Design a site like this with
Get started

15. At loose ends

After distractions, exposures and disillusionment, the group tried to relax at the Blue Ball, the first official night of the Dead Guy Days festival in Nederland.  Unfortunately, the powers that be, contrived to use Spiral dust zombies to keep the group from capturing Dona Ilsa as she slipped into the basement early.  

Now the group are without a key suspect, without leads and right at this moment, without hope.


It was only a few hours before dawn and the streets of Nederland were deserted except for four demoralised individuals making their way back to their hotel.   They could have been any party goers, in fact they had been to the Blue Ball only that evening, but bar fight regrets were far from all of these four individual’s minds.

Peggy gingerly pulled off the headpiece of her makeshift chemsuit – come – fancy dress outfit as shards of glass tinkled onto the bitumen road.  It had saved her a worse injury. Still, shards of glass still littered her hair and scalp which made her fume and swear in equal measure. 

Algernon skulked behind the group feeling darkly smug.  He’d been the only one to have a working plan operational, the only one with the skill and knowledge to put it together alone.  If only they hadn’t destroyed his poison trap, then she would have had what was coming.

“Shame there wasn’t something toxic waiting for her.” He said then leaped aside dodging another attack from Rain that never came.  

Rain hunched further into his coat refusing to be goaded. He was the image of complete failure.  No longer giddily tipsy, he was hungover, broken-hearted and adrift, unsure of anything.

“Well, how are we going to get her now?”  Bruce, equally dispirited, pulled himself out of his own dark thoughts to address the group. “ How long do we give her?”

“We have to go after her.”  Algernon said. Rain rolled his eyes.

“Fine, “ He said bitterly, his cockney breaking through his usually standard English accent,  “know how to get there, do ya?”

“Did you notice how clean the rope was in the range of that teleport device of Dona Ilsa’s?  God and all his blasted saints that hurts!” Peggy interrupted with her usual non sequiturs as she pulled out the last piece of glass and flung it onto the road.

“Peggy, you should let me look at that,” Bruce watched the blood stained shard of glass fly off into the dark, “I can patch you up back at the hotel.”

“And have your clumsy fingers fiddling with my hair, no thanks.” She shook out her hair one last time, “But really, did you see?  Everything organic in that cypher’s area of effect was stripped away.”

“Even the Spiral Dust rocks.”  Algernon commented thinking back to the scooped out section of rock that had been teleported back with Dona Ilsa, “That means the rock is organic in origin.”

“Does that help? Could we use the rock as a focus to get us to Crows Hollow?”  Bruce asked hopefully.

“No.  It has to be intrinsic to the recursion we want to go to.  If we had a feather from Dona Ilsa’s head that could be useful.  The rock is from a creature linked to The Strange, it must be only passing through Crows Hollow.”

“How about that bum from Railsea, didn’t he have an item.”

“No, he lost the thing that transported him,” Rain replied.  He understood Bruce’s drive to follow after Dona Ilsa, but they simply had no way to get to Crows Hollow.  

“Okay,” Algernon piped up offering his suggestion, “Tomorrow evening we blow up the shop.”

  Bruce directed Algernon back to their room and Peggy went to her own.  Rain stepped quietly into the room he shared with Cecilia and started stripping the sheet of his bed.

“Good party?”  Cecilia called from her bed.

“You need your rest.  We’ll catch you up in the morning.” Rain rolled the bedsheet up tight and grabbed his backpack.

“That good, huh?”  She said sleepily and rolled back over.

Taking the sheet and his only possessions in the world, Rain exited the room and left the hotel.  

The group met up next morning to share breakfast, update a recovering Cecilia and talk about their plans for the day.  Bruce was already on the phone to Seattle having to hear the disappointment in Katherine’s voice.

“Losing Dona Ilsa was a heavy blow to your investigation, I can’t pretend that I’m not disappointed.  At the moment that leaves us with no way to Crow’s Hollow.” She said and Bruce slumped a little further in his seat. “Still, the spiral dust zombies are a new concerning twist.  This means there’s another player other than the Droods and the Cornaros.”

“Yes, Algernon was able to extract a name from one of the zombies. Nakarand?”  He physically straightened again as he had something positive to offer his superior.

“Hmmm….no record of that name.  Okay, I’ll look into that. l Does this mean you’ll be returning to Seattle?”

“Looks like it, we’re about to discuss loose ends.  I’ll let you know when we head out.”

“Do that.”  She finished and hung up the phone.  

“So, where are we off to today?” A recovering Cecilia sipped black tea as the others ate the basic toast and cold cereal.

“Back to Seattle, unless we have any other jobs to do here.”

“I don’t. The sooner we leave this place the better.”  Peggy replied gingerly, drying her hair after washing the last of the beer and blood out. “Besides, Hertzfeld has the three keys we found in Railsea.  If we’re to find a way to Crow’s Hollow what better way than out in the other recursions.”

“I do.”  Algernon raised his hand looking all the school student he wasn’t, “I want to go to the hardware store.”

“And I was thinking of checking with the Sheriff to see if your zombies are in their drunk tank.”  Cecilia suggested and Bruce nodded.

“Good idea, anything else?”

It was then that Rain stumbled into the room, a crumpled bed sheet and the wallet he’d lifted the night before in his hand.  He purposefully didn’t make eye contact with Algernon as he spread the sheet out on the nearest bed. It was a mindmap of all the group knew about Spiral dust and the active participants.

“I’m hoping this will help open up new leads.” He said wearily, obvious that he’d pulled another all-nighter.

“Good work,” Burce looked over the map which was a clear visual representation of all they’d discovered and then turned his attention to Rain himself. “But you really need to sleep, you’re going to burn out if you keep going without.”

“Are you kidding, after last night?”  Rain replied, his puzzle box appearing in his hand.  It hadn’t been seen in a while, but now Rain flipped it open and closed as he spoke. “Anyway, that’s what road trips are for.  When are you planning to leave?”

“There’s a few jobs to do, any loose ends you want to follow up?”

Rain nodded and gestured to the wallet he’d laid out on the sheet.

“I rang around the local hotels this morning. I  know where Theodore Baxter is staying. I also think I have a few leads on where the other four were staying as well.  I want to follow up Theodore at the very least.”

“Okay, you should take someone with you. Algernon?”  Bruce suggested looking to where the younger man was pulling apart his new crossbow.

“No.” Both Algernon and Rain said in unison. 

“Oh…kaaay…”  Bruce looked between the two young men.  Until yesterday they had been almost inseparable, working away on one scheme or another.  This was an unexpected and disturbing turn of events.

After breakfast the group split up to their specific tasks. Firstly, Cecilia phoned the Sheriff’s office.

“Hi, I’m looking for my friends. They went to the Blue Ball last night and didn’t come back to the hotel.  I was wondering if they were with you, they all have unusual spiral contacts lens on.” Cecilia said, sounding like the worried, but not too concerned friend left behind.

“Yes, could you come down and  see us?” The officer on the end of the line asked, not providing any information.

“Oh no, they’re not in any trouble are they?  I heard there was a fight.”

“If we could discuss it with you in person we’d certainly appreciate it.”

“Okay, we’ll be right down.”  Cecilia hung up the phone and was given an appreciative look from Rain.

“I’ll go with you, “ Bruce said, “I should give a statement anyway.  Peggy?”

“Oh no, I’ve had enough excitement. I’m sensitive about damage to my cranium.”  She replied patting her head gently, “I’ll drive you down there, but that’s as far as I’ll go.”

So, leaving Peggy in the car Cecilia and Bruce walked into the sheriff’s station, Cecilia taking the lead.  As soon as she explained the reason for their visit, a constable ushered them into an interview room and the Sheriff himself was called.

“I’m afraid your friends got into some trouble last night.  When was the last time you saw them?” The Sheriff asked Cecilia who was the image of a concerned friend.  

“Yesterday afternoon.  I came down with something and stayed at the hotel and they went off to the Blue Ball and they didn’t come back.”

The Sheriff watched her for a moment before writing down what she’d said.

“And you sir, your role in this?”  He now turned his interest to Bruce who had so far been silent.

“I was the trouble they got into.”  Bruce confessed instantly getting the Sheriff’s attention. 

“Oh? Your involvement?”

“They tried to beat the crap out of us, me and my friends that is.  It wasn’t until this morning that I met up with Cecilia here, and let her know what happened.”  Bruce put on his thickest good ol’boy southern accent looking all the dumb ox people took him for.

The sheriff held Bruce’s gaze for a long time,but as Bruce didn’t volunteer anymore he continued with a sigh.

“Look, I’ll come clean with you guys.  We were called to break up a fight at the Blue Ball last night.  When we arrived the first group had disappeared, I guess that as you and your friends?”  He gestured to Bruce who nodded.

“It was made clear to us that we should get out of the way.”  

“The second group of five, were all convulsing.”

“Oh no, are they alright?” Cecilia interjected with just the right amount of distress.

“They…were taken to hospital…”

“Do you know where?  I’ve got to go see them, they’re families will want to know.”

“You couldn’t tell me what they’d taken, could you?”  The Sheriff’s gaze fell on Cecilia once more as he tried to discern truth from lies. 

“I couldn’t tell you.” She said truthfully enough, he would have never heard of Spiral Dust and certainly wouldn’t believe where it came from.  In the end he nodded and consulted his notes.

“Yeah, Level 3 Ward 5.”

“Thank you.  Is there any more you need from us?”

“A eyewitness statement from the big guy.”  The Sheriff nodded towards him and got stuck into the meat of the interview process.  

Meanwhile Algernon went shopping on his motorcycle.  First he went to the hardware store and bought a number of brightly coloured electrical tapes, making sure one of them was a bright orange.  He then visited the local toy store and bought a set of foam bullets meant for toy guns. Puttering back to his hotel he decorated the body of his crossbow with bright stripes and lightning bolts.  He carefully wrapped the point with orange, marking it as a toy replica. The foam bullets were stuck onto the ends of the bolts so to look, at least at first glance, like the kid friendly version of what they really were.  It was as he was finishing off his “camouflage” that he received a call.

“Hey kid.”


“Can you come down to the hospital?”

“Sure.” He hung up.  He didn’t know why he was being summoned to the hospital, such places not being his favourite, but he didn’t much mind now. Swinging his decorated crossbow on his back he would be able to go out in public armed and ready for at least low to moderate ATRs.

All around there was a sense of excitement as people gathered for the Frozen Dead Guy events in town.  Somewhere, marching bands were playing as a street parade was just starting and the smell of cooking pancakes, maple syrup and bacon lay thick in the air. Rain knew nothing of these as he trudged sullenly along the road towards the Travel Lodge where Theodore (Theo to his friends, Rain was sure) Baxter had a room.  People walking the other way towards the festivities subconsciously gave him a wide berth. He was surrounded by exciting chatter and laughter and was completely isolated from it all.

It had been a revelation at first. The travel to fantastical worlds.  Working together to solve the mysteries. Hunting the clues and following the trails.  He’d never found his talent for reading people as useful as it had been while with the Estate. 

And then the cracks started showing.  They always did before, why would have this time been different?

 He should have known, did know, how Algernon thought about the poison idea.  Hadn’t he mentioned it to Bruce? And really, that wasn’t the real problem was it?  When it came to it, the real deep down problem was with himself. He still heard the click-whomp of the crossbow as it released the canister net meant for him, and flinched.  After that everything became of blur or images past and present. He wasn’t sure what he’d said in the heat of the moment but the look on everyone’s face, especially Algernon’s was proof it had not been good.

And now he was going to see if a violent spiral dust user, alone.  He never did so well alone and was surprised to see his puzzle box already in his hand.  He put it away, admonishing himself at the same time for still needing the thing. He didn’t when he was with the others, when things were going well and they were working together.  It stayed firmly in his pocket then.

The Travel Lodge came into sight and outside Room 6 he found a car with Washington State license plates.  Trying the remote on the keyring, the car’s indicator’s flashed and an audible click sounded as the door unlocked.  With no one to share the victory it felt pretty hollow. Instead he just opened the door and sat in the driver’s seat.  The car was a mess. Theodore Baxter’s extire takeaway history could be determined by the layers of detritus filling the footwell of the passenger and back seats.  Rain spotted a familiar name and pulled out a coffee cup from the bodega across from Leroy Cain’s favourite selling spot. A link, nice but not new information. 

“Excuse me, can I help you?”  Came a woman’s insistent voice.  Rain turned to see a travel lodge staff member looking at him through the car windscreen.  She looked a little worried, obviously she didn’t recognise him as the owner of the car.

“Oh hi, have you seen Theo?  I lost track of him last night and we’re meant to go for pancakes this morning.”  He said as if it was the literal truth. Most of it was,he had no idea what happened to the Spiral Dust crazy guy after they ran from the Blue Ball.

“No, and even though that car is a mess I don’t think he’s hiding in there, honey.”  She replied feeling on a little firmer ground. Kids! 

Having checked all the obvious places  for clues, Rain got out of the car and made a show of locking it again with the remote.

“Well, he can’t have gone far right? I’ve got his keys.” He smiled, giving them a shake before putting them in his pocket.

The motel staff member seemed satisfied and smiled back.

“I bet he’s already eating pancakes and you’re missing out.”  She replied and continued on her way sure she’d done her duty to her guest. 

Silently Rain’s phone jittered in his pocket and he pulled it out to see it was a call from Bruce.

“Yes, Bruce?”

“Can you make your way over to the hospital?”  Rain could hear Peggy and Cecilia having a heated conversation with a third voice in the background.

“Not right now, no.” 

“Why, what are you doing?

“Do you really want to know?  I went to Baxter’s hotel.”

“Ah, no I’d rather not.  On that score though, Baxter is here with his four friends.  They won’t be attacking anyone for a while.”

“I can confirm he probably bought Spiral dust from Leroy Caine which means we still only have two supply chains.”

“Good. Well, if you don’t make it to the hospital we’ll see you back at the hotel then.”

“I’d glad you’re sure of that.” Rain replied noncommittally.


“Goodbye, Bruce.”  He hung up.

 With one movement his phone was gone and a slim-lined wallet of lockpicking tools were in his hands. Now the woman from the motel was long gone, Rain walked casually across to the door of Room 6 and with no more time than it would take to open the door with a key, he slipped inside.

The Community Hospital was a long sprawling building of warm coloured brick and stone surrounding a small manicured garden.  Bruce, Peggy and Cecilia left the van in the public car park and entered at Reception. Level 3 Ward 5 was their destination and between the three of them they made it there without help or incident.  Five of the six beds were occupied with the Spiral eyed individuals from the night before. Peggy, having spotted the one that had started the fight and walked straight up to him starting a full examination.

“Excuse me, these are my patients.”  Said a doctor who had been overseeing one of the other four in the room.  She quickly put herself between her patient and the interlopers.

“Doctor Peggy Martin.  We’re part of a taskforce following up leads on a new substance being sold on the streets.  These individuals have been under surveillance by us for a number of weeks.” She said, passing the doctor one of her business cards.  It was clear that she was not stopping her examination to deal with the doctor who was now starting to turn red.

“Right, so where is your ID?”  The doctor looked at the business card and dismissed it, putting it in her pocket. “Are you F.B.I. or something?”

“No, I am not with law enforcement.”  She said dismissively as Cecilia and Bruce gave each other silent looks.    

“Get out, get out before I call security.” The doctor had just finished saying as Cecilia stepped in and took the doctor aside.

“We really are from a taskforce of international importance.  Unfortunately, I can’t disclose our department name, you do not have clearance.”  She gestured to Bruce at the door standing at his full height glowering at the doctor.  Silent and in his khaki body armour he gave the impression of lethal military protection.

“Ah, right…my apologies.”  The doctor looked around the three very confident individuals and relented. “What can I help you with?”

“What’s been their condition?”  Peggy asked, checking the patient’s chart.

“Unresponsive since they came in.  I understand that when the paramedics arrived all five were convulsing.  We have them on a general sedative, “ She gestured to the drips fed into each patient’s arm, “And we’re recording their EEGs. They’ve been concerning.”  She turned to the patient she had been working on when the group arrived. Through electrodes dotted over the patients head a machine recorded electrical activity from the brain.  Even Cecilia and Bruce could tell the lines were flat.

“There just doesn’t seem to be any brain activity at all.  You say these people were known to take some sort of new drug?”

“Yes,” Peggy replied and quickly changed the subject, “And IDs?”

