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49. Five days

Nakarand had been faced and defeated, and the group returned to Earth with Dram-Shara, a missing Ruk scientist and Uentaru, Earth’s real enemy.  Now they need to find a way of stopping the Aleph component from tearing the Earth apart and with it all the recursions.


It was an early Summer morning.  All over the campus, bird and squirrels were starting their days as Estate Agents check-in for morning shifts or got in a little exercise before work.  At the labs, there was a buzz of activity from deep below. 

“I’ve been working on the transport. It still needs an energy source and a time to plan…” Hertzfeld, head of the Scientific Department, walked briskly beside his smaller but formidable associate, Dr Peggy Martin.

“Energy source, I have.  Time we don’t.  Show me your lab.” Peggy displayed the fully charged battery rod, “What were you saying about something coming out of the Earth’s crust?”

“Yes, I have access to quite a few detectors all over the world.  With the usual seismic detectors, magnetic and neutrino detectors, the data is incredible. I wanted you to go over it with me.”

“Fine. I’d suggest it has to do with the Aleph component, a piece of old tech lodged in the Earth crust. Uentaru has been feeding psychic resonance to it with the use of Spiral Dust.  With the potential power of the component, she was trying to recreate her own lost world.”

“Uh-huh…maybe you should start from the beginning.”

Algernon had become the guardian of the entropic seed by default.  He was hoping to talk to Uentaru about its properties and searched for Tobias to smooth the way with her.  Unfortunately, Tobias had taken himself off to the dorms and collapsed on his bed, fully dressed.  Algernon looked at his bed for a moment, also contemplating a few hours rest. Turning Nakarand’s digestive juices to acid exhausted him more than he let on.  He swayed on the spot, clutching the entropic seed like his child.  In the end, it was the seed that won out as it almost slipped out of his tired arms, waking him with a start.  Heavily he turned and left the dorm determined to do what he could without Tobias and headed for the library.

The warm, quiet environment of the library was not conducive to staying awake.  Neither was the resource material which seemed to consist mostly of fringe conspiracy theory articles from magazines such as the New Aquarian. However, Algernon persevered.  On the entropic seed itself, almost nothing, a definition similar to that Uentaru had provided inside Nakarand.  A powerful item of almost unlimited potential.  He did confirm what she had to say about it powering the Aleph component, which was something. Her information could be relied upon if she were willing to tell the truth…or compelled.

On the Aleph component, he found almost nothing but near science fiction.  In this case, it seemed, that they happened upon the truth didn’t excuse the articles lack of evidence for their assumptions.  Many believed that something, not another proto-planet, hit Earth, forming the moon billions of years ago.  Very few had ideas what it was, but reading between the lines and gathering all the snippets together, Algernon gathered it was an item of The Strange.  What interested him most were notes, scribbled in the margin on these articles.  Beside one theory as to the nature of the object, someone had written Defunct Intergalactic Transport System, location unknown. Algernon looked back at who had signed these files out before him.  In every case of scribbled notes, Hertzfeld had signed out the file.

As usual, Bruce went straight to Katherine to debrief her on what had occurred. His continuing frame of mind to destroy something had not cooled.  It simmered as he explained what the party had discovered.  If anything, it seemed contagious as Katherine became more and more disturbed as he spoke.

“These beings are playing with us like a football!”He ended with a menacing grumble.

“You found something that will destroy the world?” Katherine replied, standing and leaving her desk, “To Hertzfeld, now.”

Hertzfeld’s experiment had grown considerably from the glove they played with the previous Christmas. Most of the lab benches, vacuum hoods and heavy lab equipment was pushed aside or removed entirely to make way for a black-painted Kombi van on ramps.  Hardware was bolted on its chassis, with wiring running everywhere. Something like the mesh the glove had been made of covered the front of the van. The van itself had been guttered except for the driver’s seat, and a wheel, much like that in an aircraft yoke, replaced the whole steering wheel assembly and connected to guidance panels on either side of the van.

When Katherine and Bruce entered the lab, Hertzfeld and Peggy were pawing over data from various seismic readers from all over the world.  Activity had been building for the last few days after a long quiet period. 

“If this trend continues, it seems the world has five days before it’s torn apart from the inside,” Peggy dispassionately presented the information to the alarmed group, “The destabilising event is inevitable unless we can release the resonance energies safely.  I’ve also established the activity is coming from 1,800 miles below, that’s well through the crust and just above the mantle.  We will need Hertzfeld’s invention online if we have any chance of getting there in time.”

“Right,” Katherine said, turning to Hertzfeld, “So what do you need?  Bruce said something about a seed…”

“An entropic seed.  Uentaru said it could help save the Earth,” Peggy supplied, but she knew little more.

“As to what we need,” Hertzfeld continued, “I need help extending the phasing field over the whole van, I need an energy supply to run it and some sort of guidance system to get the van to where it needs to go.” 

“Good, any suggestions for talent?  You can have anyone here, but is there anyone you would recommend from another recursion?”

“We brought Dram-Shara back with us from Nakarand.  She’s a biochemist, but there might be something she can help with,” Peggy suggested, and Hertzfeld put a call into security were Dram-Shara was being debriefed.

“There’s the Quiet Cabal. There were a few good hands there,” Bruce offered, and Kathrine made a note to send an agent to Ruk.

“Do you think Ni-Challan? He’s handy with his robots and computers,” Peggy offered as a suggestion, “We should also talk to Uentaru.  Her life depends on us getting to the component in time.”

“The one that put us in this mess!” Bruce growled with disgust, ”I’ll see what I can do there. God knows I understand only one of five things ya’ll talking about,” He pointed at Peggy and Hertzfeld.

“Rain can go talk to Ni’Challan…does anyone know where he’s gone?”

“He stumbled off to the dorms earlier,” Peggy yawned, stifling her own need for sleep.

“Figures…” Bruce said so low it came out only as a bass grumble.  With nothing more to say, he stormed out to talk to Uentaru.

No one got in Bruce’s way as he stormed through security and down to the detention cells.  No one dared.  His expression murderous and his body language threatening violence, his footsteps rung through the empty corridor to Uentaru’s cell.  The shiny metal mesh and glass cage was a faraday cage against those who could connect to The Strange.  It stopped Uentaru using any abilities she had, including translating.  Bruce stared at her through the mesh as two guards on charge intercepted him.

“I’m sorry, sir, you can’t talk to the prisoner,”

“Let me in and lock me in!” Bruce replied, not taking his eyes off Uentaru, who just turned her head and ignored the theatrics.

“Sir, we have strict orders to…”

“And I’m telling you we don’t have time to go through channels.  Let me in there and lock me in.”

The two guards look at each other, and as one put through a call on his walkie-talkie, the other opened the cage and let Bruce in.  

Bruce didn’t waste a moment. He stomped in and, lifting Uentaru by the collar of her Estate provided overalls, pinned her to the wall.

“They tell me the Earth ends in five days.”

“Well, if I was there to make it happen, my world would be reborn.” She stared back at him, unconcerned for her welfare.

“What happens.”

“Your world will end.  The only chance any of us have is if something good comes out of the tragedy.”

“The energies will be released, where?”

“Deep underground.”


“Earth’s core. You won’t get there in time.  Face it. We’re all doomed.”

“What if we dismantle the Spiral Dust network?”

She laughed. A trilled that would have excited men for a thousand years, now it sounded hollow and defeated, “It’s in motion. No one can stop it now.  Do you think to put the water back once the dam is broken? I think not.”

Bruce stared at her a moment, trying to read her but unsure what was going on behind her too calm expression. 

“You’re pathetic,” He finally said and dropped her back on her bunk before turning and asking to be let out.

Peggy also entered security to see Dram-Shara.  As both Katherine and Hertzfeld were busy, Lawrence Keaton was debriefing Dram-Shara and preparing passage for her back to Ruk. Peggy didn’t believe in preambles and interrupted the interview.

“Are you a realist or an extremist, Dram-Shara?”


“You are an employee of a Karrum owned business. I asked you what do you think of Ruk’s chances if Earth and all the recursion were destroyed?”

“I…I surmise…Ruk would be severely damaged if not destroyed in such a case.”

“Good.  We have five days to stop that exact thing from happening.” Peggy said, turning to leave.

“Is that your way of asking for my help?” Dram-Shara scoffed, leaning back on her plastic chair.

“There’s no point in asking unless you’re interested. I can see you have a vested interest in saving Earth, so why bother wasting the words.  You know what is at stake.”

Dram-Shara sat there a moment staring at Peggy perplexed before standing silently and following Peggy back to the labs.

Bruce returned to the lab as Peggy finished briefing Dram-Shara on what was required and using her communication cypher to talk directly to Giquabee of the Quiet Cabal.  Though it pained her not to make her ear-worm torture device from the cypher, she realised that talking directly to people instead of relying on official channels could tip the balance.  With less than five days, they needed every advantage they could get.  Bruce took one look at the lab, knew it was not a place for him and stormed off again.  

Peggy yawned.  They’d been up for 36 hours and travelled two recursions and a worm.  It had been a long day, and she decided she needed some rest before focusing her mind on the work ahead.  As she left, she noticed Bruce travelling in the same direction as her.  She hoped to just follow in after him and slip past to the women’s dorms before anything more was asked of her.  That wasn’t to be.

Ahead she heard Bruce stomping down the vinyl floored hallway before slamming open the men’s dorm door.

“Ah! Ow!” Tobias cried from inside as he was suddenly jolted awake by the fuming Bruce. Spotting Peggy, Bruce also waved her into the men’s dorm before closing the door.

“Bruce, I need some sleep,” Peggy yawned again and climbed up onto Algeron’s well-made bed.  It was so comfortable she lay her head on the pillow as she listened to the other two talk.

“I was asleep,” Drawled Tobias stretching out the cricks in his back and neck, “What is this about and can’t it wait until I’ve had a few hours rest?”

“She knows,” Bruce ignored Tobias’ complaint.  

“Of course she does. It’s her plan” Tobias knew exactly who ‘She’ was and what she knew.

“I want to know what she knows about the component.”

“Well,” Tobias stretched again and stood up in one graceful move, “I guess I could ask her now,” He mused as he examined himself.  His clothes did not translate but were a little worse for being slept in. “ I’ll go freshen up a little.”

“We don’t have time…”

“There is always time to look decent.  Besides, alarms are only there to make the guilty do something foolish.” He replied quoting Alegernon, and walked into the showers.

“Oh, and don’t forget to talk to Ni’Challan about… help…ing,” Peggy said sleepily as she pulled Algernon’s blankets over her and fell asleep.

The ten minutes it took Tobias to clean off the worst of his exhaustion and smarted up his suit may have seemed an eternity to Bruce, but the duo were soon walking across the Estate, the little man chipper and as fresh looking as someone who’d just come back from holidays.  

“We could do with Algernon and his mind scraping,” Bruce said as they drew near the library.

“Bruce, have you ever wondered about the nature of God?”

Bruce stopped in his tracks.  The thought was so contrary to anything his brains was trying to comprehend that it froze, his mouth hanging open in astonishment.

Tobias stopped when he realised that Bruce was no longer by his side.

“What I mean is, it’s sort of a revelation to find out that God is a machine, don’t you think?”

“What…? Why are you talking at me about this?” Bruce wailed, finally finding his feet once more.

“I get Jesus. A man of his time, totally quickened. It only makes sense.  The same with Buddha and Mohammad.  These are people speaking of their time with voices and actions affected by the Strange.  But God?  We’re always told he’s unknowable, that his ways are ineffable and that it will all become clear at the end of days.  Well, we’re at the end of days, and I think it has been made clear.  The Aleph machine is God, and we couldn’t hope to understand it because what’s to understand?  It’s a broken down piece of alien tech, right?”

“Are you sure you don’t want to speak to a priest or something about this?” 

“Oh goodness no, could you imagine?  Hey, that religion you’ve been so keen on for 2000 years or more?  What if I told you I had evidence its deity is space junk?  No.  Algernon has no concept of God, and Peggy is busy.  You had a Christian upbringing. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.”

Bruce was not a philosophising man, but neither was he stupid.  He had a feeling that Tobias was playing with him a little, maybe for getting him out of bed.

“Look, all I know is you do what’s right, right?”

“But what’s right in relation to a machine?”

“It doesn’t matter about God.  You do what’s right. Look after others as you’d want them to look after you…”

“The Two Great Commandments, or at least Jesus version is.  So, it is not the power, God, Aleph component that matters, but how we respond to it?”

“Yes…?” Was that was Bruce was saying?  It sounded right but very wrong all at the same time.  Just then, he spotted Algernon through the library windows and, with a silent sigh of relief and pointed him out.

“Greeting all-powerful one.  Tell me, how do you destroy a planetoid with your mind and still walk around like an everyday human being?” Tobias joked as they walked up to Algernon in the near-deserted library, his head deep in files. When Algernon raised his head to respond, the pale complexion and deep bags under the eyes spoke for him, “Ah , so that’s how.  Still mere flesh then.”

“We’re going to have a chat with Uentaru,” Bruce ignored Tobias, who was obviously in  a prankish mood, “I’d like you to pick her brains.”

“I couldn’t last time I tried,” Algernon replied, staking up the files for the librarians to file away, “ Her mind was shielded or something. But I do have some questions to ask.” And leaving the library the trio headed towards security. Bruce made one more stop before reaching Uentaru.  At security, he signed out his gun, checked and holstered it.

“You don’t need a gun, Bruce.” Tobias was suddenly serious.

“Why not?”

“What do you hope she will say at the point of a gun she wouldn’t say before?  And I won’t help you with torture.”

“You just do your thing, and I won’t need the gun.” He replied adamantly, and they continued to their destination.

Uentaru was as before, sitting on a cot in the glass and wire cage.  Tobias led the way, politely knocking on the glass before speaking.

“How are you keeping?” He asked like a concerned friend at a sick bed.

“Fine,” She replied curtly, not bothering to keep eye contact once she saw who was there.

“Mind if I come in?” Tobias asked, watching her demeanour.   

“Suit yourself.” She was putting on a strong front. She’d had to for a long time. She was alone in the universe.  

Tobias asked for the cage to be opened, and he stepped inside.  There was nowhere else to sit beside the floor. Flicking up his yellow jacket, he couched to be on a level with Uentaru.

“Bruce tells me you are a Chaos Templar. That you founded the order. I found it intriguing that you created a group whose sole focus was to stop planets being destroyed.”

Uentaru’s gaze swung around, baleful and contemptuous, “I saved thousands of planets from destruction. I earned the right to resurrect what was.”

“Hmm, I’m not arguing with you.  But, do you think it’s a view your fellow knights would share?” Tobias asked, and the strong exterior cracked a little.  

“You know nothing of the Chaos Templars,” She couldn’t look at him and turned away, seemingly disinterested in the conversation.  But, for a moment, he saw the despondency and her complete lack of hope. 

Summoning the power of the Strange, Tobias wove one thought, an ideal that where there is life, there is hope.  With it, he continued to talk, embedding the ideal in Uentaru’s mind.

“That’s true. Nonetheless, they seem a noble group. I’d like to get to know them, Uentaru.”

“Well, it’s too late.  Everything is in motion. You can’t save it now.“ Now the hopelessness was obvious to everyone watching.

“Never,” Tobias smiled, trying to catch her eye, “We have a vehicle that can get us to the Aleph component, and we have the entropic seed.  We have the brilliant minds of Algernon and Peggy to guide us, and we’ve even got people from Ruk helping out. No, we have life, Uentaru, and while we have that, we have hope.”

The ideal connected with his words and sparked something deep within Uentaru. Her head bowed, and after a long pause, she spoke again, “If I had an Entropic seed, this is how I’d use it…”

Algernon took over the conversation from that moment on, asking appropriate questions to understand the true nature of the seed and how to use it in the situation.

“So, with the Entropic seed, we can turn off the Aleph component?”

“Yes, but you don’t want to do that.  The Aleph component made the Strange. It made Earth the way it is. If the Aleph component is turned off or destroyed…well, it would be the same as doing nothing.” She said with assurance that gave the group pause—doomed if they did too little, doomed if they did too much.

“The Earth is a rare place.  I search a thousand years and found only Earth with its link to the recursion and the Strange.  No other prime world has such a link. It created a race of people all with the spark and the highest concentration of quickened in the Universe.”

“Can I ask how you were going to get to the Aleph component when the time was right?” Algernon asked. It wasn’t a question that had come across anyone else’s minds.

“I have a key to cavern where the Aleph component lies. I keep it in a private recursion. The only way for you to get there is with a recursion key, a poster, held by my associate in Cairo.”

“Could you take us there?” Tobias asked hopefully.

“That’s not happening, Rain,” Bruce warned as Tobias shrugged his shoulders.  Instead, Bruce spoke to one of the guards and asked a message be send to the Cairo office and see if they could get a hold of the poster.  

“Uentaru?” Algernon asked again, “The distribution arrangement for the Dustman, how did you do all of that?”

“Contacts.  I found and gave him the contacts. The Crow Hollow families were ideal managers of the network. I arranged it for him.”
“The qephilim woman with the bright yellow mythlight…” Tobias slapped his head, “Remember Algernon?  Rimush back in Ardeyn told you that the Dustman first came with a woman.”  He turned to Uentaru in awe, “I never questioned you…you were so… good.”

Uentaru didn’t respond, only bowed her head so no one could see her face.

Algernon continued with his question, ”Do you have any tech that would be useful to us?”

“No,” She said without raising her head, “ I have nothing, you’ve taken everything from me.”

Algernon had what he needed to know. It was time to go.  

“I’ll come by for another conversation soon,” Tobias said, standing and leaving the cage “Say five days?”

It was late.  Bruce and Algernon had not slept at all since returning. In an unspoken agreement, they headed back to the dorms for a decent rest before the hard work of the next few days.  Algernon was flummoxed when he turned to his bed and found Peggy sleeping there.  For a moment, he thought to wake her, thought better of the idea (he really did require his ears) and snuck into the women’s dorm to sleep in her bed instead.

There were a few other occupants of the women’s dorms, so he was sure to sneak as quietly as possible, checking for traps and snags that would give him away.  He found one under the pillow, a nasty buzzer that would have woken everyone present.  With his crossbow armed and ready, he caught a few hours rest, all that he needed these days.  It wasn’t until he was leaving early the next morning that he caught a rug trap, tripping up and waking the closest of the inhabitants.

“Wha…? What are you doing in here?” Said the very fit young female agent as she sat bolt upright in bed.  

“Sorry, I was looking for Peggy. Is she here?”

“Get out,” The woman rolled over and didn’t give the peeping tom another thought.  

Algernon didn’t look back.  He was pleased that someone would be able to tell Peggy he’d been there.

Day 1

The group gathered over the usual breakfast, and Algernon updated Peggy on using the Entropic seed.  After a cup of coffee with the group, Tobias didn’t waste any time and headed to Peggy’s lab to translate out to the Graveyard of the Machine gods.

Travelling alone through the Strange was slow and taxing, and he was glad when the library with the large window looking out onto the space station slowly came into focus. Ni’Challan was not there to greet him this time, and he had to go hunting out the old man within the vast interior of the station. Thankfully, the sounds of repairing and the occasional verbalised instructions helped Tobias hone in on Ni’Challan’s location.  He found him organising a group of robots to replace the internal walls in a section of the upper station that saw most fighting.  

“Well, what disaster gives me the pleasure of your presence?” Ni’Challan said, glancing over his shoulder to where Tobias was walking down the hallway.

“I’m glad my presence is a pleasure, even in a disaster,” Tobias smirked, and the old man gave a dry laugh and turned back to orchestrating his robots.

“I assume you would like something.”

“Yes, unfortunately. Uentaru, how long have you known her?”

“Ohhh, a while.  She helps out when she can,” Ni’Challan turned and looked thoughtfully and Tobias, “Why?”

“And you’d say she’s a good person wouldn’t you?”

“Yes,” He replied instantly without doubt, but now Tobias had his attention, “Why?”

“We’ve just caught her planning to destroy the Earth and its recursions on the hope that she could remake her homeworld, Mycaeum.”

“Ah, yes,” Ni’Challan grew grave and now forgot the robots and the repairs for the subject at hand, “She always was overly fond of the old place.  But, what has this to do with me? You caught her? The world is safe?”
“We caught her.  She confessed the whole plan and has helped with information. Still, the machine is already working. Unless we can get to a spot deep in the Earth’s crust within five days and do something about it, the Earth and recursions will all be destroyed regardless.   We’re gathering help from all over the recursions, and I was wondering what you may know or have that could help, ” Tobias looked at the old man and could see his mind was already on the task.

“Tell me everything.”

Ni’Challan questioned Tobias about the Aleph component and their plans with the entropic seed.  As they spoke, Ni’Challan guided Tobias through the station and down into the lower levels.  Here he stored all the projects that he hadn’t got to around to preparing for display.  Here anonymous crates and broken artifacts lay in huge drifts through the vast warehouse-like space.  Glancing around at the collections of ‘junk’, Tobias was astounded that one person could collect so much in one lifetime, let alone know where anything was.  Still, Ni’Challan led him through narrow paths between near-titering piles of stuff with a sureness of a ranger in a favoured forest.

As with any forest, the junk piles finally thinned out to a clearing where a large two-seater flying vehicle rested.  It was a helicopter of sorts with two props that were held out from the vehicle’s body on long arms to either side.  The remains of a red and black paint job could be seen on the body of the vehicle in the style of a dragon.  That is, where the body wasn’t melted down to the chassis.  As far as Tobias was concerned, it was a wreck and belonged, floating among the detritus that encircled the station.

“The people of this recursion tried to restart their dying sun.  They failed, of course, but you had to admire their spirit,” Ni’Challan ran his hand over the unmelted side of the cockpit, and Tobias could see the old man’s passion for the story of noble but inevitably doomed heroism. He hoped their story would not be equally as tragic.

“The vehicle itself is too far gone, but the fusion engine could be useful in the right hands.”

“This just might be the thing Hertzfeld and Peggy have been looking for.  Thank you, Ni’Challan.”

“Bring it back if you can. One day it will have pride of place in my collection.”


Ni’Challan now went rummaging through nearby boxes strewn throughout the clearing.  With a cry of triumph, he pulled out a one-piece suit and helmet made of thin silvery material. He pulled out four such suits from the box and packed them carefully in the burnt-out shell of the flying machine.

“They should help with the heat.  You did say you were heading deep into the Earth’s crust?”
“I understand there’s a sort of cavern where the component lies.”
“Still, you’ll be glad you have those once you get there,” Ni’Challan tapped the suits, and Tobias realised that in sharing his collection, the coolly distant old man was showing love.  

“I never did get to tell you. I found out a little more about my background,” He said, drawing out the heavy silver locket and showing Ni’Challan the image of a young woman, “This is Avel, my mother.”

Ni’Challan’s dark eyes fixed on the small portrait and crossed the clearing , a hand outstretched.  Silently he looked upon the photo and then at Tobias, a fervidly curious expression on his face.

“Extraordinary! But how did you find her?”

“Ah,” Tobias smiled, taking the old man’s hand in his, “I’ll tell you all about it in six days.”

Back on Earth, the rest of the group were preparing as best they could.  Though Algernon had covered everything Uentaru had shared with him, Peggy still insisted on watching the security video footage of the interview for herself.  Algernon didn’t take offence and did what he could do to help Peggy get up to speed.  

Bruce spent the morning at the gym working himself hard while letting his mind drift through thoughts of what they’d been through in the last few days and where they were going in the next few.  Exhausting the body, he centred and renewed his mind, reinforcing his sense of self-control after the confusing and disorientating trip through Nakarand.  Once out the other end, he felt more at peace, ready to help in any way he could.

“Hey, I have this electrical null field,” He said, returning to Hertzfeld’s lab and the centre of all activity, “It protects against electricity.  Do you think it can help?”  

Peggy took the cypher with a silent nod and added it to a collection of useful items ready to be installed on the van. 

Soon after, Tobias returned with shiny metal suits and the promise of an engine.  While Peggy went back to her lab to inspect the copter, Bruce put on the largest of the suits, and Algernon bathed him in flames from a propane torch.

“Are you going to turn that on or what?” Bruce’s muffled voice could be heard over the roar of the flames.

Tobias took the opportunity to talk to Dram-Shara, who was busy laying down electrical cables throughout the van.

“In Nakarand, you said you had a cypher that would create a portal to Ruk?  I was hoping I could take it with us on this crazy trip to the centre of the Earth,” He said, giving her an imploring look.  She thought for a moment and then pulled from her pocket a small metal box with a press button.

“If you can’t stop the Aleph component, this thing is not going to do me any good.” She handed it over.

Peggy returned, announcing the engine would be suitable for the van, and she and Bruce started pulling the old Kombi’s air-cooled engine from the chassis.

“We could also reinforce the Kombi’s body with the aircraft frame.”

Algernon took it upon himself to start cutting up the aircraft body with an arc welder.  The extra power required started a short circuit in the cockpit of the aircraft.  Sparks and bright red flames illuminated the lab, quickly catching alight the seating and insulation.  Peggy and others, drawn by the fire alarms, soon had the flame out, but not the flames of Peggy’s anger.  That was until she realised none of her equipment was damaged. All he’d achieved was a black mark on the roof and scorching himself.  

“Maybe you should stick to creating the software interface,” She said, picking up an oxy-acetylene torch.  He quickly left and did as he was told.

 All that day, Hertzfeld’s lab was Queen’s chamber at the centre of a large beehive of workers all focused on one task. Giquabee turned up midday and started working on the guidance system that would direct the van to the cavern of the Aleph component.  Dram-Shara connected the fusion engine to the battery rod and the rest of the van, providing power for the phasing field, steering, guidance system and dozens of other essential systems.  The phasing field was Hertzfeld’s,  but his proudest moment was when he installed a large red button with a clear perspex cover to the dashboard.

“In case of emergencies.  Technically, it should take the van and everyone in it to a random recursion.”
“Technically?” Tobias asked, picking up on the adverb.

“Either that or it will blow you up. That’s why it’s for emergencies.” Shrugged Hertzfeld.

“Either way, I bags sitting there. Who can resist a red button.” Tobias grinned and missed Bruce’s calculating look behind.

 Algernon quietly worked away created computer interfaces between it all and the human’s who had to pilot the thing. More and more, that task was looking like his.

“Too many scientists and not enough lab assistance,” Bruce joked as by late that evening, they all stepped away from the modified Kombi van, their tasks complete.  

That night, they ate a feast ordered and Ubered in by Tobias.  At first, they ate quietly, too exhausted to enjoy the extravagant items on offer.  When the lobster was described as a giant sea cockroach and champagne as off fruit juice to the Ruk guests, merriment descended on the group.  It was at their last meal together that they christened the Kombi van.

“Why don’t we call it Unfazed?” Bruce suggested to the group, inspiring the other to come up with equally and punny names.

“I like Bertie,” Peggy said, inspiring Tobias.

“No, Burnie.”

Day 2

To be continued…

35. Expecto Patronum

After a successful trip to Ruk, the party are preparing for their next trip to Railsea. Following the clues to the disappearance of Bruce’s father, the group is focusing their efforts on the Manihiki Ferro Navy.  Though most of the party is ready to start flexing their Strange powers in Railsea, Bruce is more reticent to go.


Katherine Manners, Lead Operative and founding member of the Estate pulled up a report.  She had been Earth’s representatives on foreign shores.  And that was when the less theatrical of the party wrote the report.  This last Ruk trip had been no exception, with the discovery of secret genetic labs, the recovery of kidnapped Earthlings for experimentation and the destruction of a whole mountain along with the death of a serious opponent of Earth, Doctor Strangelove.  She confirmed the facts through channels, found them accurate, and called in Bruce Johnson, the group member she was directly responsible for in for a chat.

