went to step forward but was held back by Bruce.

“Get out of the chair, Algernon.” He said without offering a hand to help. With effort, Algernon pulled himself away from the chair and under the light of Celia’s flashlight Peggy investigated the chair.

“There’s an artefact of Strange origins built into the chair.”  She recognised the tingle in her back teeth. She found a set of pliers and pulled a rod from the chair back. “It looks like it drains people of energy. Could be useful against Dona Ilsa?”  Wrapping it carefully in insulation she placed the rod in her bag and started searching the basement for other items of The Strange. On a counter she found a powered wing for personal flight, a device that made an individual harder to see and a battery like device that worked as an uninterruptible power supply.

As an ambulance was called for Mrs Wurtz, Bruce called in and reported to Katherine and Algernon pulled Rain aside.

“Rain.  The woman Lydia killed people and we wanted to punish her, but the girl will get off?”  He asked watching Mrs Wurtz being wrapped in a blanket by Celia.

“It doesn’t seem fair, but we’re more lenient with the young as they haven’t fully learnt how to behave.  We have to remember she also didn’t kill her mother, there’s a chance she can make up for her mistakes.”

“It’s also proven that people her age have difficulty making good decisions.”  Peggy added overhearing the conversation, “Teenagers have the emotional intelligence of five year olds.”

“People my age…?”  Algernon replied and Rain could only smirk at his naive scarily intelligent friend.

“No ones like your age.” 

12. A well oiled machine

Nederlands, Colorado.  A little mountain town frozen in its mining boom past. The dusty, unguttered highway through the middle of town, usually just took travellers through never suspecting what hid under the town’s sleepy surface.  On the main shopping strip a geological and minerals store called Dreaming Crystal has been providing advice, equipment, trinkets and services for generations. It was an institution.  It was also the centre of a Spiral Dust drug trade that spans the entire globe.

The evening of the groups reconnoitre of the Dreaming Crystal found them at a less than prestigious motel on the highway out of town.  The Estate and their travel expenses do not stretch far and so Celia, Rain, Algernon and Bruce sorted out sleeping arrangements, Peggy refusing to share.   

“I don’t mind sharing a room with you.”  Rain offered to Celia who gave him a very calculated look and smiled knowingly.

“Sure. Be warned, I sleep with my dillinger under my pillow.”

“Duly noted.”  Rain stepped back in surrender only taking the time to dump his overnight bag before moving himself to a seedy pub next door.  

It wasn’t long before he was joined by Algernon and they talked long into the early morning about everything and nothing.  Now they had his keys and address they discussed LeRoy Cain’s apartment and The Plan. It was the last piece in their plans to infiltrate the NSA, a physical place to launch their attacks. They also talked about Peggy and her revelations in regards the Spiral Dust and its link to a creature in The Strange itself.

“You were studying the creatures of The Strange after we encounter the thonic, “ Rain reminded Algernon over computers in a corner booth, “If Peggy is to continue her investigations, should we find a way to communicate with the intelligent beings who make the Strange home?”

Algernon thought for a moment, his eyes becoming distant as he scanned his memory for information. 

“Intelligence in The Strange is…strange.  There are creatures out there, but they are so alien…so beyond our understanding that working out if they are intelligent is virtually impossible.  As to communication…” He shrugged, his own communication failing at that point.

“I’d hate for our first contact to be, ‘Oh sorry, we didn’t realise that was your bum we were probing.’  It seems to be a problem in the anecdotal accounts.”

“There are creatures.  There are inklings, a swarming creature.  I think, there’s type of creature that has a…a leader, a queen?”  Algernon offered his fractured suggestions.

Rain watched his friend grow silent and return to his own personal musings.  Algernon’s constant asking as to the safety of an event or situation struck a chord with Rain who was interested in understanding its foundations.

“I never get to ask you, but how are you?  You’re always so concerned about how safe a situation is, I was just wondering what you’re feeling now?”

Algernon thought again, taking in the near empty bar they found themselves in the wee hours of the morning.

“Pretty good.  I think about a Level 2 ATR.”

Rain nodded his understanding.  Level 2 on the Algernon Threat Rating was dangers unknown but well within their ability to deal with.  Pretty relaxed as far as Algernon went. It wasn’t a psychological thesis into the working of Algernon’s mind, but it did suggest that times of peace were achievable.

“Yeah, we can handle it.” 

The next morning the group were awoken at 6am by the breakfast orders.  Cold eggs, runny beans and toast, no bacon but plenty of watery coffee, the group sat around and discussed their plan for the day.

“We don’t know where Lydia Lance is or how to contact her,”  Rain lamented over his soggy toast, “LeRoy’s number for her was the shop and I don’t fancy asking the two from yesterday where she lives.”

“They would have a way to contact her in an emergency, “ Bruce mentioned which set the party thinking up ways of making that occur.

“Set up a break in or theft.”  Peggy suggested

“Crash a car into the shop.”  Algernon added

“We need our van.” Rain said, not shooting down the idea entirely.

“It doesn’t have to be our car.”

“Good point, I can do that.” Rain smiled until he saw Bruce’s stormy countenance across the circle.

“No, absolutely not.”  He said, squashing the idea, “How about a medical emergency for one of the staff?”

“You’d rather someone be hospitalised than commit car theft and property damage?”  Rain replied.

“Well, no.  Maybe they could be tranquilised?”

“I know, we’ll let the spiders out.”  Algernon suggested. Again, Rain was all for it, as long as he didn’t have to do it.  This too was squashed, the threat of horse-sized spiders getting out and threatening the community finished that idea.

“How about a power outage?” Celia suggested which prompted a few refinements from several quarters.

“We could hack the grid and lock the store out.” Algernon looked to Rain who nodded agreement.

“Or one of us can go in and short circuit their fuse box,” Bruce countered, “We already know where it is and how to get to it.”

“Either way, I want to be in the shop when the lights go out.”  Algernon said adamantly. Rain looked at him quizzically, It wasn’t like Algernon to throw himself into the front lines.

“I can read their mind and find out what they’re thinking.”  He answered and the unspoken question and Rain nodded, embarrassed that he should forget the latest in Algernon’s astounding powers.

The plan, in the end, was Rain and Algernon would be shoppers and keep the staff busy and probe for information.  Celia would lockpick the back door for Bruce who had a working knowledge of fuse boxes from his years in construction.  He had already planned to strip the electrical line into the store, creating a short so it would look like faulty workmanship, not tampering.  Peggy, well known in the shop after her altercation of the day before, stayed in the car and kept an eye out.

Things initially went as planned.  Celia picked the lock and let Bruce in before heading back out onto the main street.  Bruce snuck in without a sound and found the Utilities room just as described by Celia.  Rain was a having a fascinating conversation with Everett Rand, the elderly gentleman, on the geology of the mountains of area.  Delsy Robinson boredly watched Algernon go back and forward to the shelves and displays, pick up an item and drop it into a pile on the counter for purchase. 

“It’s amazing the beautiful specimen’s one can find just walking about in these mountains, and of course for a amaetuer lapidrist as yourself we can supply you with all the polishes to bring out their best.”  The old man chortled happily, encouraged by Rain’s attention.

“Well I think you’re lucky to own such a beautiful shop in such a wonderful location.”  Rain added, preparing the ground for Algernon to read the shop assistance thoughts.

“Oh, I just work here.” The old man replied sheepishly, just as all the lights in the shop went out.

Outside, Celia and Peggy were watching the road when a green Bronco four wheel drive pulled up beside the store. When a woman in a smart business dress suit got out they became interested.  When she headed for the blind alley leading to the back door of the shop, they became concerned, Bruce was still in there. Celia could only watch her go by, but Peggy, thinking fast, reversed the van across the road and into the Bronco. 

The screech and thud of metal and plastic combined drew everyone’s attention.  Seeing Peggy, Rain quickly went into distraction mode not wanting the two staff members from the day earlier to recognise the customer from the. day before.  Fortunately, they were more than busy dealing with the blackout and two big spending customers to pay that much attention to their boss as she walked up to the driver of the black combie.

“I do hope you have insurance.”  Lydia Lance said as she walked up to Peggy’s door.  Peggy herself was inventing new swear words for the van, complaining about lousy turning circle and bad view.

“Stupid piece of shit….I am sorry about this.  Insurance? I sure, do.” Peggy rummaged around in her bag and pulled out a fake driver’s license (a present from Rain) and insurance details.  She went through the process of a contrite driver, took photos of the damage, exchanged details (making sure the address was clearly legible) before making sure Lydia was satisfied with the exchange of information.

An unusual scent drifted over to Peggy from Lydia.  Chemical but also herbal, more reminiscent of her days on the swamp than high in the Rocky Mountains. Peggy realised what she smelt was personal insect repellent.  An unusual scent for a business woman, unless her business involved giant spiders. But why deal with the spiders?

Peggy drove off but not before casually sending the driver’s license information to everyone. During the distraction, Bruce had casually wandered out from behind a dumpster and walked out into the main street.  

Good work Peggy!  He texted back, We’ll make a field agent out of you yet.

Bite your tongue. She replied through the group text, Serious, bite it off.

Inside the store, the boys were looking for an out.  Algernon had created a sizable pile of ‘stuff’ and while Everett Rand checked the fuse box, Desley Robinson was tallying up the damage.  

“I wanted to pay with this, is that going to be a problem?”  Algernon pulled out his Fred Weasley debit card. Desley still looked hopeful.

“It’s the wiring to the fusebox, “ Everett Rand returned shaking his head confused, “ I swear we just had all that updated months ago, shoddy workmanship.  I’ll let Miss Lydia know.” And he went out the front door just as Lydia Lance was watching the Kombi drive away.

“The EFTPOS is out,”  Desley admitted to Algernon, “but I think we have an old click-clack in the office, if you’ll just wait here.”  Desley stepped back into the staff area. Without a word spoken, Rain turned and walked out the door Algernon following his lead.  Desley returned back to find a pile of merchandise to reshelve and no customers.

Through texts they rendez-voused a few blocks from the store, their next destination, Lydia’s home.  Sitting on a large block of land, her house was a few miles out of town, well away from passing traffic or neighbours.

  This time Rain was made to stay in the van, though he kept himself busy by hacking into a faint WIFI signal Algernon had picked up. Through it he gained access to the security feeds.  There were multiple cameras around the house, but only one inside looking down a hallway. While the group walked the distance from the van to the house he made a loop of the footage and fed it back into the feed so everything, as far as the cameras were concerned, was as usual.  With one last refinement he linked the camera feed to the hardline Internet so he could watch the house anywhere, even back in town. His job done, he adjusted the driver’s seat to suit himself and waited.

Celia searched the house and grounds for other security and besides the cameras noted the ‘BEWARE: Dangerous Dog’, sign on a fence leading to the back of the house.

“Anyone good with dogs?”  Celia asked the others.

Algernon mimed holding a large gun and racking back the pump action, as if loading another cartridge into a shotgun.

“No!  We don’t need to shoot the dogs!”  Bruce exclaimed when he noticed the net casting crossbow on his back. “Oh, right.”

As their feet echoed down the boards of the front door, a shuffling and pounding of heavy feet could be heard from behind the house, followed by the barking of two dogs.  An instant later the two large hounds raced around the side of the house towards them. Algernon was ready with his crossbow and just when the two dogs were in range he let fly.  The net wrapped around the nearest dog, the weighted ends continuing around the next dog, making a two dog burrito of dog limbs, net and yelping.  

Walking up to the wrything mess, Algernon pulled out his pistol and trained it on the first dog.

“No.”  Bruce said, Algernon did not move.

“They’re a threat.”  He said, keeping his eyes fixed on the first dog.

“They’re not a threat.” 

“They might get out.”

“They won’t.  Look I’ll deal with the dogs.”  Bruce pulled out of his back pocket a half eaten packet of jerky and slowing started getting each dog’s attention.

“But what if they tell?”  Algernon put away his pistol as he saw the dog’s calm down under Bruce’s slow soothing words and treats, still deeply distrustful of the beasts.

Meanwhile, Celia was trying to pick the lock on the front door, but the mechanism was more complicated than she expected and she failed to turn all the tumblers.

“Maybe there’s a spare?”  Peggy looked around, on the door frame, under the mat and by the porch stairs but nothing. ”Maybe the backdoor?”

Together they walked around the back of the house and found what looked to be a door to the laundry.  This lock was simpler and Celia picked it open and they were inside in minutes. Celia, Peggy and Bruce fanned out through the house, checking each room.  They found a, lounge, home office, a spare bedroom and finally a master bedroom. Rain noted as each party member came into view on the hallway camera, but Algernon did not appear.

Where are you, Bro.  Haven’t seen you on hallway camera.  Rain sent to Algernon.

Ever since entering the laundry Algernon had been transfixed by two small machines just inside the door.  Both seemed to have permanent portals built into them, both were certainly not large enough for a human. Maybe they were for the dogs?  

Then he remembered the washing machines in the dormitories.  Though smaller and made of plastics, these were obvious the domestic cousins to those machines.  He was about to walk away never to think about the machines again when he spotted something between the machines.  Two men’s shoes, different styles, both worn and smelling of…bodily fluids. 

His phone called for Charge! and he saw Rain’s message.  Stepping out into the hallway he waved the shoes as the camera.

Is that something for the dogs to chew? Rain texted back noting the old odd shoes Algernon had found. 

Celia and Peggy were in the Master bedroom looking at the only family picture in the house.  It was a portrait of a younger Lydia with an older couple, presumably her parents. It was pretty obvious that Lydia Lance lived alone.  Celia checked behind the portrait and found two safes, and started cracking. Peggy checked for The Strange but found nothing. It seemed The Strange never touched this part of Lydia’s life.  Celia unlocked the larger of the two safes and found an unloaded rifle. Using the same combination the second safe opened revealing its ammunition.  

Algernon threw the shoes back into the laundry and found the others in the hallway.

“Have you found shoes?”  He asked Bruce who pointed to the Master bedroom.”There’s a cupboard full of clothes in there.”

Algernon stalked away without a word on his own mission, with Bruce in tow.  Celcia was relocking the safes as he examined the shoes.

“Why shoes?” Bruce and Celia asked at the same time.

Rain texted through to Bruce, Has Algernon asked you about his shoes?

Not getting any sense out of Algernon, Bruce backtracked to the laundry and found the discarded men’s shoes.  Just as curious about the men’s shoes in a single woman’s house, he brought them back for Celia to look at. She noted their smell and their poor condition.  She figured their last owners were two different men who had both been living rough.

“Could have belonged to some of those wrapped up in the spider room?”  Bruce mused returning the shoes to the laundry.

There wasn’t much left to explore, Algernon noted streaming subscriptions while others noted the lack of fossils or mineral samples.  Algernon went through Lydia’s underwear drawer, Bruce went outside and checked the garden shed. It is left to Peggy to drag Algernon out of the house by his ear, still clutching a silky piece of lingerie.

You have good taste, bro. Rain texted as they passed through the hallway and out of the house..

“Drop it!” Peggy barked, intimidating 

“What this?”  Waiving the panties in the air as Peggy dragged his ear further down. “Doctor Peggy please give me back my ear.”

“Drop it and yes you can have back your ear.”

The hostages were exchanged and Peggy returned the underwear to where it came from.  Now outside, Algernon returned circulation to his extremity, his eyes lighted on the bound dogs still sitting in the middle of the front yard.  Beyond that the van sitting by the side of the road. Algernon looked around suddenly aware of how exposed the party were. 

Move the van away from house.  Make sure no van in video feed.  He texted Rain  as he walked over to the dogs.  With a gesture he levitated the two dogs and pushed them ahead of him into the backyard.  Once past the gate he took off the net and was preparing to let them drop.

“Algernon, put them down  gently.” Bruce called from the shed having found nothing but  garden tool and equipment.  

The group discussed waiting at the house for Lydia’s return, a suggestion that appealed to the more theatric in the party.  In the end, stomach overruled heads and they all got back in the van and headed back to town for lunch at a diner. Once settled, Celia broached the subject of powers and The Strange.

“I’ve seen you float, but making the dogs levitate like that, is it another ability of the Strange?”  She asked Algernon over greasy burgers and pie.

“The same ability, see.” Algernon replied with a mouthful of food as he focused on Bruce and made him levitate a few inches above his seat then set him back down again.

“You couldn’t do that do the spiders in the store basement?”

Algernon shook his head, 

“Too big, at least something much bigger than me is too big at the moment.  It hurts if I push too hard.” He tapped his head in illustration.

“And the rest of you?” Celia looked to Bruce, Peggy and Rain.

“Algernon is the real superstar amongst us,” Rain swallowed hard and tried to look encouraging, “Though Peggy has a scream effect that will stun an enemy in their tracks.  Not that we need a demonstration.” He added as Peggy went to do just that.

“See, what they fail to mention, “ Bruce now added his thoughts on the subject, “Is that it’s not some mystical force that allows them to do these things.  They’ve practiced, trained their minds, like I train my body. That’s how I was able to heal myself in Railsea, just by thinking about it.”

“And you Rain, what do you do?”  Celia asked and suddenly Rain didn’t feel like the homemade apple pie in front of him.

“He…sort of makes us lucky…” Bruce said, fielding the subject, “…he will say something or get beside you and you feel like you’re just that little bit smarter, little bit stronger…I can’t explain it.”

Rain sighed.

“You know some of these skills Celia.  Getting people to open up to you, making them comfortable with you, think well of you.  That’s what I do. I calm and persuade, charm and encourage. I’d even like to think inspire.  But it’s all just words Celia, appropriate words linked to a real desire to understand how others work.” 

What Celia thought, she kept to herself as she finished her meal.  Soon Algernon started stuffing the net he’d used back into the canister, and Bruce stretched out  in the corner of the booth and started singing to himself.

Gone fishin’

By a shady, wady pool

I’m wishin’

I could be that kind of fool

I’d say ‘mo more work for mine’

On my door, I’d hang a sign, ‘gone fishin’

Instead of just wishin’

It was a quiet moment, congenial and relaxed, with none of the usual family bickering or bad feeling.  Rain smiled to himself and went back to his pie.  

When the house camera feed showed Lydia had returned home, they paid for lunch and headed back out of town.  There beside the house the battered green Bronco was parked. It was time to confront her and find out what she knew. 

 They walked up to the house together no longer hiding their movements.  When the dogs ran around from the back again, Algernon was ready and turned to face them, focusing if to levitate them once more. The dogs slowed, intimidated by the young man who had dealt with them so easily before.  They kept back and let the rest walk up to the door where Rain knocked.

“Yes, who is it?”  Came Lydia’s voice from inside.

“Ms Lydia Lance, my name is Vincent Rary,” Rain introduced himself, once more finding a new name as easily as speaking the truth is for others, “We’d like to talk to you about LeRoy Caine.”

“What about LeRoy?” Lydia’s voice came back defensive and the door was still not open.  Rain thought for a moment about what they knew about Lydia, her lonely life and her fears expressed in the diary entry. 

“He’s safe, Lydia.”  He assured her in a calm gentle tone that only highlighted what he said next, “And if you want to be safe, you’ll let us in.”

“You can keep me safe?”  She said at first, a real plea in her voice.  It was quickly replaced with the hard edge business woman.  “Keep me safe from what?”

“Donna Ilsa.” Rain replied simply and he thought he could hear an audible gasp from the other side of the door.  “Lydia, we know. We know people…of her breed and what they are capable of. Lydia, you don’t have to face this alone.”

The door opened and Lydia stood, much as they’d seen her that morning, a middle aged woman in business dress.  She didn’t look as assured as she had that morning, dealing with a reckless driver or talking to her staff. She looked smaller and older than her years.  She stepped back and ushered them into the living room.

“What do you want from me?” She asked now all business again.

“We know of the extensive network of Spiral Dust dealers, it needs to be shut down. We also need to understand the other side of the business.  When you receive the product? How? What can you tell us of Dona Ilsa and her associates?”

“I received a shipment this morning.” She stood, her arms crossed in front of her not liking what was happening but with no real way of stopping it. “It just arrives, I don’t know how.  I process the rock and ship it out in the next post with all the other orders for the store.”

“How often?”
“Once every couple of weeks.”  The disappointment was visible amongst the group.  The last order was out in the mail and there wouldn’t be another for two weeks.

“Where did the spiders come from?”  Celia asked and Lydia’s head whipped around, now completely disconcerted that her nasty little secret was out.

“Dona Ilsa brought them with her. She had ways of controlling them.  She said they were to protect her investment.” She replied miserably.

“And the bodies?”  Celia probed and Lydia’s business woman facade fell away.

“You have to understand.  I tried keeping them alive on mosquitoes, but that wasn’t enough, they needed more…protein.  If I didn’t keep them healthy, Dona Ilsa would be angry.”

“So, the victims, who were they?”

“I don’t know, “ She wailed, “Some homeless looking for work.  I said I had some cleaning in the basement…” She didn’t continue the thought and the group changed the subject.

“Whose idea was the store?  Forgive me, but you don’t seem that keen on rocks and fossils yourself.”  Bruce commented gesturing around the spartan room.

“It…it was my uncles.  I inherited it.”
“And when did you meet Dona Ilsa?”
“She approached me, soon after.”

The group looked at each other, 

“Soon after your uncle died?  Would his death be considered unusual or unexpected?”

“Not unexpected.  He died of cancer.”

“How do you keep in touch with Dona Ilsa?”

“I don’t.  She just appears in my shop, usually only when she’s angry.  That’s how I know she’ll kill me if I don’t do as she wants.”  

“Does she come with other?  Do you have any names?”

“Sometimes she brings others, but I never hear any names.”

I was clear there wasn’t much more to get out of her, she just didn’t know a lot to begin with.  The group started talking about how they were going to move Lydia to Seattle and keep her safe and close down the syndicate from this end.  Rain had one last question.

“Do you know of an individual called Eldin Lightfeather?”  He watched her carefully for signs of deceit, but there seemed to be none, the fight had gone out of Lydia Lance.

She shook her head slowly,

“No, never heard that name.”

“No.  It seems no one ever has.”  He replied morosely and let the talk of arrangements and future plans be made around him.

Negotiating with The Estate, Lydia was given two days to organise her life before the group would escorted her to the nearest airport and on a flight to Seattle.  Arrangements were made though Katherine who would have agents standing by to pick her up. Bruce also let Katherine know about Lydia’s part of the Spiral Dust distribution and she gave the group leave to stay and shut down the Colorado side of the syndicate, including dealing with the spiders.

“Don’t worry about your other tasks, this takes precedence.  Do whatever you can to make sure that the Spiral Dust pipeline is shut down.” Katherine confirmed.

“I also want to remind you, she did send a number of homeless men to their deaths.”  Added Bruce out of earshot of Lydia and the rest of the group.

“Oh, I shan’t forget.”  Katherine replied simply.

Katherine was also able to provide information about Dona Ilsa and the spiders, helped by Celia’s description.

“Dona Ilsa is a known operative of the Beak Mafia, but her position in the organisation is unknown. As we have no information on Lightfeather other than your group has provided we can not say if she’s affiliated with him either.

“The spiders on the other hand are a known quantity.  By those markings they’re likely to be Night Spiders, natives of Ardeyn.  They’re hardy, doing well outside their home recursion. They can be trained to follow an individual, but aren’t particularly intelligent.  Spiderlings are known to swarm out of a damaged adult so be aware of that. Certainly a difficult enemy, but nothing you can’t handle.”

As the group left Lydia to her empty house and packing, Peggy fell to talking about Lydia and her foolishness at getting mixed up with Dona Ilsa.

“What a piece of work.  I don’t know why we’re going to all the trouble to protect her.”  She said climbing back into the van for the drive back to town.

“ It was rock dust, what did she know.  She was alone and scared for her life. She did things she’d probably not normally do.”  Rain looked back at the house, wondering.

“Like feeding homeless guys to her pet spiders?”

“Sometimes, there are no good choices.”

10. Hunting

As was his routine, Bruce woke early and walked to the mess room for breakfast.  Not part of his morning routine was a Rain hunched over his laptop, coffee in hand.  The mug rings on the tabletop showed it wasn’t the first coffee as did the half drained coffee pot.  Rain could never be accused of being a morning person and it was often a race to see who between him and Algernon would get to breakfast last.  Usually Rain won.

“Why are you up so early?”  Bruce said as he made his way to the breakfast bain-marie.

“Huh?” Rain’s head shot up from what he was doing and fixed on Bruce in a blery way, “Is it that time?”

“So it’s ‘What are you doing up so late?’”

“Um…yeah, it seems.  I did some knife training in the gun range late last night…”

“You went training…?” Now Rain had Bruce’s attention has he brought his meal over to Rain’s table and sat down. In the months since the group joined the Estate Rain had not once shown interest in training other than practising his sleight of hand.

“Lightfeather’s speed bugged me.  He threw two daggers to my one.” Rain complained and sipped his now cold coffee. “Anyway, I was on  the way back when I got thinking about Algernon’s idea. I’ve been working on it ever since.”