“Er…yes, all but one. The one you were first examining was missing his wallet.”  She gestured to Baxter, “Two from San Antonia, one from Seattle and one from Florida.”

Peggy kepted the doctor busy with insightful questions about the patient’s condition and possible treatments as Bruce called Algernon and Rain to help.  Having a thought, he pretended to receive a call and interrupted the conversation.

“Excuse me doctor, headquarters would like to speak with you privately.”  

Cecilia excused both of them as Peggy followed Bruce out into the hallway.

“Look, I know you don’t like it, but do you think you could do that mind thing on one of these guys?

“The mind link?  Yes, I guess it would be the obvious suggestion.”  Peggy said not relishing the intimate feeling, mind to mind.  She marched back into the room, a woman on a mission, and placed her hand on the head of the man who had hit her with the bottle.  As soon as her skin touched his head though Bruce and Cecilia jumped with alarm as she slumped unconscious to the floor. All three, the doctor included, rushed to Peggy’s side.

“I’m sure she’s just fainted.  Overworked. She would be better with a little fresh air outside.”  Cecilia said as the doctor checked Peggy’s automatic responses and frowned with concern.

Peggy sensed herself surrounded by a warm, slimy darkness that moved in undulating waves like a huge slow heartbeat. Bo-boom, bo-boom, bo-boom.  

One part of her was comfortable in this new world of sensation, it felt right, somewhat like returning to the womb.  Another part, her conscious adult mind screamed in horror willing itself to be let out.  

Peggy opened her eyes still screaming, now into the doctor’s face.

“You were completely unresponsive.”  The doctor sat back staring down at Peggy lying between them all.

“Can you speak? What happened?”  Cecilia asked as Bruce helped Peggy groggily back to her feet.

“That was not pleasant.”  She shook her head and turned to Cecilia and Bruce, “I need to call my supervisor.”

“I need to check you out before you leave this room.”  The doctor, now clear who was in charge, pulled over a blood pressure cuff hanging beside the bed.

“No really, I’m fine but we need to be going.” 

Algernon, his Yamaha puttering along the mountain roads turned into the driveway of the hospital with an audible screech.  It roared around the round-about of garden beds to come to a screeching halt in an ambulance car park. Anyone watching would recognise that the young man was making all the bike sounds himself as his bike came to a gentle stop, kickstand extended.  Leaving his bike behind with the protests from emergency staff, Algernon ran into the hospital blindly. He raced past Cecilia, Peggy and Bruce as they reached the door.

“Hey kid! Kid!” Bruce shouted gaining for himself disapproving looks from hospital staff.  Algernon slid along the polished lino of the hospital hallway doing what his bike was unable.  He followed them back out to the van where both Peggy and Cecilia used Premonition to ask the Strange a question about what they had just seen.  Cecilia asked about the Spiral-eyed and what had made them that way. Peggy focused on her vision and what it meant.

Cecilia received the idea that the comatosed were all heavy users of Spiral Dust. Peggy received a very personal response.

Very much alive and some day you will meet it. Came back a voice not quite her own.  It reminded her of the claustrophobic moistness making her shivered violently.  

They shared what they had discovered leaving everyone in the van wiser but no further along than before.

“Lots of data and no information.” Bruce complained.

“Well, we have five active agents in this town.” Algernon said as a way of suggesting their next plan of action. 

“They’re not going to hurt anyone at the moment.  We’ll let The Estate know to watch them.” Bruce started the van and Algernon went back to claim his motorbike from angry emergency workers.

“Are you feeling better, Peggy?” Cecilia turned to the doctor who was feverishly working out plans on scrap paper for a mind-washing process, “You really blanked out on us for a second there, like one of those zombies.”

“I’d like a plutonium bath.  Something to burn through my mind.” She replied after a while, showing her working out.

The empty hotel room held little that showed Theodore Baxter was staying there.  A sports bag, open on the dresser, a coat hanging over a chair. He went over to the bag and searched it thoroughly finding what he’d only hoped for. For a moment the blue-grey dust in a small vial was in his hand, the next it disappeared into his coat with an exhalation something like relief.  The thrill of owning the drug again was almost as powerful as the thought of using it. Besides the Spiral Dust, the room held nothing of interest. He gave it one more passing look checking for hiding places and finding none before walking out and locking the door behind him.

Now what?

The investigation was stalled, worse their prime suspect knew they were onto her and then there was his relationship with the group.  It was time to break free and go. This time he wouldn’t need to ride the Greyhounds, he had Baxter’s car and with a little work, his licence. It was like the fates had decreed it. 

Without thought, Rain’s walked to the roadside, the highway out of town.  He faced North following the road and thought of all the places that road would take him. A weight settled over him as he realised he’d be going back to a life on the run, never belonging, always searching for the next place to rest before moving on again. At least with the group, there was a place to be even if it couldn’t be the same as it had.  And then there was The Strange, the powerful unknowable. Could he really leave that behind like he had everything else?  

He stood and watched and thought as the traffic rolled passed and let the cold mountain wind chill him to the core.

Now with his bike secured in the car park behind some bushes, Algernon entered the hospital, this time through reception.  In his school uniform and ‘toy’ crossbow strapped across his back he looked like one of many family members coming to the hospital to see a patient.

“Hi, I’m looking for my uncle.  He and his friends were hurt last night.  They all wear these weird contact lenses..”  Algernon inquired at Reception.

“Sure love, does he have a name?” She asked turning to her computer in preparation for his response.


“Could I have it?”  She looked at him to see if he were joking with her.  

“Sure.”  He tried looking over her shoulder to see a name he recognised, but the screen was blank, awaiting input. He thought, did they have name?  He remembered the driver’s license that….had been taken from the first Spiral-eyed to attack. What was that name, it started with a T.”

“Uncle Toby.  I call him Uncle Toby.”

“Right…” She knew he wasn’t joking now,  “Does he have a last name?”

“Pretty sure he does…” Algernon stalled as he tried to recall more from the flash he’d seen the night before when everything had been so horribly wrong.

“He’s not an O’Brien because that’s my dad’s name.”

“So he’s your mother’s, brother?”

“Yeah.  Look I’ll know him when I see him.  As I said, he was brought in with his friends.”

“Where are your parents?”  Now made aware of such beings, the Receptionist wanted the responsible adults. At least they’d know their own names. 

“They dropped me off before going to the pub.” Algernon replied innocently.  This lying stuff wasn’t too hard. Just as…as he’d been told, it needed grounding in the truth.

“Pub?  It’s not even lunchtime.” Now the Receptionist was seeing this well-dressed but confused kid in a new light.  Maybe she should ring child protection. 

It was then that Algernon remembered the name on the licence.  Baxter, Theodore Baxter.

“Uncle Toby Baxter, that’s his full name.”

“Right.”  Now with the correct information she searched for Baxter in the database.

“Yes he and his friend are here, but none are conscious at the moment, are you sure you want to go see him?”

“Oh yes, he’s my favourite Uncle, I just want to let him know I’m there.”

“Okay then.” She placed a coded call for Reception over the PA, “A nurse will be coming to show you the way.  I’ll look after your toy while you’re up there.” She held out her hand for the crossbow.

Algernon balked for a moment.  This was his protection against the Spiral-eyed.  Then again, they were unconscious, virtually brain dead to go by what the other’s had said.

“Yeah, okay.” He shrugged it off his shoulders, “Careful not to shoot anyone.  It’s not a toy.”

The nurse took the crossbow with a smile until she felt it’s full weight.  She carefully put it down behind the Reception desk not taking her eyes off the odd boy.  A ward nurse came by Reception to take Algernon up. He waved and smiled at the Receptionist as he passed.  She did not reciprocate.

“Hey! Where’s the kid gone?”  Bruce looked behind, as they travelled back to town.  He was sure that Algernon had been behind them on his bike, now nothing.

Peggy reached out her mind to the Strange and asked, 

What is Algernon doing?

Up to no good. Came a reply thankfully back in her own voice.

“Bruce, ring Algernon.”  She said with such concern that Bruce didn’t question, just did as he was told.

“Yes, Bruce.  I haven’t finished my shopping, I’ll see you back at the hotel.” Was all Algernon said before he hung up.  

“I’d say he was up to something with Rain but…”  He looked at the other two and shrugged. They couldn’t offer any suggestion as to where Algernon had gone and so in the end Bruce turned the van back out onto the road and continued their trip to town.

Algernon followed the nurse to Level 3, Ward 6 where the five Spiral-eyed were, as reported, lying unconscious in beds.  Another nurse was recording vitals on paper charts and checking on her patient’s wellbeing.

“This young man is here to see Theodore Baxter.” The nurse that brought him up from Reception informed the ward nurse as Algernon went to the bedside of Baxter. It was him alright, he still wore the blank expression that had been a signature of the attackers.  Now at least he looked like he was sleeping and not about to lash out with a King hit. Algernon took Baxter’s hand, he was sure that was expected of him, he’d seen it in all his documentaries, and gently brushed Baxter’s surface thoughts.

Instantly he felt like his skin was covered in slime.  He felt the muscular waves, the long slow heartbeat. To him it was a familiar sensation. He let it slide from him as he let go Baxter’s thoughts.  He shook Baxter’s shoulder.

“When will he wake up?” he asked the nurses as they watched him tenderly stand beside his uncle.

“We don’t know, sweetie.” Replied the ward nurse, “Sometimes the brain just needs time to heal.”

He nodded  and looked around the room.  Drip-lines, yes they all were attached to bags of sedative via IV lines. Syringes?  None in sight. He looked at the loose weave hospital blanket and thought. 

The nurses were talking with each other, not really watching him, but he needed them out of the way.  He needed a distraction. He looked back to the nurse who had shown him the way to the ward.

“Thanks for showing me the room, I’ll go now.”

“You need help finding your way back?” She asked, she was seriously moved by this young boy’s devotion. 

“No, I should be alright.” He replied walking back out of the room, his eyes searching for distractions. He found one, a small red box with a white lever.

FIRE ALARM.  Pull down.

He passed near the alarm pull as an orderly was walking the other way leading a trolley.  As the trolley came up alongside him, he yelped as if his foot had been run over by the trolley.  He reached out his hand to steady himself and pulled the alarm.

“I am so sorry.” Said the man as the hallway they stood in was filled with warning recordings and sirens. 

“I’ll be fine.”  Algernon tried to brush the orderly’s concerns aside, “I can walk it off.”

Around them staff were going into emergency mode, locking down fire doors to protect their wing of the hospital and reporting that they had no smoke or fire. 

“Look man, we better go down to security and sort this out.”  The orderly pointed to the alarm they had set off and Algernon could do nothing but agree.

“Lead the way.” He said amicable as the orderly pointed to emergency stairs not far away.  As soon as there was a fire door between himself and the orderly he ducked into an empty room and waited.  The bustle continued as the source of the alarm evaded staff. When the hallway seemed empty, he slipped out of his room and across to the ward where the five lay.  There in the nurses station was a sharps bin filled with used syringes. They would work just as well as a fresh one for the purpose he had in mind.

Coming up alongside Baxter, he filled the syringe with air and when the hallway was free he plunged it into  the cannula leading directly into Baxter vein. When the plunger was fully pressed he left Baxter and started for the next bed when the machine pumping the sedative to Baxter started beeping.  From down the hall footsteps could be heard. 

There was no time.

Throwing the syringe into the sharps bin he quickly ducked in behind the door to the ward as the nurse stepped in to investigate the issue.  Fire alarm still blazing, the nurse distracted by the Infusion pump, Algernon slipped around the door and out back down the hallway.  

In Reception he picked up his crossbow.  For a moment it looked like she wasn’t going to hand back the weapon.

“Are you sure your parents…”

“It’s not dangerous, “ He replied sweetly, “As long as you don’t aim for the eyes.”  Algernon took the crossbow from her yielding hands, “Bye.”

Once out of the hospital Algernon rode around town not wanting to go back to the hotel straight away.  At least he dealt with the threat called Baxter, he wouldn’t be trying to hurt anyone in the future.  

As he turned a corner onto the highway that ran through the heart of Nederland he spotted Rain staring up the road out of town.  In his hand the puzzle box spun and flipped, open and closed. Algernon did not stop or even show that he’d seen Rain, just continued past and back to the hotel.  The silence grew with the distance between them. 

“Where is that kid?”  Bruce paced as the other sat  in a booth at the bar they had made their own during their stay in Nederland, “I’m going out to find him, let me know when he gets in.” 

Bruce started for the door as it swung open and in walked Algernon, his crossbow decorated in day-glow colours. Was that what had taken most of the day to do?  Bruce let go of a breath he didn’t realise he was holding and forgot about the crossbow. Now they were altogether. Weren’t they?

“Where’s Rain?” he said out loud and Algernon walked by.  He said nothing, just shrugged and sat with the others. “Okay, I’ll go out looking for him, let me know if he arrives back.”  

Once more he went for the door and the door swung open ahead of him and Rain walked in pale and serious.  He nodded a greeting at Bruce before heading straight to Algernon.

“Mate, I owe you an apology.  I was out of line last night. I’m sorry.”  He said simply before walking away and sitting at another table, his cards already in his hands.

“Right!”  Bruce turned to see the whole group now assembled if only just. ”Now if all your shopping and extra-activities are done we’ll be on our way.”  

No one contradicted him.

“Good.  This has been a difficult assignment and not everything went as we’d like.  That being said, we’ve closed down a huge international drug syndicate and discovered a new player, this Nakarand.  The Estate didn’t do this, we did, us five. Now we’re heading back to Seattle and we’ll find a way to Crows Hollow just as we’ve done with every other obstacle.  One thing is for sure, we will get nowhere if we don’t work together. Now, get your stuff, we’ll be heading out in half an hour.

Days of laborious travel filled only with silence, and the black ribbon of road.  Algernon spent most of his time with his VR set on disconnected from the rest of the group in a world of his own making.  Similarly, as promised, Rain curled up in the back seat and fell asleep, the movement of the van a lullaby. The others tried to act like normal, but even the usually oblivious Peggy was  subdued by her experiences in Nederland

As  the VW van puttered over the mountain road the occupants were treated with the sight of all Seattle stretched out before them.  Within an hour they were in the thick of city traffic making it across town and finally the rusty red of the gasworks on the shoreline signalled they were home.

There was no welcome home or time to rest, the group were ushered straight into Katherine’s office.  Waiting for them, Katherine gestured them into seats.

“We had an incident on the Estate not too many days ago.”  She said pulling up security footage of the front gates, “A tour bus pulled up outside the gates and an entire bus of tourists attacked security, just as you described, co-ordinated attacks as if controlled by the same puppet master.” She gestured to the footage showing 50 middle class tourists pour out of a coach and bodily attack the gates.  Some had the elongated fingernails of the Spiral-eyed at Nederland.

“He …they know where we live.” Rain whispered more to himself than anyone . “But how?”

“Did you capture any of them?” Bruce asked pointing to several that the security were able to subdue in the footage.

“Some, but as soon as they were caught they went into convulsions and have been unresponsive ever since.  We handed them onto the local hospital.”

“If they are the same as the ones we left in Nederland,” Peggy said to Katherine, “They’re not likely to regain consciousness, they were all but brain dead.”

“What about the ones in Nederland, “ Algernon asked, “Any of them recovered?”

“I’m afraid one, the one you identified as Theodore Baxter died of complications the first night.”  Katherine replied, “We’re not sure if it’s related, the other four are stable but unchanged. We’ll be watching their condition.”

After the debrief the group went their separate ways.  Peggy went straight to Hertzfeld and reclaimed the recursion keys she had found in Railsea.  The bucket, the ring and the first aid box. Hertzfeld wisely did not encourage a ‘mind wash’ to Peggy though he could think of several ways.  When she described the vision she had experienced he helped in the old fashioned way of listing and suggested she absorb herself in work, at least temporarily.  She did, breaking down an old ultrasound machine for parts to make a sonic brainwash.

Bruce sought permission and received a requisition for high powered handguns.  Down in the firing range he practised out to 100m honing his eagle eye ready for when combat came.  He asked if there was possible heavier armour than what he currently wore. Without making a spectacle of himself, no. His favoured khaki body armour probably raised enough eyebrows, anything else would be out of place in everyday society.  Katherine sympathised and suggested that she would look into armour on a case by case basis.  

Rain grabbed the keys to Leroy Caine’s apartment and would have gone alone until reminded that Cecilia was free.

“Cecilia, I have the key to Leroy Caine’s apartment, would you like to come?”