As usual, Bruce was prompt and prepared.  There was something else she noticed as Bruce entered her office and sat down.  A quiet assurance.  The confidence of someone who had gone through hell and come out the other side stronger.  She approved.  

“Bruce, you and your group have had quite the adventure in Ruk,” She prompted turning her screen with the report displayed.

“Did what we set out to do.  Got into the kid’s head, got him fixed.  His brothers too, though Mortimer is one to keep an eye on,” 

“Noted, though we hope great things for him if he proves himself reliable,”

Bruce nodded thoughtfully, “He’s sharp, and he’s fast.  A dangerous combination.”

“As too were your group, blowing up a large tract of Ruk,”

“Ah well, I believe you’ll find that was the build-up of a highly explosive gas that was being created by Strangelove,” Bruce started to defend the group’s action until Katherine waved his arguments aside.

“In doing so, destroyed a secret base and one of the Karum’s major players all while leaving our allies on Ruk out of the frame. This is a significant victory that will have implication for years to come.”
“Yeah, the Allsong said she was dead.  Algernon asked,” He said, unconvinced, “But who’s to say she was alive at all.”

“Whose to say with Ruk,” She flicked to her screen to the other reports from Ruk, “Still there’s no sign that she’s alive and the Karum is in a panic.  I think it’s fair to say she is no longer a threat to Earth.”

Bruce nodded, mulling over his thoughts.

“Anything to add before I file the report for good?”  

“Ah no, nothing directly related to Ruk, only what we discovered.”
“Go on,”

“How hard is it to deliberately get into a story-based recursion that you have an idea may be out there, but have no links or key?”

“Some do it.  It requires a high concentration level and not a little luck if you don’t know if the recursion exists.  Translations go bad every day.  I can organise for some advanced translation coaching if you like.”

“Could you bring anything back?”

She shook her head, “Everything is translated.  Whatever you find in the recursion will only change into something mundane to this world.”

“How about we use an anapposite gate? Like we did for the Martins?”

“Anaposite gates are rare things.  We have no way of making a reliable gate.”

“We have the artefact from Ruk. Maybe we can rig that up.”

“Perhaps.  May I ask what recursion you would try to get to?”

At this, Bruce became a little more circumspect, “Ah, I know of a specific shrink ray that we could put to use.”

“Truly.  Would you like me to organise the coaching? Or would you like to think it over?  You may find other options open up to you in your travels.”

”Huh?” Dumbfounded, Bruce stopped in his tracks as he was about to leave.

“Railsea, I believe a number of your party mentioned it was your next trip out.”

“Oh yeah, tidying up loose ends.” He recovered quickly, but Katherine could tell Railsea wasn’t Bruce’s idea of destination.

“Foresee any difficulties?”

“No…no.  As I said, following up a few loose ends,”  He shook his head as he reached the door, “And do keep an eye on Mortimer, I worry what he might get up to while I’m not around.”

Algernon and Rain were also visiting with their direct supervisor.  It had become a bit of a tradition for both of them.  Algernon was obliged to ask for a highly specific and useful item of equipment, a rocket launcher.  Keating turned it down as usual.  Rain had better luck, as he didn’t bother asking.

Walking into the administration centre as if he owned the place, he greeted the staff by name and seemed to loiter around Keating’s office door, as if waiting for him to arrive.  Behind his back, he carefully picked the lock, not having a lot of luck.  The lockpick had jammed, and as he was about to check what was hindering its progress, Keating walked into the office.  Some would suggest this would be a good time to slink away, hide, and try again later.  That wasn’t Rain’s way at all.

“Mr Keating, I’m so glad I caught you,” He deftly stepped away from the door as if he hadn’t been standing there for minutes. He walked up to Keating, hand outstretched and Keating complied to the customary greeting. It gave Rain the chance to turn Keating around, so he did not see the door and the jammed lockpick.

“I have been remiss in keeping you abreast of my group’s activities if you have a moment I’d love to fill you in.”
“Rain, what a surprise.  Ah, yes that would be good…” Keating mulled over his current tasks, “ I can spare you a moment or two in my office…”
“I was hoping for a walk .  You will be pleased to know I have been availing myself of the Estates excellent councillors. They suggest more physical activity and sunlight, and it is such a lovely day,” He looked out the second storey office windows to the usual heavy leaden sky of Seattle.

“Unfortunately I have quite a bit of paperwork to get to…”

“No really, I Suggest we go out for a walk,” Rain pushed, embedding the suggestion into Keating’s mind.  He hadn’t wanted to do it.  He didn’t know the penalties for altering the mind of an Estate official, but at that moment it felt more likely he’d be caught for the attempted break-in than manipulating his supervisor’s mind.  He watched Keating’s face slacken as the push took hold.

“I promise not to keep you long, the walk will do us a world of good,” Rain steered Keating towards the door.

The two walked around the Estate commons to the far side of campus, near the library.  Having timed his story to finish at that point, he left Keating there and once out of sight, sprinted back.  There he found the lockpick still in places.  Now he could see the jam, Rain unlocked the door and quickly stepped into the office.

Keating’s bottle of bourbon wasn’t too hard to find. Rain knew he kept it near his desk for easy retrieval and disposal and soon found it tucked into a bottom draw.  Keating’s long legs had returned him to the office earlier that Rain anticipated.  His silhouette through the frosted window of the office door sent a jolt of adrenalin through Rain. He only had one option.  Carefully tucking the prized bottle away in his long black coat, Rain opened the window and leapt through.

For some, falling is just flying over short distances. The twenty feet to the ground was a very short flight.  Pushing his legs out in front of him, they took for the first brunt Rain’s landing.  He allowed momentum to roll him back onto his feet and walked away before Keating even had a chance to notice his window was open.

Rain was worrying over the bourbon bottle in the mess when Algernon and Peggy came in for lunch that day.

“The box I can get, I’ll ring around a few bars in the city and see who has one on their shelves, but I want to make this bottle spectacular.”

“A half a bottle of alcohol?” Algernon asked, bringing his lunch to the table, now both were looking through the bottles amber glow.

“Exactly, that could be any half bottle of bourbon. I want to make it clear it’s his half bottle,”

“Well there’s plenty of room to put something in with the bourbon. You can get Peggy to try out Hertzfeld’s glove.  She could get something inside without cutting the glass.”

The suggestion had the desired effect, and Rain’s face lit up, “Golf balls!  Peggy!” He called the Doctor over and gestured for her to sit down.

“If I got a number of golf balls, possibly two…?” He asked his technical advisor, Algernon.

“Three would fit nicely,” Algernon replied thoughtfully gauging the available space in the bottle.

“Three balls, would you be able to use Hertzfeld’s glove to put them inside?”

“Yes.  I could also break the bottle.  Can I ask why we’re doing this?”

“It’s a Christmas present,”  Rain replied as if it were self-evident.  

Peggy nodded, “Very well, bring them to my lab as soon as you acquire the balls.”

After a few days trip out to see Ni’Challan, Rain stopped by Keating’s office again.  This time the supervisor was in, busy with a project of his own.

“Sorry to trouble you again, I was wondering if I could ask your advice on something rather important,” Rain poked his head around the door.  He noticed a step ladder dominating the room and a security camera mounted into the corner facing the desk. Wires hung from the camera, and false ceiling tiles gave access to the services above.

“Security camera?s  You know Algernon is very good at installing those.  He used one very effectively in  Ruk just recently,”

“I am rather busy at the moment, can it wait?” Keating grumbled over the directions to the camera installation.

Rain could see Keating would not be so patient with the usual nonsense, so he brought up a subject that he’d been considering for some time.  He slipped in and closed the door.

“I’m considering my future.  I don’t think it’s a surprise to discover I am not the corporate type and my building relationship with Ni’Challan has me thinking of life after The Estate.”

“You’re thinking of leaving?” Keating looked up incredulous, “I know your methods are unorthodox, but you are a very fine agent.  The Estate would be poorer without you.”

The compliment, genuinely given, gave Rain pause.

“That’s very kind of you to say, and I do want to still be of use to The Estate, but possibly in not such a formal capacity,” He stepped in front of the golf bag, deeply moved by what he’d heard.

“And you intend to work with Ni’Challan?  We could do with a liaison out in the Graveyard of the Machine god,” Keating now sat down and mused over the possibilities, “We have such individuals all over the shoals. Still, there are very few inhabitable places in the Graveyard…yes, that could be very useful…” 

The two of them chatted about a future role for Rain outside the confines of The Estate proper.  Rain was impressed by how insightful Keating’s vision of his future.  A contact in the Graveyard for information and to represent the Estate to the community in that area.  Rain found himself enjoying the conversation, even as three balls somehow made their way from the golf bag and into his pockets.

He thanked Keating, apologised for taking up his valuable time and raced over to Peggy’s lab via a stop at the dormitory to pick up the bottle.  It was a moment’s work for Peggy to phase the glove through the glass of the bottle and deposit the three balls in the bourbon, Keating’s signature clearly visible in black Sharpie through the clear amber liquid.

Bruce looking for the group, found them all circling the bourbon bottle, Rain goggling at their new creation. 

“You’ve been up to mischief again,” Bruce said, walking over to see what all the fuss was about.

“How is this news to you?” Peggy replied as Rain was about to hide the bottle from Bruce’s sight.  He thought better of it and let the upright citizen examine their handiwork.

“Is that Keating’s signature?” Bruce pointed as a ball floated lazily passed his finger only millimetres off the bottom of the bottle.


“Do I want to know?”

“Probably not.” Rain smiled, and changed the subject, “So, already for Railsea?”

“I have training in the dojo this afternoon. The martial arts master has agreed to train with my crowbar, fully padded of course.” Bruce deflected, but his friend was a magician and con man.

“Naturally, and then after?  Tomorrow morning.  That would give me time to find a box and gift wrap the bottle.” He said, tucking it away.

“I have concerns over Mortimer and the triplets.  I know you don’t think of them as real people, but I have a deep concern for their welfare…” Bruce sent the conversation down a misdirected quagmire of blame that even Rain felt he had to defend himself.

“I never…you know me, I love the boys… “ He looked to Algernon and Peggy before realising Bruce’s scheme, “Mr Johnson, was that you trying to steer the conversation away from Railsea?” He looked proudly at Bruce as Bruce’s face turned red.


“That was very good, you had me wondering what I’d said to make you think such a thing,” Rain replied, and then returned to the subject at hand, “So, tomorrow morning then.” 

“We need more information,”
“Now you sound like Algernon,” Peggy commented, and even Algernon had to agree.

“All the information is in Railsea, we just have to get to Manihiki from Bollons,” Rain countered, “Come on Bruce, you do realise you’re the last enigma amongst us.  Let’s go save your father and clear up that blot on your past.”

Bruce agreed grudgingly, and Rain didn’t push the subject. He remembered the private conversation they’d had in the Dreamlands.  Bruce harboured legitimate grudges against his father and was unsure he wanted the man back in his life. He kept that little snippet to himself, keeping the privacy he had created in the dream.

Instead, Rain informed Algernon that Keating had installed a surveillance camera.  Instantly, Algernon pulled out his laptop and hacked into the one camera system via wifi.  He left his computer to record whatever random video it picked up for future use.

The next morning, as promised, the group gathered in Peggy’s lab for the translation to Railsea.  Bruce was wearing the wings Algernon had ‘acquired’ during his time with Doctor Strangelove. A real work of Ruk science and art, the wings were light weight and fitted well to his broad back.  He fiddled with the strappings not used to the restriction on his shoulders and waist.

Algernon led the translation this time and the party without fuss, found themselves dissolving into the Strange.  The first things they could see as they arrive were the greys and dull browns that dominated Railsea.  They were standing in their blood-splattered clothing in the one-room bedsit once owned by Caw Eh Carve.  The furnishings were different, though in the same dreary time-worn fashion of all of Railsea.  Bruce’s wings here were even more impressive steampunk versions of themselves.  All brass with gauges and dials looking more at home on a steam engine with details picked out in gold gilt and glossy black.  He was about to protest their gaudiness when the front door opened and a hairy man dressed only in a bath towel entered the bedsit.

“What?  Do you mind?” He asked, grasping his defensive towel with one hand, looking around him for a weapon for the other.  

Algernon raised his crossbow in readiness.

“Yes we do,” Peggy blustered, pushing passed him and through the front door, “Propriety sir!”

“Sorry to have disturbed you, “ Bruce acknowledged the man’s genuine complaint, “We’ll be on our way.”

They were back, walking down the street of Bollons, smelling the dust in the air, taking in the industrious human activity amid a dessicated world. Above, the sky was a thick grey covering of cloud that unlike Seattle, never lifted.  From vantage points around the city, a sea of sand surrounded Bollons,  crisscrossed by train-track, creating random geometric shapes out to the horizon—the Railsea.

“Oi!” A voice yelled.  Rain turned to Algernon.

“Know anyone called, Oi?” As they slowly turned to see an artist drop his paint pots and run across the road and into an alleyway.  Giving chase were the yellers, three Manihiki Ferro-Naval officers who seemed to have taken offence of the artist’s work. Walking back to the mural, for it was too large and detailed a work to be called graffiti.  All one side of a building had been bisected laterally the top painted the same grey-green as the sky, the bottom the unique yellow-brown of the sand around Bollons.  To the left, a shape was blocked out ready to paint in the details.  The text on the sign was obvious for all to read.

Almighty Bruce

“Like the movie?” Rain asked as the four of them stared amazed at the mural, “Or was that the other way around?”

“What is this?” Bruce asked, feeling very exposed.

“Your past exploits?” Peggy suggested, “You did capture the Dreaming Sable.”

“Harpooned, he never caught it.” Algernon corrected, “Though that shape to the left looks like it could be a moldywarp diving into the sand.”

“Why would they take offence at that?” Peggy asked, referring to the Naval officers well out of sight.

“It has to be a recent development,” Rain dredged up what he knew of Railsea history, “There’s no historical significance that I can gather.”  

He looked around them as the party studied the mural for more details.  People in the street were giving the mural, and them, a wide berth.  It seemed it was dangerous to take an interest in the Almighty Bruce.  The wide berth didn’t stop Bruce himself, reaching out and grappling a passing stranger.

“What’s this?” He asked again, as the shock had robbed him of speech.  

“I don’t know, a picture,” He replied, a smug little grin on his face.

“My friend means, why would the Ferro-navy take offence at this mural?” Rain supplied the required context.

“Oh!  Bruce has been kicking their arses all over!”  He chortled, then caught himself and glanced around them to see who’d noticed.

“So who is he, a Captain?” Rain asked and was rewarded with a dismissive look from the stranger.  There was a disconnect. Bruce wasn’t a train Captain, but then who? Or what?

“You’ve been such a helpful fella, what if I buy you a drink and you can tell us all about it?” Rain suggested, determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.

“Er…if it’s all the same, I’d rather go…”

“I really do Suggest you join us for a drink,” Rain pushed, but was stopped by a familiar heavy hand on his shoulder.

“Let him go,” Bruce said simply.

“But, oh very well…” Rain grumbled and turned back to the man, “Thank you for your time, you have been very helpful.”  The man’s eyes cleared of the Suggestion and scuttled away, confused and bewildered.

Algernon, unrestrained, walked up to another random person and scanned their thoughts,

“Hello, who’s Bruce?” He asked, pointing to the mural.

Bruce, odd name for a fella, Thought the woman, who verbally apologised and also scampered away.

“Not a person,” Algernon informed the group.

“Well, we can find out all that later,” Peggy finally said once it was clear there was little more to gather from the mural, “I need new clothes, let’s got to the market and we can ask there.”

The Bollons markets were the heart of Bollons itself with anything and everything on sale, even rumours.  Here Peggy found the first pair of pant that she thought may fit and asked to buy them.  It was a rare, but not unheard of thing for a woman to go around in men’s clothes and Peggy’s money was as good as the next gentleman’s.  Rain was a little more choosy and wove in and out of the clothing stalls until he felt suitably dressed and the party had heard several different versions of the legend that was the Almighty Bruce.

“Fight the power!   Almighty Bruce!” One shopkeeper proclaimed a little loudly and scared himself, checking who had heard and ducking back into his clothing racks, “Yes, the captain was a deserter from the Ferro-Navy.  He found himself a train out on the Railsea and liberated the tiny mining community of Omoka.  Almighty Bruce has been hunting the  Ferro-Navy trains ever since.”

“Regardless of what you think of him, he never forgot you,” Rain said quietly, as he adjusted the fit of a worn but serviceable gold and brown silk striped vest. From a stand, he snatched up a yellow silk scarf and tied it loosely like an ascot around his neck. 

Bruce glanced back as Rain completed his dressing with a long blonde frock coat that had seen better days, “There’s nothing to say that it’s him.”

“Your unusual name and him being a navy deserter says it is,” Rain murmured back and went to pay.

“Anything else we should know?” Bruce asked the stall owner.

“Nothing really, just don’t mention the Bruce around the Navy.” The stall owner added unhelpfully.

Omoka was north-west of Manihiki.  The group would need to take passage on one of the trains heading north to find the Almighty Bruce, her Captain and hopefully Jimmy Johnson.

“We need to get on a Navy train,” Algernon stated adamantly.  If the Bruce were attacking Navy vessels, they could do worse than book passage on one.

“Yes, let them come to us,” Rain said as Bruce shook his head.

“That’s the hard way. I want to know more about this Captain first.”

“To the rumourmarket then, “ Rain clapped his hands together and led the way.

The rumourmarket of Bollons was famous.  It was a great place to find out information, but more importantly, it was a place where information could be disseminated and spread.  As they walked, they prepared a little rumour of their own, so when Bruce and Rain discussed terms with the rumour mongers, they had something with which to barter.

“Good day, I’m looking for information on the Captain of the Almighty Bruce,” Rain announced to the rumourmonger, “I have a trade, information pertaining to the Captain’s son.”

“The son of the Captain of the Almighty Bruce?” She said in disbelief, “I have to hear this so, for what little I know, you’ve got a deal.”  

They moved through the rumourmarket talking to every rumourmonger they could.  In exchange for whatever snippet they could offer, Rain and Bruce told them, “The Captain’s son is on his way to Manihiki.”

They came away knowing less for certain about the Captain than they had previously.  No one in the rumour market knew the Captain’s name, though the story of him being a press-ganged deserter was by far the most common tale about the man.  One rumour had him as an old Naval Admiral seeking some personal revenge of his own.  The most ludicrous was that there was no Almighty Bruce and that it was, in fact, a Ferro-Navy conspiracy to raise money.  

They were heading back through the market when they spied four Ferro Navy Officers heading in their direction. 

“These damn stupid wings,” Bruce said as he realised they had been spotted by the brass wings glittering on his back, “They’re too flamboyant for this.”

“Nonsense,” Rain smiled and stepped up to greet the officers, “ There’s no such thing as too flamboyant.”

“Gentlemen, what can we do for you today?”

“What do you know about the son of a certain Captain?” One demanded, obviously seen as the most intimidating of the four.

“Captain?” Rain asked

“Captain who?” Bruce added hoping these log-heads would drop that snippet of information to show how clevers they were.  

“You’ve been sharing a rumour about his son all over the market, what else do you know?” The officer flexed.  Yes, these officers were used to bullying people for what they wanted.

“Oh, the rumour wasn’t that we knew the son, the rumour is that the son is heading for Manihiki,” Rain explained as if it were all a simple misunderstanding.  

“Huh,” The officer grunted and looked to his fellow navy men for help, “Know any more?”

“‘Fraid not, gentleman, that’s what brought us to the rumour market in the first place.”

The four officer’s seemed to deflate at the news.  Their hot tip had turned cold.

“Uh…if you hear anything, we’d appreciate it if you could let the Navy know,”

“Anyone we could get in contact with? Maybe someone we can put in a good word for “…four upstanding officers…” of the Ferro Navy?” Rain asked, and received the name of an Admiral As Lac Grel as well as the calling card for the most talkative of the four officers, Ro Ban Ottmer.  Offering their best of luck, Rain and Bruce headed back through the market sure that if they saw those officers again, it would be too soon.

Peggy and Algernon were also busy.  Peggy was going from bar to bar talking for train Captains heading to Manihiki and seeing if they were interested in hiring-on.  It was true that Peggy was a first-rate engineer and Algernon and Bruce had more than proven their skills as gunners, but Rain’s talents were always harder to define.  She offered Rain’s services as a general hand.

Algernon was scanning the stalls for cyphers as usual.  Looking carefully through the offerings, he could feel the presence of the Strange on the items that didn’t belong and were hiding in plain sight.  He was offered a potion by a  stall keeper, didn’t think much of it and moved on.  At another stall, he found a handle which he identified quickly as a monoblade, a collar which seemed to change its wearer’s appearance and an odd block that he discovered was a salve with healing properties.  The first two, he paid the asking price and was able to get the third for free.  Algernon walked away, feeling he’d won the trade game and found the others as Peggy was sharing what she had organised with Bruce and Rain.

“General hand, I’m not a general anything,” Rain grumbled.  Peggy ignored his protests and continued.

“The train is the Gliding Vulpine, a diesel heading out tomorrow morning.  The captain’s name is Al Ram Kuno and has agreed to take us on as crew in exchange for transport, food and board.”

“We’re not getting paid?  You alone are worth more than transport,” Algernon said to Peggy as he stowed his treasures in a hessian haversack referring to her knack at improving engine performance.

“Yes, well I’d do it anyway, but this way I have permission,” She replied looking forward to getting her hands on the inner workings of the Gliding Vulpine.

That night they found lodging at one of the taverns and early the next morning they were down at the dock boarding the Gliding Vulpine.  Bruce and Algernon were surprised to discover that though the train was equipt with ballista, they were the only gunners.

“We’re a trading vessel, we usually don’t need heavy defences,” Captain Al Ram Kuno replied smoothly.  Knowing the dangers of the Railsea, Algernon wasn’t so sure.  A quick investigation of the gunnery deck soon proved his suspicions.  Though the deck itself was neatly scrubbed and train-shape, they’d missed dried blood left in the cracks and seams of the carriage roof. The Gliding Lupine had undoubtedly come across some adventure.  Algernon and Bruce organised their shifts to ensure they wouldn’t become the next blood smear.

Peggy went straight down to the engine, greeted the current engineering staff with a nodd and got to work even before the train had left the dock.  Rain alone slunk around the train, dodging work until the Captain spotted him and put him on as switcher.  The speed and timing required to shift the train onto a new track amused Rain as did being at the helm beside the Captain as decisions of navigation were made through the wild tangle of the Railsea.  

The group’s first day onboard was uneventful.  Getting used to the train layout and its crew idiosyncrasies kept them busy for the most part.  Bruce made a point of feeling out the crew and Captain about the Almighty Bruce and the Ferro Navy.  The crew, in general, were ambivalent about the Ferro navy and its dealings. Most felt that it was best not to get involved with whatever the Navy considered its duty.  The Captain, on the other hand, had nothing but praise for the Ferro-navy.

“They keep the Railsea safe for honest traders such as ourselves,” He boasted, though Rain felt that was more because he paid for protection and had no fear of being attacked by the Navy.

The day slipped passed like the Railsea’s sands, and with the evening, Bruce found himself alone on the gunnery deck.  Now without the cumbersome wings, he felt at ease scanning the seemingly empty Railsea for signs of activity on the rails or below.  A soft shifting of sand, the appearance of bow wave as something large broke the surface.  Silently slipping through the sand beside the train, the velvety grey hide of a massive moldywarpe kept pace with the train.  Thirty metres long from nose to harpoon riddled rear the creature turned its eye on Bruce, and a blue spiral glow lit the night.  It was the Dreaming Sable!

“Mole Breech!” Bruce roared as he brought the trains Ballista about.  The Dreaming Sable rolled, the bolt flew wide of the mark and skittered away into the darkness.  With an economy of movement, the talpa swung into the train, shoulder checking the carriage Bruce now rode. Taking the opportunity, Bruce leapt from the train onto the mole itself.  His crowbar in hand, he used his forward momentum to smash it down onto the back of the mole.  

A roar from the mole broke the night as the train’s crew also scrambled to their posts.  Peggy was flung from her hammock and smashed into the bulkhead winding her as Algernon and Rain grabbed crossbow and the abandoned wings respectively.  As they climbed up on deck the mole attacked again, this time rolling into the train.  Algernon deftly made it to the gunnery deck, his jawbone crossbow ready as Bruce ran with the rolling mole keeping his footing for a second swing at the creature.  Rain leapt as the train jolted, rocketing into the night’s sky on brass wings as he watched Bruce now run along the spine of the beat to its head, the glowing eyes leading the way. Bringing the crowbar down between the creature’s glowing orbs, the mole rolled again and threw Bruce from its back, into the darkness of the sands.  This time, the roll derailed the carriage dragging the engine with it.  

Rain could only watch as he saw first Bruce and then the Captain and helmsman thrown into the night. It was no contest. Bruce needed to get off the exposed sand and back to the mole.  With a thought, he tilted forward, and the wings took him out across the sand to where Bruce was already picking himself up.

“Here, take the wings, why you weren’t wearing them I’ll never know,” He complained already unbuckling as he landed.  The sand below their feet shifted and rumbled ominously.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Bruce acknowledged his friend’s gesture but stayed Rain’s hands on the buckles with his own.

“Well, then…” Through the touch, Rain pushed the Strange to Bruce making the big man gasp, “Hit the thing from me!”   Energised, Bruce raced across the tracks towards the mole as Rain shot back into the air and out to where the Captain and helmsman had fallen. 

Back on the train, Algernon focused the Strange on the Dreaming Sable’s wedge-shaped head.  The powers twisted and shifted the mole’s view of the world, distracting it and slowing it down.  Bruce caught up and climbed up the hill of a creature aiming for the head.  Through the cracks in the upturned carriage walls, Peggy focused her thoughts on the Dreaming Sable.  Understanding its weaknesses and feeling its proximity to the prone engine, she too drew the energies of the Strange to her and bided her time, waiting to make her strike.

Now the train had stopped, the mole took advantage of its fallen prey and rose into the air twenty feet before crashing down, breaking the back of the engine.  A cracking blue plasma arc snapped out of the carriage and connected the mole to the diesel engine.  Suffused with the blue webbing of energised gasses, creature and machine were bound together to the same fate.  The plasma found the fuel tanks.  A heavy thud, a flash of light, and the whole world shook with the explosion as the engine blew up under the mole’s massive body.  The Dreaming Sable shuddered and moaned, its end was nigh as Algernon and Bruce readied their attacks.

Out on the sand, the Captain and helmsman were running for their lives.  Drawn by the activity of the Dreaming Sable, humps in the sand glided in from all quarters.  Smaller mole rats, though still the size of Alsations grabbed and nipped at their boots.  From the air, Rain dove, snatching up the Captain and dragging him to the relative safety of the rails as the helmsman tripped and fell to the razor teeth of a dozen rodents, tearing him apart.  Rain screamed into the night as, at the train, Algernon and Bruce delivered their final blows.  Algernon’s bolt sank deep into the flesh of the beast now exposed by the explosion as Bruce, now back at the head of the beast delivered a mightly blow into one of the glowing spiral eyes.  A crack of bone, the crowbar sunk deep, breaking the creatures’s skull.  The Dreaming Sable shuddered, the blue glow from the eyes dulled and disappeared as the creature fell, the mountain of fur and flesh finally defeated.

