Hospitals are never really quiet. They are not places where the ill and injured can find good healing rest. Constantly the machines ping and whirr, one may even puff up a sleeve on you arm so hard it hurts. Then there’s the people, men and women in white, green or blue who come in to check on you, the chart at the foot of the bed or talk amongst themselves. Sometimes all three.
The boy newly named Tobias Cudo, sat up in his bed, his legs drawn up to his chest and wrapped around with skinny arms. He looked out into the darkened (but never really dark) ward listening with eyes and ears and skin to the other children. Their sniffles and shifting, their dreaming cries and gentle snores.
He could not sleep.
He could not remember how many days he’d been there. It had been days and days since the young man in the blue hat had given him to doctors and nurses inside a tent with flapping cloth walls. Someone with the Doctor’s and nurses had spoken to him, told him he was safe and that the doctors and nurses would take care of him. The boy who they called Tobais did not speak, he was too afraid to. He was afraid if he opened his mouth he’d start crying and never stop until he’d die. So he was silent and they gave him the name Tobias for the soldier that brought him in, and Cudo a word he knew meant miracle.
But what miracle was it to ….what? He’d lost something that only came back to him in dreams and was lost again on waking…screaming. So, besides when the doctor’s and nurses made him sleep with medicine, he did not sleep.
In the darkened ward, he remembered the doctors and nurses and people in uniforms standing around his bed in the tent with the flapping cloth walls. They talked and talked and finally brought back someone to tell him that they were sending him away, to a safe place to look after his head that hurt a lot, and give him a new place to live.
But what about…what?
He hadn’t known then, in the tent with the flapping cloth walls, but did now. He’d seen the children in the ward with their parents, their Mamas and Tatas. Sometimes brother or sister or uncles or others. But not the boy named Tobias. No one came to visit him, only the doctors and nurses who did not speak. They gabbled and smiled and poked and proded. The brought food and made sure he pooed, they checked the bandage on his head.
And they left him alone at night, to stare into the darkened ward.
And not sleep.
All except Jen.
Jen was only there at night. She spoke in broken words telling the boy named Tobias that she was Jen and she was “…pleased to meet you…”
Her words were funny, as if she was talking to a stranger or an adult, but she was the only one who spoke properly so the boy name Tobias could understand. And sometimes she taught him her words.
Such as: “Goedemorgen, Meneer Tobias.”
“Hoe gaat het vandaag?”
“Ik ben ziek.”
“Ik will graag eten”
Jen now peaked around the corner of the door and waved her fingers at the boy. He shifted in his head to get a better view and waved back. “Is goed, Meneer Tobias?” she asked. The boy nodded and just watched her. She looked behind, up and down the hall conspiratorially and then she came in holding a book.
Jen pulled out a piece of paper, she sometimes did that to talk.
“Mr Tobias, I hear you will leave soon for England where the people speak English. I brought this to help learn you English.” she said in her broken speech as she put the book on the bed in front of the boy.
“I no teach Dutch to you no more. I can teach you English.” She put away her paper and smiled, looking pleased at the boy.
The boy was horrified. What did this mean “…he would leave for England?” He knew of England, it was where they played football and they had a queen. But what was there for him? He grabbed one of her hands that lay clean and white on the bed and drew it to his chest. He tried to shake his head, but made the world spin so he stopped.
“No Jen?” he whispered in the words of Dutch she’d taught him, “No Jen in England?”
They were the first words he’d spoken, spoken to this kindly woman in the middle of the night. Tears filled Jen’s eyes and she cried. “No…I will not be in England.”
“Then no…no…Tobias.” what else to call himself, but the name they’d given him.
The boy now called Tobias lay back on his pillow, hand head swimming sickly as he tried to catch his breath. Jen made soothing sounds that meant nothing to the boy. She stepped up beside his head and wrapped her arms around him. This meant something , this was comfort and soon his breath came easier and he leaned his head against hers. He could smell the clean smell of her and it felt right and safe.
Slowly he became aware that she was saying a word he understood, over and over again.
Sorry…” and a thought entered his young and impressionable head that had never been there before.
ADULTS GET STUFF WRONG!
Everything he’d been through, the pain and confusion. Everything he’d seen and things he….didn’t remember. Everything was just a huge adult sized mistake. Who was he, a dumb stupid kid to fight that!
The realisation stopped his breath and Jen sat up to see his face, washed clean by tears, smiling. “What?” she asked in her own language and Tobias replied in the same.
After being left on a bare mountain top by the dragon, Balthazar, the group had spent the rest of the day finding a path back down again. When they sheltered for the night, Rain continued a paper-based conversation with Algernon, revealing a disturbing gap in his memory around a being that he is mortally afraid.
The rain may have passed, but Rain himself was still sitting propped up against a rock when the world outside the cave greeted the new day. Bruce started the morning with his usual round of calisthenics and Rain took the opportunity to explain the written conversation from the night before.
“But what does it mean?” Bruce asked perplexed. It seemed odd that Algernon would not know he had written something moments after writing it, not to mention not know what it meant. The kids could be secretive, but this seemed to be going to ridiculous lengths.
“It’s something he’s afraid of, above everything else. The only thing is when you ask him what it is, he doesn’t know what you’re talking about.” Rain conjectured out loud. He’d been mulling over the implications of this missing memory all night and now had an audience, “It’s like something is actively working against us. Something that can get into a person’s head.”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do about it here, is there?“ The thankfully, pragmatics Bruce replied, “We’ll tackle that one when it comes.” “I hope we recognise it when it comes.” Rain messed with his hair out of habit , “Hopefully that’s not when we’re looking down its throat.”
“Hey, if I have to tackle it from the inside, I will.” Bruce bragged, puffing up his sizeable chest before doubt deflated him once more. A distracted air settled over Bruce and he busied himself packing up his few things.
Rain looked at Bruce with concern, “Hey, are you okay?”
“These places…they mess you up.”
“They’re good for me.” Rain smiled, and another tiny sun lit the cave signaling the start of the day to the others. His gaze came back to Bruce, recognising the confession of weakness for what it was, “It was scary from this side too. I’ve come to…lean on the good old reliable Bruce. Fly off the handle, Bruce was too unpredictable for me.”
“Yeah…” Bruce was getting uncomfortable with the attention. Spotting Algernon he gestured to the youth. “Talking of your current talents, have you tried that thought-stealing one on Algernon?”
Rain shook his head, “It seems that particular talent hurts the recipient. I won’t be it very often in the future.”
“We could ask him…” And before Rain could protest, Bruce called across the cave to Algernon, “You wouldn’t mind if we had a look in your head, would you?”
“Oh no, “ Algernon replied emphatically, “ No more of that.”
“What?” Bruce started to this interesting tidbit of news. But try as he might, Algernon would now be drawn on the subject.
After a cold breakfast of rations the group prepared to return to their trek down the mountain. From the valley below, the regular beat of a drum and the tread of feet echoed off the mountains. Looking over the edge, Bruce spotted a small group of six individuals, four carriers, and two in palanquins beating the drums. Surprisingly these individuals were not the mongrel folk of the harbour, but a more reptilian body shape with the ones carrying being far more brutish in nature than the more delicate couple being carried.
“Don’t know anything about them.” Peggy shook her head as Bruce described the group.
“Well they’re heading this way, what do you want to do?”
“Why don’t we have a chat?” Rain suggested and stood waiting for the group in the middle of the path.
“Well I shouldn’t talk to them, I’m not the most tactful.” Peggy stepped aside as both Bruce and Rain look first at each other and then at her. “Well, that’s some character growth.” Bruce said as Rain quietly applauded Peggy.
“When people tell you to shut up enough you, get the message.”
Peggy, Celia and Algernon moved back into the shadows of the cave while Rain and Bruce waited for the strangers. With a clatter of clawed feet and the misbeat of the drums the group of reptile people came to a halt. One of the drummers looked down from his palanquin at the odd couple before them.
“You do not hold yourselves like slaves.” He said in a voice as rough as his scales.
“You are a very insightful person.” Rain smiled his cheeriest welcome, “My name is Pavel. So, you’ve had dealings with humans that have come before?”
The reptile head flicked up in what could only be assumed to be agreement, “I am Raks. Your souls and body are both here, this is not usual among the slaves.” Raks head twisted sideways so one eye could get a better look at the newcomers. The action made him look more like his reptile and avian relatives and somehow less dangerous.
Bruce snorted a laugh, “You have a pretty good set up here. I wouldn’t want to rak the boat.” He punned, enlisting a groan from Rain and signaling the others to join in the conversation.
“You have been very gracious, “ Rain trying to draw the attention back to himself, “We’ve not had good relations since arriving. The people of the town seemed very angry.”
“Yes, human aren’t usually so….present as you seem to be.”
“Why not?” Peggy asked, her curiosity overcoming any concerns. Rak’s head flicked around to focus on her.
“Here you are the anomaly. It should be asked, why are you so aware?”
“We’ve traveled…another way than most.” Rain added
Celia stepped out of the shadows emboldened by the others attempts at conversation. “What is your role, if I may ask?”
“I am a priest. I teach and lead my people in a town far into the mountains.”
“And the people of the city below? They are not of your kind, who are they?”
When speaking of his home, Raks had shown pride in his people and culture. Now that pride was clearly replaced with disdain.
“They are the Lang, the slaves of the Moonbeast. They came to these shores long ago from across the sea. Their town is Sarkomand.”
“Well, you have been a font of info…” Rain started as he made to step aside and let the group past.
Peggy had other ideas and said, “Our people are being unfairly subjugated in that city. What can we do about gaining their release?”
Raks, threw back his head and made several sounds like the cracking wood, a rough sharp sound that Rain assumed was laughter, “You wish to free the slaves? I wish you luck in your battle.”
“For your side, perhaps.” Raks looked around the group now seeing all five of them. “Perhaps, slaughter.”
“What is the Moonbeast?” Peggy added as Raks gestured to his bearers. Raks turned and looked seriously at the group, understanding that no one knew about the Moonbeast. “You do not know and you intend to make war? You are courageous.”
Intrigued by this statment, Algernon tried scanning Raks’ surface thoughts. The response was instant. Raks flicked his head into Algernon’s direction, his black eyes boring into Algernon’s.
A bold move, little human. Said Rak’s voice in his mind and Algernon stepped back surprised. Out loud, Raks addressed the group, “I was going to let you go, but after the little ones trespass…” He gestured and the bearers as one readied themselves for battle.
Instantly Bruce stepped up brandishing his crowbar. Rain stepped up beside him and inspired Bruce with a nod. Stealing himself, Bruce looked Raks straight in the eyes and addressed the whole reptile party.
“If you start a battle, this will hurt everyone including you.” He pointed his crowbar at Raks.
“We won’t be going anywhere except under our own volition.” Peggy yelled back dragging Algernon out of the cave by the ear, “And Algernon says he’s sorry.” She turned to Algernon speaking in a low voice that everyone could hear, “Dude, learn to read a room!”
Raks leaned back in the seat of his palanquin and quietly assessed the situation. Human’s they may be, but these ones had shown themselves to be intelligent and capable. He gestured once more and the bearers stood back at ease and picked up their burden to move on.
“Keep your little one on a leash.” Raks growled as he passed Bruce and continued their way up the mountain path.
The group watched Raks and his group leave before continuing their journey. The mountain path flattened out into softer foothill and eventually a grassy plain. Buoyed by the mostly positive interactions with Raks, Rain made a stream of butterflies, fireworks, streamers and rainbow coloured balloons appear around the group.
“Your skills have certainly progressed,” Bruce commented as a dove fluttered away and dissolved into nothing. “I noticed you don’t inspire as much as you used to, though.”
Rain shrugged, making a cloud of sparks that floated away over the shrubs before it too dissolved in thin air.
“I didn’t feel like I was helping that much.” He acknowledged, “I know these abilities are only temporary, but…” Rain stopped and turned to the group. “Do you guys mind if I stop and try something?”
It had been a long dry walk and everyone seemed happy for a break. As they found soft grassy seats to sit and eat a few rations, Rain found an open piece of ground and started creating a new illusion. It was definitely a couple, a man and woman standing side by side in western clothing, thirty years previous. The woman wore a red scarf loosely covering her head and shoulders, bright metallic gold sparkled at her neck. Other than that the image was fuzzy, details of their face were blurred or missing altogether. After several minutes of trying to draw out more of the image, Rain let the illusion go and sat down heavily in the grass. Slowing the couple dissolved, becoming see-through before disappearing altogether.
“Thanks.” He said self-consciously to the group, “I just wanted to try that while I could.”
“Who are they?” Algernon asked.
“I don’t know. A dream.” Rain shook his head, his eyes staring into nowhere, “Do you think you could look…no bad idea, forget I said anything.”
“Why? Would you like me to look in your mind?”
“No. There are…things I would not want an enemy to experience. I certainly would not want you to have to.”
“Was she an evil stepmother?”
Rain sighed. This was well trodden ground for him, but rarely had he ever vocalised his thoughts to anyone.
“Algernon, I could tell you a fairytale about them. How they loved their little boy and one day, through no fault of their own they lost him in a wood. I can tell you that, but it wouldn’t be true because I don’t know what is true. I just don’t know.”
Bruce sat up, and cleared his throat, “I once knew a Cambodian man who had lived through the horrors of Pol Pot’s reigime. I told him I was impressed he got all ten of his children out alive. He nodded and rattled off their names, first the boys and then the girls, though who was older than who got a little mixed up. He said eleven names and confessed to having lost one.
“I’m sorry,” I said knowing that the death of even one child was still a hearbreak.
He replied, “Oh no, you missunderstand, we were running for our lives and when we got on a bus that could take us away from the fighting, we counted and we had one less child. We lost them.” Bruce directed his gaze at Rain. “Being a parent in wartime is tough.”
Rain stared back silent and still.
“So Rain, tell me another fairytale, ” Algernon returned to the topic, “Tell me a dark tale about the couple and the little lost Rain.”
“Ah, ” Rain smiled sadly and confessed, “I can tell you that there was no Rain at that time. Rain only ever exisited for you. I like the thought that my friends, call me Rain.”
“Are we friends?”
Rain genuinly smiled then, “Oh yes. Apart from family no one but a true friend can mess you up as well as we do. Yes, we are friends.”
“Preach brother!” Bruce agreed making them all laugh.
“What were you called?” Algernon asked not long after.
“I don’t know. I do know that when they found me, they called me Tobias.”
“The name you said in your sleep that first night.” Algernon almost jumped from his grassy seat when he put the two together.
“You know I hung with bad people. The name Tobias is linked to very good people and I don’t want the two to mix. I think here in Dreamland, it’s pretty safe to tell you. But I can’t use that name on Earth.”
For the rest of the walk in the countryside, Rain was quiet, stumbling along behind the group deep in his own thoughts. As a result, everyone saw the two panther-like beasts stalking through the tall grass to the side the path, except him. Bruce moves to intervene, but before anyone could say a word, the creatures had chosen the weak one from the herd and pounced. Both Rain and Bruce are bowled over by a 190 kg beast each, six legs striking out with readied claws. Bruce shoved his one aside, but Rain was completely blind-sided and confused about what is going on until the teeth of his beast sunk into his shoulder.
Ignoring the one circling him, Bruce pulled out his crowbar and swung at the one on Rain, missing as it ducked away. It growled into Rain’s neck, daring someone to take its meal. Celia’s knives were in her hands as she swung out and hit the same beast, slicing into its thick hide. Behind her Peggy focuses her thoughts on the beast and instead of screaming. The Strange made the air shimmer between her and the beast and the cat flinched but did not let go.
Algernon stood back and sized up the beast for a levitation. Unfortunately, the six-legged cousins to terrestrial panthers were twice as big and twice as heavy as even Bruce. In frustration, he aimed his crossbow and fired as it flinched under Peggy’s assault. The bolt sailed into the grass.
“Hey! That bloody hurts!” Rain cried and focused his thoughts on the beast. If he could enthrall it, it would stay still enough for the others to come to the rescue. The enthrall worked to gain the beast’s attention. Realising it had its prize already, it picked Rain off the ground and started running away.
The second cat now turns its attention to an easier meal than Bruce, Peggy standing just behind. Seeing the attack, Peggy side-steped the cat easily, giving it a kick in the side on the way through. The cat snarled in frustration.
Bruce was only concerned with the one stealing away with Rain. He tried running after the beast, but even with its prize, the cat had the superior speed. It would not be long before it was out of sight. Celia turned her attention to the cat on Peggy, slicing the air with her daggers. One missed as the cat flinched under Peggy’s boot, but the other found a weak spot in the creatures armoured hide and it sunk in to the hilt.
The cat now carrying Rain was only a black small smudge in the grass. Algernon knew he wouldn’t get another chance. He drew up his crossbow, check his sights, aimed, and fired. The bolt streaked for the grass, along the flanks of the beast, and sunk into the fletching just behind the front legs. The giant cat collapsed dead, falling onto its prize who lay still and panting underneath it.
Peggy dealt with the last cat, pulling out her hand crossbow. Seeing that this prey was too much to deal with, the second cat ran and was soon lost in the grass.
“I know what these are,” Algernon said, putting away his crossbow, “I remember reading about them, they’re called aurumuorax.”
Bruce trotted up to the dead aurumuorax, panther or whatever and rolled it aside to find a bloodied and torn Rain wide-eyed and panting.
“If…if you say…get up and…walk it off…” Rain said as Bruce pulled him up using his good hand.
“Still like this place?”
The group took a short rest as Bruce patched Rain up and Celia noticed that they were on the edges of the ruined city. Parts of wall, broken streets and ruined fencing were visible poking up above the grass. She surmised they were in the suburbs of what must have been a large city, something like her beloved Seattle, but on a smaller scale. For all her looking though, there is no life of any sort.
“Should we split up do you think, cover more area?” She asked as she informed the group what she’d found.
“It’s not a safe place to split up.” Rain replied testing his new bandages.
“You’re just saying that because you have two big wounds in your arm.” Bruce joked packing away his first aid kit.