“All night? Rain, you’re paying for today with tomorrow.  You have to look after yourself or you’ll be no use to us.”

Rain scowled and grumbled back uncharacteristically,

“I’ll be fine. Sleep and me have never been on good terms.”  He brushed aside Bruce’s concerns and topped up his coffee.

Bruce watched Rain, weighing his words and paid attention to his every movement.

“What is this idea of Algernon’s?” He asked, turning the computer screen to himself.  He didn’t make much sense of it, a diagram of the old copper telephone network throughout Seattle?  Rain quickly made it back to the seat, coffee in hand and turn the screen back.

“A great idea, it will cut down all our processing time to a fraction.  And all the surveillance footage we’re currently wading through manually, all done automatically.”  The speil came out smooth and polished. It was something Rain had been thinking on awhile, no doubt.

“You know, I can see straight through you.  Usually I have to pay attention, but this morning you’re hiding something as effectively as Algernon.”

Peggy made her way into the mess looking for coffee.  She was disappointed to see there was barely a cup. She took it, leaving the dregs and got herself some toast.

Rain slumped in his chair, seeming to lack the energy to continue arguing.

“Things have been going…okay.    Railsea was successful but we lost a simple way to Crows Hollow, nearly lost Peggy not to mention making an enemy of Lightfeather. ” He shivered and continued, “You guys are displaying amazing powers, and I’m no closer to understanding how. We found out about the Cowboy, but lost another person to the dust.  The drug trial went fine but it didn’t answer any of my questions…” He looked up at Bruce and it was clear that something weighed heavily on him. “I just need a victory.”
“You ride yourself too hard.”

“Life’s a gamble and we’re losing too often.  How long before it’s all taken away again?”

Last of all this morning, Algernon stumbled in and went straight for the coffee machine. Eyeing the dregs forlornly he poured them over cereal, piled on cold strips of bacon, scrambled egg and toast and put it all in the microwave to reheat.  

“I swear you’re up to something. I tell you, I can see straight through you.”  Bruce repeated as Algernon sat down and gave Rain an odd examining look.

“I can’t.”  

“As far as I know my father wasn’t a glassblower, “ Rain quipped before turning his attention to his partner in crime. “Come see what I’ve done.”

Algernon scanned silently through Rain’s work as he ate his breakfast.

“We need a safe connection.” he commented after a while through salty-coffee-egged-cereal.

“That’s why I’ve been looking at the old copper network.  It’s everywhere and some places still have it connected.”

“We don’t want it to connect to Estate though. We know the Cowboy knows something about technology.  He used a VoIP to mask who he was. Could be useful?”

“Yeah, but we’ve got to catch him first.”

After collecting her breakfast of coffee and toast, Peggy found Hertzfeld in his office and asked him for a matter converter.

“Ah, that’s a highly experimental piece of equipment.  Tell me, what use could you put such a thing?”

“For a The Strange battery.  I need currently unknown compounds that will be able to respond and withstand the chaos of The Strange.  The amorphous nature of The Strange requires elements and compounds of specific tolerances that are not found in current materials technology.”

She argued the  technicals with him until he had to admit that though there were a number of steps she was overlooking, her idea was exciting .

“Such work has been done by myself, but I could never get it  to work. I’d like to see where you get with it. Unfortunately I can’t justify highly expensive and highly experimental tools on such a premise.”

“You’ve worked on a similar idea?  May I see your notes?”

“By all means.” He pulled up his notes and for the morning the two of them arguing his theory all the way to midday.

While Bruce was working out and mulling over the revelations of the morning, Algernon and Rain continued with their plans to hack the NSA and gain access to time on the supercomputer.  Algernon spent the morning setting up a relay of cryptocurrencies starting with Bitcoin, purchasing Monero, converting through a number of other currencies until he had Ethereum that he could use safely to purchase on the Dark Web via a Tor browser.  

With his purchased 20 botnet servers in hand, he planned a  network configuration that never relayed the signal the same way twice making it even more difficult for whitehats to trace them back. 

Rain had spent the night hunting out information about the NSA and significant members. The search included a scan through HR records for The Estate. He was pleased to find a link, one Tanya Darwol who had been a NSA agent only twelve months ago who now worked with El McCain.  The file did not detail the reasons for her leaving, but a disagreement with a Director called Prashant Gohr was mentioned. Golden handshake? Seemed likely to Rain. The director was still on the Department of Defence payroll and what was more interesting to Rain, had worked a section that had recently been closed.  Sure that the sections infrastructure would still be in place. If reconnected, it would provide a base within the DoD from which to work.

With this knowledge in hand, he worked through the Estate and found Tanya Darwol.  

“Ms Darwol?  My name is Rain Bigby, I was part of the group that came back with El McCain.”

“Hey yeah, you found him out in that canibal wasteland.  Wild ride for a first time out.”

“I’m glad you said that.  I certainly felt out of my depth…to be honest I always feel that way.”

“Oh, well how can I help you?”

“I’m new. I’m just looking to experienced agents such as yourself for advice, examples from life.”

“I don’t know, did you go to any of the Estate’s training?”

A standard answer to get rid of the newbie, but he was ready for such a reply.

“Theory is all well and good, but I’m looking for the lived experience.  You’re a highly experienced agent, are there not examples from your past that would be worth knowing?”

She narrowed her eyes and took a moment to take in the unassuming man in front of her.  He looked genuine.

“Well… standing up for what you believe is right is a good start. If you believe something to be right, pursuit it. Another is getting good at finding patterns in the mundane was fundamental to my work.  People are creatures of habit and following the patterns often gives you information about their personality or just about where they will be at any given time.”

“Yes, I understand routine.”  Rain was finding Tanya hard to crack. Maybe she was suspicious, but he thought it more likely that she was just used to keeping things to herself.  He tried one of his precious nuggets of information to help open up the conversation. 

“Rowe Campbell was all about finding the good in routine, finding the gaps that one could be taken advantage of.”

“You know Rowe?”  She looked surprised, had he pushed his hand too hard?  Rowe had been the direct supervisor of the infamous Prashant and Chief on the now defunct section.

“You know, it’s amazing who you meet in this business.  She’s all for modernisation, but she had a chap working under her that was change for change sake.  That sort of thing has got to make it hard to focus on the patterns when everything is changing all around you.”  He knew Prashant had been the director that had got Tanya sacked and he could see how a character like that would get under the skin of the detail driven Ms Darwol.  If he could just get her to talk about him then he would have an in. He just wasn’t sure if she’d take the bait.

“Oh him!”  she replied and he let go of the breath he’d been holding the whole conversation. “Yeah, some people have no sense of priority.”

Rain sat back and silently noted everything she said about Prashant and his section.  She was careful to never mention names or details of specific operations but it was clear to both of them who she was referring to.  Her information was a year old, but amongst her diatribe on Gohr she dropped some tasty nuggets of information about the NSA’s inner workings.   After an hour Rain felt he had all he was going to get and offered his thanks to the busy agent.

“I think I understand why McCain rates you so highly.”  he shook her hand and left to inform Algernon what he had found out.

Rain and Algernon were working on their plan during lunch.  The basics of the were in place, but a safe entry into the Internet was still required .  Bruce was there, eating lunch and trying to weedle out information about the project when Peggy stormed in.

She’d got no where with Hertzfeld that morning and he had not approved the expense and risk of the matter converter.  Now she fumed using his name in some unsavoury ways, means and locations. With a sheaf of notes tucked haphazardly under her arm she made no comment to the three of them but muttered to herself as she took a seat across from Rain’s laptop. 

Algernon, nervous around the scientist when she was in a mood, got up to leave, but was stopped when she glared a challenge at him.  He quickly sat down again.

“We’re going to need her in a better frame of mind for this afternoon.”  Bruce quietly said to Rain who took up a plate and piled it full of all the tastiest treats he knew she liked from previous meals.  He placed the plate beside her elbow looking over her shoulder at the notes she was checking and rechecking.

“Whatcha doin’?” he said casually letting the cockney in his usual standard London accent peak through.

Without a word she showed her working, pages of maths that only swam in the con man’s vision.

“Oh, batteries.”  Algernon looked over understanding the principles behind her workings instantly.

“Yes!”  Peggy leapt at the chance at another intelligent mind, “Tell me, where in my working out am I wrong?  Hertzfeld says I’m missing something but I just can’t see it.”

Staying where he was, Algernon looked over the notes she pushed across the table towards him.

“There’s no particular error in your reasoning, but the materials technology just can’t support it.  Have you thought about engineering a biological solution to the problem. Unlike dead materials, living flesh can change and adapt as needed.  At least that’s what we’d do.”

“Biological engineering?  What a thought.” Peggy mused sitting back for the first time that lunch and nibbling at the food on her plate.

“We’d do?  And who would that be?”  Bruce and Rain now looked interested.

“Yes Algernon, do tell.”

Algernon was once more looking uncomfortable.  Talking about the past for all of them seemed a touchy subject, but no one more than Algernon who until recently had known nothing else but a seemingly unpleasant  life in a laboratory. Fortunately for him he was saved this day by the most unlikely person.

“Forget about that for a moment.”  Peggy put aside her notes indicating that subject was now closed. “We have three recursion keys, what do you say try one?”

The three men glanced around the table.  They’d been talking all morning about the Cowboy, though no plans had been laid and Peggy and not been part of discussions.

“The Cowboy is only in town tonight, and we have to stakeout the block and plan how we’re going to take him.”  Bruce opened up the subject.

“Well, when does that start?”  Peggy folded her arms, put out that her idea had to be put aside.

“Now, really.”  Rain turned to his laptop and brought up a satellite view of the street corner in question.  He turned the screen so the group could see. “We have to plan what we’re going to do and get into place before the Cowboy turns up tonight.”

“So, what do we know?  We don’t have surveillance in the area, but he does works alone…”
“He is a very violent man, right Peggy?  You worked that out from Eldritch’s place.“  Rain asked Peggy as she reflected on the scene of murderous destruction she had processed when first investigating Spiral Dust.

“Yes, he was very angry and took it out on Eldritch.”  she agreed.

“And we want him alive.”  Algernon added, Rain nodded agreement. “Shame we don’t have our surveillance up yet.”

“Yes, the plan of yours.”  Bruce latched onto Algernon’s verbal musing.

“I told you all about Algernon’s plan.  Lots of computer work, very technical and tedious.”  Rain tried covering with little success.

“You’re going to tell us anyway, why not now?”  Bruce asked suspicious of the plan the two boys were keeping so tightly lipped about.

Rain looked at Algernon who looked scared at his own verbal gaff.

“Nah…”  Rain replied with a childish grin and turned back to the map on his laptop.

Looking at the satellite view of the street corner it was clear it was near a carpark where the Cowboy would assumedly leave any vehicle. It gave good access to the road in both directions and was free of a building that could hide an operations like theirs.  On the other corners were a mechanics, a bodega (that Rain was informed was a grocery store, not a Spanish wine bar as he’d hoped) and an unknown building. A quick search of the building under Real Estate found that it was for lease and was listed as office space.

“That looks like the place for our stakeout.”  Rain pointed out the empty office block, “ A two storey building, street access, with a view of the whole intersection.  I’ll see if the Estate can lend me some Lockpicks.”

“Speaking of supplies, I’ll see Katherine about what the Estate can offer to help catch this guy. “  Bruce said and left.

At the mention of supplies Algernon too got up and visited the canteen.  He returned sometime later with a jug of hot coffee and a paper bag dark with fat.

“Supplies, for the stakeout.  Coffee and bacon.” That the canteen had no cooked bacon and had given him what they had out of the fridge didn’t seem to bother him.  Neither did the fact that the jug had no lid.

Bruce returned after discussions with his supervisor with a large crossbow-like gun and a box of cartridges.

“She offered some experienced hands to come along and help but I didn’t think it necessary.  She did recommend this thing and I thought Algernon may be able to use it.” He handed it to Algernon who  looked dubiously at the stocky cartridge placed in the flight grove instead of a streamline bolt. “It launches a net short range, there are a few cartridges so you can practise beforehand.”

“Okay,” Algernon nodded after a moment investigation of the weapon, “Could you run over there?”  He pointed at the far end of the mess. Bruce shook his head.

“No way.” he laughed and mood of the group shifted to one of silly banter.  “What else do we want to tackle this guy?”

“Taser in the nuts?”  Algernon suggested.

“No, we have that covered.” Rain replied gesturing to Peggy.

“What do you mean?”  Algernon asked unsure what horror the scientist may unleash.

“Peggy’s kick-arse boot!”  Rain answer, Peggy added much to his embarrassment.

“I kicked him in the nuts once.”  

This made Bruce roar with laughter.

“And I still helped killed a that spider.”  Rain announced not to be outdone.

“In the theatre!?”  Bruce was now gasping for breath between gaffors.

By the end of their planning each member had their part.  Algernon would sit up in the office building and shoot the net casting crossbow or levitate the the Cowboy if he tried any violence. Rain would distract the Cowboy pretending to be a potential client as Peggy and Bruce would be to be ordinary citizens out for a stroll.  Peggy would train her sense on The Strange so she could warn the group if he had a recursion key or cipher, she also had her gun. Bruce would come in with the physical stuff and was ready with his crowbar. The plan was…the plan, and what it didn’t have in subtly it made up with everyone knowing their part in it.

That afternoon as the group walked into the carpool, Algernon added one more item.  From a line of equally ungainly machines, Algernon pulled one of the Estate’s Honda CT110 motorbikes and put it in the boot of the car.

“You won’t need it.”  Bruce commented and Algernon got into the car balancing his coffee and bacon.

“Just in case.”

The car park was empty when they stopped opposite the office block later that afternoon.  Bruce made Algernon leave his coffee and bacon in the car as he walked the block checking out the neighbourhood. It was an area of  the city between workplaces and homes, the local area was quiet before quitting time at 5pm. He made it behind the office building without meeting a soul and found another door.   On a chance he tried the doorknob and it turned in his hand, the door swinging in on an empty storeroom. Silently he stepped in and close the door behind him.

 The other three went straight for the front door of the unoccupied building and Rain pulled out his newly acquired lockpicks. In truth he hadn’t had a lot of experience with door locks, but he wouldn’t have been able to call himself a student of Houdini if he’d failed in front of his friends.  All fears, however, were groundless as the lock clicked and the door swung open silently. 

“Go see where Algernon’s got to.” suggested Bruce as Rain stepped back and let him and Peggy in.  With a tip of an imaginary hat, Rain pulled out his phone and called Algernon’s number.

Algernon adjusted his eyes to the storeroom.  There wasn’t much to see, a few empty boxes shelving and the pervasive feeling of neglect.  He sniffed the air searching for the smells of human habitation, cooking, aftershave or cigarettes.  All he got was the musk of rats and mould. To his left an opening lead to stairs going up to the first floor, straight ahead another door that he assumed must lead to the front of the building.  Silently he trod the risers , climbing up the stairs when his phone started playing the Mission Impossible theme tune. Scrabbling to silence the thing, he saw the call was from Rain and answered it.

“Shhhh!”  he hissed into the receiver and Rain hung up only to send a text message asking where he was.  

On the ground floor Bruce heard the phone ring.  Crowbar drawn, he followed the sound to the back room, finding the door and stairs going to the first floor.  Again he heard the phone, this time bugle call for charge and confronted Algernon texting back to Rain. Shhhhh!

 Bruce rolled his eyes and pulled out his own phone calling Rain.

“He’s in here.  You might as well come in yourself.”

The first floor was one room, carpeted a grubby industrial green. It was furnitureless but lined with sashed windows overlooking the intersection.  While Algernon set up his stakeout spot which included: his supplies, a constant video feed of the street and the crossbow, Peggy pulled out her handgun and loaded it.

“I brought this in case this turns into a knife fight.” She said and loaded a round in the chamber.

“The right side of the equation to be on.”  Rain acknowledged wary of her new found fascination with guns and headed across the road to the Bodega.

Again disappointed that the shop owner was not Spanish or sold wine, he did chat pleasantly with him about about the area.

“I’m thinking of renting the office space across the street and I’m wondering what this place is like a night?”

“Pretty quiet.  There’s a rave a block or two down the street that gets some attention.  Then there’s this dodgy guy in a cowboy hat hangs around sometimes. Doesn’t do any harm though so I say live and let live.”

“Wise words.”  Rain toasted the shop owner with a can of Cola and returned to the office block to await the arrival of the Cowboy.

It was 7pm and fully dark by the time a large pickup  drove into the carpark and stopped. It was clear this was the guy when he climbed out of the driver’s side in full cowboy hat and jacket.  Algernon quickly snapped a few photos of the Cowboy and the car with his phone and sent the images to the rest of the group. The Cowboy, confidently strolled out to his favourite spot on the corner and waited or his business to come to him.  It was time to act.

“Let’s just go out there and get him, no theatrics.  Just walk up casual, Algernon fires the net and we grab him.”  Bruce said as everyone got into place. Rain thought , but said nothing, just nodded and started out into the road.  When they were half way across, he waved to gain the Cowboy’s attention before…

Whizz crack! 

The canister containing the net flew overhead and crashed into the brick wall of the mechanics behind the Cowboy’s head.  The shot had failed and now the Cowboy knew something was up.

“Quick, before he…” But the warning remained unfinished as the Cowboy reached into his pocket and disappeared.  Another instantaneous translation and their quarry was gone, who knew where.

Rain slumped to the asphalt in the middle of the road, sure they’d just screwed up their best chance at getting the Cowboy.

If I had gone up to him as discussed I would have been closer when the canister failed, I could have grabbed him, I could have.  He thought bitterly, but said instead, ”His car is there.”  

Picking himself up, Rain followed Bruce who was already heading for the truck. Both started when the door open of its own accord.

“The bastard’s invisible!  Get him!”

Bruce forgot his crowbar and pulled out his revolver readying a shot.  Seeing the change in tactics, Rain’s deck of cards were suddenly in his hand.  He fanned them out spraying them in a cone at the open door of the pick up as Bruce trained his gun on the spot where the cards bounced off something not there.

Bruce shot went wild and he swore as the Dodge’s engine turned over.  The cowboy aimed the car at Bruce and Rain and stomped on the pedal. Bruce dodged aside, but Rain rolled up the bonnet and window of the pickup, caught hold of the passenger door frame and swung in feet first.

From his window position above, Algernon could do nothing.  He couldn’t see the Cowboy to levitate him and there was nothing he could do to support his friends. In frustration he threw the useless net launcher aside and started climbing out the window.  Bruce and Peggy both shot the pickup’s tyres, Bruce’s ricocheting off the road. Peggy’s hit, bringing the truck down on its rims on one side. It was at that moment that Rain grabbed the steering wheel out of the invisible Cowboy’s hands and yanked it  around hard. 

There was a moment’s realisation as the front wheel rim turned and bit into the road surface. Then chaos as the truck flipped and rolled in a scream of twisting metal and shattering glass.  

“Rain!”  Bruce yelled and ran for the truck as it settled on it roof in the middle of the intersection. Algernon soared out his window and levitated to the ground near their car and Peggy ran towards the truck.  No sound came from the truck. A distance away, Police sirens wailed.

Inside, Rain was dazed from the battering he’d just receive when the truck rolled.  There were no clever words and only one thought whirling around in his addle brain. Get the Cowboy.  As the driver’s door groaned open he pounced, fingers like claws for the man he knew must be there. The struggle was perfunctory and the Cowboy finally went limp as Bruce grabbed him and dragged both him and Rain out of the truck.

“Please keep struggling.  I’m told I need more biological material.”  Peggy trained her gun on the invisible man.

“Anything Strange, Peggy?” Bruce grunted getting a firm grip on nothing.

“That he’s invisible is pretty strange wouldn’t you say?”  She felt for the Strange but felt nothing. Whatever it was had been spent. ‘Turn off the invisibility.”

“I can’t, “ The Cowboy groaned, “It lasts ten minutes.”

“Peggy!  Keys!” Algernon called from the car holding his hands up to catch the keys.  Instead, Peggy put away her gun and walked over to the car.

“You’ve got this.” she said over her shoulder.

The sirens were getting louder, it was time to go.  

Bruce now had control of the Cowboy and hauled him bodily to the car as Peggy drove along side the overturned pickup. Algernon crawled into the cab of the pick up, rummaging through the glove compartment.  

“We don’t have time, we’ve got to go now!”  Bruce yelled as Rain stumbled back to the office building clutching his head.

“You go, we’ll catch up.”  he called keeping the door open for Algernon who now had a set of keys in his hand and pulled a duffle bag from under the pickup’s tray. “Algernon, you can make it.”

As swiftly as he could with the heavy duffle, Algeron ran through the door and Rain locked it shut. The car carrying Peggy, Bruce and the Cowboy sped away.  The siren wail grew louder, only blocks away as both Algernon and Rain stumbled upstairs and watched the police arrive from the windows. They were trapped in the building, no way to cross to another and even the back door was currently not safe from the keen eyes of the police.  

One officer went to the Bodego, locked up for the night, another walked up to the front door of the building and knocked.

Rain gestured, he’d go down and talk.  Algernon nodded and started breaking down the net launcher.  He stuffed the pieces in the duffle bag noting the contents as he did.  Camping equipment: tent, cooking utensils, and a sleeping bag.

Raking his fingers shakily through his bloodied hair Rain did the best he could to make himself presentable before unlocking the door to the officer on the other side.

“Good evening officer, is there a problem?”  he asked meekly, projecting an aura of unthreatening-average-citizen.

“The shopkeeper across the way called a few moments ago about gunshots.  Has there been some sort of accident here tonight, sir?” She gestured to the Dodge standing silent on its roof in the middle of the street.

“Goodness!”  Rain starred surprised at the truck as blood trickled down his neck and into his shirt collar. “I heard something, I thought it was firecrackers.  I’m afraid I was working in the back of the building.”

The police officer sighed,

“Your name sir?”

“Gygax, Libor Gygax.”  The new persona rolled off his tongue as did his statement to the officer.  When the officer was finished she walked over to the Dodge and radioed in the license plate.  Rain didn’t wait. Quietly he relocked the door and, with Algernon and the duffle, they snuck out the back door while the police were occupied. 

Another knock at the door, but there was no one left to answer it.

9. Fears and Failures

It was late Monday morning on a Seattle Autumn day as two young men walked the campus of The Estate.  Both of their minds were full of visions of their latest excursion or lists of to do now they were back.  The older one, no taller or larger than his companion looked out at the world around him furtively. His younger companion flicked idly through a well thumbed notebook trying to make sense of the world.  Without preamble, their quiet shared contemplation was broken by the elder who finally voiced a question he’d been holding like a hot rock in his mouth.

“So, when you say you’re 15, what do you mean by that?”  Rain asked casually if a question of general conversation.

“That’s an age concept…right?” Algernon responded nervously, these questions were always fraught.

“But what do you mean by it.  You do know you won’t be legally able to drink in a few days, right?”

Algernon shook his head, unsure in disbelief or surprise that it needed saying.

“I actually don’t know how old I am.”

“Oh!”  Rain stopped in surprise, making his companion stop as  well, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” Rain considered Algernon for a moment as if making a decision.  He opened his mouth as if to speak, but no words came out. In the end he glanced away and added, “You know you can always tell me stuff like this.”

Algernon nodded but felt then on that something had been left unsaid. There had to be a better way of gaining information than these obfuscating words.

At the same time, across campus in the labs of The Estate, a female scientist was berating one of her co-workers.  It’s not until the words were heard that listeners just outside the door would realise that she was a junior operative just returned from a mission and he was her supervisor.

“I told you I wasn’t ready for fieldwork, why do you insist I continue to go on these missions?”  Peggy complained to Hertzfeld without regard to his rank or who may be listening.

“As I understand you did rather well.”

“And I got stabbed!”
“That is unfortunate, but that is why you go out with a team.”  Hertzfeld was not to be belittled by Peggy’s negativity, “You just can’t learn everything you need to know in the lab.”

“Anyone who says that is just not trying hard enough.”  She grumbled well aware that exactly what he said of his own career.  “Anyway we did find some translation keys.”

“See.  Well done.”  She handed them over to him all anger seemingly forgotten. “Do you know where they could be from?”

“No, but leave them with me.” Hertzfeld put the bucket, med kit box and signet ring down on his desk, “Tell me about your latest translation.”

Peggy gave a verbal report on the Spiral Dust transportation through Railsea including the interest that a particular giant mole took in the raw mineral. She mentioned Caw Eh Carve and the information about Crows Hollow he had provided as well as a detailed account of the arrival of Elvin Lightfeather.

“And then he stabbed me.”

“Just once?” Hertzfeld replied dryly.  His attempt at humour was ignored.

“We also got the name of a prominent character involved in the Spiral Dust smuggling.  A Don Whitecliff?”
“Oh, we know of Whitecliff, a very prominent character all round. I look forward to reading all about it in your report, but…”  he gestured to an adjacent room, “In the meantime, I’ve been waiting to hear your thoughts on my little project, it has to do with the thonic your party brought in a few weeks ago.”