“I am Mighty Bruce!” Bruce roared, from the head of the beast.  The sound of it echoed across the empty desert to where the Captain and Rain stood.  A reply rose from the stricken train, as the crew cheered the hero of the moment.  The Captain did not cheer, just scowled and started walking back to his fallen train, the horrified Rain on his heels.

The night was long, dirty and anxious as the crew got to work.  Under Peggy’s expert eye, half righting what was left of the train and returned it to the tracks.  The other half, overseen by Bruce and Algernon butchered the Dreaming Sable before it, and they, were food for lesser mole rats.  Peggy dolefully salvaged what she could from the engine, but it was a wreck only good for scrap.  The Captain awarded the kill to Bruce, asking Bruce to refrain from referring to himself as the ‘Mighty Bruce’. It didn’t matter, the crew all knew, and once they made landfall, it would be a moment’s work for the legend of the Mighty Bruce to spread.

As dawn rose over the Railsea, a few of the group spotted a very familiar red rag flapping in the morning breeze.

“Hey, that’s my flag, we’re near the old theatre,” Rain said, and Peggy’s demeanour improved considerably.

“Molly!”  She cried and scrambled out of the wreckage that had once been the Gliding Vulpine

“Molly?” Rain asked, sure they’d seen no one in the lost theatre but a couple of giants rats and spiders.

“The engine.  I called her Molly.” Peggy replied self-consciously.  She looked over the desert to the flapping red rag, “I wonder if we wrap a good heavy chain around the drive wheel if we couldn’t pull her out onto the rails…”

To be continued…

27: But, I don’t want to

Using the invitation found in Rain’s puzzlebox the group travelled to the Graveyard of the Machine God and the collection of Ni’Challan.  Here the group learnt a number of truths, Bruce’s father’s fate in the Fero Navy of Railsea and Rain’s tragic past. They left the facility with more than just information as Algernon, unknown to even him, has taken something back to Earth.


Translating into Peggy’s lab the four companions broke away with nothing to say to each other, all cocooned in their own thoughts.  Rain was the first to stumble upstairs and away to who knew where.  Bruce went straight to the firing range for a few hours where he set up three targets and shot them all in quick succession.  Algernon was at a loose end.  He had surveillance equipment and thought to set it up to watch Keaton, his supervisor, then thought better of it.  He thought back to his studies into human psychology and brain chemistry in an attempt to solve the problem of his memory loss and blackouts.  The more he studied, the more he realised that the information was only for human minds and didn’t equate to his experience.  He knew if he really wanted to do something about it, he’d have to go home. But, that was the last place he wanted to be.  

In the end, no wiser, he made his way to the mess for an evening meal. Bruce, having finished his gun practice and was also sitting down to a meal and waved Algernon over.

“Bruce, you use to work in construction, did you ever knock things down?” Algernon asked as he brought his meal over to Bruce’s table.

“Oh yeah, it was good fun.  You don’t have to be so careful, and if you can find the right spot you can bring down a wall in a blow, very satisfying.”
“So there’s a science to it?”
“Absolutely, and an art.  The quality of the construction and materials, the formation of the load-bearing structures…all play their part”

“Could you knock a building down in one hit?”

“No, I imagine you could take out a load-bearer, but that won’t make the building fall down, just sag a little.”  Bruce put down his cutlery now paying more attention to his young friend’s line of questioning, “Why?  What is this all about?”

“Just curious,” Algernon tried to deflect Bruce’s interest.

“Come on, what’s on your mind?”

“Well, for example, it could have been useful to have the warehouse collapse as we escaped Celaphais.”

“Couldn’t have done it, not in the time we had.”

They ate in silence for a moment or two as Algernon digested his thoughts and meal.

“Kid, how’s your head?” Bruce asked and Algernon responded by making sure it was still in place, “I mean, you learnt some difficult stuff.”


“Someone’s been messing with your mind.” Bruce gave up on his meal and focused on Algernon squirming under the attention, “You know we’re here for you, you’re safe with us.”


“Well, we’ll keep Peggy from more of her extreme experimentation.”

A look came over Algernon’s features, a resolve, “It’s pretty obvious who it is…” He said before passing out again.  When he came to it was to Bruce crouched beside his chair, concern turning to relief as Algernon sat back up, wiping the remains of his meal off his face.

“I didn’t know you could do that to yourself,” Bruce said once he was sure his young friend was fine and sat back down.

“Do what?”

“You fainted again.”

“Oh,” Algernon said, now making sense of the mess, “Do we need to fix it, Mr Bruce?”

“Don’t you want this out of your head?”

“Not if it results in blowing my head off.” 

“I don’t think that will happen.”

A steely look flashed through Algernon’s expression, “I think you’re naive then.”

“I think, if it was to happen, it would have happened already.”

Peggy had spent the evening thinking over the cyborg augmentations she had acquired in the Graveyard of the Machine God.  She found it pleasant thinking about how she should incorporate such augmentations into her current form as she freshened up from the trip and grabbed some food before heading back to her lab.  However, passed her passcode, over the electrified floor and around motion sensors that were a staple of her lab, she found Rain, curled up in a corner drinking straight from her once hidden bottle of Burbon.  Without a word, she moved aside a chair at a large office desk revealing an alcove.  The space was lined with an old mattress and blankets.  Detailed technical drawings of engines from Railsea with breakdowns of the engine and gearing from The Limness were tacked to the wood all around. It was where Peggy had taken to sleeping most nights and the place she went to when she needed to think.  Rain crawled into the offered ‘safe space’ taking the bottle with him. 

Inside, a flash of metal caught his eye. Stuck to the underside of the table with a wad of chewing gum was a disk, no larger than two dimes stacked.  Shaking fingers peeled the device away from the table to reveal a tiny blue LED that had been hidden against the edge of the draw.  As Peggy busied herself around the lab, Rain silently pulled out his puzzlebox and dropped the disc in a compartment, before asking a question.

“Peggy, do you remember when you lost your parents?”

The question stopped Peggy in her tracks.

“Of course,” She said in her most matter of fact voice she could muster.

“What was it like?”

Where the first question had rocked her, the second had stung.  No longer able to keep up a facade of detachment she turned to Rain curled up under her desk.

“It was awful, what do you think?  They didn’t die or even go anywhere, they just ceased to be. “

She took her seat beside the table and reached for the bourbon just as it was offered up, “There’s CCTV footage of them going into a tunnel in their car, but they never came out the other side.  People looked, I’ve looked but there’s nothing to show what happened to them.”  She tilted the bottle to her lips and in a practised action drank down two quick mouthfuls.

“I use to tell myself fairytales. My family would be safe, I could find them if I just…I thought…knowing would make a difference, that I could put the ghosts to rest.” Rain said taking back the bottle as it was past down, “But it doesn’t, it just….why does it hurt?”

“Because they’re gone and they’re probably not coming back,” Peggy replied to Rain’s question from her own fractured childhood, “Mind you,” She sniffed, surprising herself with the tears now running freely down her face, “After Noel, I don’t know what to think.”  She brushed the tears away as Rain once more pulled out his puzzlebox and withdrew the metal disk.


Holding a finger to his lips he handed her the disc and pointed to where he’d found it, before leaning back onto the mattress and falling into a drunken sleep.

Without a word, she examined the disc.  It had no timpani or other device for converting sound waves to electrical impulses so she assumed it was not an audio bug.  Under a microscope, she could see the surface that looked metallic was actually bone, grown and not machine-made. The density of the material showed it had been formed from mammalian bone, but without DNA testing she could not narrow down her search.

 Slowly she pulled the item apart found that its components identified it as a beacon, one that used and broadcast across the Strange to another recursion. A beacon on a stationary item?  Lifting her head from her work she yelled out, 

“Hertzfeld, you have some ‘splaining to do!”

Hertzfeld, now use to this sort of communication from his protege, soon sauntered down the stairs to Peggy’s lab.

“What’s this about?”

“I can understand listening devices in my lab, but a beacon?” She gestured to the disk now pulled apart into components on a tray beside her.

“Why do you have a beacon?” He asked dumbfounded as he too realised what the disc was.

“Good question,” Peggy quipped back eagerly, as the excitement for the hunt replaced all maudlin feelings, “Come and help me answer it.”

Hertzfeld and Peggy worked side by side teasing the details out of the device.  He was fascinated to discover how it used the Dark Network to power and signal and was able to find a way of switching it off.

“I believe if we can find a way of tapping into the signal we would probably find others just like it.”  He said as Peggy eagerly stepped up to the task.  The night wore on and they kept at their allotted task oblivious to the rising sun the next day.

Algernon and Bruce were keeping themselves busy in the absence of the rest of the party.  Algernon took to the library and sat researching demolition techniques through his VR headset oblivious to the bustling Hertzfeld as he too looked for information pertaining to the signals through the Strange.  Bruce warmed up with a set in the gym, then put on his new armour and redid the workout again.  

Peggy had not left her lab.  She was close to a breakthrough on the beacon, she could feel it but it eluded her every search parameter.  Stepping back from the counter she rubbed her eyes with the palms of her hands and allowed herself to feel the exhaustion she had been keeping at bay all night.  Her eyes alighted to her bed where Rain still lay, the bourbon bottle now empty beside him.  

Subtle. It was how Bruce had described Rain’s abilities when they were first discovering they were quickened.  It was a good word, it described the beacons too.  How they subtly used the chaotic patterns of the Strange to project their signal.

And then she saw it.  She could see it in her mind, how the beacons worked and how to follow the signal not just to other beacons but back to their source.  Putting her inspiration into action she traced the signal through the Strange to five other beacons.  With all six beacons locations, she sent a signal through the network. The beacons all pointed to Ruk, the technology recursion, as their point of origin.

With a whoop and a victorious scream, Peggy leapt from the counter.  The sudden noise woke Rain with a start who cracked his head on the underside of the table making the desk jump.  

“Arrrrrh..” Was the inarticulate groan from the hidey-hole as Rain once more curled up adding the physical pain and hangover to his other woes.

Peggy had no thought for his pains.  In quick succession, she identified the other five beacon locations.

One on Earth, disturbingly outside New Orleans at her old home in the swamp.

One in Halloween, at the home of Hazel Jenkins

One in the Graveyard of the Machine Gods

One in a Zombie Apocalypse and the last in a Space Opera style recursion that the group had not been to.  

Taking careful note, she stood back and let the information sink in.  It still didn’t tell them who had planted the beacons in the first place.  She looked to the heap of misery under her table as Hertzfeld returned and she let him in on her discovery and voiced her concerns.

“This is a high-security facility, my lab is pin coded, covered by CCTV and equipt with an electrified floor.  I can’t imagine anyone but one of my group who could have  brought it in.”

“The other lab graduates make it a point of honour to put bugs in your lab.”

Peggy waved away the suggestion, pointing to a box of broken bugs of various kinds, “I find those.”

“But, your own team?” Hertzfeld said, also glancing at Rain thinking about the security risk of having him in the lab.

“It has to be.  Bruce could have been blackmailed to put it there, he has a family to protect,” She said, but shook her head just as quickly.  Bruce was far too honourable and practical to allow himself to be blackmailed, wasn’t he? “Algernon had blackouts.  Something is influencing him but…” She had to admit she found this thought very unsettling and she had considered Algernon a future collaborator and someone to whom she could trust.

“And…” Hertzfeld inclined his head to Rain who seemed to be snoring once more, but who could tell.

Peggy had to shrug her doubts over Rain.  He had found the beacon, but he could have just as easily placed it.  What did they really know about his convoluted past?

 “There will have to be an investigation.”

“I can’t run it,” Peggy confessed, “I don’t want to bring up the whole trust issues with them again.  You’ll have to run it and it has to be done now.”

Hertzfeld nodded and started with the first and most conveniently placed of the party.

A rap on the top of the table solicited a response of sorts.

“The number you have called is unattended, please leave a message after the beep.” Came a muffled voice, but no beep.

“Rain, I need to ask you a few questions,” Hertzfeld said in his best managerial voice. As chief of the Estate, he’d had practice and Rain turned to face Hertzfeld.

“How often do you come to Peggy’s lab?”

Rain’s brow started to wrinkle in thought, and then his eyes drifted out of focus. He made an effort to answer and eventually gave up shrugging.  “I came in a few days ago with the invitation… and then last night…was it last night?”  He looked at Peggy.

“He’s often here, they all are.” She agreed and Hertzfeld changed his question.

“Why were you here last night?”

At this Rain became decidedly shifty and looked back to Peggy, “Can you tell him it’s not relevant?”

“I don’t know what’s relevant and what’s not,” Peggy replied genuinely and Rain moaned.

“I couldn’t break into Keaton’s office for his stash,” He gestured to the now empty bottle of bourbon.  Keaton silently took that information on board and continued.

“Have you seen this before?” He showed the disc and Rain spent a moment trying to get his eyes to focus.

“Yeah, I found it up there,” He pointed to the blob of chewing gum still in place.  

Peggy reached for a Petrie dish and scalpel realising that this too could be analysed for clues. As she started her testing, Hertzfeld asked one last question.

“Have you seen anything like it before?”

“No.” Rain shook his head, discovered too late his mistake and sunk back down to the mattress, his eyes squeezed shut. 

Hertzfeld set to work looking for the rest of the party.  He found Bruce first just finishing his training and asked for a private word.  

“I need you to answer my questions as truthfully as possible.,” He said showing Bruce the disc, “Have you seen this before?”

Bruce picked it up and examined the disc before replying, “No, new to me.” He said adamantly.

“Tell me about your group’s usual movement patterns in the lab?”

Bruce’s eyebrow raised in question, but he kept it to himself and gave Hertzfeld a rundown on their usual routines.  

“Outside of the mess it’s the place we meet most often.  We always leave from there whenever we translate and if we’re looking for Peggy it’s the most obvious place to look.”

“So you would say you and the rest of the party freely move through the space, gain access when you please?”

“Yes, is that a problem, sir?”
“Not before now, no.” Hertzfeld considered his next question, “ Do you know where I could find Algernon?”

At that moment, Algernon was looking for Rain.  He sent an SMS.

Where are you?

Peggy’s lab.


Something’s up.

Should I go there? He replied and started heading in that direction.

Hertzfeld will find you.

Should I hide? He stopped and found a convenient dark space to wait for Rain’s reply.

There was a pause, longer than he expected, Probably in your best interests to talk to him.

Feeling the heat of the interrogation lamp already upon him, Algernon did what came naturally, he hid. Slowly he made his way to Peggy’s lab, skirting around the CCTV as he and Rain usually did he looked through the partially open door.  Inside Peggy was busy working on something, oblivious to the slight movement of her door.  Across the way, Algernon could see Rain, for some reason, hiding under a desk but nothing more. 

Pulling out his surveillance gear, he carefully placed a camera just inside the door and then stepped away to a storage cupboard across the way and locked himself inside.  From his phone, he watched as Peggy extracted white strands of DNA from a pink piece of some pliable plastic.  He had just settled down to watch as his phone rang, the Mission Impossible theme tune loud in the small space.  He answered it quickly.


“Algernon, Hertzfeld here.  I’d like to…” Algernon could clearly hear Hertzfeld just outside the door to the storage room talking on his phone.  There was a pause, “…are you in the storage cupboard?”

“Well done sir, you win.” Algernon bluffed, wishing Rain wasn’t there to help.



“Right,” Hertzfeld usually intimidated Algernon just because of his position as the Chief of Science.  Now his voice held a more serious tone that Algernon had ever heard. 

“Would you like to come in?” He offered and the door handle turned, the door opened.  Hertzfeld, seeing Algernon crouched on the ground, took a cleaner’s bucket, turned it upside down and sat on it.  He closed the door behind him.

“Have you seen one of these before?” Hertzfeld showed Algernon the disc.

Algernon’s heart sank into his chest.  He knew what the disc was.  Schooling his expression he replied, “No sir. What is it?”

“Some sort of beacon.  Do you know where we found it?”

“Peggy’s lab, “He slowly showed Hertzfeld the feed from the camera, “Under a desk, I assume.”  He pointed to Rain now making the connection.

Hertzfeld blinked and watched the feed as Peggy moved back to the desk scalpel in hand to try and take a second sample of the gum.

“Why do you have that?”

“I didn’t want to be blind-sided,” Algernon confessed, there was really no point in lies now.

“Who told you I was looking for you?”

Or maybe there was, “A big avian told me.” He thought that was how the saying went.

“Did you plant this?” Hertzfeld returned to the subject at hand and gestured once more to the disk.

“No. “

“And the CCTV?”

“I just put it there.”


“Five minutes ago.”


“I hoped to see you interviewing Bruce.”


“So I knew what I was in for?”

Hertzfeld paused, looking down on the young man, his knees up to his chest in the corner.  

“You know how this looks.”  It wasn’t a question.

“How does it look, sir?”

“Very suspicious indeed.”

“You think I did it?”

“As soon as you found out I was asking questions, you put up a camera in Peggy’s lab and hid in a storeroom.  I also know about your blackouts, that you are being affected by something outside of yourself.”

“But I’m just a kid!” Algernon wailed. Hertzfeld signed,  ignored the theatrics and continued with his questions.

“Do you have any idea how something like this would have got there?”

“Do you know, sir?” Algernon deflected.

“No that’s why I’m conducting this investigation.”

“How was it affixed?” Algernon asked.

“With chewing gum.”

“Someone who chews gum.”

“ Who do you think that could be?” 

“I don’t know, I’m just a boy.” Algernon tried again, but it was gaining no traction and he knew it, “Am I the prime suspect?”
“Well, yes,” Hertzfeld said simply as he ticked off mentally motive, access and capability.

Algernon put away his phone and held up his hands for handcuffs, “Best take me in, sir.”

Hertzfeld blinked again, “I… don’t have  handcuffs.”

“I do, “ Algernon offered, retrieving his own set he’d requisitions when capturing The Cowboy. He helpfully handed the out to Hertzfeld.

Hertzfeld looked at the handcuffs with distaste, “Come with me, I trust I don’t need handcuffs.”

Hertzfeld led Algernon across to security where they took one of the interrogation rooms. For several hours Hertzfeld questioned Algernon about his movements and about the beacon. Over and over they went through the same questions, all the time Hertzfeld was trying to find the lies in his statement. He was getting nowhere.

For Algernon’s part, he was finding the whole process thrilling.  It was like being part of one of his documentaries and he had to refrain from offering suggestions on how best to question the witness.

“It might be time to use the phone book, sir.” Algernon said enthusiastically.

Hertzfeld’s eyes bulged behind his glasses, “We don’t do that here,” He replied hesitantly, “Do we?”

With a screech of his chair, Hertzfeld stood and excused himself from the interview. Outside, Bruce and Rain were sitting on chairs in the hallway.  Bruce stood when he saw Hertzfeld appear.

“Bruce, what can you tell me about these blackouts?  What is their source? Do they have a trigger?”  

Bruce shared what the group knew which wasn’t much, “We were just deciding what to do about it.”

“I’d suggest you may need to go back to the source, have you thought about going back to his home world?” Hertzfeld suggested.

“He’s terrified of the thought,” Bruce replied but had to agree that this was an obvious way to get to the root of the problem.

“Do we know where he comes from?”

Bruce shook his head, “He keeps that stuff pretty close to his chest.”

Hertzfeld sat down in an empty chair looking every inch as tired as he was.  For a moment he just sat there, his head in his hands and the other two could do nothing but look on.

“Well, right now he’s a security risk.  Unless you can take him home and sort out these blackouts, I have no choice but to bar him from future work for the Estate. Your team have done good work, I’d hate to see that happen.”

Bruce nodded sagely as Rain twitched agitated beside him.

“He deserves better from us than to be cast aside.”

At that Rain reacted, jumping to his feet in what he saw as defence of his friend.  To the others, he was a dishevelled mess of a creature that was barely in control of himself.

“You do that and we’re gone, you hear me.  I’ll take him and we’re off through the millions of recursions that make up this universe and you’ll never find us.”

“Rain, don’t be melodramatic,” Bruce replied pulling Rain back into his seat, “They don’t treat people like that.”
“No?” Rain would not be put off, “How about Kamn Sharn?  All she’d wanted was to work on cars. And Leroy Caine?  Where did he go?  What does the Estate do with its little embarrassments?” Taking Bruce’s hand off his arm, Rain walked out, his coattails flying.

Hertzfeld excused himself once more and let himself back into the interview room.

“If you plan on exterminating me I will not go without a fight.” Algernon said as Hertzfeld reappeared.  Obviously he had heard the outburst in the hall.

“The Estate does not exterminate,” He sat back down his hands clasped in front of him, “Especially not good agents who are in need of help.  You are in need of help, even if you don’t realise it.  I’m referring to your memory loss issue, of course.”

“I have a problem with my memory?”

“You do.” Hertzfeld said with a finality that seemed to make the problem more real and present, “The best course is for your team to take you home and find out what is causing it.”

During the hours they had been talking, Hertzfeld had seen Algernon lie, obfuscate, plea his youth and deflect his questions.  Never had he seen Algernon pale until that moment.  
“I’m sure we should be finding Bruce’s father.” He suggested.  Another deflection, another distraction.

“It has something to do with your memory loss?” Hertzfeld asked wondering where this thought would lead.

“There are strange occurrences, Noel’s appearance, Bruce’s Dad’s journal. All clues to side missions.  I‘m sure in those I can find something….” Clutching at the straws of an idea, he vainly tried to persuade Hertzfeld.

“You’re afraid of your home recursion?”

“Aren’t you?” Algernon replied automatically, “No, I guess not.”

“Was something done to you?”

“I don’t dwell on it.  It’s not my home.”

“But you see, it has left its mark.”

Peggy had been working now for twenty-four non-stop. The DNA results were tantalising, but inconclusive.  She’d clearly found DNA, but the telomeres or terminals of each strand of DNA were shorter than expected.  This person was either very old so that their DNA was starting to break down, or they were a clone, or both.

Unfortunately, exhaustion was getting the best of her and an unattended beaker overflowed starting a fire. It destroying much of her equipment and all of the sample she’d been able to gather.  She was in the process of bashing her head on her lab desk when Hertzfeld walked in directly from his Interview with Algernon.

“Not good news?” He asked, trying to make sense of the chaos that was Peggy’s normally organised workspace.
“The DNA was so frustratingly interesting for a moment, and then I had a fire and I lost the lot.” Peggy lamented, she looked to her desk and to the now-empty hidey-hole.

“When did you last sleep?”

“Sleep?!  I have to clean up here, get replacement equipment, possibly run a DNA test on the bone of the beacon itself…” Peggy listed off her task.

“No, you sleep.  I’ll clean up here.” Hertzfeld said gently and pushed her towards her bed under the table.

“There another thing, what does short telomere mean to you?”

“Short telomere? We have a very old spy or someone genetically altered?  A clone, perhaps.”

Peggy nodded, swaying on her feet,  “ You’ll clean up my mess?”

“It’s my job, go.” He ordered, and this time Peggy did not argue but collapsed onto the mattress and was soon fast asleep.

When Rain had left security he had gone straight back to the lab and found the two recursion keys from Railsea.  It hadn’t been hard, Peggy had been distracted and he knew where they were kept. For a while, he’d walked around the campus common, trying to clear his mind. 

Under the green light of a large maple, he stood and listened to the wind through the boughs, the distant conversations of Estate agents and the even more distant sound of cars thudding across the nearby bridge. Each time his thoughts would swirl back in and chase around his head, clashing and interrupting each other until there was only a cacophony of thought.  The alcohol had made him sleep, but it had not been restful. All night he had dreamt and it had been exhausting. And now, in summer light the spinning of his thoughts was a physical thing that he couldn’t ignore. 

He just wanted to scoop out his thoughts and put them aside for a while.  Put them in a jar and look at them from the outside.  He just needed to get out of his head, but he no longer seemed able. Since the final opening of the puzzlebox, it no longer seemed to help calm his thoughts. Not Pandora’s box,  but Tobias’ box was open and all the woes of the world were loose inside his mind. 

In the end, he took off his coat and hung it carefully from one of the lower branches of the tree.  Then he started running.  A circuit didn’t take him long, so he went around again, and again, and again.    He didn’t count, just paid attention to the strides, the breaths in and out his racing heart. Each time a thought intruded into the simple mechanics of running he would go faster. He kept running until what was left in his stomach wouldn’t let him and he was sick behind the maple. When there was nothing left, he tidies himself at the garden tap, replaced his coat, now far too hot, and slowly made his way to security.

Bruce was talking with Algernon in the interview room when Rain stalked back.  Without interrupting he watched the two of them from the hallway.

“Bruce, I didn’t think I’d see you again,” Algernon said, all puppy-dog sweetness.  You couldn’t help but fall for the guy.

“I know, me too.” Bruce replied matter of factly, “You know we really need to fix this.”

“We really need to find your dad,” Algernon replied in the same practical tone. 

“It will be in your head forever.”

“It’s the safest course”

“I really don’t think you’re taking this seriously, kid. They’re talking about you like you’re a security risk.”

“Well, “ Algernon stiffened a little, his voice became just that little more steely, “The way I see this play out, Bruce, is that we all go and I’m the only one that comes back.”

“Why? We’re a pretty good team, we’ve got each other’s backs.  Can you tell me why this place would be any worse than where we’ve been already?”

“What if you were forced to fight me as well?”

Bruce paused at this for a moment, it was not a contingency he’d wanted to contemplate.

“Well then, I guess I’d knock you out.”

‘You see Bruce, I’m good.” Algernon replied not taking his eyes off Bruce’s.

Bruce’s grinned, “Yeah, but I’m better.  Want to take this to the gym?”

“I’m all good,” Algernon spoke and it no longer sounded like the puppy, but something knowing and formidable.

Bruce leaned back on the plastic chair making it creak.  The small room echoed with the noise.

“The idea of me losing all of you doesn’t feel…nice,” Algernon spoke, breaking the silence.

“Because we’re family, it’s the same for us, “ Bruce grasped at the truth at the heart of both their arguments, “We don’t want to lose you, and we’ll do whatever we have to, to keep you.  You’ve got to admit it would have to be something pretty extraordinary that you’d come back and the rest of us wouldn’t.”

Algernon leaned forward across the table between them, thinking through each word carefully, “It is not a place that is gentle on people.”

Bruce was starting to get tired of the cryptic answers, “Look someone is in your head that needs taking out.”

“Maybe my head needs taking off.”

“Quit it!  I’m not willing to go there.”

“Can I suggest, sir.  I am only a danger to the Estate, in the Estate.”

“You’re a danger to yourself, Algernon.  Someone can ask you a question and you’ll blackouts.  Who is it that’s controlling you?”

Algernon leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment.  

He’s trying to tell us. Rain thought, but could not have said what Algernon was trying to say.  

Eventually, Algernon shook his head and seemed to make a decision, “This seems like a distraction sir, let’s get moving.”

“Where do you want to go?”

“I want to meet your dad.”

“He’s not important.  He’s not part of the mission.”

“It’s a clue.”

It’s a clue.  Rain thought and he wanted it to be true.  Dad, Father, maker, creator?  His head spun with all the information and he was finding it hard to stand up.

“My dad disappeared years ago, he is not the task at hand.” Bruce continued oblivious to the chaos in the hallway.

“London then?”

“Also not a mission, they have nothing to do with the spiral dust.”

“Crows Hollow?”

“Goddammit, Algernon.” Bruce swore and only just held back from thumping the metal table, “Someone is influencing you, that has to be fixed before it endangers the mission.”

“It hasn’t affected the mission yet.”
“Hasn’t it?”

There it is. Rain winced.  They had been skirting around the issue the whole day, but only Hertzfeld called it for what it was.  A problem with security.  A problem of trust.  He didn’t know if he wanted to hear any more and started to move away just as he heard his name spoken by Algernon.

