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5. Follow the Spiral Dust trail

Rain looked around the group of three searching for the knowing glance, the smirk or conspiratorial movement that would have let him know if they were making fun of him.  Nothing. They meant it, they trusted his judgement. Had anyone had his back like that before? Ever? Without another word he straightened his jacket collar, checked his pockets for his essentials (puzzle box, wallet, phone, deck of cards…) and headed for the door with Bruce close behind.

A smart rap on the door and a plain, greasy individual (matching the description given by Katherine) appeared at the door.

“I’m looking to do a little business…”  Rain let the sentence hang hoping the greasy person would fill in the silence.  They didn’t, just stared blankly back, “…a little business in Blue Rain.” he pulled out his wallet only made fat by the small denominations it held.

“Yes, hold on.” the greasy person went to shut the door.  Rain, ready for this, pulled out a playing card and slotted it between plate of the lock and the latch.  After a few seconds, where Rain held the door closed from the outside, both he and Bruce slipped into the warehouse.

The warehouse was cavernous and empty except for a few shelving racks at the far end and a partially dismantled car on jacks in the centre.  A bright light glowed from a set of stairs heading down into a basement-like room. Silhouetted against the light, the greasy person called down the stairs, 

“Someone hear to buy the blue stuff.”

“There’s not a lot left, check the shelf.”, said another voice, definitely male from the room down stairs.  Rain and Bruce edged closer.  

“So, what do you want to do?  Buy and get out of here or bust these guys here and now?”  Rain asked Bruce, figuring that the big man would want to round up everyone here and take them back to The Estate.

“I’d love to bust some heads, but this is your call.  We can see where it ends.”

“Wow, so buy or bust, we’re going to buy!”

“See where it goes…”

The two of them walked nonchalantly to the basement trying to get a look at the second person. Could it possibly be the cowboy who’d killed to keep his Spiral dust empire secret?  But they didn’t get far when the greasy one (who on further study was a woman) spotted them walking across the open space.

“Hey!”  The greasy woman shouted walking back with a sizable bag of blue dust. “What are you doing in here?”
“You left the door unlatched, I assumed you invited us in.”  Rain gestured to the wide open door.

“No I didn’t.  Get out!”

“Sure no problem if you want to do business out in the open.”  Rain and Bruce shuffled back outside and the woman followed with her bag of drugs. 

“How much do you want to buy?”  she drawled as if these were lines she’d been trained to say not her own words at all.

“Hard to get these days. Nothing on the Black market. I’ll be willing to take what you have.”

She pulled over a small scale and weighed the contents of the bag.

“Two hundred.”

Rain considered haggling, but thought better of it.  She’s probably be trained to take only the going rate so it would be pointless to haggle and would only breed more antagonism.  He handed over the two hundred and silently lamented the loss as the bag of blue dust was handed over.

“A pleasure doing business.”  he waved. She closed the door in their faces.

“We should go back and bust them.”  Bruce said as soon as they were away from the door.

“There’s two of them,you want to go in heavy with two people?”

“We can do it.  You knock on the door,bust through, knock her on the head, rush the other guy. Simple.”

“Do you have to talk about knocking heads?”  Rain winced at the thought, “Look we have a team, I guess we should talk to them about what we’re going to do?”

It didn’t take long to update Algernon and Peggy on what went on inside the warehouse.  Peggy took a sample of the dust for analysis in her lab as they discussed what to do next.

“Well, hand over the dust and I’ll see you get reimbursed.” Bruce held out his hand for the bag of spiral dust only now disappearing into Rain’s coat.

“It’s safe here, “ Rain patted his coat.

“Until you sell it on, “  the big man gave Rain a hard look, but neither was giving an inch.

“I wouldn’t sell it.”

“Well what else are you going to do with it? You can’t use it all.”

“Not all…”

“You were going to use it?”
“Well, I’m not about to snuff it up my sinuses right this moment.  We have to deal with the people in the warehouse.”

“I’ll watch you snuff it up your sinuses if you want.” Algernon offered.

“Well, I was planning to ask if you could actually, “  he acknowledged Algernon’s if a little creepy offer with genuine thanks. 

“You can’t experiment on minors!”  Peggy protested missing the point.

“Peggy, believe me, I would never give anyone drugs, especially not kids.”  Rain replied finding himself in the exact position he was trying to avoid. “I will do this myself, in the great tradition of scientists the world over.”

“Then you will need laboratory conditions and the scientific method, otherwise it is just self abuse.”

“Not if I’m right.”

They bickered round the subject until it was clear that nothing else was going to happen with the warehouse that day.  They all climbed into the car for the drive back through the city.  

The cameras were in place and would gather anything that happened on the outside. As for the inside it was anyone’s guess.  As the two people involved had never been seen outside the warehouse it was assumed they had one of three different ways of coming and going.  Either a tunnels system hooked up to the basement room, a permanent gate or the individuals were translating somehow. Gates were rare things, and most individuals who could translate were meant to be known by The Estate, but somehow the greasy woman and her associate had gone undetected.  So tunnels seemed to be a good place to start.

Peggy stopped the car at the Public Record Request Centre and Rain tried chatting with the bureaucrats inside.  She then tried their hand and searching the Internet and found nothing. Algernon thought he’d found something and then realised that it wasn’t as useful as he thought, 

“S-E-W-E-R-S,” Bruce informed him later, “Not S-U-E-Z.”

“Ah, so this map of North Africa is no good then.”

Bruce on the other hand, with his background in building and construction had far more success and discovered that the stormwater and sewage pipes in the area of the warehouse were too small for people to travel.  It was just as well as Rain came out having fallen short with the procedural brick wall that is City Hall.

“So they’re translating.  Can we translate in as well?”  

“I don’t think it works like that.  You have to know the destination to get there, like McCain did when he brought us back from the Wasteland.”  Peggy replied as they drove back to the campus.

First stop back for Algernon was at Lawrence Keaton’s office brandishing the knife Rain had given him.

“Excuse me sir.  My family was sent to a recursion where they fought thonics.  I assess these creatures at an ATR* of D or E and I had nothing to fight them with but this knife.  Bruce could have been killed and even a pistol would have been more effective.  If I am to continue to go on missions I would like a TAC 50, please.”  

It was the most Keaton had ever heard from the youth and with more passion than anyone had ever seen.  It took him a moment to compose his thoughts before he responded, thankful that the huge combat knife was now away in its sheath.

“You’re working hard on your shooting practice, keep it up.  You are currently approved for pistols. If you go out on another mission you could have one of those.”  Keaton walked back to his desk and sat down, making a note, “When I am informed that your skills warrant it I’ll consider a larger weapon then.”

“Oh and a motorbike, I need a motorbike.” Algernon added almost as a second thought.  Keaton knew he’d been taking lessons, he’s even seen the kid puttering around the Campus.  But, a fifteen year old kid riding the streets of Seattle on a motorbike could raise difficult questions that would only come back to him. 

“How do you get around now?”

“In the car…thing, the Doctor drives.”  the kid brushed off. It was like he was being driven around town by his mother.  Maybe he felt he was, didn’t he say his family?

“I’m sure that there is a seat for you in there.” He dismissed the suggestion of a motorbike, “Anything else?”

“Yes, the Doctor said I needed a booster seat.”

“Really?  Unusual” Keaton looked the kid over.  He was small for an operative.  Keaton was used to working with  adult men and women, many with years of service already under their belts with the police or armed services.  Maybe there was an issue with the kid’s size. He pulled out a requisition form and filled it in.

Algernon took it without complaint and thankfully left without another word.

Rain also went to see Keaton, but later, when Keaton wasn’t in his office.  Rain watched from an unused cubicle until Keaton left his , locking the door behind him.  A difficulty, but not an insurmountable one. Houdini hadn’t been Rain’s idols growing up for nothing.  A handful of bent paper-clips were scavenged from the desk and the door was soon open.

When Keaton returned sometime later, Rain was pouring two tumblers of Scotch from behind Keaton’s desk.  Keaton looked at his door, positive he’d locked it, and then closed it behind him. This was a power-play, Keaton could feel it.  He’d play along, but it wouldn’t pay to have the skinny son-of-a-biscuit think he could get away with it.

“Rain.  What can I do for you?” he sat down in one of two guests seat feeling uncomfortably misplaced and trying not to show it.

“Just a couple of questions,” the conman offered a glass to Keaton and took one himself, rolling it between his hands, “Firstly, you’re my supervisor.  Why do I need you?”

It was an impertinent question, the second that day to give Keaton pause.

“Well for a start, breaking and entering a superior’s office sounds like a good reason for a little supervision.”  His voice rose just a little higher than he would have liked.  

Rain smiled his quiet little smile as he breathed in the fumes from the scotch.  The smile could have meant anything from agreeing with Keaton to questioning his use of the word ‘superior’.  Either way it rankled, but Keaton tried his best to not let it show. 

“If you need training, or equipment.  Maybe the case you’re on could benefit from another division’s help.  I am here to make sure you can do your job.”

“I’m glad you mentioned that,” that infuriating smile again.  That scotch was looking real good about now. “We’ve done a few jobs for The Estate, jumped into a recursion, hunted down drug dealers and I was wondering…when do we get paid?”


“Yes.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed but Algernon is running around in the clothes he was dragged through a portal in, and I’ve spent sizable amounts on Estate business myself.  When do we get paid?”

“You obviously haven’t checked your bank account recently.” Keaton thought he had him there.  He knew that both Rain and Algernon had been put on the payroll, he’d filled out the paperwork himself.  Rain just sat behind Keaton’s own desk, sniffing the Scotch.

“What bank accounts?”  Rain said simply and the bottom feel out of Keaton’s confidence.  Of course, the kid was an alien in all senses of the word and Rain…well, who could say.

“You have an aversion to banks?”  Keaton tried to hold the high moral ground.  It was a waste of time, the guys could not be chastened.

“Lots.  Mostly I hate paper trails.  Well, at least paper trails I don’t make myself.”  A smile, a roll of the tumbler, a luxurious breath in.

“I’ll look into it.”

“Thank you.”  Rain placed his tumber beside the bottle of Scotch on purpose drawing Keaton’s attention to it. In one fluid motion he stood and strolled around the table, leaving the room with nothing to mark  his presence except the two untouched tumblers and the bottle. If the label was to be believed it was good stuff and Keaton could feel the old tingle at the back of his throat. He was about to reach for a glass when Rain was back silently sliding through the door.

“Oh, and we picked this up today, thought you’d want it.”  a sizable bag of what could only be Spiral dust plonked down on the desk making the glasses chink together.

“Thank you, I’ll have it analyzed.”  he ground out through gritted teeth, but the room was already empty.

Rain left Keaton’s with mixed feelings. Playing the bully was not his usual style, but the pen pushing middle man of the bureaucracy he now found himself under brought out the worst in him.  Besides, it never hurt to make an impression. On the other hand, getting rid of the bag in such a spectacular way was a load off his mind. Now if Bruce or anyone were to question where the four ounces of Spiral dust had gone he could say that an ounce went to Peggy’s research and the rest was handed to his…whatever Keaton thought he was. In reality, of course, it had been one ounce of spiral dust in the bag and two ounces of expertly cut laundry detergent and baking powder.  Two ounces was overkill for his needs, but it had been his $200 that bought the stuff, why should he hand it over just because someone said to?

In contrast, Bruce had a perfectly amicable conversation with Katherine, bringing her up to date with the party’s activities (including the purchase of 4 ounces of Spiral Dust) and then spoke to her about training options for Algernon and himself.  Now with a newly ramped schedule of hand to hand training and Weapon classes practically every day, Bruce did as he always did when at a loose end, went to the gym.

Peggy, got straight to work in her lab.  Firstly she set the spiral dust to an array of tests to determine what it was and possible effects on the body.  Secondly she looked at her machine, her baby, her life’s work… and despaired. To think that it might have something to do with the random portal openings!  It was as if her own child had been arrested for some audacious crime. It was a horrible and yet exciting thought that she was determined to get to the bottom of.  

As she contemplated the task, Hertzfeld came in with a new gadget of his own.  When he turned it on, two solid rods passed through each other.

“I was hoping you would work on this with me.” Hertzfeld gestured to the gadget like offering a tasty treat.  

“I’d love too.  But I must insist on shared credit.”

If Hertzfeld felt slighted he didn’t show it. As all research made under the auspices of The Estate stayed in-house he didn’t feel it a problem to agree to her terms.  Once arrangements were made to both their satisfaction Peggy finally got stuck into breaking down her equipment.

Gingerly, pieces by carefully scavenged and reconstructed piece, she laid it out, noting the connections and how they interacted with each other.  Now, with her newly acquired knowledge on the Strange, Peggy started to see that in its current configuration, her equipment was connecting to the Strange in a way considered impossible.  At times it could work as a conducting rod for the energies of the Strange and as a result spontaneously create gates. She wondered if such a transitory and chaotic energy could be harness, even stored.  All thought of Hertzfeld’s matter phasing contraption left her as the possibilities of her discovery became her obsession.

Days went by.  Footage from the cameras down at the docks came in but nothing of any worth was captured.  They thought once or twice that a deal may have been caught, but under scrutiny, it was only deliveries of take away.  Rain despaired at the lack of action and more and more thought on the two and a bit ounces he had stashed in his puzzle box.  

Bruce delved into some basic studies of physiology and spent extra hours in the weapons practise room learning to wield his weapons with more deadly accuracy, or how he liked to put it, 

“I’ve learnt to bash things better.” He was grimly eager to put it into practice in the field.

Peggy’s tests on the spiral dust proved conclusively the dust was not from Earth.  It seemed to react with the Strange somehow. Putting that together with the vivid hallucinations of the users they had interviewed that, at least with their minds, the users were partially translating.  She giggled to herself at the thought that she had actually discovered real Astral Projection. It was then that she called Hertzfeld back to let him know what she had discovered.

Algernon did something radically unusual for him and voluntarily went and visited Peggy in her lab.

“Excuse me, Doctor I like to talk to you about something,” he said in fast clipped, urgent tones.  He then meandered through ideas of life and intellect. Of humans with mental powers like those he’d seen in Akira, of the thonics that had nearly done for Bruce.  

“I worked out how they fly, it’s got nothing to do with their wings. It has to do with the Strange, they link to the Strange and use that energy to do things.   You did it too, “he pointed to Peggy, who was only just keeping up with the boys thoughts, “You did something at the thonic, but it didn’t work, but you did it.”

“What do you mean you have worked out how the thonics fly?” she asked expecting to have to translate another string of twisting logic and was surprised when Algernon just replied, 

“I’ll show you.”  he raised one hand and she could almost feel his gaze focus and lock on her.  Then suddenly her feet left the ground and she was in the air floating untethered above her workstations and equipment.

“But how…” her voice trailed as she slowly rotated in the air, pushed by a draft.

“It’s the Strange, “Algernon grunted with effort, “I don’t know about Rain or Bruce but we can tap in and use the power of the Strange.”  The last sentence, on top whatever effort he was providing, was finally too much and Peggy felt herself slip through the air, crashing to the vinyl flooring. 

 She looked up at the youth speechless and for the first time really noticed him.  He was leaning a little on a workbench breathing hard. Whatever marvel he had just performed was taxing.  Forgetting her own bruises and pains she stood up and guided Algernon to a nearby stool, taking the time to give the boy a perfunctory physical, noting his pale and wax complexion, the unfocused look to his eyes and his heavy breathing.

“Does channelling the power take a physical toll?” she asked almost to herself, “This is fascinating, we must record this, I’ll hook you up to a few machines, run a couple of experiments…”

At the mention of the word experiments, Algernon’s complexion went from pale to grey.  His eyes that had been lidded and dull by exhaustion were now large and staring. With one terrified bound akin to being electrified he leaped off the stool and heading out the door with Peggy calling after him oblivious to what she could have done or said.

Rain also found himself drawn to Peggy’s lab.  Not to share any hard-won discovery, but in desperation, and what felt like, inevitability.  The camera footage was a bust, his readings into the dust were getting nowhere and the only option he had left was to try the drug himself in an attempt to understand.  The ounce left for testing was his last hope at some sort of insight that might push Rain’s own efforts further.

When he arrived at the lab, Hertzfeld was in a lather over something to do with Peggy’s machine.

“And its is NOT my fault!” Peggy exalted giggling maniacally like the mad scientist she claimed not to be, “I was just a little more inspired than I first thought.  I believe with more research we’ll be able to predict when these anomalies will occur, even be able to trigger them ourselves!”

“I can see we may have to clear out space in the… basement…” mused Hertzfeld as his gazed looked into a future where gates could be opened and closed at will, a world that harnesses the power of the Strange itself.

“Exciting time, I see.”  Rain interrupted curious as to all the excitement, though the technobabble that he’d been able to over hear hadn’t made a lot of sense. “I won’t interrupt long, I was just wondering if you’d had any luck with the dust?”

“Oh yes,” Peggy replied coolly, “That was the boring news, Hertzfeld.” and she informed both Rain and Hertzfeld about her discoveries into the Spiral Dust.

“That’s the boring news?” Hertzfeld replied astounded and a little numbed by all the theories and laws shattered in one day, “But this is astounding, no one had considered that the human mind could touch the Strange without dire consequences.”
“I had, “ Rain replied now with a clear purpose, “And I’m going to test it out, right now.”  Out of one of his many secret pockets, the puzzle box appeared. He turned to leave but not before both Peggy and Hetzfeld physically stopped him in his tracks.

“Don’t you want to be monitored?”  Peggy asked

“You’d seriously take  the Spiral Dust to prove a theory?”  Hertzfeld added at the same time.

“Do you know how hard it is to find willing experimental subjects?”  Peggy was now pleading, “It can all be done safely, I can even sedate you…”

“Sedate?  What’s the point of that?  How can I tell anyone what I’m seeing if I’m under?” Rain looked around the stark and clinical setting and shuddered, “besides, this place is not my ideal…it’s not very…I’d rather not be poked and prodded.” He finished lamely flustered and starting to look a little like Algernon had.

“Why?”  Peggy looked around her lab, it was the best space she’d ever worked in, with the exception of the window in the far corner that let the world peek in.  “But under lab conditions we can keep you safe…”

“Couldn’t we go…sit under a tree or something?”  

When the drug was thought to be just an hallucinogen rain had toyed with the idea like one does an old wound, hoping and dreading what it would reveal in equal measure.  Now the dust was now considered a direct link to the Strange itself, justifying his intuitions. But the lab and equipment brought back old memories of other drug trials and his physically shuddered.  Peggy as usual, was blind to Rain discomfort. 