“Could you make us look like the Lang? Or make us invisible?” Peggy asked Rain as they started back on the path.
Rain shook his head, “Making a moving illusion is difficult, once you add bodies interacting with it I couldn’t keep it up for long, but…” He thought a moment and from those standing in front of him seemed to disappear, the road empty where he had been standing moments before. From beside and behind him he was still visible, he’d created a two dimensional illusion on an empty road.
The group were soon in the shadow of crumbling buildings, overhead walkways, and overgrown courtyards. Footsteps of a small group of people echoed from above and Rain created an illusionary terrain to hide them from above. Looking up, two of the Lang guided a small group of humans along the raised walkway, one ahead and one behind.
Bruce pointed out the humans shuffling stiffly in a line. They seemed completely unaware of their surroundings and certainly looked as mindless as Raks had suggested. Barely dressed, they were in an assortment of underwear and bedwear if anything at all. Where the small of their back were visible, the group could see two small burn marks either side of their spines.
The one in the lead looked down at where the party were standing, but saw nothing but the empty lane. He continued to direct the group around the courtyard and through a gap in buildings until they were all out of sight.
“Do we save them?” Bruce asked concerned, they didn’t look like they were up for much.
“Ideally.” Peggy replied sharing Bruce’s concern, but with no idea how to go about it.
“Where do you think their souls…their minds are?”
“Back on Earth?” Algernon theorised, “They only came here when they were dreaming.”
“Yeah, but did they go back again, and leave these husks behind or…” Rain mused quietly to himself unable to even vocalise that this was the fate of those who didn’t return.
“Well, I think we should follow them at least.” And Bruce stepped out into the courtyard and started looking for a staircase up. It didn’t take him long to find a set of working stairs and the group followed him up and through the two buildings after the party of slaves and their captors.
The walkways were rotten and mostly metal and had seen a lot of use. Still, Bruce marched along the walkways following the slaving group. The two Lang’s turned to see Bruce walking up to them seemingly alone. Realising he was exposed, Bruce ducked behind a metal beam. Unfortunately, it was a lot slimmer than the well-muscled Bruce and provided no protection at all.
The others rolled their eyes and each prepared for battle. Using a cloth, Peggy carefully pulled out the rod that had supplied the whole Wurtz household with electricity, thanks to an imprisoned mother. She held it in front of her, ready to strike at the first opportunity. Celia moved into range, loosening her daggers. Bruce turned to look at the Lang guiding the slaves from behind and their gazes locked. He felt himself being pulled in and realised he could no longer move his limbs. With all his will he turned his gaze to see Rain hiding behind a pile of rubbish, still cradling his bandaged arm with his other hand. Bruce’s protective instinct kicked in and gave him the strength to shake off the mind control effect.
“Hey,” he said groggily, “they have a mesmerise.”
The Lang leading the slaves walked back along the line of oblivious human to his companion, in time to see Bruce turn and shoot. The bolt struck and the battle was on.
From her hiding place, Peggy stood up and hit one with her rod. He jerked back like he’d been hit by a bolt of electricity. Peggy noticed a bar on the rod appear to show it had charged up slight in the attack. Celia ran out of cover and attacked, missing with one hit and succeeding with the other. Algernon shot his crossbow at the second Lang as Rain steped out of hiding in front of the first and attempted enthrallment.
“This is a very unusual place.” He said as the Strange energy left on his words. The Lang looks down at Rain, its eyes clear and focused.
You are a talented one. The Lang spoke in Rain’s mind followed by feelings of disgust and admiration.
The Lang that had been surprised by Peggy turned on her, raking the space where she’d been standing with its claws. The one on Rain did the same, but being used to slow slaves was not prepared for the Rain’s speed. Having watched his enemies now, Bruce gained an insight into how they fought. They were physically weaker than humans, but their great strength was their mind powers. He shot and hit the one on Rain who turned to a hate-filled gaze on him before falling to the ground, dead.
Peggy reached out to the one she was fighting and linked minds. Instantly the fight and anger went out of the Lang and instead Peggy’s hands balled into fists.
“I think something has happened to Doctor Peggy.” Algernon said as he levitated her away from the Lang standing quiet and still. The Lang’s eyes followed the movement confused and unsure of what it was looking at. Celia held her attack, but stepped out of reach just in case.
“Oh no.” Rain walked up to Lang and looked up into its confused face, “Are you okay?”
“Rain, this is weird.” The Lang said out loud looking at its oversized claws.
Floating above their heads, Peggy reached down with the rod and tried striking Celia. Celia ducked out of the way and kept well back from both the Lang talking to Rain and the Peggy being held up by Algernon.
“This is not time to experiment, Peggy.” Celia added unsure where to look.
“Dr Peggy, I suggest you lie down and allow one of us to tie you up.”
The Lang glared at Algernon. “Yeah? Good luck with that Algernon, do you want me to take your other ear?”
“You are in a superior body,” Algernon thought for a moment looking up at Peggy thrashing uselessly against his levitate, “Would you like to kill your body before you get sent back?”
“What? Now hold on.” Bruce was looking between the Lang acting unusually, Peggy acting weirdly and Algernon suggesting the murder of a group member.
“No, I want to see what this body can do.” The Lang protested, jumping up and down on the goat-like legs, “Wouldn’t it be useful to have access to a body like this further into the city?
Rain started pulling paracord out of his sleeve as Bruce readied his crowbar.
“Listen you, allow yourself to be restrained. This is your last warning.”
“Shut up, Bruce I’m thinking.”
“Maybe you can tie up the body yourself.” Rain offered the paracord to the creature, “What happens when you’re sent back to your body, Peggy?”
“I can control…” The Lang said just as Bruce swung his crowbar and cracked it across the head. The Lang fell into a heap in front of a shocked Rain who turned around and instantly enthralled Bruce.
Peggy’s body jerked and stopped trying to fight against Algernon’s levitate.
“Algernon, will you please let me down so I can smack Bruce with his crowbar?” Peggy asked her voice strained and only barely under control. “How dare he take away my agency, like that! Like he owns me or something! He wasn’t the one on the inside! He didn’t know what it was like!”
“Peggy, we really couldn’t risk you losing control over the Lang.” Celia tried reasoning with Peggy, but even when Peggy finally went silent, she floated arms crossed tightly in front of her staring straight ahead. Eventually, Algernon had to let her down and he gently put her back on her feet. As soon as he did however, she stormed over to Bruce readying a swing with the rod. Rain released Bruce from the enthrallment and ducked out of the way as Mummy and Daddy fought.
“How dare you hit me!”
“I didn’t hit you, I hit the monster.”
“Well then you hit the wrong one!”
“I wasn’t going to hit you!”
“I am always me no matter what body I wear!”
“Me or mean?” Algernon interjected.
“Both.” Rain replied as the argument continued.
“Look I couldn’t take the risk of that beast waking up, it had mind powers!”
“So do I! I was in control of that beast and I don’t appreciate you taking that from me!”
“I was protecting the party!
“Well maybe I don’t need your protection!”
A sudden silence fell over Bruce and Peggy. Peggy was still vibrating in her fury. Bruce was confused and annoyed that he was being abused for his justifiable actions.
“I’m going to tie up the creature before it wakes up, if that’s okay with you?” He said breaking eye contact with Peggy and pulling out a rope.
“I’m sure I don’t have a say in it.” She replied bitterly walking a short distance away and sitting on a pile of rubble.
As a distraction to the fight, Rain was focusing his attention on the slaves. All five, three men and two women, were completely unresponsive.
“Break free. Come towards my voice. The darkness is not worth your life.” He said quietly from one to another, encouraging them with all his gifts, but nothing made an impact.
Algernon checked each of the slaves’ surface thoughts and sensed nothing, they might as well not be there at all. He told Rain as much.
When the Lang was trussed up, Bruce joined Rain among the slaves.
“Wake up!” He shook one, Their head lolled on but they did not awake.
Rain looked at the slaves and grimaced. He didn’t want to do it, but there didn’t seem to be another way of finding out what was going on. Using Dream Thief, Rain reached out and tried to steal the dream of one of the slaves.
Peggy marched into Hertzfeld’s lab. It was a action that none but her was even willing to attempt. Especially while he was working. Especially when he was working on his pet project, the phasing glove.
“You’ve got the polarities switched.” She commented over his shoulder, making the hand soldering the delicate circuitry together, twitch. It was a small move that now connected half the circuit board to the rest, rendering it useless.
“Peggy. Nice to see you. When are you leaving?” He asked, giving her a scowl that would have sent other researchers running. She didn’t notice or care.
“I’ve come to pick up the three recursion keys. My group are set on finding a way to Crow’s Hollow.” She made a face that was either frustrated at leaving her experiments behind once more or disgusted at the stubborn single mindedness of the others to find the home of the crow people.
“Of course.” Hertzfeld put aside his soldering iron, picked up the circuit board he’d been working on and threw it in the bin. As he rummaged through his filing cabinets for the bucket, the first aid tin and signet ring, Peggy glaced at the circuit board and snaffled it for her collection of oddments. She’d learnt long ago that one person’s trash is another person’s portal to another world.
“Here they are, anything else you’re needing from me?”
“No, I understand Bruce is dealing with the heavy firepower at the moment.” She replied, toying with the three keys.
“And yet you’re still here.” Hertzfeld sighed, “What’s up Peggy?”
“I think I touched the mind of something….of the Strange.” At that moment she looked uncharacteristically unsure of herself.
“Your report hinted as much. Do you want to talk about it?”
“No.” That look of disgust passed across her face once more, this time mingled with fear. “Not at all, I want to forget it.”
Hertzfeld thought for a moment. Psychology was not his field. There were counselors on staff for this purpose, but he didn’t think Peggy would go to one even if he ordered it. Probably especially if he ordered it.
“Sometimes work is the best medicine. Work and time. Focus your mind on a difficult task. You know getting away to one of these recursions could be just the ticket.”
“I suppose.” She looked down at the three item unconvinced. “Any that you would suggest?”
“No. You were right they are all linked to recursions, but from this end we can’t determine which. I’d suggest your group take a vote on one.”
She looked up a puzzled look on replacing the fear. It was a start.
“But that would allow the stupid ones a equal say in where we go, wouldn’t it?”
Hertzfeld thought of Peggy’s group. Bruce, a practical forthright character who thought through his actions. Algernon, a brilliant though naive mind who always looked for the strategic advantage. Cecilia, the newest but most experienced investigator who would undoubtedly see things from all angles. Rain, a contrary character whose leaps of intuition had been useful on more than one occasion. And then there was Peggy, brilliance bottled and kept away from the light.
“Even the less…scientifically minded still have good suggestions. Trust them.”
She made a face again, this one was one of her more regular suffering martyr looks. Without another word she left, leaving Hertzfeld to draw up a new requisition form for a blank circuit boards and parts.
Collecting the group was usually a chore. Peggy had spent most of a day previously hunting out each of her party members and gathering them in one location. Today they seemed to collect naturally. Bruce’s request for heavy armour had been rejected as not in keeping with the covert nature of their enterprise. He had gravitated to the firing range where he was practising with Algernon at long range targets with his new Glock 40. Cecilia seemed almost to find her and Rain turned up at her labs still stuffing his pockets with the essence of a survival kit. She laid the three keys in front of them.
“Which one first?” She asked, looking to the group.
“Do we know anything about the keys and where they go?” Bruce asked.
“Nothing, only that they are keys.”
“Well, as to their use I’d say the first aid box is the most intimidating.” Rain suggested.
“And the bucket, the most innocent?”
“Out of context, who knows.”
The conversation wandered around the three items that were minutely examined once more and placed back in their line on the lab bench. In the end the bucket was chosen for no better excuse than it was cheery and fun and reminded several of them of childhood.
Peggy placed the bucket on the floor and the group sat in a circle around it. Bruce instructed Cecilia in what to do, saving the rest from his usual monologue on the ridiculous nature of this”…hippy touchy-feely kum-ba-ya ceremony.” Eyes closed and their thoughts focused on the jack-o-lantern’s deathly grin, the lab around them slowly melted away. The sensation of travel through the fractal blackness and down into the new world as its latest dizzy installments. The bright fluorescent lighting was replaced with the soft darkness of evening lit by gas lamps. They were standing on the uneven surface of a wet cobbled street surrounded by wooden houses that leaned drunkenly out over them. Between the eaves, a crescent moon lit the sky, its cool glow making the cobbles shine. From far away the group heard the howl of an animal.
They looked at each other, noting how the recursion had changed their clothing and appearance. Out of the three recursions so far, this transformation was the most radical and strange. Peggy was a tall Pumpkin headed creature with flowing, fiery hair and a faint orange glow to her exposed skin. She was wearing a leather duster that went down to her mid-calf and gently moved in an ever present breeze.
Algernon was dressed in a homemade fancy dress of a white t-shirt, blue jeans and a red piece of material tied around his neck, his black hair was spiked up wildly. His skin was green and covered in tattoos that seemed to move when seen from side-on. A long pointed nose and unusually sharp teeth completed his look. To those who had sat through at least one viewing of Algernon’s favourite documentary it was obvious he was a tattooed goblin dressed as Tetsuo Shima, from Akira. Besides his crossbow, which had changed to suit the location, he carried a bucket exactly like the recursion key, a plastic jack-o-lantern.
Bruce was even larger than usual, also wearing a leather jacket that went down to the ground. Underneath he wore a padded gambeson with heavy metal plates across his chest and vitals. Along with his hammer and crowbar that were strapped across his back as usual, in his arms he held a massive crossbow that fired fletched wooden stakes instead of bolts. His usually actively aware expression was replaced with a hunched and hungry look. It was as if the police dog had gone feral.
Cecilia’s look was darker than her usual style of leather jacket and jeans, including a collar made of one inch spikes and heavy black makeup. Her black hair was cut short and a long fringe swept across her face and over her right eye. Across her jacket, studs had been hand stitched into place, so that she too looked like she’d make her own costume. As with Algernon, she was also carrying a jack-o-lantern bucket containing a number of candies of various sorts.
Out of the five of them, Rain looked the most pleased with his new look. Stepping into the limelight of the gas streetlight, his suit of swirled colours glowed. His 50s retro plaid vest was replaced with a white one and the whole look was topped with a tall white top hat, decorated with a swirling rainbow band. He spun, mixing the colours of his jacket and flicking his top hat into the air. He juggled it a moment before throwing it up and catching it back on his head.
“I like this place already.” He said, turning to the others who weren’t as sure, “This is going to be fun.”
“Okay, so where now?” Bruce asked, impatiently hefting his crossbow.
At that moment, the sound of raucous laughter caught the group’s attention. Down the street, alternatively lit by gaslight and thrown into darkness, a sign with a painted noose swung back and forward. For those with keener eyesight, the sign read: The Old Hangman’s Pub.
“Just what we were looking for.” Rain slapped his hands together and started walking towards the pub. The others, still confused by their new personas, just follow.
Swinging open the double doors, the tap room of the Old Hangman was lively with all sorts of people. It was actually hard to tell if some of them were people. Along with green skinned goblins and pumpkin headed folk, there were rag wrapped mummies and nightmarish snake people to name a few.
” What are undead spawn of hell doing here?“ Bruce scanned the group with a predatory eye. He spotted the mummy drinking with a few friends like ordinary folk. His heavy crossbow creaked with the force of his grip. “What are we doing here?”
“We don’t know, Bruce. We have to find out.” Rain replied looking up at the big guy beside him with some concern. This was not the Bruce he was normally able to rely on.
Brief confusion flicked across Bruce’s scowl. He lapsed into a tense introspective silence, his hand still firmly gripping his crossbow.
“Maybe I can be of service?” I small smartly dressed goblin wearing a monocle stepped up, “I couldn’t help but hear, you’re new to town? My name is Morris, is there something you’re looking for?”
“Sights and adventure.” Rain beamed, flicking the top hat off his head, he bowed, “My name is Pavel Nuystul. What do you call your charming town?”
“This neighbourhood is the Hollow. The town is the town for that is all there is. If it were to have a name it would be called Halloween.”
“Halloween?” Peggy almost lamented, “Everything is so odd.”
“It’s excellent.” Rain grinned
“It makes no sense.” She replied as if trying to speak reason to the insane.
“Yes, isn’t it wonderful.”
“Maybe we can drink and chat a while, I too am a traveller and would love to hear about your travels and home.” Morris led them to a large table. Bruce noticed the goblin look at a snake man sitting at the bar, and then turned to the bar keeper. Rain noticed too and saw the subtle nods of understanding from each. He smiled, noting the makings of a con, and sat down at the table.
“I would like nothing better.”
Algernon held out his bucket to the goblin.
“Trick or treat?” He said waiting expectantly for the response.
“Ah, I see you are familiar with our ways.” The goblin took a sweet, “But be aware, you must follow the rules. Trick or treating is a protected activity here in Halloween and none will abide rulebreakers.”
“I see we have a lot to learn.” Rain said as the others took seats.
“Maybe we can help each other.” Morris beamed as drinks, that they had not ordered, arrived at the table. “You tell me about your home and I’ll tell you what I know of Halloween.”
With pure delight, Rain wove a story of their adventures that was as compelling as it was fictional. Some truths he told, mentioning giant mole rats that breached the sand like whales, blotting out the sun. He whispered of broken worlds where beyond thick cloud cover madness lay and he praised home in ways that even those around the table found it hard to recognise. He coloured the whole thing with details drawn from fiction, history and from his own head. The only real person he added to the stories was the name that was most closely linked to his own, that of Elvin Lightfeather.
To go with the stories, three dimensional illusions seemed to appear across the far wall of the bar. The sound of the mole rat hitting the sands (though no trains or rails in sight). Thonics flapped across a clouded sky, their screeches sending shivers down everyone’s spines (but no view of the Estate buildings or broken Seatle could be seen). Illusion creating was nothing new to Rain, but the ability to manipulate the images of his mind and project them into reality was, and he relished every moment. He filled the goblin’s ear and eyes (and everyone else in the bar) with all the nonsense they could stomach only stopping to learn what he could about Halloween.