“Are you hungry?” Algernon asked in his usual conversational tone.
“I guess it is that time.” Bruce agreed with a heavy sound to his voice.

“I want some coffee.  Where’s Rain?”

“Floating around.”

“They took my phone, do you think I can have it back?”
“Not yet, you can use mine.” 

“Not the same,” Algernon said but a few moments later a message silently came through from Bruce’s phone asking him to join them in the mess.

Just as silently, Rain left security,  walked the campus one more time before joining them both at the mess.

When he arrived the mood of the two friends had changed.  There was a quality of reminiscence to Algernon’s conversation.

“There are some things I miss.” He said as Rain got his own cup of coffee and joined them at the table.

“Like what?” Bruce asked.  The party had very little details about the world that Algernon came from, every scrap was noted and discussed between the other three.  Maybe it was his own mood, but Algernon’s calm acceptance felt like that of a prisoner on death row facing their imminent death.

“The information.  None of this,” Algernon mimed typing on a keyboard and swiping screens.

“What, it just comes to you?”

“Sort of.” 

“Like your own memories?”

“No, more deliberate.”

“What else is really good about home?”

This took Algernon a while to think.

“They don’t have bacon like we do,”

“Any people?”

“No,” He shook his head emphatically, his face scrunched up in disgust.

“We’ll get you  sorted out and then we’ll get my dad.”

“Peggy knows where the beacons are coming from.” Rain dropped on to the group as the conversation lulled, “We’re going, it’s a done thing.”   Now if Algernon was facing his death, it felt like he’d released the blade on the guillotine.

“I don’t want to lose any more family.” Rain reached across the table trying to bridge whatever gap existed between them.

“Same here, “ Bruce agreed with a gusto that jarred with Rain’s mental state.

“I feel the same,” Algernon added, looking Rain back with his steady gaze.

“I have a way of getting out, “Rain confessed, “If things go wrong.  There’s a whole universe of recursion to explore.”

“That sounds good, let’s do that.”
“But we can’t unless we know what we’re running from.”
“I can tell you.”
“But you can’t, can you. You haven’t been able to.”

“When we come upon it, I can.”

“But…” But what?  Rain couldn’t get his thoughts straight.

“Rain, you’re not making a lot of sense.” 

“I know…I…know…” 

That evening the boys collected in the dormitory as usual.  What was not usual was Hertzfeld and a contingent of security to lock them in for the night.  Algernon was given back his phone and once he was behind the locked door he quickly sent a message to Peggy.

Say the beacons come from Railsea

But they aren’t from Railsea, She replied just as quickly, They’re transmitting to Ruk.

But we really don’t want to go there.

But that’s where it is.

The next morning Rain was awoken by Bruce’s new daily routine.  For a moment he sat watching, taking note that the exercises were tailored for speed and agility instead of his usual strength routine.  Eventually, the brain kicked in and drove him to the showers as the door was unlocked and Algernon left for breakfast.

Peggy was already eating and lifted her head from her usual notes to spot Algernon piling his plate with Bacon.

“So, why don’t you want to go to Ruk?” She asked washing her last mouthful down with black coffee.

“Because of the….” He started to explain before falling away in a dead faint.  Peggy picked a glass of water off the table and threw it in his face.  Algernon spluttered awake now wet and covered in bacon fat.

“They’re monitoring my spaces and I want to know why.”  She said as he went back and piled another plate high with crispy strips.

When Bruce and eventually Rain joined the table she explained the beacons and how they were all reporting back to the major recursion of Ruk. As she talked she took out three vials and one by one took a hair from Algernon and Bruce.  

“You’re not taking my hair, I don’t know if there’s male pattern baldness in my family, “ Rain protested, holding his hand out for the vial.  Peggy gave him the vial and he spent a moment or two filling it with spit.

“How are we getting there?” Algernon asked, sensing a change in the course of the party’s plans.

“You could take us there,”  Bruce suggested and a gleam came into Algernon’s eye.

“Sure,” He said, just as he’d heard Rain say many times before.  

“I’ve requisitioned a key, “ Peggy tapped several forms in front of her, “My lab is ruined, I needed new equipment so I asked for the key at the same time.”

After breakfast, a small random piece of Ruk tech in her hand, Peggy initiated the translation.  Connecting to the Strange was, as usual, the pull of the swirl fractals drawing their consciousness out of Earth influence.  Peggy had trouble focusing through the key and the path through the recursions would not open to her at first.  With a force of will, she pushed through the obstruction and set the course to Ruk.

26. Many Simple Truths

Back at the Estate, after the revelation of an invitation in the final compartment of Rain’s puzzle box, the party tried to decide where to go, Crow’s Hollow or take the invitation. When Bruce suggested leaving the decision to God guiding their destiny with a coin toss, Rain took up the challenge.  *********************************************************************

“Sure,” Was all Rain said as he flipped a gold crow high into the air, the gold claw motif once more catching the light as it spun and flipped.

“May God guide your hand,” Bruce said low and fervently watching the heavy coin fall.

All eyes watched its rise and descent, all eyes except Rain’s who never left Bruce’s face. He turned his practised hand ready to receive the coin. With a movement so small and subtle, instinctively judge the coin’s fall, he caught the heavy coin vertically between index and middle fingers of his left hand.

Bruce’s face fell in deep disappointment and a twinge of guilt spiked through Rain. But the guilt could find no purchase and was quickly replaced by irritation.

“I have another idea.  Instead of leaving things to chance why don’t we use our god-given brains.”  He said giving Bruce the coin.

“It wasn’t leaving the decision to chance, it was letting the powers decide,” Bruce grumbled at Rain.  He ignored it and turned back to the group.

“Due to all the excitement over the puzzle box, I may have overlooked another piece of information that we discovered at the library.” Rain gestured to Algernon giving him one last chance to speak openly and honestly about the facts he’d been hiding from the group, “Would you like to tell the others about the documents we found  before the puzzle box fell?”

Algernon looked surprised at Rain, puzzled by his request and unsure what to say.  He turned to the group, his hands open and visible in front of him shaking his head in confusion.

“We didn’t find anything new.” He said and Rain’s irritation was fanned.

“Really?” He said now facing the young man square on, “Now, I suggest you tell us all about planetvores.”  The phrase left Rain laced with the force of the Strange.  Rain’s indignance and frustration over Algernon’s and Bruce’s behaviour pushing the influence of the words.

Algernon straightened, his gaze locked on nothing, “Alright, the thing about planetvores…” He started saying before his eyes rolled up, his eyelids fluttered closed and he slumped bonelessly to the floor of the lab, unconscious.

Bruce was the first to react, immediately at Algernon’s side, checking breathing and heartbeat before placing him on his side in a comfortable position.

“He’s breathing and heartbeat seems normal.  He’s just fainted. “Bruce turned his attention to Rain, his expression thunderous, “What did you do?”

Rain just stood back frozen, his face locked into an expression of unutterable horror.

“No…I didn’t…” He said but nothing he could say was the truth.  He had done this, he had turned The Strange on to his friend and pushed.  In the end, he just stood there shaking his head and Bruce turned away in disgust back to his patient.  

No more than a minute later, Algernon’s eyelids flicked open and he sat up looking curiously at the others circling him.

“What just happened?” He asked as he stood with Bruce’s help, on wobbly legs.  Rain, on equally wobbly legs, sank onto a lab stool and silently thanked the powers.

“Well, we don’t know, Rain asked you a question and did something that he’ll never do again, “With another thunderous look from Bruce, Rain could do nothing but look away, “Isn’t that right, Rain?”

“Yes, yes…I’m sorry.” He agreed hastily, relieved, dismayed and curious at the same time, “Algernon, do you suffer from blackouts?  I mean, moments that you can reconcile, when you don’t remember how you got where you are or what you are doing?”

Algernon stared at Rain with as bemused smile flicked across his face, “Well, doesn’t everyone?”

The room was silent.  The three companions looked at each other with worried expressions.

“No Algernon,” Bruce informed his patient soberly in a quiet voice, “That is not normal.”  He looked at Rain whose eyes darted back and forth as his mind made sense of the new revelation. 

“How did you know?” 

“I get it now,” Rain replied, “I’m…sorry I didn’t understand before.”

“What?” Bruce asked anger once more bubbling up, only just cooly restrained, “What did you just understand?”

“I get people, that’s what I do.” Rain stood, taking the floor.  He turned to Peggy behind her lab table, “ I get Peggy, no offence you’re easy,”

Peggy shrugged, not sure if to be annoyed or pleased.

“And I now get Bruce, “ He turned to Bruce wanting to say more and thinking better of it, “But Algernon was so….contradictory.  You are so smart, so sharp and…couldn’t remember whole conversations…you’d seem afraid of confronting anything then throw yourself into a fight, like the one in the warehouse…or…throwing yourself at a moving car in the wastelands…do you remember that?” He spun on the spot and faced Algernon was slowly shaking his head. 

“I just thought that was how he manifested his fight or flight.”  Bruce said, “He is naturally tentative, but when the shit hits the fan…”

“People are more…nuanced than that.” Rain shook his head now facing Bruce, “The written conversation in the cave… the words he uses sometimes…the way he sometimes seems…different…” As he said it he remembered where Algernon’s body language was more determined, less tentative, “…just lots of little things…”

“Can we fix it?” Algernon voice, small and unsure echoed across the lab.  There he stood, his arms wrapped around his chest looking scared and very alone.

“There’s nothing to fix.” 

“Something for me to study?”

“Bring the two together, the determined and the smart Algernon?”

All three said together, stopped and stared around.

“Just..go slow, “Bruce turned to Rain and Peggy, “Remember what you said Rain when we thought we were going to lose Peggy?”

“What did you say?” Peggy arched an eyebrow.

Raising a hand asking for her patience, Rain stepped forward and faced Algernon.

“Do you think you want to be fixed?”

“It’s not safe.” Algernon replied, but this time, in the context it seemed odd, nonsensical, “I have to go.”

“No, please!”

“You’re not leaving my sight.”

“Just a few tests?” The others said together and Algernon stopped, a mouse frozen to the stop, surrounded by waiting cats.

“Please, Algernon why isn’t it safe, can you tell me?” Rain asked but all he got back was the terrified stare of a prey animal facing its predator.

“I don’t understand why I fainted, “ He finally said, “What happened?”

“I asked you a question about…about the scary thing…I made you answer…”  Rain looked to Bruce, “You were right…I did do something, I…pushed him to tell me, I wanted to know how he could know and not know at the same time.” Rain faced Algernon again now tears of not frustration but remorse welling in his eyes, “When you tried to answer…you fainted.  I’m so very sorry?”

Instead of more fear or even anger, Algernon seemed to calm and grow curious.

“You did something? What?”

“Ah…you remember when we fell into that couple’s apartment in Celephais?”  Rain said stepping one step closer to Algernon, “Do you remember that I suggested to them that it was all military exercises?”

Algernon nodded, even smirked a little at the memory.  Rain stepped closer.

“That was the first time I’d pushed someone into thinking what I wanted them to think.”

“Oh,” Algernon replied now interested in this new ability.  All thought of running had gone and he stood thinking a moment with Rain only an arm’s length away, “Can you use it again, if I asked?” 

A collective held breath was released.  

“Yes,” Rain nodded earnestly, “If you want, but only if you want.”

“Yes, Rain, only with the patient’s permission.” Peggy scolded from behind her lab bench, “Do you need a lecture on patient rights as well?”

Suddenly the tension that had been building in the room since Rain had posed the question was released.  They all chuckled at Rain’s discomfort at the thought of a lecture from Peggy and Bruce now stepped up and drew Algernon and Rain back into the fold.

“It seems to me, maybe we need to go on vacation somewhere.  Things have been crazy of late, we could do with a break.”

“Yeah, not Crow’s Hollow for a while.” Rain brushed a shaking hand across his still bruised face dismissing the welling tears and sighed, “I still have my recursion.”

“I was wondering about another trip out to Railsea,” Bruce suggested and there were nods from Peggy and Rain.

“What about the invitation,  the Found Gentlemen?” Algernon reminded the party and Rain remembered his puzzle box still clutched in his right hand.

“Found Gentlemen, odd name.  How were they lost to have to be found?”  Peggy asked, now employing the more relaxed feel of the group to go through a few basic coherency tests with Algernon.

“A picturesque phrase for a certain sort,”  Bruce replied dismissively as if they were not the sort of people you would want to associate with.

“Rain is one, he got an invitation.” Algernon retorted.

This comment seemed to disturb Bruce, “He’s not…at the moment.  He has an invitation, doesn’t mean he is one.”

“Why not?” Rain now looked aggrieved that Bruce, “I felt very lost over the year, it would have been nice to be found. Besides, it leads to your past as well.”

“Do you think it would be seen as aggressive if we all come along?” Algernon mused and grin bloomed on Rain’s blotchy face.

“I wouldn’t go without you.”

“Algernon, “ Peggy completed her tests and found Algernon perfectly conscious and aware, “Can I mind-link with you?”

“Hell no!” Algernon replied, but he didn’t jump back or shy away, only laughed at Peggy’s disappointment.

“Well, where else have you suffered blackouts?” She would not be deterred from asking simple questioning at least.

“Mostly in the library.” He confessed and it was Peggy’s turn to chuckle, “I know that feeling, just before big exams.”

Peggy tried one more way to get information without the evasive testing that she knew would send Algernon running.  Closing her eyes and linking to that feeling of the swirling clouds of the Strange she asked a question.

What influence is causing Algernon to have mental blanks?

Returning to her in her own voice was a cryptic reply, He carries his past with him, but he doesn’t know it.

Peggy repeated the reply, “What sort of fortune cookie bullshit is that?” She spat in disgust.

“It certainly sounds very familiar for this group, “ Rain replied, “So I guess that mean’s he belongs, congratulations, you’re as loony as the rest of us.”

Somehow without any particular agreement, the group decided to use the invitation and travel to see the Found Gentlemen.  They broke up to prepare themselves for the next day in whichever way they thought best.

Bruce went down to the gym and firing range, getting in touch with the instructor, readjusting his routine and mentally re-tunning with exhaustive physical exercise.  After, he returned to Katherine’s office topick up his amour and report their next excursion claiming it was a micro recursion of Rain’s finding but not sharing information about the Found Gentlemen. 

Rain went out into the city for a few hours, coming back with a new set of lockpicks purchased and not given to him by the Estate.  When the cordite had cleared from the firing range he tried out the new arm sheaths and soon became as proficient moving blades from them as he had from his back sheaths.  The speed of Lightfeather may be beyond him, but accuracy was his aim.  He spent a few hours until his arms ached and he remembered to check in on Algernon.

Algernon tried designing explosive bolts for his crossbow.  At this Peggy was a font of inspiration and even offered a plan for a prototype that would use cyphers to create a tiny rip in space wherever it hit.  Materials for such an endeavour were rare though, so that led Algernon finally to Lawrence Keaton’s door, his direct supervisor.

The creaking and slamming noise of doors hastily being closed in response to his knock told him that Mr Keaton was in his office and making ready to receive visitors.

“Ah Algernon, I did not expect to be seeing you, what can I do for you?”

“I am in need of special equipment, something that Doctor Peggy believes can be made with the right parts.  I understand she calls it an Arrowhead of total destruction.”

Keaton balked at the name of the weapons and automatically shook his head, “You’re doing some great work at the moment, you don’t want to spoil your glowing reputations with unnecessary death and destruction.”

“Don’t you trust me yet, sir?  Haven’t I proved my worth?” Algernon replied aggrieved.

“Not with explosives, no.”

“These are more implosive as I understand, sir.”  Gesturing with his hands Algernon simulated the difference with a sharp clap. 

“You’re really not convincing me here, kid.” Keaton grimaced, “You’ve succeeded so far without wreaking total destruction, keep up the good job I say.”

“But sir, think what could be achieved with better equipment.”

“Precisely.  The answer is no.  Anything else?”
“I’d like to requisition more surveillance equipment.”

“See, a sensible suggestion, “ Keaton pulled out a requisition slip and started filling it in.

Peggy filled Hertzfeld in on the Implausible Geographic Society, mostly to complain about their crude laboratory set up, but also to vent about Noel and his abandonment to the “other side”.  Hertzfeld had problems of his own with his phasing suit and was pleased for a moment’s reprieve to go over Peggy’s plans for the arrowhead.  Though theoretically possible, he had to agree the components were not available for such a project.  Her attempts at trying on her own failed and she had to shelve the project for the time being.

That evening, Algernon was sequestered in the library surrounded by research material when Rain finally found him. Without disturbing his friend, Rain noted the subject of the research, information on psychology and brain chemistry.  Seeing that Algernon was dealing with the problem as best he could, Rain let him be and, since reminded of the joys of literature from his Daydream library, found the fiction shelving and burrowed into the collection getting reacquainted with old friends.

The next day, feeling much improved after resting in beds in the safety of the Estate, the group met once more in Peggy’s lab.  Rain dumped the invitation out of his puzzle box onto the lab table and Peggy led the translation.

A room, luxurious in its appointments, swam into focus.  On three side, richly inlaid wood-panelled walls decorate the space.  In the centre two large wingbacked chairs in deep red leather sat either side of a small side table that held a cut glass tumbler, ice defracting the light through a clear brown liquid.  The fourth wall was a thick glass or perspex window looking out onto natural space and the decrepit remains of a broken space station.  Sparking in the starshine, a halo of broken components, metal and glass gave the station a misty, magical appearance.

Besides their location, some of the group had also changed. Bruce and Algernon looked like their Earth-based selves. Rain was covered in integrated LEDs that flicked through an array of colours before settling into a cheery yellow.   Peggy was most changed.  Her skin was deathly pale with a slick sheen of moisture.   Her hair instead of the soft messy curls, was a black wiry array sprouted from her head.  Three-quarters of her face was replaced with a metal mask from which both eyes glowed dimly red.  From her right arm, a weapons of sorts protruded out from behind her at the elbow.  Her legs were bent backwards like that of birds.

Rain reached out and touched her skin, it was cold and clammy and made him shiver.

“Are you feeling okay, Peggy?”

“I…feel…good…different.” Her voice came out synthesised and neutral, as dead as her skin.

Taking a deep breath, Rain looked at the two chairs, the ice in the glass chinked as they slipped against each other.  Picking up the glass, he breathed in the scent of the peat and wood tones of single malt whisky.  It made him smile nervously.

“I guess I get to sit down.” He said almost as a question.  Bruce nodded agreement.  

The glass in one shaking hand, Rain grasped Bruce’s in his other before carefully taking his seat in the nearest chair. A moment of nothing and then an image flickered into existence in the opposite chair.

It looked like an elderly man, with close-cropped hair and beard with clear pale blue eyes.  The man’s image was familiar but did nothing to allay Rain’s nerves.  Leaning back, he nodded to acknowledge the hologram and waited for the being to speak.

“Greetings Tobias… and friends?” The hologram looked around the room at the rest of the party watching on.

“I suppose you’re wondering why you here.”

Rain raised the glass and breathed in the whisky, attentively listening, saying nothing.

“I like to collect things, I look for people who can find interesting things for my collection.  You seemed like someone that I would like to work with.”

With that Rain shot the whisky and focused on the burn before speaking.

“I apologise, “ He finally said when he felt more in control of himself, “I think you found me twelve months too late.”

The hologram of the old man wrinkled his face in consternation, “Oh? How so?”

Without a word, Rain looked to his companions arrayed around.

“Ah.  You’ve found your place.” The hologram nodded understanding.

Rain, in the moment, was flummoxed.  He felt this moment was important, but didn’t know why. He didn’t think he wanted anything from the image, and it was certain there was nothing he could give. In the end, he settled on the second reason for their visit.

“But sir, we are not here just for me, “ He said, and stood, clearing the chair for Bruce.  Bruce sat down.

“What do you want from Rain?” Bruce asked and Rain clutched the back of the chair in anticipation.

The figure in the chair took a moment to think then looked back to Bruce in the chair, “He has a darker past than he knows. I slipped him my card hoping he’d find me when he was ready.”  

He knows. Rain thought and for a time he heard and saw nothing as the equivalent of mental white noise dominated all his senses. When he returned to himself the discussion had moved onto the other topic and tears were running down his face.

“Look,I’m here searching for a man from Railsea, he used to work for the Manihiki Fero Navy.  I have information that tells me he works for you.” Bruce was telling the figure in the opposite chair.

“Why is he of interest?”

“I believe he knew my Pa, Jimmy Johnson.”

Rain giggled at the mention of ‘Jimmy’, having to stifle it when Peggy stared at him with her red eyes.  The coincidence of Bruce’s father’s name and his own first true alias had driven out a bubble of nervous energy in the form of a giggle.  He didn’t see anything funny in it, but the thought sparked something for Rain and he tried to focus once more on the image in front of him.

“The gentleman in question is out on an errand at the moment.” 

“Could you tell me where he went?  Maybe we can find him.”

“He’s out acquiring an item for my collection.  He will be back in a day or two, “ 

“Collection?”  Peggy interrupted in her mechanical voice, “Could we see it?”

The hologram turned to look at Peggy and slowly nodded its head, “Yes, why not.”  

The image stood and led the group through the door at the back of the room and into a dark space highlighted by pools of light.  The lights were forcefields surrounding some of the most well-known items of history and fiction.  A sword pertaining to be Excalibur was set beside a piece of the hull of the Titanic where the iceberg had ripped through like tinfoil.  Part of the Berlin wall with a graffitied image of two middle-aged men french kissing sat alongside a small plain gold ring in a very thick forcefield.  

Pop cultural references and item from major moments in Earth’s history side by side.  It was not surprising when Algernon gasped and raced through the exhibits to stand in front of a low bodied motorcycle, decaled in branded sponsorships and painted a bright crimson red.  Try as he might, he could not get past the forcefield to sit in the Shotari Kaneda’s Akira bike.

Rain had been following along behind the group, blind to the stuff displayed around him.  His eyes were only for the figure, moving through the lights, sometimes commenting on one piece or another, discussing in general terms the properties of the forcefields that protected them.  The hair was different, but that was nothing, the way this figure walked without stiffness or infirmary was also different and harder to reconcile, and it had been 25 years and a whole lifetime of experience watching people ago.  But the more Rain watched, the more he was sure that the hologram was of the man he knew as Mr Joseph.

“Excuse me, sir,” He interrupted the tour with a crack in his voice, “May I ask your name?  I assume that Mr Joseph is no longer appropriate?”

The figure stopped and smiled, happy that he’d finally been found out, “You may call me Ni’Challan.” He said and turned back to his collection.

“You collect people and things, “ Peggy could be heard from behind a working shuttle from the NC-1701 Enterprise, “Do you have John and Athena Martin in your collection?”


“Or Lededje Y’breq?” Algernon asked seemingly in the same vein.  Though Peggy’s answer had been monosyllabic, the image that was Ni’Challan thought about his answer for a moment.

“Interesting.  I don’t, but maybe I should look into this individual.”  

The tour moved through a group of specimen jars with various biological examples.  Peggy clearly identified a face-hugger from the Alien franchise and determined that it seemed dead.

“What is this place called?” Algernon asked as they passed another thick window of perspex that looked over the debris field that was the space station.

“Originally it was called the Graveyard of the Machine god.” NiChallan joined Algernon at the window, “Or I should say at the end of the space that was the Graveyard and The Strange.”

“Ah, we knew a girl who visited the Graveyard of the machine god, made an android mother.  She might be worth you collecting.”

“What about her?” Peggy interjected, “She’s on a traineeship, she’s doing well where she is.”

“Well, it would get her out of the Estate.”

“Why would she want to leave the Estate?  It’s the best place I’ve ever work?”

As Peggy and Algernon bickered, Bruce sidled up beside Rain who was hanging back lost in his thoughts.

“Are you going to ask him about your history?” He whispered low so only Rain could hear, “Sounds like this might be your chance to find out.”

An electrical shock part excitement, part horror travelled Rain’s nervous system making his shiver.  This was the moment he’d been wishing and dreading in equal measure for 25 years. To let it slip by now would be a tragedy.  Again, he felt himself forget to breathe so he nodded and took a shuddering breath in.

“Ni’Challan,” He said, not recognising his own voice as it came out strained and stiff, “You mentioned something about my past.  Just for interest sake, you couldn’t tell us my story, could you?”

Ni’Challan, who had grown bored of the argument, had wandered through the collection. He stopped and once more turned his penetrating gaze on Rain.

“When I was told about a possible candidate for collection, such a rare and tragic case, I had to see for myself.  What I found was a creative, problem solving individual that had a great deal of potential.”

When Rain did not reply, barely moved, he continued, “You don’t remember do you?”

“No sir, “ a stilted reply.

“Do you know your real name?”

Rain was sure his heart had stopped at that moment and a shaking hand enclosed the pendant, the white flower with a green centre, “I have only the name Tobias Cudo.”

“Amir.” The short gentle sound left Ni’Challan’s lips and struck Rain like a battering ram. Instantly another name sounded in his mind, Ademovic.

“Mean anything?” Bruce asked quietly at his side.  The shock and rareness of the memory, the truth of it was too much and Rain could do nothing but shake his head.  Ni’Challan didn’t seem to notice and continued on with his story.

“…a mostly pleasant childhood I understand…”

“Parents?” Rain whispered.

“Yes, they were taken from you, tragic.” 

“Who took your family and who and why?” Bruce asked Rain who was now, head bowed silently weeping.

“Sir, do you not know your history?” Ni’Challan turned his pale gaze on Bruce, “The Bosnian War?”

Bruce had to shake his head in ignorance of the conflict.

“On the 11th July 1995, Serbian troops overran UN peacekeepers and took the city of Srebrenica.  In the following week, more than 8000 Muslim men and boys were rounded up and killed.  It was a massacre.”

“Eight-thousand-three-hundred-and-seventy-two.” Rain automatically corrected without looking up.  It was true, and now it had finally been said, it was real.  He hadn’t expected facts to hurt.

“But how did you know to look up those number, that massacre?” Bruce asked.

“It…was…mine…” Rain said, “My foster records…no details, just a lost kid without a name from Bosnia, but enough…not hard to look up.”

The room went silent as the only sound was Rain gasping for breath between tears and Bruce shuffling awkwardly beside him.

Peggy now took the opportunity to change the subject.  She had been staring and the objects in the collection with a question that she now able to articulate.

“Usually when you bring an artifact through to another recursion, they change to fit their new surroundings.” She said, gaining Ni’Challan’s attention.

“Hey yeah, “Algernon added, “When we watched the probe go through the inapposite gate in Celephais, the display changed as it entered a more technological recursion.”

Peggy nodded, “Exactly, so what’s stopping these artifacts from changing to just hunks of space junk?”

“Ah,” Now Ni’Challan seemed to see Peggy and responded accordingly, “The force fields, you have already noticed.  They were able to trap a piece of the reality of that recursion along with the artifact.  Of course, being on the edge of The Strange doesn’t hurt, this is the only place where this technology can exist.”

“I guess you’re not inclined to share this piece of research with others?” Peggy’s red eyes lit up adding  a rosy blush to her grey complexion, “Not even for good will.”

“I think I’ve shown you quite a lot of goodwill.” Ni’Challan moved away leaving Peggy to ponder the nature of the force field in front of her.  

She looked around, trying to make sense of it and noticed a series of optical sensors that lined the roof of the exhibition space.  She studied the force fields in as much detail as she could with her enhanced naked eye.  Ni’Challan did not try to stop her, but neither did he give her any clues.  She knew it was drawing power from the Dark Energy Network, but how and to do what, she had no idea. In the end, she had to file away what she had gathered and let it be.  Maybe the concepts would come in useful if not the direct practice.