“I….think, “Hetzfeld suggested, “…that we shouldn’t rush into this.  We need to set up the experiments and required equipment. Peggy, you need to move your lab into a larger space and …well all of that is going to take a little time.”
“Yes, Peggy considered turning to all her tools,” you’re right we can’t rush into these things.”

“Good.” Rain clapped his now empty hands together, “Well then, I guess that leaves busting a few heads with Brucie.  He will be pleased.”

Collecting the group as usual was not a simple task.  Algernon made one last trip to Keaton’s office where the clinking glass and the sudden shuffling of draws greeted his knock.

“Mr Keaton, I need a pistol.” Algernon stated in his clipped and precise manner to his supervisors eventual summons, “I’m going to bust some caps in someone’s arse.”

“Whose precisely?” Keaton asked rubbing distractedly across his forehead and eyes.  Algernon picked up the discrepancy between Keaton’s response and what he considered his appropriate statement.

“Did I use the wrong term?”
“It’s not the usual, no.”

“We’re going to confront some drug dealers down at the docks and I need a pistol.”

Keaton gave him, the promised pistol.

When he met with the others, Rain and Bruce were as usual bickering. Also as usual it was over Rain’s lack of moral judgement.

“So you broke into your supervisor’s office, just to have a chat?” Bruce stated flatly shaking his head in incomprehension.
“I was waiting for him, why not wait inside.”

“You’re the only person I know that takes the easy path to make things difficult.”
“There’s just paths Brucie.  Some are more interesting than others, that’s all.  You know, flowers and scenery.” Rain philosophised, warming to the subject.

“So you believe in ‘stop and steal the flowers’.” Quipped back Bruce who now noticed Algernon.

“Yes, they smell better.”  

Bruce had spotted the now equipped 9mm Glock clipped to Algernon’s trouser band and internally sighed.

“Ready to go?” he asked and both Algernon and Rain replied, one by drawing and cocking the pistol the other by raising his misappropriated putter.


The warehouse hadn’t changed over the intervening days.  Autumn clouds made the water dull and grey but otherwise the warehouse door and environs looked exactly the same as it had.   It was clear from the start that this was a Bruce’s operation. Get them to open the door and get in, neutralised the woman and then swarm down stairs and takeout the man before they had a chance to strike back.  There were phrases like ‘bash their heads’ and ‘cap their arses’ bandied around which Rain found disconcerting and Peggy thought unnecessary. But, in the end it all began with Rain knocking on the door.

“We’re out of stock.” the greasy woman said when she recognised Rain.

“I’m afraid that just won’t do today.”  he replied as he and Bruce pushed against the door, knocking her out of the way.  In an instant Bruce and Algernon were upon her, weapons drawn and ready to strike, the sharp end of Bruce’s crow bar hovering at her throat and pinning her in place.

“Keep your f^#%ing hands where I can see them, toe-rag!!” Algernon yelled pointing the working end of the pistol expertly at the woman’s face.  Rain, who was kneeling down to speak to the woman, blanched as the deadly muzzle of the gun entered his vision and he stumbled over what he had intended to be soothing words.
“Woah…ah, as you can see my friends… here…e more than willing to commit acts of violence today.”  he swallowed and continued, pointed not looking at Algernon’s pistol,he swallowed and continued, “Please, help me, help you. Where is your gentleman friend from the other day?  The one downstairs?”

“Gone.” she replied totally cowered.

“How long will he be gone?”
“Three or four days.”

“What’s his name?”

“Caw Eh Carve

Rain pulled out his phone and showed her the image of the Cowboy they’d pulled off the Seven-11 CCTV footage.

“Is this Caw?”

“No…” she looked confused.

“Seen him before?”


“Okay.  So where does Caw get the Spiral Dust?”

“He doesn’t, he gets rocks.  He gets them from Bollons Island.”

“Bollons?” It didn’t sound familiar and Rain led with a hunch.

“You’re not from here are you?”

The woman shook her head,

“He brought me here to look after business and I get to …” she gestured with her head at the disassembled car.

“You like cars?”  He asked now realising she was just a stooge dragged into this business Caw Eh Carve.

She nodded, “They’re still shiny here.” 

“What is your name?” He said more gently now helping her to her feet.

“Kamn Sharn.”

“Where do you come from, Kamn?”


“We call this place Earth, what is yours called?”

“Huh?  Earth.”
“Earth?  What is it like?”
“Dry and dusty”

“Oh no,”  Visions of the wastelands appeared in Rain’s memory,  “are there crazy women who want to eat you there?”  

“No.” she again looked confused, an expression that seemed natural for her.  Rain breathed a sigh of relief.

While Rain spoke with the Kamn, Algernon realised he wasn’t required and left the group to check out the basement.

“Hey Doc, can you head inside with the kid and look around?” Bruce suggested nodding his head in Algernon’s direction.

“Me?  Why have I got babysitting duty?” Peggy complained, “He’s competent.”

“Yeah, that’s my worry.”

She sighed,’”Okay.” and followed Algernon to investigate the basement.

Carefully they made their way, Algernon in the lead with his gun ready, Peggy behind. The well lit basement held a workspace with a larger mortar and pestle with the remains of blue powder in its base.  Behind this, empty wooden crates lay scattered, all with chips and pebbles of a blue mineral, remains of the last shipment. The only other thing in the basement of any value was a skull. Larger than a human’s, the skull held two massive pairs of incisors like those of a giant rodent.

“Well that’s not a regular human skull.” Peggy stepped in to take a closer look.  She noted that unlike a rodent skull from Earth, this skull was attached to a large jaw bristling with impressive canines teeth as long as her fingers.

“It’s not a carrot either.”  Algernon replied sarcastically at the monstrous thing, “with muscle attachment points that could probably bite through a human leg. “

Not long after, Bruce, Rain and Kamn also joined them in the basement and took in the impressive skull.

“So, how does Caw get to Bollons Island?”

“The thingy,” Kamn pointed at the skulls Peggy and Algernon were investigating, “It’s a key.”

“How does Caw get back if the key is here.”

“There’s a key that side to come back.”

“What sort of skull is it?”  

“Just a mole rat?”

“Are they quite common?”  Bruce asked wondering how anything with that much hardware could be a ‘just’ anything.


“Are they the most vicious thing on your world?”

“Oh no.” she shook her head and for the first time there was a small smile of…pride?…triumph?

Everything was packed into a crate, the skull wrapped separately and stowed.  With nothing left to gain from sticking around, the group left, Kamn in middle of the back seat with Bruce and Rain, Algernon in the passenger and Peggy driving.

“Algernon, “ Rain brooched on the way back, “I love your enthusiasm and everything, but the gun….”

“What about it?”  Algernon replied with his most innocent expression.

“Let’s just say that though you may know how to use a gun you may need to brush up on you proper procedures for engagement.”  Bruce offered. 

“But that’s how they do it on the documentaries,”

“We may need to expand your documentary list to titles other than from the Die Hard franchise.”

When they reached The Estate they left Kamn with security and went straight to Katherine to give a report of what they’d found. Katherine had not heard of a recursion that fit the description of the other Earth.  Dry and dusty terrain that contained a chain of island named Bollans. Bruce checked online maps for an equivalent chain here on this Earth, assuming the recursion was a close copy. Besides a few tiny islands in rivers there didn’t seem to be any places big enough.

“They have mole rats the size of people and with more teeth.”  Rain noted, “That doesn’t ring any bells?”


“I’m going to need a bigger gun.”  Algernon considered glancing at the skull they’d helped retrieve.

“You need to learn to use the one you have without it going to you head.”  Katherine replied after hearing of his histrionics in the warehouse.

“Oh no, I don’t put it to my head.”

With little information to go on, reluctantly it was agreed the next step was to see where the skull went.  This was the direction the Spiral Dust was coming from so naturally where they needed to go. As they left Katherine to prepare for the trip out, Rain pulled her aside, 

“You know Kamn is very interested in cars, she would probably be an asset in the car pool.”

“I think we’ll find something appropriate for her.”  Katherine acknowledged and went back to her notes.

As the other side of the key was her home, some of the party went looking for her.  They hoped to pick her brains on what to expect even just in general terms. As hard as they looked, they could find no one who knew anything about her.  Kamn had already disappeared.

Rain popped past Keaton’s office on the way to Peggy’s lab where the translation was to take place.  Keaton looked up to see Rain leaning on his door frame silently waiting to be acknowledged. Though he hadn’t heard the conman arrive, his appearance was not disturbing or even that surprising.  Rain looked, strained and nervous, seemily on the brink of something and Keaton wondered if it had to do with a set of recently scheduled experiments Hertzfeld had posted.

“Yes, Mr Bigby?” 

“Just checking in,”  Rain fussed with his puzzle box not looking Keaton in the eye, “that’s what you’re supposed to do with a supervisor isn’t it?”

“My other operative usually send an email or phone, but I appreciate the human touch.”

Rain looked up looking Keaton in the eye, assessing his words.

“Good,” he finally said, pushing off the door frame the puzzle box gone, “We’re going to a recursion following Spiral Dust.  I’ve come by to see if there is any Advice? Kind words?”

“Be smart, not smart-assed.”  A whole string of expletive riddled comments sprung to mind, but Keaton thought better of it.  He was sure Rain had heard them all before and he’d only be wasting both their time and energy to repeat them. “Come back.  Is there anything you need?”

The little man thought for a moment, then reached beside the doorway, revealing Keaton’s missing putter.

“No, I have everything I need.” he smiled that knowing contemptuous smile and walked off.

Keaton was half way out of his chair to chase down the sneaky little thief when he thought again.  If that’s what Rain wanted to defend himself in the recursions, fine, he’d just get the Estate to reimburse him a new putter.

In fact,  the thought as he pulled open on a desk drawn and withdrew a recent copy of Golfer’s Digest, why not take the opportunity for something just a little bit nicer.  

Peggy’s lab was empty of equipment now she was in the process of being moved to a bigger more secure space below ground.  The only things left was the calendar still fixed at a month sometime in the past, the poster of The Strange, fixtures like benches and fume hoods and the mole rat skull.  The two pairs of incisor, sharp from grinding against each other during the creature’s life, dominated the head revealing a creature who could have done surgery with its face.  Larger than a flattened human skull, the bone silently spoke of a creature whose life’s obsession was eating and biting. No one could look at it for long and not feel uneasy. Even Bruce tried to cut the tension.

“So I guess we have to do the wussy hand holding thing again, do we?” he sat down on the ground, forming a circle with the others. “Kum-ba-ya….?  Om…?”

It said something to how they were all feeling that no one commented,  just took each others hands, closing the circle.

Peggy lead the translation, focusing on the mole rat skull.  She could see The Strange connected to the skull and to its place of origin.  With a thought she brought the two together in her mind and instantly visualised a thin blue line of energy connected their location to the distant somewhere. As the connection was locked in,  she felt a push and realised that Rain had started his hastening, speeding them through the Strange like a locomotive pushing a train along a track. As the destination approached, she felt another opposing force like the opening of a parachute slowed their velocity while wrapping them with solid protective strength, cushioned their entry into the recursion and she realised that was Bruce.  

With the smell of dust and the whistling of a gale force wind outside they arrived in the other Earth. Opening eyes they saw a crude wooden shack that barely kept the swirling wind outside its walls.  All four sat on the ground, once again all radically altered to fit the recursion they found themselves in. Peggy was in a shirt and breeches with a set of heavy leather goggles on her head. Beside her, her scientific equipment had been turned into a tool bag with a blocky ancient multimetre. Algernon wore similar leather breeches and shirt, but had over the top a jacket all dusty and worn.  At his side a crank-style crossbow and quiver of bolts. It seemed the recursion gave Algernon what the Estate’s senior staff would not, a weapon almost larger than himself. Bruce’s camo armour was gone and he wore heavy overalls and a full leather apron equally as worn-in as the others. Rain was already up admiring his outfit. Similar hard wearing breeches, a jacket also similar to Algernon’s, a ruffled shirt wrapped tight in a worn and frayed black silk vest, a red bandana sticking out the jacket pocket.  From inside the coat he retrieved a set of ancient looking playing cards, the card stock thick, the face cards those of different locomotives. He flipped, cut and shuffled the cards expertly, but with a frowning concentration at the clumsy unfamiliar feel of the cards.

Bruce wasted little time and started searching the shack for the key back home. On a rickety set of shelving, behind empty boxes he found a globe of the Earth.  Meant to sit on a desk, the globe was hardly portable, but Bruce was reluctant to leave it behind. It would be useful to them as they could use it translate back home from any safe spot, at best it stopped Caw Eh Carve from sneaking back behind their back.  Bruce found the globe another hiding spot, protected and safe, out of the easy grasp of Caw.

That done, while the team took stock of themselves, Bruce headed for the door of the shack.

“Shay here while I check if it’s safe outside”, he said flat. Cracking the door open and pausing only briefly to check through the gap he stepped outside, squinting against the bright daylight after the darkened shack. 

The shack was set on a small plateau that rolled gently down to a barren plain of sand and rock.  There was nothing to soften the view, no large bushes or trees, just the occasional crop of scrubby dry grass, rocks and rails.  The rails, supported by wooden sleepers, ran everywhere over the desert landscape, shining brightly under dull low hung skies. They stitched the land together, criss-crossing everywhere in haphazard and seemingly random ways, but always, as far as possible, in straight lines all the way to every horizon.

“What is this Rat-Shit place?”  Bruce murmured to himself before calling to the others, “Come out everyone, the coast is clear.  And yes, it is safe, Algernon.”

The others slowly followed him out of the hut taking in their surroundings.  Algernon wondered a little further away to where the rock and earth of the plateau gave way to sand built up in a drift beside a set of tracks.  The dust was fine, ground and reground by centuries of weathering. Casually he bent down and scooped up the earth in one hand, the fine dust yielding as he sunk up to the wrist like it was water.  With audible snap from below and a gasp of shock and surprise, Algernon hand was clamped and he was tugged off his feet into the dust.  

The party responded instantly, Bruce, ever ready for an attack, slid down the plateau first, crowbar in hand, Rain close behind.  While Bruce readied himself to slam the end of his crowbar into the sand, Rain wrapped his golfclub around Algernon’s chest and pulled backwards.  With the weight of both Algernon and Rain on one end the creature lost it’s purchase on its home sands and was dragged like a fish out of the dust to the waiting crowbar of Bruce.  

Peggy screamed and a wave of force escaped into the air.  Bruce hit again and again on the top of the very much alive skull of a giant naked mole rat.  Algernon cried in pain as the mole rats deadly incisors cut the skin, forced through his flesh with every crowbar blow.   Now the rat was out of the sand it was clearly as big as a large dog and stockier built. It scrambled in the dust, its back feet digging into the sand desperate to return to the earth and safely, but unwilling to let go of it’s meal.  Tiny black eyes rolled in their sockets as Bruce smashed the crowbar down one last time. The skull cracked and the beast’s will died with it, the jaws letting go of Algernon. Rain and Algernon fell into a heap wild-eyed but safe as Bruce dragged the rest of the creature out of its burrow.

“Okay, lesson one; stay off the sand.”  he panted looking over at the injured boy cradling his hand.  Without another word, he pulled out his first aid kit, also translated to fit into this world, and checked the boy’s injuries.  A nasty cut made worse by beating on the creature’s head, bruises and a little strain, nothing permanent and Bruce soon had it patched up with the primitive kit at his disposal.  He turned to his group usually full of ideas and bickering to see only forlorn glances over the barren, uninviting land. All three look lost and unsure of what to do next in this alien setting.  

Bruce squared his shoulders and he too looked out over the vista, but where others saw nothing but sand and rock and unseen underground horrors, he saw a smudge of wood smoke in the far distance with sturdy rails and sleepers leading in that direction.  He tested one with his foot, then dug into his pack and pulled out a rope.

“Tie yourselves together, we’re going to walk the rails.”

Thanks to J.G. for the editing help.

4. The aborted recursion

The deafening roar and the acrid smell of cordite may have sent Rain running for calmer spaces, but the rest of the party completed their allotted shooting training with competent results. Algernon alone though seemed to want more from his weapons training.  

“I’d like a bigger gun.”  He said to the weapon’s training officer after class.

“Do you have a requisition?”

“Oh yes, it’s being processed.”  He lied, trying to put into practice skills he was learning from Rain.  In this, he was initially successful.

“What did you have in mind?” She slurped her forgotten coffee and considered the gun cabinet. What could a young man of Algernon’s experience and strength wield?

“I did some research, “ Algernon pulled out his notebook and flicked to the appropriate page, “I’d like a Barrett M82, please.”

The weapons officer nearly choked on her cold coffee.

“I don’t think so, it’s far too big a weapon, you wouldn’t be able to carry it for one thing.”

“Oh, I know.  That’s why I’d also take a Steyr SSG69. It’s not as big It will only kill a man whereas the Barrett can kill a car, and I think that’s better, don’t you?”

He was sent out to find how his “requisition” was going.

Out on the campus, Peggy was searching for the party. The portal in her lab was found to be stable and connected to a recursion, of sorts. She now had the duty of collecting her wayward group when she came across Algernon worrying over his request dilemma.

“Hello, you there.  You have a name, right?” She called waving Algernon over as if communicating with a different species.

He looked at her suspiciously and walked over.

“Algernon.” he said simple. Since that first day when he was pulled through her portal to Earth, he had put Peggy into the same category as all the people who he’d ever come to distrust.  Scientists.

“And just to be clear,” she continued oblivious, “you are a person.”

“I’m not a dog of any species.” He retorted harkening back to her words only a week ago.

Peggy looked at Algernon confused,

“What? What have canines to do with it?”

Once again, Algernon thumbed through his notebook and found the page, 

“I looked it up, Rottweilers are a breed.” Rounding on her with his evidence.

“Not Rottweiler, rock…never mind.  You are human?”

“Close enough.” He replied enigmatically.  It was obvious to those who spoke to him, that Algernon had a thing about experimentation. It seemed he was fearful of being too interesting to the scientist in case she thought to start experimenting on him.  Peggy was not one of the people that spoke to Algernon usually and had no idea his thoughts.

“Well, head over to my lab.”


“We’re being sent out.”


“Through a swirling hole of death.” she replied matter of factly in a way that was far more scary that even her choice of words would suggest.

“Will it be safe?”

“Readings say we’ll definitely come out the other side, just couldn’t tell you where that is.”  Peggy looked around the campus expecting to find the rest of the party, “Where are the other two?”

“Rain’s in the library.”

“And the tall one?”

“In the gym?”

But Bruce was not to be found in the gym. 

After speaking to his supervisor and going through channels Bruce had acquired for himself a requisition form for body armour. He was patiently waiting in the queue at Stores when Algernon arrived.