“This world is just the town of Halloween. Trick or Treat is a favourite and revered pastime whose rules are strictly abided.” Morris listed three rules on long clever fingers, “While you trick or treat you must not use, but save for later. You must always keep your candle burning, that is your sign. But while your candle burns you must not do anything other than trick or treat. To break any of these rules, breaks the protection provided to trick or treaters. Without that protection… “ The goblin shook his head flapping large ears, “…you are vulnerable to the mean and vile of this city.”
“And what are they like?” Bruce asked once more glancing over at the mummy, “What do these fiends, these spawn from hell want, heh?”
“I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you.” Morris replied confused, “I don’t usually have anything to do with those sorts.”
The rest of the group had heard Rain mention Lightfeather. Instantly all their senses, new and old were turned on. Algernon scanned for surface thoughts picking up on the goblin’s insatiable curiosity. Peggy’s new form allowed her to Discern Sins and she felt the blackness of a baleful sin lodge in the heart of Morris the goblin. Bruce stretched out a new sense for him, sniffing the air for undead and found several more in the vacinity, but could . Rain watched the goblin’s body language, noted his words and intonations. He also felt the curiosity about the group, he recognised a fellow traveller and above all, understood that Morris was not unaware of Crow’s Hollow and one of its more formidable citizens.
Peggy seemingly stretched, kicked out at Rain. He was about to comment when he realised a mental connection between the two of them had been created. Sucking in his breath he envisioned the fractal night sky that was never very far away, shielding Peggy from his thoughts, or him from hers? He watched her scrunch her pumpkin features up in frustration.
Suddenly Algernon sat bolt upright in his chair and stared at Morris.
“How do you know Mr Lightfeather?” He asked out of the blue. In the confusion of Morris’ mind he had picked up one clear thought, I wonder what old Elvin is up to?
Morris, seemingly nonplus, leaned back in his chair.
“We’ve done business in the past.”
Bruce leaned in,
“And how long ago was it when you last did business?”
“Several months, maybe a year.”
“We’re not here to find Lightfeather.” Peggy interrupted, the flames of his hair whipping back and forward menacingly, “This is a research trip.”
“Really?” Morris, having found himself temporarily on the defensive, turned his focus on Peggy. “What research are you into?”
“Doorways.” She replied simply.
“Fascinating subject, do go on.” “I’ve never understood, “ She continued, “How do you determine the edge of a barrier?”
The others sat back and just listened as Morris and Peggy chatted technically about portals and how to move between. Rain noticed Bruce’s agitation grow steadily worse, and followed his line of sight to a table were two individual with bright red skin and horns growning from their temples horns sat playing cards.
I never thought Bruce racist. He thought and Peggy picked up on it via their mindlink.
Not racist, fiendist. And undeadist.I don’t think this recursion agrees with Bruce.
That could be bad.
“So what you really need is data.” Morris summed up his and Peggy’s discussion, “You’ve seen only a small part of this place, let me furnish you with a map and then you can make some decisions on where you’d like to go to next.”
From a pocket in his neatly tailored jacket, Morris pulled out a map of the township of Halloween.
Labeled were the Hollows, where they currently were, the Midnight Circus, House on the Hill and at the centre of everything a huge necropolis that was just named, Graveyard.
“Any other scholar we can visit? Places of education?”
Morris shook his head gravely,
“Sadly the locals are not educated by nature.”
“So you’ve traveled?” “I’ve been around.” He sidestepped the question.
“Where are you from?”
“Here and there.”
“Hmph, haven’t heard of that place.” Bruce stood and leaned over the table at Morris menacingly. It shut down the conversation for a moment until Peggy returned the group back to topic.
“Yes, tell us of other places, spare no details.”
“You know Elvin and have done business, have you been to Crow’s Hollow?” Rain added conversationally.
“I’ve been there from time to time.” Morris went back on the defensive as the group started peppering him with questions.
“Did you get there from here?”
“No, not here, other places.”
“What sort of business do you do?” Cecilia waded in having stayed quiet and listening.
“Hmm, this and that. I work mostly at the Glittering Market, buying and selling.” Morris seemed to relax into his subject at this point, “A fascinating place, they use a particular currency, a Crow coin that is quite unusual. You have to be wary of the price you pay.”
“How’s that?” “The Crow coins materialise out of your very life force. You will always have Crow coin to spend until…you don’t”
“And you’ve met people who have overspent?” Bruce asked once more, picking up some unseen trail, “What happened to them?”
“It is very unpleasant and not worth dwelling on.” Morris became defensive again, but this time it seemed that the subject itself was very unpalatable.
“Six feet under?” Peggy intimated and Morris nodded sagely.
“Something like that.”
“Eldin, “ Rain brought Morris back on the subject that most interested him. “What’s his position in Crow Hollow society?”
“Oh, he’s a senior associate of one Whitecliff Drood, he’s one of the leading lights in Crow Hollow society. Very well respected and connected.” Morris relaxed once more talking about something that he felt comfortable in sharing. “You see there are two major families, the Drood and the Cornaro so you can see our friend runs in the highest of society.”
“Whose side do you follow?” Cecilia asked simply.
“Me? Oh, I don’t take sides. No, no, no I’m a businessman, I make deals.”
“How do you stop from being murdered?” Peggy asked and all who were present were reminded of Lightfeather’s brutal dagger attacks.
“I have my way.” The little goblin smirked.
“And if they want to deal with you?”
“They have their ways of getting in touch.” He shut down again. It looked like that was all the group was going to get out of him on Crow’s Hollow, “Now, tell me more about this place with the giant mole rats, that sounds fascinating.”
Rain filled in a little more detail, leaving out Caw Eh Carve, their altercation with Lightfeather or the purchase of the keys. What he didn’t know he made up and once more filled the far wall with stunning visuals.
“And you came straight here from this wondrous place?” Morris asked as the last sights and sounds of the Rumour markets faded away.
“We went home for a while.” Peggy replied making Rain wince through their shared link.
“Home?” Morris jumped on the mention of Earth, but Peggy was well practised when it came to dodgy salesmen.”
“Yes, I wanted to continue my research.”
“So you work for an organisation?” “I’m independent, but I have many groups interested in my work.” She smoothly sailed past his probing questions to fall into a whirlpool of her own making, “My mentor is very keen to see my work continue.”
“Mentor? A fellow intelectual, that must be such a comfort. What’s their name?”
Sensing that she may have said something she shouldn’t, she started filling the air with her usual complaints about Hertzfeld, being very careful not to mention him by name.
“They’re a pain in my arse. How dare they tell me my maths did not add up?! They’re always denying me vital equipment and think too highly of fieldwork for my taste. No, I can’t say they are a comfort at all.”
Rain let Peggy have her rant, before once more returning back to Lightfeather.
“Well, I never knew our friend Elvin was so well connected, he seemed so unassuming.” He said casually as if the past thirty seconds hadn’t occurred.
“The best ones are.” Morris agreed without adding any more details.
Meanwhile, Algernon had been studying the map Morris had provided. Morris now seized the moment and directed attention to him.
“I see you’re interested in our little town.”
“Yes, “ Replied Algernon pointing to a tent in the Midnight Circus individually labelled as The Five-headed thing. “What is the five-headed thing?”
“Ah, an old institution, a singular fellow. He may tell you a secret but only one at a time.” Morris’ silver-tongued salesman routine went into action. “He is well worth a visit, as are many locations in Halloween.”
Now the group were focused on the map.
“The Midnight Circus sounds interesting.” Cecilia pointed to the large circular tent that dominated that area of town.
“What’s in the House on the hill? Peggy asked and gestured to a large estate set on the only highground in town.
“You can go in and see.”
“Only with the owners permission of course.”
“Hazel Jenkins, that could be arranged.” It was obvious that Morris was very keen for the group to go out and explore the town and Bruce was getting more and more on edge the longer they stayed at the table.
“Why don’t we visit some of these places, we can walk and talk.” Rain suggested as a way of moving out of the pub and away of temptation for Bruce. As it was, Bruce got straight to his feet, his massive crossbow ready.
“Good idea, let’s go.”
As the group got up to leave, Algernon once more scanned Morris’ surface thought. He didn’t pick up any intent, his purpose for wanting them out in the township, but he did hear over and over,
Who are you? Where do you come from? Who do you work for?
The evening air was cool after the stifling warm taproom of the Old Hangman’s Noose. People didn’t seem to mind the chill as many of them were out on the street walking in groups or running from house to house, their blue flamed candles in hand. Cecilia and Algernon found a similar candlesin their pockets, but kept them unlit, not wanting to join the Trick or Treaters just yet. Certainly the people on the streets were just as varied as the ones they had seen in the bar and Rain made comment on it.
“It’s certainly a very cosmopolitan city you have.”
“Yes,” Algernon replied with a look of mischief in his eyes, “When we get back to CONTROL we’ll have to report all the different types of people we have seen to the Chief.”
“Of course, “ Rain replied equally as seriously all the time playing a television theme show music to Peggy in his head, “He may let you use the cone of silence.”
“Don’t get smart, kid.” Bruce growled, but Algernon ignored him.
“It seems KAOS hasn’t come across here as yet.” He added and Rain nodded his agreement, trying not to smile.
Walking through an open square, they passed a statue of a Jack-o-lantern humanoid like Peggy, only nine foot tall. It’s carved hollowed eyes seemed to follow them as they crossed to a connecting street. On a whim, Peggy put her hands under her pumpkin head and lifted it off her neck to get a better look at the statue. It wasn’t long after when they found themselves on the outskirts of the Midnight Circus. In front of them was a small tent with a large poster in front.
See the five headed thing, but never alone.
Morris who was standing back, watching the group’s response. Rain and Peggy stepped in as Algernon hesitated outside the tent flap
“Is it safe?” Algernon asked Morris.
“As safe as anything around here.” He replied honestly as Bruce pushed Algernon inside.
Inside was dark and empty except for a bell on a stand. Upon ringing the bell, a curtain moved and a partitioned section was revealed as was the creature waiting there. It’s size and shape was that of a regular human with one head firmly affixed to its body. When it opened it’s cloak, four other heads made up the torso of the creature. Each of the four was bound with rags across their mouths so they couldn’t make more than indistinguishable mumblings.
“It’s rude to muffle people.” Peggy protested the treatment of the four torso heads that seemed to be desperate to be understood.
“He’s muffled himself.” Rain defended the creature, more out of the promise of the show than out of pity for the heads.
“That sort of thing is not done in public, “ She complained, her sometimes prudish nature getting an airing, “Is it recreational?”
“This is entertainment, is it not?” Rain turned to the creature, “I understand you can tell secrets?”
“Yes, but only one at a time and only alone.” The five-headed thing’s main head replied as it stifled the noise from the other four.
“But the sign clearly says….” Algernon gestured to outside the tent remembering the warning on the poster.
“How much?” Peggy asked, stepping up ahead of Rain. He had his secrets, but he could wait so he stepped back.
“A few pieces of candy, that is all.” The creature put it’s hand out for the requested fee.
“Cecilia, could I have a few pieces of candy.” Peggy turned to Cecilia who offered up her bucket. She took out three pieces and held them out in front of the five-headed thing. “I have a secret.”
The creature nodded and took her offering.
“I don’t think anyone should be alone…” Bruce started and Rain cut him off.
“She’s connected. The lady is well protected.” He said tapping the side of his head. With a huff, Bruce allowed himself to be led out of the tent.
Now alone, Peggy stood in front of the creature and asked the one question that had driven her for twenty years. The one question she wanted to know above all else.
“John and Athena Martin twenty years ago, what happened to them?”
Outside, Bruce turned on Rain,
“You better tell us everything that happens in there.”
Rain nodded and closed his eyes. He focused on the link and quietly repeated everything he sensed from inside the tent, including the question. The rest look at each other, but say nothing.
Inside, the Five-headed thing stepped closer, leaning in as if to whisper in Peggy’s ear. She stood her ground, visibly uncomfortable with the closeness. The creature took a breath in as if to speak, but instead Peggy felt a tugging, then a draining of something vital to herself. Mentally and physically she realised she was being held and pulled away with such force it startled the creature. She stuck out slapping the creature in the face. As her hand pulled away flames shot out from her palm lighting up the tent and her expression of pure anger.
“He’s moved in close, she hates this so much but she has to know…..what, something…somethings happening. She’s being attacked…go, go, go!”
Bruce flung the flap aside and strode back into the tent to see Peggy’s fiery hand held above the surprised Things main head. Without warning he shoots his crossbow, the bolt roars through the air missing the creature and cutting straight through the tent wall. The creature stepped back and slipped through the curtain and out of the tent.
“I want a refund!” Peggy yelled and followed the creature. She tried to Discern the Sins once more, but this time sensed nothing.
Rain, still linked with what’s going on inside the tent, ran around the outside to where it connected with another smaller tent. Dropping to the ground, he, Algernon and Celcilia slipped under the second tent wall only to find it empty, the smell of hot buttered popcorn in the air.
The flap between tents tore aside as Bruce and Peggy were visiblethrough the gap, lit by Peggy’s flames.
“It’s gone.” Rain said as Algernon, putting his goblin nose to good use, followed the smell of buttered popcorn to the door where Bruce stood.
It was at that moment that Morris combat rolled into the first tent, two hand crossbows ready. Rain rolled his eyes reading the scene and dismissing Morris’ bluff. Bruce lashed out, grabbing the little goblin around the scruff.
“Er…what’s the problem, friend?” Morris asked Bruce who pulled out one of his stakes and pressed it into the goblin’s neck.
“What is the five-headed thing?”
“Rumours, I only know rumours.” The little goblin squirmed but couldn’t break free of Bruce’s grasp.
“You owe me.” Peggy said
“It’s like the poster says, never be alone with it. Some people have said the faces… they change.”
“Yeah, what’s in it for you, then?”
“Just my little experiment.” Morris giggled nervously, “You looked like you could look after yourself, and look you did! Well done.”
“I’m getting really grumpy here and I don’t know how long I can stop from skewering you with this stake…”
“Who was the main object of this investigation of yours?” Peggy cut in.
Algernon pointed at Peggy as if it were obvious the reason for the experiment.
A tearing of heavy fabric from the other side of the main tent had Bruce turning to see two nine foot tall Jack-o-lantern golems, fires burning deep in their hollow heads, flickering through their eye sockets. They stared down at Bruce.
“Great, the police are here.” Bruce said as both golems grabbed him and lifted him off the ground. He dropped the goblin who was quickly grabbed by Peggy standing nearby. Without a word or gesture the golem started walking away with the struggling Bruce.
Trying to find a way to stop the giant walking scarecrows, Rain conjured an empty bucket out of thought alone. It appeared in his hand, not where he’d wanted it, on a golem’s head. Swinging the bucket over one arm he ran and jumped trying to climb up the nearest. At nearly twice his height he had no hope of climbing the creature and slid down once more. Bruce still had his crossbow. With effort he swung it around and pushed it up under one of the pumpkin heads. Pulling the trigger, the stake went up through its head and out the top, but it didn’t stop the golem as it continued to carry him away. Having a burst of inspiration, Cecilia grabbed Rain’s imaginary bucket and filled it with water from a nearby fountain. Throwing the water, bucket and all she succeeded in getting most into one of the pumpkin heads putting out its fire. It didn’t stop the golem, but it didn’t like it as it turned his baleful look on her.
Peggy’s scream didn’t seem to touch the golem so she settled for tightening her grip on Morris and followed.
“ Come on Morris, let’s go see where this goes.”
The golem with his fire doused by Cecilia lashed out at her, but she dodged away. Algernon levitated Morris into the air so Peggy was holding onto him like a helium balloon.
“Call off the pumpkins!” Algernon said but never heard an answer as one of the golems fell to the ground. Pulling a thin paracord from his coat like a magician would scarves, Rain had swung the loose end around the legs of the golem still lit by a fire. The golem tripped up and crashed to the ground taking Bruce with him. Rolling away, Bruce was free if not unbruised.
As all eyes were on Bruce and the fallen golem, Morris started climbing down Peggy. No matter how she grabbed at him, the slippery goblin evaded her. Bruce rolled to his feet, his crowbar in hand and brought it two handed down on one of the prone golem’s legs. It smashed to pieces in a shower of dry kindling.
“Okay you, hop it!” He punned showing that old Bruce was inside this more aggressive version.
Cecilia seeing Rain’s success pulled out her whip and was surprised to find it was all liquorice. A liquorice whip! Trusting in the mad rules of the recursion, she swung it out and caught the legs of the dampened golem. It too came crashing down, the sound of cracking pumpkin shell ringing across the cobbles.
“Oh! Smashing pumpkins!” She also quipped, rejoicing in the victory.
Peggy screamed again and this time her focus was true, stunning the golem with the broken leg. It swung out at Bruce who was it’s nearest enemy but Bruce deflected the attack. The other golem rolled across the cobbles and toward Peggy wrestling her to the ground. Touching one of his many tattoos, Algernon cast enchant creature on the golem holding Peggy.
“Release the prisoner!”
Before it could though, Rain grabbed up the ever trust bucket one more time, filled it and dumped its contents over the golem and Peggy. The golem’s flames went out, Peggy’s spat and sizzles , steam rising in plumes around her. The golem let Peggy go, and she screamed again, and again the golem was sent reeling. Bruce, leering over his fallen golem swung down with this crowbar and smashed its pumpkin head clean off.
The last gollum let go of Peggy, stood up and moved away following the instruction of Algernon’s enchantment. Cecilia pinned an arm to its wooden body with a well placed bolt. Algernon tried to do the same bringing up his crossbow, fired and missed. The bolt sailed over the open ground around the Midnight Circus to into the arm of a large werewolf talking with two friends.
“Ah…It wasn’t me, it came from over there…somewhere.” Algernon tried bluffing as he awkwardly hid his crossbow behind him. The werewolves were not convinced and all three strode towards the party.
“Apologise kid.” Bruce whispered hoarsely, not taking his eyes of the remaining golem as it stood passively before him.