“I suppose if you’re to wait for Rondat tu Vin to return I should show my hospitality.” Ni’Challan now said to the group, “I have rooms I keep aside for recruits.  Even if you aren’t joining me,” He looked at Rain who was unable at that time to respond.  “You are all welcome and look like you could do with the rest.”

Ni’Challan led the way to private rooms that the group took advantage of and rested and reflected on the day. 

Hours later and the group were invited to have breakfast with Ni’Challan.  In another room of massive proportions, a continental breakfast awaited. Ni’Challan also waited at the head of a long dining table.  Flanking the table, another window looked out onto space, this time a clear view of stars and nebulas, free of space station debris.  They mostly ate in silence, staring out the window or lost in their own thoughts until a movement at the window drew their attention. 

As they watched, a bright spot of energy grew, lengthening forming a tear in space.  Through it came a spaceship that Peggy and Rain instantly recognised as the one he had seen in Celephais.  Peggy moved over towards Rain on her springy mechanical legs and touched his hand to create the mind-link.  Instinctually, Rain’s hand seized hers in an desperate grasp at comfort and she was flooded with sensory information from the physical touch and the link. 

Unlike the usual order calm of a fractal starscape that Rain was careful to project to Peggy, Rain’s thoughts were a mess of emotions, sounds, smells, words in other languages all spiced with an adrenaline kick that seemed very familiar.  Maybe it was her partly computer brain at that moment, but she was able to remove herself from the human mess and focus on the coherent thought, the strongest being a name.

Amir Ademovic.

Same ship?

Yes.  A simple reply returned

She acknowledged the message, quietly letting the others know.

They waited, watching as the ship maneuvered towards a dock and locked in place. Engines on board the ship powered down and a passageway extended out to an airlock door on the ship. Through the door, a trolley covered by a tarp trundled up the ramp. Ni’Challan who had excused himself could be seen in the passageway, greeting a middle-aged man pushing the cart.  They exchanged a few words and then Rondat moved the tarp enough to let Ni’Challan see beneath. Satisfied with the delivery, Ni’Challan beckoned Rondat inside and to the group.

“Here is a man who thinks you can help him find his father.” Ni’Challan pointed out Bruce who stepped forward to speak to the newcomer.

“Very well, why do you think that?” Asked the man in a straight forward tone of voice.

“You sold this journal in Celephais, “ Bruce pulled out the journal to show to Rondat who glanced at the book before returning to his gaze Bruce. “That is my Pa’s journal from Railsea.”

“Yes, “ Replied Rondat simply, “He joined up with the Fero Navy, he said he didn’t need it anymore.”

Behind Bruce, the connected Peggy and Rain silently watch Rondat tu Vin.  Sharing the same thoughts they could clearly see that though he was hiding the truth of Bruce’s father “joining the navy”, the fact that “he no longer needed” the journal was an outright lie.

“By the last entry in the journal he’s been there ten years?” Bruce asked flicking through the few entries there were to the last written page.

“If you say so, I can’t say I kept in touch,” Rondat replied and Peggy and Rain nodded together, that was the truth.

“It says here something about navy recruiters sniffing about.”  Bruce pointed to a section, “When was the last time you saw him?”

“When he sailed out from Manuhiki.” 

“Any way of confirming that information?”

“I would assume Navy Admin.”

“Where’s that?”

“Manuhiki.”  He laughed nervously and looked around the group like that information should be self-evident.  All he got in response was silence.

“I’m sure the Navy will be quite happy to help…”

“Was he press-ganged?” Bruce interrupted.

“Never, no, our recruits are all volunteers.”

The two lie detectors stiffened at the outright lie.

Bruce changed the subject, “Found Gentlemen, what do you collect?”

Rondat looked to Ni’Challan who nodded for him to continue.

“A statue.”  He lifted the tarp to reveal a primitive carved statue.  Peggy recognised it from her anthropological studies as a statue of Nodens, and ancient Celtic god and also of the ghoul.

“You bought this from Lightfeather?”

“Yes, “Rondat stiffened defensively.

“Which was it before then? Was it bought or stolen from the ghouls who owned it?” Peggy spoke sharing her knowledge of the idol with the group, “Lightfeather is a thief.”

“I have a long-standing relationship with Lightfeather, “ Ni’Challen said without guilt, “He’s able to get things that others aren’t.”

“That relationship may well be over, last we saw him he wasn’t looking very well.” Bruce said to Ni’Challan without taking his eyes of Rondat, “A rival drug cartel got him.”

“He in drugs?” Ni’Challan said seemingly surprised by the revelation, “ I just buy objects for my collection.”

“It doesn’t matter, “Rain said tiredly to Ni’Challan, “We’ll not inconvenience you too much longer, sir.  Just one question.  We have recently become the interest of a planetvore, do you know anything about them or how to stop them?”

Ni’Challan gestured Rondat away who quickly took his cue and left the room.

“That is unfortunate.  I collect things not information, I don’t know much about them.”

Rain nodded.

“I really don’t think you were wrong about me.” He said quietly, “Just one year too late.  Is there a way I can keep in touch?”

“You have my card.” Ni’Challan replied and Rain nodded, a sad little smile flickering across his face, “If you want something you think I could find, let me know?”

As they walked back to the wood-panelled room, Algernon made a silent detour returning moments later.  Silently, without discussion, they translated back to the Estate, everyone happy to be leaving Ni’Challan and his collection, for now.

25. Moving On

After starting the day on a reconnaissance,  by early afternoon the party were carrying a dangerous enemy back to their hideout at the docks.  They’ve only had time to catch their breath before something has found them and was knocking on the back door.


“138…139…140…” Each number counted corresponded to the fall of a gold coin and the thunk as it joined its fellows in a small wooden chest, “ 141…142…”  The golden claw motif on each coin caught the afternoon light filtering through the skylight above Rain as he collected the last handful of coins.

“I could count those crow coins faster if you want.”  Algernon offered watching Rain monotonously drop each of a hoard of coins they found on Lightfeather.

“No…no… this is just my pace right now.” Rain replied, the image of misery.  A bruise was blossoming redly over half his face, contrasting with dark rings under his eyes.  Though the party had won a major victory, Rain looked like someone who’d lost the war.


Bloodied and worn out, Bruce was seemingly in a better mood.  He walked out of the office rummaging through his backpack,

“Okay, who needs a little first aid?”

Any responses he may have expected were forgotten as all heads turned to a heavy wooden door to the back of the warehouse that had until that moment been ignored.  Chained locked, it seemed as secure as the wall it was built into.  Now, the scraping sound of metal against chain echoed faintly through the warehouse.

“Wha…oh…what was I up to?” Rain lost track of his count.  He sadly dropped the last of the gold coins into the box as he turned to the others, “What is it?”

“A crowbar, “ Bruce replied, forgetting his first aid kit and pulling out his own well-worn weapon of choice, “They’re using it against the chain on the door.”

Peggy, already going for her hand crossbow, focused her thoughts on the door and asked the Strange who and how many were beyond the door.  In response, she understood there were four beings, two of them were known to her.  Her mind-link to Rain made him aware as well as he tucked away the box and started for the front door with the intent on getting eyes on the invaders.

I’ll let you know.

Noel and Maximillian were readying for battle.  Noel was checking the weight of a falchion the party had collected, Maximilian disappearing into the office they shared, returning with a long-barrelled blunderbuss, complete with slowmatch which he now lit with a flint and steel.

Quickly leaving the warehouse via the front door, Rain snuck along the wall and peeked around the corner.  At the far end of a small alley, he could see Toby Mutton-Chops of the giant sledgehammer, two other heavies breaking through the chain on the door and an aesthetic looking gentleman with a distinctive hooked nose.  Caw Eh Carve was looking straight at Rain, black eyes glittering behind small round spectacles.  Rain sighed heavily and stood, leaning tiredly on the corner of the warehouse as he let Peggy know who was breaking in.

“Ellis, Rowan pin that one down, Toby get through this door.”  Caw Eh Carve ordered cooly and the two heavies left the door to Toby and started walking towards Rain.

Inside, the chain fell away from the door and clanged through the warehouse.  Bruce moved quickly and wedged his crowbar against the door and the ground, firmly holding it closed for the time being.

“Ideas, people?”

“Shall we kill the prisoners?” Algernon asked, shrugging his crossbow off his shoulder and gesturing to Caw Eh Carve’s thugs in the other room, but the sentiment was extended to the unconscious Lightfeather as well.

“What?  No, we need them to get to Londontown,”  Bruce replied, leaning on the crowbar and holding the door firmly shut.  

“But if Caw Eh Carve comes in now, they’d be better off dead.”  

“They don’t deserve death just for following orders.”

“Don’t worry, you don’t have to do it.”

“I’m not worried because it’s not happening.”

“Maybe they’d go if we give them Lightfeather…” Peggy mused wondering if there was a way to bargain their way out, “…or maybe Noel?”

From outside they heard the roar of some beast then…THUD! The whole door shivered and cracked as something heavy hit it.  Dust rained down on those nearest the wall, but the door held.

Outside, Toby swung his massive sledgehammer with a roar and smashed it square in the centre of the door as his boss turned to the wall directly opposite and pulled out a cypher.  Tracing a rectangle onto the wall, the space inside shimmered creating a portal to another recursion.  Rain didn’t get to see anymore before Ellis of the crowbar took up all his view.  After a day of sneaking, dodging, fighting and being pummelled, Rain’s responses were all instinct. Moving aside and using Ellis’ own momentum, he pushed him into the warehouse wall.  Rowan was one step behind his comrade, picking up the fallen chain and wrapping it around his fist.  It was time to get out.

“Terra, Zeme, Aarde, Monde Jord!” Staring down the two thugs, Rain muttered a string of words from all over the world.  Selling the idea of a powerful spell with his whole being, he crouched down, drawing his hands up as if pulling something heavy from deep down. With a yell, he completed the words and created an illusion of a huge monolith of stone rising out of the ground, showering the thugs with dust and broken pieces of earth.  They never questioned the illusion stepping back, believing completely that the path out of the alley was now blocked.  Rain didn’t waste any time and started running back to the front door.

“There’s a trapdoor to a sunken souq back in the office,” Noel supplied as a possible escape route from their current predicament, “Not exactly a secret but not out in the open either.”

“Sounds good, “ Peggy replied, “So, do we stay or go?”

“We stay,” Algernon loaded his crossbow and aimed at the door.

Outside the door, a blue flash of light caught everyone’s attention and it looked like the time for action had come.  Bruce nodded and withdrew his crowbar from the door. From outside a roar forecast another attempt at the door.  This time though, instead of the door holding, the door swung wide and Toby Muttonchops stumbled in behind his sledgehammer, surprised.  The moment of surprise gave those ready inside the advantage.  The blunderbuss went off, glancing against a metal plate sewn into Toby’s overalls and the shot ricochetted off.  Bruce’s crowbar swung, in the dark of the warehouse, the metal created an arc of silver landing on Toby’s skulls.  The impact was not meant to crush, but to shake and stun.  Toby’s eyes crossed and he stumbled on the spot.

Peggy flung out a hand, and a plasma arc linked Toby to something through the portal, Toby taking the brunt of the damage.  Now with the big man swaying on his feet, Noel reversed his hold on the falchion and brought the butt of the heavy sword down on Toby’s head.  He crumpled into a mess of limbs in the doorway as Peggy scowled.

“Wrong end!” She complained to the nonplused Noel.

As attacks rained down on Toby behind him, Caw Eh Carve was running through a portal on the opposite wall.  It led into another warehouse, similar to those in Celephais, though there seemed more boilers, more metal piping and working pistons.  As the party watched a huge three-legged steam-powered machine stepped heavily out into the frame of the portal, driven by a red-haired man.

In the doorway, the two thugs Rowan and Ellis now were free to move in.  Rowan with his chained hand swung out at Noel, clipping him in the head, making the explorer step back.  Ellis put his crowbar to use against Bruce who blocked the attack with his own equally heavy bar.

Outside, Rain was almost back at the front door of the warehouse.  He reached out his hand to grab the open door when wandering around the corner, the hulking shape of Theo flanked by four goons came full into view.  Theo saw Rain at the same time, and Rain sighed, “I’m sorry we don’t have time for you at the moment.  If you could come back in half an hour and we can compare schedules.” And taking firm hold of the door he slammed it shut and locking it,

Peggy, Theo and four goons at the front door, I think we need that escape plan.

“Theo’s out front, Rain’s ready to get out.” Peggy let the group at the back door know what was waiting at the other end of the warehouse.

“This is getting better, we just have to get out of their way,” Algernon said this time glancing at Lightfeather.  Bruce followed his glance and for the first time since the ruins allowed himself to contemplate the cold-blooded dispatching of their dangerous enemy.  A clang of heavy metal and the crunch of broken masonery refocused his thought back to the door where the walking machine was breaking down the wall between its recursion and Celephais.  There was no time left.

“Okay, grab your stuff, time to go!” He said, positioning himself to protect the retreating group back to the trapdoor.

WHAMP!  The front door slammed open as Theo kicked it aside and his goons rushed the front door.  At the backdoor, Peggy launched another Plasma arc striking Rowan through his wrapped chain.  Rain sprinted across the warehouse ready to leave and saw Bruce glance back at Lightfeather once more, a look of deep agitation clear on his face. 

“Bruce!” Rain called across the warehouse, gaining his friends attention, “Let him go.  We beat him once, we can do it again.” He watched as some unseen weight lifted off his friend’s shoulders and the expression cleared to one of determination. Bruce gave a nod and turned back to the thugs at the back door and Rain continued his scramble to the trapdoor, opening it ready to receive the party.

At the back door, Ellis and his crowbar and Rowan with his chain were also deflected by Bruce and Peggy respectively.  Two goons from the front door made a beeline for Lightfeather, a third reached Maximillian and pulling out a wicked blade. It missed Maximillian, barely, as the blade struck the metal barrel of his blunderbuss.  Noel moved in beside his companion, falchion against the heavy knife.  The goon was no slouch and parried away the bigger blade adding to the clanging from the machine outside.  

Algernon alone had plans of attack.  As Theo’s goons reached Lighfeather’s side, he quickly levitated their leader and with a flick of a free hand sent him flying across the warehouse and through the back door landing just in front of the steam walking machine. The goons chased after their fallen leader but could not hope to cover the distance before he was crushed under the machine’s heavy foot.  With a cool glee simmering to frustration, Algernon watched as the next foot rose, moved forward…and stopped.  A clawed hand, more used to moving boilers than picking up people, descended and encased the fallen Lightfeather.  With a look of triumph, the redheaded driver of the walking machine gently curled the claw around the unconscious Lightfeather and started turning his machine around, his prize secured.

Peggy and Bruce were both free, but Maximillian and Noel were still fighting enemies on both sides.  Lightfeather’s surprise disappearance meant Theo and his goons ran through the battle at the back door. They eyed Algernon suspiciously as they went past and would not have stopped if Rowan and his chain had not lashed out at Theo trying to trip him up.  Ellis, in support of his fellow English thug, clothelined another goon running behind with his crowbar and the fight between the two invaders was joined.

Maximilian and Noel broke free of the fighting and ran for the trapdoor, Bruce covering their flank.  

“Bruce, go, “ Rain gestured to the hole in the floor as Bruce stopped to protest, “I’m going to make it look like an explosion went off, sealing the passage.  Go!”

Without an argument, Bruce dropped down the hole with Rain following soon after.  Seconds later, the sound of a  huge explosion rocked the warehouse, for a moment all fighting was forgotten as it seemed the two offices,  furniture, walls and floor rose into the air and collapsed over the trapdoor, sealing off the passage.  The illusion lasted only a minute, but by that time, the fight had moved elsewhere and the party was long gone.

Sometime later, an out of breath Maximillian gestured for a break and everyone crouched in the tunnel. Ahead the quiet echoes of an underground market filtered through. Here was their last chance to plan in private before moving back out into public.

“I like what you did with the explosion, collapsing the roof on the tunnel like that.”  Algernon effused to Rain.

“Go out with a bang, as they say.” Rain smiled weakly back, “but it won’t last, it just buys us a little time.  Unlike that move with Lightfeather.  I know it didn’t come off as you wanted, thankfully, but getting the two groups together was strategically very clever.  I was impressed.”

Algernon straightened under the compliment, though noted the tone of disapproval for trying to make Lightfeather jam.

Bruce and Peggy were in discussions with Noel and Maximillain about where to go next.  First stop was a safe place to translate from.  Back to the bathhouse, the famous temple in town or somewhere else?  Noel, it seemed, had another place in mind that was less public than the other two suggestions.  Next was the problem of where to translate to next, and here there was a disagreement.

“You could come back with us to Seattle.” Bruce suggested, knowing the problems with just ‘inviting visitors’ into The Estate, but keeping them to himself for now.

“We really must report back, “Maximillian said adamantly, “Things are heating up and our superior need to know.”

“So do ours,” Bruce thought, “but…what if we came back with you to the Geographic Society first?”  This suggestion was not received as well as the first.  

Maximilian and Noel looked at each other, “Well…we think that may raise a few eyebrows amongst the more senior staff…” Noel confessed.
“Oh, it may raise a few eyebrows, oh we wouldn’t want that!”  The comment only fired up Peggy’s thin skin when it came to Noel and his seeming indifference, “Well who needs you then?! Go on, fly back to your comfy libraries and just forget we ever existed, again!”

The commotion drew Algernon and Rain into the discussion.  When it was clear that Maximillian and Noel wanted to break from the party, Rain interrupted.

“Gentleman, this is not an Estate issue or a Society issue but a global one.  I think we’ve seen that both our respective issues are intertwined, we can’t work in isolation any longer. We have  to work together. ”

Maximilian and Noel didn’t say a word, just looked at  each other for a moment where an agreement was made.  

“I have a small place we can take you.”  Maximilian finally said to the group, “Not the IGS mind, but somewhere safe where you can rest and we can get in touch with our superiors on what to do next.” 

Nods all round, except from Peggy.  

They quickly moved through the souq to a room that looked like it was set aside for pray at other times, but right now was empty.  Maximilian lead the translation away from the sun and dust of Celephais to the dank, fog filled air of London, but no London that Rain knew.  

The room they found themselves in was a middle class 19th century apartment, complete with gas lamps, heavily sashed windows and leather, though worn and cracked, furniture.  As soon as the vertigo of translation had subsided, Rain walked to the window and saw a cobbled alleyway leading to a busy London street filled with people, hansom cabs and delivery carts.  The air was thick with coal soot and the smell of animals and people living in close proximity.  The sky was a yellow-grey, the unique colour of industrial smog mixing with the natural fog off the Thames.  A real pea-souper was rolling in. Recognising and feeling completely alien to all about him, Rain said nothing but stalked off to find a bathroom down the hall.

Peggy as silently as Rain, headed straight for a four poster bed set at one end of the apartment, only stopping to pull off her Doc Martens as she went.

Bruce shook of the last of the translation, “Right, we all sorely in need of rest. Us men will take the chairs and floor while Peggy can have the bed.” He looked around and discovered that no one had heard a word he’d said, “Right then…good.”

“Now as mentioned we need to get in touch with our superiors,” Maximilian informed Algernon and Bruce, “In the meantime, rest up here and we should be back in a few hours.”

The boys made themselves comfortable and were aware of how their clothes had morphed in the new recursion.  Algernon had on a black suit with short waist-length coat, a black top hat and cane that marked him out as a public school boy, and someone of status, if not class.  Bruce on the other hand was dressed in a straight thigh length leather coat,  heavy cotton clothing, checkered cloth cap and tartan scarf.  He ran his fingers through hair far longer than he’d normally allow, with muttonchop sideburns that he couldn’t help stratching.  After an hour, Rain returned clean, well pressed in an appropriate morning suit, white flower in his buttonhole, and a moustache, neat tidy and thoroughly respectable.  Having surveyed the room and his companions, he flopped down into a squeaky springed leather chair and fell asleep.

The party dozed as best they could after the day’s excitement and were soon awoken a little more refreshed by a knock at the door.  Standing outside to be let in was an imposing middle aged gentleman bundled up against the dank chill air outside.  Flanking him was Noel and Maximillian looking subdued and silent.  The gentleman walked in stripping off his heavy coat, throwing it and his top hat and cane onto the bed. They woke Peggy with a start.  Without a word she climbed out of bed and joined the others in the lounge, now dressed in a tartan walking suit, tailored, tasteful and very respectable.  Her hair though, was its normal curly mess.

“My name is Sir Raymond Creswick, I am Quartermaster for the Implausible Geographic Society.  I understand you are with The Estate.” The gentleman announced to the room as if he were speaking to a much larger group.  His voice was deep with an authoritative rasp that spoke of a man who was not used to having to raise his voice to be heard.  His tone was clipped and to the point, with a hint of distain at the phrase, “The Estate.”  

“They pay.” Rain replied, not sure if he wanted to be known as anyone’s man.  Bruce glowered at him, their disagreements of old showing.  Sir Raymond didn’t seem to care either way and continued.

“I hear you have stumbled onto the same investigation as Maximillian and Mr Hagan.” It wasn’t said as a question and Rain didn’t see a need to reply to it as such.

“We find we are investigating the same thing…from the other direction.” He qualified confidently, making sure to catch and keep the eye of Sir Raymond.

“Indeed.” Sir Raymond returned the look with interest, “What can you tell me about The Estate?”

“The same as you can tell us about the Geographic Society, Sir Raymond,” Rain relaxed a little feeling comfortable with the polite banter so close to that he’d grown up with, “But that doesn’t mean we can work together on this issue.”

Sir Raymond’s mouth twitched into something that could have been a smile and barked a sound that in some other face could have been a laugh.

“Very well then, “ Sir Raymond rocked back once on his heals spoke, “As you know we have been following James Moriarty and his crime syndicate’s trade in Bywandine for sometime.   We always knew there were other groups, but had no evidence to tell us who they were or where they worked from. From a string of clues uncovered by us led us fortunately to finding Mr Hagan here, “ He gestured to Noel who was standing uncomfortably to one side, “Unfortunately, the criminals destroyed all the evidence before we got a chance to investigate for ourselves.”

“What?”  Peggy said standing at the news, breaking the silence that Sir Raymond had commanded, “you mean the dig site…the temple…?”

“It was deliberate.” Rain said quietly as Sir Raymond continued and as she sunk back into her chair, “We’re lucky you weren’t killed.”

“Bywandine, “ Sir Raymond said as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “ Of course a herb native to the Dreamland laced with opium creating very vivid dreams.  Recently, the trade has extended to that of white slave trade as a new additive has  the effect of capturing users for unknown purposes.”

“Excuse me sir, “Peggy took to the floor again and Sir Raymond had no alternative but to allow her to speak, “As mentioned we came to Bywandine through unusual means and have not had a chance to do any experimentation comparing Bywandine and Spiral Dust.  We know they have similar effects, though from our human trials, “ She gestured to Rain who found himself working hard to keep a neutral expression, “Spiral dust  users seem to have little or no control over where they go, in comparison to the Dreamwalkers of Bywandine.”

“If you can provide laboratory space I would like to see if the two have anything in common.”

Slowly Sir Raymond breathed in, assessing the young woman in front of him. He turned to Noel, not taking his eyes off Peggy who looked like she was presenting a thesis to a funding body, “This is the Doctor Martin you spoke of when you first came to us?”

Noel nodded, “Yes, Sir Raymond.”

“I think that could be arranged, “ Sir Raymond said now turning to Maximillian, “Could you accompany the young lady.”  Again, it wasn’t a question but a command and Maximillian quickly complied.

Now Rain stood and held the floor.  He filled in their side of the investigation into Spiral dust, how it had led them to a distribution network that was spread all over the world and seemed all to flow through Crows Hollow.

“We know of two groups out of Crows Hollow for certain, the Droods and the Cornaro families.  There’s a  possibly third depending where Elvin Lightfeather’s loyalies lie, what dubious information we have says he’s in the Drood camp.”

“I can confirm that information. We know about Crows Hollow and its mafia-style crime syndicates, but you are saying they are involved in both Bywandine and Spiral Dust trades?”

“Indeed.  For certain the Droods are.”  Rain, as was his habit, fell into the speaking style of the culture he found himself in, “As far as our information goes, the Cornaro are involved only in Spiral Dust, but their’s was the most extensive of networks we’ve seen so far.”

There was a pause as Sir Raymond digested the information.  Algernon, stood and moved up beside him.

“Sir, I have to tell you I have been very impressed with your operatives in the field.” He said to the bemusement of Sir Raymond.


“Yes, especially Maximillian.  He has been very helpful in understanding the Society and your investigation.”


“Yes sir, in fact I was wondering how one would go about joining the society?”

Sir Raymond turned to take in the young man in front of him, his voice low and cool, “You don’t think that’s a conflict of interest?”

“Not in my mind.” Algernon replied innocently and Rain had to agree.

Sir Raymond drew himself up to his full height, not as tall as Bruce but well above both Algernon and Rain, “Membership to the IGS is strictly by invitation only.”

Several hours later, Peggy returned alone and with the results of her experimentation.

“Bywandine is a plant derivative with active ingredients that affect users as they dream by connecting them to the Strange, but it seems only to Dreamland.  Spiral dust is still…unknown origin with a completely different active ingredient. On the surface it seems to have a similar effect but does not connect them to Dreamland just The Strange.  They are completely unrelated.” She informed the group with a look of defeat about her, “We still have two complete sources so I guess it makes sense that we continue to investigate Spiral Dust while the Geographic society follows Bywandine.”

“Well, thank you doctor, I think that was a worthy task, “Sir Raymond straightened seemingly pleased with Peggy’s conclusion, “I concur with your reasoning, the Society will continue to follow the Bywandine and The Estate can follow your Spiral Dust lines of investigation.”  …and neither the two shall meet… his face said as Sir Raymond gave a short bow, placed his top hat on his head and made for the door, “Mr Hagan?”

Giving the party one last look, Noel walked past on his way to the door, Peggy grabbed his arm.

“Meet me at Berkley…at the University Cafe…a week from today.”  She said fervently before quickly turning away.

Now alone and still exhausted from two running battles back to back, the party settled down for a full rest as the city bustles around them unheeded.

The next morning, Algernon and Rain were sufficiently rested to now desire the next two basic needs after shelter and security, coffee and bacon.

“Do they have bacon in London?” Algernon asked as he followed Rain down through the apartment building to the street where Rain was already hailing a hansom.

“Do they?  My dear, Bacon is the staple of a standard English breakfast and for the young man on the go there is the sacred bacon-buttie, British cuisine at its finest.” Rain extolled  catching the eye of a cab driver who turned his horse’s head to the curb.

“I think I like this place.” Algernon jumped into the cab and Rain asked to be driven to the best nearest coffee house.

“Yes, to a young man with a little ready cash, such as ourselves, there are few better places to be than Victorian London.”

“A second home.”

The two of them spent the morning at Verrey’s Coffee house on the corner of Hanover and Regent streets eating one of the greasiest most delicious fry-ups of egg, sausage, bacon,  bubble and squeak with coffee.  Rain sent a young runner to enquire about Thermos flasks so to take coffee back for Bruce and Peggy and was told by the same young boy that such a thing couldn’t be had.   

Fuller and feeling more themselves, they returned to the apartment and for the planning of what to do next.

“Moriarty’s London?”

“Not much reason to go now,” Peggy said sitting on the bed, “Moriarty is not selling Spiral Dust.  But, the taking of Lightfeather by his thugs was interesting, I wonder what he wants with him?”