“You have a requisition form?”  Algernon spoke, almost in awe when he saw the bigger man, “Can I look at it?”

Bruce obliged, but he didn’t let it leave his hand.  It didn’t matter anyway, under medium body armour Katherine Manners had slashed the rest of the box for ‘required supplies’.  There was no way he could add something else even if Bruce would let him.

“See. If you go through your supervisors, instead of trying to defraud the system like someone we won’t mention, they’ll more as likely give you what you ask.”

Algernon sighed and acknowledge defeat, for now, and made his way across to the office wing and Lawrence Keaton.

Generic and small, the offices of the senior operatives were not made with comfort in mind.  When Algernon knocked at Keaton’s office door, it was to a crashing and cursing unlike the other Estate supervisors Algernon had been exposed to.

“Yes?” Said a distracted voice from behind the door.

“It’s Algernon to see you.”

“Ah…yes.  Come in, come in.”

Algernon opened the door to see Lawrence Keaton straightening a huge bag full of thin wicked sticks with metal or wooden heads perfect for smashing small things.  Once it was upright, Keaton rummaged through the sticks, searching for one in particular.

“I seem to have misplaced a golf club.” Keaton admitted, finally giving up on the bag and lifting it back into the corner of his office.

“Is it for killing golfs?”  asked Algernon in all innocence.

“No golf isn’t a creature,” Keaton looked down at Algernon indulgently, “ it’s a sport. Where you hit a ball around a field to get it into a hole.”

Algernon nodded listening intently to this new information.

“Would it not be easier to pick the ball up and put it in the hole?”

“That would defeat the purpose…never mind, what would you like, Algernon?”

Algernon repeated his firearm request.

“And I want to learn to ride a motorbike.”

“The motorbike request seems a reasonable suggestion, but these guns…  Can I ask where an interest in such powerful rifles has come from?”

Algernon’s note book appeared and he skimmed through its pages until he got to the appropriate one, 

“Yes, I watched a brilliant documentary just recently.  It was called, Akira. Very enlightening. I think I could be like that.”

Algernon left with a note for motorcycle lessons on the campus 125cc scooters, and a note to the gunnery officer for appropriately sized rifles for him to train on.  It wasn’t everything Algernon wanted, but he’d run out of time. With the small victory he had achieved, he ran across campus to Peggy’s lab.

Meanwhile, Peggy had indeed found Rain talking to one of the library staff.  His studies into Spiral Dust had come to a short and very sudden end. It seemed, though the dust was thought to be made from ground down ciphers only found in the recursions, The Estate knew almost nothing about the drug, the consistency of hallucinations or the spiral scarring on the eyes. Any operatives that had come across it, had just simply reported the fact. All leads had gone dark and no testing beyond preliminary had been conducted into the dust. It was a frustrating position for Rain to be in and it was affecting his mood.

“I can’t give you any more details about the stuff, there aren’t any.”  He complained to the increasing belligerent Librarian, “Look, if you just let me into the archives I’ll know what I want when I see it….”

“Storm?  Cloud?” Peggy called, trying in vain to remember this individual’s name.  It made it more difficult when he kept changing it every time he talked to someone new.

“Mr Bigby to you,” he replied in the same tone and accent as Bruce, the big one.  He turned and saw Peggy, his face lighting up, “But you can call me whatever you want, Doc.”  He beamed and she felt nervous. That look usually meant he wanted something, “You can get into the archives can’t you?”

“Of course,”  she replied. As research staff she had full access to all relevant materials kept in archives.

“Excellent!”  Rain grabbed her arm and dragged her in front of the Librarian, “This is Dr Peggy Martin, preeminent among the researchers here, please step aside.  I will of course be escorting her as an assistant….”

“Look we don’t have time for this.” Peggy shook Rain’s grip off which got his attention.

“We have mission.  You are to meet with the other two at my lab in a half an hour.”

Rain picked up a metal and carbon fibre golf club that was  leaning against a nearby table.

“Ready to go!”  He replied as if the golf club was all that was required for a mission into the unknown.

“Do you know where the big one is?”  

Rain closed his eyes and held his fingers lightly to his temples as if trying to psychically link to the bigger man.

“Brucie …Brucie … at the gym?”

“No,”  Peggy unsure where to check next, but she had run out of time, “If you see him, he’s wanted too.”

Peggy and Algernon met again crossing the Campus, one hunting for the elusive ‘Big One’, a task made more difficult for not having his name,  the other stalking back from bureaucracy disappointment. Peggy stopped Algernon again, 

“Um…you were very helpful with the body.” she said without preamble, “The drug dealer. I meant to say something before and forgot.  Thank you.”

“Ur…sure…you’re welcome?”  he replied stunned. Had he ever been thanked?  Ever?

Then Peggy spotted Bruce stepping out of Stores.  It wasn’t hard, he was head to toe in military grade jungle camouflage gear, complete with helmet and body armour.

“You won’t blend in like that.”  She commented.

“Like what?”

“Like you stepped out of G.I. Joe.”

Bruce looked offended.  He was pleased with his practical and hard wearing outfit and didn’t understand the doctor’s criticism.

“Look, we’re being sent out. Collect your gear and meet us at my lab.”

Bruce was about to do as requested, but stopped in his tracks by yet another social injustice, 

“What, all of us?”  


“Even the kid?”

“Well it’s his choice…”

 “We can’t take a child!  I’m going to be having words with Hetzfeld about this.”  Bruce marched off now looking every inch the military man.

Rain was already at the lab staring at an artist’s rendition of The Strange and known recursions on the wall, when Algernon arrived.  As the only one who had been through a portal, Algernon was well aware of what might not be waiting for them on the other side. Like air, gravity or solid ground.  He went straight to Hertzfeld and peppered him with questions as to what was known about the recursion. Not much.  

“Breathable air? “


“Safe landing spot?”

“More than likely.  There is ground and it was a true inapposite gate with two way access.  Besides nothing had come through since it had been opened so it was assumed safe.”

Bruce was next, loudly demanding to know where Hetzrfeld got off letting a child go on a mission to an unknown and possibly dangerous new location.  As Peggy walked in last of all, Rain pulled her aside.

“Take a look at this?” Rain pointed to the poster, “I’ve actually never seen a picture of The Strange.”

“Well it’s an artist’s interpretation and not an actual true rendition, no one has seen The Strange…”

“But, doesn’t it look familiar?”  Rain urged, pointing specifically at swirling bodies of matter that made up much of The Strange itself.

“Oh yes, “ Peggy looked closer and could make out the fractal patterns that symbolise The Strange for much of the scientific community concerned with its study. “Just like the eyes of that…guy.”

“John.  Bruce’s brother.”  Rain prompted. She’d met the guy.  She saved him from a near drug induced coma and yet he hadn’t made an impression on her.  Was she really that cold not to remember his name?

“Yes, him.”

Rain sighed and continued.

“They both saw very similar and vivid hallucinations.  Worlds within worlds.” he gestured to the rest of the illustration showing the recursions and their links to each other and Earth.  “What if they weren’t hallucinating? What if they were looking at The Strange.”

“But that’s what I was saying. No one can look at The Strange…”  Peggy started before their conversation was cut short by Bruce’s protestations, 

“We shouldn’t be taking the kid, we should be training him up.”

“This gate is very stable and everything seems very straight forward,” Hertzfeld responded, “This is the best sort of training for an intelligence like Algernon’s.”

“And who’s going to look after him in there?  I suppose I will.”

“Yes, dad.” Algernon replied almost automatically.

“And since when did I adopt you?”  he turned on Algernon, “I don’t care what my brother said, Algernon is a perfectly common name.”

Of course, once the blustering had finished, Bruce decided to go first, which the rest of the party gladly let him.  One step he was in the warm well lit lab, next he was in a place that was almost exactly the same.  

But most certainly wasn’t.  It was a lab. The same lab.  The same equipment, sat on benches in exactly the same places.  Even the portal at this end seemed to be in exactly the same spot, though this lab was completely empty of life. The air was still..  No sound of voices, the chirping of birds or rustle of leaves outside the window. The light was…duller and every surface was covered in dust.  As Peggy and Algernon stepped through the gate, Bruce saw the cloth tube of a trouser leg and shoe peaking from around behind a table.

As soon as Peggy stepped through the gate her senses tingle at something above her, swirling.  Like a storm that she could neither see nor hear but only feel on a basic level. She put the thought aside as Bruce pointed out the crumpled pile of clothing.  On closer examination it was clear that the cloth was filled with dust. Rain came through last, his golf club ahead of him in preparation. Seeing the scientist and researcher busy with a suspiciously human shaped pile of clothing, he stalked away, over to the computers.

“Any threats?”  Algernon asked. Bruce left the lab and checked the corridors beyond.  Nothing.

Having access to lab equipment on this side of the portal, Peggy ran some simple tests and discovered the dust had once been a person,

“Tens or even hundreds of years ago, there’s no way of telling here.”

“So, is this the future or an alternative Earth?”  Rain asked looking at the group. No one had a suggestion and the silence fell on the group like the ever present dust. “But this is your lab, is there a calendar?” 

They search the lab for a desktop calendar or diary.  The one they found was for the current year but was a few months behind the actual date. 

“They probably forgot to flip it over, I think the one in the lab is the same.” Peggy admitted, this recursion was throwing up some heavy questions that no one to answer.

“She made this.  She made this world.”  Algernon said almost in accusation, pointing to Peggy, “Portals follow you.  You make them.”  

“Well I did press something that started up the portal, but I didn’t make this world.”  she replied perplexed at Algernon’s suggestion. She didn’t have any knowledge or power to make a recursion, even one as empty as this one seemed to be.

Rain had started up the computers  and was now trawling through the system infrastructure looking for differences.  Nothing caught his attention until he found, not employee records but surveillance files on both Peggy and himself.  He search again, hunting for Algernon and Bruce, but neither of them were on file.

“Well here’s a difference, we are not with The Estate.”  he showed them his results and spent some time looking through the records on both him and Peggy.  

“How old is this portal?”  Bruce asked looking around him at the abandoned, post apocalyptic setting.

“Only as old as it is in our world, a couple of hours at most.”  Peggy assured him.

“But he’s hundreds of years dead in a place that’s probably no more than twenty years old at most in our world.  How can that be? ” he pointed to the pile of rags and dust that once was a human.

Now that the body had been established as such, Bruce felt confident enough to carefully checked the dust and clothes for identification.  An I.D. badge identical to the ones they all wore was found as were a few loose cards. They were all in the name of Elmer McCain. A look moved around the group at the discovery of McCain’s name.  Though he’d had little to do with the group since they’d arrived back on Earth, McCain was the one that discovered they were quickened and brought them into The Estate. He was one of very few people they all had in common and one they knew to be a competent and experienced Estate operative.

“I’m reporting this back to Hertzfeld.”  Bruce announced all grim and serious, “Stay in this room and I’ll be right back.”  With no more than a nod he disappeared into the portal.

Rain continued to trawl through the records on him and Peggy. Peggy’s showed The Estate had been watching her and her work for some time.  They thought her studies interesting, but as she had no knowledge of recursions, felt it was safe to leave her alone for now. Rain on the other hand was a known connman and had swindled a number of agents.  A number of aliases were listed and he was considered a problem and worth continued careful surveillance. Rain tried aligning this information with this theories of the four of them being drawn together somehow.  But in this recursion, they’d never met. What would a trawl through the records on the other side reveal?

Without tests to perform, Peggy was once more drawn to the swirling energy that played against her mind.  She felt inextricably drawn to the swirling energies above. Curious to the point of distraction, she started walking out the door, down the corridor to the stairs for the next floor up.

Meanwhile, Bruce had dutifully and carefully reported all they had found out so far.

“El McCain is on assignment and can not be contacted, but I realise that finding his name badge in that recursion would be disturbing.”  Hertzfeld accepted McCain’s ID and tucked it into this desk draw.

“Are we sure he’s fine?  Could he have been sucked into this dead world?”  

“Very unlikely, but I’ll ask through channels, see if we can get some eyes on him.”

“Appreciated.  I’ll head back and see what else they’ve found.”  Bruce nodded and stepped back through the portal.

Bruce returned to an empty lab as Algernon and Rain followed Peggy out the door.

The next floor was as empty as that on the ground.  The energy was somewhere still above Peggy. Following the stairs she reached the bulkhead that gave access to the flat-topped roof.  The door opened out onto a campus scene devoid of life. Above, purple clouds swirled blocking sunlight and obscuring any sign of the sky. The view over the roof, towards Gasworks Park, out across the lake and the city skyline was empty.  Even though the day was dark, not a light was on in any of the skyscrapers. The normally futuristic shape of the Space needle was dull and barely visible against the clouds. It looked like a dead world, but everyone could hear the flapping of large wings from high above. 

Shadows in and then against the clouds. Amorphous and shifting shapes moved purposefully against the sky in the group’s direction. Three peeled away and descended towards the lab building where they stood.
“Get inside, now.”  Bruce called

“Ah Rain, time to go.”  Algernon called legging it to the bulkhead.

“Can you hear that, where’s it coming from?” Rain looked around, oblivious to dangers that may be threatening.  When the creatures, for lack of a better description, were spotted he agreed wholeheartedly and ran for the door and down the stairs.

Dense fractal patterns distorted and chaotic made up the body and wings of the three creatures as they dived, attacking Bruce.  Their touch was icy cold and threatened an embrace of the same as their fractal bodies tried wrapping around him. He shrugged it off and swung around with his crowbar, 

‘Take that demon!” as the crowbar smashed into the form, crumpling it in half and sending it wheeling away. It screamed like an undead thing of rags and hatred.

 “Take that you bad boy!” Bruce crowed and prepared himself for the next swing.

“That’s the ticket, Brucie.  Keep at’em Professor!” Rain encouraged giving him a confidence boost.  Bruce swung again, missing this time and was caught by a nightmare beast.

“What the heck is that thing?!” Peggy screamed but no one could tell her.  They looked no more than a tear in reality.

Looking for something that would help, Rain ran down the stairs and found a fire extinguisher.  Popping the seal he ran back up the stairs.

“Keep it up Bruce, I’m coming!”

“Get away, back to the lab!” Bruce roared pulling another monster off him and back into the air. Peggy and Algernon complying without complaint.  Rain returned with the CO2 and thrust the cone of the nozzle straight into the injured winged thing. A fog of white enveloped the doorway. The creature screamed, flailed and fell out of the air, dead. 

With the nearest beast gone, Bruce slammed the door closed, leaning against it for support. The other two creatures smashed bodily into the door making it quake with each impact.  Eventually the attacks stopped both men took stock of the situation. Bruce pulled out a medical kit and started patching himself up as best he could. It was all Rain could do to not run away.  Instead he looked away, holding open the first aid kit and feeling useless.

“We’ll heal you up on our side, let’s go.” Rain started up from their seat on the stairs but Bruce shook his head. 

“I bet the scientists would love a look at that dead thing out there, I’m going to grab it when I get a chance.”

Rain looked at the injured and frostbitten Bruce and then at the door.  Without another moment’s thought he opened the door and using his golf club hooked the dead creature pulling it inside.  It was what the other two creatures had been waiting for. One set of black wings attacked Rain, draining the life from him and wrapping around his arms.  It wedged itself between the door and the door frame so now Bruce could no longer close it. Little by little, between beatings from Bruce’s crowbar and careful prods from the back end of the putter, the creature was pushed out of the door frame and the door slammed shut with a satisfying, slam.

Rain burst out in hysterical laughter.

“You bloody fool!”  was all Bruce could articulate.

“That was brilliant!”  Rain giggled and sat down on the stair above the broken body of the flying thing, beside the now sorely injured Bruce. Both had sustained injuries, but Bruce knew he would not have survived much longer against the beast if the door had not closed and wanted Rain to know it.

“I pegged you for a coward!” Bruce spat with righteous anger and Rain quickly became serious,

“I know.” He replied simply, unscathed by the taunt, only by the truth it revealed. “Sometimes that’s better.”

“I nearly died!” Bruce bellowed and now the implications of his actions came home to Rain. His eyes grew wide as his face drained of colour.  Horror and shame were all that remained on the usually affable face. 

 “Get down the stairs.”  Bruce ordered and Rain complied.


The battled warriors, dragging the corpse of their enemy, joined up with Peggy and Algernon in the lab.  Together they went back through the portal and to the waiting Herzfeld in their world.

“What happened to you?”  Hertzfeld exclaimed as they stumbled through the portal.

“This happened and two others just like it.”  Bruce gave Hertzfeld the body of the creature who took it gingerly.

“A thonic, but that shouldn’t have been.  These are creatures native to The Strange, they’ve got not place in a recursion.”

“And neither did we, especially the boy, it was totally inappropriate.”

“Leave the kid alone.  If you’re not his dad then leave him alone.”  Peggy argued, “It’s his choice.” Peggy’s outbursts were always surprising, but one in defence of Algernon?

“Regardless, it’s clear that this portal is dangerous.”  Hertzfeld walked across the lab and unlocked a narrow cupboard.  From it he withdrew a gun-like device with a wide barrel. He turned it on the portal and shot a shockwave that disrupted the portal, making it collapse and disappear.  “From what you have said, that recursion was connected to The Strange proper. The Dark Energy Network is what recursions are built on. Unfortunately, it also sends people mad.”

“Mad?”  Rain asked dubiously.  This sounded like myths and fables.  

Hertzfeld nodded, “If you’d been able to see through the clouds you would would have looked out onto The Strange directly.  We’ve lost a lot of good operatives due to direct exposure.”

“How about El McCain, has someone got in touch with him?” 

“Yes, we’ve been in touch.  He’s alive and well. I can’t give you any more details and I certainly can’t explain you finding his identification.”

Rain breathed a sigh of relief and  seemed to take some comfort in Hertzfeld’s assurance only to be replaced by excited theorising, “But that means that there really could be a world, other worlds, alternate ones where…”  Rain’s saw everyone watching and caught himself clumsily at the last moment, “…something didn’t happen.”

“String theory is only a concept.” Peggy replied ignoring the awkward speech from the usually articulate one.

“I think we’ve found some evidence!” 

“At least we got back home.”  Bruce interjected trying to push the talk onto more practical and sensible discussion.

“But did we?” Rain replied manically treading a well travelled train of thought. “If there are multiple worlds, did we ever make it back to our world from the Wasteland?”

“I never thought of that.” Bruce confessed and fell silent.

“Well, welcome to my world! Now you know one of many thing that’s been doing my head-in since we came back!” Rain gestured as if encompassing the whole world in his fixation. The small black puzzle box appeared in his seemingly empty hand and he stumbled out of lab dragging his club behind.