Rain saw the werewolves, almost seven foot tall each, all with inch long claws and teeth, Algernon had no hope against such beings. He glanced at the golem and saw the last was well taken care of and stepped out towards the three oncoming bruisers.
“Gentleman, I am so sorry for my little brother. You know how they can be with a new toy, got to shoot at everything. But I can assure you he’d not want to harm a living soul, it just got away from him.” His words said, but throughthem he let the power of the Strange flow to the injured werewolf. For that werewolf, time stopped, all he could do was stand and listen as Rain made his apologies. The other two uninjured friends seemed modified by the words and stood back, waiting to see what their companion would do.
“Do you speak? Why do you attack?” Bruce asked, his crowbar loose and ready in his hand. The golem said nothing, bound by the magic Algernon had imposed on it. Peggy and Cecilia backed away as the enchantment broke and the golem’s empty eye sockets turned to Bruce. Straining it snapped the bolt pining its arm, and swung it at Bruce’s face. He batted the attack away, and ready his final onslaught.
“Bad dog!” Algernon mumbled to himself wondering if he could deal with these three like he had the dogs at Lydia Lance’s home. Realising each one was quite a bit bigger than him, he had to admit to himself that his levitation would not be able to hold them. Returning his crossbow to his back, he contritely walked up behind Rain playing the part of the ‘naughty school boy’.
“I’m real sorry, Mister.” He said just as Rain released the injured werewolf from his enthrall. All three werewolves relaxed and stood by as Bruce dealt a deathblow to the last golem.
“I always like making pumpkin soup.” He punned slinging his crowbar on his back before turning to the werewolves.
“Yeah, sorry about that.” He said to the injured werewolf pulling out his first aid kit, “Can I help treat your wound at all?”
Pleased with Bruce’s generosity and the politeness of the others, he turned to reveal the bolt wound and gestured to the two now broken golems.
“Got yourselves into an altercation? The gollem are set to protect the performers.”
Rain nodded, turning away as Bruce cleaned and bound the wound.
“We didn’t like when the five-headed fellow got handsy with our friend.”
“Ah, so the rumours are true then. You see the signs but you wonder if it’s just for show or you really shouldn’t be left alone with the guy.”
“That’s what Morris said, he was using us to conduct a little experiment.”
“Professor Morris?” The werewolves laughed, “He sure hates it when you call him that. Yeah, he’s an odd one, but he gets by here because he’s friends with Gomez Snake.”
“Ah, I believe we saw that gentleman at the Old Hangman’s Noose tonight.” Rain gestured, miming the snake guy who’d been at the bar.
“Yeah, Morris has been coming and going for years and the only reason he hadn’t been dealt with before is that Gomez owns the Hollows.”
“Powerful friends, I see.”
“We’re new in town,” Bruce said as he tied off the dressing and Rain walked away to talk to Algernon “Do you gentlemen know anything worth doing?”
“Well, the Circus is fine, but you have to pay attention to the signs. Take for example the Carousel of Chance. You can have a fun ride, or something very good could happen. Sometimes bad things happen as well.”
Over to one side Algernon was dolefully picking up bolts that survived the battle.
“I really did my part in that, didn’t I?” He grumbled seeing Rain standing off at a distance. “Real slick.”
“I thought you did a great job talking down that werewolf. And the tattoo, was that a spell? I was impressed.”
“You saved Peggy” Cecilia added overhearing the conversation, “Don’t sell yourself short, you did what we all did, our best.” She stepped up and patted him on the back. “Come on, did you hear, the Carousel of Chance is a bit of fun. You have candy, why don’t you go try it?”
“I certainly want to, could I borrow some more candy?” Peggy said as she strode up to Cecilia. Ceclia obligingly held out her bucket for Peggy who took another two.
Bruce, Rain and Cecilia watched as Algernon and Peggy took a ride for a piece of candy each. It looked fun, but at the end of the ride, it was just a ride and they both stepped off wind blown and breathless.
“Are you staying out?” Bruce asked Rain as Peggy and Algernon both went back for a second ride.
“I don’t play games of chance unless I control it somehow.” Rain replied, watching the other two carefully. “I’ve noticed.” Bruce replied as he too watched the carousel spin.
“I don’t have a good relationship with Lady Luck.”
This time Peggy and Algernon had more than just a ride. As the music ended and the spinning slowed, hands that had been empty at the start of the ride, were now holding cyphers. Peggy studied the small box in her hand and discovered it was a pocket Recursion, a small emergency space in which to hide. Algernon didn’t know what his was,but pocketed it for later investigation.
The riders, having spent their cand,y rejoined the rest of the party and they started walking towards the main tent of the Midnight Circus. Here they met up with the werewolves who had been deep in conversation.
“Say, you guys really know how to handle yourselves. We have a friend you might be able to help.”
“That’s very fortunate, “ Rain quipped cheerily, pleased to find a way of building allies out of these possible enemies. “We’re in the business of helping friends.”
“I’m in.” Peggy agreed and the group followed the werewolves out of the Midnight Circus to a string of shops that lined the road nearby. They stopped outside a small shoe shop, inside they could see an old gentleman polishing up a pair of shoes. The werewolves said nothing,but entered the store where the lead wolf was greeted by name.
“Harry Worgen, nice to see you my friend.” The old man looked up from his work and was introduced to the group
“These people can handle themselves and they’re willing to help. They might be able to get your son back.”
“Yes, my son died a couple of years ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Rain said, taking a seat.
“Death for us is another stage of life, his spirit lives but is not at rest. A group of ghouls are seeing to that. I’ve tried talking to the NIghtwatchman about leaving my son alone, but it hasn’t done any good. Now these ghouls have my son’s body and they won’t give him back. “
“This is too dangerous, we shouldn’t get involved.” Algernon said after hearing the old man’s story.
“A parent looking for their lost child…I have to help.” Peggy admitted with a shrug. All thoughts returned to her question to the Five-headed thing.
Rain nodded silently also thinking of family lost, and looked up at Cecilia.
“Well, I’m for it. Bruce?” She replied and turned to Bruce.
Bruce thought for a moment, refreshing after a night of Bruce on the edge.
“I’m worried this is over our heads…”
“If we go ahead then we’ll be fighting undead.” Cecilia mentioned and instantly Bruce’s demeanor changed. He grounded his crossbow slamming it into the shop flooring with a crunch.
The bar was quiet, as it usually was on a weeknight. In one corner, a poker game was well into its chips as four of the five players eyed each other over their hands trying to keep their expressions in check. The fifth was smiling and talking nonsense as he once more sat on his hand, barely touched.
Not far away, hunched over his laptop a young man, really a teenager, sat drinking coffee and jittering in his seat. Occasionally he looked up to pay attention to any lurking threats around, before returning to whatever he was working on.
Across the bar, two women sat opposite each other in a booth seemingly chatting about inconsequentials as they sipped their drinks. One looked as if she’d rather be reading a stack of notes she had beside her. The other was more interested in finding out about her companion.
“I wanted to talk to you about that night, in the basement,” Celia looked at Peggy through her long black eyelashes.
“I don’t,” Peggy bridled already anticipating what was coming next, “I’d sooner forget the whole episode, but if you must analyse it.” She put down her glasses and crossed her arms in front of her.
“I must admit to having been disorientated by the experience, but you seemed…disturbed. How are you now?”
“Fine. I would do better if it was never spoken of again. I did not enjoy such a direct contact even with a straight forward and forthright mind as yours.”
Celia smiled at Peggy’s backhanded compliment, and pressed forward.
“ It was a very intimate connection. I got the impression that was not something that you’ve experienced…often.”
“Yes it was, “ Peggy, who never picked up on the subtler communication, failed to notice the subtext of Celia’s comment. “I am used to not sharing my brain, at least not so directly, and I’d thank you to keep your hands to yourself in the future.”
“So, when you are…intimate…who would you rather…put their hands on you?” Celia smiled taking another sip from her drink. She watched Peggy through the bottom of her glass as Peggy’s face reflected the inner journey her mind was taking.
A large man with a physique shaped by hard work stepped into the bar and scans the room. In the week they’d been in Nederland, his companions had made this bar a second home, a fact he was very thankful for that tonight night. Trying to look nonchalant, he walked around the bar until he reached the table where the young man and his computer sat. Without a word he pulled out a chair and sat down, gaining for himself nothing but the disregard of the teenager.
“Hey listen, kid. I was wondering if we could have a quiet word, just you and me.” Bruce said in a quiet voice
“We are, Bruce.” Algernon replied, his eyes flicking up over the screen for a moment before returning once more.
“Well, we’ve been up against a lot recently. Those flying demons, and giant moles far bigger than a bloated blue whale, and monster spiders that in your worst nightmares come with added saddles and riders from hell. I’m starting to think you might be on the right track with your ambition for heavy firepower.” Bruce confessed, called over the waiter and asked for a beer.
Algernon’s fingers stopped typing on his keyboard as he turned his full attention to Bruce.
“Now who knows what Crow Lady might bring with her, eh? Or our next mission? So… I’ve been thinking about, you know, army stuff like assault rifles or a heavy-grade sniper rifle. Or maybe a shotgun or a magnum pistol or something… but something that I can change ammunition types in a cartridge? And I think an army rifle can clip on a grenade launcher?”
“You’ve been reading about all this stuff. I think… perhaps… if I nudge our supervisors I can get us some training. What would you recommend to combine real oomph to hurt the things we face, but versatility for very long range down to close up?”
“Yes!” Algernon now fully invested in the conversation rattled through the keys and brought up multiple websites from weapons design and production companies. Some of the models he displayed were prototypes not even intended for production, but only to display the versatility of the company. Other windows were not in the colourful HTML of the world wide web, being only text based and full of details that Bruce was sure were banned anywhere outside the dark web. “Where would you like to start? Nerve agents are my current favourites, but we can look at projectile weaponry if you prefer.”
“Ur…great!” Bruce’s eyes boggled at the horrors on offer and the two of them settled down to plan.
Once Peggy realised the tone of conversation, her puritanical upbringing asserted itself.
“I…oh…really!” She blushed as only an eternally ‘inside’ person can and grabbed her notes as a sort of security blanket, “I have no intention of intercourse with any of my companions!”
Though the jukebox in the corner continued to play, the rest of the bar went silent.
“Really?” Rain looked out across the bar forlornly, “And I thought I had a chance.” The poker companions laughed, Peggy made reference to Rain’s lineage that he confirmed to more cheers and bar fell back into its normal routine.
Celia left Peggy to the table and sauntered over to watch the game. It didn’t take her long to see that Rain was somehow manipulating the game, but to what ends she couldn’t tell. He certainly didn’t seem to be taking them for their money, if anything his pile was the smaller. He seemed to move the cards with no great skill, even though she herself had seen him juggle and flip cards as if they were on strings. The more she watched the more she realised that he was playing some other game, one where the cards were only tools. She called over the waiter and asked for another drink and settled in for the endgame.
Once more Rain was dealer. He didn’t usually pay any attention to his cards, for him they weren’t the game. The game was the other four in front of him and their attempt to hide their intentions from his observations.
The game didn’t rely on him dealing or not, the tells and subtle language of the body of each of his companions was clear as if they’d just spoken their minds. It was particularly clear to him when they were bluffing and only made him smile the more when they tried.
Kris was something of a notable around town and knew it. He made quick decisive decisions about his hand early and rarely wavered no matter how tempting Rain made it.
Marc was an outdoorsy sort and would fidget after 15 minutes sitting at the table. Rain liked to wait until he looked like leaving before sending a winning hand his way and reeling him back in. If he saw the fidgets start when he didn’t have the deal he’d keep Marc talking about his discoveries out in the woods and mountains that surrounded Nederland as a distraction.
Eryka played conservative, even with a good hand she’d agonise over what to do. Rain loved seeing the effect of a strong hand on her demeanor. Her ‘lucky’ hands were also giving her a reputation at the table for being something of a card sharp which bemused her and delighted Rain whenever it was mentioned.
Amelie’s loose casual style made her decisions hard to anticipate. With her, Rain relied on his ability to spot a lie and let her get away with the most outrageous of bluffs while getting the group to question her good hands.
What none of them had noticed was that Peggy from her table was also taking an interest in the game. With a mind like a calculator she counted cards, analysing patterns and made deductions.
“What game variant requires the deck to have multiple spade aces?” She asked after seeing the card for the third time in as many hands.
“What?!” Kris exclaimed first to act, grabbing Rain’s untouched cards and finding nothing amiss, “What is she talking about?”
“It doesn’t matter, “ Marc got up from the table leaving his cards behind, “I have an early start tomorrow. Thanks for the game.”
Eryka looked at Rain suspiciously, “I knew I couldn’t be that lucky.” She said throwing her cards into Rain’s face before picking up her bag and following Marc.
Amelie shook her head and sighed
“Bad form.” Was all she said as she too left, begging a lift off Eryka.
“I demand to know what’s been going on?” Marc repeated flipping all the cards over though seeing no pattern.
Rain said nothing, his game spoiled he quietly picked up the cards and made them disappear with flourish.
“He’s a card sharp.” Celia responded when it was clear that Rain wasn’t going to, “You’ve been playing his game since the start.”
“I’ll have the police on you,” Marc stood knocking over his chair, “I have influence in this town. I could have you tarred and feathered!”
“And then you’d have to admit to playing an illegal game of poker.” Celcia replied. “Look, check your chips. The only one who’s lost here is Rain. Let it go.”
With much bluster and throwing of chips Marc also left and the bar was now empty except for the five companions.
Plastering on an obviously fake smile, Rain cracked his neck and turned his attention to the scientist now engrossed in her notes.
“You’re welcome. Though I would have thought you’d have known already. Aren’t you supposed to be good at cards?”
Celia laughed out loud and patted him on the back.
“We can’t all be appreciated in our lifetimes.”
“Do you think there’s a recursion out there where my talents are appreciated?” He said giving Celia a sad smile before skulking off to see what Algernon and Bruce were involved in.
Having had sufficient warning they were now watching an old Abbott and Costello clip on Youtube.
“See, because their names were ‘Who’, ‘Whats’ and ‘I don’t know’ .” Bruce explained and Algernon nodded sagely.
“Ah. So this is funny?”
“Classic comedy.” Rain interjected sitting beside Algernon, “It’s all about perceptions. Points of view.”
“You could say that.” Bruce leaned back giving Algernon a knowing look.
Rain looked between the two of them. Bruce with a blank mask for a face, hiding something. Algernon determinedly not looking at Rain, hiding everything. Rain shook his head.
“Keep your secrets.” He said eventually and called over the waiter for one last round. Algernon visibly relaxed and offered his coffee mug up for a refill.
Friday night, Louis Astra and had his goons made a punching bag out of some guy who owed him money. I was made to be there to ensure he got the message. The guy nearly died, he got the message, his family and friends got the message. I certainly got the message, the message was “…get the hell out of here!”
So, Wednesday evening I entered The Last Shot in a classic (not retro) 50s English cut suit with box pleat looking like James Bond. I caught all the dancer’s eyes as I walked back stage.
“Is that real Saville Row?” Jessie from Fulham asked as she brushed a stray thread off my smoking threads.
“Lovely place, but the fellow measured a little high in the inner leg, if you know what I mean.”
The girls laughed and asked where it came from.
“This old thing!” I joked and left them asking more. They quizzed me and gossiped and I had a very good night, but no one else noticed.
Thursday night I flashed a Rolex that had so many jewels on it I was competing with the disco ball. This got the attention of the bouncers who judged at a glance the worth of a guest by their accessories.
“Hey, is that genuine?” Benny asked and I let him examine it, “Looks legit to me. What, did someone die?”
“You know me Benny, I wouldn’t hurt a fly.” I said and left him guessing.
Friday night I shouted a great table of hens who laughed and gawped at all the right places. They were the sort of crowd a performer always wants around. The bar staff asked had I won the lottery? I told them (and anyone who was listening) that I was only wanting to bless the marriage as well as I feel I have been recently blessed.
By Saturday, some of staff, like Rick on sound, Jeff and Iman, a couple of backstage gaffers, came to me asking, what was going on? Where was all this money coming from? I took them all aside and swore them to absolute secrecy in hushed tones. I have found a way to get rich quick. Of course they wanted to know what it was, as friends, as buddies in need.
“All in good time. It wouldn’t be a sure thing if everyone knew.’
Being sworn to secrecy of course the boss heard almost instantly and before work Sunday I was in front of Mr Astra.
“I hear you’ve been doing well for yourself.” Mr Astra said casually, working around to his topic.
“I like to think I put on a good show Mr Astra.” I replied looking good in a Frank Sinatra knock off complete with a tight fitting checked vest and fedora.
“And I can see that you’re sense of fashion has improved.”
Now in my defence, there is nothing wrong with my fashion sense. But the Boss’s fashion sense does tend to the Classic Rat Pack. Unfortunately for him, he was not built like Frankie or Sammy Davis. He wasn’t even a Dean Martin on a bad day.
“Thanks boss, I like to look sharp.” I did in my best Frankie impression, which to a native Bronx man probably wasn’t that great I’d admit.
He didn’t even crack a smile.
“Where’s the money coming from, smart ass.”
“Yeah, don’t give me any of your smart lip. Where are you getting the money for your clothes and bling, shouting whole tables drinks, I better not be paying for it.” He was getting cranky now, and I don’t have to act scared when he’s cranky. Now it was time the honest truth.
“Mr Astra, the only money I have is what you give me.” Hands out, palms up almost pleading. Bullies lap it up.
“Don’t give me that bullshit Jimmy, “ He never did call me by the name I ran under at that time, Jossep Sallivarin, too foreign for him or something, “Expensive watches, fine clothes, what’s the deal?”
He didn’t wait for me to answer but let Benny knock me about first. Benny was a friend and he didn’t think a little thing like me could take much of a beating. He was probably right. Still hurt like hell. The problem with violence as a way of getting information is you’re never sure if they’re telling you what you want to know or what they think you want to know.