“How about Crows Hollow? “ Rain retrieved the coin they found on Theo that had been identified by Peggy as a key.

“I’m scared stiff of going to Crow’s Hollow,” Algernon confessed clutching his bony elbows as he perched in one of the leather chairs.

“Yeah? I’m looking forward to seeing what I look like as a crow.”  Rain replied, leaning on Algernon’s chair.

“Remember, they won’t be all Lightfeathers and Theos.”  Bruce added when Algernon looked unconvinced by Rain’s spin, “ We’ve been unlucky in meeting some of their highly skilled fighters, most of the community will not be so skilled.  Still, there’s a lot to be said for just going back to The Estate first, checking in, find out what news they have before making a decision.”

“Yes, I do want to do a little research at the archive.” Rain looked meaningfully at Algernon who didn’t know if it would be good or bad.

In the end, with no clear cut destination in mind, the group formed a circle and once more translated back to Earth and Peggy’s lab at The Estate.  On first arriving , Rain tried making his mini sun to no avail, that ability was tied to Dreamland and not available in mundane Earth. Without a word he followed Bruce and the other to Katherine Manner’s office and waited for a  moment to report.  Though technically, Lawrence Keaton was Rain’s and Algernon’s direct supervisor, reporting to him always seemed at the least a waste of time at the worst a waste of breath.  Instead they filled Katherine in on all their investigations and trips through recursions. She had nothing new to offer in the way of information, but she was interested in being a sounding board for their next plans.

“And how confident do you feel about going to Crow’s Hollow?” She asked when the location was brought up.

“We need to know. Everything at the moment is leading to Crow’s Hollow, the Droods and the Cornaros.  They are the only ones dealing in Sprial Dust and have an extensive network already in place.”  Rain said, adamant that now was the best direction.

“That’s a thought, what is the importance of that arrangement of dealers all over the world?” Peggy mused outloud  as she put the question to The Strange itself.  A one word reply run through her mind.

“Resonance?… Oh god…”

“The Earth is a giant becon?” Bruce articulated, “By who and for what purpose?”

Rain said nothing, just watched as Algernon expression grew grim and pale.

“Well, I don’t know about you, but young Algernon and I have an appointment with the Archives.” He said, springing from his seat and turning to Algernon.  Without a word Algernon followed and the two made their way to the library.  There Rain instructed Algernon to identify everything he studied on the creatures of The Strange.  Then Rain asked the Archivist for a list of all the materials Algernon had requested on The Strange and compare the two lists. 

Peggy also excused herself and went back to her lab to “blow stuff up”, her way of letting off steam. When she arrived Hertzfeld was excited to demonstrate his latest developments in the phasing glove.  No longer just a glove, but half a suit (two arms and a lower body) that could phase through a solid surface and bring things back through.

“I’m thinking that the technology could be expanded to a vehicle that could be driven through solid objects, but that’s still a long way off as the energy requirements are far too high.”  Hertzfeld explained happily.

 This left Bruce alone with Katherine.

“You look like you have something to say, Bruce, “She said after Bruce ensured they were alone and closed the office door, “ Something you don’t want the others to hear?”

Bruce looked at his hands for a long moment, collecting his thoughts before finally speaking, “What are we when we go to those other places? What do we become when we’re there?”  

“It’s all theoretical mind, “ She replied coolly, leaning back in her chair to remember the gist of many long lectures from the senior scientific staff, “But when we appear in a recursion it’s in new bodies made by the recursion,  suitable and reflecting the nature of the place as well as your own nature.”

“My own nature…” Bruce seemed to take no comfort from that statement, in fact his expression darkened to that of deep concern.

“What is it that’s worrying you, Bruce?”
“In Halloween, one of the smaller recursions, it seemed….it felt like I was being…taken over.”

Katherine nodded and when it was clear Bruce wouldn’t articulate it further, she replied, “Yes, sometimes the recursions have a way of…amplifying parts of your…personality.  Usually it’s for the best, we discover parts of ourselves that go beyond what we thought was possible…then sometimes…”

“Well, this one was a real self-righteous bastard.” Bruce added with a smirk, then grew serious again, “It didn’t feel like me.”

“That would have been disturbing, “ She acknowledged, coming around from her behind her desk and took one of the empty seats beside Bruce, “If you ever find yourself in that situation again I want you to remember two things.  Firstly, it is only temporary, no matter how uncomfortable or disturbing. As soon as you leave that recursion, that identity will also be left behind.  Secondly, here at The Estate we will always try to send you out to new recursions as part of a team. Though the recursion is completely alien, you will not be alone.”

Bruce sat still staring at his two strong hands and nodded silently.  It wasn’t what he wanted to hear, he was the strong one, the one that could be relied on, was relied on.  To be the one in need of help disturbed him more than another change in personality.  Eventually he couldn’t think about the problem anymore and just changed the subject.

“So, if we’re going to Crow’s Hollow, can I put in that request for heavy armour?”  

Katherine nodded more annimatedly than was required and returned to her desk, “Yes, I believe that this time you are right.” And she pulled out a requisition form and filled it out.

Back at the library, discoveries were being made.  Rain was scanning documents while fiddling idlely with his puzzlebox.  He’d just come across a group of reports and stories on creatures of The Strange that were so massive that they literally ate recursions.  Naturally, called plantvoires very little was known about them, but their presence in The Strange was without question.  He turned the small wad of documents over to Algernon sitting beside him.

“Why didn’t you ever mention these before? When Peggy was talking about creatures of the Strange that coud be linked to the Spiral Dust? Or when I asked you if there were others in The Strange we could talk to?”  

“What…?” Algernon said just as Rain’s puzzlebox, uncharacteristically tumbled from his fingers. 

“What…?” Rain said at the same moment as Algernon. Snatching the box out of the air before it fell to the ground, but not before the last compartment opened revealing a card.

Rain stared in shocked silence as the seconds ticked by, first at the open compartment and then at the card and what it said.

“But, that’s….that’s…how??”  He stammered, words all of a sudden becoming stumbling blocks.

“Maybe the old man that gave you the box put it there.”  Algernon suggested remembering the story Rain had told them of his first Christmas in England.   

Rain shook his head in disbelief, “I …don’t think so, he…had never made it past the first compartment…I’m also certain.”   Though Rain was anything but certain. It had been a long time ago, could he be so sure of old Mr Joseph’s true intentions as a seven year old?  He read through the card again three more times before he leapt to his feet as if electrcuted and scrambled for his phone.

“Bruce, where is Bruce?”

Bruce was just leaving Katherine’s office when his phone started buzzing with a call.  Before he could unlock the phone the person hung up and a message came through, and another, and a third.  Bruce read the first.

Where are you? From Rain’s phone.  Before he could reply to the message, the phone rang again, this time he was ready.

“Rain, what? I’m just leaving…”
“Where are you… I have to show you…I have a…no wait, where are you??”
“As I said, I’m on my way to the dorms…”
“Okay, okay, okay… don’t go anywhere.” And Rain hung up.  

Bruce was used to Rain’s excitable nature, but he was also used to the conman being able to put a sentence together.  Bruce quickened his step, sure whatever it was, would be big.

They made it to the dorms at about the same time, which was no mean feat as the Administration block was only one building up from the dormitories, and the library was right across the otherside of campus.  

Without a word, which was appropriate as both Rain and Algernon were breathing heavily, Rain thrust his puzzle box into Bruce’s hand.  He’d only ever handled the box once before, out in the wastelands of that first recursion. Now he could see that its arrangement had changed, a new compartment was open  and inside a small card.

“Tobias, “He read out loud, “The Found Gentlemen would like to meet you.  Enquire Within.  Oh!”

“Yes!” Rain said and seemed to be waiting for something more.

“This is new?”


Bruce handed back the box, “And this had been in your puzzlebox all along?”

“Yes….maybe….I don’t know….” Rain dithered

“Enquire within. Does that mean it’s a key?”

Rain’s thought visibly shifted from the course that had brought him to find Bruce to what had just been said, “Key?  Algernon?”  Rain turned on Algernon now handing him the box to examine.

“Ur…Peggy would be better at telling than me.”

“Peggy!”  Rain said and ran back out the door, the puzzlebox clutched in two hands.

Keeping up with Rain’s frantic pace they made it to Peggy’s lab door.  The red light was spinning in it’s casing signifying that potentially dangerous experiments were underway.  Bruce knocked on the door, Rain walked straight in.

“What is it now, didn’t you see the light?” She asked as Rain ran straight up to her, his puzzlebox open.

“Is it a key?” He panted handing her the box.  She examined the box, allowing her normal sight to go out of focus so she could more clearly see the aura coming from it.

“As I’ve noted before, there is something of the Strange about this box but nothing very extraordinary,” She looked at the card and nodded, “The card on the other hand is no doubt a key.  Whose Tobias?”

This single question to stun Rain back to sense who stepped back. It allowing him a moment to gain control once more, “Me!  At least I was known as Tobias when I received this box.  I told you in the ghoul camp.”

Peggy had still been deeply disturbed by events in the ruins of Sarkomand when the party stayed the night with the ghoul.  It was then that Rain had shared the story of his box and the name he had used for much of his life.  Taking a deep breath to calm his thought, Rain gave Peggy a summary of that story.

“Well, then it seems to me that the old man must have put that card there for you.”

“Possibly…”  He was coming around to the fact that possibly the kindly old man had been more than what he seemed.

“Well naturally, the box was only a test, a way of finding those worthy to join.”  Algernon added his theory.

“When I was seven?  How would he have known?  It wasn’t just for anyone, it had my name on it.”
“Maybe it’s not always been there, maybe it’s only been there recently.”

“For…now?” Rain tried to make sense of the Algernon’s thought processes, “But it has a name on it I haven’t been able to use in more than ten years.”

“Oh yeah…”

“Who are the Lost Gentlemen?” Peggy asked pointing to the card.  Suddenly Rain remembered why he’d wanted Bruce in the first place.

“Bruce, it links to Bruce?”  He swung around to a confused Bruce,

“Does it?”

“That’s why I showed you?!” Rain almost cried in frustration, “It was the group the military man was joining.  The one who sold your father’s journal!”

Now Algernon and Peggy were confused.  Though they vaguely remembered Bruce buying a book in Celephais, he’d never mentioned that it was his Father’s journal.  It was now Bruce’s turn to give them a summary of what he knew about the journal, the man who sold it and where it had come from.

“But that’s a personal thing, I don’t think it or Railsea have much to do with where we’re heading next.”

“Are you so sure?”Algernon said thinking, “What are the odds of you finding that book in Dreamland?  Actually, I could probably work that out, do you want to see the figures?”

“Exactly!”  Rain interrupted, “Just what I’ve said from the beginning.  We’ve been told from the beginning that the gifted are rare, and yet here we are, some of the most powerful beings I’ve ever seen right here in this room, thrown together on a rainy night off a highway outside New Orleans.”

“I know that something brought us together, “ Bruce stood pacing the floor, “I”m not a good church man, but there is a god and he’s in control.” Now he turned to Rain, “If something is guiding us, take one of those crow coins and flip it.  Let it decide where we go next.”

A shadow flickered over Rain’s face for a moment, but quickly past as he made a heavy gold coin appear and danced it across his fingers.

“Sure,” Was all he said as he flipped it high into the air, the gold claw motif once more catching the light as it spun and flipped.

To be continued…

11. Road Trippin

The Estate’s clandestine power  fell into place around Bruce and Peggy as they rolled in the gates of the campus later that night.  Without discussion or preamble Peggy was asked to pull up and they were all ordered to vacate the car.  Just as quickly it was taken off the Estate grounds by another agent to be disposed off or ‘cleaned’ of any connection to the Estate.  A small contingent of armed agents escorted, Peggy, Bruce with the Cowboy to an interrogation room where they were left to do ‘whatever was required’.  This later fact was made very clear to Bruce. He thought of his brother in the throes of Spiral Dust and the demise of the erstwhile drug dealer Eldritch Chopra and steeled himself for what needed to be done.  He noted the well used telephone book beside the door and felt for the reassuring weight of his crowbar in it’s harness.

“Well LeRoy, nasty number you did on Chopra.”  He began as the audio system ticked down the seconds recording their interview.

“I did nothing.”  LeRoy Cain sat relaxed, handcuffed to the table.  He was an old hand at the rules of police interrogations, but Peggy and Bruce were not the police and there were no rules.

“We have footage showing you did.”  Peggy bluffed trying to intimidate the murderer.

“How would you have footage from his musty old apartment?”

“We’d been watching Eldritch for a while.  You have to admit he was pretty obvious.”

LeRoy gave Peggy a hard look and sat back in his chair not buying her story.

“Really, you snuck a surveillance system into the computer-geeks place?  Pull the other one, it plays Jingle Bells.”

“The thing is, LeRoy, we’re pretty sure you did it and we don’t need to prove anything.  If we want you’ll just disappear, no trial, no lawyers, nothing.”

Bruce, seeing Peggy was getting nowhere stepped in, drawing the comfortable weight of his crowbar off his back.

“Look, he’s seeing through what your doing, Peggy.  What he can’t see through is my crowbar when I pry out his eye.”  Bruce stood to his full 6 foot 6 and flexed the substantial muscle that time and hard work had created. “You did a nasty job on Chopra and I’ll gladly do the same to you for what you did to my brother.”  

“Do be careful with the eye,”  Peggy commented coolly, “I need samples  and they’re so hard to come by.”

Bruce was slow and deliberate as he circled the table to grasp LeRoy by the hair and bring the crowbar hook in contact with the tissue-thin skin around the eye.  It may have been the cold steel, it could have been Bruce firm grasp or his look of determination but the tough guy soon came to the realisation that here, he had no rights.

“What do you want to know?”

He told them that the dust came from Colorado and was shipped to him once a month in the parcel mail.  It was sent from a woman called Lydia Lance who owned a gemstore in Nederland called, “The Dreaming Crystal”.  She had contacted him a few years ago about being a distributor. How she’d got his name he didn’t know, but Bruce go the impression that he’d made a big enough name for himself to be known Interstate.

“I did a few jobs.  I’m always in work.”  He glared menacingly. His attempt was completely lost on Peggy and Bruce had been menaced enough as a union representative to know a bully when he saw one. 

“So why Chopra?”  Bruce wanted to know recalling the scene of devastation that had once been a human body.

“He was cutting into my business, I couldn’t have him reselling.”

“And that’s it?  Business?”

That seemed to be it.

“One more thing. There had been another woman, before Lydia. Strange bird, didn’t see her again.”

Bruce, satisfied they’d got everything they were going to get from LeRoy, reported to his supervisor.

“We’ve got some information out of him, what do we do with him now?”

“Leave that with me, “ She said matter of factly, “You got a lead on a supplier?”

He filled her in on LeRoy’s capture and what he’d told them.

“The police were called to investigate.  Shots were fired and a car turned over.”

“Yes, so I heard.  Nevermind, the Estate is onto it.”  She noted coolly getting back to the topic at hand, “LeRoy’s contact, would you go on a road trip to investigate this?”

“Why wouldn’t we fly? Quicker and cheaper.”
“Two reasons.  Firstly, your group’s recent…activities will need some smoothing over and for that it would be best if you were out of town for at least a few days.  Secondly, you still have a task given by Lisa Banks, Chief of Public Relations. One Gwendoline Wurtz and her ability to charge smart devices with body heat?”

Bruce remembered, it  just didn’t seem a priority, but he nodded his agreement.

“We’ll get right onto that.”

Rain and Algernon still hadn’t reported back when Bruce left Katherine’s office.  He rung Rain’s number, it rung out. He tried Algernon’s number, also no answer. Now getting concerned he sent a text message to both numbers.

Phone in when you’re safe.

    *     * *     * * *     *

Algernon and Rain ran through the dark Seattle streets, Algernon lugging the duffle bag, Rain his head still ringing from the tumble in the pick up. When the alley they were travelling emptied out onto inhabited streets once more the pair slowed down keeping an eye out for cabs and police cars with equal interest.

“So, bro’,” Rain finally said when he’d caught his breath, “What do you say to a night on the town?”

“Night on the town?”  Algernon questioned at the unfamiliar use of language.

“Let’s go to a nightclub.  I know of a place not far from the Estate.  I’m sure we can leave that bag at the cloakroom and there’ll be live music.”

Music was a new experience for Algernon, having only experienced it for the first time while travelling on The Limness in Railsea.  It seemed to him that music had a lot of potential.

“Absolutely!”  He said with enthusiasm until a thought came to him, “But…is it safe? 

Rain walked in silence a dark expression on his face.

“Algernon, I’ve never said and never will say things will be safe.  Safe is a metal box that you lock things away in. Do you want to live in a metaphorical metal box?”

The image was not exactly appealing to Algernon, but if you could guarantee safety would being locked in a metal box be worthwhile?  Algernon’s thought did not get a chance to be aired as Rain did not wait for a reply but continued with his monologue.

“The only person who goes on about making things safe is Bruce and look what happened last time, you nearly got eaten by a molerat.  The assumption should always be that things are not going to be safe, and do what you can to look out for each other.”  Rain now turned to his companion to see if he’d understood. 

“But isn’t safety something we should always strive to be?”

“You know, it’s amazing how often fun and safety are mutually exclusive concepts.”

“So it’s an issue of risk mitigation?”

Rain smiled for the first time that evening, 

“Exactly. Life is about not avoiding risk but mitigating the dangers when you can.  But let’s not talk of dangers for one night. We’ll listen to some music, make some friends that know nothing about us or our insane lives. You’ll get to see the real US outside of your favourite ‘documentaries’.  Have a few drinks without Mr Disapproval looking down his nose. Do a little sleight of hand…hey I’ll teach you some. And then we can toddle home as the sun rises over the gasworks, and beat Bruce to breakfast.”

Now there was a concept that Algernon could get behind, coffee and bacon and night out with Rain.  He nodded and Rain hailed the next free taxi.

“Driver!  To the High Dive, please.”

    *     * *     * * *     *   

Celia Fisher

Celia Fisher was confused at first when her hair salon couldn’t book an appointment with her favourite hairdresser.  It seems she wasn’t sick and hadn’t quit or been given the sack, she just wasn’t there. She became more concerned when she tried getting in touch with Melissa directly and her phone went straight to voicemail.  Melissa’s phone never went straight to voicemail. Melissa Romero, a charming twenty-something hairdresser collected people like some collected bottle caps or shiny pebbles. Celia had been ‘collected’ as they chatted over a salon appointment months previously.  They had exchanged phone numbers and that had been that.  

Celia’s senses tingled as she felt a mystery, and there was nothing that Celia liked better than a mystery to solve.  As a private detective in Seattle she usually had plenty of people that were willing to pay her to solve their mysteries.  Most of those didn’t count as real mysteries, cheating spouses and thieving employees are usually not experienced enough to know how to cover their tracks effectively.  Celia thought that Melissa’s case was different.

She visited Melissa’s home and found her sister Jennifer talking to police.  Having identified herself as a friend of Melissa’s Jennifer admitted that she was gratified that Melissa had so many caring people around her.

“Why do you say that?”  Celia asked.

“I was here trying to get Melissa to answer the door when three other friends turned up.  One said his name was Simun Otiluke. They came in with me and found her place deserted. It just looked like she was….”  At this point, Jennifer started choking up as the emotions got too much for her, “…she was just in another room. Everything was there, her keys, her phone.  Her phone had gone flat so she must have been gone days and days…” She started crying and Celia played her part well, consoling the family member while her mind raced through the possibilities.

“Jennifer listen. I’m not just a friend of Melissa’s but also an investigator.”  At this moment she handed Jennifer her business card. “I want to help you find Melissa.  Tell me, this is not the sort of behaviour you’d expect from her? To just go off without even her phone? Without a word?”

“She could be flighty, but she loved her work and Simun said she hadn’t been there either.  Melissa and I talked every week. If I didn’t ring her she’d be on the phone to me.”

“Okay, good so we can rule out that she’s just dropped out.  Do you mind if I walk through Melissa’s apartment, maybe take a look at her phone.”

Jennifer nodded.

“The police have done all that and said I can lock up, but what if she comes back and can’t get in?”

Celia didn’t answer.  Melissa leaving and not taking her keys was disturbing.  Her turning up to a lock house would be only be inconvenient.
“Was the apartment locked when you got here?”

“Yes,”  Jennifer thought for a moment, “One of them thought she may have been abducted,  or…translated, but Melissa didn’t know any other languages and what would that have to do with her disappearance?”

“Translated?  Are you sure they said, translated?”

“I’m sure. Simun seemed concerned it had been mentioned and suggested we try her bedroom …that’s when I found…”  Jennifer held out her hand to reveal Melissa’s iPhone now with ten percent charge.

“May I?”  Celia eyed the phone. She knew Melissa’s whole world was in that phone, but didn’t want to seem rude.  Jennifer handed it over.

“Did you get a name for the other two friend?”  Celia asked casually as she flipped through the messages and recent calls.

“No …no.  They all seemed to know each other though, maybe you can ask Simun?”  Jennifer wrapped her arms around herself, though the evening was warm. “Do you want to come inside, I don’t feel safe out here.”

Celia agreed and followed Jennifer into the apartment.  She noted the pile of mail inside the door, and the full cup of cold coffee on the kitchen counter.  She noted that the apartment was in good order with only the bedroom looking like it had been ‘lived in’.  As she moved through the apartment she shared Melissa’s contact list with her phone and took photos of all the messages.  When she had finished her investigation of the house she handed back the phone to Jennifer.

“Was there anyone new in Melissa’s life?  A new man or someone she particularly talked about?”  Celia asked on the off chance. She was sure that if Melissa has a boyfriend everyone would have known.

“Funny you should ask that, the big one, one of the friends asked that too?  I didn’t remember anyone at the time but I remembered later she had mentioned a new guy called LeRoy.  I remember because I thought she’d said the drink first, you know LaCroix. I thought it a funny name at the time.”

Celia went through the contacts list and found one for LeRoy Cain with phone number and an address.

“These friends, what did they look like?”

Jennifer described the three as best she could, but she kept coming back to the short one with the unusually coloured eyes.  

“When he looked at me it was like there was no else around.  It was a little creepy…” Jennifer let her words drift, Celia thought Jennifer may like this Simun character a little more than she let on.

“LeRoy, know anymore about him?”

“Last Tuesday I spoke to her, she said that she had to cut our call short because she was going to meet him.”


“Yes, she was being very mysterious about it.  You don’t think he had something to do with her disappearance?”

“I don’t know, but I’d certainly like a chance to talk to this LeRoy character for myself.”

Being  Monday night, Celia went home and started processing the information she had.  She cross referenced all the contacts in Melissa’s phone to Melissa’s Facebook and Instagram accounts.  Out of all the name only two can up blank. LeRoy Cain and Simun Otiluke and his friends. In fact a simple trawl through the social networking sites brought up nothing for either man.  

Next she started ringing Melissa’s friends.  This took a while as each one wanted to know what was going on and all had their opinions on what happened.  She‘d only run six friends but was already seeing a pattern. No one had heard of a Simun Otiluke, not social friends, nor workmates which was odd as he supposedly connected through the salon.  On the other hand, most had heard about Leroy Cain and one admitted to have known him. From their information it was clear that LeRoy was a very shady character, who like dressing as a cowboy and may have sold drugs to the friends.  He was only accessible Tuesday nights from the address in Melissa’s phone.

Celia put down her phone and scanned her notes.  Melissa hadn’t been seen for more than a week, possibly after seeing LeRoy on the Tuesday she spoke to her sister.  Sometime after, she went home and disappeared off the face of the earth. Leroy may not be involved but he seemed at present to be the last person to have seen Melissa alive.  Satisfied she could do no more that night, Celia turned in knowing that whatever happened, tomorrow was going to be a long day.

Celia Fisher rode through the evening streets of Seattle, her black trench coat fluttering behind her as she weaved through the remains of the peak-hour traffic.  She was a local and she knew Seattle’s streets well, but even for her this part of town was not well travelled. She had been out to this neighbourhood precisely once before, checking out a car parts racket.  The owner of the auto-repair shop had been so concerned to find out that his supplier was selling him stolen parts that he pleaded for her to forget his name in her reports to the insurance company. She had, earning her a favour that she was about to cash in.  

The office of the auto-repairs was at the front of the store and overlooked the intersection.  It also had the convenience of a back exit onto an alley where she intended to park her bike. With the lights off she could sit and watch the intersection and when it was time to move she would go out the back and never be seen from the street.  It was this alley she now turned into as the owner and his apprentices were just leaving.

“Are you sure you’re going to be right by yourself here?”  The owner said as they shook hands. She had been a private investigator for a little less than ten years and it still rankled when people underestimated her.

“I don’t intend for anyone to know I’m there.  Don’t worry about me, I do this all the time in places a lot less secure than your office.”  Celia replied confidently and he seemed mollified.

“Well, just remember to pull the door shut when you leave.”  

Promising to make sure the shop was locked up before she left, Celia then made her way through the dark garage.  She didn’t dare even a phone light as she picked her way around tool chests and piles of tyres to reach the office.  As she remembered, the office windows looked out onto the street and showed a view of intersection the other two buildings, and the carpark. 

 From her trench coat she pulled out a thermos and a pile of sandwiches.  From a messenger bag she pulled out a digital SLR camera with a 300mm image stabilizer lens.  It wasn’t the most powerful of her lenses, but the big front element picked up all available light, perfect for late night work like this.  Leaning back in one of the office chairs she scanned the area looking for any signs of life. A few people were still on the street at this hour  the general store was getting its share of customers picking up a few essentials before heading home and the last car drove out of the carpark and sped away for places unknown.  

Celia trained the viewfinder over the abandoned building and picked up the faint blue glow from one of the first floor windows. She looked closer and noticed that the window had been opened, the street lights failing to reflect off the velvet blackness of the building’s interior.  She cursed she hadn’t brought a longer lens as she couldn’t make out any details but she thought there was something propped up on the window sill. Something quite like a rifle.

She lowered her camera and wondered what to do next.  There was no sight of LeRoy Cain, but he could arrive at any moment.  She could report what she’d seen to the police, but what had she seen?  And any police would surely scare Cain off . In the end she stayed where she was and watched as a man in a black coat walked out the front door of the supposedly empty office building and entered the store.  She followed him with her camera as he talked to the shopkeeper and bought a drink, returning to the office block taking in the neighbourhood as he closed the door. Celia pulled out her notes and looked up the description of the three friends Jennifer had given her.  She couldn’t be sure, but she wondered if this was the mysterious Mr Simun Otiluke.

An hour past, night settled onto the city and filled the street with darkness.  The blue glow in the first floor window became more obvious, so too the fact that there was someone behind the possible rifle as she caught the shifting of a shadow in the window.  Car headlights filled the car park opposite as a Dodge Ram turned into the driveway and parked. She knew she had her man as soon as he got out, the big ten gallon hat and cowboy boots advertising the arrival of LeRoy Cain.  

She watched as LeRoy took up position on the street next to the auto-repair shop and waited.  From the front doors of the office building, the one she thought of as Simun flanked by a woman in beige and a big guy  with a crowbar strapped to his back walked out. Now she knew she’d found the three ‘friends’. Simun waved to get LeRoy’s attention as something the size of a bird shot out of the upstairs window and across the road.  The projectile sailed over LeRoy’s head and hit the brickwork down from where Celia was hiding. A beat past as the three ‘friends’ realised something hadn’t gone as planned. They started running, but they were only halfway across the road when LeRoy disappeared.  

Celia checked her lens sure that something had obscured her view.  He hadn’t slipped into a shadow or slunk away down an alley, he just ceased to be.  The friends stopped in their tracks, Simun collapsed to his knees. It was no illusion, they could see it…or not see it…too.  LeRoy had vanished.  