He lead her through to his private lab where he had a glass aquarium with a single pebble inside.  Beside it, a metal glove attached to a power cord. Hertzfeld had shown the gloves to Peggy before and it had some potential at phasing through solid materials.  Hertzfeld now plugged in his glove and put it on.

“Now watch this.” and he slowly moved his hand through the glass of the aquarium and picked up the pebble within.
“You succeeded at material differential phasing?” she sounded impressed as he dropped the pebble back on the glass surface of the aquarium and pulled his hand through its wall. 

“It takes a lot of juice and it’s hardly portable at the moment but yes, the experiments have been very positive so far.” Hertzfeld unplugged the device and handed it to Peggy.

“But what if we incorporate what I’ve been able to gather from my research and actually the tap The Strange for the energy to power it…”

“That’s exactly why I’m here,”  Rain said as he as Algernon walked into the lab “but my query is a little more personal.”

“Good.  Are you ready for the spiral dust experiment?” Peggy. Rain instantly looked like he was ready to turn and walk straight out of the lab again all thought of Hertzfeld’s notes forgotten.

“Oh there’s so much to do right now.”  Rain started backing out only to bump into Algernon walking behind him,   “I want to train with Algernon and we’ve been asked to check the video feeds…”

“Don’t you want to do these experiments anymore?”  

“No…I mean yes, I do…I…”

“And don’t you want to do it safely with all medical facilities standing by if something goes wrong?”

“Yes… that sounds good.”  He winced.

“And Algernon are you willing to help?”

“You said you’d watch didn’t you?” Rain’s head snapped around to Algernon.

“Yes I will be there for Rain.”  Algernon replied stoically, voicing no opinion of his own.

Peggy took a calming breath, 

“So, what’s the problem?”

Rain looked around him, at the practical Peggy, the curious Hertzfeld and the imperious Algernon.  He felt trapped, but it was a trap of his own making, one he wanted to walk into ever since finding out about the Spiral Dust.  A chance to touch The Strange, maybe harness its energies like Peggy did with her machines, like the others do with their powers.  At the same time the memories brought out by another experiment seventeen years previous made him scramble for his puzzle box.

“Because…because people get things wrong, stuff goes wrong…”
“Do you think I’ll hurt you?” Peggy asked almost insulted.

“No…look.  I’ve done something like this before and it didn’t go well.”
“A drug trial?  For what? At college?”

“A London University.  It was experimental, a drug trial for depression. They gave me LSD.”

“What happened?”

“I didn’t have depression and…there was a bad trip…a very bad trip.”  He turned to Peggy, his eyes large and swimming from frustration and shame, but his expression was full conviction.  “Look, I know this stuff isn’t the same thing at all, we know what it does, I don’t think the same thing will happen.  I want to do this.”

“Okay then.”Peggy replied more conciliatory, “I’ve booked a room near the medical unit, not in my lab.  Algernon will be there and we’ll start with the very lowest dose I believe will still have an effect. Does that sound good to you?”

“Yes.” Rain replied more confidently than he felt.

“Right, we’ll reconvene this afternoon.   Don’t eat or drink anything more today.”

“I don’t think I could.”

In the hours before the Spiral Dust experiment, Algernon got busy with the task they had been set, going through the footage at the warehouse.  Visits to the warehouse and diminished significantly since they closed that little operation, but there was at least one person that visited twice in the four days they’d been in Railsea.  Carefully Algernon captured numerous images of the woman in her mid 30s, blond, tall, 180cm to compare her to the door, right handed (the hand she used to knock) wearing tie-dye shirt, jacket, jeans and sunglasses.

With his new information he went and found Rain in a room near the medical unit.

“Hey Rain, I’ve been thinking.  Going through the video recordings is not efficient.”

“A boring and yet essential job it seems.”  he fussed as the nurse placed sticky electrodes against bare skin,   “You have something in mind?”

Algernon nodded, 

“Let’s hack the NSA.”

Rain was stunned to silence so Algernon felt encouraged to continue.  The nurse, hearing something he knew he shouldn’t, quietly excused himself from the room.

“We can get access to all the national camera networks as well as use of the Supercomputer, it would really save us a lot of time.”

“The NSA is a bit like Crows Hollow.” Rain finally replied after taking in the enormity of the task.  When Algernon looked confused, he added, “It’s a bit above us at the moment.”

“Well, how about the carrier waves for the mobile networks?” Algernon was not to be put off so easily. To this Rain nodded encouragingly his mind really not on the task at the moment.

“That’s doable, maybe later though.” He answered distractedly.

“Oh, and…” Algernon handed over the image of the woman from the warehouse, “…she’s been twice while we were away.”  This got Rain’s attention and he quickly took a copy of the image with his phone.

“This is good news, now we just have to find out who she is.”

Peggy and the nurse were soon back with discussions about dosages and procedures about how the experiment would progress.  With no interest or heart for the details of what was to come, Algernon left and returned to the computer labs near the library.

Here he talked to a number of I.T. members about finding someone from just their image alone.  They sent him along to the small office of the Digital investigation specialist, Walter Taylor.

“Give me what details you have on the woman in question and I’ll see what I can find with a reverse image search.”  Walter said as Algernon laid out what he knew.

“I’d love to stay and watch how you search, but I need to be somewhere else.  Would it be all right if you teach me how to do this some other time?” Algernon asked as Walter started entering the information.

“Sure, next time I need to run one of these I’ll send a message so you can sit in.”  Walter agreed and Algernon left making sure he’d be in time for Rain’s experiment.

When Algernon arrived he found Rain alternatively chatting to the nurse, who was well used to such nonsense, and talking to Peggy about what was to come.

“Thank you for putting this all together,” Rain said to Peggy and there was a frizzon that Algernon picked up the edges of. “I really am grateful for all the thought and attention.”

“Okay.” Peggy replied awkwardly.

“Oh and make sure you use the pure stuff, either what’s left of your original ounce or from this.” and Rain opened his puzzle box to reveal the other two ounces inside.

Peggy, instead of providing a container for the spiral dust, took the whole box to empty and clean out.

“No!  Give it back!”  Rain almost jumped out of the bed after Peggy, but he was held down by electrodes, drip lines and other monitoring equipment as well as  the nurses quick reflexes. So violent was his reaction that some of the measuring equipment started chiming in alarm. Peggy gave back the now clean puzzle box but not before noting its connection to The Strange.  The buzz in her teeth was unmistakable, the box was touched by The Strange in some way. She made a note to investigate its properties at a later time.

“Rain, remember Will Robinson.”  Algernon said from Rain’s bedside.

“He’s never far from my mind.” Rain responded weakly as he clutched the puzzle box in two shaking hands.

“Are you nervous?”

“Peggy, you have to realise there is always a base level of fear.”  Rain admitted which gave Peggy pause.

“Any sort of fear or nervous tension will affect our readings.” she checked that all the machines were running as expected again, “Are you uncomfortable?”

“Yes,” Rain replied truthfully.

“Then we’re not doing this. Nurse, you can release the patient.” Peggy turned away to start clearing away her notes.

“What!”  Rain cried, now in fear that what he had dreaded all morning was no going to happen at all.

“I will not run such as experiment with an unwilling patient and that is flat.”  She turned back to the bed to see Algernon pick up the syringe she’d prepared with the solution of Spiral Dust.

“PUT THAT DOWN!” she commanded, “You will not experiment on an unwilling subject under my watch!”
“Do it!”  Rain stuck out his arm and turned his face away so as not to see the needle.  Without hesitation, Algernon plunged the needle into Rain’s arm and depressed the plunger.

As the drug took effect, Rain slumped to the bed, as pandemonium broke out in the room.  

“Get out!  Get out! And never enter my lab again!”  Peggy screamed at Algernon who scurried like a whipped dog for the door to knock directly into Bruce who was coming in the door the other way.

Bruce’s morning had been spent with Katherine Manners, his direct supervisor, debriefing and discussing what their next steps should be.  After which he’d headed over to the dormitory and had a long hot shower, his first in ten days of dusty travel through the Railsea. He ate a leisurely brunch then headed over the computer lab where their video feed was collected and viewed.  There he met Walter Taylor from whom he was surprised to learn Algernon had beat him to the task.

“He said he had to be somewhere and couldn’t stay to help. I feel I’m going to be here all day on this one.”

“Once before you found my brother through his phone number,” Bruce suggested, “could you possibly do the reverse and find this woman’s phone number from the location and time?”

“Good idea, I’ll get onto it. Good luck on your search.”

He started asking around campus for his team and found that there was a scheduled experiment on for that afternoon. One which he had not been invited.  

And so Bruce happened to find himself entering a scene of chaos with a red faced Peggy screaming at a terrified looking Algernon as Rain lay unsettlingly still on a bed.

“What’s happening here?”  Bruce asked, grabbing a hold of Algernon as he tried to make his escape.

Peggy took a deep breath and regained some semblance of composure.

“Rain wanted to experiment with the Spiral Dust drug to see what effect it would have.  I offered to provide a safe place where data both physical and psychological could be recorded accurately.  Algernon was here at Rain’s request as a support and witness but he took control of the experiment when the patient showed signs of resistance.  I will not have that sort of practise in my lab, he can’t stay.”

“Rain’s not a patient!”  Algernon retorted, slightly more sure of himself now backed by Bruce.

“Of course he is, he’s my patient.” Peggy snapped back.

Bruce scowled at the situation and at his companions with deep disgust. 

“He stays.”  Bruce stepped into the room, dragging Algernon in behind him.  Algernon scuttled to a corner and sat crouched on the ground, his eyes darting from Bruce to Peggy.

“I forbid it!  He interfered, I don’t know what damage he’s done…”

“Well then you know your job, make sure it’s right.”  And with that Bruce pulled out his crowbar menacingly and stood at the foot of the bed watching the lifeless looking Rain.  “Make sure he’s safe.”

After recognising there was no arguing with him, Peggy gave in and turned to her patient whose vital were already showing signs of deep sleep.

“Look doctor, at his eyes.” the nurse held open one of Rain’s eyelids.  The eye was rolled back as expected in sleep, but the iris itself was spinning creating the spirals the dust was known for. 

Rain found himself floating in comfortable darkness.  Floating was good. It wasn’t what he wanted but floating had its advantages.  While floating there were no distractions, no ties, no cares or any real fears.  Floating was freeing. Floating was a revelation.

Still floating, the darkness around him began to lighten and coalesce into a landscape, a coastal scene.  Sandy shores and rocky cliffs soon made way to an ancient walled city, dust coloured on the horizon. The city was completely encircled by high stone walls, ancient and crumbling, with six gates providing access around its perimeter.  

Without control of where he went, Rain drifted down towards the nearest of the six gates, protected by the collapsing statue of a sphinx.  Inside the walls the city was a sprawling mass of tightly packed buildings both large and small in all states of disrepair and decay. Now he saw humanoids for the first time, ungainly creatures with human upper bodies, furry legs and long wickedly sharp clawed hands.  As he drifted closer to the creatures he could see that their unusual walking style was due to having the hips and legs of goats that ended in cloven hooves.

None of the creatures seemed to notice his presence and as he touched down he realised he made no impression at all on the dusty ground.  To them and their world, he did not exist. Now he was walking amongst the people of the town, with no control over his movements. He couldn’t stop to check out a detail or listen to a conversation, maybe pick up the language.  It was like a virtual tour without the VR visor and with all the smells and feel of the real world.

Ahead he could see that the buildings were opening up into a city square.  The buildings here were as old and weathered looking as the rest of the city.  The only things that looked undamaged by time were two huge stone lion statues made of grey stone.  They flanked a large set of basalt stairs that headed deep underground in front of what remained of official looking public buildings.

It was clear now that the destination was the stairs and what lay under the city as his walking feet carried him between the lions.  Down deep under the city the stair travelled in a spiral lit only by the white faint glow of moss on the walls. The ceiling was soon lost in darkness above as Rain continued to travel ever deeper into the heart of the earth.

After a long time of stairs finished at a vast open chamber.  Sounds echoes in the darkness, the moss now only providing the most basic of lighting as the wall stretched out either side.  Rain found himself walking on uneven ground and as he went past a patch of illumination he could see the flagstone floor of the chamber was covered in bones all showing the unmistakable marks of teeth.

Rain shot up from the bed with a start. The room looked the same as it had when went under except Algernon was only now getting up from a crouching position on the floor in one corner and Bruce was standing at the foot of the bed looking stern.

“Oh, hi Bruce.” he said lamely as his head swam dizzily, “we…I had to know.”

“I know,” Bruce replied nodding, “So do I.”

“Better that it be me, right?  Who else?”

“Yep.”  he settled is crowbar back in its loop by his side and sat down in a nearby chair, “Thank you.”

Rain was so overcome by the big man’s acceptance that he found himself with nothing to say.  Instead he just nodded and let Peggy and the nurse do their job.

“Do you remember what day it is?”  Asked the nurse as he checked Rain’s eyes and other vitals.

“Same day as we came back from Railsea.” he responded confusing the nurse.  Peggy nodded, 

“He’s fine.” she said dryly looking more tired and washed out than she usually did while experimenting.

“How long was I out?”  he asked her now a little concerned for her health.

She checked the clock,

“Twenty minutes approximately.”  she responded shooting a glance at Algernon who flinched under her gaze.  She put a small audio recorder on the blanket in front of Rain. “Tell us what you remember, in as much detail as you can.”

Rain nodded and settled himself cross-legged on the bed.  He closed his eyes and visualised the experience again, this time relaying it to the others.  He took his time, described the details of the buildings the statues and most of all the people he’d seen ending with the stair, the chamber and the bones.

“There were bones everywhere and they all had teeth marks in them.  It startled me and I found myself back here.” he looked up and found all three of his companions standing around the bed listening intently.

“Were you detached?”  Peggy asked monitoring his responses, “That is to say, Did you feel fear or frustration or any other emotions while under?”

“I remember being frustrated about not being able to control where I went.”  he replied carefully, leaving out the sensation of floating and the peace it had offered.   “I wanted to stop and take it in, but the vision just continued like a movie walking me toward the underground chamber.  I was also shocked when I realised what was on the ground, I think that’s what finally snapped me out of it.”  

Again he looked around the group and settle on Bruce’s intense expression.  Suddenly ashamed he admitted, 

“I thought…I thought because I was awakened that I could control it, make the vision do what I wanted.  I thought I was better than John.”

“John?” Bruce was surprised to be reminded of his brother back in New Orleans at this moment and pulled out his phone.

“Yeah.  I feel a bit of an idiot.  The whole thing was better than expected, rather nice really except for the end but also disappointing at the same time.”  Rain was aware that his words did not give meaning to the disappointment and frustration he felt. After all Peggy’s work and all his fussing he had no control, no link with the strange, nothing to show for it all but a random visit to an unknown location.

“So would you take it again?”  Bruce asked carefully aware of his loudly held stance on drugs and drug taking.

“Yeah, I would.“ Rain replied thoughtfully, “Like it was fine, better than I feared.  It just wasn’t very useful.”

“So legs of animals and cloven hooves, “ Algernon prompted when the conversation had finally petered out, “What like a satyr but with claws?”

“Yeah, just like.  I wonder if they’re in the archives?”

Bruce had moved to the farthest corner of the room and dialed a phone number.  Both Rain and Algernon stopped talking as someone picked up on the other side.  

“Hey John?”

“Bruce?  Is that you, man?”

 “Yeah, it’s me.  Just checking in.”

“Well how are things in Seattle?”

“Good. I’m more interested in you.  Are you still doing to the drugs?”

“No man.”

“Yeah, would you tell me if you were?”

“I wouldn’t not after last time. It was…I’ve been out of work for a while and…”

“I know it’s been tough.”

“I just wanted to feel good for a little while, but look where it got me.”

“Yeah, I just don’t want to see you doing that stuff okay?  I worry about you.”  

“Thanks Bruce.”

“Sure, family have got to look out for one another.”


“So still looking for work? What sort?”

“Haulage mostly, why?”

“I’ve got connections.  I could ask around, make some recommendations.”

“That would be a big help, yeah thanks Bruce.  But what about you in Seattle, what have you been up to?”

“You wouldn’t believe.”  Bruce laughed looking back at Algernon and Rain watching him expectantly.

“Probably not.  You’re sure hanging with a crazy bunch up there.”

“No kidding.  Say tell mom hi and I’ll call later.”

“Yeah no prob. See ya Bro.”

“See ya.”  

“I’m glad you did that, “ Rain said once the phone we hung up, “Family is…”
“Important.” Bruce added when Rain searched for the right word.

Rain nodded and his usual lopsided smile reappeared on his face.  

“Yes, very important.” he glanced up at Algernon to press the point, “They look out for each other.”

Algernon shrunk away a little and Rain instantly regretted it.  He realised he had no idea what the boy had gone through after he’d past out and still here he was.

Before Rain to say anything though, Peggy was finally ready to bring down judgement on what had happened.

“A word with you, in private.”  Peggy grabbed Algernon’s ear and dragged him out into the hallway outside the door.

“You need to learn something about ethics and putting the welfare of patients first above everything.  You never, ever experiment on an unwilling patient.” She said quietly but with all the passion of her convictions.  

“Rain’s not a patient.”  Algernon repeated from earlier, “Doctor Peggy can you please let go my ear.”

“Don’t talk nonsense.  Keep this up and you won’t be invited to the next experiment.”

“I don’t like experiments.”

“On you or anyone?”

“Anyone.”  Algernon admitted flatly

“There will be other times, this is bound to happen again.”

“And I’ll be there…because Rain asked.”

For all of Peggy’s internal firewalls against the emotional states of others, not even she could ignore that statement of dedication. 

At the same time, Bruce stepped in and spoke a quiet but forceful tone,

“Peggy, Rain is an adult who volunteered for something that frightened him. Algernon was only helping.”

Peggy thought about Algernon had said earlier.

“What do you mean when you say that Rain is not a patient?”

“He was a participant, he wanted to do this he was just scared.  An experiment on a patient usually involves tying them down…” As soon as he saw the horror on Peggy’s face he knew he’d said too much.  A horrible silence filled the hall and the room where Rain and Bruce were listening. “I …got to go…” he tried to run.

“Oh no, “ Peggy gripped even tighter to the squirming ear and Algernon stayed where he was.  “I can see that your ethics education as been seriously lacking. Tonight, we’re going off to the library for some medical ethics research and see why we do not do such things here.”

“Ethics?  What would ethics say about opening portal into unknown dimensions?”  Algernon countered, once he had his ear back. He was referring to Peggy’s experiments in her garage that brought all of them together.

“There no ethical dilemma there,” Peggy replied not understanding all the implications of his statement, “We voluntarily go through the portals…unfortunately.”

The next day, the others kept themselves busy as Rain sat in observation reading Hetzfeld’s report on the ‘Gifts of the Strange’.  After breakfast Algernon took Bruce to the gym, a rare reversal.

“I want to see how far you can toss me.”  He said after they’d found and laid out a set of crash mats. Having an inkling of  what Algernon had in mind he picked up the boy and threw him around his body and into the mats making him land a little under 4 metres away.

“Good, now do it again.”  Algernon’s eyes glinted with hidden mischief as Bruce picked him up one more and tossed him.  This time Algernon levitated as he was released and to the surprise of the others in the gym that morning the young man flew ungainly across the room almost 8 metres before he ran out of forward momentum.  He let go of the levitate and dropped into the crash mats.

“Hey, I’ve got an idea.  Levitate first before I throw you.”  Bruce said to the beaming Algernon. Algernon did and though his mass was no less, he was now much lighter and Bruce was able to sling him one handed over the mats.  This style lead to a more streamlined Algernon in the air, resulting in him sailing past the mats laid out and hitting the wall more than 10 metres away.

“Now it’s your turn.” The triumphant Algernon crowed and gestured to the crash mats.  Bruce grinned and stepped back giving himself a running jump. With a strong run and impressive leap Bruce made it out 4 metres before face-planting in the mats.

“And again.”  Algernon instructed now grinning with unconcealed glee.  Bruce stepped back and again ran for the maps, launching himself into the air at the last minute.  When his feet left the ground, Algernon levitated Bruce so he too soared through the air powered by his own momentum.  Bruce kept up the run, pushing the air back with flailing arms and legs until he too ran out of momentum around the 8 metre mark.  Algernon dropped him into the mats and the audience of gym users applauded.

They practised this new routine refining the holds and launch positions each time for maximum  distance until Algernon received a message from Walter Taylor saying he had some information for him.  Walter wouldn’t provide details over the phone, but when they made it to his office he gave them a full run down on the mystery woman.

“She’s a journalist by the name of Sharon Cooper-Smith.”  said Walter as he handed Algernon a page of notes. “She’s had a few by-lines for the syndicated newspapers in town and she’s recently published articles in the New Aquarian.  She’s based here in Seattle and I got you her home address and phone number.”

Algernon spent some time asking Walter how he had come by the information so quickly and was shown how the process was conducted.  Though still time consuming and requiring specific software, Algernon paid attention and was confident that he too could try a similar techniques in the future. 

“Are you going out then?”  Algernon said as they left the computer labs and headed back to the office blocks, “I’ll get a crossbow.”

“You can’t walk down Seattle streets with a crossbow in your hand.” Bruce replied imagining the looks the young man would get with something like his giant Railsea crossbow.  What worked in a backwater recursions did not work in downtown U.S.A.

“Oh no, of course not.” Algernon agreed, “I’ll put it on my back. “

“Your supervisor will not let you out with a crossbow.  Look, you’re pretty good with small arms, he may let you out with one of those.”

“Yeah, but they’re…small.”

The two walked companionably back to the dormitory where packages were waiting for both of them.  Bruce’s was a long rectangular box from a company of tool and accessory suppliers. Algernon’s was large, flat didn’t seem to weigh a lot.

“Are they bombs?”  Algernon looked at his suspiciously as it lay on his bed.

“Who would know to send us a bomb?”  Bruce opened his to find a leather back holster for his sledgehammer incorporating a small easy to reach second pocket for his crowbar.  It was sturdy and practical gift that left his hands free while still allowed good weight distribution for the bulky sledge. Bruce searched the box for an invoice, note or packing slip, but nothing gave a hint as to who had sent it.

Now that Algernon saw that Bruce’s box was safe he also carefully started opening his box.  He was less circumspect when he saw the red motorcycle jacket inside. With a whooped he snatched it out of the box and turned it around to see an embossed blue and white capsule encircled with the words, Good for health.  Bad for Education.  Without another word he ran out of the dormitory putting it on as he went.

“Rain!  Rain! Look what came!”  he ran straight into Rain’s room as his last physical was being recorded by the nurse.  Rain himself had been staring at his face in a small hand mirror when Algernon burst in looking and acting for once the 15 years he was suppose to be.  Rain looked up and beamed.
“Hey, it fits well.”  he commented, “Now all you need is to get you a laser rifle and you’d be set.”

“Do I get to keep it?”  Algernon gawped unable to comprehend how or why he would be given such an item to keep.  Rain’s smile slipped a little at the realisation that this may well be the first present Algernon had ever received.

“It’s  yours, you deserve it.”

Not long after Bruce walked in wearing his harness and tools and watched as Algernon started levitating the nurse.

“Remember, only Kaneda gets the jacket, not Tetsuo.”  Rain joked and Algernon put the nurse back down on the ground.  

“You did this?” Bruce asked indicating the jacket and his harness.

“Well George Weasley actually, but what’s a first…honestly earned …pay for if not to share.”  Rain responded lightly, “Besides, I find that I have a lot to be grateful for.”

“Well…Thank you.”  Bruce noticing for the first time something different about Rain’s eyes.  He walked up for a closer look and realised they were a new shade of violet instead of their clear blue.  Without a word he took out his phone and took a picture.

“Yeah, I have a new look.” Rain replied to Bruce’s unspoken comment as Peggy walked in and signed off on notes handed to her by the nurse. “But it seems I’m not the only one.”

Peggy looked as Peggy always did, her dark hair piled and forgotten slipping out of a loose bun, wearing a bland loose fit jumper and chinos.  On her feet though, platform Doc Martens with lacing that disappeared into the trouser leg gave her an extra little bounce to her step.

“Kick arse boot there, Doc.”  

“Yes.”  was her only reply, “You’re clear and free to continue your duties.  Inform me if you have any side effects or questions.”

“I have one,” Rain replied in all seriousness,  “Where’s the rest of the ensemble?”

Peggy scowled and looked as though she wouldn’t reply. 

“It is inappropriate.”

“It is thoroughly appropriate, the coat is superfine merino, durable and stain resistant, the colour suits you and you’d look amazing in it.”

“If you think it’s so amazing why don’t you wear it?” she retorted annoyed at getting dressing instructions from a man.

“Not my colour.”  he replied simply.  He would not be put off by her gruff behaviour.

“The neckline is far too plunging.” She finally admitted even now covering her chest with her hand though the beige of her jumper made her look like a an asexual lump.

“Peggy, you should look after yourself.”

“I do!”

“You deserve to look after yourself.”  

She didn’t have anything to say to that, instead she turned to the other two and barked,

“And your business here?”