“I’d like that, yes.”  

Through the streets of her hometown Cecilia  wove her cafe racer with Rain riding pillion.  It was a breath of fresh city air to ride again in the familiar streets and Cecilia revelled in it.  Even in the dank and dirty side of her city she couldn’t help smiling at the feeling of being right where she needed to be.  Apartment 27b was a squalid corner in an equally rundown block. As they climbed the stairs to they could see the door was open.  Cecilia instantly went into a crouch and quietly moved into the room. Rain walked in as if he belonged there.

“Hello?  Anyone home?”

It was a small studio apartment with a kitchen and living area that ran straight into the only bedroom.  The room had a dank, musty smell of a place ill-used and unkempt. The only two items that seemed out of place was a small parcel taped to the wall and a painting above the broken down bed.  The painting was a landscape of a beach at night, the sky full of fractal shapes and swirls. At the far end of the beach a cave was clearly visible, mist rolling through from the entrance.

Rain, entranced by the painting walked up to it as Cecilia reached for the package taped to the wall.

An explosion deafen and a blue light blinded as both Cecilia  and Rain were thrown off their feet. When their vision and hearing cleared they were lying on a beach at night. The beach in the painting.  Rain looked transfixed at the night sky.

“What is this place?” Cecilia asked and when Rain didn’t respond straight away she gave him a shake.

“Uh…um, we’re either in the painting or in the place depicted by the painting.”  He replied not turning from the sky.

“In the painting?”  She said, his words not making any sense.  She asked the same question of the Strange with her premonition.

Ocean Mist, came her reply as if she’d known it all along.

“Mean anything to you?”

“No.  I think it’s a recursion.  Congratulations, on your first.”  He got up brushing sand from his suit.

Cecilia sighed.  Now what? She looked around her.  The sea was black past the waves that lapped the shore, their white caps catching the starlight.  As the waves receded she spotted something glinting in the wet sand and stepped onto the wash to get a better look.  In the sand she found a glass sphere connected to a handle and a hat with a long silvery mesh. Instantly she knew these were connected to the Strange and divined their purpose after a fashion. 

“Here, “ she said offering the hat to Rain, “It can make you…disappear for a time, I think.”

“Remarkable, you’re really coming along with your gifts.”  He replied, taking the hat, “What’s the other one?”

“A surveillance set, you keep a piece and leave the other in the place you wish to watch.” 

Cecilia looked around again, this time the cave with its heavy mist caught her attention.

“Got any plans to get us out of here?” 

“I don’t know, I sort of like it.” Rain was looking up at the stars again.  She shook him again, “Sorry, I have an idea, but I’ve never led a translation before, it could take a while.”

“Well, how about having a little look around first.  Why don’t we go check out the cave?” Cecilia suggested 

“If the lady insists.” He said as he dragged his eyes from the stars and followed Cecilia to the cave mouth. 

Inside was darker even than the sea outside and Cecilia searched her pockets and found her flashlight.  In its artificial glow, regular impressions the size of human footprints made a path going into the cave.

“Caine had camping gear.  He never lived in that apartment, only used it to store this place.” Rain murmured low as they followed the footprints. Soon the sand gave way to rock and the footprints were lost, but now another sounds could be heard, a regular slow rhythm, even slower than the moment of the waves on the shore.  It was the sound of heavy breathing.

Cecilia dimed the torch and together they silently moved forward through the fog that filled the cave.  The further they went the louder the sound became sonorous and the fog around them warm and fetid. A turn in the cave revealed a larger cavern filled with the warm and very much alive sleeping form of a green dragon.  For a beat they both stared in awe at the 9 metre long creature straight out of story. Then, without a word or gesture, they both started back the way they had come as silently as they could.

“This is no place to explore alone.”  Rain said as they left the cave and walked purposefully across the beach.

“So this translation back to our world, how long did you say it will take?”

“I don’t know, but no time like the present.”  

Rain sat down on the sand, well above the high tide line and gestured that Cecilia do the same.  Sitting face to face, hand clasped, Rain started trying to forge a link from their current location back to the Caine’s apartment.  As he did, both of them could feel and see a thread of energy linking the two points and they felt the dizzy feeling of motion. They were moving fast along the thread, speeding past the swirling stars that made up the Strange.  They were moving too fast, Rain was sure they would crash until something pulled him back. Cecilia had taken control and was easing their translation back to Earth. With a sudden rush, a feeling of nausea and dizziness Cecilia and Rain fell onto the fetid floor coverings of Caine’s apartment.  

The light had gone out of the day and evening was taking hold of the city outside. 

“What a rush!  I can see why you don’t do that more often.” Cecilia  joked pulling herself off the sticky floor. “Are we finished here?”

Rain took one last look around the apartment.  He’d hoped to find Caine’s Internet link, something he would have used to route his VOIP link through.  Nothing but the picture was left to show Caine had ever used these rooms. Grabbing the picture off the wall, Rain followed Cecilia out the door and back out onto the street and her motorbike.

14. Betrayals and balls-ups

After wonderful successes with Lydia Lance and Gwendolyn Wurt, the group headed back to Nederland to await the arrival of Dona Ilsa in the basement of the Dreaming Crystal,  but not before buying Algernon a new weapon.

         *   *   *  *  * *   *  *   *  * *       

“Are you sure you’re twenty-one?”  The shop assistant in the camping and hunting store turned Algernon’s Seattle identification edge on to witness the iridescent Washington hologram appear briefly.

“He has a pituitary issue.”  Rain commented casually.

“He certainly doesn’t look his age.” Added Bruce uncomfortable with the fake ID.

Algernon said nothing, just a letting the administration do its thing while he admired his latest purchase, a state of the art rifle-style hunting crossbow.

In the end the shop assistant had no reason to deny the ID and rang through the $600.00 purchase.

As Rain and Algernon left the store, Bruce wandering behind for one last look at what was on offer, Rain quietly spoke to Algernon, 

“Now you have your crossbow, please don’t kill things with brains.”  

“If I shoot them in the head they won’t have any brains.” Algernon quipped back making Rain laugh nervously.

“Everyone you don’t kill is a potential friend.”

“Everyone he doesn’t kill is a potential threat.”  Peggy added. She’d been waiting outside and heard the conversation as they passed.

“See, she gets me.”  Algernon acknowledged the doctor’s contribution as they all climbed back into the van for the long ride back to Nederland.

Though only a day had passed, Nederland had undergone a transformation.  Blue and white decorations festooned the public spaces, small tents and massive marquees filled the town.  Posters with the illustration of a blue old man were everywhere proclaiming that Frozen Dead Guy Days had arrived.   Once back at the hotel, Rain made his mission to find a program for this unusual festival and tried to get everyone involved.

“How is this relevant to our mission here in Nederland?” Peggy asked when he showed her the poster.

“It has absolutely nothing to do with our mission, that’s the beauty of it.”  He replied holding out the list of events on offer over the weekend.

“Pancake breakfast, I can get into that.” Her eye alighted on the first event the next day.

“Pancakes, put me down for that.” Bruce sat down in one of the chairs in the hotel’s lounge with a wistful look on his face.

“Pancakes…are they good with bacon?” Algernon asked.  Most foods he rated in relation to bacon so this question came as no surprise.

“Yes,” Rain replied with enthusiasm, “and even better with maple syrup.”

“Ooh live vulture and other scavenger demonstrations.”  Peggy cooed over the program that she had now taken from Rain, “this may not be a complete waste of time.”

“See, something for everyone!”

“My mom made  the most excellent Saturday morning stacks.”  Bruce reminisce almost to himself in his chair, his thoughts miles and years away.

“Oh, I heard of that on the Internet.  Your mother had an excellent stack?” Algernon asked still cradling his purchase like his first born.

“She made excellent pancakes.”  The comment pulling Bruce from his revelries, “Always very round and fluffy, with little brown centres where the batter’d hit the skillet first…”

“Yes well, better than sausage and egg.”  Peggy said handing the program to Bruce.

With a horrified expression, Rain turned Peggy as if she had berated a sacred thing.

“Nothing is better than a full English Breakfast fry up.”

“So, what’s the plan for dealing with the crow woman?”  Bruce tried dragging the conversation back to the problem at hand.  This was more difficult than he would have thought as no one had any decent ideas.

“We need to catch Dona Ilsa, stop her from translating back.”  Rain said adamantly, but then lost momentum when it came down to how to achieve that end.

Peggy had picked up the program again and saw the first event of the festival was the Blue Ball.

“I guess it would be interesting to view the culture and social rituals around this festival.  Right here in front of us is the birth of a new fertility god. Anthropologically speaking this is a great opportunity.”
“Fertility god?”  Rain asked now distracted by Peggy, “Old dead Bredo Morstoel?”

“Sure.  The festival is set at the end of  winter, the rites of spring, even the giddy silliness of the activities are  classic pagan symbolism.”

“Back on topic.” Bruce cleared his throat and this time Algernon had a suggestion.

“I was going to use my net to entangle her and Peggy  could strip search her.” 

“So you’re leaving me alone with the crow lady?”  Peggy queried, an eyebrow raised.

“Well, they won’t let me do it.”  Rain smirked.

“Fair point.”

“You and Celia, obviously, when she’s up to it.  “ Bruce added, giving Rain a glare for almost derailing the conversation once again. “We also need something to distract her to hinder a natural translation.  Maybe we can have something trigger a recording of Rick Astley?”

“Regardless, I think we have to clean up the spider.” Peggy proposed, “Good fun in the moment, but a hindrance to our abilities to catch her.”

“Yes,” Rain agreed, giving Algernon a look of  apology, “Sorry to destroy your fun Algernon but it’s just in the way.”

“I don’t want to clean it up, I went to a lot of trouble smashing up spiders and I don’t think it should be touched.”  Algernon suddenly stood up, his crossbow forgotten. The action and attitude struck Rain as odd. Algernon was hiding something, but he kept silent wondering what thoughts his friend was concealing.

“We need to catch her.”

“Sulfuric acid?” Algernon suggested

“Urgh, you don’t want to clean up after that.” Rain shivered.

“Nitrous Oxide?”

“Laughing gas?  Safer. Can we get enough of the stuff?”

“Carbon monoxide is easier to make.”  Algernon piped up picking up his crossbow and walking around the group.

“Are we overthinking this? Are we forgetting something simple?” Peggy asked tiredly wiping her face, it had been a long day.

“We can just bash her over the head.” 

The conversation kept moving in circles around what was possible, all the time getting nowhere.  Suddenly an alarm on Bruce’s phone went off and he quickly brought up a camera image of the basement to see nothing unusual in the room.

“False alarm?”  He suggested, looking around for confirmation from Algernon.  He wasn’t with them, he couldn’t be seen anywhere.

“Where’s Algernon?” Peggy asked as Bruce called Algernon’s phone.

“Algernon. Just got the alarm.”

“I know, I’m going over there now.” Algernon’s voice could be heard replying through the phone.

“Right, we’ll meet you there.”  Bruce hung up and was about to put away his phone when Rain stretched out his hand for it.

“Can I just have a look at that footage?”  He asked. Bruce handed over the phone and Rain searched the video feed for signs of illusions. It was then he noticed that things weren’t quite as the group had left them. “Someone’s been in there, look the buckets have moved.”
“I think Algernon’s been there a few times.”  Bruce commented off handedly as they all left the hotel for the store.  

“Ah,” Rain’s demeanor sunk as realisation dawned on him,”That would make sense.”  He said almost sorrowfully.

The camera feed to the basement suddenly flickered off and Rain quickened his pace.

Camera down, what’s going on?  He texted from Bruce’s phone and quickly received a reply back.


The camera feed flicked back to life with the bucket gone.  Rain handed back the phone and started running.

We’re going to have a talk, young man. Bruce texted which caught Peggy’s attention.

“So you really have adopted him?” She said with all seriousness.

“So, have you….step mum.” Rain replied automatically as he also sent a text.

And then we’ll chat.

When the group arrived at the store the back door was open.  Rain quickly checked the front door was closed before following the others downstairs to where Algernon stood.

“All by myself.”
“We know.” Bruce was already in the door, arms crossed like a father confronting his wayward teen.

“So we’ve gathered.” Rain walked in and knew at a glance at Algernon that all his suspicions were confirmed.

“Nothing happening here, false alarm I guess.”  Algernon tried to brush off the affair, but his bravado petered out when he noticed Rain looking at the pieces of spider on the floor inside the translation square.

“So, what would happen if I do this…”  Rain said quiet as he started walking over to the pile of spider goo and body parts.  His moves were deliberate and inevitable, he was not stopping at the pile but intending to walk through it.

Faster than words, Algernon brought up his net crossbow and shot it at Rain.  Rain stopped instinctually at the sound of the net and it sailed in front of him to hit the back wall. Rain looked up at Algernon, his friend and closest companion for almost a year and then turned away.

 A horrible silence filled the room.

“I wouldn’t do that, Rain.”  Algernon’s voice was small and cracked, but it broke the silence giving everyone a start.

“And why is that Algernon?”  Rain responded quietly, still turned away still not having moved, “What would happen?  What would happen if that stuff covered a small person or someone with a compromised immunity.  What would happen, Algenon?”

“It’s a biotoxin.”  He said in a rush, “It will make someone sick. If they’re already ill, it will kill them over a number of weeks.”  

“Why, Algernon?” Bruce asked now stepping between the two men.

“She’s a threat.  She could kill Rain, or you Bruce or Peggy.”

“We’re not dealing with just one person, “ Rain rasped out his voice thick with emotion, ”We have a nation thinking they can use the human race for their own ends.  But they don’t know humans, they don’t know the levels of hate, the gen-gen-” He stumbled over the word like a physical barrier, “-genocidal levels humans will go to destroy what they perceive as a threat.  You don’t know!” He pointed at Algernon targeting him among the four of them who was not of Earth. His voice may have started quiet, but the last phrase was said with such force it was like a slap that was heard by everyone in the room.

“Rain!”  Peggy shocked by the violence in Rain’s words.

“That’s enough, Rain. Just calm down.”  Bruce turned to Rain and the smaller man held his tongue and quietly seethed.

“In a team, we don’t always get to do exactly our own thing…”. Bruce said returning to look Algernon squarely in the face.  “Sometimes we don’t agree and that means somebody isn’t going to have it exactly their own way. Being in a team means you’ve got each other, that you watch each other’s backs. “

“If you ignore what the team wants, you lose that and then you won’t have anyone helping and watching out for you to help keep you safe.”

“ Had to do it this way, “ Algernon pleaded over Bruce’s shoulder to where Rain still stood, “I had to try and protect you, but if I’d told you then Rain would have been disappointed.”

“Yes, and now he’s disappointed twice, “ Bruce acknowledged the young man’s reasoning in a gentle tone, “Once that you did it, but even more you did it without talking to us  If you really want to look after the team you need to be part of it.”

“Team?”  Algernon asked in a small voice.

“Family…” Rain said from his corner, “It was us against the world, now it’s just you.”

“And you, “ Bruce turned on Rain, “As brilliant as Algernon is, he really still a child and needs to be shown how to live, not told.  You have to model the behaviours you expect from him, by God, didn’t you have siblings?”

At this Rain turns as if slapped.  The anger was gone replaced by confusion and fear.  It was such an odd response that Bruce was taken aback.

“No.  No family.”  Rain said barely above a whisper, wrapping his arms around himself though the basement was close and warm with everyone in it.

“How about a rabbit trap.”  Peggy suggested breaking the tension of the scene and returning everyone to the problem at hand. “I could probably rig up a physical trap with what we have here.”

“It still doesn’t stop translation,” Rain croaked wearily from his corner, “Isn’t there something that blocks translations?”

“Radiation?” Bruce replied stating a fact, “The radiation of the desert recursion blocked McCain.”

“That was an event unique to that translation.”  Peggy shook her head, “McCain’s assumption about the radiation was false, but understandable in the circumstances.  How about paralysis?”
“Digitalis?  It’s a poison.”  Rain shook his head, “No, I could keep her here.”

“What are you going to persuade her to stick around?” Bruce asked seriously.  He’s seen some pretty amazing things from this group and he’d never believed in Rain’s claims to not have powers of his own.

“No, I did it before on Peggy, after Celia touched her and they became mind linked.”  He started moving towards Peggy, “I was trying to calm her down and she…froze.”