“I don’t think it was a true recursion.” Peggy spoke up, “I think it was more like a replica, out of phase with the original.”

“I think we need to check your machines, Peggy.”  Hertzfeld gestured to the barely unpacked equipment that had filled her garage in New Orleans.

“Yes, but …I don’t think it could have been the cause of the recursion, I wasn’t using it at the time.  Besides…at home…I …may have been experimenting with raw iridium …and I haven’t unpacked any of that .”

“I’m going to research thonics.” Bruce gave up as the conversation turned too dark and  technical for him and left to tend his wounds.

“Yeah, me too.  I want to know how they suck life out of lifeforms.” Added Algernon whose enthusiasm for the gruesome for once matched his seeming age.

Days went past.  Algernon spent more time in the firing range, Peggy was locked away in her lab and the Bruce found solace in repetitive exercise and processes of bureaucracy. 

After going missing for a day, Rain returned dark circles under his eyes, clutching his puzzle box. As a distraction, he searched the party’s record on this side of the portal, comparing it to what they’d found in the recursion. Besides the addition of Algernon and Bruce and all their inclusion into The Estate, the records were very similar.  Hetzfeld had written a note into Peggy’s record.

“Though her perspective is so different from most, it is possibly because of this difference that makes her so valuable.”

Rain felt his records needed more colour and added details to his escapades that the usual report format just couldn’t do justice.  Maybe some of those colours were not strictly to the pallette, but after he’d finished, Rain was sure the report was far more readable and entertaining. 

When they were brought together again, it was by Katherine Manner’s request that they all met in her office.  As they waited quietly for the rest of the group to arrive, Rain leaned in close to Bruce and said low voice, 

“I’m sorry about risking your life on the roof.  It was stupid. I’d never thought…I’d never want to hurt anyone.”

“Well I’m glad you learnt something.”  Bruce grunted an acknowledgement he’d heard and accepted.

“I’ve just never stuck around long enough.”Rain mumbled and turned away, “I’m usually packed up and gone long before then.”

“What was that?”  Bruce asked as Peggy and Algernon joined the group and the briefing began.

“Knowing how effective you were all last time, I’d like you to investigate rumours of another Spiral dust dealer.”  Katherine began handing out notes on what little The Estate had gathered, “They seem to be working out of a warehouse at the docks, though no one has seen the individual leave the building. He has been described as wearing heavy clothes and have a greasy or grimy complexion. We want surveillance really, find out about this individual, find out where they’re getting the dust and get it back to us.”

“Can we set up a camera with motion detectors over the Interwebs.”  Bruce asked the group and received a scornful look from Rain.

“Really?  Interwebs?  Who are you kidding?”  

“Well I don’t know how it works.”

Fortunately, with research, Algernon did and the next day the party were across the lake setting up cameras along dockside at Commencement Bay.  While Algernon set up the equipment wearing Bruce’s Hi-Vis, Rain “supervised” and kept questioners at bay. As a con it was one of the simplest.  No one questioned the need for security cameras and they were left to do their work. In the end the cameras were set up to watch the door but provide good blindspot for hiding. Bruce walked the block checking for access to the warehouse and finding only the main door and a grimy window.

“I don’t know.”  Rain was heard complaining as Bruce walked passed looking like a dockside worker, “I don’t like this sitting and watching. If I was doing this job I’d just walk up to the door and knock.”  

“Well, you could.”  Bruce suggested, What’s the plan?”

“Really?”  Rain looked at Bruce with surprise, “I thought…well I don’t want to do me and get someone in trouble.”

“This is your thing, we’ll follow your lead.”

To be continued…

3. The Spiral bound brother

The week of processing and training passed well for most of the group.  Though they were all considered a team by The Estate and its personnel, they were all given separate reporting officers.  Peggy was with the eccentric Hertzfeld, Chief of the labs. Bruce was under Dr Katherine Manners, Chief of operations and most senior officer in The Estate.  Algernon and Rain was with Lawrence Keaton a shabby officer who claimed the majority of The Estate operatives under this authority.

In the meantime, they all had ways of being productive.  Algernon, frustrated with the stupidness of computers in this world, found intellectual nourishment in eighties and nineties sit-coms and soapie dramas.  Here he learnt about the culture and society that he now found himself in. Rain sat under a tree in the campus grounds practicing tricks. Peggy was fast catching up on all the information about The Strange and the recursions it helped spawn.  Her home had been closed, her equipment moved to headquarters and her grandmother found a good nursing home all by The Estate. Rain moped around the campus library, making contacts in other departments. As a consequence getting thrown out of the library.  Bruce had quit his job in New Orleans and ensured that processes of work, health and safety as well as a fair workplace would continue to be upheld by co-workers he trusted. His time on the campus was spent in training his mind in the briefing rooms and training his body in the gym and dojo. 

Rain was lying on a bench seat under the weak sun of Seattle  when he noticed Bruce walk from the briefing rooms towards Gatehouse.  Rain’s eyes followed Bruce with little interest until he witnessed Bruce stop and pulled out his phone.

“Hi, Mom.  What’s up?”

“Missing?  Where was he?”

“Seattle?  I’m in Seattle, mom…I’m sort of tied down by a job….I course I’ll go look, mom.  Look, I’ll go see what I can do.” Bruce closed his phone and turned to the now eager Rain standing just behind him.

“So, I suppose you heard all that.”

“Your half, Professor.  So we have to get out and find someone?  Great! We can cause a distraction, sneak out…”

“You can call me, Sir.  I’m going to see Katherine.”  Bruce walked off in the direction of the offices with Rain slinking disappointed along behind.

John, Bruce’s brother,  had been up in Seattle for a job interview with a transport company.  He’d been expected back a couple of days ago, but he’d seemed to drop off the planet. Bruce tried ringing but John’s phone went straight to voicemail.  The seriousness of the request prompted Katherine to allow the group their freedom and the resources of The Estate to pursue any leads they found. First off, IDs for Rain and Algernon.

“I want an adult identification.”  Algernon insisted and Rain was only too happy to make that happen, with the help of The Estate.

“Tough call.”  Rain grinned at the cheek of building a false ID with The Estates resources. “You’ll want to be twenty-one, but you won’t look it.  Eighteen would be better, but though you can die for this country, you can’t get legally sloshed on a Friday night.”

Bruce rang Tony’s Long Distance Haulage, the company John had the interview with. He discovered that even though John was meant to have an interview, with the owner two days before, he’d never shown up.

“I just assumed he lost interest.”  The owner confessed, citing this for the reason he’d never bothered to check up. Bruce was worried. If John said he would do something, he’d be there. What could have happened to him?

Hertzfeld and his department searched the system for the last whereabouts of John’s phone.  Two days previous it had been within range of his hotel, a Motel 6 not far from the Haulage company.  There was nothing for it now but to get on the road.

With Peggy driving, the group made their way across the vast city of Seattle to the industrial zone near the airport.  Bruce walked around the of Motel 6 and found his brother’s car. Peggy, Algernon and Rain all headed for reception and made contact with the manager.  Peggy slipped Rain $20 to help the manager’s recollections. Knowing it would not be needed right now, Rain made it disappear into his coat.  

“Oh sure, he’s staying with us.  Nice man, he extended his time with us just two days ago.”  The duty manager informed them.

“Seen him recently.  Have services been to the room?”

“No . The do not disturb is still on the door.”

“Keys please, if you would be so kind,”  Rain smiled and held out his hand.

Bruce had already found the room and was knocking on the door when the others arrived.  He heard moaning and held his hand out for the key.

“I’m going in first.” 

The room was close and stuffy and smelt of stale sweat. Lying in a tangle of bed clothes, a man lay unresponsive. His physique and general features looked similar enough to Bruce’s for everyone to guess they’d found the lost brother. John’s bed clothes drenched in sweat, were twisted around him uselessly. Equally, his pillows were scattered to the floor.

“John?  Buddy? Wake up.”  Bruce conjoled the unresponsive John and gently shook his shoulder.  His eyes remained closed, his mind still trapped in whatever nightmare held him.

The room itself was otherwise normal except for the fact that a space where a television had obviously once stood was now empty.  Rain sat and looked at that space.

“Rain, make yourself useful, get him some water.”  Bruce barked at Rain who jumped to the task and filled a glass from the bathroom.  When Bruce pulled out his phone to call an ambulance, John sat bolt upright, eyes wide and staring at nothing but the empty space.  

“What…?”  Bruce pointed at his brother’s eyes horrified.  Each iris was patterned with an intricate swirl of irridescent fractal spirals.

“Wow!  World’s within worlds, I see it all!” John proclaimed  in a religious furvor. “It makes things seem….”

“Small?”  Rain handed over the glass, staring fascinated at the whirls within whirls of his eyes. “Cool eyes, man.”

“Yeah,” he replied and finally recognised his brother‘s worried and scared face above him. “Bruce, what are you doing here?”

“Mom sent me.  John, you missed your job interview?”

The prone man groaned and fell back on the bed.

 Peggy and Algernon started searching the room methodically for any clue to what had happened.  Beside the bed, a tin of butterscotch candies lay open, a small amount of blue powder glittering faintly in the bottom.  Peggy took the tin and showed it to Bruce.

“Where did you get it, John?” he asked forcefully but not unkindly. He worked on John, calling his name until he responded coherently then pouring small sips of water into his mouth until he was awake and able to talk.

“There was this guy…”

“There’s always a guy.  Who? What did he look like?”

“I don’t know. Works in I.T.”

“What is it, what have you taken?”

“They call it Blue Rain.”

No one had ever heard of it, even Rain which surprised them all, especially Rain. Peggy had a feeling this was more that just a simple illicit drug and called her reporting officer at The Estate for advice.

“We have a druggie , conscious and responsive, showing unusual symptoms, a blue patternation to the eyes…”  she’d started explaining to Hertzfeld when Bruce butted in.

“Don’t call my brother a druggie.”

“Junkie, much better.” Rain agreed.  Both gave him a nasty look and she continued.

“A person has taken an unknown blue substance, it seems unusual.”

“I agree, bring him in.”  replied Hertzfeld, “This sounds like something we’ve dealt with before.”

Now that the substance was connected to The Estate and The Strange, the group very quickly jumped into action. John was put in the backseat of his own car, Rain with him and Bruce driving. Peggy drove her and Algernon back in The Estate’s own vehicle. John was quickly brought into the infirmary and assessed. It was clear that he was relatively healthy and was put on a saline drip while staff watched for the drug’s symptoms to subside.

“Yes, we’ve had dealings with this stuff before.  Called Spiral Dust, it provides very intense and vivid hallucinations.  It’s thought to be made from pulverised ciphers, but we’re still unclear about that and whose making it.”  Hertzfeld admitted to the group as they stood around John’s bed feeling lucky to have found him sane and alive.  “We don’t expect the symptoms to be permanent, we’ll keep an eye on Mr Johnson here for a few days just in case.”

As Rain search the dark web for incidences of ‘Blue Rain’, Bruce interrogated his now lucid brother for details.  John admitted that his friend James had introduced him to the stuff and he’d acquired his own supply only two days before.  The friend’s address was recorded as was the fact that though there had been Blue Rain for sale over the last two month, it seemed John’s  sample was the last sold, two days ago. There were no new samples available for purchase. A dead end.

With their only lead ‘the friend‘, the group headed out again, this time into town where the poorer residents lived. Shabby apartment blocks tightly packed together looming over them. With Bruce in the lead they found the correct apartment and knocked on the door.

“Hello,” came an unsteady male voice from inside.

“Hi, I’m John’s brother, Bruce.  I’d like to talk.”  

There was a pause from the other side of the door, the door opened a crack.

“I didn’t know you were the type.”  said a disheveled man from inside

“No, he’s not.”  Ran interrupted, “but I am.  Let us in and we can talk.” he smiled, but it didn’t win over the friend who closed the door.

“My way then.”  Bruce pulled out his 40 lb hammer and knocked in the door lock. Loud, brutal, but effective.

Peggy, Algernon and Rain search the apartment only coming up with an empty mint tin with traces of the blue powder. Bruce did better. 

“Who did you buy this stuff from?”

“I don’t know, he’s indian with an accent.  He wore a hoodie,I couldn’t his face.”  

More to the point the pick up location was a corner only a block away from where John picked up his supply. James-the-friend had been using for a couple of months and had been introduced to the stuff by a woman called Sharon at a party. He’d been picking up supplies when he could ever since. He too showed the fractal spiral of a user so Bruce decided to take him to the Estate as well.

Algernon checked Google street view and discovered a 7-eleven that may have video of both street corners through their window. With that information, Algernon and Rain asked to be dropped off at the store while the other two went on with James to The Estate Infirmary.

This was Rain’s moment. With Algernon watching closely from behind, Rain took the lead into the shop casually flipping his ID and introducing himself as Simun Otiluke.

“I’m investigating drug deals that have been going on in the local area, spefically two days ago. I’d like access to your CCTV, please.” He said in a gruff Seattle accent so unlike his own voice. It carried with it an air of authority, of someone use to having his orders followed. The shop assistant, though obliging, knew nothing about deals going on outside the store, neither could he provide access to the CCTV.

“The boss locks that away. You’ll have to wait for him.”

“And when are they expected?”

“He’ll be here in a few hours to check the till.”  Another dead end, for now.

Rain went out onto the street and looked around. This was not the good end of town with a street vendor every few blocks. It wasn’t even the interesting end of town that may have supported a busker or two. This was the end of town you went when you had no other place to go and the street resident Rain now confronted was a fine example of his type. Possibly past middle-age, though it was hard to tell under the grime and weathering. The man was only upright because of the brick wall he’d chosen as his support. One hand held his finds for the day, a collection of recyclables ready for cashing in, in the other a bottle obscured by a brown paper bag.

“Hi there friend, my name is Simun.”  Rain pulled out a few notes and the bum went to snatch at them.  The notes disappeared as quickly as they had appeared and Rain made a hurt face. “Now friend, please.  Help me help you.” This time the notes appeared the bum eyed them greedily, but did not snatch. “Tell me, about two days ago, did you see some men doing business on this street corner?”

“You’d have to ask Tricksie about that,”  the man slurred slowly losing interested in the conversation.  “She’s the only one that does business around here.”

“As delight as Tricksie may be, I need you to think about two men and a small tin.” He mimed the size of the tin that both a John and James had held their Spiral dust.

“One that may have held swee…candy in at one time.”

This time something got through the alcoholic fumes and the old man thought for a moment.

“A shiny tin.” He mumbled stirring his sluggish memories. “There were two bloke. They were acting all scriquelly, all super spy stuff. Yeah, I remember because it was so …obvious. Like of you’re going to do something dodgy do it normal like…”. The old bum rambled on, but Rain let him, he knew he was onto the right two.

“What did they look like?”  asked Rain conversationally and was rewarded with a description of John and the Indian national with a hoodie.

“The silver tin was handed over and the tall one walked away and the other one went down the alley, then came back and went to the shop.”  He pointed to the 7-eleven and Rain almost danced.

“Oh look $20 in your top pocket.”  Rain made the note appear and gave it to the man.  “You have a good day now.”

Rain returned to the store where Algernon scanned the isles trying to make sense of the products available.

“What are these?”  He asked holding a packet of sanitary napkins.

“They’re for Peggy.”  Rain replied simply not wanting that conversation.

“What, scientists?”

A short discussion about the difference between males and females on both earth and Algernon’s planet and quickly stymied when Algernon confessed to having no idea about the opposite sex.

“Well, that’s something we can both find out about.”  Rain winked conspiratorially as Peggy and Bruce returned from The Estate.  

“Can I have some money, please.” Algernon asked, napkins still in his hand. Rain handed over a $50 and quickly confurred with the other two.

It was clear that if they were going to work as a team they would need to share phone numbers.  Peggy, Bruce and Rain shared numbers as Algernon paid for the pads and brought them back for Peggy.

“Oh thanks,” she took them oblivious to Algernon’s attempt at kindness, only thinking they’d fallen out of her bag.  “What about Algernon, he doesn’t have a phone.”

Rain and Algernon looked at the prepaid phones on offer in the store.  Nothing fancy, they couldn’t be with Rain’s money, but one would do the job.

“Why don’t you ask The Estate for one, “ Bruce suggested. “Save your money, Rain.”

“Do you want one given to you by the organisation?”  Rain asked shaking his head and making it very clear where he stood on the matter.  It wasn’t required. As soon as he was asked, Algernon Replied sharply,

“No.  Could I have my own please?”

“Kids!”  Bruce was heard to say, “Got to have everything now.”

Rain quickly filled them all in with what he had discovered as Algernon went for a walk around the outside of the shop.  At about the approximate location of the 7-eleven’s locked storeroom there was a grubby window. Prying his fingers under the frame of the glass it looked like he could just get to the window lock when the glass finally gave in to the twisting and shattered.  The noise drew Bruce’s attention.

“Tell me, do you know an Indian gentleman who came to this store two days ago. “. Rain asked the shop attendant, “I believe him to be a local.”

“Oh sure, he’s a regular, comes in about once a day to buy groceries.  Yeah, his name is Eldritch Chopra and he works in I.T.” The shop assistant gushed about one the only highlights in his dreary day.  Then his expression dropped and he looked worriedly at Rain. “I haven’t seen him for a while. Not yesterday…and not the day before.

“I don’t suppose you’ve done a grocery delivery for him?” Rain asked as Bruce leading Algernon by the collar back into the store.

“No.  But he’s local, only a few blocks away.”

Bruce and Peggy discussed ringing in this news to the Estate, maybe they could find the mysterious computer tech. Algernon took the opportunity to again stroll out of the store towards the broken window, this time with Rain on his heels. With a little care and not a lot of effort, Algernon slipped through the window and into the storeroom. By the time Bruce realised that both the troublemakers were outside, Algernon had opened the door to the storeroom and had found the computer that managed the CCTV system. Bruce berated Algernon and helped him out the window. Rain walked into the shop, waited until Algernon and Bruce left the window and then slipped into the doorway, locking it in place.

“Now where’s the other one gone?”  Bruce asks pulling out his phone and calling Rain’s.  It rung once from behind the storeroom door and stopped. Bruce sighed,

“Look we can get this information, we don’t have to break the law to find out what we need to know.”  he reasoned to Algernon, “We’ll get the authorities…”

“But, they’re not the real authorities.”  Algernon interrupted, making a counter argument that made sense to him but confounded Bruce.

“Yes, they are.”  

The argument was interrupted by messages to everyone’s phones that contained the first delivery of video footage from the store’s CCTV.  It showed two men talking and handing over a tin. One of those men was Bruce’s brother. The other man wasn’t as clear, his face covered by the described hoodie. 