The big guy started towards the Dodge, Simun following after with a defeated air when the Dodge’s door opened and the car started, headlights filling the car park with light once more.  But there was no one there. Even with the poor light Celia could see the carseat and through the truck cab, there was no one there. And yet the Dodge started moving towards the two men.  

The big one pulled a pistol from his belt as Simun produced a small rectangle seemingly from nowhere.  Celia thought it may have been a mace canister or a taser, until he fanned playing cards in the direction of the driver’s seat.  The cards bounced off thin air and the big man aimed his gun at the outlined shape. The bullets missed their mark and now the truck was on them in earnest.  The big guy leaped aside and out of harm’s way. Simun seemed to vault onto the bonnet of the truck, roll up the window and flip around and through the passenger window.  He now wrestled nothing in truck cab as it bumped down the curb and into the street.  

Out of the corner of her vision, Celia saw movement at the first floor window.  She almost missed it, focused as she was on the action on the ground. She almost failed to see as a young man climbed onto the window ledge, leaped out and…floated to the ground.  Camera forgotten she sat stunned as the young man jogged across to another car parked nearby just as easily as he’d jumped 12 metres to the ground. 

Meanwhile, the woman and big guy were shooting the Dodge’s tyres.  Bullets sparked off the asphalt others hit true and the truck went down onto the wheel rims striking up even more sparks.  Inside the cab, Celia could see Simun grab hold of the steering wheel and yanked it down. The sharp wheel rims bit into the road and with a horrible suddenness, the truck flipped.  

Celia stood dumbstruck as she watched the Dodge flip onto its roof, its seeming lone occupant thrown around like a ragdoll.  The big guy yell something that could not be heard over the roar of the now disconnected engine and the screeching groan of the truck as it came to a stop in the middle of the road.  He yanked the driver door open as far as it would go and grabbed…nothing…struggling with Simun. Pulling both out, the big one holding nothing in a headlock and dragging it across the road to the car the young man stood beside.  

Celia hadn’t realised she had been standing and quickly sat back down.  Had she really seen a full grown man disappear and be kidnapped by three…no four…special forces?  And the boy. That wasn’t clever parkour or an abseiling stunt. He had floated to the ground, right in front of her.

Outside, the invisible LeRoy (she had to admit it) was being bundled into the back seat of the sedan as the young man ran across to the truck and grabbed something first from the glove compartment and then the upturned tray.  Simun was inside the front door of the office, calling for the young man to follow him as the sedan sped off, the woman at the wheel. It was then that Celia heard the sirens. The young man made it through the door as the police car turned the corner into the intersection. When they got out, the door was lock and there was no one in sight.

It was time to go.  Talking to the police may have been an option before, but now guns had been fired, a car had overturned and Celia not where she should be.  With practised speed she packed up her stakeout, carefully put away her camera and lens and moved through the garage to the back door. The alley where her bike waited was quiet after the noise and violence of the last few minutes.  Celcia pushed her bike down the alley the 20 or 30 metres and watched as the two young men exited the office block via a back door.  

Keeping to streets that ran parallel to their alley, Celia followed them as they stumbled into more populated districts.  When they called a cab, she turned into traffic behind and followed them north out of the city. Eventually the cab pulled up outside a jazz bar and the two men went in carrying a large duffle bag.  She slowly rode past, parked down the block and made her way back to the bar. 

    *     * *     * * *     *     

Much to Rain’s surprise, the High Dive was a substantial and  thoroughly respectable bar part of a group of stripshops in a recently gentrified suburbs of Seattle.  Being a Tuesday night, they had no problem getting in, storing Algernon’s duffle and finding seats. Rain was just settling in to the ‘vibe’, enjoying the familiar buzz of the crowd as another buzz caught his attention.  Without looking at his phone he knew it would be Bruce wanting to know where they were. The right thing would be to answer it, let him know they were safe and that they would be home about sunrise the next day. Then he looked around the crowd, the band on the stage,  Algernon sitting beside him ‘researching’ the alcohol list. Listening to Bruce and explaining where they were, why and hearing how irresponsible their actions were in light of the capture of the Cowboy seemed like it belonged to another…recursion. With a deep and satisfying breath out, he ignored the phone and called over a waiter.

Algernon nearly jumped out of his seat when his phone rang a few minutes later, Mission Impossible only just identifiable over the sound of the band.  He looked at the phone and his youthful face creased in worry seeing Bruce’s name pop up. Without a word he showed Rain.

“Yeah, he just rang me, but I can’t talk to him tonight.”

Algernon propped the phone up on the small table they shared.  He was frozen with indecision as to answer it or not. How would he respond to Bruce’s probing questions?  What if Bruce got angry? The phone stopped ringing and he gave a sigh of relief only to jump once more when a text message arrived.

Phone in when you’re safe.

“Are we safe?”  Algernon asked as the waiter returned with two drinks both a depressing brown colour.

“You know my response to that question.”  Rain replied, once more scanning the busy scene in front of them, “What do you think?”

“I don’t know!”  

Rain’s phone buzzed again and he pulled it out of his pocket like something rotten. This time Algernon answered it.  Somehow the fact that it was Rain’s phone and not his own made the task easier. He was just doing Rain a favour.

“Hey Rain.” It was Bruce, it was too hard to tell if he was angry from two words.

“Hi Bruce.” Algernon said tentatively.

“Algernon.”  Algernon could almost hear Bruce’s mind whirling through the possibilities as to why he would be answering Rain’s phone.

“We’re fine.  It’s just us…alone…and I’m not drinking alcohol.”

A moment of silence.

“Okay, are you safe?” Bruce asked carefully.  Algernon wasn’t sure that was a good sign.

“Rain says we’re never safe.”

“You  know he’s just riding you.”

“No, he’s right beside me.”

More silence.

“He’s having a little fun.”


“So…where are you?
“The…jazz…bar” Algernon’s minds stumbled over the lie.  How did Rain make it seem so easy.

“Yes, I know it’s a bar I can hear the music.  That’s not what it’s called, is it?”


Another silence, maybe the grinding of teeth.

“Right.  Look, you be careful and look after yourself.  You’re not used to that stuff and who knows how it will affect you.”

“I will, thank you Bruce.”  He hung up and sculled the drink in front of him.  They’d had a few drinks so far, some tasted better than others, this one had a pleasing sort of warmth to it, but none made him ‘feel’ anything that his research had prepared him for.  Mimicking Rain, he called over the waiter again and asked for the next thing on the list.

“Something not brown this time.  Maybe something sweet?”

It had been the good part of Rain’s job in The Last Shot to sometimes act as host.  Welcoming the customers, keeping them happy and buying drinks, watching out for the loners who could cause trouble or just needed a little attention.  It was with this experience he now scanned the bar and saw a woman in a black trench coat sitting alone. She sipped slowly on a nondescript drink and like him, watched the crowd. She didn’t look like she was waiting for someone (she wasn’t interested in new arrivals) nor did she look like she was here for the music.  She looked like a professional just off work, with expertly applied makeup and her long brown hair twisted into a bun at the nape of her neck. She was intriguing, and with all intriguing people, Rain had to know.

“Algernon, there’s a woman over there all alone.  Why don’t we go over and keep her company?” He pointed her out to his companion who had just finished a large apple schnapps.  Algernon smacked his lips appreciating the syrup sweet liquor. Now, if it were just colder and with a fizz. He looked up to the woman at a table alone and was about to ask, was she safe?  Instead he nodded agreement and followed Rain across the bar.

“Good evening, I noticed you were alone and we’re strangers in town, would you mind if we joined you?”  Rain asked falling into the swing and rhythm of his native English accent.

“I’m waiting for friends.” she replied coolly, meant to send them on their way.  Rain gave her one of his knowing smiles and tried again.

“We can leave as soon as they arrive.  We really are strangers in town and you look like someone who knows a little about Seattle and its sights.”

This time there was a grudging acceptance and she waved them to the empty seats at her table.

“My name is Simun and this is Algernon.”  Rain introduced them and winced internally as he realised he’d forgotten the standard US accent he usually used with the Simun persona.  He blamed the slip on his tiredness and sat down.

“Celia Fisher, “ She introduced herself and held out her hand to shake and Rain gladly took it.

They sat and chatted about Seattle for more than an hour. Celia seemed a font of information about Seattle and its history.  Algernon continued to work his way through the top shelf of the bar with no ill effect and Rain was just starting to feel comfortably numb when Celia said something that stopped his heart.

“So, I happened to see you floating out a window.” She said casually, turned to Algernon.

Rain took a sip of his drink stalling, the ice tinkling against the glass.  Algernon clunked his down on the table.

“Rain?”  He looked to Rain for guidance.  Surely this was exactly the sort of situation that constituted them not  being safe.

“Let me introduce ourselves again.  My friends call me Rain and this is Algernon and you are very good.”  He acknowledged that they…he… had allowed them to be followed.  “What were you doing in such a lonely part of Seattle?”

“Out on my bike.”  She replied nonchalantly.  A bike, he hadn’t seen a bike.  She was good.

“You weren’t there by accident were you?”  


“What do you know about the Cowboy?”

“What do you know?”

Rain smiled and admired her focus.  Most people liked to talk about themselves. This one knew how to ask questions and get answers.

“Not much, but I know some who do.”  He relented putting down his drink. He’d had enough.

“Could you introduce me?” Celcia asked now sitting on the edge of her seat.

“I think I have to.”

As the bar closed up for the night, the two men and a woman collected a large duffle bag and walked out into the cold morning air.  Strolling together companionably they retrieved Celia’s motorbike and they continued their walk to the gates of The Estate. Rain, with a friend on security and a bluff as solid as the gates themselves, got Celia through and into the dormitories.

“Introductions are required. Celia, these are my friends Bruce and Peggy,” Rain announced when they arrived at the mess with both already at breakfast, “This is Celia Fisher, she followed us from…the incident last night.”  

“You conned her in through security?”  Bruce asked by way of greeting.
“The bar closed, I live here, I invited her back.”  Rain collapsed dramatically into a chair no longer caring to keep up pretences. “Did you hear me also mention that she knows about last night, all of it including Algernon’s levitation from a first storey window?  She’s on the same case as us and I didn’t feel qualified to fill her in.”

“What I heard is that you picked up some woman at a bar.” Peggy commented hotly, “You should both come by and be checked for communicatible diseases.”


“You are a natural liar.” Bruce commented adding more fuel to Peggy’s fire.

” Yes, I can only assume this woman has obviously been brought here under false pretenses. If she feels it necessary I’m sure the medical unit have a rape kit. Or should we just call the police and let them deal with it. “

“Is this because I didn’t ring in…?”

“We’ll need to let Katherine know about Celia, “ Bruce ignored Peggy’s abuse as just deserts. Instead he also turned his attentions on Rain and Algernon.

“As for you,” Before he could start, Rain put up his hands  in surrender.
“I’m tired, I’m sore, I had a very good night and met an amazing new friend.  I can really do without the Bruce treatment this morning.”

Bruce took a moment to take in Rain, he did look worn thin.  Now two nights without sleep, a car accident and something else…

“You’ll keep.”  he warned and instead he started sniffing Algernon.

“You were drinking.”  It wasn’t a question, but Algernon answered it anyway.


“You don’t look like you were drinking.”

“Th-thank you?”  Algernon had actually been disappointed at his bodies response to the alcohol he had consumed.  It hadn’t seemed to have any effect on him whatsoever.

“How much did you drink?”

“In amount of beverages or in overall litres?”

Bruce’s mind boggled at what he was hearing

“You should look worse than Rain this morning.  Peggy, you should take him back and….”

“Run young man!”  Rain exclaimed in a overdramatize voice, “ the next word will be EX-PER-I-MENT-ATION!”

Algernon took the hint and ran.

“Why was that young man flying through a window?”  Celia finally saw a gap in the family bickering and took her chance.

Rain, Bruce and Peggy all look to each other.

“I don’t know if that for us to explain.”  Bruce finally said, “I think you should come with me and see a superior.”

“They might ‘Men in Black” her.”  Peggy warned.

“They can’t do that, can they…I don’t remember that…”  Bruce thought for a moment before turning back to Rain. “You stay here.” 

Rain got up and wandered off to have a shower.

They went to see Katherine.

Celia had been just biding her time.  When she was brought in to the office of Katherine Manners Chief of Operations at The Estate, she felt a sudden jolt of knowing that this was where the decisions got made.   Bruce introduced the two and filled Katherine in on what had transpired for Rain and Algernon.

“She’s been following the same trail as us and was there when we took the Cowboy, she deserves some sort of explanation.”

Katherine sat,  her hands steepled and watched Celia intently.  Celia sat equally as still and waited patiently.

“Celia Fisher?”  Katherine leaned back towards her desk and typed something into her computer, “Can I ask your profession?”

“I’m a private investigator on the trail of a LeRoy Cain. I was on stakeout to contact LeRoy when I happened to see a young man fly out a window.”

Katherine nodded and spent a moment reading her screen.

“You seem a level headed woman.  Normally, in these circumstances I’d ask you to leave, but your professionalism is refreshing.  In fact, you could teach some around here about discretion.” 

Somewhere a printer whirled to life and a few minutes later an assistant came in with a stapled document.

“The Estate has been watching you for a while for potential recruitment.  So, if you would like to find out what is going on, please read and sign this NDA.”  Katherine handed over a pen and the document.

“I would have expected nothing less.”  Celia replied and pick up both.

“Rain Bigby, please report to the Office.”  The somewhat mechanical voice came through the public address system throughout The Estate.  Rain who had just stepped into a shower looked at the speaker above his head.

“Well that ‘s not happening.” and continued to scrub away days of grim, exhaustion and worry.  In the office building across campus, Algernon turned up to support his friend.

“I wanted Rain.”  Lawrence Keaton said when he saw Algernon waiting at his door.

“Yes.”  Answered Algernon looking as confused as Keaton felt.

“Do you know where he is?”

“Third cubicle in the men’s bathroom?”  Algernon guessed.

“What?  Nevermind, I don’t want to know.”  

It must be said that the water pressure and temperature at the Estate were excellent.  Rain luxuriated in the hot water and steam until it started lulling him to sleep. Shaking off the exhaustion he stepped out of the shower to grab a towel, only to face Lawrence Keaton.

“What and unexpected surprise.”  Rain beamed as if inviting Keaton into his home, exquisitely dressed in a satin house gown and slippers, not naked and sopping wet, “To what do I owe this housecall?”  He reached for one of the fluffy towels on the rack, only to have Keaton lean on the rack pinning the towels to the wall. 

“Why did you invite a civilian onto campus?”

Rain also tried to lean back, but the divide between the shower cubicles was cold, much colder than his showered skin.  He settled for righteous indignation.

“Celia Fisher not a civilian.  She was tracking down the Cowboy just as we were and she was doing it alone.”

“So you took it upon yourself to recruit her?”

Rain was missing some nuance to this conversation which was unusual for him. Then he realised why, the powerplay and the very public call over the P.A.

“Is this a supervisor thing?”

“Yes, it is.” came the simple reply

“Never have worked out why I needed one.”

“I know, this would be an excellent example.”

“She’s good. She was there when we took him down. She then tracked Algernon and I across Seattle.  We chatted for an hour before she let us know.”

“You got lucky.  We were already thinking of recruiting her.”  Keaton retorted

“You say luck, I say skill at reading a person’s soul.”

“I do say luck.”

“Not in my experience.”  Rain grew dark. Regardless of the hot steam, the temperature of the room became decidedly colder.

Keaton stood up and threw Rain a towel before turning to leave.

“Don’t let it happen again.”

After the debrief with Katherine Manners, Bruce gave Celia a tour of the Estate Campus and facilities. He showed her the public side, the training centre, computer lab and library and then he showed her the private face, the gun range, the gate house and the labs.  At the same time he filled her in on their family of misfits.

“Yeah, Rain’s good hearted, even if he doesn’t know it.  Algernon is…naive even for his years but the things that kids can do.  Then there’s Peggy,” He lead her down a set of stairs leading to the basement of the labs, “Eighteen dimension of science she understands, but not one of humanity.”

At the bottom the stairs a reinforced metal door stood closed with an ominous sign reading DANGER NO UNAUTHORISED PERSONNEL ALLOWED.  Bruce rapped on the metal as if it were a teenager’s bedroom.

“Peggy, I have our new team member. Can I bring her in to show her around?”

“No we don’t, she’s here under false pretenses.”  Came Peggy’s voice from behind the door. “I’ll not have Rain’s….friend playing around with sensitive experiments.”

“Not false, true pretenses.  Seems like she was going to be pulled in by the Estate.”

“What? Oh very well.” Replied Peggy with a heavy sigh and the heavier slam of a metal door. “Let me put away the isotropic material.”  A few minutes later the door clicked as a magnetic bolt was released.

”Yes, yes don’t touch anything and don’t step over the yellow lines.”

Bruce pushed open the door to reveal a large fluro lit space  filled with lab benches, fume hoods surrounding a ugly collection of equipment of various ages and heritages.  The mentioned yellow lines scribed a large circle around the pile of ‘junk’. 

“I’m in the middle of experiments to determine if  Spiral Dust can conduct the Strange.” Peggy explained, motioning to equipment within the yellow lines. 

“Is that likely?”  Bruce asked

“The Spiral Dust definitely has a connection to the Strange and more interestingly, an entity in the Strange.”

“An entity?  Like the thonics.”  This got Bruce’s attention.  Their one interaction with thonics, the energy creatures  of the strange, nearly cost him his life. He didn’t want to imagine that there were other beasts that made the Strange home.

“Native to the Strange, yes.  As to the nature of this entity, that is not my concern.  I’m interested in manipulating that connection.”

“Well you’ll get to put all that aside for a week or so, we’re off to Colorado.”

“A week or so? I assume this has to do with LeRoy?  I can spare a few days, surely that’s enough for a flight to and from….”

“We’re not flying, Peggy.  Katherine’s ordered that we get out of the Estate for a while, do another job on the way back.  We’ll be drivingall the way.”

“They want us to continue to do field work after the shit-show last night?”  Now Bruce had Peggy’s attention, “Well, I’m honoured but I have too many things that need monitoring.”  She turned back to her machines as data scroll across numerous screens.

“I don’t think you have a choice, Peggy.” 

Peggy grumbled something about them needing her more than she needed them but in the end relented enough to go with them to pick out the car for the trip.

The Estate’s carpool was not flush with vehicles big enough to take all five and their luggage.  There were in fact two vehicle, chosen because of their ability to blend into everyday society.

“Wait, what?!”  Peggy exclaimed as she was shown what was on offer.  One was a delivery van setup with surveillance equipment, but not a lot of room for personnel, the other was a relic from another time, a combi van equipped with regulation flower power foliage.  It had the required seating but Peggy quickly found some black paint and tried obliterating the symbols of peace and love. Celia went and collected a few things from home required for the trip and Bruce rounded up the boys.  On the way back he stopped off at his supervisor’s office.

“One question, how do you we bring back the dealer from Colorado?”

“I suggest you don’t.”  Katherine replied with Estate efficiency, “Find out what you can and come back.  Learning and disrupting are more important.”

“But what do we do with the prisoner?”  

“Do what you think is best.”

For a short while there was talk of heading out early the next morning, necessitating Celia staying overnight.

“I will not share!” Peggy roared in protest when it clear that Celia was expected to bunk in the women’s dorms with her.

Instead, van hit the road early that afternoon with a new coat of black matt and two motorbikes strapped to the back.  Heading to the heart of the country the group had a lot of free time to exchanged phone numbers and share what they knew .  

“I’ll drive!” Algernon called driver’s seat and was quickly directed to a seat in the back by Bruce.

“Yes, you will, but you need muscle memory and coordination.”

“But Bruce, I’m already fully co-ordinated.”  Algernon replied. Eventually he settled in and listened to the audiofile of the interrogation with the LeRoy Cain.

Rain was happy to be out on the road again, untied from rules and restrictions.  He kept himself awake by singing road tunes and at one stage reading through Sharon Cooper-Smith article on  her experience under the influence of Spiral Dust. He was once again disappointed to find no correlation between his vision and hers except the floating nothingness.  It was then that Bruce remembered he wanted a word with Rain.

“Rain, you took Algernon to a nightclub without telling anyone, for the purpose of getting him drunk.”

“Not just,”  Rain argued, annoyed that his conversation had come up again, “To hear some music, to meet people, to NOT HAVE TO DEAL WITH THIS.”  They both looked at Algernon, but he seemed absorbed in listening to the Interview. “Can’t we just have a night out without the twenty questions, dad?”

“As much as he might look it, he’s not human, we don’t know how his system deals with alcohol.”

“He had some in Railsea and then again after his near electrocution.  He was fine.” Rain ticked the examples off on his fingers remembering too late that Bruce probably didn’t know about the last.

“What if he had a bad reaction to mixing the different alcohols, what if he had a heart attack and died.”

  Bruce knew this was a good way to break through Rain’s seeming casual indifference.  Rain looked at Bruce horrified that he would even contemplate such an outcome. He crumpled under the image of Algernon dying in a pool of his own vomit. Shutting his eyes and covering his face, nothing removed the image.  Once realised it could never be removed from Rain’s mind.

“No, Bruce, don’t do that!”  

“Yes Rain, because you just don’t think. You don’t consider what could happen and when horrible things happen you feel bad, but it’s too late.”

“Stop it!  We can’t live for ‘what ifs’!  You’ll drown us in ‘what ifs’!”

“Listen…guys…Rain, Bruce…listen.”  Algernon had taken off his headphones and had his head turned as if listening to something.

“What is it?”  Rain asked all thoughts of  Bruce and dead Algernon forgotten for the live one in front of him.

“I don’t know …a sort of…buzzing.”

At this the whole van listened to the engine puttering along, the road noise and the whistle of the air whipping through open windows, but no buzzing of any sort.

“He’s young, they say they can hear better than adults.” Bruce suggested, Rain shook his head thinking back on all his reading into the gifts of the Strange. He knew that both Algernon and Peggy were of a group most susceptible to the Strange, most touched and most gifted.  They’re subclass developed the most gifts and of the most dramatic sort. Algernon’s levitation and Peggy’s psychic scream were examples of how the power manifested and it seemed to him that he may have just discovered another.

“You can hear something that they rest of us can’t?”

Algernon nodded, shaking his head in an attempt to clear what was causing the sound.

Rain focused on Algernon and with as sharp and clear a thought as possible he projected one short phrase.

Straight away, as if he’d spoken the phrase out loud, Algernon replied.

“I’m not being stupid, I can really hear it.”

Rain clapped his hands over his mouth.  Celia and Bruce looked back and forward between the two boys in confusion.  

“What?”  Bruce had to nudge Rain to explain.

“In my mind, I told him not to be stupid.”  Rain replied numbly.

“Really, you can read minds?”

“I don’t know…maybe.”

“Try me.”

The group projected images, phrases, songs at Algernon, and all but one time he was able to respond back with a description of what he saw.  One time Bruce purposely projected an image of pink elephants while Algernon was looking away, the image was not received, but one of Big Ben (a giant time device) and the tune to the Rain’s Railsea shanty (Algernon hummed along with the tune) were.  It seemed he could gain an impression of a person’s surface thoughts only when he was looking at them. Eventually Algernon complained of headaches and the game lost its appeal. 

Rain seethed with bitter self recrimination and envy silently in the backseat.  He wanted to be happy for his friend, this was a miracle beyond the comprehension of most people.  A gift so rare it only appeared in stories and was never taken seriously in the real world. But he couldn’t, no matter how he tried to centre himself to gain control.  The thought that Algernon had simply ‘found’ telepathy, whereas he had search is whole life and found nothing made frustrated tears well in his eyes. Horrified, he realised that Algernon could probably pick every negative thought. 

He wanted to run, to get far away from Algernon taking his evil bitter thoughts with him, but he couldn’t, he was stuck in the back of a Kombi van for another three days with his best friend able to see every putrid, spiteful thought.  Too tired, too confused and just too far gone to care, Rain curled up on the back seat and wept.

“I don’t think you realise what you do, Rain.” It was Bruce again, this time in a quieter more conciliatory voice. “You do something that makes things easier.”

This again. 

“Have you felt it too, Algernon?”

“Yeah, an energy.  It makes things happen.”  Algernon replied with enthusiasm.

The sweetness of their gesture only made his feel more wretched. It was just words.  Words to build up, to encourage and inspire. He’d known the power of words from a very young age, to make someone less than human, to label and eventually make those labels stick with soldiers and bullets. 

“It’s…just….words.”  He finally got out, “Illusions…nothing.”

“No, “ Bruce was adamant, “It’s something…subtle.”

Yeah, so bloody subtle as to be undetectable. The dark thoughts said, the ones that threatened to consume him when the panic attacks hit.  

But, …subtle also meant, delicate, precise, difficult to pin down, crafty …cunning.  Said the other voice, the one that was resilient and resourceful.

The word took root and around it Rain built an image of himself that wasn’t a failure or broken.  It was a fragile construct, a simple dismissal would have destroyed it, but it existed.

“Subtle…I like subtle.” He whispered. Exhausted and hopeful, Rain for the first time in three days forgot about the velvet darkness and fell asleep to the rocking of the van.

It was midday on the third day of travel.  A black matt Kombi rolled passed a sign saying NEDERLAND – LIFE IS BETTER UP HERE!  A dusty Highway 72 lead straight down to the wateredge of Barker Meadow Reservoir through the heart of the idyllic mountain township, home to almost 1,500  residents. Raw wood sided buildings and tree clad mountains were a constant reminder that the city of Seattle had been left a long way behind.

Inside the Kombi, electronic devices guided the way to The Dreaming Crystal gemstore.  Algernon was making himself acquainted with the stores merchandise and came across a word he didn’t recognise.

“Rain, what is libido and why does it need restoring?”  he asked 

“Libido is your ability to….”

“And desire…” Bruce added.

“…and desire to …procreate.”

“And it needs restoring?”

“For some, possibly. What have you found that’s got you all worked up?

Algernon turned his laptop around to show the website for the Dreaming Crystal.  Beside a wide selection of geological samples from fossils to geodes the website also catered for the New Age desire to solve life’s problems with with anything other than common sense.  

Minutes later (the township of Nederland not being all that large) Peggy pulled up outside The Dreaming Crystal guided by Celia in the passenger seat.

After three days stuck together, Celia has proven herself to Peggy, if not completely trustworthy, at least useful. She decided to check out the shop with Celia first, leaving the men in the car.

“Can’t I go, the thorn between two roses?”  Rain scrambled to crouch between the two front seat illustrating his point.

“No.”  Was Peggy’s simple reply.  Celia’s no nonsense attitude seemed more appropriate for a shopping trip than Rain’s theatrics.

“But who will talk if not for Rain?” Algernon spoke up for his brother.

“Celcia will.”  Peggy replied as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“What! Now I’m being replaced because I’m a magical cripple?”

“Your words, not mine.”  Peggy turned away from the only half joking Rain and stepped out of the van.

Inside the store, sunlight and display lighting  twinkled from every surface as crystals of all shapes, sizes and colours.  Fossils lay in box frames or purpose built display cases looking old and important beside shelves of books ranging from fossil and mineral fossicking to crystal auras and their properties.  At the counter, an elderly man smiled genially as the two ladies entered. Celia slipped in amongst the displays looking like a browsing tourist leaving Peggy to deal with the sales assistant.

“Good day, can I help you with anything?”  He said, his hands folded neatly in front of him.  