“Often the things you say leave me cold, but I remember…” Peggy started saying as Rain stepped in close and started talking quietly to her.  It wasn’t what he was saying, as much as how he said it. An intensity, an intimacy that was akin to when he encouraged them at tasks. Peggy stopped what she was saying mid sentence, she stopped everything even blinking and her breathing was slow and shallow like that of sleep.  Rain kept talking for a few more moments and then stopped, turning to the others, careful not to attract Algernon’s eye.

“…very clearly that I was having a panic attack….why are you looking at me like that?”  Peggy continued where she had left off until she noticed the other two staring at her.

“You stopped Peggy talking!” Algernon exclaimed forgetting the distance between him and Rain at that moment, even though they were less than a metre apart.

“I’m still not talking to you….but yes it is.” Rain tugged the cuff of his sport’s coat as an excuse not to look up.

“How?” Bruce asked and Rain shook his head.

“It’s subtle.  You said it yourself. I can’t scream and hurt people’s minds or make them levitate, but I can do this.  As long as I can talk, I can keep Dona Ilsa here.”  

“It would mean Rain staying down here twenty-four-seven.” Bruce looked to the rest.

“That’s why I hadn’t suggested it.”  Rain agreed reluctantly, “I’m going to miss the festival.”

Peggy sighed in frustration, they were going around in circles again, getting caught on trivialities that got them nowhere.  She was sick of the basement, sick of the smell from the translation square and thoroughly sick of this subject.

“Well, are we cleaning this up?” She asked and Rain nodded his agreement.

“I wouldn’t recommend it.” Algernon repeated. “It’s far too toxic.”

Peggy grabbed a broom.  She’s spent a lifetime handling the toxic, the caustic and the vile.  This was no different.

“You’ll only spread it everywhere with that.” Algernon protested stepping up to take the broom from Peggy and coming up against her obdurance.  He backed off.

“Don’t you think I know safe chemical handling protocols?” 

“It’s not that..”

“Well then tell us how to clean it up then.”

Algernon sighed and shook his head.  He had tried to save his creation against Rain’s fears, Bruce’s practical reasoning only to be defeated by the stubbornness of the Peggy.

“At least neutralise it with a strong alkaline.”  He gave in, withdrawing back into himself sullenly.  His net still lay against the wall where it had fallen. Without looking at anyone else he went over to it and started packing it back in its canister.

“Well that shouldn’t be too difficult.  Gentlemen, get looking while I work on some protection.”

 So while Peggy scavenged around the storeroom making a splash suit to deal with whatever chemical concoction Algernon’s fertile mind had created, Bruce and Rain found anything that could be used to neutralise it.  Washing soda, bicarbonate of soda, cleaning ammonia and several packets of antacids, even a few nice limestone pieces from the shop were crushed and thrown into the collection.  

Anticipating the fumes, Algernon tried retreating from the basement only to be pulled back by a plastic and rubber clad Peggy.  

“Oh no.  Your mess, you get to help clean it up.”  She expertly grabbed his ear and pulled him back.  The process was messy, smelly and thoroughly stomach churning.  They all took turns in adding the cleaning agents to the pile where Peggy mixed it with the spider parts with the broom.  

“It will need to settle, we have to leave at least overnight.” Algernon finally instructed and they all stepped away from the bubbling, fuming pile. 

“Right, trapmaking.”  Peggy now turned her attention to the task even though it was already late and neutralising the toxin had not been an easy task. Doggedly she went back to the stores, even pulling apart shelving for materials, to make a noose trap set at the door.  Her first attempt fell apart under the tension required for to spring a human body into the air. She carefully gathered the parts once more reinforced the locking pin that held the tension in balance and reset it. This time the trap held, a simple construction very much like a rabbit trap with the noose whipping the legs out from under the hopefully unsuspecting Dona Ilsa or associate.

“And now I’m going to the ball because I need a drink.”  Peggy announced to the dispirited group in front of her. Bruce wasn’t keen but at the same time would not see her go alone and nodded a tired agreement.  Algernon said nothing, but neither did he disagree. Only Rain looked like he’d refuse.

“You were pretty distressed back there, I’m sorry for that and I get if you don’t feel like socialising now.” Bruce said quietly to Rain who straightened visibly and gave Bruce a laconic smile that Bruce knew instantly was a facade.

“Why, that’s my life Bruce.”  He turned to Peggy, “Drink! Yes, many.  Let’s go!” And he left without a backward glance to make sure Algernon was following.

On getting back to the hotel and checking the time and location of the Blue Ball the group found it was a masquerade.  Peggy still had her chemical cleanup suit so she added a few pieces from her personal supply and turned herself into a steampunk mad scientist.  Rain raided Celia’s makeup and turned himself into a dead Frank Sinatra without even changing his clothes. Algernon stayed in his school uniform look while Bruce just cleaned up a little. Dressing up wasn’t his thing.

In a huge marquee tent the Blue Ball was in full swing.  Rain leaped straight into the thick of the activity as if nothing unusual had occurred only an hour before. Bruce, always watchful, noticed that he was never without a drink, an image he found disturbing. 

Peggy sat at the bar, a spider in her web. When people came by to ask her about her costume or just chat her up, she interrogated them about local social customs and their views on the new fertility god. Algernon just stood by the tent wall and watched the spectacle, detached from it all and very alone in the crowd.

An already inebriated Rain tripped out of the dancing crowd to the bar and held his glass up for another. 

“Dude!  Where did you get those trippy contacts?” A voice said clearly beside him and Rain turned to see two men chatting, one clearly displaying the spiraled iris of a dust user.  

“I have my sources.” He said looking smugly at his companion.

“Don’t leave me hanging.” Said his friend, “I’ve seen a few people wearing them tonight.  What’s the big deal?”

As Rain’s drink arrived at his elbow, he smoothly passed it forward to the man with the spiral eyes.

“Give your friend a break, it sounds like it might be a good story.” He said making eye contact with the user.  The man said nothing, just stared through Rain, twitched once, then again and then pulled back his fist. Rain ducked as the man made to King hit his head off.  Not taking his eyes off the guy he noticed his expression never changed, it was blank and emotionless, a puppet going through the motions set by its unseen master.

Bruce tackled the guy but couldn’t hold him, the man seemed unnaturally strong.  Rain, seeing Bruce pointed to the man’s eyes and Bruce nodded. This wasn’t just one insane guy, this was a Spiral dust user.  From her side of the bar Peggy grabbed a heavy looking ale flagon from a party goer and threw it at the spiral-eyed.  His expression never changed as the heavy glass made solid contact with his face. Bruce tried to grab him again as Rain stepped in.

“Hey, hey listen.  We don’t have to be enemies.” He said as his hand slipped into the man pockets and very quickly returned full. The wallet and other bits and pieces disappeared and Rain stepped back again. 

Peggy was enjoying her view of the fight when something hard and brittle cracked across her head, turning she saw another man with spiral eyes staring blankly back.  Behind him two women and another man were moving through the crowd, all sharing the same empty look. Algernon listened to the thoughts of the one who was nearest him without making his presence known to the Spiral-eyed.

Get the interloper for Nakarand.”

Watching the two at the bar tussling with his friends, Rain noticed their action seemed to be coordinated, synchronised as if controlled by one mind.

“Something is controlling these guys, they’re not in their right minds.” He said as he hopped out of the way by leaping on the bar.

Peggy’s screamed flavoured with Greek obscenities, but it did nothing to her attacker.

“Can  you make this look like a gang attack?” Bruce yelled from the floor, gaining for himself an odd look from Rain.

“What, like this?”  He started dancing across the bar clicking his fingers as if from West Side Story.  Bruce could only shake his head and move to protect Peggy’s back. He bopped an assailant on the head. The spiral-eyed attacker swayed on their feet, stunned and unable to move.

All as one the spiral-eyed moved in, now their eyes glowing in the low light of the ball.  There was no question that these people were being controlled by a force outside of human knowledge.  The one grappled by Bruce tried to break free, but Bruce’s arms held him in place. The bottle breaking guy made another swipe at Peggy, but she moved down and out of his way, tripping him up as she passed.  A third made a swipe with finger grown unnaturally long but again Peggy was faster and the nailed hand sailed passed her face. 

“This is something new.” Rain commented drunkenly from on top of the bar, “Celia really should be here.”

Two attacked Bruce but he used the grappled one as a defensive shield and neither could land a hit.

It was then that Algernon and Bruce’s phones buzzed an alarm. 

Algernon pulled out his phone and clearly saw a black haired woman in the neutralised spider parts beside a large pile of grey rocks.  In her hand she held a mug sized device from which she now removed something and put in her pocket. They had to get out of this fight.  Algernon looked around the ring of spectators that the fight was making and saw two muscular guys. Running forward, he tried pretending to trip, succeeded in actually tripping and fell in front of one of the Spiral-eyed.  The intended push just signalled his presence in the battle and the Spiral-eyed turned to look down on the prone young man. Algernon smiled sweetly, just a stupid kid.

The eyes glowed.

“Glowing eyes? Controlled spiral dust users? What does all this mean?”  Peggy asked The Strange.

Something is aware of our meddling, was the reply.

Bruce was weighing up his grappled aversary.  

How big is this projectile?  Average hipster? Is it a heavy bashing weapon? Sure, why not. Should be okay.  

Swinging from the hips like an olympic athlete, Bruce threw the Spiral-eyed into the other two ganging up on him.   One collapsed unconscious from the force of a full grown man propelled into their face, the other one faired only slightly better and stayed on their feet.

“Murder!  Murder! Bloody murder!” Rain cried from on top of the bar, so that many at the ball thought this was all part of the show.  Seeing the black uniforms of security guards he jumped down off the bar and faced one of the Spiral-eyed in front of Peggy.

The Spiral-eyed gang swung wide in a coordinated attack, telegraphing their moves and making it easy for Bruce, Peggy and Rain to dodge.  Algernon scrambled to his feet and cried in his wavering tenor,

“Help, help!  Junkies are attacking!” and blended back into the crowd away from fight.

Peggy’s scream roared out again straight into the face of the guy with the broken bottle.  Something behind his eyes recoiled at her attack and the Spiral-eyed physically did the same.  Now free of his encumbrance, Bruce found a barstool and made good use of it as an improvised weapon.  He swung it around him and landed a heavy blow on one of the women attacking. She crumpled to the ground unconscious and instantly Bruce felt guilty.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” He said but had little time to contemplate his actions as another attack swung through.

“We don’t have to fight, you have something controlling you right now.”  Rain used enthrall on the other Spiral-eyed woman. She stopped in her tracks.  Frozen, not like Peggy had, but as if two wills battled for control for her body.  Another swiped at Peggy who dodged and pushed them across a table behind her. The landed heavily on their heads and moved no more .  That left only one now on Bruce.

Algernon looked down at his phone again seeing Dona Ilsa study her surroundings.  She was alone. The group had to go.

“Will Robinson!” He shouted to be heard above the crowd, the brawl and the music before starting to slip away undetected by the security and out the door himself.  Instantly the group responded. Peggy ran, bashing past a bouncer trying to apprehend her and was only moments behind Algernon into the night.  

“I’m sorry, I have another appointment.” Rain finished his enthral and quickly looked to Bruce, “You got this?”

“Yes, the rest of you have to go, hurry!” Bruce responded pinned down as the bouncers encircled him. With a drop and roll, Rain scooted under the marque wall and was away. 

Now Bruce was left behind restrained by bouncers who mobbed him and the last Spiral-eyed. As soon as he realised the bouncers had arrived, Bruce gave up the fight.

“I am so happy you guys turned up, I don’t know what they’re problem is, but they just started attacking me and my friends.”  He said to the two bouncers restraining him.

“Yeah, okay we’ll take you outside first. Clear out before we turn the others loose.”  The bouncer replied as they frog-marched Bruce out of the tent. He didn’t need telling twice as he could just see the others run across town to the gem store.

As they ran Algernon watched the video feed.  He saw Dona Ilsa walk to the door and hit the trap.  It worked perfectly and Dona Ilsa was whipped up into the air by her ankles.  As she swung back and forward in front of the door she dropped the mug sized device and it hit the ground.  A flash of bright light blew out the cameras for a moment, and when they returned the noose hung empty.

Seconds later the group were through the door, the rope still swung, taunting them.  Rain fell to the ground in front of the trap defeated. They all stood around looking at the empty room.  She had come early, knew that they had destroyed that side of her spiral dust empire and had escaped. It was the worst possible conclusion to all their planning. 

“I’ll report this in.”  Bruce finally said and pulled out his phone. “Did you say something about one mind controlling those guys?”

Rain nodded, an image of total defeat, “Yeah, there was one mind controlling their movements.”

“Nakarand was controlling them.” Algernon added getting everyone’s attention.

“Well at least Dona Ilsa didn’t seem to be in control.”  Rain gestured to the space she had only just moments before occupied.  

Silently they stood numb and bruised as Bruce let Katherine know all that was going on.

“No, we don’t know anything about a Nakarand.” She said to Bruce’s question about the entity behind the fight. “Look, you guys have been running for weeks now, an upset like this was bound to occur sooner or later.  Tidy up things there, have a few days rest and we’ll see you back here in a week, okay.”

“Yeah, “ Answered Bruce wearily, “The Spiral-eyed attack really sorted us out. Okay, I’ll let them know,”

When Bruce hung up Algernon was circling the pile of blue-grey rocks. A circular chunk was cleanly taken out of the side nearest the trap and door.  Rain was on the ground making small piles out of a set of car keys and the contents of an unknown wallet.

“What are you two doing?”  Bruce asked the boys. Algernon showed him a set of calculations in his notebook, Rain held up a driver’s license.  

“Just trying to work out how many doses  this amount of rock would provide. If they’re getting it weekly which now seems to be the case, then there could only be dozens in each city addicted to the stuff.”

“Hardly a take over, so what’s the point?.”  Bruce took the license from Rain to see it was from Washington state one, for an address in Seattle.

“That is the licence of the guy that first attacked me, “  Rain pointed out, “I took the opportunity to relieve him of it during the fight.”

“Do you think Dona Ilsa is controlled like one of these guys?” Peggy asked taking the licence from Bruce and studying it for a moment before handing it back to Rain.

“If this was a regular drug syndicate you would suggest no, but she’d make sure that people like Lydia were, to keep them loyal. Lydia didn’t have the Spiral eyes.”

Peggy reached out for The Strange allowing the evidence to go out and return with possible solution.  Is there a grand design to all this? All she got back was a headache. It was very late now, they had had a very long and disappointing day and she needed her bed.

Though Peggy was ready to crash both Algernon and Rain were still scratching for clues.  Algernon was examining pieces of rock, to determine its origins. He could not detect if the rock was organic in make up there in the basement but the shape, cylindrical with a pinched of tapered end,  suggested that it had been extruded showing it had gone through some processing. What? He couldn’t say. 

Rain was also scratching around on the ground busy with something, but when he stood, all he had in his hands were the wallet and keys from Seattle.  

Bruce rubbed his eyes and muscles in his arms and back protested the action.

“Okay, back to the hotel for a rest and we’ll talk all this out in the morning.”

13. Of Spiders and Androids

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

  * * * * * * *    

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

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

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

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

“We steal a pest extermination truck and…” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, we don’t need to.”  Peggy added

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rain shook his head in sadly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did she say that or just think …?

No need to shout at me!

You heard that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My…my garage at…at home.” 

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

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

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

That night Rain did not sleep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce looked around the group in front of him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But Rain gave me this jacket.” 

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

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

“So will you be joining us?”  Asked Bruce

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

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

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

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

“And you must be from the Morrison Fellowship.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re in my head!  Breathe…breathe… 

Focusing his thought to one clear statement, Bruce replied,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The mothers an android.  Wrap this up.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mommy is built very protective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Her mother is being held in the basement.”

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

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


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

Everyone shook their heads except Rain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confusion from Mrs Wurtz and then a clear thought, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No ones like your age.” 

12. A well oiled machine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, we can handle it.” 

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

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

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

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

“Crash a car into the shop.”  Algernon added

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

“It doesn’t have to be our car.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’re not a threat.” 

“They might get out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Drop it!” Peggy barked, intimidating 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Algernon shook his head, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rain sighed.

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

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

Gone fishin’

By a shady, wady pool

I’m wishin’

I could be that kind of fool

I’d say ‘mo more work for mine’

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

Instead of just wishin’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, the victims, who were they?”

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

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

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

The group looked at each other, 

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

“Not unexpected.  He died of cancer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shook her head slowly,

“No, never heard that name.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like feeding homeless guys to her pet spiders?”