“I’ll tell, I’ll tell.” It’s good to be underestimated. After a few such ‘lessons’ as the one on Friday, Mr Louis Astra as his thugs knew I was squemish about violence and blood. They’d believe that I’d give up my mother (if I knew who she was) to save my petty skin.
“I know you will Jimmy. Start from the beginning, how did you come by the money?” Mr Astra asked from behind his desk, Benny gave me a seat out of friendship, how kind.
Now it was time for the bold-faced lies. The bolder and more outlandish the better. Enough techo-babble to make it sound legitimate without actually explaining anything and all while looking thoroughly miserable which wasn’t hard. Did I mention that Benny really hurt? They wanted to believe in the magic of computers and hacking, they believed I was really making money hand over fist they’d seen it in the clothes, the bling and the sudden generosity. They believed everyone was as greedy as they were and they believed the words said under the vow of secrecy. I was now just preaching to the converted.
“I hacked Livacoin’s algorithims and inserted a bot that allows me to manipulated transactions, artificially inflating or deflating prices.” I sobbed. The boss knew he was onto the right information, I’d mentioned “prices”.
“Wha…what’s that mean in American?” Mr Astra stood up and leaned out across his desk at me. He was so far forward I could have tweaked his nose. I put that thought aside. Minty fresh breath rolled over me. He really is fanatical about oral hygiene.
“I think what he’s saying is he can get inside Livacoin’s systems and change the price when he wants.” Benny supplied helpfully. From conversations with Benny I knew he was a part-time cryptominer and spent a bit of time on the nightclub’s computer and bandwidth.
“Is that what you’re saying?” Mr Astra turned back to me. I nodded, beaten and contrite.
“Well why didn’t you say!” He sat back down in his chair with a thud once more assured of his dominance, “And this…changing prices…you make money out of this?”
I’d overestimated the boss. I had to keep my head down so he didn’t see me roll my eyes.
“Mr Astra, you buy low and sell high, but you have to know when.” Benny once more to the rescue. That’s my boy.
“Like the stockmarket?”
Yes, exactly like the stockmarket. I groaned but said nothing, If the stockmarket were a giant coldblooded land-bound reptile and cryptocurrency were a high soaring bird of prey.
At this time I wiped my nose on the back of my hand absentmindedly . It came away bloodly, I hadn’t counted on that and missed part of what the boss and Benny said nexts. It took a swift punch to the already aching ribs to snap me out.
“Answer me…aren’t all the transactions traceable?”
“All blockchains are public.” I gasped. I hadn’t realised how much I relied on breath until that moment. “But they’re all under pseudonyms.”
“He’s talking gibberish again, what do you make of it?” Astra turned to Benny who had suddenly become the room’s expert on Cryptocurrency and he was enjoying his role.
“You use fake names that only the company know.” Benny nodded translating for me, “Crypto-currencies are meant to be anonymous.”
Mr Astra leaned back, a sign he was thinking. Fortunately for the rest of us, for how would we know otherwise.
He sat there thinking for so long I start to wonder if I’ve misjudged him. Maybe he isn’t a greedy self-centred slob with a Napoleon complex. Maybe I’ve played my hand too hard, maybe he can read minds.
“Show me.” he said finally.
Nope, got him in one.
I gestured to the laptop on his desk, surely an ornament, and he turned it to face me. I slipped a micro thumbdrive into a port and in the background installed my work of art.
“I need to get access to my bot, it will take a moment.” I flipped the brower so it showed webpages in HTML to mask what I was doing and brought up my program from the thumb drive. The screen cleared dramatically, a message small and insignificant appeared, cursor flashing.
“Contact established… Value?”
“I’ve bought a few thousand shares in the last few days and I’m ready to sell. If we put a positive number here the price will go up by that much. A negative number it will go down. What number do you want to put in?” Alway a good idea to make the mark feel like they have a choice.
“Go big or go home, right?” Mr Astra was enjoying the show, “Why not a million.”
I glanced at Benny who was visibly whincing behind his boss’s back.
“Currency, even digital doesn’t usually move in big clean numbers like that. A leap of a million will let those who are watching know that something is up.”
Of course, it wasn’t as simple as putting in a number and wishing for money. Magic requires gestures, rituals and incantations to perform. So does a good con. To say I was enjoying myself at this point is an understatement.
“Well, what number do you suggest?” Mr Astra asked my unbiased third party, Benny. “You’re experienced in this stuff, what would you type?”
“Increases are usually small unless there’s a boost from media. 0.5 increase?”
“0.5…?” Mr Astra scoffed.
“The more money you put in the more you get out.” I said forgetting for the moment I was suppose to be a broken character. I was rewarded by a look that curdled my insides and I stepped away from the laptop, taking my thumbdrive with me, it’s purpose served.
Mr Astra typed 0.5 and enter.
“I’m…I’m just pulling out my phone.” I warned the room, I didn’t need to pretend fear of reprisal if these two thought I was drawing a gun. They watched as I pulled open my jacket and retrieved my phone. Swiping through screen I found the very professional looking Livacoin app (if I do say so myself) and tapped it.
I showed them both a screen called ‘Transactions’ that showed a continously changing date and time, an identification code and price. As I turned it to face Mr Astra the price increased by tiny increments until it was 0.5% more than when it had started.
“Now the price is up, I’d wait a day or two before selling, gaining my profit.” I showed them the account section and the obvious sell button.
“And that’s it.” Mr Astra looked at me blankly. I couldn’t tell if he was dumbfounded or unimpressed. “You skim off profits every few days or so.”
“Yes, sir.” I replied meekly, and hopefully defeated.
Mr Astra sat back in his thinking pose again and looked at Benny.
Benny shrugged. I knew from our talks, his experience did not go far beyond mining and actually programming was a whole different magical world to him.
“He has the skills…” Benny hedged and it made me shiver. He was hiding something, something he wasn’t sure he should tell his boss. I kept my face downcast, this was no time to flinch.
Regardless, Mr Astra was convinced.
“Okay, this is how we proceed from here. I’ll be taking over your little ‘bot’ from now on. Benny here is going to go home with you and make sure that anything to do with this comes back to the club. I’ll let you run your little scam from here as you’ve been doing, but you’re also going to do a little something for me.”
Here he allowed himself to look smug, taking the clever little nobody’s toy and making it useful.
“You’re going to start laundering money for me. We’ll keep it simple at first, just a few hundred thou just to get started.” Pocket money it may be, but it was money that wasn’t strictly his. I supressed a smile of victory knowing that when this all came to light he’d be more than just a few hundred thousand dollars lighter.
“Are you getting what I’m putting down?” Mr Astra asked and I nodded. “Good, you have the night off to give what you have to Benny. Get a good night’s rest because tomorrow, you’re working for me nine to five.”
Just the thought of a regular office job gave me the shivers. I nearly protested, I nearly made a scene so close to getting what I wanted. Benny fortunately picked me up by one shoulder and walked me out of the office before I could open my mouth.
Without a word we marched down the backstairs and into Mr Astra’s own black sedan ready with driver. Benny gave my address and we sat side by side in silence all the way. My apartment was a one bedroom cockroach motel that I had jazzed up recently with a few new toys, a PS4, new boxes and bags from some of the finer stores in town. Benny took it all in and said nothing as I packed up my laptop and anything else that looked useful.
“Just one thing that bugs me.” Benny finally said as I handed him a box of technology, “If you’re so clever as to work out how to scam the cryptos and make it work, how come you let yourself get caught?”
My heart stopped in my chest as I realised that Benny was smarter than he looked. I had nothing to offer. No fancy patter, no clever joke. At that moment I felt as defeated as I was meant to be.
“I… don’t understand Benny.”
“You would have known how everyone would talk once you started splashing the cash. You must have known.”
And then, I said what I never thought I’d hear myself say.
“ I just want out Benny. I can’t be a part of things like last Friday anymore, I just can’t.” The truth poured out of me like tears and Benny lapped it up.
“Yeah, you never really fitted in with ‘the business’.” He said it like he was saying the inverted commas, and he put his huge meaty hand on my shoulder in what was meant as a comforting way. “I guess you never did have much future in it.”
I agreed. It was what I’d been yelling in my sleep about for months, I didn’t belong in that world. But when Benny said it, and showed such genuine sympathy, I knew he meant to let me down easy. I had failed to live up to expectations and he was letting me go. I wanted to protest, I’m not a failure, and maybe Benny would have been kind and said something like, “Sure you’re not, you can do lots of things…”
“I’m sorry, Benny,” I hung my head and kept my peace only by biting my tongue.
“You’ll find your place, don’t worry ‘bout it.” His hand left my shoulder and took mine. “Good bye, Joosep.”
Now I did find myself tearing up. I loved this big guy, I loved the other performers, the stage hands and sound techs. I loved all the guys behind the bar, the wait staff and cloak room staff. I loved my work. After this I could never again work in this business, I had burnt my bridges.
It wasn’t too late was it? To take it all back? To say it was a funny joke?
“Good bye, Benny.” I said and shook his hand, meaning all the good will and fidelity that simple symbol meant.
Benny nodded and left with my second best laptop and assorted peripherals.
I ran for my open window and down the fire escape.
There was nothing at my flat I wanted. The Saville Row suit had been a loaner from a stage costumer of my acquaintance and had been handed back days before. The watch a rental from a props store in town. My current Frankie look-a-like was mine, made of vintage second hand from thrift stores and everything else…was props. Dressing. Staging.
I had planned my route for months and now I ran it like my life depended on it. Because it did. Keeping only to the alley ways, service ways and delivery roads I travelled across the city to the bus depot heading for the lockers. There, unlocked by a key I kept in my patent leather shoes, was my real laptop, my travel swag and a ticket on the Greyhound.
While I was in WIFI I did one last task. I activated a link I had created with my thumb drive, my work of art. I had access to Louie Astra’s corporate and private bank accounts, confidential records, everything. I moved across a generous severance pay to a private account of my own, made a little havoc in the files that would hopefully keep the tech boys of Astra’s busy for a while and then ran the exe file to destroy the connection completely. With a night’s travel and what extra I had bought myself with my hacking, I could be anywhere in the world by the time he realised he’d been had. I picked up my possessions and headed for the gate and my new life.
The group chased down the source of Spiral Dust to the mountain township of Nederland, Colorado. There they used all their skills to discover the world-wide network being managed from an unassuming gemstone store. Confronting the owner, they convinced her to close up her side of the trade and start the task of cleaning house.
* * * * * * *
Two days in Nederland and Bruce was in his element. Lydia Lance rang the two store assistants, Delsey and Everett, and gave them a two week holiday. Her explanation was that extensive building works needed to occur to fix the electrical fault. She also gave the group her set of keys to the shop. As soon as they saw Lydia off on a flight to Seattle, Bruce drove everyone down to Home Depot and spent the afternoon perusing the options.
“How about frag grenades on a trolley, “ Algernon was also shopping, but not having a lot of success, “Tie a group to the trolley set one off, push it down the stairs into the room and close the door. Or maybe a stack of pesticide cans strapped to a trolley with a frag grenade in the middle. ”
“Frag grenades are not available to civilians, and we don’t want to do structural damage if we can help it.” Bruce pulled a fisheye door viewer off the blister pack display and dropped it into his trolley.
“They live in the dark, maybe the don’t like light.” Rain found an LED torch with a high lumens rating. Bruce plucked it from his hand, adding it and the required batteries into the trolley.
“We steal a pest extermination truck and…”
“No… but the pesticide is a good idea.” Bruce quickened his pace.
“…just for the night and then drown them in pesticide. Or even better find a pesticide we can set alight!” Algernon’s fertile brain was buzzing with the many possibilities for the spider’s demise.
“…we are not breaking the law if I can help it.” Bruce replied, squashing the ideas machine flat. He found the power tools and dropped a sturdy looking cordless drill and a set of large drill bits into his trolley.
“Could we not just blast them away with some heavy guage rifles or shotgun?” Celia chipped in a suggestion, “Wouldn’t a quick kill be better?”
“We’ve been asked to conduct a little experiment in regards to the effectiveness of readily available pesticides on these things, but firearms are an option if things go poorly.”
Rain winced at even the mention of the guns and sulked at the back of the group.
“We could buy pesticide and distill it down….” Algernon suggested again, this time with a little less enthuiasm.
“The distilling is probably more dangerous than the end product.” Bruce found the gardening section with an array of pump action, pressurised vessels for watering, fertilizing or poisoning. His eyes alighted on a 30 litre backpack style container with a long thin spraying wand. Conveniently, insecticide were displayed the next shelves over.
“I have an idea.” Bruce turned to the group who were following with varying degrees of interest.
“Can we still steal a truck?” The ever hopeful Algernon asked encouraged by Rain.
“No, we don’t need to.” Peggy added
“But…” Algernon tried for a cute look, making himself seem smaller and more fragile. It was probably something he’d seen some female character do on one of his television shows. On a gangly 15 year old boy frame it had the effect of making him look constipated.
“That only works when you have boobs.” Peggy added matter of factly before turning back to Bruce.
Bruce’s plan was a good one. Mostly because it was simple, and only required him to be in any potential danger. That night the group let themselves into the shop via the back door and down the stairs leading to the basement. Bruce drilled a large hole, large enough to fit the door viewer, fisheye lens and all. A hairy clawed foot reached up and poked the fisheye back through the door. Bruce quickly gave the offending spider a squirt of pressurised insecticide through the hole and the spiderfoot disappeared with a skitter.
He drilled a second hole, this time big enough to poke through the torch. The narrow beam of the torch filled the basement and through the spyhole the two spiders were visible high up in opposite corners. As the third hole was being drilled for the insecticide wand, the spyhole was poked out a second time. Bruce set a jet of insecticide into the creature’s face this time and it skittered haphazardly back to it’s corner showing signs that the poison was taking effect.
“If the crow lady is connected to these things, will she come through if we kill them?” Algernon asked from up the stairs, at the back of the group.
“We can only hope.” Bruce replied gleefully as he lined up the spray wand, ”Let’s try and see.”
The liquid filled the whole space with a hissing jet hitting both spiders. They jiggered and thrashed violently unable to escape the poison.
One spider launched its huge body from the wall to the door, the whole stairwell echoing with the force of its blow against wood frame and steel hinged. The whole door shuddered and groaned, its hinged stretched. Peggy, Celia and Algernon all brought their handguns up, Algernon added the cold ammunition to his weapon. Bruce leaned against the door as support.
“Keep pumping!” He yelled at Rain and he doubled his efforts to keep the pressure up on the canister.
The door slowly cracked and splintered under the spider’s increasingly frantic attacks. Pieces of frame were now flying off over the group as Bruce dropped the spray gun and braced the door with his crowbar as well.
“Rain, get the gun!” He yelled gesturing to the spray gun on the ground.
Rain did as he was told, leaving the canister and crouching beside Bruce. He swiveled the spray gun around at the spider through the door and poured the drench wherever he could reach.
More of the frame tore away from the brick work and now there was only the wood of the door between Bruce and the spider.
“Get ready, they’re coming through!” Bruce retrieved his crowbar and dove free of the door. Peggy threw down a glass bottle of glue, a cipher of extreme adhesion. The glue splashed the spider who seemed to use their last burst of effort to knock through the door. It crashed bodily into the stairwell, the last of its strength spent as glue afixed it to the door. Now the other spider started crawling over its defeated comrad to attack the party.
“Shoot straight Celia!” Called Rain huddled down against the broken door frame still clutching the spray gun. She did, as did Peggy. Algernon’s icy shot went wide and hit the brickwork above Rain’s head. Rain squeeeled and ducked down further wedging himself between the dead spider and the wall.
Celia shot again, this time shooting the spider through one of its primary eyes. It reared back and turned to face it’s tormentor, mouth parts distending. It launched itself at Celia as she turned to defend herself. The spider bit deep into her raised arm, pushing her back onto the stairs.
“Hulk Smash!” Bruce roared swinging his sledgehammer off his back. He stepped between the party and confronted the beast, but found Rain cowered and in his way. Adjusting his stance, he swung his hammer side on and brought it down squarely on the spider’s head. The spider twitched once and the legs gave way, and its huge body collapsed on its partner in the doorway. A black swarm of spiderlings crawled out of the second spider. The spiderlings did not do anywhere near as well in the split insecticide as their parents, but some did reach the party. Peggy and Algernon couldn’t get out of the way in time and received bites on the legs before the spiderlings collapsed and died.
“Team Work!” Roared Bruce brandishing his Sledgehammer at the dead spiders, “Spiders! Time you split.”
A cracking sound from above and a fine showering of dust caught everyone’s attention. Rain, having successfully wall-run out of the way of the spiderling swarm was now clinging to a hanging light fixture. It couldn’t support his weight for long. Bruce dodged, deflecting much of the debris off his shoulder as Rain, light fixture and much of the ceiling fell to the floor right in front of the head of the second spider.
“Rain drops and falls on Bruce’s head.” Sung Algernon as his companion’s groans of pain turned to yelps at the sight of the dead spiders beside him.
“Get them off! Get them off! Get them off!” Rain cried scrambling ineffectually to get free as the hooked feet of the spiders clung to his coat.
“Stop squirming…look your getting all tangled…here let me do it.” Bruce bent down the pushed the remains of the door into the spider room, the bodies of the two spiders with it.
Celia pulled out her own torch and filled the space with light once more. The buckets remained where they’d been last visit, but fortunately the insecticide had taken out the mosquitoes as well as the spiders that had fed on them. Spiderweb hung from the walls coating them in a now damp whispy softness. That was, except for the far wall where another door stood clear of web. The torch light also fell onto a number of white wrapped cocoons, six in total.
“Didn’t Lydia say she’d brought only a couple of hobos down here?” Celia said.
Peggy was already taking extensive samples of tissue from the spiders, impressed at their toughness and ability to grow so large outside of their magically imbue world. At Celia’s words she took her scappel and cut into the nearest of the cocoons. Inside, a desiccated body lolled out, dressed in the trendiest of hipster fashion. It was hard to tell, but the body did not look to belong to someone who had ‘lived hard’. Peggy checked the body and discovered a wallet that she handed to Celia. Inside she found a student ID for the name George Parks.