“We’re going out!”  Algernon exclaimed still on a new jacket high.

“We have a lead, the name and address of the mysterious woman.”  Bruce informed Peggy sensibly, giving her all the details.

“And I’m getting a gun.”  Algernon added

“You’re not going to need a gun for this one.” Bruce replied starting off the old argument between the two of them

“I need a gun.”  

“She’s a writer…and you’re a teenage kid…yeah sure, go get your gun.”  

Once Rain was ready they all travelled together to Keaton’s office where they let him know what they’d found out as requested a gun for Algernon.

“So you don’t think this Sharon Cooper-Smith is a threat, but people she’s mixed up with could be?”  Keaton summarised, “Okay, I request a gun for you and Rain.” he started filling in the paperwork.

“Ah, not for me thank you.” Rain said before he caught Algernon’s eye.

“I would have gladly taken two guns.”  Algernon whispered low, but not low enough.

“Oh, you’re right sir.  Can never be too careful.” Rain quickly changed his mind, but Keaton held out the form with one gun listed.

“No chance.”  he said and they left his office with Rain apologising.

“I’m sorry, I panicked.”

After their last excursion, Peggy also wanted a gun, and her argument to  Hertzfeld was more simple and straightforward.

“Three reasons:  1, 2, 3 stab wounds.”  

Out of guilt Hertzfeld gave her a gun.  

“I’ll drive.”  Rain took the keys to the car as the group set out for the journalist home.  Peggy and Bruce nearly had fits as Rain started driving on the left hand side leaving the car park.

“Oh you drive on the wrong, right side of the road.” he laughed as Peggy got out of the car and opened the driver’s door.

“How long have you been driving in the U.S.?”

“How long have we been in the car?”

“Get out.”

“I have a license,” Algernon suggested, “I could drive.”

“For a motorcycle.”  Bruce retorted and Rain wriggled into the passenger seat and let Peggy drive.

On reaching Sharon’s home, Rain knocked.  She answered the door in sunglasses

“Good morning Ms Cooper-Smith.  My name is Simun Otiluke.” he flashed his Estate identification and the general U.S. accent he affected for the name, “My associates and I would like to speak to you about drug deals at the docks.”

“Drugs? I don’t know anything about drugs.” she replied with a nervous laugh.

“Blue Rain?  Do you really want us to discuss this on your front doorstep, please could we come in?”

“That?  That’s not a drug, that’s power for your dreams.  It expands your mind to new and lost worlds.” she replied more confidently.  It sounded like she was quoting something, maybe her own work?

“Are the lights inside your house too bright, Mam?”  Bruce asked and Sharon’s hand went to her glasses.

“You need to be aware that the drug has been related to one death already,” Rain bluffed.  No deaths as far as they know were directly related to the Spiral Dust, but that wouldn’t help find Eldritch Chopra’s killer. Bruce backed it up, 

“Please let our doctor look you over. “ he gestured to Peggy who stepped forward.

“Deaths?” she didn’t sound so sure of herself anymore, “I guess you better come in.”

Once inside she took off her glasses to reveal the identifiable swirling pattern to her irises and allowed Peggy to run a basic check up.

“How do you take the drug?” Peggy asked as she looked for signs of puncture marks or burning to the nasal cavity.

“In the eye, “  Sharon mimed pulling down her lower lid and sprinkling something directly onto her eye, “I based a whole expose on what I discovered through using the dust, you may have read it, ‘The secret pyramids under the sea’.”

“Yes, I remember reading it.” Peggy commented without opinion which was probably a good thing at the time.

“How did you find out about Blue Rain?”

“In my trade one hears rumours and I first went to the docks just to confirm what I’d heard, but then I discovered the dust and my whole world changed.” 

“And so you used it.”  Rain prompted, but it was hardly required, she’d found an audience.

“That’s how I know it’s safe.  It just…shows you things, places.  Even my hairdresser…well it’s hard to hide your eyes especially from your hairdresser.  She was using it too and told me of another supplier.”

“Your hairdresser?  Could we have her name please?”  Rain looked to Algernon but he already had out the laptop and was preparing to do a search.

“Her name is Melissa Romero, but I don’t want to get her into any trouble, we’ve become good friends over the past few months and I know her experiences are the same as mine.”

“Melissa is safe from us.  But tell us about this other supplier.”

She gave and address and described the man as best she could.  Rain pulled up the picture of the Cowboy he had taken of the Seven-11 security and passed it to her.

“Yes, that’s him.” she replied happily enough.

“Do you have a name to go with this gentleman?”

“No, just the location and time, always Tuesday nights.”

In the meantime Algernon had already found the girl through social sites.  She was in her 20s and usually had an active social life to go by her timelines, except for the past week when she had been unusually quiet.  Getting her work address and number were equally as easy and he soon had her home address as well. Quietly he let the group know what he’d found out and the mood quickly turned serious.

“I will be straight with you Sharon, there are people who have killed to control this drug distribution.  We’re happy to see you alive and well, but now Melissa has gone missing. Tell us all you know so we can help find Melissa.”

“Murder?  That doesn’t sound good.” Maybe such things were beyond her understanding but the thought of murder didn’t seem to affect her greatly, ‘But I’m sure Melissa’s disappearance has nothing to do with all this.”

Bruce, who was having difficulty dealing with the thought of leaving this woman to continue her  Spiral Dust addiction. As the others talked he checked the house and made sure it was secure. When it was decided that Sharon had nothing more to tell at that time, Rain gave her his mobile number and requested that if she found anything to let him know.

Now with a new potential victim identified, the group drove to find Melissa Romero.  On the way Rain rang the salon where she worked.

“Oh hi, I’d like to make a booking with Melissa this afternoon.” he said in a passable woman’s voice.

“I…don’t think she’s in.” said the woman who answered the phone.

“Oh no!  And she’s the only one that gets my hair.  Can you tell me when she’ll be back?” 

“Certainly.  I’ll check with the manager and get back to you.” The woman took Rain’s number and told the group what he’d learned.

Melissa lived in an apartment block surrounded by several other residences.  Algernon checked out video cameras in the area. He found two, one a near neighbour and one down the street.  He hacked into the WIFI networks and gain access to the video for the last week.  

When the rest of the group made it inside the apartment block a woman as already knocking at Melissa’s door.  

“I think we can assume she’s family.”  Bruce whispered to Rain who nodded and stepped up.

“Ms Romero?”

“Yes. I’m Jennifer Romero.”

“Hi, I’m Simun. We’re friends of Melissa.” he shook Jennifer’s hand and gained her full attention, “Is she all right, we haven’t seen her all week and she hasn’t been to work.”

“I don’t know. Usually we call each other for a weekly chat but I haven’t heard from her and she’s not answering her door.”

“I’m really starting to worry about her.  Do you know if there’s a spare key?”

Jennifer glanced past Rain to Bruce and Peggy.

“Well, I do have a key for emergencies….I guess this is an emergency.” 

“I think you’re right.”  Rain nodded as if it wasn’t his idea.

Jennifer pulled out a ring of keys and found the correct one to open the door.  Jennifer lead the way into the one bedroom apartment. A pile of mail banked up against the front door and a cup of coffee lay cold and forgotten on the counter. Otherwise the apartment look tidy and well ordered.

“The door was locked so we’ve either got an abduction by someone quick enough to take her by surprise or she’s somehow translated to a recursion.”  Bruce started theorizing and Rain’s eyes grew large and gestured towards Jennifer.

“Maybe you could check Melissa’s bedroom see if anything odd.” he said to Jennifer and then quietly to Bruce and Peggy, “And now you can theorise about recursions all you like.”

As Jennifer and Rain check the bedroom, Peggy closed her eyes and tried to sense The Strange in the space.  Frustratingly there was no trace of The Strange. Bruce left the apartment and started knocking on the doors of neighbours.  Neighbours that answered the door knew Melissa as a friendly young woman, but none had seen her for at least a week.  

In the bedroom the bed was unmade, clothes lay on a chair in the corner and a flat cell phone and house keys were lying together on the bedside table.

“Oh dear.” Rain took Jennifer’s hand and their eye alighted on the modern life essentials.

“I guess I should ring the police.”  Jennifer said as tears came to her eyes.

“I think so.  Here’s my number, if you need anything, let me know?”  Quietly the group left and joined Algernon back in the car.  

After viewing the weeks worth of video he was able to tell them that a week ago Melissa came home as usual and never left again.  No one visited and no one until the group entered had been inside since that time.

“She translated then.  But how and where?”

“Hertzfeld theorised that if you took enough Spiral Dust you could physically translate.” Algernon suggested and the group went silent.  She could be literally anywhere.  

There is one more stop to make, the address where the Cowboy was known to be on Tuesday nights.  When the group got to the address, Algernon once again looked for CCTV cameras in the area. There were two, both vandalised.  

“What if we put a live camera inside the case of one of those busted ones?”  he suggested, rummaging around in the back of the car for leftover CCTV equipment from the warehouse job.

“Brilliant idea.  You’ve done this before, you can make this work.”  Rain encouraged Algernon and once again Algernon felt the frizzon once more.

“You know, when you encourage like that I feel more confident.”  Algernon started climbing up to the broken camera.

“Ah, now you see the power of words”  Rain smiled, “The power to build and the power to break.”

Algernon thought on Rain’s words as he put his hand into the case of the camera, and brushed his hand against a live wire.  


Algernon was thrown across the street and hit the wall of the nearest building.

“Maybe we’ll come back in the morning.” Bruce helped the dazed and singed Algernon back onto his feet and bundled him into the car.

On the way back Rain dropped in at a bottle shop and picked up a small bottle of Scotch.  That night he made the still fuzzy Algernon an Irish Coffee. Regardless of the caffeine before bed, it was the first night Algernon slept all the way through.

7. New and Old Business

The group, finding themselves in the deserts of Railsea, walk towards black smoke on the horizon and are rescued by The Limness, a moling train out of Bollons.  Things are looking up as their target, Caw Eh Carve, is a valued passenger aboard.  After giving directions to a fabulous black mole, the Captain welcomes the group to the Limness.

    *     * *    

Algernon spotted Captain Alavanti’s cabin boy and introduces himself.  Desperate not to let Algernon out of his sights and keen to learn the language of this new place, Rain follows along quietly.

Peggy followed the sounds of the engine down ladders into the darkened interior of the engine itself.  Black smoke meant leaking oil or insufficient burning of the fuel, either was inefficient and detrimental to other systems.

Bruce found himself alone on the top deck with the Captain wondering where everyone had gone.  

“Captain, need anything wrecked?”  Bruce asked hesitantly, unsure of the roleplay and lies the party had agreed.

The Captain looked the big man over and nodded sagely, 

“Let me introduce you to someone.”

Leading the way, Captain Alavanti walked back along the engine and down a ladder to the lower deck of the crew sleeping quarters.  Here the night shift were trying to sleep as others like the Captain and Bruce used the carriage as convenient passage to the rest of the train. From the second to the third carriage and up another ladder to stand on top  of the currently stationary train. Bruce looked around for the usual safety equipment he was familiar with from working on construction. Scaffolding, harness or something for the inevitable fall. Nothing but a wielded railing that looked like it could just about hold Algernon in place.  Walking along the top of the third carriage Bruce couldn’t help but hum the James Bond theme. Though the carriage roof was not flat but round and still swayed even when the train was still, he felt perfectly at ease and matched the Captain’s confident gait. They passed by two large crossbows that he was informed were ballistae.  Each was crewed by two heavily built characters whose job it would be to train their harpoon ladened ballista on whatever creature the Captain chose to pursuit. Right now, it was the Dreaming Sable.

The third ballista was crewed by only one strongly built woman with arms that rivaled Bruce’s own, covered in fine black tattoos.

“We lost someone a few days ago.  This is Taki, you’ll be with her while you’re on board.  Taki, this is Bruce. Show him the ropes.”

This is useless being parked up here –  this is not the job we’re here to do. Bruce thought to himself.  He looked at the contraption, a mix of metal, wood, rope and sinew and internally sighed.

“So, what do we shoot?”

“The …Mole.”  The Captain replied simply and left Bruce and Taki to get to it

Peggy had found the engine, a huge block of metal surrounded by two sets of stairs that lead down either side and in turn, were surrounded by a metal housing that was all that was visible from the outside.  It was twice her height and three times her length and accessed via attached running ladders on both sides.Here she found the engineer, a greasy runt of a man with an immaculately trimmed handlebar moustache.

“Engine burning low, why?”  She blurted out, her phrasing truncated from exhaustion from days of travel.


“You’re wasting twenty percent of your fuel as black smoke, I followed it for six miles across this mole infested place.”

The engineer shrugged, 

“Diesels are smokey.”  This response did nothing to improve her mood.

“Who are you?”  She demanded as she walked the engine taking note of everything that needed doing.  When she reached the front of the engine, she stopped and closed her eyes, just listening to the engine as it idled on the spot.  The little engineer, not use to the technobable, slouch along behind cowed.

Through the constant and unceasing clack and growl of the engine she could hear the irregular rhythm of the engine as each piston pumped in sequence.  There was a timing issue with one of the pistons. It would need a tuneup and that would mean turning off the engine completely.

“Follow me, apprentice.”  She beckoned and the engineer complied.

“Make a list.  Get permission for an overhaul, a day minimum.  Replace all oil and resump. Replace this….” she said pointing to something streaked with residue from broken seals.

“Replace with what?”  he replied looking completely dumbfounded, “Do the Captain look like he’s made of money?”

“Right, well then we’ll just do what we can.”  She turned back to the engine and contemplated her next move.

“Hi, Elvin El Fawhl, is the name, “ said the young man about Algernon’s age extending a grimy hand, “welcome aboard The Limness.”

“Thank you Elvin.”  Algernon replied politely then steered Elvin away from the  rest of the crew, “How long have you travelled with the Limness?”
“Oh, this is just my first trip out of Bollons, just a few months now.  What happened to your train?”

“It fell through some weak rail a ways back, “  Algernon replied falling into a similar pattern of speaking as Elvin. “The crew were attacked by mole rats, we were the only ones to survive.”

“Mole rats!  We get our fair share of moles too. Caught ourselves a smaller great southern only just last month, plenty of meat in the chiller carriage.  What was your train?”

“Um…er…merchant, “  Algernon was starting adlib now in earnest as he tried to fill in the gaps of their lie.  “Yeah, we had a load of fine costumes.”

“Fine costumes?  Who’d want that?”

Algernon shrugged, “Someone with money.”

“I bet they’d be going to Manikiki, that’s where all  the money is.” Elvin nodded sagely now the expert in this conversation.

As the two talked, Elvin good naturedly gave a guided tour of the train from engine to the third carriage looking back onto the fourth and last in the train.

“We stays clear of the fourth carriage unless we really need to.”

“Why that?”

“Dunno, before my time. Er, fancy a meal?  Mess will be open ‘bout now.”

As they walked back Algernon had got to the heart of the matter, 

“So as cabin boy, what are your duties?”
“Stuff for the Captain, sometimes the trains Doctor, sometimes for the passenger.”

“If I’m to help you maybe I should be introduced to the passenger, what’s his name?”

“Er…sure, he’s Mr Caw Eh Carve, nice enough, keeps to himself mind.”

“Does he disembark much when you get to town?”

“No, not really.  Mostly just stays on board.  That is when we’re not picking him up or dropping him off at his tiny island in the middle of the Railsea.”  Elvin dangled out that tidbit of gossip like some sensational secret.

Caw Eh Carve was in the mess, sitting alone when the three of them arrived and Elvin pointed him out.  He was a thin gentleman with an impressive hooked nose made even more prominent by the addition of a pince nez. He wore a waistcoat and long sleeve button up shirt and looked nothing like the Cowboy as confirmed by Kamn Sharn.  If anything he looked something like a fussy business man on an enforced holiday.

Algernon steps up to Caw Eh Carve’s table, 

“My name is Algernon, I’m here to be your cabin boy.  It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”  

Rain gave an audible groan.  He’d had a plan for confronting Caw Eh Carve and now he was seeing the result of not sharing that plan.  With a defeated look, he sat down with a group of train’s crew and with his newly acquired Railcreole chatted to the like a native.

Bruce on the top deck of the third carriage was wondering how long until break.

“What do you do for a meal or a drink up here?” he asked Taki who, he had found out, was a woman of few words. She opened up a small compartment meant to for storing rope, spare bolts or harpoons and tools for the ballista.  Here she had stowed a bottle of warm cloudy-water and a few snacks from the mess. Bruce eyed the water, figured it was no worse than he’d had on other building sites and took a swig. It tasted of barrel but otherwise hit the spot.  Now he realised there were other bodily needs that were pressing.

“How about the facilities?”

She replied with a gesture to a patch of the roof where the railing was missing and a sturdy pole had been welded.  It seemed that the pole was a safety feature.

“Right.”  Bruce nodded and sat back down.

Rain was feeling better about chatting with the crew.  Once he’d opened them up, the crew were full of gossip about their infamous passenger.  It seemed that Caw was a regular on the Limness and the Captain often called in at the little rock island of his to drop him off with a load of cargo or to pick him up empty handed.  Though the crew were clear that moling was good money, they were sure that it wasn’t enough for the sort of travelling the Captain could afford and gossiped about whether the Captain was in on whatever Caw was.  They were also very informative as to why no one travelled on the fourth carriage.

“Ah well, see the Captain makes Eh Carve put his luggage there don’t he.” said one of the master butchers hired by the Limness to deal with the molemeat and make it ready for sale. “After last time, hey boys?”

There was general laughter and they all fell over each other to tell the tale how the Captains philosophy, the Dreaming Sable, was particularly fond of whatever is in Caw Eh Carve luggage and nearly wiped out the whole train trying to get access.

“Now we leaves it at the back of the train, less likely to derail the whole thing if the talpa gets a hankering.”

They also had a lot to say about almost anything.  Rain, by training, was a good listener and encourage talk on all subjects including the myths and legends, the gods and above all the Godsquabble that had created the Railsea.  Two gods particular caught Rain’s attention as they were described. The first and greatest of the gods was That Apt Ohn, a fat man dressed in black with a chimney stack for a hat.  The other was Rail-Hater Beeching. As the two gods were introduced, Rain smile widened as he realised the first was a clear description of the Fat controller from the Thomas the Tank Engine books he’d read as a child.  The other was a real person who had been infamous for closing down a lot of smaller lines all throughout Great Britain in an attempt to nationalise the Rail. Instantly Rain burst into a ditty:

Oh Doctor Beeching,

What have you done.

There once were lots of trains to catch, 

But soon there will be none.

I have to buy  a bike for I can’t afford  car

Oh Doctor Beeching what a Naughty Man you are!

Silence followed his song as it sunk in that the new chap has just called one of their gods a ‘naughty man’.  Taking the hint, Rain left the table and join Algernon with Caw Eh Carve.  Algernon applauded loudly at this sudden and surprising little song from his friend. It was the first time he’d heard live music and encouraged Rain to continue.

“Play it again!” he said as Rain slunk into the seat beside him.

“Maybe later.” Rain replied sotto voce, before turning to Eh Carve now all business.  

“I see you’ve been talking to my associate, that’s good Mr Eh Carve, because we have quite a few things in common.”  From his coat pocket, Rain pulled out his puzzle box and opened it to the only compartment that he could. It was full to the brim was a sparkling blue dust.

“So. You didn’t get that off me.”  Eh Carve bluffed.

“Sure we did, Kamn Sharn was so very helpful.  You see we took all that was left, and we took over the warehouse and we now own the other side of your little venture.”  Rain gestured to the dust and put it away, the impression made.

“You come here threatening me…” Caw Eh Carve started shouting getting the attention of the crew still in the mess.  Rain held up his hands in a conciliatory gesture. 

“Never threaten, not I.  I want to give you…advice.  My Earth does not need this stuff and so my advice to you is that you move on and pursue…other markets.  You are a well travelled gentleman, you must know of other places?”

His words had the desired effect and Caw Eh Carve seemed to deflate a little where he sat.  Now it was his turn to be conciliatory.

“Be reasonable.  Surely we can come to some arrangement.  I have a person I need to keep happy.”

Rain zeroed in on this.  Another person, someone bad enough to scare Eh Carve?

“What if that person wasn’t a problem.  We are also pursuing a murderer. Now I believe, Mr Eh Carve, that is not you.”

Caw licked his lips nervously as he weighed up what he had been told in the last few minutes. 

“I don’t think you realise what you’re getting yourself into.”

“Maybe, but surely that is up to myself and my associates to decide?”  Rain leaned back, he had his fish was just reeling him in. “Rest assured, Mr Eh Carve, we control the globe and the skull, you will no longer be doing business in my Earth.”

The silence between the two of them was physical.  Rain held the other man’s gaze with the full confidence of someone who had no idea of the consequences.  Eventually, Caw Eh Carve relented, taking off his pince nez to clean them on his sleeve.

“Don Whitecliff at Crows Hollow.  But I didn’t tell you.” He finally whispered low and painfully, like pulling a thorn from a deep wound.

“And Crows Hollow, where is it?  Here or…” he left it hanging unsure what talk of different worlds would mean to the crew.  Caw Eh Carve said nothing, but gave a withering expression to show that whatever Railsea was, it was not where people that frighten Caw Eh Carve lived.

“No, not here. Very well Mr Eh Carve.  I knew you could be a reasonable man.” Rain got up to leave Eh Carve when a cry echoed across the train.

“MOLE BREECH!” The cry filled the whole train and was repeated from mouth to mouth along its length.  The mole had been spotted! It’s breached! All hands on deck!”

Taki jumped up from her resting place leaning against the ballista and searched the sand either side of the track ahead.  Bruce stood up too in time to see the massive mountain of beast fall from breech to crash into the sand one side of the line, dive under and pop back up the other side.  It was in line with the train now and moving fast. Now that he knew what he was looking for, Bruce could see along the creatures flanks a line of harpoons broken, spears and trailing rope from previous altercations.

“How often have you shot this thing?”  Bruce asked trying to determine the best spot to hit the beast to have the most effect.  

“A few.  One time he pulled a ballista clear off the train.”  Taki tapped the bolts and metal plate holding the ballista in place. “But the Captain, must have his philosophy.”


“I took you for a seasoned hand.  First time on the rails? Sheltered life?  The beast that gives the Captain’s life purpose.”

“Star’b!” A call from the Captain rang out over the ship and the train clattered across the switched in pursuit of the Dreaming Sable.

“Maybe we should aim for a soft target, like the face or maybe an eye.” Bruce mused as the creature leaped once more out of the sand 100 yards off beside the train.  It was heading straight for the last carriage. From his view on the third, Bruce couldn’t see the face, but another soft target was presenting itself.

Between the two of them, Bruce and Taki moved the ballista around until it lined up with the creatures behind.

“Come on you bastard, I want to take your temperature!”  Bruce roared as the ratchet was released and the limbs threw the harpoon straight and true.

“Bullseye!”  Burce cheered followed similar cries all over the train.  The beast was harpooned!

In response, the mole arched skywards.  As it fell it brought its entire weight down on the last carriage.  The train shuddered and rolled and the squeal of tearing metal could be heard.  Tossed sideways, Bruce lost footing on the carriage roof and was saved from being thrown off completely by grabbing the piss-poll.  Tika stumbled but also righted herself as she looked back to Bruce.

“Yeeha!”  Bruce cried again, swinging back on the carriage as the train tacked again.

“Port!  Port!” Came the cries over the train, once more the clatter of switches and the harpoons were back in range again.  None too soon as the ballista assembly groaned and yawed sideways under the strain of the beast and finally…

SNAP!  Like a gunshot the metal gave way and the harpoon and its ballista sailed through the air towards the monster.

Like a flash Bruce ran back up the train to the next ballista.  Its crew had difficulties in bringing the ballista to bear the first time the beast was in range.  Now, with four of them, they pulled it into place . The sable now free of the line rummaged in the fourth carriage for the luggage as Bruce released the ratchet.  The aim this time was a little off. The harpoon penetrated the skin on the flank but couldn’t burrow deep into flesh to hold and was quickly broken off. The line dropped and the talpa, its prize of crates in its mouth, flipped and dove directly down, back into the depth.

Inside the train, the few crew and the train’s passengers picked themselves up and assessed their bruises.  No one was badly injured, though from the look on Caw Eh Carve face, he had taken a fatal blow. He looked out blankly at what was left of the last carriage as the train pulled up alongside.  

“I guess that’s where your stock was kept, Mr Eh Carve.”  Rain commented making the connections.

“What makes you say that?”  Eh Carve vainly tried to bluff again the con man, more out of habit.

“Something the crew said.  The mole has a taste for your wares, this venture was not going to last long with those sort of loses.  You need us to deal with… your employer, if only to give you a chance to find another business.”

Caw Eh Carve said nothing but stare at the passive faced little man and then back at the ruin of this spiral dust empire.  

While the last carriage was assessed and hauled back onto the rail, news of Peggy working on the now silent engines had started spreading through the crew.  Opinions were mixed, but it was said the bullied engineer was abusing her name and praising her knowledge in a single breath which impressed many that heard him.