“Sometimes, there are no good choices.”

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.

8: In the Shadow of the Crows

After following Caw Eh Carve to his apartment to retrieve a key to Crows Hollow, the group were confronted by a vision from Rain’s past, in the form of Elvin Lightfeather, a mafia heavy.  The group fled with most of their lives intact from Elvin Lightfeather and his goon through the streets of Bollons. Peggy was badly injured and needed a place to rest up before the group can move on.

    *      * *     * *  

Peggy winced and stumbled as they wormed their way through the crowds of the main street of Bollons.  Instinctively, Bruce stepped her side, supporting her and protecting her from the buffetting of the crowd.

“Where does it hurt?” 

“Where I was stabbed, “ Peggy replied in her usual curtness, now without the energy.  Shock was setting in.

“Okay…okay…okay…” Rain, a whirlwind of panic, threw the cloak from the phantom of the opera costume over Bruce, the hat he gave to Peggy and the mask to Algernon.  Bruce shrugged off his makeshift disguise in disgust.

“Oh, can I wear the cloak, I have to hide this thing.” Algernon pointed behind his back to the large crossbow.  The cloak was thrown over his shoulders and Rain sighed at Bruce standing out even in the crowd.

“Ah..We need a place to hold up for a while.” he looked around trying to see above the heads of the busy city at the shops and buildings, “I think there were some Inns closer to the docks, I”ll go see.”

“Do I need to hog-tie you to keep you with the group?” Bruce said stopping the little man in his tracks, “What if those guys find you and I’m not there?”

“I’ll go with him,” Algernon suggested, Bruce shook his head sternly. In the end they travelled together walking down the hill to the docks, Bruce supporting Peggy.

Even in a panic, Rain was aware of what he was looking for.  Somewhere that had rooms to rent but also a bar full of customers that wouldn’t notice them arriving and staff too busy to interfere.  Fortunately, with a few trains in at the docks that day, it didn’t take long to find what he was looking for. Rain paid for the room overnight and ushered everyone upstairs and behind the safety of wooden walls.  That done he collapsed into a corner, eyes closed and clutching his puzzle box to his chest.

As Peggy laid out on the only bed in the room, Bruce pulled out his first aid kit and went to work patching up the knife wounds inflicted by Lightfeather.

“Okay, so what’s our next move?”  Bruce asked when he’d finished, “Is there anything we need to do here or can we report back?”

“Yes, “ Rain whispered from the corner defeated, “We need to report back.  I can go without selling my rumour now.”

“No, “  Algernon spoke up, “ I want to see the rumour markets and talk to people in town.  Maybe there’s something we can find out before we leave.”

Waxen faced, Rain opened his eyes and looked up at his younger protege in surprise. 


“I think we need to go.”  Algernon held his gaze, and Rain gave a faint smile. 

“Ah…you’re becoming a bad influence.”

“Well, can we can go while Peggy rests up and Bruce stays with her.”  Algernon added looking to the other two for support.

“Right and how long do I wait before I have to leave here and come rescue your sorry asses.”  Bruce folded his arms and leaned back in his chair. “You know they could be out there looking for you right now, they know Rain and may want to tie up loose ends.”

Rain slumped again clear he was now a liability to everyone.

“You don’t have to.  If we don’t come back translate with Peggy.  Rain and I can translate back by ourselves.”

“That’s not going to happen,”  Bruce shook his head, then stopped as what Algernon suggested sunk in, “Wait, could we do that?”

“Both Algernon and Peggy can initiate translations.  If we were to split up, that would make the most natural partnerships.”  Rain added from his corner with no real hope that it would help.

The discussion went backwards and forwards, but Algernon wouldn’t be put off the chance of seeing the town with the hope of finding out more about Lightfeather and Caw Eh Carve.  In the end it was settled that they would rest up overnight and all go as a group. At least that way if they were attacked they’d be together.

A cramped uncomfortable night eventually gave way to morning and the group started waking.  Without their favourite stimulant both Algernon and Rain were sluggish. Bruce suggested push ups and demonstrated by doing a few himself before giving the floor to someone else.  Rain wasn’t interested, but Algernon always ready to try something new, got down on his hands and attempted the push ups. Supported by locked arms he thrust his hips up and down in what he thought simulated Bruce’s movements.

“You have to bend your arms.  Press down onto the ground.” Bruce instructed and though the results were slightly better, of course it was harder to do.  Rain now stepped in with his putter, wrapping the shaft under Algernon’s chest he helped pull up, from above, but now he was straddling the thrusting Algernon in a pose that no one needed to see including the now rested Peggy.

“Peggy, “  Rain pulled her aside for a moment as the other two talk about morning exercises and quietly asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m good now, thank you.” she replied in her usual curt way without humor or bitterness.

“I’m…I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?  For what?”

“Don’t mind him, he just feels guilty for a  misspent life.” butted in Bruce. He and Algernon had been listening in the whole time. “Nevermind Rain, remorse is the first step to redemption.”

“Well, it had never been a problem until now.”  Rain mumbled morsley.

“Was it misspent?  Did you live a deliberate life?”  she turned to Rain with her odd turn of phrase in complete sincerity.

“It’s been a very deliberate life so far.” he smiled, despite how he felt about her being injured, “It was pretty good at the time.”

“Did you throw a dagger at me?”

“He threw a dagger, but to try to save you.” Algernon added in defence.


“Then, you have nothing to be sorry about.”  she finished and left and headed down to the common room to find breakfast.

Breakfast was substantial with a bacon made of molemeat, eggs, beans and bread.  For those with more adventurous tastes there was also naked mole rat (of the standard size) on a stick.  Bubbling away on a stovetop, a black beverage drew both Algernon and Rain to it with little thought for anything else.  The Louisanna locals who regularly added chicory to their coffee knew the smell as soon as they hit the common room, but kept that knowledge to themselves until first Rain then Algernon complained about the quality of the coffee.

“That’s because it’s chicory and not coffee at all.”  Bruce replied enjoying their looks of dismay and disgust.

Rain forgot breakfast after that and talked to some of the bar’s customers who either hadn’t left from the night before or had come in for an early morning pick-me-ups.  From them he was able to glean the way to the rumour markets without too much problem.

“Okay, so if we’re doing this, we should agree to a set of safe words, so if those guys turn up at the market we can all run in the same direction.”

“Oh, I know about safe words, “ Algernon added with some of his research into Earth culture, “they use them in the porn films.”

Bruce and Peggy stopped and stared at the youth before them.  Peggy in particular looked shocked. Her stunned face moved from Algernon to Rain.

“Don’t look at me.  Yes its my laptop but….”  Peggy’s eyes narrowed, “I said, don’t look at me!”

“I was thinking more substitutions for left or right, or up and down as in the case of Bollons, as it’s all on a slope.”  Bruce moved the conversation back on topic much to Rain’s relief. “Maybe Canada and Mexico?”  

The discussion moved through several ideas from substitution to actual cardinal points or their mnemonic replacements.  Eventually it was brought down to simply warning of danger.

“Danger, Will Robinson!”  Algernon parroted from one of his many ‘documentaries’.   This was shortened to the name, Will Robinson.

“Will Robinson, is a good safe word.” Rain agreed when it was finally chosen,   ‘Oh look there’s Will Robinson.’ ‘Hi, my name is Will Robinson.’”

Fed and now equipped with a new safe word, the group headed into the morning streets to find the Rumour Markets.  Bollons was famous through Railsea for the Rumour Market that was only second to the Salvers markets on Scabbing Street, Manikiki.  Here salvers could buy and sell information about almost anything from prominent members of society, where good salvage could be found or where the molling grounds were abundant.  

Everyone came to the Rumour Markets at some time and even in the morning the place was full of foot traffic, carts of salvage and stalls all ready to sell.  Rain moved through the crowd looking for something specific. He ignored the first two tents that advertised rumours for sale and spotted a third. The tent was older and worn at the edges, but had an air of prosperity about it shown by the brightly painted sign and quality of the furniture.  The stall looked like it had been there a while and was doing well.

“Good morning, buy or sell?”  The owner greeted the group as they all tried squeezing into the tent.

“Trade actually.  I have information on a unique salvage site that has only just been uncovered.  In return, I’d like some information on some individuals in town.” Rain cleared his throat, now unsure he wanted to voice the next part of his spiel, “Tell me …do you have information on either a Caw Eh Carve or Elvin Lightfeather?”

The trader thought for a moment, 

“Eh Carve, I do.  Nothing about Lightfeather, but I’d be willing to give good currency to know what you know.”

“Hmm, how about a place called Crows Hollow or even stories about individuals travelling between worlds.”

At that the trader started, 

“Funny you should say that… crows, yes…but I don’t know what use it will be to you, though.”

Rain agreed and told the Rumourmonger about the theatre, it’s contents (showing the quality of the items found as worn by Algernon) and its location.  In kind the Rumourmonger gave Rain a small collection of copper and silver coins and the requested information.

“Caw Eh Carve arrived out of the blue a few months ago, no one seems to know from where.  With him he brought two things, money enough to get a broke Captain by the name of Alaventi back on the rails and his cargo of chalky blue rocks.  Where the rocks come from nobody knows but he pays well to have them shipped over Railsea. He has an apartment here in town, neighbours say that he can spend days in there when he’s here and keeps mostly to himself if he’s not here in the salvage markets looking for trinkets.” The Rumourmonger then coughed as if nervous to even take good money for the next piece of information.

“As for your crows…a drunk by the name of Gurf has been spreading a story about being transported to a world where crows walk around like men.  Where there are giant trees.” He gave a description of Gurf and where he usually hunts through trash for things to sell. “But surely that’s just a drunk’s fantasy.”

In return Rain gave a loose story of Elvin Lightfeather, saying he was a known organised crime figure from Manikiki instead of the truth that would not be believed anyway.  

As the group walked away, Rain sidled up beside Peggy.

“Crow people.  Could be important.”

“I don’t know.” she replied non committedly.

“If there are bird people there  could be fish people.”
“I never doubted it.” 

“One step closer?”

“I’ll have to see them to know.” she finally relented.

“Then crow people are important.”  Rain announced to the group, sounding more like himself again after this small success. 

“I want to look around the markets.” Algernon announced and Rain promptly handed over the small bag of coins he received from the Rumourmonger. The markets were array of all sorts of junk from familiar Earth garbage to unidentifiable items, even materials that were labeled Alt-salvage.  Of all bits and pieces on offer, Peggy was drawn to three items that seemed to have a touch of The Strange about them. 

The store owner had the three items on display in different corners of their shop.  The first was a plastic Jack-o-Lantern bucket which looked in remarkably good condition for being, as listed, arche-salvage and from the ancient past.  Another was an empty med-kit box, the third a signet ring with the symbol of crossed sword and hammer etched into it.

“I think these are recursion keys, simple ones.  Maybe one use.” Peggy commented almost to herself, but everyone including the store owner heard her.

“What did you call them?”  Asked the owner sensing a sale.

“Ah, slang from where we’re from.” Rain butted in as Bruce drew Peggy aside,  “Just one use simple trinkets, but she’s taken a liking so how much for the three?”

 “I’ll take a silver for the three, rare items those.” The store owner offered and Rain tried to counter offer without success.

“No really they’re obviously only worth 5 copper.”  Peggy barged back into the conversation annoyed at being left out. She planted five copper from her own money supplies onto the counter, “I have that.  You can take it or leave it.”

“Well if you say so, I trust your judgement.”  Rain encouraged her. A look came over her and she stared the store owner in the eye with a poise she rarely showed.

“As the lady says then, “ the storeowner grumbled and took the offered coppers, “Five coppers it is.”

The group took their treasures and headed for the dock, to hunt out the drunk called Gurf and see if there were any more details to his story.  He wasn’t hard to find, scavenging around in garbage behind one of the dockside pubs. Algernon went to the pub and bought a cheap bottle of whatever was on offer.  When he returned to the group it was confiscated by Bruce.

“You’re too young.” Bruce handed the bottle on to Rain. 

“Don’t worry about his puritanical leanings.” Rain commented, a cheeky glint in his eye,   “You have to remember they’re whole country had no alcohol for years, it’s a bit of a phobia for them.  You could always try with Keaton though, he’s not afraid of alcohol.” He walked away to talk to Gurf.

“No alcohol?  But how did they clean their wounds?” Algernon asked unsure of why someone would fear alcohol.

“You’re too young to drink it, buy it or possess it.  Do you know at your age it will actually hinder the growth of brain cells?”

“Drink it?”  Algernon seemed genuinely disgusted at the thought initially, but then his natural curiosity took over. “Why?”

“The moderate intake of ethanol lowers inhibitions which is usually  considered beneficial in some social settings.” Peggy commented interested in expanding Algernon’s knowledge of their world.

“Oh.  What’s it like?”

In the meantime, Rain had made contact with Gurf, gaining his attention by brandishing the Algernon’s bottle.

“Hi I’m Havel.  I understand you can tell some amazing stories about giant crows?”

The old bum,  lured by the offer of a drink, started at the mention of crows.

“I was…um… fossicking ‘ere… among the stuff they leave behind when I touched somethin’ and found myself in another place.  There were tall trees full of market stalls, a whole city. And the crows, giant crows walking around. Some of them saw me and chased me.  I hid and then… I was back here again.”

“You touched a thing, do you remember what it was?”


Rain looked at the bum critically, there was something missing from his story.  He handed over the bottle.

“You know I’m not the law or anything.  If there’s something about the story that you’re not proud of you can tell me, I won’t tell anyone.”

Gruf took a swig from the bottle, gathering some dutch courage and nodded his head sheepishly.

“Well yeah, there’s this dude called Eh Carve whose hardly home. I went by his place when I knew he wasn’t there and had a little look around.”

Rain nodded, this made more sense.
“And the thing you touched?”

“It was a pebble, a dumb stupid pebble with a clawed foot engraved on it.  I just touched it as I was reaching for a coin with a crow on it.”

“Good. And how did you get back from this other place, you were hiding and ….”

“That was it, I found myself back in the apartment and I ran out of there.”  Gruf looked past his bottle to the little man asking questions, “Do you believe me?”

“Let’s just say that it’s a great story.  Thank you Gruf, enjoy your drink.”

One last stop in Bollons, back to where it started at Caw Eh Carve’s apartment.  As they turned into his street Bruce noticed a suspicious looking character lurching outside the apartment building. He was new to the group, though his distinctive large hooked nose gave him an almost family resemblance to Caw Eh Carve,  Lightfeather and his goon. 

“Do you  think their noses look like beaks?” Algernon asked the group and Rain groaned.

“Uhh…Light-feather.  Caw eh Carve.”

“Oh no,” Peggy picked up on the connection,  “they’re all crow people.”

“They’re beaks must translate into large hooked noses.  Why didn’t we see that before?”

“Well do we talk to him or what?”  Bruce wanted to know, as standing in the middle of the street was getting them noticed.

“What if Peggy and I go around the back and wait for you and Rain to open the window.” Algernon suggested as Rain watched the guy noting his body language and posture.  

“Yeah, he’s just a bouncer.  We can get past him, eh Bruce?”

“It’s your show, do your thing.” he replied, readjusting his sledgehammer on his back in preparation.

“Don’t worry, “ Algernon added, “I’ll plug him full of lead if he looks like a threat.”

Rain with Bruce behind, walked confidently up to the man on  guard as if they had every right to be there.

“Mr Lightfeather sent us.  We need to get into the apartment.” Rain said quietly so only the guard and Bruce could hear.

“Huh, he never sent word.”  the guard replied. He wasn’t suspicious as yet, but he was certainly taking an interesting their story.

“Yeah, new information just in.  It seems it has something to do with that group that were working with Caw Eh Carve. We’ve been sent to let you know to keep an eye out and to let us in to look for clues.”  Rain’s patter fell on the guard and he shook it off uninterested.

“Yeah, yeah whatever.” he waved them both in.

Once inside and the window opened the group were reunited in the tiny apartment.  It looked no different. One room with a bed, a chest of draws, a small kitchenette with the cupboard door open from when Caw Eh Carve had searched for the key.

Peggy closed her eyes and used her other senses to ‘feel’ for signs of The Strange in the space. Nothing.  Algernon and Bruce used their eyes and searched everywhere for a pebble with a crow’s claw imprint or the coin but all they found were impressions in the dust where they had once lay.  There was nothing left for them there.