“Yes, I want high quality trilobites fossils, from the Ohio beds, specifically.”  She marched up to the counter, creating a very physical and psychological distraction for Celia.

“Oh my, yes…well, let me see what we have.”  The old man dithered under Peggy’s intense scrutiny and started checking boxes under the counter. 

This was the opportunity Celia was waiting for as she slipped undetected past the sales assistant and through a doorway to the staff areas beyond.

“No, no, no these don’t have the definition I required, please look again.”  Celia could hear Peggy bark as she made her way down a hallway lined by four doors.

“May I ask what the fossils are for, maybe I could narrow down my search?”

“To prove a point.”

“Which is?”

“None of your business.”

Celia was just about to try the first door when a heavily tattooed woman smelling of smoke stepped out of another and gave her a searching look.

“This part of the store is restricted. Is there something I can help you with?”  The woman asked making a show of closing the door behind her.

“Oh, yes thank,” Celia bluffed , “I was just wondering where the Bathroom is.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed, but she voiced no complaint at the intruder’s presence.

“We don’t have one in the store, but there is a public facility in the park.”  She pointed out the store and down the street to the reservoir. 

“My mistake, thanks for the information.”  Celia waved as she was guided back to the shop front.  She made a show of leaving, but went around the corner to hide until the woman left.  While there, she found a door to the rear of the shop and started towards that instead.

Meanwhile, Peggy was actively looking for CCTV cameras while she waited at the counter.  When the tattooed woman followed Celia into the store she noticed Peggy and her investigations.

“Is there something specific you’re looking for?”  She asked in a tone of deep suspicion which was completely lost on Peggy.
“Trilobite fossils.”  Peggy replied simply 

“Well you won’t find them in the corners of the shop.” Replied the woman now openly hostile.  The old man stopped searching boxes and watched the two sparing women with round eyes.

“I’m checking your security.  But as I’ve seen the quality of your stock I’m not surprised you don’t bother with any.”

“Get out.”

“No.  I’m being served.”  Peggy gestured to the man who instinctively ducked back under the counter.

“I’m afraid we don’t have what you’re looking for.”  He replied meekly, peaking back over the counter at the fuming face of Peggy.

Peggy was willing to argue the point but as Celia had left she didn’t see the need to continue the farce and finally left.

Outside, Rain was bored. He stepped out of the van with the idea to chat to the store owners either side of The Dreaming Crystal when he saw Celia working at a door in a small alleyway.  Silently, he follows as she expertly picked the door open and disappeared inside.

Peggy stormed out to the van.

“Two people one heavily tattooed with a bad attitude the other a spineless male.”

“Our target is a woman, where is she?.”  Algernon commented, Peggy qualified her statement explaining the tattooed one was a woman.

“I hate to say it, “  Bruce added once Peggy and briefed them on her experience in the store, “But we may need an Algernon solution.”

Algernon responded by clicking his new crossbow together and engaging a new net canister.

“Let’s just see what the other two are up to.”  Bruce pulled out his phone and texted Rain.

What have you found out?

Rain had caught up with Celia in a basement storeroom when his phone buzzed silently in his pocket.  Seeing Bruce’s message he replied simply, Let you know. Before checking the boxes for the grey rock they had come to know as unprocessed Spiral Dust.  They found nothing but fossils and store supplies. 

Two locked doors remained, Celia crept up to pick the lock.

“If you hold your hand like this you’ll pick up the barrels cleaner.”  He whispered and Celia felt the frisson of energy. She picked the lock like she’d used the key and they were soon travelling down a flight of wooden steps to another door.  Beside the door a box of flashlights sat ready. Both Celia and Rain had their phone lights on and left the flashlights undisturbed as Celia opened the door. A cool wave of decay and rotten flesh swept up the stairs towards them and Rain stepped back instinctively.  Celia swept the blackened room with her light, picking up a number of buckets full of stagnant water, full of squirming mosquito larvae. Above, large wrapped bundles the size of people hung suspended on thin threads of silk. Then her light picked up something distinctly not mosquito. Eight eyes perched on a head holding salivating mandibles entered the beam, eight legs, each taller than Celia and Rain stepped out of the shadows. From another corner, the creak of chintin drew Celia’s light to a second giant spider.

No stopping to discuss her discovery with Rain, she stepped back and shut the door, the pounding of heavy bodies rattling the door on its hinges.

Spider, found spiders. Rain texted to the party before Celia qualified the statement.

Horse-sized spiders.

Shall I come in and bust heads?  Was Bruce’s reply

No. One more door and we’ll be out. Rain answered as he and Celia snuck back up the stairs.

In the hallway the woman walked past rolling ‘tobacco’ between paper as She walked along the hallway from the shopfront to the back door.  Celia let her past before she and Rain stepped out and stood outside the last door. She looked to him before putting her lockpicks to the lock.

He smiled gratified and whispered, “You’ve got this.”

The lock opened smoothly under her hands and they quickly stepped into the room and close the door

This room was an office, with a desk and computer, phone,  floor safe and corkboard. Beside the computer a scrap of paper held the WIFI password and on the corkboard a map of the world highlighted locations, one being Seattle.  Celia moved to the safe and tried the door. Again Rain gave encouragement, but her skills did not extend to picking safes and it remained firmly locked. Rain sat at the desk and turned on the computer.  Breaking in was simple and he was soon downloading files to his phone labelled with Spirals, Cryptocurrency and a crow symbol. Rain linked the computer to Algernon’s via the WIFI and set up a small program to ping whenever the computer was turned on.  

Celia kept busy placing a bug in the phone and checking out the filing cabinet.  She found personnel files for two staff: Delsey Robinson and Everett Rand. She took photos of these files as well as the corkboard and each of the locations marked with a pin.

“This is my good side.”  Rain turned in the office chair as Celia snapped a shot of him working at the computer.  When everything they could get access to was recorded and the computer once more shutdown, they left the room and the store via the back door.  Minutes later they were back in the van sharing the information they had discovered.

As Peggy drove away from the store to find accommodation for the night, the group poured over the information.

“I guess those bundles you found with the spiders were people who didn’t leave the shop.”  Bruce joked darkly.  

“It also seems those two in the shop were only employees, “  Peggy added, “So where is Lydia?”

Rain opened the files  on his phone, quickly sharing it with the others once he realised what he’d discovered.  The first, labelled Spirals contained 20 subfolders all with a person’s name and location.  

LeRoy Cain, Seattle

Obol Demer, Bangkok

Jack Chen, Beijing

Joaquin Lopez, Buenos Aires

Nader Boutros, Cairo

Sania Beit, Delphi

Elia Yilmaz, Istanbul…

They all seemed to detail transactions, goods and money moving in and out.

Algernon poured over the photographs of the map and noticed the pins followed a pattern. The pin locations were specifically chosen to be equidistance from each other and formed a lattice of triangles across the globe. Celia matched each of the folders to a pin on the board except for one pin in the middle of the Atlantic.  It was a map of the entire Spiral Dust Empire.

“This thing is International.”

The second folder contained a ewallet for cryptocurrency transactions.  Currently, it held 321 bitcoins, approximately $US 20,000.

The third, the one marked only with a crow symbol was the most interesting of all.  It seemed to be a diary, of sorts, complete with an image of a woman with dark hair and eyes and a long hooked nose.  In it Lydia described Dona Ilsa and her fear of her. She spoke of the spiders as ‘the things in the basement’ and she was sure they would eat her or Dona Ilsa would kill her if she didn’t move the dust’.  She described the way the dust was delivered to the prep room without hindrance from the store’s security. She felt that the simple way she bypassed all locks showed the power of Dona Ilsa and was meant as a reminder to Lydia just what Dona Ilsa could do.

When all the information was laid out, Bruce sent it to Katherine asking what she knew of a Dona Ilsa and the locations on the map, especially the one in the middle of the ocean.   It made sense that Dona Ilsa and Don Whitecliff were leaders of possibly rival Crows Hollow families and that the group may have stumbled into the middle of a crime syndicate turf war for Spiral Dust distribution stretching across the world and into other recursions.

Katherine’s reply was prompt and short.

“The pattern was well spotted. Sent to Hertzfeld to make sense out of it. I’ll be in touch when I have more.”

In the light of Lydia’s fear of Dona Ilsa and the Spiral Dust, Peggy was reminded by her own discoveries. She told the group that spiral dust was not just connected to the Strange but also to a living entity within the Strange. 

Algernon, whose research in the Strange was better than anyone’s present, grew worried, but before he got even a chance to share, Rain informed him of Celia’s phone tap and the moment was gone.

That night the group turned in determined to find out where Lydia Lance was and to shut down this end of the Spiral Dust distribution.

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.

Escape to New Orleans

After the initial excitement at discovering an organisation a big as the Estate involved in interplanetary travel, days of debriefs and training had become a solid wall of sound.  I was very aware that outside the chain link and barbed wire of the Estate Campus, New Orleans awaited. I was looking forward to becoming acquainted with my new town. It was why I had sat on a series of buses from New York all the way down the country to Louisiana.  I wanted to hear the creole slang, taste the bourbon and feel the beat as life danced around me. 

When it was clear my path was to be the deep south I did more than a little research.  I’d made a mental map of all the sight I was going to call my own. Jackson Square where I would hopefully find a patch to do a little street magic,  earn a few coins and hangout talking to the artists. I wanted a seat on a hard wooden pew at St Augustines for the Jazz Mass on a Sunday, waving my fan. I wanted to  hunt out the best street music. I wanted to come across the French Quarter and spend the day at a cafe watching the world go by and the night at Bourbon House watching the whiskeys  do the same thing. I wanted to eat shrimp by the dock and charm the chef into free seconds. I wanted breakfast of beignet and coffee and supper of the best jazz. And most of all I wanted to see the magic at Lucky Pierre’s, preferably from backstage.

I wanted anywhere not air conditioned, fluorescent lit and furnished with chipboard furniture.  New Orleans seemed more beyond my reach than when I was in New York. Until our clearance came through, we were virtual prisoners on campus, allowed free reign only within its highly secure walls.  

I could hear the air-conditioning tick over again and a not quite cool gust of stale air made me shiver.  Taking advantage of a comfort break I broke out of my training into the subterranean passages that lead all over the campus.  It was through these passages that the real training happened in underground dojos, gyms and gun ranges. Bruce had given up on ‘handing me over the the police’ as the Estate security were now my official jailors. When not in his own training he spent much of his time down here, toning oversized muscles thinking his oversized thoughts.   It was where I now found him and silently watched from the doorway.

A gun fired nearby making me jump (I hate guns).  Bruce noticed the movement and stopped his current circuit of the gym.

“What are you doing skulking about?”  he asked without malice, just habit.

“As you say, skulking.”  I replied without energy.

“You need to keep yourself busy, idle hands and all that.”

“Idol hands, you mean.” and made a shiny silver coin flipped between my fingers faster than eyes could follow, though I had the impression his could. I did a false flip and the coin disappeared, wishing I could too.

“I need to get out of here, Professor.  It’s driving me crazy.”

“You need to shift some of that nervous energy of yours.   Go out for a run…”

“Exactly, you and me out on the town. I’ll cause the distraction with the guards…”

“I meant, go running.” he grumbled and went back to his weights machine, “You know, around the campus.”

“I’d rather go for a run down Bourbon Street.”  I grumbled back. He silently did his repetitions without comment.

“What do you think they want from us?” I asked without too much hope of an answer.  It had been one of many questions that bothered me. It was one of the reasons I wanted a little escape, see if the perspective from the bottom of a whisky glass offered some insight.

“You’ve been to the trainings.  We are to be operatives for the Estate.”  he grunted out the last few words as the repetitions became more difficult, “They’ll let us know when they need us.”

“And you’re happy to just follow orders?  Don’t you want to understand what’s going on?”

Bruce finally gave up his current machine and grab a hand towel. Wiping the sweat from his face looked at me, 

“Look, they’ve been at this a lot longer than you.  They’ll let us know when the time is right.”

The absolute trust in the authority of The Estate was too much for me and I backed up, probably in horror.

“Hey, where are you going now?”  He asked, a look of concern passing over his face.

“To find someone who can talk sense.”  I replied and continued down the corridor to the Gatehouse.

 The Gatehouse was, unoriginally, the  building where gates to other Recursions were housed.  Here, people came and went on trips seemingly at all times of day and night and where we ourselves had first returned from the wastelands.  People with packs and decent all-weather gear stepped through the automatic glass doors to a passage marked Departures. Even more were moving out through a custom-style gate where Estate agents checked paperwork and items they were returning with.  It was like a tiny international airport complete with its own border control. Also here were the Estate Security, hired directly out of the armed forces from various nations and all armed.  Two flanked the doors to the outside. Without a distraction there was no way to pass them into the real world.

I felt them look in my direction and used a group of new arrivals as cover.  The party of operatives looked like they were going mountain climbing and as we moved through the lobby together I took off my coat and rolled it into a small swag. Under my arm it looks a little like their packs and my white shirt and vest looked more like the mountain climbers own clothing.  I could almost feel the guard’s gaze scanning the crowd, but there are advantages to being slightly below average height.

The group were exploring a recursion they believed to be a fictional leakage of Journey to the centre of the Earth.  I was a little envious as they checked in through the customs agents and I waved them off.

No.  I have a whole city to explore, full of people and life, why am I jealous of a dangerous cave expedition into the unknown?  I was still thinking these things as I stood in front of the customs agent, his name tag read Eoghan.  I’d seen the gaelic spelling for ‘Owen’ before and felt pretty confident in making a good impression.

“Hi Eoghan, I’m…Eric Leomund.  I’m sure I saw you earlier when I came through with Elmer McCain.”  Name dropping never hurts, and neither does using an assumed one. I stretched out my hand for him to take. I hadn’t seen him. I’d been exhausted by our near death experience,  shocked by our Valkyries change and still a little disoriented from the translation. But, if he had been there he may well remember us. He did. He beamed at the correct pronunciation of his name and seemed to preen a little at being remembered, shaking my hand in return.

“Hey yeah, your group came in on Five .   You all made quite a procession with McCain and Drs Manners and Hetzfeld.   All the big-wigs and your lot tromping straight through customs leaving a blank in the gate.  Uh…but don’t worry about that.” Eoghan laughed nervously as if he’d said something embarrassing. The people in the line moved around me as best they could while I still hid from the guards.  

“I’m a newly minted operative hoping to learn the ropes.  Do you think I could slip across…” I made a gesture to move to his side of the counter, out of sight of the main lobby.  Eoghan offered readily and I slid over the divide to stand with him as he did his job. I shrugged my coat back on and felt more myself.  Without the pressure of eyes watching I felt more relaxed and ready for a chat.

“It’s amazing isn’t it, all this.  World upon worlds to visit and hardly anyone knowing about them.”  I scanned the crowd as Eoghan filled me in on his awareness of The Strange and transfer to Headquarters.  

“Of course, Ireland has a long history of connection to the recursions.  Dublin has one of the longest running connections with The Strange in the world.  We thought they were fairyland. Even the translations sickness was suppose to be the longing the fairies place on those who try to  leave.” Eoghan prattled on good naturedly as he waved through another group of adventurers who were dressed in cold weather gear.

“Eoghan. I’m sure you’re a man who enjoys a good time.  Where do you go in town for craic? I’m looking for a place full of local colour.”

“I don’t know about local colour, but I usually go to a Irish Pub.”  he replied conversationally. I was disappointed that my current best friend seemed so lacking in general good taste.  Why, when in New Orleans, would you spend your social hours at an Irish pub? I almost wept.

There was a crash as something heavy hit one of the roller doors to a gate room.  With a look at each other, Eoghan and I dashed up the corridor of gates to a door painted with a big black ‘8’.  Already a number of Estate agents were struggling to lift a bulging roller door.  With a collective groan the door swung up and a grey and white creature of aquatic nature slipped and slithered out into the corridor.  

It was almost three metres in length, with a female humanoid upper body and a very fishy dorsal fin and tail.  As a human, it would have been beautiful except there was no life in this body and they never really had been. Like the wild woman who had climbed a rock to murder Peggy and Bruce, this was a well made, highly detailed model of a creature.  The appearance of the body caused even more disturbance among the people at the other gates and over its grey mottled skin, I could see Estate security moving towards the action. I hunker down.

“Look she said she knew where I could find a seed if I told her something new.  I said I could take her to a place where she could swim in the lake of a golden city of lights.  I’m telll’ you, she wanted to come.” man climbed out of the gate wearing sturdy travelling clothes talking to Estate officials.
“Sir, she is clearly a Lady of the Lake construct, she’s programmed to want knowledge for a request.” an Estate agent was arguing over a clipboard, “You visited a known literary recursion.  You knew that the majority of creatures there are without spark…”

“But a seed!  How could see have known…”

“Regardless sir, you will need to pay…”

“Pay!  I made no money on this translation…”

The argument between the agent and the recursion miner was drawing a crowd, one of the guards was quickly moving to the front.  I wasn’t sure I could just walk away, but maybe with help? I turned to my new friend

“Say Eoghan, what did you guys do with the woman my group brought through?”

“Huh?” like everyone, he was paying attention to the fight, ‘Oh, we took it to the morgue until the boffins release it. Why?”

“ I was thinking you’d want to clear this space so services can continue as normal.”  I prompted hoping Eoghan was quick enough to pick up the suggestion, “I’d be happy to help.”

“Um…sure.  Thanks Eric!”  he cheered up considerably and called over a few other agents.  Each picked up a corner of the mythical creature and dragged it back towards the doors to the lobby.

“Hey, hey where are they going with the Lady.  She still has a sword on her…” the recursion miner leaped forward and grasped something held loosely in the blanks nerveless hand.  He stood back up with a sharp highly polished sword. Suddenly, officials stepped back holding their hands in front of them.

“Now, no need to pull a weapon, sir.’  Security guard stepped in giving me a chance to get under the body of the creature and start walking away with the agents.  Under the damp body we moved as one towards another set of double doors and into the Recursion Labs buildings.

This area was more utilitarian.  A white vinyl floored and green walled corridor dog-legged around to the right.  Ahead, a door was labelled, Morgue. As one we lifted the blank through the door and onto two trolleys.  I stood and looked at it for a moment and remembered our own woman.

“You okay, Eric?” asked Eoghan with real concern.  It was sweet. I can use sweet.

“Oh, I was just thinking how beautiful she must have looked in her natural environment before that idiot killed her.”  I sighed, reaching out to hold the cold inhuman hand of the blank. I tried to suppress a shudder and failed, but Eoghan accepted it as a shudder of grief and not of revulsion.

“Oh man. Oh man I get it.  They seem so real.” he looked nervous.  He’s an average guy, not used to sharing feelings.  

“But she was real Eoghan.  She breathed and acted in her world.”  I let tears well in my eyes, they’re never too far away. “I’m sorry Eoghan, you’ve been a great mentor.  I didn’t get to say goodbye to the one we brought through, but do you think I could have a moment with this one?”

“Sure man, “  It was Eoghan’s turn to sigh in relief, “Take your time, I’ll see you around.”

I waved him out of the morgue with a faint smile and turned back to the creature.  

When the door closed I quickly let go of the still damp hand and turned to the other trolleys in the room.  She wasn’t far, she’d only come in a few nights before. Like a dead person there were no signs of life. No flush to the skin, no rise and fall of the chest, no pulse at the neck.  Unlike a dead person she looked like a copy of the person she had been in her recursion. It was like the recursion itself was the living thing, only giving the semblance of life to its creations while it can control them.   

Still,  I shuddered and brought a knife out from behind my back.

First things first.  I held my breath and cut away the bandage that Bruce had applied to the woman’s leg wound.  I let the breath out in a happy gust as I realised there was no blood. The wound was there, but it just looked like cuts and tears in  foam latex. I tried to make sense of the wound, but not knowing what Bruce had done to remove the spear I couldn’t see if it had been…tampered with.  Frustrated, I moved to the blanks side and pulled out here left hand.

I hadn’t known I’d wanted the hand until I’d been reminded of her existence.  I didn’t know I needed it until the knife was in my hand.  

I needed this, I told myself, sometimes you need a reminder.  And I cut through the wrist severing the hand from the body.  Even though the knife cut cleanly through to the trolley, even though there was no blood or any internal parts, I had to take a few good breaths before finally picking up my trophy and slipping into a sleeve pocket of my coat.  

It had been harder than I thought to cut off the hand and I I stood a moment there contemplating what I’d done.  I actually don’t know how long I stood there when I heard someone speaking.

“Rain…Rain? What are you doing in here?  Where is here?” It was Peggy, standing in the doorway to the morgue looking around her as if for the first time.

“Hmm? Sorry Peggy.  I was just thinking what this thing we call life is.”  I could have been, I have no idea.

“You were a long way away.  I had to call and call your name, but you didn’t answer.”  she juggled a pile of paper files, an iPad and books, “Do you know the way back to the dorm?”

I looked at her with genuine affection.  As self-centred and self absorbed as she seemed, she was a fragile and currently lost creature.  I nodded and took some of her load from her.

“What’s all this?”  I asked with interest.   Her world more than most of us had been turned upside down by recent events.  She’d worked her whole life on a vision that was only a step away from the truth.  The knowing she’d almost been right was …a bitter epiphany.  She had a lot of catching up to do.

“I need to study The Strange, the recursions and…I need to understand it all in relation to the Rockweilers.  I understand now that I’ve been looking at things all wrong and I….I need to realign everything I know to this new paradigm.”

I led her back out into the lobby through covered walkway to the dormitories, nodding as she moved into techno-babble that meant nothing to me. She eventually took a breath at the door to the women’s dorm.

“I can’t pretend to understand most of what you just said but I know one thing.  You are an intelligent and passionate woman on a mission and if anyone could find Rockweilers, you’ll be that person.”  I handed back her notes as she looked at me suspiciously.

“What do you want, Rain?”

I sighed.  Whoever had betrayed this innocent had done their job well.  Better the truth in these occasions.

“I’ve been thinking about something, and I think you’re probably the only one who can understand.”  I said appealing to her ego and to her nature for a puzzle, “If this gift we have, the quickening is so rare, don’t you think it weird that all four of us should be together on that night at your house, ready to be scooped up?  I did the math. It’s stupid numbers!”

“One, maths isn’t stupid…but I know what you meant. Two, I’ll think about it.” she replied, with a confused smile on her face, “I have to go.” and she closed the door in my face.  

It was then I saw Algenon about to eat laundry detergent.  

At least that’s what it  looked like.

At the end of the corridor, a small walled off part of the dining room, the laundry was clearly denoted by a line of industrial washing machines and clothes dryers.  Here Algenon was testing the machinery, learning how it worked and seemed about to test the laundry detergent with his mouth.

“I don’t think you want to do that.”  I said walking up and looking in, “It’s for cleaning clothes.” 

“Oh!  He looked at the white and blue powder in this hand and let it fall back into its box, “I knew that.”

“Sure you did.  Tell me, what else do you know?”  I joked, but as usual he was unaware of the subtle social undertones.

“Me?  I don’t know anything.”  and then he thought for a moment, looked out the door past me and stepped closer.  “I do know one thing.” he whispered and motioned to the door in the far wall. “If you need a quick way out…”  He walked to the door, ushering me to follow, “…this could be a good way.”

He opened the door onto a dock where a few workers were moving pallets of plastic wrapped boxes.  A line of dumpsters sat waiting to be filled or emptied by one side of the concrete dock or the other.  More pallets sat in racks labeled and carefully boxed. A loading zone and warehouse of some sort? I closed the door and gave a respectful look to Algenon.

“Good to know.  I am in the need of an exit at this time,”  I admitted, but then shook my head at the thought of sneaking out through the back door. “ Call it ego, but this time, this one time I want to walk out of here like the free man I am instead of some….”

“Stinking, lying criminal.”  Algenon filled for me.

“Exactly.  I’m going to get out of this polite prison for a few hours and see what the city has to offer.”  Again, my desire to be out in the warm fresh air and be amongst people having a good time stirred my blood.

It was then, I noticed the absence of my laptop.  Algenon had been glued to it since he asked for information on Earth in our first debrief.  Only a few hours later he returned complaining it was broken. In fact he was running it at 100% capacity with scholarly posts, reddit boards, facebook profiles, shopping sites and a myriad of video including the ones you’re probably thinking of.  Yes, cat videos. They were all running at the same time, tiled across the laptops screen. We’d had a brief chat about limiting windows and cleaning up the computer occasionally to improve performance. He’d seemed to take the message to heart and had continued with his studies.

“Where’s the computer?  I’d figured you’d be glued to it until they give us something to do.”  I asked curious.

“Oh, I took your advice and thought I’d give it a clean out.”  he said innocently, a sure sign something was up.

I looked around the room again and this time caught a flash of high resolution, HD screen through the glass of one of the washing machine’s door.  I stepped up to the machine and saw my laptop ready for the wash on top of a pile of other ordinary laundry. I stood and looked at it for a moment then turned back to the room.  Algenon’s expression had not changed, but there was something about the eyes, a wicked knowing that made me continue my search. I spotted the straight line he made with himself, the laundry doorway and the corridor al the way to the double doors at the far end.  How far was the washing detergent he was looking at from the store of identical boxes across the room? I ground my teeth. There are only two sides to a con, and I had just realised what side I stood.

“Very funny.” I finally conceded with a bow,   “Tell me, how long have you been waiting here for me to come in and find you ‘about’ to eat laundry detergent?”

He walked over to the laptop and consulted the time on the screen.  

“One hour and 13 minutes.”

“And if I hadn’t come in?”

“Then I might have found out what laundry detergent tastes like.”  

“Really?”  I made a face as the very real taste of caustic soap suddenly manifested from memories of group home living.  He rolled his eyes at me.

“Okay!  Okay! You win.  You are the master prankster, you got me.”  I finally laughed out loud and for the first time I think I saw a smile of satisfaction appear of Algenon’s face. I killed most of the sites he had up on the laptop and found a video of the old Candid Camera show, leaving him to the business of serious prank study.

Still shaking my head at the lengths someone would go for a joke, I travelled back along the covered walkway to the lobby.  Things had quietened down considerably as I saw my destination in sight, the sunlight streaming through the glass doors that lead outside.  I did not see the security guard talking to Eoghan until he yelled across the intervening space and caught my attention.

“Excuse me, sir!”  I believe he said, but to me it was the rage filled roar of frustrated beast.  Denied too long, now his quarry sighted, the beast bellows and galloped across the foyer.  There was nothing left for me to do but run for my life and sanity for I was sure I couldn’t spend another moment trapped inside.  I bolted for the doors. Having the jump on me, the guard made it to the doors just as I put my right hand out to open it.

“No, I have to go out.  Don’t try and stop me!” I yelled with passion hoping that someone, Eoghan?, anyone would come to my aid. The guard grabbed my left arm in his firm grasp and tried to pull me back.

“I’m sorry, you are not cleared to leave the campus at this time.”  he replied and tugged. I screamed as there was a loud ripping sound and what looked like my hand tore out of the sleeve pocket, making both of us stumble.  Him backwards into the lobby, and me, gloriously forwards out the front doors into the light of….

…a chilly and overcast afternoon.  The air was more than chilly, it was like the winds from the fifth ring of hell itself was blowing across the steel grey waters of a wide lake before me.  I crossed the road and entered the park full of industrial iron workings, a sign proclaimed it to be that of an old coal gasworks. My vision finally focused on the skyline of a city that was not the one I expected.  Where were the docks full of passenger liners? Where was the subtle sound of jazz and smell magnolia on the breeze? Instead, to the right of the skyline a thin tower dominated by a white disk stood out as a symbol of technology and science.

“Hello …Seattle?”