“Should we let Doc Peggy work on the engine?”  Algernon pulled Rain aside as the crew made themselves busy getting the Limness train-shape for travel.

“I don’t know anything about engines, better her…” Rain shrugged, just glad to have a moment to talk to his young associate.

“But we’ll end up going through a portal!” 

“I don’t think that’s likely here,“ he smiled relieved that Algernon’s fears were all the old reliable ones.  He changed the subject, “While I have your attention, when were you going to tell your bro’ about all these powers?”

Rain may have dropped the subject for the sake of survival, but he’d not forgotten that everyone in the party, to the exclusion of himself, had only the day before manifested superhuman powers.  It particularly galled him that Algernon, what he considered his partner against bureaucracy and mediocrity, had not once mentioned his theories.

“I…I’m sorry…”

“Like I know the word brother couldn’t possibly mean the same to you as it does to…”

“I wanted to…”

“And you talk to Peggy first?  You? I should at least be happy it wasn’t Bruce!”

“I was hoping she could help me work it out my theory.”

“Well, when we get back, we’re going to work it out.” Rain looked pointedly at Algernon who nodded wholeheartedly.

“It’s part of what we all do, even you.”  Algernon insisted, but was only acknowledged by the slow sad shake of Rain’s head.

“No, no Algernon.”  he held up his slender clever hands as if to demonstrate, “Nothing, nada.  It’s very nice of you to say, but don’t think I haven’t tried?”

The exploits of the new ballista crew member swept through the train as was the fact that the Captain himself was very pleased with the skill and commitment the recently trainwrecked, Bruce had shown in the hunt.  While the train lay idle on the tracks as part of Peggy’s stellar repairs, the Captain welcomed Bruce and Peggy, as well as their other associated to his dinner table that night. It was a small affair, the Captain, the four companions and Caw Eh Carve, quiet and withdrawn over his meal.

“With all your good work on the engine we’ll be ready to limp back to Bollons by the morning, eh Engineer Peggy?”  Captain Alavanti tried drawing the preoccupied scientist into conversation.

“Hmmm, yes.  I was wondering if you wouldn’t be interested in a duel engine system for future travel.  Crew could do repairs as required while still maintaining at least half power.” Peggy had been putting her sizable brains to the problem of keeping a training moving while also keeping up her heavy maintenance schedule.

“Duel engines!  Why I never…” the Captain replied flabbergasted.  And that was the problem, there were very few people in this world that ever thought outside of their preprogrammed existence.  It made Rain think of the difference between those with the spark who could travel The Strange, and those without. He turned to speak quietly to Eh Carve.

“You are well travelled man, I wonder what do you know about the awakened?” 

“Not much.  The awakened are more myth than fact.”

“So you’d have no information on spiral dust and its effects on the awakened?”

Caw Eh Carve looked up at Rain silently reassessing the little man.

“Toast.  To a brilliant shot and may there be many more until that black rogue is finally caught!” the Captain stood and raised his glass of rum.  The rest of the party did likewise. 

“I bet he’ll feel that one in the morning.”  Bruce added enjoying his new found celebrity.

“What we need sir is a stronger cable, maybe chain?” the Captain mused as they sat back down, now talking about his favourite subject.

“With all due respect sir, it wasn’t the line that gave way, but the wielding holding the ballista to the carriage.  What we need is to figure out some way of hurting it.”

Rain handed Bruce the Spying grenade, 

“That has an explosive. Not much, but get it in the right place…”

“What about that other cipher, the freezing one.” Bruce looked to Algernon who pulled out a small cipher that when connected to ammunition caused a cold effect.

“We could freeze it’s nuts off with that.” Bruce proclaimed making the Captain laugh.

“When the beast comes at us head on, you won’t know what to shoot, sir.”  Which made the table laugh, except for Eh Carve who silently drank his rum.

“Excuse me Captain,” Algernon interrupted, “the crew mentioned this was not the first time the Dreaming Sable had gone for the cargo.”

The Captain lost his jolly glow and glanced at Caw Eh Carve  nervously.

“Ah, that is correct.  We needed to move the goods to protect the train.”

“Does the creature hang around the source?”  

Now the Captain looked perplexed, 

“The source…?”

Rain made an intuitive leap, 

“Another recursion?” he suggested to Caw Eh Carve who replied with two words.
“Crows Hollow.”

“You speak plainly enough, but I can not make sense of your meaning.”  the Captain said and Rain turned back to the Captain, topping up both Eh Carve’s and the Captains rum.

“As I said when we first met Captain, fortune was indeed smiling on both me and Mr Eh Carve when you stopped to pick us up, we have much in common.”

Eh Carve scoffed and drained his glass.

Algernon also swigging down the rum was almost bursting with an idea and once again engaged with the Captain.

“Sir, on the …island I come from we attach large hooks to chains, baited with meat.  These we throw out into the sands and draw back, in the hopes of attracting a mole to our line.  This we also call moling. If we were to scale up the process, possibly use some of Mr Eh Carve product as bait…?”

“What and interesting thought!  What do you say Caw, how much would it cost to get some of your stock?” 

“Cost is not the issue sir, it is getting new supplies.” Eh Carve replied now more than a little drunk.

“Eh-Carve, are you really going back to Crows Hollow?” Rain asked again quietly once the talk moved back to the mechanics of fishing for the Dreaming Sable.  

“I’m thinking of looking for another place.”
“Probably wise.  Your key, could I take it off your hands?”

Caw Eh Carve shook his head in disbelief and laughed,

“I don’t think you know what you’re getting into but, sure you can have the key.”

The limping trip to Bollons took less than a week in which the companions entrench themselves into life on the Limness.  Peggy spent her time on the engine for which she was showing her usual focus and ingenuity. Algernon spent time on the top deck of the carriages in crossbow practice,  shooting and whatever he could spot. Sometimes Rain would hang out here and at those time Algernon noted that the conman did not show any of his nervousness around the crossbow as he did with the gun.  As for Rain, he spent a lot of time with the crew learning and teaching railshanties. His Beeching ditty had taken on a notoriety among the crew who were not as strictly religious and they were keen to learn more.

Railsea Shanty

(Bound for Botany Bay)

Alavanti, is our gracious Captain, 

There’s the first mate and all the train’s crew

There’s Eh Carve and any train passengers

What will us poor trainwrecks go through.


Sh-rash-shaa, Sh-rash-shaa Ras-kaba-tak

Sh-rash-shaa, Sh-rash-shaa Shrae

Sh-rash-shaa, Sh-rash-shaa Ras-kaba-tak

We follow the molin’ rail.

Dreamin’ Sable, the Captain’s philosophy, 

Will make all the Limness Crew proud.

When they catch it and take it back westward,

To ac-o-lades and great renown.


Miss Peggy she works on the engine,

Making it work smooth and slick.

She won’t care a toss for your favours, 

And she knows how to land a good kick.


Algie’s a crack shot on crossbow,

And Bruce smashes giant rats blind.

Havel can chat up wholesalers, 

Gaining best deals for mole meat you’ll find.

Bruce alone seemed the only one not content with life on the rails.  There were constant discussions of translating back to The Estate, which all lead to the inevitable problem of the globe being many miles behind them.  After days of being the “…train wreck survivor that hit the Dreaming Sable…”, Bruce was growing tired of telling the tale. He found satisfaction in helping Peggy in engineering, though mostly it just felt hot and crowded. When Algernon and Rain were on the top deck he sought them out trying to build a rapport. The rest of his time was spent on top of third carriage with Taki in companionable silence. Here he could exercise himself to exhaustion, practice with his crowbar and keep his deeper thoughts at bay.

On the sixth day after rescue, his keen eyes first glance land ahead even before the lookout at the bow of the train.  A long stretch of plateau covered in tiny buildings rising from docks down at the sandfront up to larger stone fronted buildings on the higher ground.  Bollon’s was a city of 50,000 souls and was the home of the Limness and much of its crew.

“Land ho!

The group, first off the train, followed Caw Eh Carve through the crowd of dock workers and family waiting  for the Limness. He lead them confidently through the main streets and thoroughfares as they made their way to his home in Bollons, a dingy one room apartment only just off the docks. It consisted of a bed and a small kitchen and a window opposite the only door.  As the group waited, Eh Carve pulled items out of his kitchen cupboard to reveal a false back. The back was removed to reveal…nothing, the space was empty.

“Ur…who has access to this place?”  Rain asked as someone knocked on the door.

Algernon’s crossbow came up and ready.  Bruce’s crowbar the same. Rain got the door.

“Yes…?” Rain stopped as present and past crashed together on the other side of the door.  Two men one tall and thin the other stocky, both in bowler hats. Rain’s eyes were only for the thin man with the cold stare. He clearly remembered numerous occasions when the gentleman before him was respectfully, almost reverently welcomed by Rain’s boss at the time, a gangster by the name of Louis Astra.

“Ah…Mr Lightfeather, what a surprise.” Rain said very politely almost bowing.  The thin man started at being recognised.

“It’s nice when my reputation precedes me,”  Mr LIghtfeather now focused on Rain who clutched at door for support. “How do you know me?”

“I worked for Mr Astra at The Last Shot, sir.  We were very impressed with your work.”

As Rain stumbled over his own racing thoughts, Algernon turned to Caw El Carve who looked desperate to find a way out.

“If you were to run, what would your key look like?”

“What?  Er…it’s a coin, with a crow.”

“Do you need to run?”

“That sounds like a good idea, yes.” Eh Carve agreed as Algernon put down his crossbow and opened the window.

“We’re here for Caw Eh Carve, give him to us and we won’t say any more.” Mr Lightfeather said from the doorway as Rain recognise the telltale bulges of hidden knives in his sleeves.  He turned to look at Algernon as the window opened and a silent decision was made. Rain slammed the door shut in Lightfeather’s face and locked it.

“I shut the door on Lightfeather!  Ohshitohshitohshitohshit.” 

Caw Eh Carve dove through the window followed by Algernon as Rain bounded across the room. Bruce and Peggy looking dumbfounded between them.

“What’s going on, why aren’t we fighting them?  Why were you all weird and polite all of a sudden?” Demanded Bruce, as Rain climbs out the window.

“Later speak, now run!” was the only reply as Rain dropped out of sight outside.

The party all follow Eh Carve out the window and down the alley between two buildings towards the busier main road ahead.  Behind, Lightfeather and his brawy companion, gave chase. Bruce and Rain were only just behind Eh Carve, Rain clumsily keeping up as he lept over mounds of waste and crates.

“Use to be good at this, I’ve got rusty at running away.” Rain thought,  “Damn, Bruce was right, I need more practice!” Two cries from behind made him and Bruce stop in their tracks.

Both Peggy and Algernon were caught each by their arm by the thick set man who was whipping them around to face his boss.  Peggy gave one of her piercing screams that rocked the thug on his heels, leaving him stunned. She then kicked him expertly between the legs before both she and Algernon continued to run down the alley.  

Faster than most could see, Lightfeather threw two daggers one towards Algernon and the other at Peggy.  Horrified, Rain and Bruce could only looked on as Algernon dodge his, Peggy screamed in pain and stumbled.  Again Lightfeather threw two daggers. This time Rain tried to deflect Peggy’s with his own, but Lightfeather’s daggers were too fast and both found their marks.  Peggy stumbles again, only just keeping on her feet. Algernon puts his hands up in surrender.

Desperate and searching around, Rain was surprised when Caw Eh Carve came to the rescue.  Pulling a device from his jacket Eh Carve threw it and a thick cloud of smoke settled on the area.  Beside Rain, Bruce looks down at him and smiled grimly before hefting his crowbar and running into the battle.  Lightfeather had by this time caught up with Peggy as Bruce rushed in, bringing down the crowbar in what would normally be a devastating blow.  Lightfeather brushed the attack aside, but it was enough time for Peggy to get away and around the corner out of sight of Lightfeather and his daggers.

The Bruiser dragged himself off the ground and squared up to Bruce  swinging with a haymaker that would have taken Bruce’s head off his he hadn’t dodged it in time.  As it is, a fist the size of Rain’s head whistles past Bruce’s own making it very clear how uneven the match was.

Lightfeather’s daggers flew once more.  Algernon and Rain dodged and together they ran up the alley to Peggy.

“Love your work Bruce, but the better part of valour and all that!” Rain calls to Bruce.  Peggy screams once more focusing her thoughts on the man who caused her so much pain. Lightfeather’s hands went numb and the dagger he had poised to throw fell to the ground as he was physically rocked by her attack.  While Lightfeather was distracted, Bruce made his escape and the party, now sans Eh Carve, ran out into the busy streets of Bollons.

“I think we’ve provided sufficient cover for Eh-Carve to get away.” Algernon said moments later as the group slowed and collected, trying their best to patch wounds on the move.

“Who the hell was that!” Bruce demanded again of Rain.  This time the smaller man obliged.

“His name is Elvin Lightfeather.  When I worked in a nightclub owned by a man named Louis Astra, Mr Lightfeather would occasionally come by and see him.”

“And…what was all that ‘love your work, sir’ stuff?”

“Look he scared my boss and Louis Astra didn’t take shit from anyone!”  Rain exclaimed, hoping to end the conversation. Bruce stared at him silently, the steely gaze more gripping than any bowler hatted thug’s.

“Alright.  Louis Astra, he liked to call himself King of the Stars…” when there was no obvious response from that revelation he took a deep breath, “…he was a mob boss. He had a lot of scary people who worked for him but everyone was polite to Elvin Lightfeather, even Louis Astra.”

“So, why didn’t we kill him?”  Peggy complained holding her wounded side.  Blood seeped slowly through her fingers and her face was deathly pale.

“We just tried to do that, “ Algernon retorted just as testily, “I don’t think we have a chance.”

“I can’t even comprehend the thought of fighting Elvin Lightfeather.” Rain said his face as pale as Peggy’s though he was uninjured, “These are people you run away from, not face off against in dark alleys.”

“But why did he attack.” Bruce wanted to know and Rain could only shrug.
“We got between them and Eh Carve.” Algernon supplied.

“No we weren’t, the door was open.” Peggy retorted as Rain moaned in horrible realisation.

“And I shut it in his face!” If it was at all possible, Rain went even whiter, “What did I do?”

“I don’t know why you didn’t go on one of your stabby-stabby attacks.” she rounded on Algernon ignoring the cowering Rain.

“I don’t know what you mean?” Algernon replied wanting the discussion to end. Rain looked from Algernon to Peggy now aware of his companions fighting.

“You know, the way you did with that mannequin in the wasteland.”

“I didn’t!” Algernon exclaimed harassed and…was that a little guilty?  Rain decided to step in.

“Now Peggy, you only say such things when you’re poorly.  Let’s get you somewhere quiet to rest.”

“No I don’t.  I always speak my mind.” she barked back noticeably swaying on her feet.

“Exactly.”  He replied as he looked around for a place for the group to hide, heal and rebuild.

To be continued….

5. Follow the Spiral Dust trail

Rain looked around the group of three searching for the knowing glance, the smirk or conspiratorial movement that would have let him know if they were making fun of him.  Nothing. They meant it, they trusted his judgement. Had anyone had his back like that before? Ever? Without another word he straightened his jacket collar, checked his pockets for his essentials (puzzle box, wallet, phone, deck of cards…) and headed for the door with Bruce close behind.

A smart rap on the door and a plain, greasy individual (matching the description given by Katherine) appeared at the door.

“I’m looking to do a little business…”  Rain let the sentence hang hoping the greasy person would fill in the silence.  They didn’t, just stared blankly back, “…a little business in Blue Rain.” he pulled out his wallet only made fat by the small denominations it held.

“Yes, hold on.” the greasy person went to shut the door.  Rain, ready for this, pulled out a playing card and slotted it between plate of the lock and the latch.  After a few seconds, where Rain held the door closed from the outside, both he and Bruce slipped into the warehouse.

The warehouse was cavernous and empty except for a few shelving racks at the far end and a partially dismantled car on jacks in the centre.  A bright light glowed from a set of stairs heading down into a basement-like room. Silhouetted against the light, the greasy person called down the stairs, 

“Someone hear to buy the blue stuff.”

“There’s not a lot left, check the shelf.”, said another voice, definitely male from the room down stairs.  Rain and Bruce edged closer.  

“So, what do you want to do?  Buy and get out of here or bust these guys here and now?”  Rain asked Bruce, figuring that the big man would want to round up everyone here and take them back to The Estate.

“I’d love to bust some heads, but this is your call.  We can see where it ends.”

“Wow, so buy or bust, we’re going to buy!”

“See where it goes…”

The two of them walked nonchalantly to the basement trying to get a look at the second person. Could it possibly be the cowboy who’d killed to keep his Spiral dust empire secret?  But they didn’t get far when the greasy one (who on further study was a woman) spotted them walking across the open space.

“Hey!”  The greasy woman shouted walking back with a sizable bag of blue dust. “What are you doing in here?”
“You left the door unlatched, I assumed you invited us in.”  Rain gestured to the wide open door.

“No I didn’t.  Get out!”

“Sure no problem if you want to do business out in the open.”  Rain and Bruce shuffled back outside and the woman followed with her bag of drugs. 

“How much do you want to buy?”  she drawled as if these were lines she’d been trained to say not her own words at all.

“Hard to get these days. Nothing on the Black market. I’ll be willing to take what you have.”

She pulled over a small scale and weighed the contents of the bag.

“Two hundred.”

Rain considered haggling, but thought better of it.  She’s probably be trained to take only the going rate so it would be pointless to haggle and would only breed more antagonism.  He handed over the two hundred and silently lamented the loss as the bag of blue dust was handed over.

“A pleasure doing business.”  he waved. She closed the door in their faces.

“We should go back and bust them.”  Bruce said as soon as they were away from the door.

“There’s two of them,you want to go in heavy with two people?”

“We can do it.  You knock on the door,bust through, knock her on the head, rush the other guy. Simple.”

“Do you have to talk about knocking heads?”  Rain winced at the thought, “Look we have a team, I guess we should talk to them about what we’re going to do?”

It didn’t take long to update Algernon and Peggy on what went on inside the warehouse.  Peggy took a sample of the dust for analysis in her lab as they discussed what to do next.

“Well, hand over the dust and I’ll see you get reimbursed.” Bruce held out his hand for the bag of spiral dust only now disappearing into Rain’s coat.

“It’s safe here, “ Rain patted his coat.

“Until you sell it on, “  the big man gave Rain a hard look, but neither was giving an inch.

“I wouldn’t sell it.”

“Well what else are you going to do with it? You can’t use it all.”

“Not all…”

“You were going to use it?”
“Well, I’m not about to snuff it up my sinuses right this moment.  We have to deal with the people in the warehouse.”

“I’ll watch you snuff it up your sinuses if you want.” Algernon offered.

“Well, I was planning to ask if you could actually, “  he acknowledged Algernon’s if a little creepy offer with genuine thanks. 

“You can’t experiment on minors!”  Peggy protested missing the point.

“Peggy, believe me, I would never give anyone drugs, especially not kids.”  Rain replied finding himself in the exact position he was trying to avoid. “I will do this myself, in the great tradition of scientists the world over.”

“Then you will need laboratory conditions and the scientific method, otherwise it is just self abuse.”

“Not if I’m right.”

They bickered round the subject until it was clear that nothing else was going to happen with the warehouse that day.  They all climbed into the car for the drive back through the city.  

The cameras were in place and would gather anything that happened on the outside. As for the inside it was anyone’s guess.  As the two people involved had never been seen outside the warehouse it was assumed they had one of three different ways of coming and going.  Either a tunnels system hooked up to the basement room, a permanent gate or the individuals were translating somehow. Gates were rare things, and most individuals who could translate were meant to be known by The Estate, but somehow the greasy woman and her associate had gone undetected.  So tunnels seemed to be a good place to start.

Peggy stopped the car at the Public Record Request Centre and Rain tried chatting with the bureaucrats inside.  She then tried their hand and searching the Internet and found nothing. Algernon thought he’d found something and then realised that it wasn’t as useful as he thought, 

“S-E-W-E-R-S,” Bruce informed him later, “Not S-U-E-Z.”

“Ah, so this map of North Africa is no good then.”

Bruce on the other hand, with his background in building and construction had far more success and discovered that the stormwater and sewage pipes in the area of the warehouse were too small for people to travel.  It was just as well as Rain came out having fallen short with the procedural brick wall that is City Hall.

“So they’re translating.  Can we translate in as well?”  

“I don’t think it works like that.  You have to know the destination to get there, like McCain did when he brought us back from the Wasteland.”  Peggy replied as they drove back to the campus.

First stop back for Algernon was at Lawrence Keaton’s office brandishing the knife Rain had given him.

“Excuse me sir.  My family was sent to a recursion where they fought thonics.  I assess these creatures at an ATR* of D or E and I had nothing to fight them with but this knife.  Bruce could have been killed and even a pistol would have been more effective.  If I am to continue to go on missions I would like a TAC 50, please.”  

It was the most Keaton had ever heard from the youth and with more passion than anyone had ever seen.  It took him a moment to compose his thoughts before he responded, thankful that the huge combat knife was now away in its sheath.

“You’re working hard on your shooting practice, keep it up.  You are currently approved for pistols. If you go out on another mission you could have one of those.”  Keaton walked back to his desk and sat down, making a note, “When I am informed that your skills warrant it I’ll consider a larger weapon then.”

“Oh and a motorbike, I need a motorbike.” Algernon added almost as a second thought.  Keaton knew he’d been taking lessons, he’s even seen the kid puttering around the Campus.  But, a fifteen year old kid riding the streets of Seattle on a motorbike could raise difficult questions that would only come back to him. 

“How do you get around now?”

“In the car…thing, the Doctor drives.”  the kid brushed off. It was like he was being driven around town by his mother.  Maybe he felt he was, didn’t he say his family?

“I’m sure that there is a seat for you in there.” He dismissed the suggestion of a motorbike, “Anything else?”

“Yes, the Doctor said I needed a booster seat.”

“Really?  Unusual” Keaton looked the kid over.  He was small for an operative.  Keaton was used to working with  adult men and women, many with years of service already under their belts with the police or armed services.  Maybe there was an issue with the kid’s size. He pulled out a requisition form and filled it in.

Algernon took it without complaint and thankfully left without another word.

Rain also went to see Keaton, but later, when Keaton wasn’t in his office.  Rain watched from an unused cubicle until Keaton left his , locking the door behind him.  A difficulty, but not an insurmountable one. Houdini hadn’t been Rain’s idols growing up for nothing.  A handful of bent paper-clips were scavenged from the desk and the door was soon open.

When Keaton returned sometime later, Rain was pouring two tumblers of Scotch from behind Keaton’s desk.  Keaton looked at his door, positive he’d locked it, and then closed it behind him. This was a power-play, Keaton could feel it.  He’d play along, but it wouldn’t pay to have the skinny son-of-a-biscuit think he could get away with it.

“Rain.  What can I do for you?” he sat down in one of two guests seat feeling uncomfortably misplaced and trying not to show it.

“Just a couple of questions,” the conman offered a glass to Keaton and took one himself, rolling it between his hands, “Firstly, you’re my supervisor.  Why do I need you?”

It was an impertinent question, the second that day to give Keaton pause.

“Well for a start, breaking and entering a superior’s office sounds like a good reason for a little supervision.”  His voice rose just a little higher than he would have liked.  

Rain smiled his quiet little smile as he breathed in the fumes from the scotch.  The smile could have meant anything from agreeing with Keaton to questioning his use of the word ‘superior’.  Either way it rankled, but Keaton tried his best to not let it show. 

“If you need training, or equipment.  Maybe the case you’re on could benefit from another division’s help.  I am here to make sure you can do your job.”

“I’m glad you mentioned that,” that infuriating smile again.  That scotch was looking real good about now. “We’ve done a few jobs for The Estate, jumped into a recursion, hunted down drug dealers and I was wondering…when do we get paid?”


“Yes.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed but Algernon is running around in the clothes he was dragged through a portal in, and I’ve spent sizable amounts on Estate business myself.  When do we get paid?”

“You obviously haven’t checked your bank account recently.” Keaton thought he had him there.  He knew that both Rain and Algernon had been put on the payroll, he’d filled out the paperwork himself.  Rain just sat behind Keaton’s own desk, sniffing the Scotch.

“What bank accounts?”  Rain said simply and the bottom feel out of Keaton’s confidence.  Of course, the kid was an alien in all senses of the word and Rain…well, who could say.

“You have an aversion to banks?”  Keaton tried to hold the high moral ground.  It was a waste of time, the guys could not be chastened.

“Lots.  Mostly I hate paper trails.  Well, at least paper trails I don’t make myself.”  A smile, a roll of the tumbler, a luxurious breath in.

“I’ll look into it.”