“Dad?” Algernon turned to Bruce

“What makes you say I’m your dad?” Bruce, taken aback by this sudden intimacy.

“My research on your society.” Algernon pointed to a notebook he had taken to carrying with him everywhere. “All the historical shows definitely have a male authority figure who is denoted as Dad,” Pointing at Bruce, “a brother and step-mother.”  Pointing at Peggy.

“What shows?”

“Bold and the beautiful.”

Another message came through.  This showed the Indian in the store talking to the shop attendant, just after the hand off to John.  These images clearly showed the Indian’s face. They had their evidence.

“Right, we have what we need.  Now where has Rain got to?” Bruce asked

“Looking for me?”  Asked Rain from behind Bruce.  He’d crawled out the broken window after linking the CCTV computer to the stores WIFI and hacking in.  He showed Bruce his phone,

“Found him!” On a LinkedIn page,  Eldritch Chopra was described as a Front End Developer for EBay, Seattle.  
“Eldritch?  Oh, we haven’t seen him for  a couple of days,” confessed Eldritch’s team leader when Rain phoned in about his missing friend. 

“Oh, I’m a little worried about him, but I’ve forgotten his address.”  Rain waffled acting the part of a forgetful if well meaning friend, “ I know I’m close but these apartment blocks all look alike to me.”  The team leader provided an address, two streets over. 

 Before leaving , Algernon seals the broken window with a cardboard box and tape, without prompting, but under supervision of Bruce.

Eldritch Chopra’s neighbourhood was no more appealing than that around the store.  The building had no security, not even a lock on the street door and the group easily make it to Eldritch Chopra’s door.  Rain knocked, no response. Bruce knocked, also no response. Bruce rang the phone number for the building’s super, as Algernon simply tried the door handle.  The door swung open and the smell of death hit the group.  

Bruce grimace, but he knew that smell of old and stepped into the apartment, followed by Peggy pulling our sampling kit.  Algernon followed, but Rain backed up to the wall opposite, his eyes wide.

“Come on Rain, I need your help.”  Peggy called behind her. Rain just stood there, shaking his head.

“I’ll help.”  Algernon replied, looking back curiously at the usually cool con man.  Rain slunk away from the door, and kept himself busy with Elditch’s mail and talking with Eldritch’s neighbours.

It did not take the rest long to find Eldritch.  Bruce found him first, lying fully dressed on his bed, several stab wounds noticable about his torso.  His eyes were free of the fractal spirals, though another tin with the remains of Spiral Dust was found.  Peggy and Algernon carefully worked their way around the appartment, Algernon discovering an empty and broken cash box under the bed as well as Eldritch’s high-end laptop and VR headset. Peggy put together the clues and a profile of the attacker slowly formed in her mind as she walked the scene.

The assailant was bigger and stronger than Eldritch, able to dominate the smaller man.  He wasn’t unknown, the door had not been forced, but the argument started there, the door had not been closed behind the visitor.  The attack happened, the assailant was…angry. He was very angry at Eldritch.  

“He was killed for reselling the dust,”  Peggy announced, surprising even herself, “It makes sense, whoever gave him the Spiral Dust couldn’t risk exposure.”

“Good work, “  Bruce responded finding Eldritch’s phone by the bed, “Now we just have to know who this supplier was.”  Walking out of the apartment he found Rain going listlessly through Eldritch’s mail. The smaller man looked up at the approaching Bruce and cringed.

“Please don’t make me go in there.”  Rain pleaded uncharacteristically timid.

“No.”  Bruce agreed and handed over the phone, “Here, take a look at this for me.”  

A little of his old spark returned to Rain’s expression at the sight of the phone.  With a careless flick of his hand he’d quickly broken in and started reading through the messages.
“Here’s something, Eldritch messaged a character called Leroy,”  He pointed to a message on the screen.

Got stock?

Below was written the reply, 


“Then here, four days ago he messaged again,”

Got stock?

This time there was no reply, even though the request was made another two times. 

“Eldritch was getting desperate for a new supply.”  Rain commented, “I might also have a lead on…whoever visited.”  He pointed up the stairs to the apartment door. “The neighbour saw a big man in a black jacket and a cowboy hat not last night, but the night before.”

“Maybe.  We have a number, The Estate may be able to trace it.”

“Good, I’ll call it in.”  Bruce smiled and pulled out his phone.

As Peggy and Algernon finished recording the scene, Bruce called Katherine and let her know what they’d found out.  Rain walked back to the bum, now with a new bottle in a brown paper bag and the 7-eleven shop attendant. Neither had seen the cowboy around.  It was clear that their time was up as the real police were about to arrive. With the group’s usual amount of bickering, they soon packed up and returned to The Estate.

Once back in Katherine’s office the news was mixed, 

“Good work everyone, you are certainly a team of highly resourceful people,”  Katherine said, standing behind her desk, “Unfortunately, the phone number you recovered for the supplier known as Leroy was a VoIP, a virtual number and untraceable.”

“I also wish to admit to some shenanigans during this operation, a broken window, burglary, hacking.”  Bruce looked at Algernon, sitting quietly, and Rain who mouthed the word, 


Katherine nodded her head and sat down.  She looked over the evidence collected, the information received from the infirmary and labs.

“The Estate, for the most part is a….. clandestine organisation.  Much of why we exist is to keep secret the knowledge of The Strange.  As such, our agents find they need to use…unusual tactics to gain information. They do what needs to be done.  We will certainly be replacing the broken window, but the actions of your team today are well within established practice.  I hope you can come to appreciate the imperative of our mission, Mr Johnson.”

Rain winked at Algernon and they both smirked as Bruce took the rebuff on the chin.

It was clear that the trail had grown cold.  For now, the cowboy in the black jacket known as Leroy walked free.  Life at the campus went back to normal. John and his friend James were finally cleared by the infirmary.  The fractal spirals still marred John’s irises, but he had his faculties back and was able to get himself home.

“I told mum everything.  She’s expecting you.” Bruce informed his brother, who winced.

“Why did you have to ring her for.”  John whined and face palmed.

“He’s a snitch.”  Rain interjected

“I’m his brother, and I care.”  Bruce replied.

“Brother?  Why did you never mention you had a brother, dad?”  Algernon interjected making Rain smile and Bruce cringe.

“What?  I’m an uncle?”  John took the opportunity to move the conversation off himself.

“Algernon.”  Bruce warned in a three syllable growl.

“Oh, you named him after grandpa!” 

The coincidence caught Rain’s attention.

“Really, Algernon?  What are the chances of that do you suppose?”

With John’s returned to New Orleans, the group went back to their individual trainings and other duties.  At the firing range , Rain confounded the assessment officer by refusing to even touch a gun. Instead when it was his turn to be assessed he stood at the firing range and out of seeming nowhere produced two silvery throwing daggers that streaked towards the human shaped target.  In the comparative silence two ripping sounds were heard as holes appeared either side of the figures neck. Assessment was given with Rain passing without firing a killing shot.

Peggy found herself tinkering with the device found in the wasteland recursion.  With the flick of a hidden switch the device starts up and a black portal swirled into being.  Though travelling to recursion was common for members of The Estate, stable portals were rare things.  Those the Estate managed were kept at the Gatehouse and lead only to a select number of recursion. A new portal to an unknown recursion was a rare find, even if a little ominous.

“That doesn’t look inviting.”  Peggy mused and spent time taking readings before informing her Reporting Officer, Hertzfeld.

“Interesting. “ he commented later over her findings, “It certainly leads to a recursion, but the readings…are off.  A team will need to be sent through to find out what is on the other side.”

Peggy nodded thoughtfully.  This was her first gate, but even she could see the significance. Not everything in the multiverse was safe, and not everything had Earth’s interests at heart.

“ Actually,” Hertzfeld smiled and turned to Peggy.  “There’s a new group of four talented individuals who have yet to prove themselves.”

Peggy nodded again, hearing and not fully understanding all Hetzfeld’s message.

“New recruits.  Well you wouldn’t want to send your best into the unknown.  I’ll prep them for the mission myself if you like.”

“Not necessary, one of them is already well prepped for the task.”

Peggy almost turned around and checked the room for another person until she realised that he meant her and the other three.

“Not, me!  I’m a researcher not a field agent!  The other three…”

“But who else could I trust with this new discovery.  The information you gather will be beneficial to countless research programs running through The Estate.  Besides your group are…”

“… a bunch of blundering misfits. I don’t even know why I’m bundled up with them.”

“…here, I was going to say.  Look, this would be a great opportunity for you to find out their better qualities.”

“No one else wants to go either, do they?”

Meanwhile, at the other end of the campus, Algenon and Rain worked at clearing Eldritch’s old laptop in the library.

“Algernon, I been wanting to ask you something for a little while.”  Rain said soto voce as he pulled out the left hand of the wastelands Valkyrie.  “I want you to know that I trust you and that whatever you do I won’t judge you for it, but I have to know.  What happened to the woman in the back seat of the car?”

More explanation was not necessary.  They both looked down at the hand. Algernon, riffled through a notebook of observations he’d been taking on human culture and finally replied.

“Yes, that was… tragic.”

Rain held his gaze, but the youthful face did not reveal any secrets.  The ambiguousness of the answer was enough to send off warning bells for Rain, but it let it slide.  Both Bruce and Peggy had both interrogated the boy over the incident. If he didn’t want to share there was little that anyone could do to make him.

“Okay.” He finally said, and sighed disappointed, “Just…if you find yourself in a situation like that again, just give me a sign, a nod or wink.  Bring me in on the con, right?”



“Yes, absolutely.”

Rain, gave it one last chance, one last pull on the heartstrings.

“I know,  you know something about me that I’d rather not get out.  The others wouldn’t understand. But I trust you to keep it to yourself.”  Rain looked up from the keyboard between them with his best ,and truthfully, his most imploring look.  

Algernon leaned over so they were both hunch close over the keyboard, 

“You can trust me, bro.”and for the first time Rain did.  He nodded and went back to work.

Rain didn’t mention the woman again, even removing the hand from the table, but it was obvious the talk had been playing on Algernon’s mind.



“How do you make people believe you?”

Rain had noticed Algernon taking an interest in how he talked to people on their excursion out.  In fact, there were very few times he’d lied at all. It does no good to tell people you are a police officer.  It’s always best to put on the air of someone who has the authority to ask questions, and let their inner sheep nature fill in the important job titles.  The con is in the conviction, not the convincing.

“Simple, you have to believe it.  Here,” he pointed to his chest hopefully where his and Algernon’s  hearts lay. “You can’t ever doubt what you’re doing. Even if you say nothing, your body language can screams “I’m lying”.”

“And in here…” Algernon pointed to his head, grasping an essential truth.

“No,  there you have to keep all the lies straight.  What you’ve said to whom and when.”

Algernon nodded, 

“Can you teach me?” He asked as quietly as Rain had asked his original question.  

Rain smiled,

“My pleasure, bro.”

Escape to New Orleans

After the initial excitement at discovering an organisation a big as the Estate involved in interplanetary travel, days of debriefs and training had become a solid wall of sound.  I was very aware that outside the chain link and barbed wire of the Estate Campus, New Orleans awaited. I was looking forward to becoming acquainted with my new town. It was why I had sat on a series of buses from New York all the way down the country to Louisiana.  I wanted to hear the creole slang, taste the bourbon and feel the beat as life danced around me. 

When it was clear my path was to be the deep south I did more than a little research.  I’d made a mental map of all the sight I was going to call my own. Jackson Square where I would hopefully find a patch to do a little street magic,  earn a few coins and hangout talking to the artists. I wanted a seat on a hard wooden pew at St Augustines for the Jazz Mass on a Sunday, waving my fan. I wanted to  hunt out the best street music. I wanted to come across the French Quarter and spend the day at a cafe watching the world go by and the night at Bourbon House watching the whiskeys  do the same thing. I wanted to eat shrimp by the dock and charm the chef into free seconds. I wanted breakfast of beignet and coffee and supper of the best jazz. And most of all I wanted to see the magic at Lucky Pierre’s, preferably from backstage.

I wanted anywhere not air conditioned, fluorescent lit and furnished with chipboard furniture.  New Orleans seemed more beyond my reach than when I was in New York. Until our clearance came through, we were virtual prisoners on campus, allowed free reign only within its highly secure walls.  

I could hear the air-conditioning tick over again and a not quite cool gust of stale air made me shiver.  Taking advantage of a comfort break I broke out of my training into the subterranean passages that lead all over the campus.  It was through these passages that the real training happened in underground dojos, gyms and gun ranges. Bruce had given up on ‘handing me over the the police’ as the Estate security were now my official jailors. When not in his own training he spent much of his time down here, toning oversized muscles thinking his oversized thoughts.   It was where I now found him and silently watched from the doorway.

A gun fired nearby making me jump (I hate guns).  Bruce noticed the movement and stopped his current circuit of the gym.

“What are you doing skulking about?”  he asked without malice, just habit.

“As you say, skulking.”  I replied without energy.

“You need to keep yourself busy, idle hands and all that.”

“Idol hands, you mean.” and made a shiny silver coin flipped between my fingers faster than eyes could follow, though I had the impression his could. I did a false flip and the coin disappeared, wishing I could too.

“I need to get out of here, Professor.  It’s driving me crazy.”

“You need to shift some of that nervous energy of yours.   Go out for a run…”

“Exactly, you and me out on the town. I’ll cause the distraction with the guards…”

“I meant, go running.” he grumbled and went back to his weights machine, “You know, around the campus.”

“I’d rather go for a run down Bourbon Street.”  I grumbled back. He silently did his repetitions without comment.

“What do you think they want from us?” I asked without too much hope of an answer.  It had been one of many questions that bothered me. It was one of the reasons I wanted a little escape, see if the perspective from the bottom of a whisky glass offered some insight.

“You’ve been to the trainings.  We are to be operatives for the Estate.”  he grunted out the last few words as the repetitions became more difficult, “They’ll let us know when they need us.”

“And you’re happy to just follow orders?  Don’t you want to understand what’s going on?”

Bruce finally gave up his current machine and grab a hand towel. Wiping the sweat from his face looked at me, 

“Look, they’ve been at this a lot longer than you.  They’ll let us know when the time is right.”

The absolute trust in the authority of The Estate was too much for me and I backed up, probably in horror.

“Hey, where are you going now?”  He asked, a look of concern passing over his face.

“To find someone who can talk sense.”  I replied and continued down the corridor to the Gatehouse.

 The Gatehouse was, unoriginally, the  building where gates to other Recursions were housed.  Here, people came and went on trips seemingly at all times of day and night and where we ourselves had first returned from the wastelands.  People with packs and decent all-weather gear stepped through the automatic glass doors to a passage marked Departures. Even more were moving out through a custom-style gate where Estate agents checked paperwork and items they were returning with.  It was like a tiny international airport complete with its own border control. Also here were the Estate Security, hired directly out of the armed forces from various nations and all armed.  Two flanked the doors to the outside. Without a distraction there was no way to pass them into the real world.

I felt them look in my direction and used a group of new arrivals as cover.  The party of operatives looked like they were going mountain climbing and as we moved through the lobby together I took off my coat and rolled it into a small swag. Under my arm it looks a little like their packs and my white shirt and vest looked more like the mountain climbers own clothing.  I could almost feel the guard’s gaze scanning the crowd, but there are advantages to being slightly below average height.

The group were exploring a recursion they believed to be a fictional leakage of Journey to the centre of the Earth.  I was a little envious as they checked in through the customs agents and I waved them off.

No.  I have a whole city to explore, full of people and life, why am I jealous of a dangerous cave expedition into the unknown?  I was still thinking these things as I stood in front of the customs agent, his name tag read Eoghan.  I’d seen the gaelic spelling for ‘Owen’ before and felt pretty confident in making a good impression.

“Hi Eoghan, I’m…Eric Leomund.  I’m sure I saw you earlier when I came through with Elmer McCain.”  Name dropping never hurts, and neither does using an assumed one. I stretched out my hand for him to take. I hadn’t seen him. I’d been exhausted by our near death experience,  shocked by our Valkyries change and still a little disoriented from the translation. But, if he had been there he may well remember us. He did. He beamed at the correct pronunciation of his name and seemed to preen a little at being remembered, shaking my hand in return.

“Hey yeah, your group came in on Five .   You all made quite a procession with McCain and Drs Manners and Hetzfeld.   All the big-wigs and your lot tromping straight through customs leaving a blank in the gate.  Uh…but don’t worry about that.” Eoghan laughed nervously as if he’d said something embarrassing. The people in the line moved around me as best they could while I still hid from the guards.  

“I’m a newly minted operative hoping to learn the ropes.  Do you think I could slip across…” I made a gesture to move to his side of the counter, out of sight of the main lobby.  Eoghan offered readily and I slid over the divide to stand with him as he did his job. I shrugged my coat back on and felt more myself.  Without the pressure of eyes watching I felt more relaxed and ready for a chat.

“It’s amazing isn’t it, all this.  World upon worlds to visit and hardly anyone knowing about them.”  I scanned the crowd as Eoghan filled me in on his awareness of The Strange and transfer to Headquarters.  

“Of course, Ireland has a long history of connection to the recursions.  Dublin has one of the longest running connections with The Strange in the world.  We thought they were fairyland. Even the translations sickness was suppose to be the longing the fairies place on those who try to  leave.” Eoghan prattled on good naturedly as he waved through another group of adventurers who were dressed in cold weather gear.

“Eoghan. I’m sure you’re a man who enjoys a good time.  Where do you go in town for craic? I’m looking for a place full of local colour.”

“I don’t know about local colour, but I usually go to a Irish Pub.”  he replied conversationally. I was disappointed that my current best friend seemed so lacking in general good taste.  Why, when in New Orleans, would you spend your social hours at an Irish pub? I almost wept.

There was a crash as something heavy hit one of the roller doors to a gate room.  With a look at each other, Eoghan and I dashed up the corridor of gates to a door painted with a big black ‘8’.  Already a number of Estate agents were struggling to lift a bulging roller door.  With a collective groan the door swung up and a grey and white creature of aquatic nature slipped and slithered out into the corridor.  

It was almost three metres in length, with a female humanoid upper body and a very fishy dorsal fin and tail.  As a human, it would have been beautiful except there was no life in this body and they never really had been. Like the wild woman who had climbed a rock to murder Peggy and Bruce, this was a well made, highly detailed model of a creature.  The appearance of the body caused even more disturbance among the people at the other gates and over its grey mottled skin, I could see Estate security moving towards the action. I hunker down.