Now sure they’d tied up as many loose ends as they were likely to in the backwaters of Railsea, the group locked the door and window and formed their circle for translation.  For once Bruce did not argue the holding of hands as Peggy focused her thoughts on Earth and home.

The translation was swift and painless and they all found themselves back in Peggy’s old lab now empty and dark.  There was nothing to show how much time had past or they had been away at all.  

Rain and Algernon went straight to Lawrence Keaton’s office.  They quickly debriefed, informing him about the world linked to the mole rat skull and the shipments of Spiral Dust as chalky rock from a recursion called Crows Hollow. 

“We know of Crows Hollow.” Keaton informed them, “It is one of the older Earth-based recursions.  It is a society of crow people governed by a number of families, think of the mafia. Don Whitecliff is the head of the Drood family, one of the largest and most powerful families in Crows Hollow.”  

Rain laughed almost hysterically as he shook his head in disbelief.

“It is…interesting to discover that the Droods are caught up in all this.  The Lightfeather connection is a good lead. Well done.”

“So how do we take him out?”  Algernon, straight to the point sobered Rain and focused Keaton on him.

“You need more firepower than you currently have.”

“I’m pleased you mentioned that, I realise that an anti-tank gun….”
“You’re not getting an anti-tank gun.”

“So you said, but what about a crossbow?”

The question was such a departure from  what Keaton was expecting that he stopped and thought for a moment.

“Why a crossbow?”
“I got used to handling one out on the Railsea and I’d like to keep training with one here.”

“He did practise a lot while we were travelling to Bollons.” Rain added supportively.

“I guess.  I’ll write up permission for you to train with one here in the gun range.” Keaton started filling in a note to the master of arms. “Anything else you gentleman want?”

“Yes, several things.  Lightfeather is a figure from my past that I would be interested in knowing more about.  Please, and yes I am asking, please could I have access to any records on Lightfeather and his operations?”

“Yes, I think that would be appropriate, you said several things?”

Rain looked at Algernon and took a breath.

“While we were out in Railsea the other three, Algernon, Bruce and Peggy, all displayed extraordinary powers all linked to The Strange.”  Rain said quickly as if ripping the bandages from a wound. “Does the Estate know about such…abilities amongst those who are awakened”

Keaton sat back in his chair and watched Rain for a moment, 

“Just the other three.”
“Yes.”  Rain replied curtly sure he’d shown a weakness to this Keaton he may come to regret.

“You must understand that those who are awakened are a very small number.  But it has been noted in those rare individuals, that overtime they gain…an affinity with The Strange that allows them to do some amazing things.”

“I would like to study all The Estate has on those powers if I may?”

“Certainly.  You’ll want to talk the Hertzfeld about that.”  Rain nodded and Keaton made a note, “There was something else?”

“You said you’d looked into pay for Algernon and myself?”  Rain replied somewhat more cherrily at the prospects of being liquid again.

“Ah yes.”  Keaton got up and went to a small safe he had inside a cupboard.  From it he withdrew two slim envelopes, “The boffins in admin put their heads together and made you both bank accounts in false names.  It seems word of you two has got around as they thought it all highly amusing.”  

He came back and handed one envelope to Algernon labelled Bank account:  Fred Weasley and the other to Rain with a label, Bank account: George Weasley.  Rain just laughed as Algernon looked up the significance of the names on his smartphone.  Inside was a bank receipt for several thousand dollars (their pays to that date) and a debit card.

“I see us more as Kanada and Tetsuo, but I’ve never worked out which one of us is which.  It seems to change.” Rain commented referencing Algernon’s favourite ‘documentary’, Akira.

“Yes, “  Algernon replied looking thoughtful, “those names do seem more suitable.”

“Now if there’s nothing else, “ Keaton moved around the table to usher the two out of his office, but Algernon had one more request.

“I understand you could offer an alcoholic beverage.”

Keaton looked to from the innocently looking young man to the smiling silent crook beside him with a meaningful glare. 
“I’m sorry Algernon, regardless of what you’ve been told, you’re a little young for hard liquor.”
“I’m 15.” Algernon retorted frustrated by his lack of years and how much it meant.

“Sorry, too young sonny.”  Keaton patted his head patronisingly and Rain could only shrug his shoulders.

“I’ll come back then.  In a few days?”

“Try a few years.”

At about the same time Bruce had made his way to Katherine Manners’ office and was having a similar debrief with her.

“….if seems that Lightfeather is known to Rain, some sort of mafia connection.” Bruce concluded, “And now we’re back.  Is there anything that we should be doing now? Any Advice on what to do about Crows Hollow and Lightfeather?”

“I think my advice at this time is to step back.  Crows Hollow and Alvin Lightfeather aren’t going anywhere. Earthside, you have a few loose ends to tie up.  The individual you call the Cowboy is still loose and unidentified and the cameras your group set up at the docks are still in operation.  Though that smuggling route has been closed down there are undoubtedly many more. If that is not enough to keep you busy I do have other tasks.”

“I guess there’d been a backlog of footage from those cameras after a ten days in Railsea.”  Bruce replied thoughtfully at all there was still to do. 

“Ten?  You’ve only been gone four. Don’t worry about it, it’s a hazard of translations. Not all recursions time flows the same as here.”

“You mentioned other tasks?”  Bruce changed the subject quickly, sure heard such disturbing talk from the others.  

“Yes…” she referred to notes in front of her, “Liza Banks, our Chief of Public Relations,  would like some staff to give a Morrison Fellowship prize to a surprising young woman called Gwendolyn Wurtz.  It seems she’s able to power a smartphone through only body heat.”

“Oh…?” Bruce replied a little confused.  He wasn’t sure how doing a public relations job would keep the world safe.

“We do this from time to time when The Estate comes across unusual stories .  The Morrison Fellowship is a cover that allows us to go in and investigate. You’re to make sure Gwendolyn’s discovery is what it claims to be and not the result of a cipher or some other world interference.”

Bruce nodded, now understanding a little more the importance of The Estate for world safely.

“Before I go I wanted to ask about the story we got from the drunk, Gurf?  It seems when he touched the stone he was temporarily transported to Crows Hollow.  I seems the stone was a one use key that then teleported him back.”

“Yes, that was an interesting point in your story.  Please remember to put that into your report.”

“Oh, and I feel I need to report that Algernon is trying to get himself drunk.”  Bruce added as a passing thought as he stood to leave.

“Young men and their idle thoughts.”  Katherine shook her head and saw Bruce out.

7. New and Old Business

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

    *     * *    

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

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

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

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

The Captain looked the big man over and nodded sagely, 

“Let me introduce you to someone.”

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

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

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

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

“So, what do we shoot?”

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

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

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


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

The engineer shrugged, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine costumes?  Who’d want that?”

Algernon shrugged, “Someone with money.”

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

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

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

“Why that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Algernon steps up to Caw Eh Carve’s table, 

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

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

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

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

“How about the facilities?”

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

“Right.”  Bruce nodded and sat back down.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh Doctor Beeching,

What have you done.

There once were lots of trains to catch, 

But soon there will be none.

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

Oh Doctor Beeching what a Naughty Man you are!

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

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

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

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

“So. You didn’t get that off me.”  Eh Carve bluffed.

“Sure we did, Kamn Sharn was so very helpful.  You see we took all that was left, and we took over the warehouse and we now own the other side of your little venture.”  Rain gestured to the dust and put it away, the impression made.

“You come here threatening me…” Caw Eh Carve started shouting getting the attention of the crew still in the mess.  Rain held up his hands in a conciliatory gesture. 

“Never threaten, not I.  I want to give you…advice.  My Earth does not need this stuff and so my advice to you is that you move on and pursue…other markets.  You are a well travelled gentleman, you must know of other places?”

His words had the desired effect and Caw Eh Carve seemed to deflate a little where he sat.  Now it was his turn to be conciliatory.

“Be reasonable.  Surely we can come to some arrangement.  I have a person I need to keep happy.”

Rain zeroed in on this.  Another person, someone bad enough to scare Eh Carve?

“What if that person wasn’t a problem.  We are also pursuing a murderer. Now I believe, Mr Eh Carve, that is not you.”

Caw licked his lips nervously as he weighed up what he had been told in the last few minutes. 

“I don’t think you realise what you’re getting yourself into.”

“Maybe, but surely that is up to myself and my associates to decide?”  Rain leaned back, he had his fish was just reeling him in. “Rest assured, Mr Eh Carve, we control the globe and the skull, you will no longer be doing business in my Earth.”

The silence between the two of them was physical.  Rain held the other man’s gaze with the full confidence of someone who had no idea of the consequences.  Eventually, Caw Eh Carve relented, taking off his pince nez to clean them on his sleeve.

“Don Whitecliff at Crows Hollow.  But I didn’t tell you.” He finally whispered low and painfully, like pulling a thorn from a deep wound.

“And Crows Hollow, where is it?  Here or…” he left it hanging unsure what talk of different worlds would mean to the crew.  Caw Eh Carve said nothing, but gave a withering expression to show that whatever Railsea was, it was not where people that frighten Caw Eh Carve lived.

“No, not here. Very well Mr Eh Carve.  I knew you could be a reasonable man.” Rain got up to leave Eh Carve when a cry echoed across the train.

“MOLE BREECH!” The cry filled the whole train and was repeated from mouth to mouth along its length.  The mole had been spotted! It’s breached! All hands on deck!”

Taki jumped up from her resting place leaning against the ballista and searched the sand either side of the track ahead.  Bruce stood up too in time to see the massive mountain of beast fall from breech to crash into the sand one side of the line, dive under and pop back up the other side.  It was in line with the train now and moving fast. Now that he knew what he was looking for, Bruce could see along the creatures flanks a line of harpoons broken, spears and trailing rope from previous altercations.

“How often have you shot this thing?”  Bruce asked trying to determine the best spot to hit the beast to have the most effect.  

“A few.  One time he pulled a ballista clear off the train.”  Taki tapped the bolts and metal plate holding the ballista in place. “But the Captain, must have his philosophy.”


“I took you for a seasoned hand.  First time on the rails? Sheltered life?  The beast that gives the Captain’s life purpose.”

“Star’b!” A call from the Captain rang out over the ship and the train clattered across the switched in pursuit of the Dreaming Sable.

“Maybe we should aim for a soft target, like the face or maybe an eye.” Bruce mused as the creature leaped once more out of the sand 100 yards off beside the train.  It was heading straight for the last carriage. From his view on the third, Bruce couldn’t see the face, but another soft target was presenting itself.

Between the two of them, Bruce and Taki moved the ballista around until it lined up with the creatures behind.

“Come on you bastard, I want to take your temperature!”  Bruce roared as the ratchet was released and the limbs threw the harpoon straight and true.

“Bullseye!”  Burce cheered followed similar cries all over the train.  The beast was harpooned!

In response, the mole arched skywards.  As it fell it brought its entire weight down on the last carriage.  The train shuddered and rolled and the squeal of tearing metal could be heard.  Tossed sideways, Bruce lost footing on the carriage roof and was saved from being thrown off completely by grabbing the piss-poll.  Tika stumbled but also righted herself as she looked back to Bruce.

“Yeeha!”  Bruce cried again, swinging back on the carriage as the train tacked again.

“Port!  Port!” Came the cries over the train, once more the clatter of switches and the harpoons were back in range again.  None too soon as the ballista assembly groaned and yawed sideways under the strain of the beast and finally…

SNAP!  Like a gunshot the metal gave way and the harpoon and its ballista sailed through the air towards the monster.

Like a flash Bruce ran back up the train to the next ballista.  Its crew had difficulties in bringing the ballista to bear the first time the beast was in range.  Now, with four of them, they pulled it into place . The sable now free of the line rummaged in the fourth carriage for the luggage as Bruce released the ratchet.  The aim this time was a little off. The harpoon penetrated the skin on the flank but couldn’t burrow deep into flesh to hold and was quickly broken off. The line dropped and the talpa, its prize of crates in its mouth, flipped and dove directly down, back into the depth.

Inside the train, the few crew and the train’s passengers picked themselves up and assessed their bruises.  No one was badly injured, though from the look on Caw Eh Carve face, he had taken a fatal blow. He looked out blankly at what was left of the last carriage as the train pulled up alongside.  

“I guess that’s where your stock was kept, Mr Eh Carve.”  Rain commented making the connections.

“What makes you say that?”  Eh Carve vainly tried to bluff again the con man, more out of habit.

“Something the crew said.  The mole has a taste for your wares, this venture was not going to last long with those sort of loses.  You need us to deal with… your employer, if only to give you a chance to find another business.”

Caw Eh Carve said nothing but stare at the passive faced little man and then back at the ruin of this spiral dust empire.  

While the last carriage was assessed and hauled back onto the rail, news of Peggy working on the now silent engines had started spreading through the crew.  Opinions were mixed, but it was said the bullied engineer was abusing her name and praising her knowledge in a single breath which impressed many that heard him.

“Should we let Doc Peggy work on the engine?”  Algernon pulled Rain aside as the crew made themselves busy getting the Limness train-shape for travel.

“I don’t know anything about engines, better her…” Rain shrugged, just glad to have a moment to talk to his young associate.

“But we’ll end up going through a portal!” 

“I don’t think that’s likely here,“ he smiled relieved that Algernon’s fears were all the old reliable ones.  He changed the subject, “While I have your attention, when were you going to tell your bro’ about all these powers?”

Rain may have dropped the subject for the sake of survival, but he’d not forgotten that everyone in the party, to the exclusion of himself, had only the day before manifested superhuman powers.  It particularly galled him that Algernon, what he considered his partner against bureaucracy and mediocrity, had not once mentioned his theories.

“I…I’m sorry…”

“Like I know the word brother couldn’t possibly mean the same to you as it does to…”

“I wanted to…”

“And you talk to Peggy first?  You? I should at least be happy it wasn’t Bruce!”

“I was hoping she could help me work it out my theory.”

“Well, when we get back, we’re going to work it out.” Rain looked pointedly at Algernon who nodded wholeheartedly.

“It’s part of what we all do, even you.”  Algernon insisted, but was only acknowledged by the slow sad shake of Rain’s head.

“No, no Algernon.”  he held up his slender clever hands as if to demonstrate, “Nothing, nada.  It’s very nice of you to say, but don’t think I haven’t tried?”

The exploits of the new ballista crew member swept through the train as was the fact that the Captain himself was very pleased with the skill and commitment the recently trainwrecked, Bruce had shown in the hunt.  While the train lay idle on the tracks as part of Peggy’s stellar repairs, the Captain welcomed Bruce and Peggy, as well as their other associated to his dinner table that night. It was a small affair, the Captain, the four companions and Caw Eh Carve, quiet and withdrawn over his meal.

“With all your good work on the engine we’ll be ready to limp back to Bollons by the morning, eh Engineer Peggy?”  Captain Alavanti tried drawing the preoccupied scientist into conversation.

“Hmmm, yes.  I was wondering if you wouldn’t be interested in a duel engine system for future travel.  Crew could do repairs as required while still maintaining at least half power.” Peggy had been putting her sizable brains to the problem of keeping a training moving while also keeping up her heavy maintenance schedule.

“Duel engines!  Why I never…” the Captain replied flabbergasted.  And that was the problem, there were very few people in this world that ever thought outside of their preprogrammed existence.  It made Rain think of the difference between those with the spark who could travel The Strange, and those without. He turned to speak quietly to Eh Carve.

“You are well travelled man, I wonder what do you know about the awakened?” 

“Not much.  The awakened are more myth than fact.”

“So you’d have no information on spiral dust and its effects on the awakened?”

Caw Eh Carve looked up at Rain silently reassessing the little man.

“Toast.  To a brilliant shot and may there be many more until that black rogue is finally caught!” the Captain stood and raised his glass of rum.  The rest of the party did likewise. 

“I bet he’ll feel that one in the morning.”  Bruce added enjoying his new found celebrity.

“What we need sir is a stronger cable, maybe chain?” the Captain mused as they sat back down, now talking about his favourite subject.

“With all due respect sir, it wasn’t the line that gave way, but the wielding holding the ballista to the carriage.  What we need is to figure out some way of hurting it.”

Rain handed Bruce the Spying grenade, 

“That has an explosive. Not much, but get it in the right place…”

“What about that other cipher, the freezing one.” Bruce looked to Algernon who pulled out a small cipher that when connected to ammunition caused a cold effect.

“We could freeze it’s nuts off with that.” Bruce proclaimed making the Captain laugh.