“This guy was no hobo. But how did he end up down here?”
The group went to work examining the other five bodies. Four were definitely individuals who had seen hardship, worn clothing in multiple miss matched layers, unkempt and with no identification. The group went silent as the last was revealed to be a young woman, also with a wallet and student ID for the same university as George Parks. Her name was Mayer Haskins. Bruce made a note to mention this to Katherine next time he checked in.
The door was all that remained to investigate. From what they knew from Lydia, beyond was the preparation room and where the blue rock was translated to process for shipment out to dealers like Caine. Celia checked for traps as Peggy checked for presence of The Strange. Neither found anything of note.
“I think I should go in first.” Bruce stated to the group getting no argue from Algernon. Celia just watched as Peggy picked up her things and walked through the door.
The room was much like the rest of the storage areas, full of shelving and crates, the only exception being that this room also contained a large taped in space with a sign saying “Stand Clear”. To one side a bench stood with equipment meant for processing the grey blue rocks into Spiral Dust. Everywhere the group looked, a fine layer of dust covered everything. This was definitely the place. Without a word, Peggy got to work taking samples and recording the space for future study.
Once it was established that there was no obvious clues to be had, Algernon kept himself amused filling the taped off area with pieces of spider. Visuals of Dona Ilsa or one of her cronies translating into the decomposing innards of the Night Spiders seemed to fill everyone in the room with a type of dark glee and even Bruce joined in. As they worked, Algernon, Bruce and Peggy contemplated ideas on how to trap the room for the next delivery.
“Could we lay the trap in the translation space, maybe a poison?” Algernon started dragging a spider leg trailing eviscera into the pile.
“This room is underground. It wouldn’t take much to make it airtights.” Bruce mused out loud.
“We could fill it with nitrogen and suffocate anyone who translates in.” Algernon added.
“Or we could fill the place with the insecticide…or some sort of contact poison on the spider guts. Yeah, that way they take it back with them…” Algernon added warming to the subject.
“Mercury would be nasty, or maybe Phosphorus. Yes…they’d try to wash it off and it would burn.” Peggy joined in with her suggestions taking equal delight in the idea.
“I think I could probably make a contact poison from what we can gather here and at Home Depot. Not too strong that I would hurt myself making it, but strong enough to make anyone who translated in ill.”
“At least they’ll find themselves deep in spider if nothing else.” Bruce grinned looking to share the joke with Rain, not finding the little man in the room. Putting aside the spider part stacking for the moment he walked back through the basement and found Rain sitting on the stairs.
Bruce nearly walked into Rain he was so still on the near darkness of the stairwell. The shaking mess that was usually Rain after a physical encounter was absent. Missing too was the black puzzle box. Instead Rain just sat staring down the stairs, his fists balled in front of his expressionless face.
“What’s up?” Bruce asked almost eye to eye with Rain.
Rain sat silently for a moment. Eventually the violet eyes turned to Bruce and he was surprised to see anger there.
“I’m sitting here listening to my friends. They’re so excited about poisoning some woman they’ve never met. They’re making jokes and fooling around about mercury and phosphorus. They’re excited about making new poisons that work through contact.” The eyes slipped from Bruce’s as the anger went internal, “She’s horrible. I know and…I don’t have an alternative… so I said nothing. But… I don’t want to be that person, Bruce.”
“She’s not actually a human.” Bruce defended, unsure with this new dynamic between the two of them, “I’m just trying to find a way to defend us against …”
“But it’s like the Spanish deliberately poisoning the Indians with smallpox. Greed, fear and genocide over and over again.”
“What if it was the other way around?” Bruce retorted surer of his moral footing, “What if the Indians were defending themselves by poisoning the invading Spanish?”
Rain shook his head in sadly.
“It doesn’t matter who does it. Don’t you get it? It’s the thinking that they are less, that they deserve extermination like…insects.”
“Hmm. Yeah.” The realisation of Rain’s words hit home. Bruce had been thinking of ways of hitting back at the Beak Mafia who were attacking his world with Spiral Dust The desire to defend at all cost had blinded him to a whole nation of intelligent beings, not just a blind force for evil.
“Dona Ilsa and her people are intelligent. We can talk, reason, bully, threaten even…”
“You’re right.” Bruce admitted, “I see what you mean. … Actually, … now I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed. So what should we do? What do you suggest?”
Rain shook his head, now frustrated that he couldn’t see a path forward.
“I really don’t know. I don’t have any alternatives. I’m sitting here racking my mind…all I know is I don’t want to lose what little…humanity I have.”
“Ok. Look, we won’t do the poison. We’ll hold off, and phone it in and get instructions.”
Rain winced. Asking for advice to him was like admitting defeat. It said something about how strongly he felt about his that he finally nodded his head in agreement.
“But don’t tell Algernon. He’s so excited about his poison idea, and I don’t want to let him down.”
“I’ll settle it with him, I’ll be gentle. It’ll be alright.” Bruce assured the smaller man, now sitting on the stairs with his arms wrapped around his legs.” … Are you coming down?”
He shook his head again and looked away like a wounded child.
“I don’t think there’s anything down there for me.”
Down in the preparation room, Algernon was busy adding a motion sensitive camera that he could monitor via WIFI. He added a silent alarm to the setup so if anyone translated in unexpectedly, he’d know about it. Bruce walked back to the group looking serious and headed over to Algernon.
“Listen guys. Rain’s made a valid point about us dealing with Crows Hollow people. I’m going to ring in and get some advice on what to do, but Algernon, we’re going to hold off on your poison idea for the time being, okay?”
“Sure.” Said Algernon, now concerned where his friend was. It was one thing for Rain to be upset by the bodies and mess they’d made of the spider, that was just Rain. But, Algernon was now worried he’d alienated Rain with his throw away suggestion. “Well, if Rain thinks it’s a bad idea then I’ll forget it.”
“Good lad. Well, first things let’s see if we can fix this place up a little.” Bruce pressed Algernon into helping him fix the door to the spider room. Though the door was relatively intact (held together as it was by glued spider parts), the frame was shattered, the hinged torn apart and all of it was smeared with insecticide and spider goo. Try as they might they could not make the door stand in the opening and eventually resorted to just taping it in place with the red and white striped keep clear tape from the preparation room. As the last of the tape was applied, a noise from up in the shop disturbed Rain.
“…Hello?” Came a woman’s voice, a query not a demand for attention. Rain climbed the stairs and from the hallway saw Delsey Robinson standing in the shop.
“Hi!” He replied cherrily stepping out of the hallway so she could see him.
“What’s going on here,” She asked a worried expression creasing her face, she pointed at the front door. “I walked past and saw the door was open.”
Rain looked to the door standing ajar knowing that they’d entered via the back door. It had been more direct and less obvious than the front.
“Sorry, about that. We’ve been contracted to deal with the basement issues, by…Miss Lydia.” He replied in the slow drawling local accent, “Rising damp has done the two-step on the electricals for this place.”
“Oh,” Delsey physically relaxed when her bosses name was mentioned, “She did mention something about that. I work here.”
Oh hearing the conversation, Algernon crept up the stairs behind Rain and out the back door to catch a glimpse of Delsey through the shop front windows. Once he could see her he tapped into her surface thoughts and saw that though she had been a little worried about the door being open, she was assured by Rain’s words. She was not the one who had opened the door. He made a gesture to Rain behind Delsey’s back that she was “all good” with two raised thumbs and snuck back. Rain nodded.
“Is that right. Miss Lydia must be proud to have such diligent staff as you watching out for her store like this.”
“I was just walking home from the pub, “ She accepted the compliment honestly.
“The pub! Hah, well I hope you had one for me and the crew as we’re going to be pulling an all nighter on this one.” Rain started walking Desley to the door. “Better you than me.” Desley joked as she walked out and locked the door behind her.
At the same time, Peggy was having a surprise of her own. Still on the stairs waiting for the all clear she was thinking about Dona Ilsa and how she related to everything. Her open mind touched The Strange and it replied.
“Cornaro.” She said out loud, “Cornaro? What’s a Cornaro?” Bruce glanced up at Peggy perplexed but filed away the little snippet of information.
“Where did you get that from?” Celia asked quietly as they heard the front door close and lock. She touched her hand to Peggy’s arm to get her attention, but something else quite unexpected happened instead.
I don’t know, it just seemed to pop into my head. Peggy thought and Celia heard it inside her own mind. Cornaro, Cornaro family.
Did she say that or just think …?
No need to shout at me!
You heard that!
She’s in my mind. At the sudden realisation that they were now linked telepathically, Peggy panicked and tried to run up the stairs.
“Slow down, what’s going on?” Bruce asked catching up with the distraught Peggy.
“She’s in my mind! GET OUT! GET OUT!” Peggy wheeled on Celia the later groggily walked up the last of the stairs shaking her head to try to clear the link.
“Ah, we’ve seen this before,” Bruce reminded them of the first time Algernon realised he could read minds.” Just try breaking the link.”
Peggy squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath but nothing.
“She’s still in my head!” She panted as she started to hyperventilate.
“Right…Rain.” Bruce called as Peggy came out in a cold sweat. “You take Peggy and I’ll take Celia and we’ll see if a little distance can break this connection.”
Bruce took Celia out the back door, all the time coaching her on what to think to provide a little interference. Rain lead Peggy through the shop and out the front door all the time Peggy’s making comments on what she was experiencing.
“Oh… I don’t like this …penguins? Why are you thinking of penguins? Get out of my head…that is a highly inappropriate thought about Rain…”
“What…?” Rain had been paying attention to where they were going, turned when he heard his name. They had walked down most of the main street and were out of sight of Celia and Bruce. This was not the same as Algernon. Time to try something else. He grabbed both Peggy’s arms and made her face him.
“Peggy. Listen to me.” Though his grip was strong, he his voice was low and gentle, “What is your safe place?”
“My…my garage at…at home.”
“Picture your garage. What’s the first thing you see….”
As Celia focused on nonsense songs and popular movies, Peggy reconstructed her garage and equipment piece by piece. Her breathing slowed and stabilized as she could hear nothing but Rain’s slow, steady instruction. As time past Celia realised she could no longer hear the thoughts from Peggy and the group reunited.
Still shellshocked from their experience, Peggy and Celia were in no fit state to drive the group back to their hotel. Bruce took charge and herded everyone back to the van. Rain looked silently from Celia to Peggy trying to make sense of this new ability. Not just the ability to read another’s mind but full mental telepathy, where no secrets could be hidden from the other. He shivered.
That night Rain did not sleep.
The next morning the incident of the mind link was no more than a vivid nightmare. Over breakfast Bruce called in reporting the death of the spiders.
“Didn’t give you any trouble them?” Katherine asked over the phone.
“ It took ninety seconds of spraying to take down one of the brutes, the babies were not a problem. All up we used 30 litres of insecticide and broke a door. Celia was bitten by one of the adults, nasty but doesn’t seem to be poisoned. Peggy and Algernon took bites from the spiderlings you warned about, but also seem fine this morning.” He looked to the group who winced at their wounds but all gave a thumbs up.
“There’s something else, Lydia had admitted to sending a couple of homeless people to be spider food. We found six bodies, including two college kids.” He gave her their names and student ID numbers, “Either Lydia was lying or someone else also knows about the spiders.” “And the door was open, “ Rain added, “That what had drawn Delsey to the store last night. Algernon checked her thoughts, she was telling the truth.”
“I’ll send the clean up crew to take away the bodies and fix the door. So, what are your plans now?” Katherine asked
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. There was a plan to add a contact poison to the space set aside for translation by Dona Ilsa.”
“The Estate would always prize information over extermination. If you can, capture her and find out what she knows.”
“These crow people have been…difficult customers in the past. Do you think we can handle them?”
“It’s up to you. McCain and his team are available, I can always send them up to take over if you don’t feel up to it.”
Bruce looked around the group in front of him.
“What do you guys say? Do we let McCain and his team take over?”
“Sooner we leave here, sooner I’m back in my lab.” Peggy pounced on the chance to get back.
“I think capturing her is a good idea. I’d like to see this through to the end. I’d like us to try.” Rain disagreed as did Algernon and Celia.
“We can do it, Peggy.” Rain said to Peggy hoping that he could encourage her to join the others.
“It’s not a matter of being capable. Many are capable. I want to get back to my lab and my work. All this is merely a distraction.” She waved her hand at the room and by extension the town outside and the current mission.
“Could Peggy fly back to Seattle, set up a few experiments and then join us in time for the next delivery?” Bruce suggested to Katherine over the phone.
“Tell Doctor Martin there will be plenty of lab time on her return, “Katherine replied pragmatically, “I will not approve the expense of a return flight for her.”
Much to Peggy’s protests, the group were to stay in Colorado for the next scheduled delivery of Spiral dust. It meant they had time to kill and Bruce thought he knew how to spend it.
“That other job, the Morrison fellowship award winner, has that been given away?”
“No, I haven’t put another team on it as yet. Are you thinking of picking it up again?”
“We have a week, Boulder’s not that far away.”
“Good thinking.” Katherine approved, “Well get driving. I’ll have the Chief of Public Relations get in touch.”
“Cheer up Peggy,” Rain said as Bruce hung up with Katherine and let the group know her decision, “Think on the bright side. This teen prodigy may be the real thing. Imagine what we can learn from her. Might be useful for your battery project.”
“Yes, I wonder how she’s doing it.” Peggy wondered out loud and kept herself amused trying to work out how the young girl was powering electrical devices with only her body’s bioelectricity, “The numbers just don’t make sense.”
The trip between Nederland and Boulder should have taken the group little more than half an hour on the highway. With Bruce driving and the van’s own idea of what speed was appropriate, the trip was closer to half a day. Rain dosed in the back seat lulled by the movement of the van as the others sporadically talked about low wattage bulbs and the human body’s ability to generate electricity.
Waiting for them in Boulder was Eliza Banks, Chief of Public Relations of The Estate.
“I’m so pleased your group has made time to help the The Morrison Fellowship vet their latest candidate, Gwendolyn Wurtz.” She welcomed the group as they stepped out of the van not far from Gwendolyn’s house. For the presentation they had been asked to wear neat business attire. Bruce and Algernon had suits and collared shirts, Celia and Peggy were pencil skirts and pumps. Rain had raided the Nederland Good Will, called “The Shop”, and was dressed head to toe in vintage 1950s clothing. A short brimmed fedora that he wore pushed back, a crisp white linen shirt, yellow checkered vest, a plaid sports coat and wide legged slacks. Algernon was in the process of swapping out his suit new suit jacket for his red motorcycle jacket when Bruce caught him.
“You can’t wear that, you’re representing the public face of The Estate.” Bruce argued holding out the discarded black suit jacket.
“I wear this when I represent the Estate all the time.” Algernon complained pulling on his jacket with pride.
“This is not the jacket of a respectable person. In this jacket, you are making a threat.” Bruce tried reasoning, “Don’t you want to be safe?”
“But Rain gave me this jacket.”
“We need to blend in.” Bruce insisted not unkindly, and eventually Algernon took off his beloved motorcycle jacket a put on the black.
“Right, now that that’s sorted, “Eliza continued in a crisp presenters voice,”As you’re probably aware, the Morrison Fellowship Prize is a prestigious award given to individuals who are working in… the more fringe fields of study. In reality the Prize is a chance for us to covertly check up on unusual activity that may be linked to The Strange. When Gwendolyn’s science fair project came to our attention it became a candidate for the prize and your…unique skills.”
“So will you be joining us?” Asked Bruce
“Oh no.” Her red lips smiled, but her eyes didn’t mirror the expression. “I’ll leave all that tedious and potentially dangerous legwork to you. You’ll report to me when you have your findings.”
It wasn’t clear how speaking to a 15 year old girl about her science fair project was going to be dangerous. Compared to horse-sized spiders, a walk down a suburban street in daylight sounded a good change of pace.
“Right -o and off you go!” She cheered and set the group down the street.
The house was not that different from any of the others in the neighbourhood. The only glaring difference was that every light seemed to be on in the house in the middle of the day. When Rain knocked on the door it was answered promptly by a woman who epitomizes the American housewife. Immaculately dressed and styled she wore a frilled apron over the top of a dress which looked like it had never seen a days work. Rain never got a chance to start his spiel as she flung open the door and smile broadly,
“And you must be from the Morrison Fellowship.”
“Yes we are, we’ve come to interview Gwendolyn, is she available?”
“Yes. Please come in.” She gestured and the party stepped into the pristine home. It was like a house from a magazine, nothing was out of place, everything was spotless.
“Gwendolyn they’ve arrived.” Called the woman they could only assume was the girl’s mother. A few moments later, an average looking teenage girl carrying a homemade looking flashlight joined them in the lounge.
Silently all the skills and talents of the group went into effect. Algernon focused on the girl, listening in on her surface thoughts, Peggy concentrated on The Strange, Bruce kept an eye of everything and Rain turned to face the girl with a smile.
“Gwendolyn, we’ve been so looking forward to meeting you and seeing your amazing discovery at work.”
“Yeah…um, here it is.” She said holding the metal body of the device to her bare hand and the bulb suddenly lit up. It was a bright as a regular flashlight, much brighter than other contemporary experiments and much too bright for the standard amount of energy created by the human body.
“Outstanding. How did you come up with such an amazing idea?” Rain prompted and Algernon heard,
I really hope they like it. In reply, though, she said,
“I’d heard about bioenergy at school and I just started tinkering around.”
“Could I try it?” Asked Bruce and she handed the device over. When Bruce held the body as she had the bulb lit up, working at least as well as it had for her.
Algernon could hear Gwendolyn searching for words and concepts seemingly at random, like she was making up her explanation as she went along.
Peggy, having no luck detecting anything of The Strange and started asking technical questions of the device.
“The hardest part was finding the right metal.” Gwendolyn said, but her thoughts were racing as she tried to keep up with Peggy’s more insightful questioning.
When Gwendolyn started to struggle to answer the questions, Peggy stepped back and concentrated on the girl herself, who she was and where she had been in life. She got a feeling that the girl was quickened like they were, and was no stranger to other worlds.