“Thank you.”  Rain placed his tumber beside the bottle of Scotch on purpose drawing Keaton’s attention to it. In one fluid motion he stood and strolled around the table, leaving the room with nothing to mark  his presence except the two untouched tumblers and the bottle. If the label was to be believed it was good stuff and Keaton could feel the old tingle at the back of his throat. He was about to reach for a glass when Rain was back silently sliding through the door.

“Oh, and we picked this up today, thought you’d want it.”  a sizable bag of what could only be Spiral dust plonked down on the desk making the glasses chink together.

“Thank you, I’ll have it analyzed.”  he ground out through gritted teeth, but the room was already empty.

Rain left Keaton’s with mixed feelings. Playing the bully was not his usual style, but the pen pushing middle man of the bureaucracy he now found himself under brought out the worst in him.  Besides, it never hurt to make an impression. On the other hand, getting rid of the bag in such a spectacular way was a load off his mind. Now if Bruce or anyone were to question where the four ounces of Spiral dust had gone he could say that an ounce went to Peggy’s research and the rest was handed to his…whatever Keaton thought he was. In reality, of course, it had been one ounce of spiral dust in the bag and two ounces of expertly cut laundry detergent and baking powder.  Two ounces was overkill for his needs, but it had been his $200 that bought the stuff, why should he hand it over just because someone said to?

In contrast, Bruce had a perfectly amicable conversation with Katherine, bringing her up to date with the party’s activities (including the purchase of 4 ounces of Spiral Dust) and then spoke to her about training options for Algernon and himself.  Now with a newly ramped schedule of hand to hand training and Weapon classes practically every day, Bruce did as he always did when at a loose end, went to the gym.

Peggy, got straight to work in her lab.  Firstly she set the spiral dust to an array of tests to determine what it was and possible effects on the body.  Secondly she looked at her machine, her baby, her life’s work… and despaired. To think that it might have something to do with the random portal openings!  It was as if her own child had been arrested for some audacious crime. It was a horrible and yet exciting thought that she was determined to get to the bottom of.  

As she contemplated the task, Hertzfeld came in with a new gadget of his own.  When he turned it on, two solid rods passed through each other.

“I was hoping you would work on this with me.” Hertzfeld gestured to the gadget like offering a tasty treat.  

“I’d love too.  But I must insist on shared credit.”

If Hertzfeld felt slighted he didn’t show it. As all research made under the auspices of The Estate stayed in-house he didn’t feel it a problem to agree to her terms.  Once arrangements were made to both their satisfaction Peggy finally got stuck into breaking down her equipment.

Gingerly, pieces by carefully scavenged and reconstructed piece, she laid it out, noting the connections and how they interacted with each other.  Now, with her newly acquired knowledge on the Strange, Peggy started to see that in its current configuration, her equipment was connecting to the Strange in a way considered impossible.  At times it could work as a conducting rod for the energies of the Strange and as a result spontaneously create gates. She wondered if such a transitory and chaotic energy could be harness, even stored.  All thought of Hertzfeld’s matter phasing contraption left her as the possibilities of her discovery became her obsession.

Days went by.  Footage from the cameras down at the docks came in but nothing of any worth was captured.  They thought once or twice that a deal may have been caught, but under scrutiny, it was only deliveries of take away.  Rain despaired at the lack of action and more and more thought on the two and a bit ounces he had stashed in his puzzle box.  

Bruce delved into some basic studies of physiology and spent extra hours in the weapons practise room learning to wield his weapons with more deadly accuracy, or how he liked to put it, 

“I’ve learnt to bash things better.” He was grimly eager to put it into practice in the field.

Peggy’s tests on the spiral dust proved conclusively the dust was not from Earth.  It seemed to react with the Strange somehow. Putting that together with the vivid hallucinations of the users they had interviewed that, at least with their minds, the users were partially translating.  She giggled to herself at the thought that she had actually discovered real Astral Projection. It was then that she called Hertzfeld back to let him know what she had discovered.

Algernon did something radically unusual for him and voluntarily went and visited Peggy in her lab.

“Excuse me, Doctor I like to talk to you about something,” he said in fast clipped, urgent tones.  He then meandered through ideas of life and intellect. Of humans with mental powers like those he’d seen in Akira, of the thonics that had nearly done for Bruce.  

“I worked out how they fly, it’s got nothing to do with their wings. It has to do with the Strange, they link to the Strange and use that energy to do things.   You did it too, “he pointed to Peggy, who was only just keeping up with the boys thoughts, “You did something at the thonic, but it didn’t work, but you did it.”

“What do you mean you have worked out how the thonics fly?” she asked expecting to have to translate another string of twisting logic and was surprised when Algernon just replied, 

“I’ll show you.”  he raised one hand and she could almost feel his gaze focus and lock on her.  Then suddenly her feet left the ground and she was in the air floating untethered above her workstations and equipment.

“But how…” her voice trailed as she slowly rotated in the air, pushed by a draft.

“It’s the Strange, “Algernon grunted with effort, “I don’t know about Rain or Bruce but we can tap in and use the power of the Strange.”  The last sentence, on top whatever effort he was providing, was finally too much and Peggy felt herself slip through the air, crashing to the vinyl flooring. 

 She looked up at the youth speechless and for the first time really noticed him.  He was leaning a little on a workbench breathing hard. Whatever marvel he had just performed was taxing.  Forgetting her own bruises and pains she stood up and guided Algernon to a nearby stool, taking the time to give the boy a perfunctory physical, noting his pale and wax complexion, the unfocused look to his eyes and his heavy breathing.

“Does channelling the power take a physical toll?” she asked almost to herself, “This is fascinating, we must record this, I’ll hook you up to a few machines, run a couple of experiments…”

At the mention of the word experiments, Algernon’s complexion went from pale to grey.  His eyes that had been lidded and dull by exhaustion were now large and staring. With one terrified bound akin to being electrified he leaped off the stool and heading out the door with Peggy calling after him oblivious to what she could have done or said.

Rain also found himself drawn to Peggy’s lab.  Not to share any hard-won discovery, but in desperation, and what felt like, inevitability.  The camera footage was a bust, his readings into the dust were getting nowhere and the only option he had left was to try the drug himself in an attempt to understand.  The ounce left for testing was his last hope at some sort of insight that might push Rain’s own efforts further.

When he arrived at the lab, Hertzfeld was in a lather over something to do with Peggy’s machine.

“And its is NOT my fault!” Peggy exalted giggling maniacally like the mad scientist she claimed not to be, “I was just a little more inspired than I first thought.  I believe with more research we’ll be able to predict when these anomalies will occur, even be able to trigger them ourselves!”

“I can see we may have to clear out space in the… basement…” mused Hertzfeld as his gazed looked into a future where gates could be opened and closed at will, a world that harnesses the power of the Strange itself.

“Exciting time, I see.”  Rain interrupted curious as to all the excitement, though the technobabble that he’d been able to over hear hadn’t made a lot of sense. “I won’t interrupt long, I was just wondering if you’d had any luck with the dust?”

“Oh yes,” Peggy replied coolly, “That was the boring news, Hertzfeld.” and she informed both Rain and Hertzfeld about her discoveries into the Spiral Dust.

“That’s the boring news?” Hertzfeld replied astounded and a little numbed by all the theories and laws shattered in one day, “But this is astounding, no one had considered that the human mind could touch the Strange without dire consequences.”
“I had, “ Rain replied now with a clear purpose, “And I’m going to test it out, right now.”  Out of one of his many secret pockets, the puzzle box appeared. He turned to leave but not before both Peggy and Hetzfeld physically stopped him in his tracks.

“Don’t you want to be monitored?”  Peggy asked

“You’d seriously take  the Spiral Dust to prove a theory?”  Hertzfeld added at the same time.

“Do you know how hard it is to find willing experimental subjects?”  Peggy was now pleading, “It can all be done safely, I can even sedate you…”

“Sedate?  What’s the point of that?  How can I tell anyone what I’m seeing if I’m under?” Rain looked around the stark and clinical setting and shuddered, “besides, this place is not my ideal…it’s not very…I’d rather not be poked and prodded.” He finished lamely flustered and starting to look a little like Algernon had.

“Why?”  Peggy looked around her lab, it was the best space she’d ever worked in, with the exception of the window in the far corner that let the world peek in.  “But under lab conditions we can keep you safe…”

“Couldn’t we go…sit under a tree or something?”  

When the drug was thought to be just an hallucinogen rain had toyed with the idea like one does an old wound, hoping and dreading what it would reveal in equal measure.  Now the dust was now considered a direct link to the Strange itself, justifying his intuitions. But the lab and equipment brought back old memories of other drug trials and his physically shuddered.  Peggy as usual, was blind to Rain discomfort. 

“I….think, “Hetzfeld suggested, “…that we shouldn’t rush into this.  We need to set up the experiments and required equipment. Peggy, you need to move your lab into a larger space and …well all of that is going to take a little time.”
“Yes, Peggy considered turning to all her tools,” you’re right we can’t rush into these things.”

“Good.” Rain clapped his now empty hands together, “Well then, I guess that leaves busting a few heads with Brucie.  He will be pleased.”

Collecting the group as usual was not a simple task.  Algernon made one last trip to Keaton’s office where the clinking glass and the sudden shuffling of draws greeted his knock.

“Mr Keaton, I need a pistol.” Algernon stated in his clipped and precise manner to his supervisors eventual summons, “I’m going to bust some caps in someone’s arse.”

“Whose precisely?” Keaton asked rubbing distractedly across his forehead and eyes.  Algernon picked up the discrepancy between Keaton’s response and what he considered his appropriate statement.

“Did I use the wrong term?”
“It’s not the usual, no.”

“We’re going to confront some drug dealers down at the docks and I need a pistol.”

Keaton gave him, the promised pistol.

When he met with the others, Rain and Bruce were as usual bickering. Also as usual it was over Rain’s lack of moral judgement.

“So you broke into your supervisor’s office, just to have a chat?” Bruce stated flatly shaking his head in incomprehension.
“I was waiting for him, why not wait inside.”

“You’re the only person I know that takes the easy path to make things difficult.”
“There’s just paths Brucie.  Some are more interesting than others, that’s all.  You know, flowers and scenery.” Rain philosophised, warming to the subject.

“So you believe in ‘stop and steal the flowers’.” Quipped back Bruce who now noticed Algernon.

“Yes, they smell better.”  

Bruce had spotted the now equipped 9mm Glock clipped to Algernon’s trouser band and internally sighed.

“Ready to go?” he asked and both Algernon and Rain replied, one by drawing and cocking the pistol the other by raising his misappropriated putter.


The warehouse hadn’t changed over the intervening days.  Autumn clouds made the water dull and grey but otherwise the warehouse door and environs looked exactly the same as it had.   It was clear from the start that this was a Bruce’s operation. Get them to open the door and get in, neutralised the woman and then swarm down stairs and takeout the man before they had a chance to strike back.  There were phrases like ‘bash their heads’ and ‘cap their arses’ bandied around which Rain found disconcerting and Peggy thought unnecessary. But, in the end it all began with Rain knocking on the door.

“We’re out of stock.” the greasy woman said when she recognised Rain.

“I’m afraid that just won’t do today.”  he replied as he and Bruce pushed against the door, knocking her out of the way.  In an instant Bruce and Algernon were upon her, weapons drawn and ready to strike, the sharp end of Bruce’s crow bar hovering at her throat and pinning her in place.

“Keep your f^#%ing hands where I can see them, toe-rag!!” Algernon yelled pointing the working end of the pistol expertly at the woman’s face.  Rain, who was kneeling down to speak to the woman, blanched as the deadly muzzle of the gun entered his vision and he stumbled over what he had intended to be soothing words.
“Woah…ah, as you can see my friends… here…e more than willing to commit acts of violence today.”  he swallowed and continued, pointed not looking at Algernon’s pistol,he swallowed and continued, “Please, help me, help you. Where is your gentleman friend from the other day?  The one downstairs?”

“Gone.” she replied totally cowered.

“How long will he be gone?”
“Three or four days.”

“What’s his name?”

“Caw Eh Carve

Rain pulled out his phone and showed her the image of the Cowboy they’d pulled off the Seven-11 CCTV footage.

“Is this Caw?”

“No…” she looked confused.

“Seen him before?”


“Okay.  So where does Caw get the Spiral Dust?”

“He doesn’t, he gets rocks.  He gets them from Bollons Island.”

“Bollons?” It didn’t sound familiar and Rain led with a hunch.

“You’re not from here are you?”

The woman shook her head,

“He brought me here to look after business and I get to …” she gestured with her head at the disassembled car.

“You like cars?”  He asked now realising she was just a stooge dragged into this business Caw Eh Carve.

She nodded, “They’re still shiny here.” 

“What is your name?” He said more gently now helping her to her feet.

“Kamn Sharn.”

“Where do you come from, Kamn?”


“We call this place Earth, what is yours called?”

“Huh?  Earth.”
“Earth?  What is it like?”
“Dry and dusty”

“Oh no,”  Visions of the wastelands appeared in Rain’s memory,  “are there crazy women who want to eat you there?”  

“No.” she again looked confused, an expression that seemed natural for her.  Rain breathed a sigh of relief.

While Rain spoke with the Kamn, Algernon realised he wasn’t required and left the group to check out the basement.

“Hey Doc, can you head inside with the kid and look around?” Bruce suggested nodding his head in Algernon’s direction.

“Me?  Why have I got babysitting duty?” Peggy complained, “He’s competent.”

“Yeah, that’s my worry.”

She sighed,’”Okay.” and followed Algernon to investigate the basement.

Carefully they made their way, Algernon in the lead with his gun ready, Peggy behind. The well lit basement held a workspace with a larger mortar and pestle with the remains of blue powder in its base.  Behind this, empty wooden crates lay scattered, all with chips and pebbles of a blue mineral, remains of the last shipment. The only other thing in the basement of any value was a skull. Larger than a human’s, the skull held two massive pairs of incisors like those of a giant rodent.

“Well that’s not a regular human skull.” Peggy stepped in to take a closer look.  She noted that unlike a rodent skull from Earth, this skull was attached to a large jaw bristling with impressive canines teeth as long as her fingers.

“It’s not a carrot either.”  Algernon replied sarcastically at the monstrous thing, “with muscle attachment points that could probably bite through a human leg. “

Not long after, Bruce, Rain and Kamn also joined them in the basement and took in the impressive skull.

“So, how does Caw get to Bollons Island?”

“The thingy,” Kamn pointed at the skulls Peggy and Algernon were investigating, “It’s a key.”

“How does Caw get back if the key is here.”

“There’s a key that side to come back.”

“What sort of skull is it?”  

“Just a mole rat?”

“Are they quite common?”  Bruce asked wondering how anything with that much hardware could be a ‘just’ anything.


“Are they the most vicious thing on your world?”

“Oh no.” she shook her head and for the first time there was a small smile of…pride?…triumph?

Everything was packed into a crate, the skull wrapped separately and stowed.  With nothing left to gain from sticking around, the group left, Kamn in middle of the back seat with Bruce and Rain, Algernon in the passenger and Peggy driving.

“Algernon, “ Rain brooched on the way back, “I love your enthusiasm and everything, but the gun….”

“What about it?”  Algernon replied with his most innocent expression.

“Let’s just say that though you may know how to use a gun you may need to brush up on you proper procedures for engagement.”  Bruce offered. 

“But that’s how they do it on the documentaries,”

“We may need to expand your documentary list to titles other than from the Die Hard franchise.”

When they reached The Estate they left Kamn with security and went straight to Katherine to give a report of what they’d found. Katherine had not heard of a recursion that fit the description of the other Earth.  Dry and dusty terrain that contained a chain of island named Bollans. Bruce checked online maps for an equivalent chain here on this Earth, assuming the recursion was a close copy. Besides a few tiny islands in rivers there didn’t seem to be any places big enough.

“They have mole rats the size of people and with more teeth.”  Rain noted, “That doesn’t ring any bells?”


“I’m going to need a bigger gun.”  Algernon considered glancing at the skull they’d helped retrieve.

“You need to learn to use the one you have without it going to you head.”  Katherine replied after hearing of his histrionics in the warehouse.

“Oh no, I don’t put it to my head.”

With little information to go on, reluctantly it was agreed the next step was to see where the skull went.  This was the direction the Spiral Dust was coming from so naturally where they needed to go. As they left Katherine to prepare for the trip out, Rain pulled her aside, 

“You know Kamn is very interested in cars, she would probably be an asset in the car pool.”

“I think we’ll find something appropriate for her.”  Katherine acknowledged and went back to her notes.

As the other side of the key was her home, some of the party went looking for her.  They hoped to pick her brains on what to expect even just in general terms. As hard as they looked, they could find no one who knew anything about her.  Kamn had already disappeared.

Rain popped past Keaton’s office on the way to Peggy’s lab where the translation was to take place.  Keaton looked up to see Rain leaning on his door frame silently waiting to be acknowledged. Though he hadn’t heard the conman arrive, his appearance was not disturbing or even that surprising.  Rain looked, strained and nervous, seemily on the brink of something and Keaton wondered if it had to do with a set of recently scheduled experiments Hertzfeld had posted.

“Yes, Mr Bigby?” 

“Just checking in,”  Rain fussed with his puzzle box not looking Keaton in the eye, “that’s what you’re supposed to do with a supervisor isn’t it?”

“My other operative usually send an email or phone, but I appreciate the human touch.”

Rain looked up looking Keaton in the eye, assessing his words.

“Good,” he finally said, pushing off the door frame the puzzle box gone, “We’re going to a recursion following Spiral Dust.  I’ve come by to see if there is any Advice? Kind words?”

“Be smart, not smart-assed.”  A whole string of expletive riddled comments sprung to mind, but Keaton thought better of it.  He was sure Rain had heard them all before and he’d only be wasting both their time and energy to repeat them. “Come back.  Is there anything you need?”

The little man thought for a moment, then reached beside the doorway, revealing Keaton’s missing putter.

“No, I have everything I need.” he smiled that knowing contemptuous smile and walked off.

Keaton was half way out of his chair to chase down the sneaky little thief when he thought again.  If that’s what Rain wanted to defend himself in the recursions, fine, he’d just get the Estate to reimburse him a new putter.

In fact,  the thought as he pulled open on a desk drawn and withdrew a recent copy of Golfer’s Digest, why not take the opportunity for something just a little bit nicer.  

Peggy’s lab was empty of equipment now she was in the process of being moved to a bigger more secure space below ground.  The only things left was the calendar still fixed at a month sometime in the past, the poster of The Strange, fixtures like benches and fume hoods and the mole rat skull.  The two pairs of incisor, sharp from grinding against each other during the creature’s life, dominated the head revealing a creature who could have done surgery with its face.  Larger than a flattened human skull, the bone silently spoke of a creature whose life’s obsession was eating and biting. No one could look at it for long and not feel uneasy. Even Bruce tried to cut the tension.

“So I guess we have to do the wussy hand holding thing again, do we?” he sat down on the ground, forming a circle with the others. “Kum-ba-ya….?  Om…?”

It said something to how they were all feeling that no one commented,  just took each others hands, closing the circle.

Peggy lead the translation, focusing on the mole rat skull.  She could see The Strange connected to the skull and to its place of origin.  With a thought she brought the two together in her mind and instantly visualised a thin blue line of energy connected their location to the distant somewhere. As the connection was locked in,  she felt a push and realised that Rain had started his hastening, speeding them through the Strange like a locomotive pushing a train along a track. As the destination approached, she felt another opposing force like the opening of a parachute slowed their velocity while wrapping them with solid protective strength, cushioned their entry into the recursion and she realised that was Bruce.  

With the smell of dust and the whistling of a gale force wind outside they arrived in the other Earth. Opening eyes they saw a crude wooden shack that barely kept the swirling wind outside its walls.  All four sat on the ground, once again all radically altered to fit the recursion they found themselves in. Peggy was in a shirt and breeches with a set of heavy leather goggles on her head. Beside her, her scientific equipment had been turned into a tool bag with a blocky ancient multimetre. Algernon wore similar leather breeches and shirt, but had over the top a jacket all dusty and worn.  At his side a crank-style crossbow and quiver of bolts. It seemed the recursion gave Algernon what the Estate’s senior staff would not, a weapon almost larger than himself. Bruce’s camo armour was gone and he wore heavy overalls and a full leather apron equally as worn-in as the others. Rain was already up admiring his outfit. Similar hard wearing breeches, a jacket also similar to Algernon’s, a ruffled shirt wrapped tight in a worn and frayed black silk vest, a red bandana sticking out the jacket pocket.  From inside the coat he retrieved a set of ancient looking playing cards, the card stock thick, the face cards those of different locomotives. He flipped, cut and shuffled the cards expertly, but with a frowning concentration at the clumsy unfamiliar feel of the cards.

Bruce wasted little time and started searching the shack for the key back home. On a rickety set of shelving, behind empty boxes he found a globe of the Earth.  Meant to sit on a desk, the globe was hardly portable, but Bruce was reluctant to leave it behind. It would be useful to them as they could use it translate back home from any safe spot, at best it stopped Caw Eh Carve from sneaking back behind their back.  Bruce found the globe another hiding spot, protected and safe, out of the easy grasp of Caw.

That done, while the team took stock of themselves, Bruce headed for the door of the shack.

“Shay here while I check if it’s safe outside”, he said flat. Cracking the door open and pausing only briefly to check through the gap he stepped outside, squinting against the bright daylight after the darkened shack. 

The shack was set on a small plateau that rolled gently down to a barren plain of sand and rock.  There was nothing to soften the view, no large bushes or trees, just the occasional crop of scrubby dry grass, rocks and rails.  The rails, supported by wooden sleepers, ran everywhere over the desert landscape, shining brightly under dull low hung skies. They stitched the land together, criss-crossing everywhere in haphazard and seemingly random ways, but always, as far as possible, in straight lines all the way to every horizon.

“What is this Rat-Shit place?”  Bruce murmured to himself before calling to the others, “Come out everyone, the coast is clear.  And yes, it is safe, Algernon.”

The others slowly followed him out of the hut taking in their surroundings.  Algernon wondered a little further away to where the rock and earth of the plateau gave way to sand built up in a drift beside a set of tracks.  The dust was fine, ground and reground by centuries of weathering. Casually he bent down and scooped up the earth in one hand, the fine dust yielding as he sunk up to the wrist like it was water.  With audible snap from below and a gasp of shock and surprise, Algernon hand was clamped and he was tugged off his feet into the dust.  

The party responded instantly, Bruce, ever ready for an attack, slid down the plateau first, crowbar in hand, Rain close behind.  While Bruce readied himself to slam the end of his crowbar into the sand, Rain wrapped his golfclub around Algernon’s chest and pulled backwards.  With the weight of both Algernon and Rain on one end the creature lost it’s purchase on its home sands and was dragged like a fish out of the dust to the waiting crowbar of Bruce.  

Peggy screamed and a wave of force escaped into the air.  Bruce hit again and again on the top of the very much alive skull of a giant naked mole rat.  Algernon cried in pain as the mole rats deadly incisors cut the skin, forced through his flesh with every crowbar blow.   Now the rat was out of the sand it was clearly as big as a large dog and stockier built. It scrambled in the dust, its back feet digging into the sand desperate to return to the earth and safely, but unwilling to let go of it’s meal.  Tiny black eyes rolled in their sockets as Bruce smashed the crowbar down one last time. The skull cracked and the beast’s will died with it, the jaws letting go of Algernon. Rain and Algernon fell into a heap wild-eyed but safe as Bruce dragged the rest of the creature out of its burrow.

“Okay, lesson one; stay off the sand.”  he panted looking over at the injured boy cradling his hand.  Without another word, he pulled out his first aid kit, also translated to fit into this world, and checked the boy’s injuries.  A nasty cut made worse by beating on the creature’s head, bruises and a little strain, nothing permanent and Bruce soon had it patched up with the primitive kit at his disposal.  He turned to his group usually full of ideas and bickering to see only forlorn glances over the barren, uninviting land. All three look lost and unsure of what to do next in this alien setting.  

Bruce squared his shoulders and he too looked out over the vista, but where others saw nothing but sand and rock and unseen underground horrors, he saw a smudge of wood smoke in the far distance with sturdy rails and sleepers leading in that direction.  He tested one with his foot, then dug into his pack and pulled out a rope.

“Tie yourselves together, we’re going to walk the rails.”

Thanks to J.G. for the editing help.

4. The aborted recursion

The deafening roar and the acrid smell of cordite may have sent Rain running for calmer spaces, but the rest of the party completed their allotted shooting training with competent results. Algernon alone though seemed to want more from his weapons training.  

“I’d like a bigger gun.”  He said to the weapon’s training officer after class.

“Do you have a requisition?”

“Oh yes, it’s being processed.”  He lied, trying to put into practice skills he was learning from Rain.  In this, he was initially successful.

“What did you have in mind?” She slurped her forgotten coffee and considered the gun cabinet. What could a young man of Algernon’s experience and strength wield?

“I did some research, “ Algernon pulled out his notebook and flicked to the appropriate page, “I’d like a Barrett M82, please.”

The weapons officer nearly choked on her cold coffee.