“When the beast comes at us head on, you won’t know what to shoot, sir.”  Which made the table laugh, except for Eh Carve who silently drank his rum.

“Excuse me Captain,” Algernon interrupted, “the crew mentioned this was not the first time the Dreaming Sable had gone for the cargo.”

The Captain lost his jolly glow and glanced at Caw Eh Carve  nervously.

“Ah, that is correct.  We needed to move the goods to protect the train.”

“Does the creature hang around the source?”  

Now the Captain looked perplexed, 

“The source…?”

Rain made an intuitive leap, 

“Another recursion?” he suggested to Caw Eh Carve who replied with two words.
“Crows Hollow.”

“You speak plainly enough, but I can not make sense of your meaning.”  the Captain said and Rain turned back to the Captain, topping up both Eh Carve’s and the Captains rum.

“As I said when we first met Captain, fortune was indeed smiling on both me and Mr Eh Carve when you stopped to pick us up, we have much in common.”

Eh Carve scoffed and drained his glass.

Algernon also swigging down the rum was almost bursting with an idea and once again engaged with the Captain.

“Sir, on the …island I come from we attach large hooks to chains, baited with meat.  These we throw out into the sands and draw back, in the hopes of attracting a mole to our line.  This we also call moling. If we were to scale up the process, possibly use some of Mr Eh Carve product as bait…?”

“What and interesting thought!  What do you say Caw, how much would it cost to get some of your stock?” 

“Cost is not the issue sir, it is getting new supplies.” Eh Carve replied now more than a little drunk.

“Eh-Carve, are you really going back to Crows Hollow?” Rain asked again quietly once the talk moved back to the mechanics of fishing for the Dreaming Sable.  

“I’m thinking of looking for another place.”
“Probably wise.  Your key, could I take it off your hands?”

Caw Eh Carve shook his head in disbelief and laughed,

“I don’t think you know what you’re getting into but, sure you can have the key.”

The limping trip to Bollons took less than a week in which the companions entrench themselves into life on the Limness.  Peggy spent her time on the engine for which she was showing her usual focus and ingenuity. Algernon spent time on the top deck of the carriages in crossbow practice,  shooting and whatever he could spot. Sometimes Rain would hang out here and at those time Algernon noted that the conman did not show any of his nervousness around the crossbow as he did with the gun.  As for Rain, he spent a lot of time with the crew learning and teaching railshanties. His Beeching ditty had taken on a notoriety among the crew who were not as strictly religious and they were keen to learn more.

Railsea Shanty

(Bound for Botany Bay)

Alavanti, is our gracious Captain, 

There’s the first mate and all the train’s crew

There’s Eh Carve and any train passengers

What will us poor trainwrecks go through.


Sh-rash-shaa, Sh-rash-shaa Ras-kaba-tak

Sh-rash-shaa, Sh-rash-shaa Shrae

Sh-rash-shaa, Sh-rash-shaa Ras-kaba-tak

We follow the molin’ rail.

Dreamin’ Sable, the Captain’s philosophy, 

Will make all the Limness Crew proud.

When they catch it and take it back westward,

To ac-o-lades and great renown.


Miss Peggy she works on the engine,

Making it work smooth and slick.

She won’t care a toss for your favours, 

And she knows how to land a good kick.


Algie’s a crack shot on crossbow,

And Bruce smashes giant rats blind.

Havel can chat up wholesalers, 

Gaining best deals for mole meat you’ll find.

Bruce alone seemed the only one not content with life on the rails.  There were constant discussions of translating back to The Estate, which all lead to the inevitable problem of the globe being many miles behind them.  After days of being the “…train wreck survivor that hit the Dreaming Sable…”, Bruce was growing tired of telling the tale. He found satisfaction in helping Peggy in engineering, though mostly it just felt hot and crowded. When Algernon and Rain were on the top deck he sought them out trying to build a rapport. The rest of his time was spent on top of third carriage with Taki in companionable silence. Here he could exercise himself to exhaustion, practice with his crowbar and keep his deeper thoughts at bay.

On the sixth day after rescue, his keen eyes first glance land ahead even before the lookout at the bow of the train.  A long stretch of plateau covered in tiny buildings rising from docks down at the sandfront up to larger stone fronted buildings on the higher ground.  Bollon’s was a city of 50,000 souls and was the home of the Limness and much of its crew.

“Land ho!

The group, first off the train, followed Caw Eh Carve through the crowd of dock workers and family waiting  for the Limness. He lead them confidently through the main streets and thoroughfares as they made their way to his home in Bollons, a dingy one room apartment only just off the docks. It consisted of a bed and a small kitchen and a window opposite the only door.  As the group waited, Eh Carve pulled items out of his kitchen cupboard to reveal a false back. The back was removed to reveal…nothing, the space was empty.

“Ur…who has access to this place?”  Rain asked as someone knocked on the door.

Algernon’s crossbow came up and ready.  Bruce’s crowbar the same. Rain got the door.

“Yes…?” Rain stopped as present and past crashed together on the other side of the door.  Two men one tall and thin the other stocky, both in bowler hats. Rain’s eyes were only for the thin man with the cold stare. He clearly remembered numerous occasions when the gentleman before him was respectfully, almost reverently welcomed by Rain’s boss at the time, a gangster by the name of Louis Astra.

“Ah…Mr Lightfeather, what a surprise.” Rain said very politely almost bowing.  The thin man started at being recognised.

“It’s nice when my reputation precedes me,”  Mr LIghtfeather now focused on Rain who clutched at door for support. “How do you know me?”

“I worked for Mr Astra at The Last Shot, sir.  We were very impressed with your work.”

As Rain stumbled over his own racing thoughts, Algernon turned to Caw El Carve who looked desperate to find a way out.

“If you were to run, what would your key look like?”

“What?  Er…it’s a coin, with a crow.”

“Do you need to run?”

“That sounds like a good idea, yes.” Eh Carve agreed as Algernon put down his crossbow and opened the window.

“We’re here for Caw Eh Carve, give him to us and we won’t say any more.” Mr Lightfeather said from the doorway as Rain recognise the telltale bulges of hidden knives in his sleeves.  He turned to look at Algernon as the window opened and a silent decision was made. Rain slammed the door shut in Lightfeather’s face and locked it.

“I shut the door on Lightfeather!  Ohshitohshitohshitohshit.” 

Caw Eh Carve dove through the window followed by Algernon as Rain bounded across the room. Bruce and Peggy looking dumbfounded between them.

“What’s going on, why aren’t we fighting them?  Why were you all weird and polite all of a sudden?” Demanded Bruce, as Rain climbs out the window.

“Later speak, now run!” was the only reply as Rain dropped out of sight outside.

The party all follow Eh Carve out the window and down the alley between two buildings towards the busier main road ahead.  Behind, Lightfeather and his brawy companion, gave chase. Bruce and Rain were only just behind Eh Carve, Rain clumsily keeping up as he lept over mounds of waste and crates.

“Use to be good at this, I’ve got rusty at running away.” Rain thought,  “Damn, Bruce was right, I need more practice!” Two cries from behind made him and Bruce stop in their tracks.

Both Peggy and Algernon were caught each by their arm by the thick set man who was whipping them around to face his boss.  Peggy gave one of her piercing screams that rocked the thug on his heels, leaving him stunned. She then kicked him expertly between the legs before both she and Algernon continued to run down the alley.  

Faster than most could see, Lightfeather threw two daggers one towards Algernon and the other at Peggy.  Horrified, Rain and Bruce could only looked on as Algernon dodge his, Peggy screamed in pain and stumbled.  Again Lightfeather threw two daggers. This time Rain tried to deflect Peggy’s with his own, but Lightfeather’s daggers were too fast and both found their marks.  Peggy stumbles again, only just keeping on her feet. Algernon puts his hands up in surrender.

Desperate and searching around, Rain was surprised when Caw Eh Carve came to the rescue.  Pulling a device from his jacket Eh Carve threw it and a thick cloud of smoke settled on the area.  Beside Rain, Bruce looks down at him and smiled grimly before hefting his crowbar and running into the battle.  Lightfeather had by this time caught up with Peggy as Bruce rushed in, bringing down the crowbar in what would normally be a devastating blow.  Lightfeather brushed the attack aside, but it was enough time for Peggy to get away and around the corner out of sight of Lightfeather and his daggers.

The Bruiser dragged himself off the ground and squared up to Bruce  swinging with a haymaker that would have taken Bruce’s head off his he hadn’t dodged it in time.  As it is, a fist the size of Rain’s head whistles past Bruce’s own making it very clear how uneven the match was.

Lightfeather’s daggers flew once more.  Algernon and Rain dodged and together they ran up the alley to Peggy.

“Love your work Bruce, but the better part of valour and all that!” Rain calls to Bruce.  Peggy screams once more focusing her thoughts on the man who caused her so much pain. Lightfeather’s hands went numb and the dagger he had poised to throw fell to the ground as he was physically rocked by her attack.  While Lightfeather was distracted, Bruce made his escape and the party, now sans Eh Carve, ran out into the busy streets of Bollons.

“I think we’ve provided sufficient cover for Eh-Carve to get away.” Algernon said moments later as the group slowed and collected, trying their best to patch wounds on the move.

“Who the hell was that!” Bruce demanded again of Rain.  This time the smaller man obliged.

“His name is Elvin Lightfeather.  When I worked in a nightclub owned by a man named Louis Astra, Mr Lightfeather would occasionally come by and see him.”

“And…what was all that ‘love your work, sir’ stuff?”

“Look he scared my boss and Louis Astra didn’t take shit from anyone!”  Rain exclaimed, hoping to end the conversation. Bruce stared at him silently, the steely gaze more gripping than any bowler hatted thug’s.

“Alright.  Louis Astra, he liked to call himself King of the Stars…” when there was no obvious response from that revelation he took a deep breath, “…he was a mob boss. He had a lot of scary people who worked for him but everyone was polite to Elvin Lightfeather, even Louis Astra.”

“So, why didn’t we kill him?”  Peggy complained holding her wounded side.  Blood seeped slowly through her fingers and her face was deathly pale.

“We just tried to do that, “ Algernon retorted just as testily, “I don’t think we have a chance.”

“I can’t even comprehend the thought of fighting Elvin Lightfeather.” Rain said his face as pale as Peggy’s though he was uninjured, “These are people you run away from, not face off against in dark alleys.”

“But why did he attack.” Bruce wanted to know and Rain could only shrug.
“We got between them and Eh Carve.” Algernon supplied.

“No we weren’t, the door was open.” Peggy retorted as Rain moaned in horrible realisation.

“And I shut it in his face!” If it was at all possible, Rain went even whiter, “What did I do?”

“I don’t know why you didn’t go on one of your stabby-stabby attacks.” she rounded on Algernon ignoring the cowering Rain.

“I don’t know what you mean?” Algernon replied wanting the discussion to end. Rain looked from Algernon to Peggy now aware of his companions fighting.

“You know, the way you did with that mannequin in the wasteland.”

“I didn’t!” Algernon exclaimed harassed and…was that a little guilty?  Rain decided to step in.

“Now Peggy, you only say such things when you’re poorly.  Let’s get you somewhere quiet to rest.”

“No I don’t.  I always speak my mind.” she barked back noticeably swaying on her feet.

“Exactly.”  He replied as he looked around for a place for the group to hide, heal and rebuild.

To be continued….

6. Life on the Rails

The group made a thin rope line over the ties as they marched the empty desert traced with the railway lines.  Bruce in the lead kept his sharp eyes on the smoke on the horizon. Rain skipped and hopping along side, using his recently ancient golf club as a walking stick, trying to draw the bigger man into conversation.  Bruce’s attention was dominated by the shifting sand around the tracks, the smoke on the horizon and the indeterminate miles of track in between. Peggy was walking behind the first two going through her pack with a disappointed expression.  Many of her chemical testing kits seemed not to exist in this place. The engineering tools, a smattering of lab favourites and the never-ending rail, gave her the impression that she should start revising what she knew of engineering and locomotion.  Algernon grudgingly made up the rear of the convoy, his newly acquired crossbow almost as long as he was tall, locked and primed for action.

“You know, you look pretty comfortable out here, “ Rain, talking to Bruce, looked out of the empty expanse of dustbowl desert and rock. “You look like you belong.”

“Well, I’ve been working on the railroad…” a rich baritone reverberated from Bruce’s frame.

“That’s what I don’t get…” Rain’s thought process faltered as the rail started singing to vibration of the ground.  Slowly, an island grew out of the sand some distance ahead, dust raining down like sheets of water as a dark mound of fur and teeth and claws breeched the sand.  It’s black fur shone indigo in the hazy sunlight, silhouetted against the churning clouds above until it seemed it would touch them. Finally, when its bulk seemed like it would engulf the world, it stopped and collapsed back into the sand crashing, sending further ripples through the desert.  When the shaking ceased, the rails stopped their singing and the dust cloud diffused enough to see, the desert was as empty as it had been before the mountain of flesh had appeared.  

“What…?”  Rain asked as Bruce realised the party had stopped in their tracks at the sight of the massive rodent. He ushered the group forward again, but no one gave a voice to an opinion.

 Eventually, with the earworm previously placed, and because the rhythm matched their steady march, Rain started singing in a clear tenor, 

“I’ve been working on the railroad, All the live long day.”

Bruce picked up again, adding a base harmony.

“I’ve been working on the railroad, just to pass the time away.”

Algernon tried to follow on, but his adolescent voice cracked and skipped out of tune.

“Can’t you hear the whistle blowing rise up so early in the morn.”

“Algernon, you sound like my uncle.”  Bruce finally said as he took a step onto a rotted tie.  Before anyone could respond, he leg went through and the ground around the tie collapsed into darkness. With crowbar in hand, Bruce reached out and hooked the silvery lifeline of track now stretched unsupported above the hole he was falling into. He swung, metres above a sloping tiled floor, his head only just visible to those still on the surface.

Rain quickly locked down the rope between his putter and the rail, as Algernon and Peggy carefully move to the hole and looked down.  

“Quick, do to him what you did to me in the lab.” urged Peggy of Algernon as the later trained his crossbow on unseen monsters below Bruce’s dangling feet.

“Why, he’s holding on.”  

Bruce looked around at the room that he’d broken through.  The tiled floor was relatively clear of sand and rubble beside what had fallen in with him.  At one side of the room four doors that lead to tiny cubicles stood at varying degrees of openness.  The other end of the room porcelain sinks and chrome tap fixtures glinted in the weak light from outside.  On the side with the row of sinks was a closed door Bruce couldn’t see beyond. With one hand on the crowbar he untied himself from the rope line linking him to the surface and dropped down the couple of metres to the tiles.  The floor took his weight with a solid thump as he steady himself on the uneven surface. 

Now at floor level the scene around him came into confusing clarity.  He was in nicely appointed men’s toilet. As he walked around he tried the taps, cisterns and hand dryer surprised to find them still working, albeit just.  Turning on the taps set up a groaning followed by a loud hammering in the walls before thick black water dribbled into the dusty bowl. Even the hand dryer, a tube connected to some central air supply pumped out a gust of dusty air into his face before he closed the valve with a choking splutter.

As Bruce explored his subterranean discovery, a loud screech echoed off the empty plain.  Peggy looked up and saw a bird circling high above, but seemingly very close too. With closer attention she identified that the bird was an owl and was not very close, just of a colossal size.  Now scrambling as carefully as possible. Peggy, Algernon and Rain made their ginger way down the rope to join Bruce.

“Well I’ve been in some shitholes but this seem to be stretching the metaphor.”  Rain quipped.

  Now with the party assembled, Bruce opened the door onto a dimly lit corridor.  The door displayed a male symbol on a small brass plaque that glowed warmly in the darkness.  Another plaque, further along the passage, buried in rubble showed its female counterpart. The only light came from their open door and feint blue strips running along the corridor beside wall to wall red carpet. 

Ruined by time, dust and the smaller vermin, the red carpet ran discreetly up to each of four openings. The first was another corridor that disappeared around a corner to a t-intersection. 

The second opened out onto a balcony, once furnished with plush seats and rich wood polished furniture. From this vantage point the whole space was laid bear. The other openings lead to their own private boxes. Across a large empty space two boxes remained intact while a third had broken away from the wall and crashed into seating below.  In front of lower floor seating, was a large wooden stage filled with light from a hole in the roof above it. Partially filling the hole with boiler, ram rod and wheels was a steam engine.