“Look she said she knew where I could find a seed if I told her something new.  I said I could take her to a place where she could swim in the lake of a golden city of lights.  I’m telll’ you, she wanted to come.” man climbed out of the gate wearing sturdy travelling clothes talking to Estate officials.
“Sir, she is clearly a Lady of the Lake construct, she’s programmed to want knowledge for a request.” an Estate agent was arguing over a clipboard, “You visited a known literary recursion.  You knew that the majority of creatures there are without spark…”

“But a seed!  How could see have known…”

“Regardless sir, you will need to pay…”

“Pay!  I made no money on this translation…”

The argument between the agent and the recursion miner was drawing a crowd, one of the guards was quickly moving to the front.  I wasn’t sure I could just walk away, but maybe with help? I turned to my new friend

“Say Eoghan, what did you guys do with the woman my group brought through?”

“Huh?” like everyone, he was paying attention to the fight, ‘Oh, we took it to the morgue until the boffins release it. Why?”

“ I was thinking you’d want to clear this space so services can continue as normal.”  I prompted hoping Eoghan was quick enough to pick up the suggestion, “I’d be happy to help.”

“Um…sure.  Thanks Eric!”  he cheered up considerably and called over a few other agents.  Each picked up a corner of the mythical creature and dragged it back towards the doors to the lobby.

“Hey, hey where are they going with the Lady.  She still has a sword on her…” the recursion miner leaped forward and grasped something held loosely in the blanks nerveless hand.  He stood back up with a sharp highly polished sword. Suddenly, officials stepped back holding their hands in front of them.

“Now, no need to pull a weapon, sir.’  Security guard stepped in giving me a chance to get under the body of the creature and start walking away with the agents.  Under the damp body we moved as one towards another set of double doors and into the Recursion Labs buildings.

This area was more utilitarian.  A white vinyl floored and green walled corridor dog-legged around to the right.  Ahead, a door was labelled, Morgue. As one we lifted the blank through the door and onto two trolleys.  I stood and looked at it for a moment and remembered our own woman.

“You okay, Eric?” asked Eoghan with real concern.  It was sweet. I can use sweet.

“Oh, I was just thinking how beautiful she must have looked in her natural environment before that idiot killed her.”  I sighed, reaching out to hold the cold inhuman hand of the blank. I tried to suppress a shudder and failed, but Eoghan accepted it as a shudder of grief and not of revulsion.

“Oh man. Oh man I get it.  They seem so real.” he looked nervous.  He’s an average guy, not used to sharing feelings.  

“But she was real Eoghan.  She breathed and acted in her world.”  I let tears well in my eyes, they’re never too far away. “I’m sorry Eoghan, you’ve been a great mentor.  I didn’t get to say goodbye to the one we brought through, but do you think I could have a moment with this one?”

“Sure man, “  It was Eoghan’s turn to sigh in relief, “Take your time, I’ll see you around.”

I waved him out of the morgue with a faint smile and turned back to the creature.  

When the door closed I quickly let go of the still damp hand and turned to the other trolleys in the room.  She wasn’t far, she’d only come in a few nights before. Like a dead person there were no signs of life. No flush to the skin, no rise and fall of the chest, no pulse at the neck.  Unlike a dead person she looked like a copy of the person she had been in her recursion. It was like the recursion itself was the living thing, only giving the semblance of life to its creations while it can control them.   

Still,  I shuddered and brought a knife out from behind my back.

First things first.  I held my breath and cut away the bandage that Bruce had applied to the woman’s leg wound.  I let the breath out in a happy gust as I realised there was no blood. The wound was there, but it just looked like cuts and tears in  foam latex. I tried to make sense of the wound, but not knowing what Bruce had done to remove the spear I couldn’t see if it had been…tampered with.  Frustrated, I moved to the blanks side and pulled out here left hand.

I hadn’t known I’d wanted the hand until I’d been reminded of her existence.  I didn’t know I needed it until the knife was in my hand.  

I needed this, I told myself, sometimes you need a reminder.  And I cut through the wrist severing the hand from the body.  Even though the knife cut cleanly through to the trolley, even though there was no blood or any internal parts, I had to take a few good breaths before finally picking up my trophy and slipping into a sleeve pocket of my coat.  

It had been harder than I thought to cut off the hand and I I stood a moment there contemplating what I’d done.  I actually don’t know how long I stood there when I heard someone speaking.

“Rain…Rain? What are you doing in here?  Where is here?” It was Peggy, standing in the doorway to the morgue looking around her as if for the first time.

“Hmm? Sorry Peggy.  I was just thinking what this thing we call life is.”  I could have been, I have no idea.

“You were a long way away.  I had to call and call your name, but you didn’t answer.”  she juggled a pile of paper files, an iPad and books, “Do you know the way back to the dorm?”

I looked at her with genuine affection.  As self-centred and self absorbed as she seemed, she was a fragile and currently lost creature.  I nodded and took some of her load from her.

“What’s all this?”  I asked with interest.   Her world more than most of us had been turned upside down by recent events.  She’d worked her whole life on a vision that was only a step away from the truth.  The knowing she’d almost been right was …a bitter epiphany.  She had a lot of catching up to do.

“I need to study The Strange, the recursions and…I need to understand it all in relation to the Rockweilers.  I understand now that I’ve been looking at things all wrong and I….I need to realign everything I know to this new paradigm.”

I led her back out into the lobby through covered walkway to the dormitories, nodding as she moved into techno-babble that meant nothing to me. She eventually took a breath at the door to the women’s dorm.

“I can’t pretend to understand most of what you just said but I know one thing.  You are an intelligent and passionate woman on a mission and if anyone could find Rockweilers, you’ll be that person.”  I handed back her notes as she looked at me suspiciously.

“What do you want, Rain?”

I sighed.  Whoever had betrayed this innocent had done their job well.  Better the truth in these occasions.

“I’ve been thinking about something, and I think you’re probably the only one who can understand.”  I said appealing to her ego and to her nature for a puzzle, “If this gift we have, the quickening is so rare, don’t you think it weird that all four of us should be together on that night at your house, ready to be scooped up?  I did the math. It’s stupid numbers!”

“One, maths isn’t stupid…but I know what you meant. Two, I’ll think about it.” she replied, with a confused smile on her face, “I have to go.” and she closed the door in my face.  

It was then I saw Algenon about to eat laundry detergent.  

At least that’s what it  looked like.

At the end of the corridor, a small walled off part of the dining room, the laundry was clearly denoted by a line of industrial washing machines and clothes dryers.  Here Algenon was testing the machinery, learning how it worked and seemed about to test the laundry detergent with his mouth.

“I don’t think you want to do that.”  I said walking up and looking in, “It’s for cleaning clothes.” 

“Oh!  He looked at the white and blue powder in this hand and let it fall back into its box, “I knew that.”

“Sure you did.  Tell me, what else do you know?”  I joked, but as usual he was unaware of the subtle social undertones.

“Me?  I don’t know anything.”  and then he thought for a moment, looked out the door past me and stepped closer.  “I do know one thing.” he whispered and motioned to the door in the far wall. “If you need a quick way out…”  He walked to the door, ushering me to follow, “…this could be a good way.”

He opened the door onto a dock where a few workers were moving pallets of plastic wrapped boxes.  A line of dumpsters sat waiting to be filled or emptied by one side of the concrete dock or the other.  More pallets sat in racks labeled and carefully boxed. A loading zone and warehouse of some sort? I closed the door and gave a respectful look to Algenon.

“Good to know.  I am in the need of an exit at this time,”  I admitted, but then shook my head at the thought of sneaking out through the back door. “ Call it ego, but this time, this one time I want to walk out of here like the free man I am instead of some….”

“Stinking, lying criminal.”  Algenon filled for me.

“Exactly.  I’m going to get out of this polite prison for a few hours and see what the city has to offer.”  Again, my desire to be out in the warm fresh air and be amongst people having a good time stirred my blood.

It was then, I noticed the absence of my laptop.  Algenon had been glued to it since he asked for information on Earth in our first debrief.  Only a few hours later he returned complaining it was broken. In fact he was running it at 100% capacity with scholarly posts, reddit boards, facebook profiles, shopping sites and a myriad of video including the ones you’re probably thinking of.  Yes, cat videos. They were all running at the same time, tiled across the laptops screen. We’d had a brief chat about limiting windows and cleaning up the computer occasionally to improve performance. He’d seemed to take the message to heart and had continued with his studies.

“Where’s the computer?  I’d figured you’d be glued to it until they give us something to do.”  I asked curious.

“Oh, I took your advice and thought I’d give it a clean out.”  he said innocently, a sure sign something was up.

I looked around the room again and this time caught a flash of high resolution, HD screen through the glass of one of the washing machine’s door.  I stepped up to the machine and saw my laptop ready for the wash on top of a pile of other ordinary laundry. I stood and looked at it for a moment then turned back to the room.  Algenon’s expression had not changed, but there was something about the eyes, a wicked knowing that made me continue my search. I spotted the straight line he made with himself, the laundry doorway and the corridor al the way to the double doors at the far end.  How far was the washing detergent he was looking at from the store of identical boxes across the room? I ground my teeth. There are only two sides to a con, and I had just realised what side I stood.

“Very funny.” I finally conceded with a bow,   “Tell me, how long have you been waiting here for me to come in and find you ‘about’ to eat laundry detergent?”

He walked over to the laptop and consulted the time on the screen.  

“One hour and 13 minutes.”

“And if I hadn’t come in?”

“Then I might have found out what laundry detergent tastes like.”  

“Really?”  I made a face as the very real taste of caustic soap suddenly manifested from memories of group home living.  He rolled his eyes at me.

“Okay!  Okay! You win.  You are the master prankster, you got me.”  I finally laughed out loud and for the first time I think I saw a smile of satisfaction appear of Algenon’s face. I killed most of the sites he had up on the laptop and found a video of the old Candid Camera show, leaving him to the business of serious prank study.

Still shaking my head at the lengths someone would go for a joke, I travelled back along the covered walkway to the lobby.  Things had quietened down considerably as I saw my destination in sight, the sunlight streaming through the glass doors that lead outside.  I did not see the security guard talking to Eoghan until he yelled across the intervening space and caught my attention.

“Excuse me, sir!”  I believe he said, but to me it was the rage filled roar of frustrated beast.  Denied too long, now his quarry sighted, the beast bellows and galloped across the foyer.  There was nothing left for me to do but run for my life and sanity for I was sure I couldn’t spend another moment trapped inside.  I bolted for the doors. Having the jump on me, the guard made it to the doors just as I put my right hand out to open it.

“No, I have to go out.  Don’t try and stop me!” I yelled with passion hoping that someone, Eoghan?, anyone would come to my aid. The guard grabbed my left arm in his firm grasp and tried to pull me back.

“I’m sorry, you are not cleared to leave the campus at this time.”  he replied and tugged. I screamed as there was a loud ripping sound and what looked like my hand tore out of the sleeve pocket, making both of us stumble.  Him backwards into the lobby, and me, gloriously forwards out the front doors into the light of….

…a chilly and overcast afternoon.  The air was more than chilly, it was like the winds from the fifth ring of hell itself was blowing across the steel grey waters of a wide lake before me.  I crossed the road and entered the park full of industrial iron workings, a sign proclaimed it to be that of an old coal gasworks. My vision finally focused on the skyline of a city that was not the one I expected.  Where were the docks full of passenger liners? Where was the subtle sound of jazz and smell magnolia on the breeze? Instead, to the right of the skyline a thin tower dominated by a white disk stood out as a symbol of technology and science.

“Hello …Seattle?”

2. We don’t need another hero

Our group, Bruce, Rain, Algernon and the Doctor were transported from a dark rainy night outside of New Orleans, to a hot and desolate wasteland under a baking sun. Finding shelter from the elements and the natives, they stumble upon a fellow traveller, one Elmer McCain who tells them he can get them home, but they must leave the the safety of their cave.

* * * * * *

The group were silent as the truth of what they’d just heard sunk in. There was a way to get home but they’d have to leave the protection of the irradiated cave and face whatever the wastelands had in store. They all dealt in their own way. 

Algernon checked for immediate threats from the hunters driving the cars outside. He crawled out of the cave to note the cars had lost track of them, for now. The dust trails pointed towards distant mountains currently only a smudge on the horizon. Rain sat and listened to the conversation over the walkie-talkie.  He took note of language, tone and names mentioned. In this way he discovered they were all women and call themselves collectively, The Valkyries. The Doctor scanned the whole cave with her geiger-counter and found a particularly high radiation reading in one small area. Poking at the loose rock, she found a number of highly useful items in a small cashe. A tube of ointment, a large needle, goggles, an arm bracer set with spikes and a skeletal glove. Without a thought she shared them out with the others, giving what she thought would be most appropriate for each. Bruce showed his distain for the whole situation by wondered aloud when Tina Turner was going to show up and sing.

“I don’t get it.”  Algernon shrugged lost in the cultural reference.

“Mad Max, beyond Thunderdome.”  The Doctor supplied as if reading a database entry on the film.  She explained at length about the post-apocalyptic world leaving Algernon only a little more the wiser.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name, little lady.”  Bruce asked casually of the Doctor as she handed him the bracer set.

“Margarita Athena Portaculis Martin.” She replied matter of factly and just as quickly snapped, “And I am neither little nor a lady.  At least that’s what my grandmother says and I believe she’s a better judge than you.”  

Rain smirked at the knock-back Bruce had received from the taciturn doctor. He then remembered he had failed numerous times to get that exact information.

“Hey, why did you tell him your name?  He was patronizing.” Rain complained, not use to failing at the social niceties.

“Because he was polite and not creepy about it.”  Peggy replied simply and turned to join the group conversation.

“So, you’re saying we’re not on earth?” Bruce queried unable to comprehend what he was hearing, “Well, where are we and what happened to my clothes?”  He gestured to his less than work day attire.

“It’s part of the translation, from one alternate reality to another. You are changed to fit your location. “  McCain thought for a moment, “Think of it like a simulation. When you move into a new translation your avatar’s skin changes to suit the reality you’ve found yourself in.”

“And we’re somewhere else?  Does that mean the Doc’s…er, Margarita’s Rockwheeler’s are out there too?” Rain asked enthusiastically.

“Possibly somewhere else yes, but also somewhat else.” McCain replied, settling into his role as an instructor, “I believe that we may be in a literary translation where an author’s writings have inspired the world around us.”

“Nonsense.”  Margarita scoffed in her most academic voice of authority, “Quantum physics just doesn’t work like that. Physics isn’t inspired by human minds.”

“I agree,” added Bruce, “I don’t know what happened, but all this could be explained away by being drugged and dragged off to somewhere in Nevada.”

“Oh, for a moment there I thought you were going to say it was all my fault.”  Rain laughed, gaining for himself a glower of disdain from Bruce. 

“It probably is.”

“We need a vehicle.”  Algernon interrupted with what sounded like the first piece of practical thinking the group had come up with.

“Like the thinking, mate.  I just don’t want a lift in these womens’ bellies.”  Rain turned in approval to the youth as Bruce looked askance at the school boy.

“Are you suggesting we steal a car?!”  

If they were to save themselves, the group needed to move.   However, no plan on how to acquire a vehicle could be reached.  Bruce was dead against carjacking a car, perturbed at why everyone else was against dealing with the women they had heard over the radio.

So, still bickering over how things should be done, the group started walking out into the desert away from the mountains and the Valkyries.  Not a lot of distance had been covered, however, before a brown smudge loomed up quickly on the horizon. A breeze whipped up a small dust cloud smothering the group and Margarita’s geiger-counter screamed a warning. Suddenly Bruce was well aware of what was moving towards them.

“Dust storm! Run!” He yelled in a voice that was use to being heard over a busy building site. Without argument the group ran back to the shelter of the cave, clambering over the rough ground and threw themselves inside to lay gasping and coughing.

No one noticed, until they had all caught their breath again, that Bruce was not with them. Horrified, Rain raced back to the cave entrance with the intention of finding him when Bruce stumbled into the cave choking. All exposed skin on his hands and face were torn up from the swirling dust and his breath came in short harsh gasps.  The near miss was more than enough for the smaller man who, unharmed as he was, slumped to the dusty ground wide-eyed and breathing fast. He fumbled out of an internal pocket a small black box that he flipped open and closed with blurring fingers.

“Are you okay?”  Bruce coughed, smarting over the scouring he’d just taken.

Rain stared at the bigger man a moment before coming to himself. It seemed incongruous that the one who was nearly lost in the dust would worry about his health. It was not a common experience for Rain and it took him a moment before he nodded his head.

“What’s that you’ve got there?”

In gratitude, Rain handed over the box. It was not a large and fitted neatly in the big man’s palm.  Smooth black lacquer concealed the wooden box’s secrets well and try as he might, Bruce could not open the small compartment he’d seen while it was in Rain’s fast moving fingers.  A smug little grin replaced the pale and terrified look as the box returned to Rain unopened.

“We’re not doing that again,” Bruce stated flatly saying out loud what they were all thinking.

“The radiation is in the rocks, but how about on top?”  Algernon suggested hopefully. The climb to the cave had been climb enough for most, especially for McCain but, when the dust storm subsided he clambered out.

The sky was once again the empty blue of the desert and for miles around the desert was empty of life except for a lone streak of rust moving fast and alone. Algernon, with the geiger counter in his pocket, picked his way up the ever steepening rock until he reach the summit and took a reading.  When he returned, scraped and windblown from the trip, McCain only shook his head.

“Those levels will still interfere with the translation.  There’s nothing for it, we need to get away from this rock and fast enough to keep ahead of the dust storms.”

“I saw another car out there, patrolling alone.” Algernon said, reminded of that single streak across the desert, “Maybe we can attract them into an ambush.” It was the first idea that any of them had come up with that the majority could get behind. Bruce was not part of the majority.

“Look, can’t we try talking to these people.”  He appealed to the group, “I can’t comprehend how you’ve all descended to carjacking so quickly.”

Rain, Algernon and Margarita responded well to Bruce’s plea for civilised behaviour. Algernon, by attracting the car with the flash of sunlight on metal and moving into a position lower down the rock from where he could spring out. Margarita in particular was eager to try a spear launcher she had affixed to her arm since appearing in the desert. Rain emptied a bag of small tools he had and filled it with the lightest dust he could find.  Holding the opening it loosely in his hand he intended it as a instant dust cloud, a distraction for the more deadly in the group. He sat himself on the edge of a small cliff out where the car could see him. Beside him, the Walkie-Talkie crackled to life as the car’s occupants spotted Algernon’s signal.