“I don’t think so, it’s far too big a weapon, you wouldn’t be able to carry it for one thing.”

“Oh, I know.  That’s why I’d also take a Steyr SSG69. It’s not as big It will only kill a man whereas the Barrett can kill a car, and I think that’s better, don’t you?”

He was sent out to find how his “requisition” was going.

Out on the campus, Peggy was searching for the party. The portal in her lab was found to be stable and connected to a recursion, of sorts. She now had the duty of collecting her wayward group when she came across Algernon worrying over his request dilemma.

“Hello, you there.  You have a name, right?” She called waving Algernon over as if communicating with a different species.

He looked at her suspiciously and walked over.

“Algernon.” he said simple. Since that first day when he was pulled through her portal to Earth, he had put Peggy into the same category as all the people who he’d ever come to distrust.  Scientists.

“And just to be clear,” she continued oblivious, “you are a person.”

“I’m not a dog of any species.” He retorted harkening back to her words only a week ago.

Peggy looked at Algernon confused,

“What? What have canines to do with it?”

Once again, Algernon thumbed through his notebook and found the page, 

“I looked it up, Rottweilers are a breed.” Rounding on her with his evidence.

“Not Rottweiler, rock…never mind.  You are human?”

“Close enough.” He replied enigmatically.  It was obvious to those who spoke to him, that Algernon had a thing about experimentation. It seemed he was fearful of being too interesting to the scientist in case she thought to start experimenting on him.  Peggy was not one of the people that spoke to Algernon usually and had no idea his thoughts.

“Well, head over to my lab.”


“We’re being sent out.”


“Through a swirling hole of death.” she replied matter of factly in a way that was far more scary that even her choice of words would suggest.

“Will it be safe?”

“Readings say we’ll definitely come out the other side, just couldn’t tell you where that is.”  Peggy looked around the campus expecting to find the rest of the party, “Where are the other two?”

“Rain’s in the library.”

“And the tall one?”

“In the gym?”

But Bruce was not to be found in the gym. 

After speaking to his supervisor and going through channels Bruce had acquired for himself a requisition form for body armour. He was patiently waiting in the queue at Stores when Algernon arrived.

“You have a requisition form?”  Algernon spoke, almost in awe when he saw the bigger man, “Can I look at it?”

Bruce obliged, but he didn’t let it leave his hand.  It didn’t matter anyway, under medium body armour Katherine Manners had slashed the rest of the box for ‘required supplies’.  There was no way he could add something else even if Bruce would let him.

“See. If you go through your supervisors, instead of trying to defraud the system like someone we won’t mention, they’ll more as likely give you what you ask.”

Algernon sighed and acknowledge defeat, for now, and made his way across to the office wing and Lawrence Keaton.

Generic and small, the offices of the senior operatives were not made with comfort in mind.  When Algernon knocked at Keaton’s office door, it was to a crashing and cursing unlike the other Estate supervisors Algernon had been exposed to.

“Yes?” Said a distracted voice from behind the door.

“It’s Algernon to see you.”

“Ah…yes.  Come in, come in.”

Algernon opened the door to see Lawrence Keaton straightening a huge bag full of thin wicked sticks with metal or wooden heads perfect for smashing small things.  Once it was upright, Keaton rummaged through the sticks, searching for one in particular.

“I seem to have misplaced a golf club.” Keaton admitted, finally giving up on the bag and lifting it back into the corner of his office.

“Is it for killing golfs?”  asked Algernon in all innocence.

“No golf isn’t a creature,” Keaton looked down at Algernon indulgently, “ it’s a sport. Where you hit a ball around a field to get it into a hole.”

Algernon nodded listening intently to this new information.

“Would it not be easier to pick the ball up and put it in the hole?”

“That would defeat the purpose…never mind, what would you like, Algernon?”

Algernon repeated his firearm request.

“And I want to learn to ride a motorbike.”

“The motorbike request seems a reasonable suggestion, but these guns…  Can I ask where an interest in such powerful rifles has come from?”

Algernon’s note book appeared and he skimmed through its pages until he got to the appropriate one, 

“Yes, I watched a brilliant documentary just recently.  It was called, Akira. Very enlightening. I think I could be like that.”

Algernon left with a note for motorcycle lessons on the campus 125cc scooters, and a note to the gunnery officer for appropriately sized rifles for him to train on.  It wasn’t everything Algernon wanted, but he’d run out of time. With the small victory he had achieved, he ran across campus to Peggy’s lab.

Meanwhile, Peggy had indeed found Rain talking to one of the library staff.  His studies into Spiral Dust had come to a short and very sudden end. It seemed, though the dust was thought to be made from ground down ciphers only found in the recursions, The Estate knew almost nothing about the drug, the consistency of hallucinations or the spiral scarring on the eyes. Any operatives that had come across it, had just simply reported the fact. All leads had gone dark and no testing beyond preliminary had been conducted into the dust. It was a frustrating position for Rain to be in and it was affecting his mood.

“I can’t give you any more details about the stuff, there aren’t any.”  He complained to the increasing belligerent Librarian, “Look, if you just let me into the archives I’ll know what I want when I see it….”

“Storm?  Cloud?” Peggy called, trying in vain to remember this individual’s name.  It made it more difficult when he kept changing it every time he talked to someone new.

“Mr Bigby to you,” he replied in the same tone and accent as Bruce, the big one.  He turned and saw Peggy, his face lighting up, “But you can call me whatever you want, Doc.”  He beamed and she felt nervous. That look usually meant he wanted something, “You can get into the archives can’t you?”

“Of course,”  she replied. As research staff she had full access to all relevant materials kept in archives.

“Excellent!”  Rain grabbed her arm and dragged her in front of the Librarian, “This is Dr Peggy Martin, preeminent among the researchers here, please step aside.  I will of course be escorting her as an assistant….”

“Look we don’t have time for this.” Peggy shook Rain’s grip off which got his attention.

“We have mission.  You are to meet with the other two at my lab in a half an hour.”

Rain picked up a metal and carbon fibre golf club that was  leaning against a nearby table.

“Ready to go!”  He replied as if the golf club was all that was required for a mission into the unknown.

“Do you know where the big one is?”  

Rain closed his eyes and held his fingers lightly to his temples as if trying to psychically link to the bigger man.

“Brucie …Brucie … at the gym?”

“No,”  Peggy unsure where to check next, but she had run out of time, “If you see him, he’s wanted too.”

Peggy and Algernon met again crossing the Campus, one hunting for the elusive ‘Big One’, a task made more difficult for not having his name,  the other stalking back from bureaucracy disappointment. Peggy stopped Algernon again, 

“Um…you were very helpful with the body.” she said without preamble, “The drug dealer. I meant to say something before and forgot.  Thank you.”

“Ur…sure…you’re welcome?”  he replied stunned. Had he ever been thanked?  Ever?

Then Peggy spotted Bruce stepping out of Stores.  It wasn’t hard, he was head to toe in military grade jungle camouflage gear, complete with helmet and body armour.

“You won’t blend in like that.”  She commented.

“Like what?”

“Like you stepped out of G.I. Joe.”

Bruce looked offended.  He was pleased with his practical and hard wearing outfit and didn’t understand the doctor’s criticism.

“Look, we’re being sent out. Collect your gear and meet us at my lab.”

Bruce was about to do as requested, but stopped in his tracks by yet another social injustice, 

“What, all of us?”  


“Even the kid?”

“Well it’s his choice…”

 “We can’t take a child!  I’m going to be having words with Hetzfeld about this.”  Bruce marched off now looking every inch the military man.

Rain was already at the lab staring at an artist’s rendition of The Strange and known recursions on the wall, when Algernon arrived.  As the only one who had been through a portal, Algernon was well aware of what might not be waiting for them on the other side. Like air, gravity or solid ground.  He went straight to Hertzfeld and peppered him with questions as to what was known about the recursion. Not much.  

“Breathable air? “


“Safe landing spot?”

“More than likely.  There is ground and it was a true inapposite gate with two way access.  Besides nothing had come through since it had been opened so it was assumed safe.”

Bruce was next, loudly demanding to know where Hetzrfeld got off letting a child go on a mission to an unknown and possibly dangerous new location.  As Peggy walked in last of all, Rain pulled her aside.

“Take a look at this?” Rain pointed to the poster, “I’ve actually never seen a picture of The Strange.”

“Well it’s an artist’s interpretation and not an actual true rendition, no one has seen The Strange…”

“But, doesn’t it look familiar?”  Rain urged, pointing specifically at swirling bodies of matter that made up much of The Strange itself.

“Oh yes, “ Peggy looked closer and could make out the fractal patterns that symbolise The Strange for much of the scientific community concerned with its study. “Just like the eyes of that…guy.”

“John.  Bruce’s brother.”  Rain prompted. She’d met the guy.  She saved him from a near drug induced coma and yet he hadn’t made an impression on her.  Was she really that cold not to remember his name?

“Yes, him.”

Rain sighed and continued.

“They both saw very similar and vivid hallucinations.  Worlds within worlds.” he gestured to the rest of the illustration showing the recursions and their links to each other and Earth.  “What if they weren’t hallucinating? What if they were looking at The Strange.”

“But that’s what I was saying. No one can look at The Strange…”  Peggy started before their conversation was cut short by Bruce’s protestations, 

“We shouldn’t be taking the kid, we should be training him up.”

“This gate is very stable and everything seems very straight forward,” Hertzfeld responded, “This is the best sort of training for an intelligence like Algernon’s.”

“And who’s going to look after him in there?  I suppose I will.”

“Yes, dad.” Algernon replied almost automatically.

“And since when did I adopt you?”  he turned on Algernon, “I don’t care what my brother said, Algernon is a perfectly common name.”

Of course, once the blustering had finished, Bruce decided to go first, which the rest of the party gladly let him.  One step he was in the warm well lit lab, next he was in a place that was almost exactly the same.  

But most certainly wasn’t.  It was a lab. The same lab.  The same equipment, sat on benches in exactly the same places.  Even the portal at this end seemed to be in exactly the same spot, though this lab was completely empty of life. The air was still..  No sound of voices, the chirping of birds or rustle of leaves outside the window. The light was…duller and every surface was covered in dust.  As Peggy and Algernon stepped through the gate, Bruce saw the cloth tube of a trouser leg and shoe peaking from around behind a table.

As soon as Peggy stepped through the gate her senses tingle at something above her, swirling.  Like a storm that she could neither see nor hear but only feel on a basic level. She put the thought aside as Bruce pointed out the crumpled pile of clothing.  On closer examination it was clear that the cloth was filled with dust. Rain came through last, his golf club ahead of him in preparation. Seeing the scientist and researcher busy with a suspiciously human shaped pile of clothing, he stalked away, over to the computers.

“Any threats?”  Algernon asked. Bruce left the lab and checked the corridors beyond.  Nothing.

Having access to lab equipment on this side of the portal, Peggy ran some simple tests and discovered the dust had once been a person,

“Tens or even hundreds of years ago, there’s no way of telling here.”

“So, is this the future or an alternative Earth?”  Rain asked looking at the group. No one had a suggestion and the silence fell on the group like the ever present dust. “But this is your lab, is there a calendar?” 

They search the lab for a desktop calendar or diary.  The one they found was for the current year but was a few months behind the actual date. 

“They probably forgot to flip it over, I think the one in the lab is the same.” Peggy admitted, this recursion was throwing up some heavy questions that no one to answer.

“She made this.  She made this world.”  Algernon said almost in accusation, pointing to Peggy, “Portals follow you.  You make them.”  

“Well I did press something that started up the portal, but I didn’t make this world.”  she replied perplexed at Algernon’s suggestion. She didn’t have any knowledge or power to make a recursion, even one as empty as this one seemed to be.

Rain had started up the computers  and was now trawling through the system infrastructure looking for differences.  Nothing caught his attention until he found, not employee records but surveillance files on both Peggy and himself.  He search again, hunting for Algernon and Bruce, but neither of them were on file.

“Well here’s a difference, we are not with The Estate.”  he showed them his results and spent some time looking through the records on both him and Peggy.  

“How old is this portal?”  Bruce asked looking around him at the abandoned, post apocalyptic setting.

“Only as old as it is in our world, a couple of hours at most.”  Peggy assured him.

“But he’s hundreds of years dead in a place that’s probably no more than twenty years old at most in our world.  How can that be? ” he pointed to the pile of rags and dust that once was a human.

Now that the body had been established as such, Bruce felt confident enough to carefully checked the dust and clothes for identification.  An I.D. badge identical to the ones they all wore was found as were a few loose cards. They were all in the name of Elmer McCain. A look moved around the group at the discovery of McCain’s name.  Though he’d had little to do with the group since they’d arrived back on Earth, McCain was the one that discovered they were quickened and brought them into The Estate. He was one of very few people they all had in common and one they knew to be a competent and experienced Estate operative.

“I’m reporting this back to Hertzfeld.”  Bruce announced all grim and serious, “Stay in this room and I’ll be right back.”  With no more than a nod he disappeared into the portal.

Rain continued to trawl through the records on him and Peggy. Peggy’s showed The Estate had been watching her and her work for some time.  They thought her studies interesting, but as she had no knowledge of recursions, felt it was safe to leave her alone for now. Rain on the other hand was a known connman and had swindled a number of agents.  A number of aliases were listed and he was considered a problem and worth continued careful surveillance. Rain tried aligning this information with this theories of the four of them being drawn together somehow.  But in this recursion, they’d never met. What would a trawl through the records on the other side reveal?

Without tests to perform, Peggy was once more drawn to the swirling energy that played against her mind.  She felt inextricably drawn to the swirling energies above. Curious to the point of distraction, she started walking out the door, down the corridor to the stairs for the next floor up.

Meanwhile, Bruce had dutifully and carefully reported all they had found out so far.

“El McCain is on assignment and can not be contacted, but I realise that finding his name badge in that recursion would be disturbing.”  Hertzfeld accepted McCain’s ID and tucked it into this desk draw.

“Are we sure he’s fine?  Could he have been sucked into this dead world?”  

“Very unlikely, but I’ll ask through channels, see if we can get some eyes on him.”

“Appreciated.  I’ll head back and see what else they’ve found.”  Bruce nodded and stepped back through the portal.

Bruce returned to an empty lab as Algernon and Rain followed Peggy out the door.

The next floor was as empty as that on the ground.  The energy was somewhere still above Peggy. Following the stairs she reached the bulkhead that gave access to the flat-topped roof.  The door opened out onto a campus scene devoid of life. Above, purple clouds swirled blocking sunlight and obscuring any sign of the sky. The view over the roof, towards Gasworks Park, out across the lake and the city skyline was empty.  Even though the day was dark, not a light was on in any of the skyscrapers. The normally futuristic shape of the Space needle was dull and barely visible against the clouds. It looked like a dead world, but everyone could hear the flapping of large wings from high above. 

Shadows in and then against the clouds. Amorphous and shifting shapes moved purposefully against the sky in the group’s direction. Three peeled away and descended towards the lab building where they stood.
“Get inside, now.”  Bruce called

“Ah Rain, time to go.”  Algernon called legging it to the bulkhead.

“Can you hear that, where’s it coming from?” Rain looked around, oblivious to dangers that may be threatening.  When the creatures, for lack of a better description, were spotted he agreed wholeheartedly and ran for the door and down the stairs.

Dense fractal patterns distorted and chaotic made up the body and wings of the three creatures as they dived, attacking Bruce.  Their touch was icy cold and threatened an embrace of the same as their fractal bodies tried wrapping around him. He shrugged it off and swung around with his crowbar, 

‘Take that demon!” as the crowbar smashed into the form, crumpling it in half and sending it wheeling away. It screamed like an undead thing of rags and hatred.

 “Take that you bad boy!” Bruce crowed and prepared himself for the next swing.

“That’s the ticket, Brucie.  Keep at’em Professor!” Rain encouraged giving him a confidence boost.  Bruce swung again, missing this time and was caught by a nightmare beast.

“What the heck is that thing?!” Peggy screamed but no one could tell her.  They looked no more than a tear in reality.

Looking for something that would help, Rain ran down the stairs and found a fire extinguisher.  Popping the seal he ran back up the stairs.

“Keep it up Bruce, I’m coming!”

“Get away, back to the lab!” Bruce roared pulling another monster off him and back into the air. Peggy and Algernon complying without complaint.  Rain returned with the CO2 and thrust the cone of the nozzle straight into the injured winged thing. A fog of white enveloped the doorway. The creature screamed, flailed and fell out of the air, dead. 

With the nearest beast gone, Bruce slammed the door closed, leaning against it for support. The other two creatures smashed bodily into the door making it quake with each impact.  Eventually the attacks stopped both men took stock of the situation. Bruce pulled out a medical kit and started patching himself up as best he could. It was all Rain could do to not run away.  Instead he looked away, holding open the first aid kit and feeling useless.

“We’ll heal you up on our side, let’s go.” Rain started up from their seat on the stairs but Bruce shook his head. 

“I bet the scientists would love a look at that dead thing out there, I’m going to grab it when I get a chance.”

Rain looked at the injured and frostbitten Bruce and then at the door.  Without another moment’s thought he opened the door and using his golf club hooked the dead creature pulling it inside.  It was what the other two creatures had been waiting for. One set of black wings attacked Rain, draining the life from him and wrapping around his arms.  It wedged itself between the door and the door frame so now Bruce could no longer close it. Little by little, between beatings from Bruce’s crowbar and careful prods from the back end of the putter, the creature was pushed out of the door frame and the door slammed shut with a satisfying, slam.

Rain burst out in hysterical laughter.

“You bloody fool!”  was all Bruce could articulate.

“That was brilliant!”  Rain giggled and sat down on the stair above the broken body of the flying thing, beside the now sorely injured Bruce. Both had sustained injuries, but Bruce knew he would not have survived much longer against the beast if the door had not closed and wanted Rain to know it.

“I pegged you for a coward!” Bruce spat with righteous anger and Rain quickly became serious,

“I know.” He replied simply, unscathed by the taunt, only by the truth it revealed. “Sometimes that’s better.”

“I nearly died!” Bruce bellowed and now the implications of his actions came home to Rain. His eyes grew wide as his face drained of colour.  Horror and shame were all that remained on the usually affable face. 

 “Get down the stairs.”  Bruce ordered and Rain complied.


The battled warriors, dragging the corpse of their enemy, joined up with Peggy and Algernon in the lab.  Together they went back through the portal and to the waiting Herzfeld in their world.

“What happened to you?”  Hertzfeld exclaimed as they stumbled through the portal.

“This happened and two others just like it.”  Bruce gave Hertzfeld the body of the creature who took it gingerly.

“A thonic, but that shouldn’t have been.  These are creatures native to The Strange, they’ve got not place in a recursion.”

“And neither did we, especially the boy, it was totally inappropriate.”

“Leave the kid alone.  If you’re not his dad then leave him alone.”  Peggy argued, “It’s his choice.” Peggy’s outbursts were always surprising, but one in defence of Algernon?

“Regardless, it’s clear that this portal is dangerous.”  Hertzfeld walked across the lab and unlocked a narrow cupboard.  From it he withdrew a gun-like device with a wide barrel. He turned it on the portal and shot a shockwave that disrupted the portal, making it collapse and disappear.  “From what you have said, that recursion was connected to The Strange proper. The Dark Energy Network is what recursions are built on. Unfortunately, it also sends people mad.”

“Mad?”  Rain asked dubiously.  This sounded like myths and fables.  

Hertzfeld nodded, “If you’d been able to see through the clouds you would would have looked out onto The Strange directly.  We’ve lost a lot of good operatives due to direct exposure.”

“How about El McCain, has someone got in touch with him?” 

“Yes, we’ve been in touch.  He’s alive and well. I can’t give you any more details and I certainly can’t explain you finding his identification.”

Rain breathed a sigh of relief and  seemed to take some comfort in Hertzfeld’s assurance only to be replaced by excited theorising, “But that means that there really could be a world, other worlds, alternate ones where…”  Rain’s saw everyone watching and caught himself clumsily at the last moment, “…something didn’t happen.”

“String theory is only a concept.” Peggy replied ignoring the awkward speech from the usually articulate one.

“I think we’ve found some evidence!” 

“At least we got back home.”  Bruce interjected trying to push the talk onto more practical and sensible discussion.

“But did we?” Rain replied manically treading a well travelled train of thought. “If there are multiple worlds, did we ever make it back to our world from the Wasteland?”

“I never thought of that.” Bruce confessed and fell silent.

“Well, welcome to my world! Now you know one of many thing that’s been doing my head-in since we came back!” Rain gestured as if encompassing the whole world in his fixation. The small black puzzle box appeared in his seemingly empty hand and he stumbled out of lab dragging his club behind.

“I don’t think it was a true recursion.” Peggy spoke up, “I think it was more like a replica, out of phase with the original.”

“I think we need to check your machines, Peggy.”  Hertzfeld gestured to the barely unpacked equipment that had filled her garage in New Orleans.

“Yes, but …I don’t think it could have been the cause of the recursion, I wasn’t using it at the time.  Besides…at home…I …may have been experimenting with raw iridium …and I haven’t unpacked any of that .”

“I’m going to research thonics.” Bruce gave up as the conversation turned too dark and  technical for him and left to tend his wounds.

“Yeah, me too.  I want to know how they suck life out of lifeforms.” Added Algernon whose enthusiasm for the gruesome for once matched his seeming age.

Days went past.  Algernon spent more time in the firing range, Peggy was locked away in her lab and the Bruce found solace in repetitive exercise and processes of bureaucracy. 

After going missing for a day, Rain returned dark circles under his eyes, clutching his puzzle box. As a distraction, he searched the party’s record on this side of the portal, comparing it to what they’d found in the recursion. Besides the addition of Algernon and Bruce and all their inclusion into The Estate, the records were very similar.  Hetzfeld had written a note into Peggy’s record.

“Though her perspective is so different from most, it is possibly because of this difference that makes her so valuable.”

Rain felt his records needed more colour and added details to his escapades that the usual report format just couldn’t do justice.  Maybe some of those colours were not strictly to the pallette, but after he’d finished, Rain was sure the report was far more readable and entertaining. 

When they were brought together again, it was by Katherine Manner’s request that they all met in her office.  As they waited quietly for the rest of the group to arrive, Rain leaned in close to Bruce and said low voice, 

“I’m sorry about risking your life on the roof.  It was stupid. I’d never thought…I’d never want to hurt anyone.”

“Well I’m glad you learnt something.”  Bruce grunted an acknowledgement he’d heard and accepted.

“I’ve just never stuck around long enough.”Rain mumbled and turned away, “I’m usually packed up and gone long before then.”

“What was that?”  Bruce asked as Peggy and Algernon joined the group and the briefing began.

“Knowing how effective you were all last time, I’d like you to investigate rumours of another Spiral dust dealer.”  Katherine began handing out notes on what little The Estate had gathered, “They seem to be working out of a warehouse at the docks, though no one has seen the individual leave the building. He has been described as wearing heavy clothes and have a greasy or grimy complexion. We want surveillance really, find out about this individual, find out where they’re getting the dust and get it back to us.”

“Can we set up a camera with motion detectors over the Interwebs.”  Bruce asked the group and received a scornful look from Rain.

“Really?  Interwebs?  Who are you kidding?”  

“Well I don’t know how it works.”

Fortunately, with research, Algernon did and the next day the party were across the lake setting up cameras along dockside at Commencement Bay.  While Algernon set up the equipment wearing Bruce’s Hi-Vis, Rain “supervised” and kept questioners at bay. As a con it was one of the simplest.  No one questioned the need for security cameras and they were left to do their work. In the end the cameras were set up to watch the door but provide good blindspot for hiding. Bruce walked the block checking for access to the warehouse and finding only the main door and a grimy window.

“I don’t know.”  Rain was heard complaining as Bruce walked passed looking like a dockside worker, “I don’t like this sitting and watching. If I was doing this job I’d just walk up to the door and knock.”  

“Well, you could.”  Bruce suggested, What’s the plan?”

“Really?”  Rain looked at Bruce with surprise, “I thought…well I don’t want to do me and get someone in trouble.”

“This is your thing, we’ll follow your lead.”

To be continued…

3. The Spiral bound brother

The week of processing and training passed well for most of the group.  Though they were all considered a team by The Estate and its personnel, they were all given separate reporting officers.  Peggy was with the eccentric Hertzfeld, Chief of the labs. Bruce was under Dr Katherine Manners, Chief of operations and most senior officer in The Estate.  Algernon and Rain was with Lawrence Keaton a shabby officer who claimed the majority of The Estate operatives under this authority.

In the meantime, they all had ways of being productive.  Algernon, frustrated with the stupidness of computers in this world, found intellectual nourishment in eighties and nineties sit-coms and soapie dramas.  Here he learnt about the culture and society that he now found himself in. Rain sat under a tree in the campus grounds practicing tricks. Peggy was fast catching up on all the information about The Strange and the recursions it helped spawn.  Her home had been closed, her equipment moved to headquarters and her grandmother found a good nursing home all by The Estate. Rain moped around the campus library, making contacts in other departments. As a consequence getting thrown out of the library.  Bruce had quit his job in New Orleans and ensured that processes of work, health and safety as well as a fair workplace would continue to be upheld by co-workers he trusted. His time on the campus was spent in training his mind in the briefing rooms and training his body in the gym and dojo. 