She’s controlling the mother, not the other way around. She said to herself not sure where the impression had come from.
Bruce looked at the immaculate mother and was about to say something to her when his eyes caught something out of place. He kept watching her, trying to work out what was wrong when the woman turned and he noticed that she didn’t just have a healthy glow about her, her eyes were faintly glowing.
Bruce reached out and touched Peggy’s arm and she flinched as the telepathic link was once again made.
You’re in my head! Breathe…breathe…
Focusing his thought to one clear statement, Bruce replied,
Quiet. What’s going on with her mother’s eyes?
I should tell you, I know the mother is not in charge here, the girl is. She replied as she turned to watch the mother.
Now it had been drawn to her attention it was obvious, why hadn’t they seen it before. The mother was obviously an android. Peggy stepped up to get a closer look fascinated by the detail. So close in fact, Bruce had to pull her back.
You’ll get a close look later, but we need to report back what we’ve found.
But do you see, the blink rate, the movement as if breathing, even the dilation of the iris is so natural… and general movement and responses… Peggy bubbled excitedly in a very unPeggy way.
“So these clever metals of yours. Do you pick them up from Walmart? Home depot?” Rain was still asking questions of the girl as Algernon listened silently to her thoughts. She showed images of other places…other worlds where materials and knowledge were far advanced. It was nowhere that Algernon recognised and he was unsure how to get the information to the others.
Celia had been quietly listening to everything that happened. She too slipped into a type of trance, listening to the girl as she spouted technobabble at Rain. Suddenly, as the girl tried to describe where she got her supplies from, a thought entered Celia’s mind. Graveyard of the Machine God. Started out of her trance she was just in time to hear Bruce whisper to Rain,
“The mothers an android. Wrap this up.”
Rain nodded and smiled as if to a private joke and then turned to the mother,
“And your mother here, she is a remarkable invention.”
Many things happened at once. Algernon heard from Gwendolyn, But how do they know!
Sensing the growing tension behind him, Rain stepped aside to let Peggy move forward once more, now fidgeting with excitement.
“Oh thank god, I thought I was going to burst! This android is astounding in its sophistication. I can’t tell you how impressed I am…”
“Don’t make Mommy mad!” Finally Gwendolyn said terrified as the faint glow that Bruce had first spotted turned red and intensified.
Mommy is built very protective.
“We’ve triggered a safety feature.” Bruce said just as Mummy’s hand came down on Rain’s shoulder, pinning him in place.
“Gwendolyn, we can find you a perfectly safe place to work and study.”
“See Mommy, they don’t want to hurt me but keep me safe.” Gwendolyn almost begged the android. Thankfully Mommy listened who let go of the squirming Rain. Rain couldn’t move back fast enough from the machine’s grasp.
“Wonderful invention. I’d truly love to look at this in more detail…” Peggy cooed as Mommy’s eyes faded back to something like a semblance of normal.
“I’m sorry, mother guardian is programmed to protect.” Gwendolyn looked distressed.
Peggy, leave that for somewhere safer. Bruce again pulled Peggy back. He said out loud to Gwendolyn, “We need to deliberate, but I can assure you that there is a place for you with our scientists. Do you think you could walk us to the gate?” “Yeah, sure.” She said leading the group out the front door with Mommy walking along behind.
“Fill Eliza in?” Bruce whispered to the group as soon as he considered them out of earshot.
“Not yet.” Rain scowled, rubbing away the bruise the android had inflicted, “I want to know what happened to her real mother.”
“Yeah, we’ll find that out.” Bruce agreed nodded seriously.
Algernon, who had not stopped listening to Gwendolyn’s thoughts, walked just behind the girl as they all left the house. As she contemplated a life outside the family home her thoughts drifted to her mother.
I haven’t fed her today. She’ll be all right in the basement for a little while longer. Again, the threat of violence from the android kept him mute and it wasn’t until the group were well away from the house that he was able to express his distress.
“Rain, from previous experience we’ve concerned ourselves when people were held against their will.” He said as Bruce reported their findings to Eliza.
“Yes.” Replied Rain simply suspecting where this conversation was going.
“Her mother is being held in the basement.”
“Well that little detail is resolved.” He nodded and Bruce let Eliza know they needed to get back into the house.
“She’s also been to other recursions. That’s where she gets the materials and the tech from.” “What, the torch or Mommy?” asked Peggy.
“I think I got a name for that place,” Celia added, “When you were talking about materials it just came to me, Graveyard of the Machine god. Mean anything?”
Everyone shook their heads except Rain.
“And that just came to you?” He asked probing further into the experience and not the information, “Amazing, you’re all amazing!”
“I know I’m amazing, no need to trumpet it.” She replied feeling self conscious at the hunch she couldn’t explain. Rain shook his head astounded,
“What do you mean? That’s the only worthwhile thing to do!”
When Bruce got off the phone he informed the group that Eliza herself would come by in an hour and pick up Gwendolyn and her ‘mother’ and take them to Seattle. Not knowing what “Mommy” was made of could make her tricky to get through airport security so the drive was recommended.
“Once they’ve left we can go in and look for the real mother.” Bruce explained and the group settled in for the wait.
“How’s the mind link thing, Peggy?” Rain asked in a quiet moment.
“Okay.” She thought as if trying to find the right words, “Slightly alien…very strange.”
“Everyone’s showing such amazing powers, even Celia. I wonder what it means?”
“Should it mean anything?” Peggy asked as Bruce’s phone rang. It was time to go back in.
It wasn’t hard to find Gwendolyn’s real mother. The group took it carefully,not knowing what they would find protecting Gwendolyn’s secrets. In the end they found her mother strapped into a chair delirious. Without moving her at first, Bruce provided first aid and asked for a good cup of tea to be made. She looked unkempt, had sores where her bindings had cut into the back of her hands and had lost weight to judge how her clothes fit. On the whole, she was not in great shape.
“Mrs Wurtz you’re safe. Gwendolyn is safe.” Bruce told her as he assessed her injuries. Algernon who was linked with the woman felt her relief at Bruce’s words, though she was unable to respond coherently.
“Do you know how long you’ve been down here?”
Confusion from Mrs Wurtz and then a clear thought,
I remember the Science Fair and then… She had been down there a few weeks, it was lucky the group had come when they had, she may not have lasted much longer.
Slowly, with a little water and alot of gentle coaxing, she came round and was able to talk to the group.
“Gwendolyn has always been very sciency, very smart. Unfortunately, my husband died two months ago and I admit I was struggling.”
“Have you seen the new protector?” Bruce asked.
“Oh yes. I met the new me. One day Gwendolyn said I’d been…I’d been a bad mother and she made a better one.” She said without anger, only a deep sadness which seemed worse to everyone listening.
“Yes, she is better.” Algernon agreed with her and Mrs Wurtz started to cry.
“But it’s not her mother, you are.” Rain added adamantly, focusing all his thoughts on Mrs Wurtz. “ As kids we don’t know how much we need our mother until their gone.”
Bruce raised an eyebrow at this statement, but said nothing.
“This time of separation could be good for you and her. Gwendolyn is safe with The Estate now and you can relax, heal and find yourself again.”
Mrs Wurtz nodded her head and wiped her tears with the back of her bandaged hand. Slowly, she braced her arms against the chair she was still sitting in and stood up on shaking legs. Bruce was there to help, but as soon as she left the seat, all the lights went out in the basement. In fact, all the lights went out in the house.
“Oh, she had her mother wired into the light circuit.” Peggy commented without surprise or shock.
Without saying a word, Algernon took Mrs Wurtz’s place in the chair. The lights went back on, so everyone could see Algernon pale and drawn.
“Algernon?!” Rain went to step forward but was held back by Bruce.
“Get out of the chair, Algernon.” He said without offering a hand to help. With effort, Algernon pulled himself away from the chair and under the light of Celia’s flashlight Peggy investigated the chair.
“There’s an artefact of Strange origins built into the chair.” She recognised the tingle in her back teeth. She found a set of pliers and pulled a rod from the chair back. “It looks like it drains people of energy. Could be useful against Dona Ilsa?” Wrapping it carefully in insulation she placed the rod in her bag and started searching the basement for other items of The Strange. On a counter she found a powered wing for personal flight, a device that made an individual harder to see and a battery like device that worked as an uninterruptible power supply.
As an ambulance was called for Mrs Wurtz, Bruce called in and reported to Katherine and Algernon pulled Rain aside.
“Rain. The woman Lydia killed people and we wanted to punish her, but the girl will get off?” He asked watching Mrs Wurtz being wrapped in a blanket by Celia.
“It doesn’t seem fair, but we’re more lenient with the young as they haven’t fully learnt how to behave. We have to remember she also didn’t kill her mother, there’s a chance she can make up for her mistakes.”
“It’s also proven that people her age have difficulty making good decisions.” Peggy added overhearing the conversation, “Teenagers have the emotional intelligence of five year olds.”
“People my age…?” Algernon replied and Rain could only smirk at his naive scarily intelligent friend.
Warm days and a busy work schedule had kept Rain from thinking about Christmas during most of December. It wasn’t until the chill north wind swept down through the The Estate campus and across the bay that thoughts of carols popped into his mind and with it the feeling that Christmas soon would be there. The first that anyone else knew about Christmas was the seven foot tall Douglas fir being delivered into the foyer of the Estate’s dormitory.
“Why do we need a tree?” Algernon frowned as the tree was finally pushed through the door and propped up in a small waiting area that the group used as a lounge. It’s lower branches lay across the two guest chairs and the coffee table.
“It’s a pagan ritual that the early Christians adopted. That, and it smells amazing.” Rain leaned into the heavy branches and breathed in. Christmas was there at last.
“But why do we need a tree?” Algernon asked again, sniffing the tree experimentally himself. It was nice, like the automatic air freshener in the men’s bathroom only requiring the killing a tree and taking up a huge amount of space.
“It’s a Christmas tradition, ” Bruce supplied when it was clear that Rain was trying to get high on the pine scent, “ though down home we use to go out to a farm and cut our own.”
“Is it better to murder your own tree than to have one killed for you?” Algernon thought he was getting an idea of this Christmas sacrifice.
“It’s not murder when its a tree, Algernon. As to your question, yes, it is better. Part of the tradition.”
“Rain, we should have cut down that big tree in front of the labs.” Algernon suggested.
Rain rolled over making pine needle angels amongst the boughs so he could see his friends.
“Thought of it, but they’d just blame me and I don’t need Keaton breathing down my neck, “ He rolled around again to hug the tree, “ beside that tree was far too big to bring inside and think of all that hard work of cutting it down and dragging it around to this side of the campus.”
Algernon nodded his head sagely, all good points.
“But if the killing is important to the ceremony….”
“Can we stop talking about killing.” Rain finally let go of the tree and joined the others, loose needles sticking to his hair and coat. “Christmas was never about killing a tree but celebrating life and joy and goodwill to everyone.”
“Except trees, of course. They probably think of Christmas as a genocide.”
Rain grew visibly ill at Algernon’s words but was soon distracted by a large sports bag Bruce was carrying.
“You don’t usually take your whole wardrobe down to the gym, what up?”
“It’s Christmas in a few days.” Bruce replied as if that explained everything.
“Yes! Hence the tree.” He pointed at the tree leaning limply to one side, “But Christmas doesn’t explain your sudden interest in luggage. Unless there are presents inside.”
A sudden bright-eyed excitement suffused Rain at the thought of Christmas presents and he ran his hands over the bumps and shapes of the sports bag to work out what it hid.
“Rain, there are presents, but they’re for my family. I’m going home for the holidays.” Bruce finally admitted. He hadn’t wanted to tell the group like this, but they’d been so busy recently that he’d forgotten until it was too late.
Rain stopped frozen, his hands hovering above the bag. With a sudden intake of breath he quickly dropped arms to his sides and smiled his most winning smile.
“Of course, Of course!” He chuckled and patted Bruce’s arm. “You have John and your mother and your uncle and grandfather Algernon to see.”
Bruce could see straight through the facade of his worrisome companion.
“Grandpaps has been dead for ten years.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I meant to tell you before…”
“No, about going home for Christmas.”
“What for, it’s only natural that you would…”
“…the time just snuck up…”
“…you don’t owe us any explanations…”
“…if I’d thought, I’d have invited you all…”
“No…no! No, we’ll be fine here, Algernon and I and Peggy….Peggy you’re not going home for Christmas are you?” Rain yelled in an unusually manic voice across the foyer to the Mess where Peggy was finishing lunch.
“No.” She replied loudly back, “Cultural rituals and festivals have no impact on the progress of science.” Still eating the last of her lunch she joined the group in front of the tree, “Besides, if I were to celebrate Christmas, it wouldn’t be until the new year. And Greeks don’t murder trees.”
Algernon was going to ask about the difference in Christmas practices when Rain exclaimed,
“No more talk of murder, genocide, massacres or killing of any sort during Christmas, that’s my tradition!” Rain pointed at the leaning douglas fir, “That tree gave it’s life to make our Christmas bright and cheery so show a little respect.”
They all looked at the tree. A few needles fell to the carpet.
“Rain, I don’t know how cheery your dead tree looks.”
“It just needs decorating, I haven’t been out to get decorations as yet.” Rain responded through gritted teeth.
“The Estate may have some in storage somewhere.” Bruce suggested, “Why don’t you ask your supervisor?”
At this comment Rain brightened considerably,
“Hey yeah. Keaton’s always trying to show me how important he is. Maybe he can actually come good and provide a little Christmas spirit.” He turned to his friend of the last six months now genuinely pleased.
“Merry Christmas, Professor!”
“That’s…Merry Christmas Rain.” Bruce quietly accepted the moniker feeling better he’d been able to provide happier ending to what was becoming an awkward farewell.
“Say hi to John for us, and kiss your mother from me.”
“To the first, I will. To the second, never from you to any of my female relations.”
“Does that mean you have other female relations?” Rain replied raising a knowing eyebrow.
Bruce shook his head and left the three to contemplate the tree.
“Well, this has been a waste of my time.” Peggy finally said, breaking away, “I’ll be in my lab if you need me. And I suggest, you don’t need me.” And with that she walked out leaving Algernon and Rain alone with the tree.
Lawrence Keaton, Chief of Investigations was tidying his office. After a taxing year, much of it coming from two junior agents under his authority, he was happy to put it all behind him and celebrate with his family. Outside, the administration staff and assistants were all wishing each other a Merry Christmas and slowly leaving. Occasionally one would pop their head in to wish him a happy holiday, but on the whole they just left until the whole office was quiet and still.
Keaton drank off the last of his bourbon and stood up to leave himself when he was aware he wasn’t alone. Standing in the door was Algernon looking nervously from Keaton to a point to his right. Keaton followed his glance to see, on a filing cabinet, Rain sitting cross-legged reading a report Keaton had only just put away.
“Algernon. Rain.” Keaton greeted the two curtly as he strode over to Rain and snatched the file from his hand before stuffing it back into the filing cabinet, “I hope we can make this quick, I was about to leave.” “That wouldn’t do, not with two of your agents hot on the case.” Rain quipped in a passable bronx accent reminicinent to Mike Hammer.
“What are you two up to?” He looked to Algernon to help make sense of their visit. ”Why haven’t you left for the holidays?
“We’re decorating a dead tree.” The younger man supplied adamantly.
“Yes we are. And where would you expect us to go?” Rain added in a questioning tone.
Keaton hadn’t accounted for these two to be left unsupervised over Christmas and his shoulders visibly slumped as he realised his job for the year wasn’t quite over. He walked back to his desk and sat down.
“You’re staying on campus over Christmas and you’re wanting to decorate a tree?”
“A dead one.” Algernon insisted.
“You didn’t cut down that one outside the labs, did you?” Keaton turned to his window and looked out across the campus to see the balsam fir where it had ever been.
“Who do you take us for?” Rain replied in mock outrage, “We’ve had a beautiful tree delivered to the dormitory and we’re hoping the Estate have a supply of Christmas decorations that we can use.”
“And that’s it. A quiet few days, decorating a tree and NOTHING ELSE.”
“Just think of it as your contribution to your agent’s health and welfare.” Rain acknowledge with one of his self-satisfied smiles.
At this point Keaton would have been glad to hand over his own credit card, tell them to go shopping and be done with it. But then he recalled an Administration manager who had been very pro-Christmas. That year every department had been decorated for the season, with the resulting boxes of tinsel, fake mistletoe and baubles ending up in storage.
“In fact, there is a large supply of decorations in storage under the labs in what use to be the old fallout shelters.” Keaton replied happily, knowing he was going to get out and leave these two behind him after all.
“In Doctor Peggy’s lab?” Algernon asked nervously, “Is that safe, they could be trapped in a portal and send anywhere…everywhere!”
Keaton looked to Rain, hoping if one was talking nonsense at least the other could translate.
“We don’t tend to go down to Peggy’s lab if we can help it.” Rain supplied unhelpfully.
“I do believe that Dr Martin has a lab down in one section of the old shelters. The complex is extensive and virtually untouched since the Cold War.”
“Well if sacrifices have to be made in the name of Christmas…”
“…like a tree…”
With the key to the storage space in hand, the two men walked briskly across the campus to the labs as thick low clouds rolls lazily across the sky adding to the campus’s empty feeling.
“Do you mind if meet you in the store room? I want to ask Doctor Peggy about Christmas.” Algernon asked as they escaped the winter wind for the quiet of the lab block.
“Your funeral. If you’re not checking boxes with me in half an hour I’ll call security as backup and go in after you.” Rain joked as he two parted at the bottom of the stairs, Algernon to the right and Peggy’s lab, and Rain to the left.
The door to Peggy’s laboratory had a large imposing sign.
DANGER NO UNAUTHORISED PERSONNEL ALLOWED
The sign gave Algernon pause, but then he figured he was not an unauthorised person so the sign, and the dangers inherent in it, did not count for him. He knocked on the door.
“I swear if that’s you Rain I will open a portal now and push you in!” Peggy’s voice echoed dully through the metal door.