“There, saw a glint of somet’ing.  Might be those fellas we lost earlier?  Maybe we’ll still get some long-pig tonight.”  The Valkyrie said as the vehicle turned in towards the rocks.

“Please, at least let us talk first.  If they’re hostile then we can defend ourselves.”  Bruce pleaded with the group.  Algernon pulled out a hand crossbow and lay low, ready with his ambush. Margarita leaned against the rock to steady her aim. Rain turned to look up at the perplexed upright citizen, his hands empty of a weapon.

“And you call me a bad guy.”

The car roared across the desert chewing through the empty space between them and their quarry. The group, now trained on what to look for, could now make out details.  It had been at one time a sedan of some indeterminate colour, now completely lost under years of rust and dust.  On the front, a makeshift bullbar protected the front and bonnet. The boot-lid was gone, in its place was a gunnery placement where a figure with a mohawk stood at a large mounted automatic weapon.  They did not look civilised nor eager for conversation.

When she felt the target was in range, Margarita triggered the first of her projectiles.  Flying true, the bolt shot straight through the windscreen and into the driver, a moment later, a small crossbow bolt flew through the open window and also hit the driver.  The vehicle slew violently in the fine dust of the desert, catapulting the gunner into the air. The vehicle was slowed but not enough as it was still moving at speed towards their rock outcropping.

Algernon, with a split second’s thought, flung himself from his hiding place and leaped for the car. A slip meant instead of landing on the car as he’d intended, he only succeeded in landing in front. Grabbing the bullbar, he held himself above the ground and away from the crunching tyres. With a burst of adrenaline fueled energy, he launched himself onto the bonnet, rolled up the windscreen and fell into the passenger seat beside the obviously dead driver.  

Both Bruce and Rain groaned as the former drew a crowbar from his equipment, the later jumped up and sprinted along the cliff edge. He too flung himself onto the hood of the car.

“Don’t forget to check for traps!”  Margarita called as she reloaded her weapon.

Traps were the last thing on both of the young men’s minds as they race along the deserts sands in an uncontrolled vehicle.  Rain looked down at Algernon who stared up at him through the windscreen, hands palms out in the universal sign,

What next?

“Try the hand brake.”  Yelled Rain pointing to the lever between the passenger and driver’s seats.  Carefully, he slid back along the roof of the vehicle until he arrived in the open boot.

Algernon spotted the large wheel in front of the driver and thought he understood its use.   He slowly pulled the wheel around to the left and the car turned in a large lazy circle in front of the cave. The result was the car now headed back towards the rock outcropping.  Straight back.

Meanwhile, the catapulted gunner of the car had picked herself up and was now climbing the rock towards Bruce and Margarita. 

“Who are you?  What do you want?”  Bruce demanded, finally face to face with one of the Valkyries.  But the fierce woman covered in leather and spikes showed no interest in a conversation as she pulled out her knife and climbed the last few metres between her and Bruce.

“What are you doing!”  Margarita exclaimed bringing her now armed projectile gun to bear on the woman.  The short spear shot from her arm and straight into the Valkyries leg. The Valkyrie growled something incoherent and continued her murderous climb.

Bruce shrugged, finally accepted defeat. He had tried to act like a civilised human. He now brought the crowbar down on the woman’s head knocking her unconscious.

In the back of the car, Rain stared through the through the passenger compartment to see the rock outcropping looming large.  

“Algernon.”  He focused all his attention through to Algernon in the passenger seat,   “The stick with the ball on top beside your leg.  It controls the gears. Bring the stick down to the centre to disengage the engine.”   Instantly Algernon grabbed the gear stick and dragged it back into the neutral. With a crash and growl of gearing the engine revved wildly but to no use.  Without the engine to propel it, the car slowed quickly in the soft sand. Rain slid out of the boot and ran along beside the car to the front door . Grabbing the driver’s door, he pulled it open then dragged the body off the accelerator. The car rolled to a stop.

“Wow!  That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen!”  Rain applauded Algernon wide eyed and shaking.

“I think that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever done,”  Algernon replied, a little wide eyed himself.

The car now still and silent, Rain examined the dead woman in front of him. Both the spear  and the bolt were dead shots killing her instantly. Keeping his focus away from the the wounds they had inflicted on this once living person, he searched the body. He found a huge hunting knife, a small leather bag containing ten finger bones, a large needle, similar to the one found by Margarita, and a cutlass.  As the adrenaline subsided, his head swam in the a very familiar way and Rain sat himself down in the dust beside the car quaking with uncontrollably.

Algernon made it back to the rock to see Bruce providing first aid to the Valkyrie, the spear bloodied but free of the woman’s thigh.

“You managed to get the spear out?”  Algernon commented gesturing to the fine shot Margarita had made.
“Yes, I’ve wrapped the wound as best I could, but she’ll need medical help soon.” Bruce commented not looking up.

“Is it usable?”  Algernon picked up the spear and after examining it handed it back to Margarita.

Bruce returned to his patient in shocked silence at the callousness of youth.

“So, if you’re not a Rockwheeler, what are you?” Margarita asked as she returned the spear to her small collection.

“A boy.”  Algernon replied in his completely unconvincingly way.

“Where did you grow up?”

“Somewhere else……West Constance street?”

“Who looked after you? Fed you?”

“The Doctor.”  He admitted, and both Margarita and Bruce took notice at this small revelation.

“Doctor of what?  What was her specialty?”

“Um…things I didn’t understand.”

“Hard stuff, maths stuff, chemical stuff?”  Margarita suggested.

“Yes.”  Algernon replied.

“How old are you?”  Bruce joined in the interrogation.


“15 years old.”

“Yes, years.”

Much to Algernon’s relief the discussion eventually drifted on to the welfare of the Valkyrie Bruce had saved.  Bruce would not leave her at the cave. Having injured her and then tended to those wounds he felt responsible for her livelihood.  Instead he carried her to the car and placed her in the back where he found Rain, slumped behind the car. As the woman’s body moved the car, Rain jumped off the ground and spun to see Bruce.

“Oh, ready to go then are we?”  He said falsely cheerful, “Decided on a direction?”

“I think towards the mountain.”  Algernon replied getting in beside the unconscious Valkyrie in the back seat.

“Towards the cannibal women’s home?” Rain looked from Algernon to Bruce who only shrugged, no longer sure what was the right course in this crazy world.

“I think that’s where it’s safe from the dust.” Algernon explained and to that everyone had to agree.

Elmer and Bruce climbed in the boot while Rain took the passenger seat and Margarita took the driver’s.

“By the way, marvelous shot, Margarita.”  Rain whispered as she sat down to take the wheel.

“Th-ank you.”  She stuttered a reply and Rain noticed how shy the normally bossy doctor became when genuinely complimented, “It’s Peggy. Only my Yaya calls me Margarita.”

Rain smiled, his usual resilient self reasserting itself.

“My Yaya!  She’s alone, she’s 90 and she has a bad hip!”  Peggy horrified a her lack of duty to her aged grandmother. It was the first time in this whole adventure that she’d remembered her and her lack of thought made her feel physically ill.

“Hey, we’ll get back to her soon.” Rain soothed her, “Look, we already have a car.”

A rusty streak of dust and car scarred the desert drawing a line straight to the mountains. The sun still hung high in the sky, once again revealing to those looking for evidence, that this place wasn’t quite Earth.  Soon the sheer cliffs of the mountain range became clear.  A well driven path lead up a canyon no more than a crack in the Earth.  High above the entrance to the canyon two cages hung, providing an excellent view for miles around to the two armed figures within.

“Er…I think we better stop.”  Algernon’s voice sounded strained and worried.  Rain turned to see the backseat awash in blood from the wounded Valkyrie and blanched.

“Stop the car!”  Bruce ordered and Penny ground the tyres into the baked earth.  Unable to deal with the sight and smell of the blood, Rain jumped out of the car and vomited.

Clambering out of the boot, Bruce opened the rear door nearest the injured woman,  blood dripped off the door and onto the dust. For a moment it was too much for even him to process.

“What happened?”  The look of shock on Bruce’s face slowly became one of accusation and he tried to make sense of the spectacle in front of him, “What….what did you do, Algernon?” 

“I didn’t do anything.”   Algernon protested, but as usual, his pleas of innocence never seemed to ring true to the others in the group.  “Maybe the bumping…?”  

“What bumps, I was driving smoothly.”  Peggy turned in her seat and was confronted by the horror scene, “Almighty God you must have done something to her.  What did you do?”

“I didn’t…” 

“And if he had?”  Rain, pale and sober confronted the boy’s accusers, “If he had, why make us stop the car? Why not let her bleed out?”  Rain looked seriously at the young man in the back of the blood-soaked car, maybe for the first time. “Come on, we can’t help her here.  We’ll take her with us, get her to a hospital instead of whatever passes for one out here.”

Bruce pulled out a fresh bandage from his first aid kit and wrapped it tightly around the old to stop the blood, but he feared that even if they were to find help, she would not survive.

“Hera, your back?” Came a crackling voice over the walkie talkie.  Rain quickly picked up the handset and replied in the same accent and intonation.

“Ah, yeah.  Just spotted some tracks ‘ere.  Gonna follow them for a bit.”  

“Yeah, got it.”  The voice answered accepting his words as those of their sister’s.

“You could have tried to learn something?”  Bruce grumbled as he climbed back to the car

“Shut up!”  Peggy screamed slamming the wheel, “Listen to the anthropologist.  They’re cannibals. You’re the muscle. Don’t talk until you grow a brain!”

Bruce stared at Peggy as if he hadn’t seen her before. Slowly he climbed into the boot with McCain and Peggy turned the car to the left to followed the cliff face in silence.

Not far from the canyon entrance, a watershed lead up into the rocky mountains themselves.  The geiger-counter had been steadily dropping over the whole journey and it was clear, if they were going to be free of the radiation’s influence, they needed to move up.  With the group’s approval, Peggy turned the car and took the path. It narrowed almost instantly, leading to a large run-off canal. Flanked on both sides by steep cliffs of red stone, it climbed into the heart of the mountains. Here the air was cool and fresh after the dry dusty atmosphere of the flats and the group started to feel like they could actually survive their crazy journey.

Suddenly, the path eneded in a blind canyon, surrounded by insurmountable red stone walls. Here, protected by thick high stone from the weather and dust, a sink-hole fell away into darkness.

“The readings are good here, but we should have an even better chance of clearing the radiation down there.”  Elmer nodded, pointing down into the sinkhole. Bruce had found some rope in the boot and he now unwound it, as the party tried to work out who to send down first.

“Send the Valkyrie down first and then we can follow, “ Rain suggested pointing to Algernon, “He’s light.  We could send them down together.”

“I don’t think that’s a good i…” Algernon started shaking his head before being cut off by Bruce.
“There’s no way I’m leaving her alone with that teen hoodlum.”  Bruce scowled and Algernon stepped away from the bigger man.  “I can’t see why we couldn’t just take her to a hospital.  Find some real help, not just drop her down a hole.”

“Bruce.”  Rain walked up to the bigger man and placed his small hand on a massive bicep. He spoke quietly in his most sensible and persuasive tones, “This is the way to the hospital.  The quicker we get her down the hole and back home, the quicker we can get her to real medical treatment.”

“I don’t like any of this.”  Bruce grumbled but agreed grudgingly by preparing the woman for her descent down the hole.

The process of lowering was uneventful, Bruce being well versed in moving items around via rope. Algernon was still the obvious choice to go down first and soon he and the Valkyrie were down the hole with the geiger-counter.  In the light from above Algernon explored the space. From above, the floor of the sink hole was an inky blackness and the group could only hear Algernon’s soft footfalls and the skitter of loose rock. The geiger-counter was almost silent. 

Around him, the rock at first sight looked like smooth flowstone, or limestone polished smooth by the action of moving water. As Algernon’s eyes adjusted to the dim light he saw carved faces, merging smoothly from one to the next.  The stone flowed toward two close metal doors set at the far end of the cave. As his eyes scanned the area, over in a dark corner, a small dim glow caught Algernon’s attention.  

Out of place amongst the ancient stone and metal, a device the size of a small backpack, filled its immediate area with artificial light.  As Algernon investigated the item, one by one, the rest of the group made it safely down the rope and into the cavern.

“Ah yes, I believe you’ve stumbled across the source of many of our problems.”  McCain bent down to the unusual device. Tinkering with its many interfaces he finally switched the the machine off, its lights faded until they were all plunged back into the natural darkness.

“Yes, that should do it.  It seems it was set up to draw travellers of The Strange to this place. I assume its what drew me here.”  He studied the item more closely, eventually saying more to himself, “Hertzfeld will want to see this thing. It certainly doesn’t belong here, but I’d be hard pressed to say where it belongs.”

“Do you think that’s why Peggy’s portal brought us here.”  Algernon theorised examining the device and the older man sat up surprised. McCain turned to Peggy, a quizzical expression on his weathered face.
“You made a portal?”

“Well more a matter displacement horizon, but…” She qualified and would have rambled of if McCain had not cut her off.

“And where did you say you did this?”

“My home, outside New Orleans.  In my garage…” She squared her shoulders, expecting some sort of rebuke or ridicule. Instead McCain just blinked and shook his head.


Meanwhile, the large metal doors had attracted the attention of Rain. The flow stone leading to the door and their massive proportions spoke of a culture and society far beyond what they had seen from the Valkyries. He quickly applied the ointment Peggy had found. During their drive to the mountains he’d worked out it was meant to make one person invisible and he was curious to see how it performed.  Instantly, he and everything on him disappeared even from his own sight. With a quiet chuckle, he snuck away through the two metal doors. 

The doors emptied out into a hallway that snaked its way through the solid rock of the mountain. A light ahead became the glaring sun diffused by a deep canyon. The Valkyries canyon. From there he watched all variety of vehicles drive along the canyon floor to a small settlement sheltered in the stone walls of the mountains.

“You clever little bugger.” He thought, thinking back to how adamant Alagenon was to follow the road warriors into the mountains away from the exposed desert. For all his seeming naivety, it was clear the boy knew more than he let on. “It will be worthwhile keeping an eye on you.”

When Rain snuck back to the others, they had only started wondering where he’d got to and he was able to surprise them all by appearing in their midst.

“I’m here. ”  He said, standing and breaking the illusion the lotion had created. He kept his face neutral and open taking pleasure at everyone’s surprised expressions. ” Ready to go? “

McCain instructed the group to sit in a circle around him, holding hands .  The Valkyrie was included in the circle between Rain and Algernon, holding a hand each. Everyone felt self-conscious at this unusual process, but Bruce was the only one to complain out loud.

“First we have to travel down a hole and now we got to sit around in a circle singing Kum ba yah?”

“Come on, Professor. We can’t do anything for this woman while we’re here. This is our one chance.” Rain held out his hand to Bruce standing off to one side. Rolling his eyes, he sat down with the rest, taking Rain’s and Peggy’s hands.

“Don’t call me Professor.”

McCain turned something on his device on and closed his eyes. The four, with their unconscious patient, looked at each other across the circle, wondering how circumstance had lead them to be together. Each so very different, each surprised by the skills and knowledge of the others. Thinking of each other, a tug from somewhere deep in their being locked them together.  A lifting, disembodied, spinning sensation took them. They closed their eyes as the cave spun into an uncomfortable blur around them. Then they were travelling with purpose from location to location through a black swirling energy that formed and united all around it. Their minds and wills were merely cogs, seized to be part of the machinery of movement, directing, propelling and easing process, all controlled somehow by McCain.  Eventually the sensation of movement slowed and ceased. The spinning, disembodied feeling subsided until they felt safe enough to let go of each other’s hands and open their eyes.

Blinding fluorescent lights filled a white room.  Around them a circle of cushions were arrayed and up the far end a roller door closed the space off from the outside world.  Both Algernon and Rain leaped up when they noticed that they no longer held the hands of an injured woman, but a replicant complete with studded leather outfit and wrapped injury and none of the humanity.

“She didn’t have the spark of consciousness.”McCain said giving the once murderous Valkyrie no more than a second glance, “It was to be expected.”

Bruce was equally surprised to see Peggy wearing a homemade radiation top, yoga pants and steel toed Ugg boots. They hadn’t had much of a chance to see her in the dark of her porch. Now, her outlandish outfit in this clean and spartan environment made even her blush.

“This is the maddest VR simulation ever.”  Rain wiped his hands together shakily and started from the once vibrant living person to Peggy in her homemade outfit in equal astonishment.

The roller door at the far end opened and a man and a woman stepped through.  The woman dressed in a neatly tailored business suit went straight to McCain and asked in clipped toned what had happened.

“I was recurssing to Ardeyn to check in with Rainis when I was pulled off course by this, “ he gestured to the device from the cave. He handed it to the man who, though dressed more casually underneath, was covered in a white lab coat, “You’ll want to have a look at this.  And…” McCain now gestured to the group still sitting on the floor, “…they’re all quickened.”

“All?” The man replied in disbelief looking from the group to McCain. Elmer McCain who was already walking out the roller door didn’t bother to turn around,

“Yes, all.”

“Quickened, what does that mean?  What’s the spark of consciousness?”  Bruce was the first on his feet trying to make sense of the situation by taking charge.  They were definitely home, but where ?

“I hope it doesn’t mean we now have to fight each other, ‘There can be only one!’”  Quipped Rain weakly as he purposefully moved away from the once Valkyrie, “I can’t do a scottish accent.”

“Neither could he.”  Giggled Peggy whose knowledge of movies was only eclipsed by her knowledge of science.

The business woman walked up to the group and introduced herself,

“My name is Katherine Manners, and I wish to welcome you all to The Estate.  You have just made a translation from one recursion to another though The Strange.  If McCain is correct then you all would have felt part of that transition either initiating it, quickening its progression or softening the impact of the transition.  These skills shows you are all quickened and some part of you can interact with The Strange. It is a very rare gift so to find four individuals together is unique opportunity for us. Tell me, how long have you been travelling The Strange?”

Silence as the group look around at each other trying to make sense of her words in their own way.  

“I’ve been travelling for the past six month, but I must say The Strange is a new one.” Rain yawned, not trying to hide his complete exhaustion.

“I’ve been travelling with these strangers for a couple of hours.”  Bruce answered truthfully and pulled out his phone, visibly relaxing when he found it was no longer a Walkie-Talkie.

“I just want to travel home.” Peggy sighed, and in that moment looked fragile and lost.

“I’m just a boy.”  Algernon stated in the way they’d all come to distrust.

As one, Bruce, Peggy and Rain turned to Katherine and replied,

“No.  He is not just  a boy!”  

“Maybe we should debrief after you’re rested.” Katherine eyed the group, their clothes and injuries, “You’re welcome to stay here for the night.” With the offer of a safe place to stay and comfortable beds Bruce, Peggy and Rain instantly relaxed.