Rain was lying on a bench seat under the weak sun of Seattle  when he noticed Bruce walk from the briefing rooms towards Gatehouse.  Rain’s eyes followed Bruce with little interest until he witnessed Bruce stop and pulled out his phone.

“Hi, Mom.  What’s up?”

“Missing?  Where was he?”

“Seattle?  I’m in Seattle, mom…I’m sort of tied down by a job….I course I’ll go look, mom.  Look, I’ll go see what I can do.” Bruce closed his phone and turned to the now eager Rain standing just behind him.

“So, I suppose you heard all that.”

“Your half, Professor.  So we have to get out and find someone?  Great! We can cause a distraction, sneak out…”

“You can call me, Sir.  I’m going to see Katherine.”  Bruce walked off in the direction of the offices with Rain slinking disappointed along behind.

John, Bruce’s brother,  had been up in Seattle for a job interview with a transport company.  He’d been expected back a couple of days ago, but he’d seemed to drop off the planet. Bruce tried ringing but John’s phone went straight to voicemail.  The seriousness of the request prompted Katherine to allow the group their freedom and the resources of The Estate to pursue any leads they found. First off, IDs for Rain and Algernon.

“I want an adult identification.”  Algernon insisted and Rain was only too happy to make that happen, with the help of The Estate.

“Tough call.”  Rain grinned at the cheek of building a false ID with The Estates resources. “You’ll want to be twenty-one, but you won’t look it.  Eighteen would be better, but though you can die for this country, you can’t get legally sloshed on a Friday night.”

Bruce rang Tony’s Long Distance Haulage, the company John had the interview with. He discovered that even though John was meant to have an interview, with the owner two days before, he’d never shown up.

“I just assumed he lost interest.”  The owner confessed, citing this for the reason he’d never bothered to check up. Bruce was worried. If John said he would do something, he’d be there. What could have happened to him?

Hertzfeld and his department searched the system for the last whereabouts of John’s phone.  Two days previous it had been within range of his hotel, a Motel 6 not far from the Haulage company.  There was nothing for it now but to get on the road.

With Peggy driving, the group made their way across the vast city of Seattle to the industrial zone near the airport.  Bruce walked around the of Motel 6 and found his brother’s car. Peggy, Algernon and Rain all headed for reception and made contact with the manager.  Peggy slipped Rain $20 to help the manager’s recollections. Knowing it would not be needed right now, Rain made it disappear into his coat.  

“Oh sure, he’s staying with us.  Nice man, he extended his time with us just two days ago.”  The duty manager informed them.

“Seen him recently.  Have services been to the room?”

“No . The do not disturb is still on the door.”

“Keys please, if you would be so kind,”  Rain smiled and held out his hand.

Bruce had already found the room and was knocking on the door when the others arrived.  He heard moaning and held his hand out for the key.

“I’m going in first.” 

The room was close and stuffy and smelt of stale sweat. Lying in a tangle of bed clothes, a man lay unresponsive. His physique and general features looked similar enough to Bruce’s for everyone to guess they’d found the lost brother. John’s bed clothes drenched in sweat, were twisted around him uselessly. Equally, his pillows were scattered to the floor.

“John?  Buddy? Wake up.”  Bruce conjoled the unresponsive John and gently shook his shoulder.  His eyes remained closed, his mind still trapped in whatever nightmare held him.

The room itself was otherwise normal except for the fact that a space where a television had obviously once stood was now empty.  Rain sat and looked at that space.

“Rain, make yourself useful, get him some water.”  Bruce barked at Rain who jumped to the task and filled a glass from the bathroom.  When Bruce pulled out his phone to call an ambulance, John sat bolt upright, eyes wide and staring at nothing but the empty space.  

“What…?”  Bruce pointed at his brother’s eyes horrified.  Each iris was patterned with an intricate swirl of irridescent fractal spirals.

“Wow!  World’s within worlds, I see it all!” John proclaimed  in a religious furvor. “It makes things seem….”

“Small?”  Rain handed over the glass, staring fascinated at the whirls within whirls of his eyes. “Cool eyes, man.”

“Yeah,” he replied and finally recognised his brother‘s worried and scared face above him. “Bruce, what are you doing here?”

“Mom sent me.  John, you missed your job interview?”

The prone man groaned and fell back on the bed.

 Peggy and Algernon started searching the room methodically for any clue to what had happened.  Beside the bed, a tin of butterscotch candies lay open, a small amount of blue powder glittering faintly in the bottom.  Peggy took the tin and showed it to Bruce.

“Where did you get it, John?” he asked forcefully but not unkindly. He worked on John, calling his name until he responded coherently then pouring small sips of water into his mouth until he was awake and able to talk.

“There was this guy…”

“There’s always a guy.  Who? What did he look like?”

“I don’t know. Works in I.T.”

“What is it, what have you taken?”

“They call it Blue Rain.”

No one had ever heard of it, even Rain which surprised them all, especially Rain. Peggy had a feeling this was more that just a simple illicit drug and called her reporting officer at The Estate for advice.

“We have a druggie , conscious and responsive, showing unusual symptoms, a blue patternation to the eyes…”  she’d started explaining to Hertzfeld when Bruce butted in.

“Don’t call my brother a druggie.”

“Junkie, much better.” Rain agreed.  Both gave him a nasty look and she continued.

“A person has taken an unknown blue substance, it seems unusual.”

“I agree, bring him in.”  replied Hertzfeld, “This sounds like something we’ve dealt with before.”

Now that the substance was connected to The Estate and The Strange, the group very quickly jumped into action. John was put in the backseat of his own car, Rain with him and Bruce driving. Peggy drove her and Algernon back in The Estate’s own vehicle. John was quickly brought into the infirmary and assessed. It was clear that he was relatively healthy and was put on a saline drip while staff watched for the drug’s symptoms to subside.

“Yes, we’ve had dealings with this stuff before.  Called Spiral Dust, it provides very intense and vivid hallucinations.  It’s thought to be made from pulverised ciphers, but we’re still unclear about that and whose making it.”  Hertzfeld admitted to the group as they stood around John’s bed feeling lucky to have found him sane and alive.  “We don’t expect the symptoms to be permanent, we’ll keep an eye on Mr Johnson here for a few days just in case.”

As Rain search the dark web for incidences of ‘Blue Rain’, Bruce interrogated his now lucid brother for details.  John admitted that his friend James had introduced him to the stuff and he’d acquired his own supply only two days before.  The friend’s address was recorded as was the fact that though there had been Blue Rain for sale over the last two month, it seemed John’s  sample was the last sold, two days ago. There were no new samples available for purchase. A dead end.

With their only lead ‘the friend‘, the group headed out again, this time into town where the poorer residents lived. Shabby apartment blocks tightly packed together looming over them. With Bruce in the lead they found the correct apartment and knocked on the door.

“Hello,” came an unsteady male voice from inside.

“Hi, I’m John’s brother, Bruce.  I’d like to talk.”  

There was a pause from the other side of the door, the door opened a crack.

“I didn’t know you were the type.”  said a disheveled man from inside

“No, he’s not.”  Ran interrupted, “but I am.  Let us in and we can talk.” he smiled, but it didn’t win over the friend who closed the door.

“My way then.”  Bruce pulled out his 40 lb hammer and knocked in the door lock. Loud, brutal, but effective.

Peggy, Algernon and Rain search the apartment only coming up with an empty mint tin with traces of the blue powder. Bruce did better. 

“Who did you buy this stuff from?”

“I don’t know, he’s indian with an accent.  He wore a hoodie,I couldn’t his face.”  

More to the point the pick up location was a corner only a block away from where John picked up his supply. James-the-friend had been using for a couple of months and had been introduced to the stuff by a woman called Sharon at a party. He’d been picking up supplies when he could ever since. He too showed the fractal spiral of a user so Bruce decided to take him to the Estate as well.

Algernon checked Google street view and discovered a 7-eleven that may have video of both street corners through their window. With that information, Algernon and Rain asked to be dropped off at the store while the other two went on with James to The Estate Infirmary.

This was Rain’s moment. With Algernon watching closely from behind, Rain took the lead into the shop casually flipping his ID and introducing himself as Simun Otiluke.

“I’m investigating drug deals that have been going on in the local area, spefically two days ago. I’d like access to your CCTV, please.” He said in a gruff Seattle accent so unlike his own voice. It carried with it an air of authority, of someone use to having his orders followed. The shop assistant, though obliging, knew nothing about deals going on outside the store, neither could he provide access to the CCTV.

“The boss locks that away. You’ll have to wait for him.”

“And when are they expected?”

“He’ll be here in a few hours to check the till.”  Another dead end, for now.

Rain went out onto the street and looked around. This was not the good end of town with a street vendor every few blocks. It wasn’t even the interesting end of town that may have supported a busker or two. This was the end of town you went when you had no other place to go and the street resident Rain now confronted was a fine example of his type. Possibly past middle-age, though it was hard to tell under the grime and weathering. The man was only upright because of the brick wall he’d chosen as his support. One hand held his finds for the day, a collection of recyclables ready for cashing in, in the other a bottle obscured by a brown paper bag.

“Hi there friend, my name is Simun.”  Rain pulled out a few notes and the bum went to snatch at them.  The notes disappeared as quickly as they had appeared and Rain made a hurt face. “Now friend, please.  Help me help you.” This time the notes appeared the bum eyed them greedily, but did not snatch. “Tell me, about two days ago, did you see some men doing business on this street corner?”

“You’d have to ask Tricksie about that,”  the man slurred slowly losing interested in the conversation.  “She’s the only one that does business around here.”

“As delight as Tricksie may be, I need you to think about two men and a small tin.” He mimed the size of the tin that both a John and James had held their Spiral dust.

“One that may have held swee…candy in at one time.”

This time something got through the alcoholic fumes and the old man thought for a moment.

“A shiny tin.” He mumbled stirring his sluggish memories. “There were two bloke. They were acting all scriquelly, all super spy stuff. Yeah, I remember because it was so …obvious. Like of you’re going to do something dodgy do it normal like…”. The old bum rambled on, but Rain let him, he knew he was onto the right two.

“What did they look like?”  asked Rain conversationally and was rewarded with a description of John and the Indian national with a hoodie.

“The silver tin was handed over and the tall one walked away and the other one went down the alley, then came back and went to the shop.”  He pointed to the 7-eleven and Rain almost danced.

“Oh look $20 in your top pocket.”  Rain made the note appear and gave it to the man.  “You have a good day now.”

Rain returned to the store where Algernon scanned the isles trying to make sense of the products available.

“What are these?”  He asked holding a packet of sanitary napkins.

“They’re for Peggy.”  Rain replied simply not wanting that conversation.

“What, scientists?”

A short discussion about the difference between males and females on both earth and Algernon’s planet and quickly stymied when Algernon confessed to having no idea about the opposite sex.

“Well, that’s something we can both find out about.”  Rain winked conspiratorially as Peggy and Bruce returned from The Estate.  

“Can I have some money, please.” Algernon asked, napkins still in his hand. Rain handed over a $50 and quickly confurred with the other two.

It was clear that if they were going to work as a team they would need to share phone numbers.  Peggy, Bruce and Rain shared numbers as Algernon paid for the pads and brought them back for Peggy.

“Oh thanks,” she took them oblivious to Algernon’s attempt at kindness, only thinking they’d fallen out of her bag.  “What about Algernon, he doesn’t have a phone.”

Rain and Algernon looked at the prepaid phones on offer in the store.  Nothing fancy, they couldn’t be with Rain’s money, but one would do the job.

“Why don’t you ask The Estate for one, “ Bruce suggested. “Save your money, Rain.”

“Do you want one given to you by the organisation?”  Rain asked shaking his head and making it very clear where he stood on the matter.  It wasn’t required. As soon as he was asked, Algernon Replied sharply,

“No.  Could I have my own please?”

“Kids!”  Bruce was heard to say, “Got to have everything now.”

Rain quickly filled them all in with what he had discovered as Algernon went for a walk around the outside of the shop.  At about the approximate location of the 7-eleven’s locked storeroom there was a grubby window. Prying his fingers under the frame of the glass it looked like he could just get to the window lock when the glass finally gave in to the twisting and shattered.  The noise drew Bruce’s attention.

“Tell me, do you know an Indian gentleman who came to this store two days ago. “. Rain asked the shop attendant, “I believe him to be a local.”

“Oh sure, he’s a regular, comes in about once a day to buy groceries.  Yeah, his name is Eldritch Chopra and he works in I.T.” The shop assistant gushed about one the only highlights in his dreary day.  Then his expression dropped and he looked worriedly at Rain. “I haven’t seen him for a while. Not yesterday…and not the day before.

“I don’t suppose you’ve done a grocery delivery for him?” Rain asked as Bruce leading Algernon by the collar back into the store.

“No.  But he’s local, only a few blocks away.”

Bruce and Peggy discussed ringing in this news to the Estate, maybe they could find the mysterious computer tech. Algernon took the opportunity to again stroll out of the store towards the broken window, this time with Rain on his heels. With a little care and not a lot of effort, Algernon slipped through the window and into the storeroom. By the time Bruce realised that both the troublemakers were outside, Algernon had opened the door to the storeroom and had found the computer that managed the CCTV system. Bruce berated Algernon and helped him out the window. Rain walked into the shop, waited until Algernon and Bruce left the window and then slipped into the doorway, locking it in place.

“Now where’s the other one gone?”  Bruce asks pulling out his phone and calling Rain’s.  It rung once from behind the storeroom door and stopped. Bruce sighed,

“Look we can get this information, we don’t have to break the law to find out what we need to know.”  he reasoned to Algernon, “We’ll get the authorities…”

“But, they’re not the real authorities.”  Algernon interrupted, making a counter argument that made sense to him but confounded Bruce.

“Yes, they are.”  

The argument was interrupted by messages to everyone’s phones that contained the first delivery of video footage from the store’s CCTV.  It showed two men talking and handing over a tin. One of those men was Bruce’s brother. The other man wasn’t as clear, his face covered by the described hoodie. 

“Dad?” Algernon turned to Bruce

“What makes you say I’m your dad?” Bruce, taken aback by this sudden intimacy.

“My research on your society.” Algernon pointed to a notebook he had taken to carrying with him everywhere. “All the historical shows definitely have a male authority figure who is denoted as Dad,” Pointing at Bruce, “a brother and step-mother.”  Pointing at Peggy.

“What shows?”

“Bold and the beautiful.”

Another message came through.  This showed the Indian in the store talking to the shop attendant, just after the hand off to John.  These images clearly showed the Indian’s face. They had their evidence.

“Right, we have what we need.  Now where has Rain got to?” Bruce asked

“Looking for me?”  Asked Rain from behind Bruce.  He’d crawled out the broken window after linking the CCTV computer to the stores WIFI and hacking in.  He showed Bruce his phone,

“Found him!” On a LinkedIn page,  Eldritch Chopra was described as a Front End Developer for EBay, Seattle.  
“Eldritch?  Oh, we haven’t seen him for  a couple of days,” confessed Eldritch’s team leader when Rain phoned in about his missing friend. 

“Oh, I’m a little worried about him, but I’ve forgotten his address.”  Rain waffled acting the part of a forgetful if well meaning friend, “ I know I’m close but these apartment blocks all look alike to me.”  The team leader provided an address, two streets over. 

 Before leaving , Algernon seals the broken window with a cardboard box and tape, without prompting, but under supervision of Bruce.

Eldritch Chopra’s neighbourhood was no more appealing than that around the store.  The building had no security, not even a lock on the street door and the group easily make it to Eldritch Chopra’s door.  Rain knocked, no response. Bruce knocked, also no response. Bruce rang the phone number for the building’s super, as Algernon simply tried the door handle.  The door swung open and the smell of death hit the group.  

Bruce grimace, but he knew that smell of old and stepped into the apartment, followed by Peggy pulling our sampling kit.  Algernon followed, but Rain backed up to the wall opposite, his eyes wide.

“Come on Rain, I need your help.”  Peggy called behind her. Rain just stood there, shaking his head.

“I’ll help.”  Algernon replied, looking back curiously at the usually cool con man.  Rain slunk away from the door, and kept himself busy with Elditch’s mail and talking with Eldritch’s neighbours.

It did not take the rest long to find Eldritch.  Bruce found him first, lying fully dressed on his bed, several stab wounds noticable about his torso.  His eyes were free of the fractal spirals, though another tin with the remains of Spiral Dust was found.  Peggy and Algernon carefully worked their way around the appartment, Algernon discovering an empty and broken cash box under the bed as well as Eldritch’s high-end laptop and VR headset. Peggy put together the clues and a profile of the attacker slowly formed in her mind as she walked the scene.

The assailant was bigger and stronger than Eldritch, able to dominate the smaller man.  He wasn’t unknown, the door had not been forced, but the argument started there, the door had not been closed behind the visitor.  The attack happened, the assailant was…angry. He was very angry at Eldritch.  

“He was killed for reselling the dust,”  Peggy announced, surprising even herself, “It makes sense, whoever gave him the Spiral Dust couldn’t risk exposure.”

“Good work, “  Bruce responded finding Eldritch’s phone by the bed, “Now we just have to know who this supplier was.”  Walking out of the apartment he found Rain going listlessly through Eldritch’s mail. The smaller man looked up at the approaching Bruce and cringed.

“Please don’t make me go in there.”  Rain pleaded uncharacteristically timid.

“No.”  Bruce agreed and handed over the phone, “Here, take a look at this for me.”  

A little of his old spark returned to Rain’s expression at the sight of the phone.  With a careless flick of his hand he’d quickly broken in and started reading through the messages.
“Here’s something, Eldritch messaged a character called Leroy,”  He pointed to a message on the screen.

Got stock?

Below was written the reply, 


“Then here, four days ago he messaged again,”

Got stock?

This time there was no reply, even though the request was made another two times. 

“Eldritch was getting desperate for a new supply.”  Rain commented, “I might also have a lead on…whoever visited.”  He pointed up the stairs to the apartment door. “The neighbour saw a big man in a black jacket and a cowboy hat not last night, but the night before.”

“Maybe.  We have a number, The Estate may be able to trace it.”

“Good, I’ll call it in.”  Bruce smiled and pulled out his phone.

As Peggy and Algernon finished recording the scene, Bruce called Katherine and let her know what they’d found out.  Rain walked back to the bum, now with a new bottle in a brown paper bag and the 7-eleven shop attendant. Neither had seen the cowboy around.  It was clear that their time was up as the real police were about to arrive. With the group’s usual amount of bickering, they soon packed up and returned to The Estate.

Once back in Katherine’s office the news was mixed, 

“Good work everyone, you are certainly a team of highly resourceful people,”  Katherine said, standing behind her desk, “Unfortunately, the phone number you recovered for the supplier known as Leroy was a VoIP, a virtual number and untraceable.”

“I also wish to admit to some shenanigans during this operation, a broken window, burglary, hacking.”  Bruce looked at Algernon, sitting quietly, and Rain who mouthed the word, 


Katherine nodded her head and sat down.  She looked over the evidence collected, the information received from the infirmary and labs.

“The Estate, for the most part is a….. clandestine organisation.  Much of why we exist is to keep secret the knowledge of The Strange.  As such, our agents find they need to use…unusual tactics to gain information. They do what needs to be done.  We will certainly be replacing the broken window, but the actions of your team today are well within established practice.  I hope you can come to appreciate the imperative of our mission, Mr Johnson.”

Rain winked at Algernon and they both smirked as Bruce took the rebuff on the chin.

It was clear that the trail had grown cold.  For now, the cowboy in the black jacket known as Leroy walked free.  Life at the campus went back to normal. John and his friend James were finally cleared by the infirmary.  The fractal spirals still marred John’s irises, but he had his faculties back and was able to get himself home.

“I told mum everything.  She’s expecting you.” Bruce informed his brother, who winced.

“Why did you have to ring her for.”  John whined and face palmed.

“He’s a snitch.”  Rain interjected

“I’m his brother, and I care.”  Bruce replied.

“Brother?  Why did you never mention you had a brother, dad?”  Algernon interjected making Rain smile and Bruce cringe.

“What?  I’m an uncle?”  John took the opportunity to move the conversation off himself.

“Algernon.”  Bruce warned in a three syllable growl.

“Oh, you named him after grandpa!” 

The coincidence caught Rain’s attention.

“Really, Algernon?  What are the chances of that do you suppose?”

With John’s returned to New Orleans, the group went back to their individual trainings and other duties.  At the firing range , Rain confounded the assessment officer by refusing to even touch a gun. Instead when it was his turn to be assessed he stood at the firing range and out of seeming nowhere produced two silvery throwing daggers that streaked towards the human shaped target.  In the comparative silence two ripping sounds were heard as holes appeared either side of the figures neck. Assessment was given with Rain passing without firing a killing shot.

Peggy found herself tinkering with the device found in the wasteland recursion.  With the flick of a hidden switch the device starts up and a black portal swirled into being.  Though travelling to recursion was common for members of The Estate, stable portals were rare things.  Those the Estate managed were kept at the Gatehouse and lead only to a select number of recursion. A new portal to an unknown recursion was a rare find, even if a little ominous.

“That doesn’t look inviting.”  Peggy mused and spent time taking readings before informing her Reporting Officer, Hertzfeld.

“Interesting. “ he commented later over her findings, “It certainly leads to a recursion, but the readings…are off.  A team will need to be sent through to find out what is on the other side.”

Peggy nodded thoughtfully.  This was her first gate, but even she could see the significance. Not everything in the multiverse was safe, and not everything had Earth’s interests at heart.

“ Actually,” Hertzfeld smiled and turned to Peggy.  “There’s a new group of four talented individuals who have yet to prove themselves.”

Peggy nodded again, hearing and not fully understanding all Hetzfeld’s message.

“New recruits.  Well you wouldn’t want to send your best into the unknown.  I’ll prep them for the mission myself if you like.”

“Not necessary, one of them is already well prepped for the task.”

Peggy almost turned around and checked the room for another person until she realised that he meant her and the other three.

“Not, me!  I’m a researcher not a field agent!  The other three…”

“But who else could I trust with this new discovery.  The information you gather will be beneficial to countless research programs running through The Estate.  Besides your group are…”

“… a bunch of blundering misfits. I don’t even know why I’m bundled up with them.”

“…here, I was going to say.  Look, this would be a great opportunity for you to find out their better qualities.”

“No one else wants to go either, do they?”

Meanwhile, at the other end of the campus, Algenon and Rain worked at clearing Eldritch’s old laptop in the library.

“Algernon, I been wanting to ask you something for a little while.”  Rain said soto voce as he pulled out the left hand of the wastelands Valkyrie.  “I want you to know that I trust you and that whatever you do I won’t judge you for it, but I have to know.  What happened to the woman in the back seat of the car?”

More explanation was not necessary.  They both looked down at the hand. Algernon, riffled through a notebook of observations he’d been taking on human culture and finally replied.

“Yes, that was… tragic.”

Rain held his gaze, but the youthful face did not reveal any secrets.  The ambiguousness of the answer was enough to send off warning bells for Rain, but it let it slide.  Both Bruce and Peggy had both interrogated the boy over the incident. If he didn’t want to share there was little that anyone could do to make him.

“Okay.” He finally said, and sighed disappointed, “Just…if you find yourself in a situation like that again, just give me a sign, a nod or wink.  Bring me in on the con, right?”



“Yes, absolutely.”

Rain, gave it one last chance, one last pull on the heartstrings.

“I know,  you know something about me that I’d rather not get out.  The others wouldn’t understand. But I trust you to keep it to yourself.”  Rain looked up from the keyboard between them with his best ,and truthfully, his most imploring look.  

Algernon leaned over so they were both hunch close over the keyboard, 

“You can trust me, bro.”and for the first time Rain did.  He nodded and went back to work.

Rain didn’t mention the woman again, even removing the hand from the table, but it was obvious the talk had been playing on Algernon’s mind.



“How do you make people believe you?”

Rain had noticed Algernon taking an interest in how he talked to people on their excursion out.  In fact, there were very few times he’d lied at all. It does no good to tell people you are a police officer.  It’s always best to put on the air of someone who has the authority to ask questions, and let their inner sheep nature fill in the important job titles.  The con is in the conviction, not the convincing.

“Simple, you have to believe it.  Here,” he pointed to his chest hopefully where his and Algernon’s  hearts lay. “You can’t ever doubt what you’re doing. Even if you say nothing, your body language can screams “I’m lying”.”

“And in here…” Algernon pointed to his head, grasping an essential truth.

“No,  there you have to keep all the lies straight.  What you’ve said to whom and when.”

Algernon nodded, 

“Can you teach me?” He asked as quietly as Rain had asked his original question.  

Rain smiled,

“My pleasure, bro.”