“What a wonderful specimen, I must have a look at it.”  Peggy gaped at the engine seemingly missing the lost grandeur of the theatre all around her.  As if in response, Algernon unties himself from the diminished rope chain and jumps off the balcony into thin air. Both Bruce and Rain leap to catch, but Algernon did not fall, instead hovered out over the stalls.

“Oh, me!  Do me now!”  Peggy held her hands up as if to be picked up as the other two men gawped, stunned at the power on display.

“Hey, nice trick kid.”  Bruce eventually said as Peggy now lept up and was caught midair by an invisible force.  Rain had to move quick to untie himself from the floating Peggy before he too was dragged into the air.

“That’s no trick.”  Rain replied clawing at the leather covered bannister of the private box, “I know tricks, I know levitation.  That was not a trick.”

“I meant in the colloquial sense.”  Bruce glanced at Rain with concern. The smaller man was in the midst of some internal war. 

Rain turned yelling at Algernon, who was now slowly dropping himself and Peggy down to the stalls of the theatre, 

“What was that, what did you do?!”

“It’s the Strange.  Peggy and I can use it to change the rules, to do things.”  Algernon replied as Peggy started picking her way across to the train, “Like the thonics in that recursion.  How did they fly? Not with wings, but with their connection to the Strange. We all have it, us four. I just don’t know…”  Algernon’s words trailed off as his eye attracted by movement up on the stage. He followed Peggy who was even now investigating deep scratches  in the boiler.

“I think the kids going all Obi-Wan on us.” Bruce commented quietly to Rain who was barely paying attention.

“But how?  What is it? And so help you if says Magic…”  Rain was incensed completely self absorbed to notice Algernon swing his crossbow up and shot.  A squeal echoed all over the theatre as something large and hairy leapt up in the air on the stage beside Peggy. Bruce did not hesitate, but started climbing down from the balcony to the stall seating below. Peggy screamed as she saw the two giant rats crawl out from under the prone engine.  Energy vibrated the air, shaking the theatre and sending dust flying, but without focus it did nothing more.

“What did you do, you tricky bastard?!” Roared Rain collecting the rope and running down the hall to where he knew stairs would lead to a foyer. A frisson of energy hit Algernon making him feel just that little bit sharper, that little faster and just a little more daring. 

The rats, one with a bolt sticking out of its shoulder, split up and took an enemy each.  The injured one turned on Algernon the other stalked Peggy. Both found the tasty meat of the invaders.  Bruce slipped in his climb catching his hand on the broken brass decorations of the once luxurious theatre. 

With the fight to the death in front of the stage in progress,  Rain raced down the staircase to the foyer. Using his own momentum he propelled himself down the banister which in usual circumstances would have taken the weight. Buried theatres aren’t maintained as they should and the railing, only held in place by rust and luck, gave way.  Rain tumbled into a mess of limbs and rope as he spotted Peggy swiped defensively at the rat with her equipment bag.

“No!  Bad lab rat!”

“Peggy!  Give it one from me!”  Rain called out, the acoustics of the old theatre carried his words to her and she too felt a frisson of energy.  Bruce was finally in place, the shaft of his sledge hammer slick with blood from his own injury. He looked to Algernon facing his injured beast, and Peggy, the damsel in distress.

“I don’t know who to save.” he said out loud before finally swinging his mallet down to Peggy’s aid. It smashed into the rat’s skull with a shuddering crunch.  The rat had no idea what had hit it, it looked up at him one last time then slumped to the ground dead.

Algernon’s physical attack missed and the rat lunged for him, it’s torturer.  Peggy, free of her rat now turned her attention on the one in front of Algernon. Her mind clear of fear or pain she channelled her new found powers into the beast, screaming  her way into its mind, boiling it in its brain case. The creature shuddered and died. Algernon unaware or uncaring descended on the body with his combat dagger. Gouts of blood sprayed over Algernon.  When Bruce finally pulled him away, Algernon was covered in rivets of red from his face to his feet. 

“What is going on here?” Rain bellowed into the theatre, his voice echoing around the perfect acoustics, “What’s with Fly Boy and Mistress Scream!” Rain now stared at Peggy like he’d never seen her before.

“What Fly Boy did there?” Bruce commented swinging his mallet back onto his back, “My ma would’ve said the kid was touched by a miracle of God. But all that we’ve seen? … That just… doesn’t make sense any more. ”
“Its the Strange.  Some of us carry a little bit of it around with us.”  Peggy replied simply going back to look over the perpendicular engine on the stage.

“Ur…oh!”  Bruce exclaimed quietly. It was such an unusual sound from the big man that everyone turned to see what was up. He was looking down at his injured hand as the tissue reattached, healed and eventually disappeared. 
“Woah. Uh, guys? My hand just magically got better.” Bruce slumped into a nearby seat sending up a cloud of dust staring at his now whole hand.

“You too! Its not magic! ”  Rain turned on Bruce and his healed hand, “But what is it? How is it you can all touch the Strange without Spiral Dust or anything?”

“You do it too, when you translated us here.”  Still covered in blood, Algernon spoke up. Rain cringed and turned away at the sight of him.

“Nah nah nah, don’t talk about that Strange nonsense, I don’t do magic, that’s just mental discipline. Discipline!” Bruce stated confidently to room. Rain rolled is eyes.

“Firstly, I can’t look at you Algernon when you’re… like that.  Secondly, we all do that…” And that was the point. Suddenly unthinkable miracles were being performed by Algernon, Peggy and even, inconceivably, Bruce.  Things Rain had spent his whole life making thin illusion of…and none of them were happening to him. He rubbed his face realising he was suddenly exhausted, “I’m tired, I need to think.” Rain dragged himself to a corner of the stage and rested.  

Peggy, fascinated with the engine, was equal parts concern with how it ended up nose first in an underground stage, and excited at the thought of claiming the machine and riding the rails instead of walking them.  The concern was confirmed when she identified the punctures and scratches on the boiler. As astounding as it seemed, it looked like the giant owl they had seen had picked the engine off the track and dumped it here.

“Could we use the power of the engine itself to winch it up to the rails?”  Peggy mused as Algernon tried to dig his bolt out of the body of the dead rat.

“If we can get it running it would have enough of torque.” He yanked at the bolt and a broken haft came free of the body.  He threw it away with disgust.

“Maybe some good strong chain and access…” she looked around the engine, “I wonder if we can get underneath it?“

She started poking around on the stage, looking for hollow pockets where a trap door could be found. Rain dragged himself out of his sulks long enough to give her a hand.

“The controls for the trap doors are in the wings here, “ he got up and pulled one.  It just so happened to connected to the trap door that Peggy was standing on at the time. With a startled yelp she disappeared below stage, Rain chasing after her. The trap door emptied into a fabric lined shoot that sped Peggy down to a room full of costumes.  Everywhere Peggy lay her eyes, huge spider’s webs hung over fixtures, boxes, lockers and clothing racks. Just as she was about to carefully move, Rain crashed into her from behind. They both landed in a heap of rotten cloth, dust and spiderwebs wrapped around each other.

“Well this is awkward.”  Rain smiled, the ghost of his usual mischief.

“Get off me!”  Peggy kicked out as her brother had always taught her and caught Rain in the groin.  He rolled away and she stood up to come face to face with the owner of the massive webs.  It had been hiding in upper corner watching them the whole time. Now eight legs tip-toed its dog-sided body through the webbing and towards her.  

Peggy screamed, this time she knew how to focus the Strange.  It hit the spider who fell from its web. Now on the ground it went for the easiest target, Rain.  Prepared for the attack by Peggy’s scream, Rain battered away the spindly grasping legs with his putter and rolled out of the way.   Once up on his feet, Rain took the opportunity to wrap the spider in its own webbing, using his ancient putter to hook and drape the webs over its carapace and around its legs.  

The spider now confused and restrained, Peggy picked up an old locker door as a club and drove it down into the spider’s head.  There was an audible crunch of carapace and the beast slumped to the floor.  

Though Bruce and Algernon had been making their way to the stage, when the screaming started, Bruce clambered down the trap door on a rope and Algernon waited with his crossbow ready.  Bruce made it to the costume room in time to see Peggy slam the heavy door down on the giant spider’s head.

“Are you okay?” Bruce asked assessing the two of them for injuries.

“Are they dead?  They’re probably dead.”  Algernon called from above.

“She’s fine.”  Rain slowly straightened, still breathing hard from the kick, “She can defend herself.”

“You look injured, do you need first aid?”  Bruce edged towards Rain with his first aid kit ready.

“Ah no, I’m fine.  Just landed badly…from the slide.  It was the slide.”  

The costume store was a treasure trove of old Earth productions, many that could be distinguished through their costumes.  Rain was enchanted when, from out of a locker long forgotten, he pulled out a crumpled, but intact, Phantom of the Opera costume, complete with mask. He rolled the costume into a swag as Bruce also went hunting and came back with two ciphers. One created weapon projectiles (bullets, arrow or bolt) that did ice damage.  It was quickly handed to Algernon as the only one of the group with a projectile weapon. The other was a spy tool that could be detonated by a command. Bruce gave it to Rain who appreciated the spy technology, but didn’t think the explosive was such a great idea.

Peggy, Algernon and Rain spent another hour searching backstage and taking in the old theatre, theorising as to how old it could be. Was it older than the desert or younger?  Did the desert blow in and cover it or was it remains of a once great subterranean civilisation. All the while Bruce grumbled about being on task.

“Aren’t we suppose to be finding drug dealers or something?”  

He did keep himself busy though, attaching a rope to the rail above the stage hole and climbing up to see where it led.  The sky was clear of giant birds and the smudge on the horizon was still there for his keen eyes to see. Apart from that, the desert was an empty and inhospitable place and Bruce eventually climbed back down the rope to rally the group once more.

“There’s some good stuff here, “Rain mused while picking through backdrops and random props, “it would be worthwhile marking this place so we can tell someone in town.  I bet it would be worth something to someone.” So they collected rope, wood and cloth to create a flag to mark the theatre on the surface. Algernon found a red cape and swung it around experimentally a few times until he realised it made him a bigger target.  It was tucked away with the other goodies found.

Inevitably, the party did make it back to the surface and planted their flag.  It was much later in the day and the breeze over the barren landscape had a chill.  With his keen sight, Bruce spotted another island of rock, a plateau above the sea of sand, that looked to be within walking distance of nightfall.  Without food or water the group set out following the track and reached a cave on the island just as nightfall descended.  

Huddled in a cave once more, this time of their own free will, they shared the scraps of snacks the group had to hand and settled into a restless but uninterrupted night’s rest. In the morning though, their lack of supplies bit deep with Algernon and Rain. Barely human in the mornings, they both missed their coffee.  To their rescue, Peggy pulled out a thermos she had been carrying for just this occasion.
“You… have coffee?”  Rain looked up at Peggy like an avatar of salvation.

“Yes.” She replied simply twisting the lid off the thermos, letting the complex bitter smell waft through the cave.

“I love you!” exclaimed Rain, leaping to her side.

“I love you too!” Alergnon called from the mouth of the cave where he was tying a rock to one of their salvaged ropes.  Peggy handed out cups of coffee, notable leaving Rain until last who didn’t seem to mind in the least.

The point of Algernon’s contraption soon became clear as he cleared the lip of the cavern and swung the rock out into the sand.  It splashed into the dust sinking deep before Algernon drew the rock slowly back to the entrance to the cavern. Once back at the mouth of the cave and the short enough to swing, he threw the rope out again and drew it back.  It didn’t take long for something in the sands to take a bite and Algernon was almost pulled off his feet.

“Don’t make me angry.” Algernon growled through gritted teeth as he leaned back.  The something pulled back and Algernon was dragged along the ground. This time both Bruce and Rain grabbed the rope and lent their weight.  Slowly the rope travelled through the sand, until two pronged jaws broke the surface, followed by a square flat head covered in coarse bristles.  

“Let it go!” Bruce cried as a giant antlion, its bloated and bristled body broke the sand.  Algernon just shook his head and continued to pull in the line.

“Don’t you want to eat it?” He asked as he started moving out of the cave to pull his catch up onto a clear piece of rock.

“God no!” Bruce made a disgusted face, but continued to help the other two with the catch.

Having swallowed the rock, the antlion thrashed against the rope leading out of its mouth.  With a thought, Algernon levitated the antlion from the last of the sand and onto the hard packed earth of the island. With a steady aim, honed over hours in the gun range, he calmly put a bolt through the monsters head and the beast lay still.

“I’ve heard it tastes like chicken.”  He cooly turned to Bruce who walk back into the cave in disgust.  Rain follows Algernon up onto the rock averting his gaze at the sight of the dead and bloodied beast.

“Do you even know what chicken tastes like?”

The antlion, with a cooking fire provided by Peggy, was edible and eaten gratefully. Algernon and Rain spent sometime deciding what the creature tasted like, definitely not chicken.  Bruce, scans the horizon for the smudge of smoke that seems to not be where he expected.  He and Peggy spot it at the same time, it had moved further south than last he made a check on its location. 
“It’s got to be a train,”  Peggy suggested, pointing to the black smoke trail in the breeze, “and one that could do with a little T.L.C.”

Now ready for another full day of walking the group set out as before, switching and changing lines to keep with the smoke and not walk on the bare earth.  By early afternoon it was clear it was indeed a train, a large diesel pumping out plumes of black oily smoke. All around the engine and carriages the train was decorated with rope, nets, harpoons, cannons and other smaller mounted guns.  It was a machine of war, but not against other machines but the warm bodies of the desert sands. For all the smoke the train was travelling backwards and forwards along the same stretch of desert at a good clip. It would be impossible to catch the driver’s attention at that distance and even less likely that the group could catch up at those speeds.  

Peggy rummaged in her diminished pack and withdrew several chemicals, a mortal and pestal and a brass tube.  Crushing the chemicals together, she then packed them into the brass tube with a load of wadded fabric from the theatre.  When the train was as its closest she touched a match to a hole in the brass tube and the wadding and a bright light shot up into the grey sky.  It burned bright for a few seconds before falling to earth spent, but it had done the trick, the train was tacking through the switches and heading straight for the party.  Within minutes the giant engine was pulling up with a squeal of brakes and Rain called out.

“Ahoy the train, we’re a group of train-wreck travellers seeking rescue on the rails.”  he said, drawing on a story they’d organised while waiting.

“Ahoy there travellers. Aid to the needy is always provided by us molers out on the rails.” called a voice from on top of the engine itself and a man appeared dressed as a naval officer. “My name is Captain Alavanti and this be the The Limness, the best moler out of Streggeye!”  The captain’s exaltation of his train was followed by a chorus of cheers coming from crew climbing out of carriages and windows to see the new arrivals.

A gangplank was lowered to an adjacent set of rails and the party scampered across and up the plank to board the train.  Rain extended a hand and introduced the party to the Captain. 

“This is Peggy, first class engineer and alchemist, Bruce deck-hand and breaker, Algernon and I are passengers but he’s a crack shot with his crossbow and I well I’m Havel Mordenkainen, simple merchant and dealmaker.  My friends and I are grateful and ready to assist in anyway we can Captain.”

“Yes, I don’t like the look of your smoke Captain, excuse me.”  Peggy pushed past and down into the bowels of the engine followed by a good natured laughter from the crew. 

“So what brings you out here Captain, we’ve seen nothing but your smoke for two days.”

“Ah, glad you asked.  Only the most prized, the most confoundable black-hearted talpa of the lot, the Dreaming Sable.  You wouldn’t have seen it on your travels would you’ve? Coat like velvet midnight?”

Bruce looked confounded and Algernon was silent in thought of what they had seen during the last two days, but Rain made the leap to the mountain of a creature that had breeched their first day out.

“Indeed we have Captain, it’s hide gleamed indigo in the daylight.  I would gladly share that information with you for a little of your own if you have it.  I am looking for a gentleman who goes by the name of Eh Carve, Caw Eh Carve. Would have heard of such a gentleman?”

The Captain looked at Rain darkly at the name and squared up to Rain as if reinstating his authority,

“Yes, I know the man. He is a passenger on board and as such under my protection.”  He said eventually, expected some sort of argument, “As for payment, if your information results in the capture of the beast you and your companion will receive a share as appropriate.”

Rain smiled, “Captain, you have saved me a great deal of worry and grief this day.  This is wonderful news.”

“Alright then, “ the Captain replied satisfied for the moment, “Welcome aboard the The Limness.