“Is it safe?”  Algernon asked her directly still unsure of where his adventurers had landed him. Peggy and Rain who had over heard the comment paused and wondered once more about their unusual young companion.

“Oh!” Bruce looked up from his phone showing a Google search page open at a the Urban Dictionary, “I just found out what long-pig meant.”

Like a group of lost children, the four of them were led through a complex of buildings, offices and laboratories until they reach a section more for human comfort than human toil. Off a hallway a room full of double decker beds, clean and spartan like the rest of the complex, it called to the weary travellers. Rain spent no time plugging his phone into a charger, simply falling into a top bunk. Algernon looked around looking lost and alone. 

“Is it safe?” He asked again uncertain of everything he saw.

“Perfectly safe, while I’m here.” Bruce reassured him and he too found a bed to stretch out on.

Peggy alone stood in the doorway, her arms wrapped around her protectively.

“I can’t sleep here.”  She shook her head adamantly and Katherine showed her to another room across the hall.

Sleep came to the four of them in different ways.  Bruce slept the sleep of the just and woke early ready for whatever the day held. To Peggy, sleep was delayed as she first rang her brother and convinced him to check on their Grandmother. Being solely responsible for her welfare for the past few years she was relieved and able to finally rest when he reported that she was well and calling for her Margarita.  Rain dropped straight into an exhausted sleep, but as usual didn’t stay there long as the old dreams plagued him. Algernon lay listening to everything. Starting and every movement of his companions, every caught breath or sleep mumbled phrase. He heard everything and made sense of almost none of it. For him, that night was almost as nightmarish as the day they had just experienced.

The next morning, a hot breakfast was ready and waiting in the mess for the group as they awoke.  Bruce was already seated with an array of dishes surrounding him as Algernon entered and discovered the wonder that is coffee. Peggy turned up soon after and all three were well into their breakfasts when Rain stumbled in, led by the nose straight to the coffee machine.

“Coffee-e is g-ood, isn’t it?” Algernon jittered in his seat after three heavily sugared black coffees.

“Nectar of the gods.”  Croaked Rain clasping the hot mug like a life-line. 

“This is not a bad place, hey Tobias?” Algernon said using a name he’d heard Rain mention the night before. Either by accident or on purpose, the results were the same.

The movement of the cup to Rain’s lips stopped and he stared, speechless at Algernon.


“Uh…where…where did you hear that?” The usually sharp little man stumbled over his words, forcing them out of nerveless lips, “My name is Rain,”

“Oh, sorry I…” Algernon started to apologise. Rain scanned the room ensuring the other two hadn’t heard and added before Algernon could finish,

“Rain.  Remember.”  He returned to his coffee as if nothing had happened.

After breakfast the group debriefed with McCain and the man in the lab coat from the night before, Hertzfeld.  He seemed to be one of a group individuals in charge of the facility along with Katherine Manners. Hertzfeld seemed an ecentric scientist type whose main interest at that moment was Peggy’s portal machine.

“A teleporter, really?” Peggy was surprise that her machine, that she had created to find the illusive Rockwheelers, was a portal creator to other worlds. “I was about to start testing non-organic materials when someone stumbled out.”  She looked to Algernon, who looked more nervous than usual at that moment, “I…I thought it was an invasion.”

“We’d be interested in supporting your work.  We’d in fact like to offer you all jobs with The Estate, but Peggy’s research takes us into the realm of stable portals, a topic that we find very exciting.”  Dr Hertzfeld addressed the group. Peggy became instantly suspicious of the senior man.

“You won’t take my work away from me or take the credit?” Peggy asked almost accusing him of similar practises in the past.

“That’s not how we do things here at The Estate.” He assured her, “We’re a philanthropic institution that seeks out and promotes good science in the more …esoteric fields of study.  You would have heard of the Estate Foundation that funds the Morrison Fellowship Prizes each year?”

Peggy and Rain nodded.  It was as big as the Nobel or Pulitzer Prizes and sought out those who studied the more unusual questions to life.  Those who were given the prize were minor celebraties, if only for a short while. Algernon sat silently knowing nothing about culture of the world he’d been dragged into and Bruce looked confused, usually not caring for such things .

“The Estate is more than this.” Hertzfeld continued,  “We monitor translations to and from Earth.  That is, people leaving and arriving through The Strange.  There’s a number of people who make a living travelling the recursions, called Recursion Miners.  We make sure they don’t bring back anything that could harm Earth. Think of us as Border Control.”

“Or Men in Black!” Rain added slipping on imaginary black sunglasses.

“Keeping Earth safe.  I like the sound of that.”  Bruce mused finally hearing something that he could appreciate.

“It would be nice to conduct my research in a fully funded laboratory.” Peggy acknowledged, her mind slipping into a daydream of her perfect research space.

“Sounds like it could be fun for, a while.”  Rain tried to play it cool, then quickly blew the image, “All those recursions, all those new identities to create. No one will ever find me out there.”

Algernon only wanted to know one thing, 

“Do you have an information portal that I can start learning about Earth?”

Rain pulled out his laptop and handed to the young man.

“Welcome to Earth.”

1. A rainy night

The bus’s tyres splashed through the black puddles of rainwater by the side of Highway 58.  As soon as it came to a full stop the twin doors swung open and two figures stepped out into the cold drizzle.

“Hopefully a walk in the rain will cool you two off.”  Said the bus driver as she closed the doors and drove off, splashing puddles in her wake.

“Well how appropriate,“  Said the shorter who had already identified himself as Rain. He flipped his hood over his dark mop of hair and wrapped his black jacket closer to his sparse frame. His lilting tenor held the hint of England and places other than by  the side of a New Orleans road on a rainy night. “So what now, Brucie of the bright and shining hi-vis?”

The bigger man turned his weathered face to the troublemaker in front of him.  Under his thick all weather coat the orange high-visibility shirt of his profession showed clearly in the light of the passing car headlights.  On his shoulder a duffle-bag hung, the head of a massive sledgehammer sticking out the top .

“The name’s Bruce and I’m handing you into police as soon…”  He drawled in the local accent as he pulling out his phone, checking the signal strength.  Nothing, not even emergency access. “…change of plan, we’ll find a gas station or house where I can use a phone and then you are off my hands.”

“In this?”  Rain stared around at the near total blackness that surrounded them and spotted, past the cover of trees off the highway, a twinkle of lights.  “Hey, it looks like you’re lucky nigh-” Rain started towards the light but was choked to a stop by his own coat collar in Bruce’s firm grasp.

“Oh, no.  You’re not going anywhere without me.”  Bruce said in Rain’s ear before pushing him ahead towards the light.  

“You know I wasn’t doing any harm.”  Rain said over his shoulder to the stoic giant behind him, “We’d been on the bus for hours when you got on. I was bored and she was enjoying it.  What have you got against a little sleight of hand?”

“I know what you were up to. You gain the confidence of some sweet young thing and then hit them up for money, or worse. You jerks are all alike, I bet you’ve never worked a day in your life.”

Rain glanced at the sledgehammer and had to agree, his physique was not built for throwing around such lumps of metal.

“I’ll have you know,  it takes a lot of work to get as good as I am.  The art of Illusion is not a lazy man’s vocation.”

Bruce grunted, but said nothing more.

The twinkles of light resolved themselves into a group of houses alone in a stretch of what looked like reclaimed swamp land.  All around the black shimmer of still water warned them both to stay on what was left of an asphalted road. Even the houses looked like they were being returned to the swamp. Sagging roof lines and warped timber-cladding were testament to the works of nature.  The first house was a riot of lights from a distance. As the two men approached however, first a light in the garage and then one on the ground floor of the house went out.

“Friendly, aren’t they.”  Rain quipped as they stepped up onto the porch and Bruce knocked on the door. The porch light went off and a muffled swear came from the other side of the door.

“Hello,” Rain leaned close to the door and spoke as cheerily as he could over the pounding of the storm. “I’m Rain and this is Bruce and we’re looking for some shelter from the weather, maybe a telephone?”

“I know who you are,” Came an accusatory woman’s voice from the other side, “You’re Rockwheelers, I saw your scout this afternoon!  You better leave before I set off the mine!”

Rain thought to call her bluff until he looked down, and in a makeshift box beside the door, was a mine primed and ready to explode.

“Well, that’s clever, “Rain replied coolly, turning to Bruce, “Let’s not tarry, Brucie-boy.”  Quickly he stepped away from the mine.

“I warned you!” Said the voice.

“Shut up and go!”  Bruce yelled, pulling the smaller man around and covered him with his own body.  

The mine went off with a Flash-Bang and the sizzle of a static electric shock.  Though noisy, smelly and sending spots of white dancing in their vision, the mine did little to the two men but convince them to move on.  Through the downpour, they crossed the road to the next house, down the street.

This house, in contrast, was black and deserted looking.  It was in the same sorry state of repair but whereas the other was lit and occupied this looked abandoned to the elements.  With no other place to go, Bruce knocked on the door and was greeted by a teenager in a private school uniform. Blazer, white shirt, dark shorts and black leather shoes.  His affluent middle-class look was a stark contrast to the house around him.

“Sorry to disturb you, young man, but we need a phone.  We’ve been stranded.” Bruce stated matter of factly. Under a heavy black fringe of hair, the kid”s large eyes moved from Bruce to Rain.

“Are you Rockwheelers?”  He asked looking furtively over at the house across the way.

“Ur…like the dogs?”  Rain replied confused, “Sorry to take you from your studies, but are your parents around?”

“No, not right now.”  The boy admitted cautiously as would be expected living next to the crazy-mine-woman.

“Well, we only want to use your phone.  You do have one, don’t you?” Bruce asked again.  The boy just stood in the door looking confused.  

“Telephone …sure.” He replied unconvincingly. It didn’t take the slippery mind of Rain to work out the kid didn’t seem to know what a telephone was or where to find one. Though, the kids confusion did give Rain a break.

“Don’t mind him, I’m Rain.”  He said, slipping the steel grip of Bruce for  a moment to step gracefully past the boy and into the house. “What’s your name?”


“Algernon, would you mind if we just have a look around for a phone?  As soon as we make a call we’ll be out of your house, I promise.”

“Get back here, you’re not leaving my sight.”  Bruce barge through Algernon and re-caught his quarry. Once inside however, both glanced around the what would have been the lounge. It was completely empty of any furniture, not a chair or card table and certainly no phone. This house didn’t just look abandoned, it had been and for some time.

“This is not your house is it?”  Bruce rounded on Algernon who quailed physically under the accusation.

“This is my house, my parents will be home soon.” He responded automatically, backing up from the big man until his back hit the open door. 
“Hey Algernon, there’s no shame in living rough.”  Rain turned sympathetically to the young man, “I’ve been where you are now. You’ve done well to find this place, it’s a pretty good squat.” 

Bruce’s baleful gaze once more fell on Rain, “Typical.”  More gently, he spoke again to the Algernon , “I think you better come with me, I don’t feel comfortable leaving you alone.”

“Where are we going, Brucie? It’s raining!” Rain wailed, gesturing to outside the empty windows, “Why don’t we just stay here until morning…”
But Bruce wasn’t listening and dragged both Rain and Algernon back into the rain, the cold and the dark.

Across the road a female figure stood silhouetted against the porch light.  When the group of three scuttled back across the road the figure disappeared back inside the house, closing the door behind her.

“Hey! Ma’am?”  Bruce called, frustrated at the once more closed door.

“Brucie, she’s had a shock!”  Rain chided the bigger man before trying again at the door, “I know we’ve given you a bit of a scare…

“…we’ve given her a scare…what about that mine…” Grumbled Bruce, Rain ignored his groaning and continued, “…and for that I’m sorry.  If you could just give us access to your phone we can be on our way.”

“How did my mine not hurt you?  Unless you’re not Rockwheelers…you just want to use the phone?”  Came a nervous voice moving from thought to thought in quick succession.

“That’s right, just to call a cab.”

There was no reply, but footsteps could be heard moving away from the door and then the tearing of plasterwork as a cord was pulled through it.  The next thing, the door opened and a corded telephone appeared through the gap. Bruce leaped for the phone, opening the door and a young woman with glasses pushed up on top of her head was exposed. Her eyes instantly lighted on Algernon  hiding behind the two men.

“Rockwheeler!”  She screamed and grabbed a long metal bodied torch from beside the door.   Disappointed that this phone was also dead, Bruce hung up the receiver and tried offering it back to the screaming torch-wielding woman oblivious.  Algernon sprung back from the porch in a clatter of ungainly limbs.

“She’s a mad scientist!  She’s insane!”

Above the chaos of yelling voices and the incessant rain, a whirling-whining sound of electric motors started up. Sparks of electricity lit the night in front of the garage, strobing the heavy raindrops to stillness.   One by one, the four focused on the sound and light show in front of them.

“My inventions!”  The woman screamed forgetting the two men and the lost looking teen. All thoughts of Rockwheelers and bedraggled strangers forgotten, she pushed past the group and ran towards the garage door.  Free once more from Bruce’s grip, Rain curiously followed her to the garage door with Bruce and Algernon not far behind.

Inside, a huge machine made of makeshift parts connected to a bank of home computers, was now booting up. An array of car batteries connected to unknown contraptions sparked sending arcs of electricity into the heart of the machine that groaned electronically into life.

“Can I help? ” Offered Rain from around the corner of the door. “I’m good with computers.”

“Don’t touch it!  Did you touch it?” She cried, flinging herself bodily over the machine protectively. “I don’t know what he did, but when I opened the portal he stepped out. The first of an invasion!” She pointed to Algernon who looked aggrieved to have been blamed for anything to do with her machine.

“I never! You kidnapped me!”

The woman scampered around the contraption , flicking a switch, reading a scrolling screen of data and typing a command into another as the whine of the motors continued to increase.  The energy build up was sudden and all encompassing. With a crash of light, sound and force something discharged, blasting everyone with a bright blinding flash. Blind, deaf, mute and numb, all four cowered under the assault…

Deserts and mountains encircled the little group of four.  Harsh bright light beat down from a clear blue sky and reflected up from the baked earth. Suddenly they were all aware they were dry and very, very hot.  Bruce was no longer wearing his all-weather jacket over hi-vis shirt, but a spiked leather jacket, and his hammer hung from his back in a kind of brace.  Rain looked down at a full-length oilskin just like a 19th Century cowboys ‘Duster’. He couldn’t help but flick the length of it behind him experimentally laughing like a child in surprise and joy. The woman was now wearing a set of leather goggles high on her head and a hubcap breastplate strapped to her chest with thick leather thong.  On her right forearm a harpoon-like weapon was strapped and she seemed surprised to see it there. The kid was the oddest of all. A full metal facemask covered his features making him look like a serial killer cyborg.  

Before anyone could question what was going on, a walkie-talkie strapped to Bruce’s side crackled to life.

“There’s a likely bunch!  Hey fellas! We’re going to eat well tonight!” A woman’s harsh voice spoke making everyone jump. Bruce spotted the plumes of dust rising off the desert. They could just hear the roar of unmuffled engines gaining speed.

“Run!”  Bruce pointed to a rocky outcropping nearby and the group as one raced towards potential safety.  Algernon proved the most agile, scampering up the steep side of the rock where he found a small cave. With help, the rest made it up the  rock and into the relative darkness inside.

They weren’t alone.  

Under the glow of the woman’s torch (now transformed into an actual stick with wound cloth) deep in the cave’s shadowed interior an elderly man lay.  His clothes torn and dusty, sunburn, gashes and chaffing marked every inch of exposed skin. The man looked like he had traveled far and was not likely to travel further without help.

“Are you from the Estate? Have you come to rescue me?”  He asked faintly, sitting up with an effort to face the group.  All the words were understandable and all in the correct order. The group looked at each other as if he’d spoken a foreign language.

“Ur…Rain Bigby, Bruce, Algernon and …the Doc, “  Crouching down to the prone man’s level, Rain introduced the group, “ We’re not sure what’s going on. You couldn’t tell us where we are? ”

“Oh,”  The old man sighed, disapointed as he slumped back against the wall of the cave, “I am Elmer McCain and I work for the Estate out of Seattle.  As for where we are, one of the many world’s linked to the Earth by the Strange.”

“A Recursion.”  Algernon piped up surprising everyone, including Rain who had used the moment’s distraction to try pick-pocket Bruce. The revelation made him stumble and Bruce was made aware.

“Yes, indeed.  A Recursion.” El McCain nodded to the young man and looking at him knowingly.

“You know about these, recursions?”  Bruce asked Algernon as he snatched the Walkie Talkie out of Rain’s tricky fingers and gave him a hard look. Rain only smile and put his hands up in surrender.

“Me?  No, I don’t know anything.”  Algernon protested weakly. He certainly seemed to know more about what was going on than the rest of the group.

“But that was meant to be a portal to the subterranean world of the Rockwheelers!” The woman now wailed and collapsed to the ground.

The roaring of the oncoming machines outside grew louder and all eyes went to the front of the cave. Thoughts of Recursions and Portal were forgotten in the immediate danger of being someone’s lunch.

“Right now we have more pressing issues.”  Bruce announced and turned on Rain who was studying Algernon curiously. “You’re tricksy, why don’t you con those guys into leaving.”  He said, handing the Walkie-Talkie to Rain.

‘Oh really? What a thought! I wonder why I didn’t think of that!”  Rain replied sarcastically, snatching the radio from Bruce’s outstretch hand and listened carefully to the chatter from the hoons outside.

“They crawled into a cave on the rock, I sawed them.”  Said one, and quickly Rain replied in the same accent, “Yeah, it goes all the way through to da other side. Let’s get them there.” 

“Er…Roger!”  Someone else replied and the engines’ roars began to fad as the cars circled the island of rock.

“Well I guess that will buy us some time.”  Bruce replied, turning back to the old man. “So you know of a way to leave this place?”

“Yes, but my equipment isn’t working.  There’s something blocking the translation,” He pulled out a strange piece of equipment and showed the group. It meant nothing Bruce and Rain and the kid was silent and watchful.

The image of misery at the revelation of her failures, the Doctor silently pulled a gadget from her pocket.  Obviously homemade, it was wand-like with a dial wired to the top that started clicking and screeching as she moved it around the cave.

“A home-made geiger-counter?”  Rain asked in awe, “You’re a genius! Doctor?”  The woman blushed at the sudden compliment, but ignored the implied question as the old man nodded sagely at the device’s  readings.

“Radiation. Probably trapped in the rocks here. That explains it.  We need to move from this place and then possibly I’ll be able to get us back to Earth at the very least.”

To be continued…