“Ur…no, it’s me.” Algernon replied wondering how good an idea this was.
“Oh, the other one.” The door lock clicked, “Come in, but stay behind the yellow lines.”
The laboratory was a long low ceilinged room lit by hanging fluorescent lights. Sets of laboratory benches and fume hoods surrounded a yellow demarcation zone where Peggy’s homemade portal device stood. Made of scrap and spare parts that she was able to buy, borrow or steal (though taking essential equipment from her previous place of employment was not considered stealing by Peggy) the device looked more like a junkyard than a revolution in portal technology.
Algernon stayed well back behind the yellow line, wary of Peggy and her contraption. Presently she was taking the opportunity of the holidays to look over Hertzfeld’s multi-phasing glove with the thought of eventually linking it to the energies of The Strange. Right now, that application only theoretical, she was becoming well versed in its workings.
“What do you want?” She asked mechanically not bothering to look up from her work.
“I want to understand Christmas, it seems like a very significant event. The Estate has closed down operations and nearly all staff including the senior officers have left their posts and traveled home. And then you said that you would commemorate at a different time and would not kill a tree as part of the ritual because of your Greek origins. How does your own matriarchal lineage affect how and when you commemorate Christmas?” Algernon recited his queries all at once distracting even the ever focused Peggy.
“Christmas was something that my Yaya took very seriously.” Peggy put down the glove and gave her attention to Algernon. “We would fast from the end of November to Christmas Eve, then go to midnight Mass.”
“You starved yourself for more than a month?”
“Not exactly. No meat, dairy, fish, wine or oil, but other foods were permissible, though in smaller portions.”
“And no tree?”
“I understand it is very popular in Greece, but my Yaya would have none of what she thought of as Pagan traditions.”
“And stopping work?”
“It is considered a time for family so many travel home.”
“But not you.”
Peggy did not like where Algernon’s line of questioning had brought them. She understood the importance of educating Algernon into the society and culture of the place she had inadvertently dragged him to and usually supported it. Still, the answer to that particular question was not something that was open to discussion.
She had just opened her mouth to tell him it was “…none of his business…” when a scream followed by the slamming of a heavy metal door echoed through from outside her lab door.
“What is all this disturbance,? No one should be down here.” She said getting up from her bench.
“Rain!” Algernon sprinted, flinging the heavy metal door aside and running down the hallway.
Curled up with his arms around his legs, Rain sat with his back to the door, his puzzle box flipping open and closed in his hands, his eyes staring into nothing in front of him.
“Rain?” Algernon searched the area for dangers but saw nothing. He stepped closer placing his hand on his friend’s shoulder. No response.
* * * * * * * * *
Rain had found the storeroom door easily enough, it was the only one at this end of the complex. The key fit the lock but lack of use had made the lock stiff and it had taken him a few moments before the door opened. Inside was black, with the only light spilling in from the doorway. He knew from experience of Peggy’s lab that a large main electrical switchboard would be located just in from the door, but inconveniently out of sight of where Rain now stood.
Flicking on his phone’s light he stepped in and worked his way along the wall, coming across nothing but boxes of files. As he turned the beam, it hit the white bone of a giant rodent skull leered back at him from a stack of magazines.
“That’s where you went.” He patted the mole rat skull affectionately and continued along the wall looking for the light switch. A gust of cold wind rolled through the space and the metal door groaned and swung shut. Rain cursed his bad luck but continued further into the room.
Boxes of broken oddments, crates of random detritus and the cast offs from decades of recursive travel seemed stored haphazardly along with broken furniture and out of date office technology. There was no logic to the collections and Rain started to despair that he would find anything of use.
Voices whispered among the rows of junk as he walked deeper. At first he just thought these were the voices of Algernon and Peggy echoing along the empty hallway outside until he stopped to listen to what they had to say and a chill went up his spine. They weren’t speaking in English.
“Hello?” He called only to find his voice muffled by the mouldering boxes and piles of paper around him. In the light of his phone, Rain’s breath was visible as short fast puffs and a feeling of being watched stole over him. It as time to leave.
But where was the exit? The door’s seal, meant for a nuclear holocaust, was intact and let neither light or a breeze through. With nothing to go on but memory and the beam from his phone he started back along the row he had come.
Instead of things become more familiar, the collections around him seemed to become older as if he was going back in time with each step. Simultaneously, the voices were now coming through clearer, joined with the very real feeling of being watched. A loud crack, followed by a volley of other loud snapping sounds had Rain diving for cover behind a moth eaten sofa, The air around him filled with the all too familiar smell of cordite. It alone usually sent his heart racing, but he had no attention to give as he was fixed solely on the whispered voices seemingly moving around him.
Where are we going?
No please, my son…
What do they want?
Where are they taking us?
But my wife, she…
God is great… God is great….
He couldn’t recognise the voices, nor explain how he could understand them, but he knew them well from his nightmares. He knew he had to get out of this room, fast. Shakily he stood and, with phone out in front like a shield, he ran.
More cracks of gun fire from the right and left, a sharp pain scored his scalp. He reached up and his hand came away slick and black in the half-light. In gaps between piles the shadows moved, unfolded and stepped into the aisle.
How big was this room? Had he really come this far?
He could now feel the shadows pushing in around him, faces white and staring at him and he could no longer hold back the cry of terror and despair he felt looking upon them.
“Please…please…” he cried a plea to the faces or for an unseen rescuer, he didn’t know.
Panicked he stopped, all around him now shadows gathered. The phone’s light cut through them to reflect off the boxes and white of a skull.
Skull! He quickly swung the beam around again and focused it on the giant mole rat skull!
Just as he realised the door couldn’t be far away, the shadows rushed in, crushing him. In panic he dropped his phone extinguishing the light. Suddenly Rain couldn’t fill his lungs. His heart beat madly against his chest and he felt that right there in the dark he was going to die.
Both hands free, he reached through the now complete darkness, through the faces of the familiar ghosts, and touched …a door handle.
* * * * * * * * *
Peggy walked up behind Algernon, also checking for dangers. Her mind, sensitive to the Strange, reached out into the local area but she could pick up nothing unusual.
“Let me try.” She said to Algernon who stepped aside to give her access to Rain. With a short sharp action she pulled her hand back and slapped Rain sharply across the face.
“Oooow!” Rain complained. The puzzle box disappearing and his now free left hand reached up to hold a reddening cheek.
“You were unresponsive, it seemed appropriate.” Peggy said by way of explanation.
“Okay, thank you. Don’t do that again.” He looked at his empty right hand, turning it over to check both sides, but there was nothing to see.
“I will, if I find it necessary.”
“What happened? Why did you scream?” Algernon crouched down in front of Rain.
“Scream?” Rain smile incredulous for a moment until his memory of the last few minutes reasserted itself. He stared back at the door behind him. “There’s something wrong with that room.”
“Ghosts from my past.” He mumbled standing up shakily, “I have to go…think, um..don’t go in there.”
“What..? Wait, you can’t just leave..explain yourself!” Peggy exclaimed as Rain stumbled up the stairs.
“Just don’t…go alone…I’ll be back.”
Peggy seethed at the lack of information. What had caused such a response for the nervous little conman? He hadn’t shown any claustropobia or scotophobia at other times, though his fears did seem to be varied and many.
“This is ridiculous!” She finally said out loud making Algernon jump. “How am I supposed to get any work done with something terrorising staff next door?”
She reached for the door.
“Is that safe?” Algernon piped up coming around to stand in front of Peggy, “Something attacked Rain, shouldn’t we wait for help…with big guns…and plastic explosives?”
“Did you see a mark on him? A scratch or even a bruise?” She asked and Algernon had to shake his head.
“But you do make a valid point.” She admitted, Algernon let out a huge silent sigh of relief. “Wait here.”
Muttering to herself she walked back to her lab and a few minutes later returned with an assortment of hand-made and high-end technology. On her head she wore a safety helmet with a torch strapped to the side with gaffer tape. In her left hand a small geiger counter, in her right her revolver. She went to hand the geiger counter to Alergnon who shook his head and stepped aside.
“Very well. Keep the door open and if anything happens go find security in the gatehouse and inform them of what’s going on.” Peggy instructed as she turned the handle to the door and stepped inside.
* * * * * * * * *
It didn’t take Peggy long to know that something was definitely wrong with the room. As soon as she entered the darkness between the aisles, her back molars buzzed in her head. There was a low level presence of The Strange everywhere. She too found the mole rat skull and not long later Rain’s phone, which she pocketed. As she walked deeper, everywhere she looked there were items touched by The Strange. A pristine clean white scarf, an egg made of an unknown steel, green tinted glasses, a necklace of teeth from a mysterious reptile. There were broken things as well, used ciphers, broken artifacts all things that had spent too long in contact with the Strange. Individually they were nothing, used batteries that held little spark. But together in a sealed room where neither fresh air or sunlight could reach they…worked on each other.
She was just about to head back to Algernon and tell him her theory when a moisture ladened breeze carrying the smell of green things drifted in her direction. It was such an unexpected yet wholly familiar sensation that she stopped in her tracks to breathe it in. Now she could make out the brown smell of damp earth, the bright yellow fragrance of aboral orchids. Here too she could now hear the sounds of the forest, the constant snap, shuffle, creak, screech and splash of life.
A movement caught her eye and she picked up an old dirt and water stained notebook. Her lost notebook, she was sure, the pages flicking back and forward in the breeze. Beside it, in a padded wooden crate for Inca Cola, were fossils of a bird-like creature that she’d seen only once before. Incredulous, she reached out a hand to touch the rock skeleton when she heard footsteps behind her and turned, her gun ready…
…pointing to the beaming face of Noel.
Noel. Tall and thin, he slipped through the aisle like he walked through the forest, as if born to it. Long fingered hands touched everything as he past as if his other senses weren’t enough to inform him about the world. And then his face, his stupid charming face that made everyone listen to what he had to say.
“Peggy, put that thing away before you have my head off with it.” He said in his rich baritone, a hint of humour as always. For a moment she didn’t understand what he was talking about until the muzzle of the gun wavered in view and she quickly put the safety back on and returned it to its holster.”Well, aren’t you going to say something?”
“You’re dead.” She stated in her most matter of fact tone while inside her thoughts swirled trying to make sense of what was happening.
Without a word he slowly reached out a hand and touched her cheek. She flinched, not use to any human contact. Glacially, she too raised her hand to cradle his hand against her face. She leaned in an breathed the warm male of him, so familiar and comforting. She relaxed and closed her eyes.
“They said you were dead. We couldn’t find your body after the avalanche, they said you were buried.” The words tumbled out like a breaking dam, “I didn’t want to believe it, but you never came back.”
“And I’m sorry for that, believe me it was not my intent.”
“I needed you!” Peggy exclaimed and shocked herself as tears sprung from here eyes and rolled down her hand. She dropped his hand and stepped back. “ I tried to continue our work, but without the fossil evidence or you to persuade them…”
“I know, it’s been hard on you…”
“Hard…” She stepped back again, “…I lost everything that day. No one would take me seriously, they thought I’d gone mad. I lost my tenure, my entire lab, but that wasn’t the worst. The worst was I was alone.”
* * * * * * * * *
Rain hadn’t been in a church for a while. He’d noted the church’s location on one of their trips out of campus, more for nostalgia than anything. Now, Rain stumbled in like a man being chased by a mob. A man looking for Sanctuary.
He followed a line of brick archways that lined either side of the nave where empty pews sat. Dappled in the multi coloured light from the stained glass window, he turned his gaze from the broken and bleeding figure hung over the altar and made a beeline to a small alcove. In its dark interior, a metal stand lay prepared with a few small tea-light candles, a box of matches and a donations box.
The image reminded him of his childhood visits to Sunday Mass with his foster family. Each child had been given 50p to either put in the box in front of the baby Jesus and Mary or to light a candle in remembrance of someone they would pray for. Lots of the kids gave to the baby Jesus thinking that’s what the Morris’s wanted. Others just kept the coin, only pretending to drop it in the donation box. The boy, Rain had once been, had a feeling that there were people who he should pray for…but he didn’t know who. Instead he gave his coin and lit a candle and hoped to know one day.
Adult Rain stuffed several banknotes into the donation slot and started lighting candles, one for every face he’s seen in that room. His usually sure hands shook so badly he needed to lean on the metal stand to keep the match over the wick of each new candle. When he’d filled a row with light he started on another.
“You’re either thinking to burn the church down one candle at a time or you you’re planning on doing a lot of praying.” Said a man’s voice from the altar. “How many prayers are you intending to make?”
“I don’t know.” Rain stopped his frantic lighting and turned to a priest, middle age and balding walking the few steps down from the altar. “Tell me, how many to appease 8372 souls?”
The priest’s steps faltered a moment, but to his credit he continued to walk towards Rain.
“That’s a highly specific and heavy burden to bear.” The priest said coming to stand beside Rain as he watched the candles flicker. “Are you sure you bear it alone, or at all?”
“I survived.” Rain had never expressed out loud the guilt and sense of loss he had carried. Two words were all he could offer in explanation, but they seemed to be enough.
“Ah.” The priest took Rain by the arm and led him like a lost child to one of the front pews, “ Let me tell you a story about a small church called St Paul’s Chapel. It is right in the heart of New York, overshadowed by some of the tallest buildings that humans have created. One day those buildings fell down, but by some miracle the little chapel stood untouched. Then rescue workers, police, firefighters and ambulances needed a place to rest and regroup. The little chapel became a place of peace in the middle of what seemed to all of us a living hell. At first it was just a place to rest for an hour or two, eventually volunteers brought food and other services and the chapel became a place of hope and support.”
“You’re talking about September 11.”
The priest nodded.
“I also have a few numbers I carry around with me. 2606 people died at the Twin Towers and that’s including those on the flights and those brave souls who went in to help. I also know that more than 3000 people made the Chapel a place of Sanctuary. See, I know. Right now you are a place of devastation, a living hell. Right now you need peace, but eventually you will also need hope and support if you are ever to heal. Christmas, a time of family and community. It can be a hard time for the lonely.”
Like Peggy’s slap, the priest’s comment was unexpectant and stung.
“I’m not lonely.” He smiled incredulous. “I make friends wherever I go.”
“I’m sure you have many acquaintances,” The priest acknowledged, “ But where are your friends when things get real? Where are those people right now?”
Rain thought of the three friends he had stumbled into one wet night outside New Orleans six months previous. They may bicker and gripe at each other, but they were always there. Then he remembered where he’d left them and cringed.
“Oh…I’ve left them in a bad situation. I need to get back.”
“Are you, and they, going to be alright?”
“We have so far, “Rain shrugged, “Can I ask you something personal?”
“You can try.”
“Those who died, do you see them…sometimes?”
“What do you do?”
The priest thought for a moment.
“Love them. That way I keep them alive and also give purpose to my own life.”
Rain shook his head at the simplicity of the statement.
“You know, guys get a bad rap.”
“Don’t I know it.” the priest acknowledged with a smile.
* * * * * * * * *
Algernon stood alone in the hallway wondering what to do next. He turned from the open door of the storeroom to the flight of stairs leading outside, and back again.
Peggy had been gone a long time. She had said to go to security, but security were authority and it was never a good idea to gain the attention of authority.
Rain had been gone a long time. He said not to go into the room alone, but Peggy had gone in alone and if he were to find her he’d have to go in alone too.
He looked to the door, he looked to the stairs and made up his mind.
Sprinting across campus to the dormitory he grabbed his crossbow. He rummaged around in Bruce’s things until he found the crowbar. Running back to Peggy’s lab he found her home made safety equipment and put that on. He would have liked some grenades or an automatic weapon but all those were locked up and out of reach. Finally, equipped as best he could, he stood in front of the doorway and looked into the storeroom.
It was dark. In the gloom off to one side he saw the mole rat skull glowing in the ambient light. Algernon brought his crossbow up and targeted the skull. Any false move from the long dead rodent and it would get a bolt between the eye sockets.
He stepped in and cautiously started down the first aisle of junk, a torch attached to his crossbow lighting the way. So focused was he on the light from his torch he almost failed to see the pale blue glow that was lighting everything around him, until the turned a corner in the piles. Ahead, spinning slowly was a portal, the event horizon flashed and flickered sickeningly. Inside Algernon could almost see the outline of two people, one with the distinct disheveled look of Peggy.
“Algernon…Peggy!” From behind Rain’s voice came through the open doorway. Relief swept through Algernon and he crept back to the door and Rain.
“Where did you go?” Algernon asked not really caring for the answer, only happy to see Rain.
“Sorry about that, I guess I don’t like storerooms.” Rain conceded.
“No, you were right. There’s a portal in that room, and I don’t think it’s stable.” Algernon replied.
“She’s…in the portal…it’s odd. She’s in the portal but I can still see her, standing with another person.”
“Another person…” Rain looked into the gloom around Algernon and paled. “First things, get her out of the portal.”
Algernon nodded and turned to go back in. Rain stayed in the doorway.
“Are you coming?” Algernon asked in a whisper.
Rain closed his eyes, took a deep shuddering breath and stepped forward into the room. When his eyes opened they were fixed on Algernon.
“Lead the way.”
Algernon did, his crossbow on his back, the flashlight searching ahead. He lead them both straight to the portal where it still swirled like a disturbed pool of blue light.
“She’s in there.” He pointed his flashlight at the portal. Rain’s eyes followed the beam for a moment. He cowered as something disturbed him and his gaze focused back on Algernon.
“I don’t see it.” He replied disappointment replacing the fear, “Can you see her?”
Algernon turned back to the portal. He was disturbed to see the two figures seemed less distinct, just movement in a fog of light. He nodded.
“When you’re ready, grab her and we’ll make for the door.” Rain pulled out his own trusty golf club and wrapped it around Algernon’s chest. “Ready, when you are.”
* * * * * * * * *
“Everythings finally ready for you. It’s taken so long but it’s time that you should see it.” Noel was gestured to Peggy, leading the way further into the bright green of the jungle ahead, but Peggy was having doubts.
For one, she couldn’t remember how she’d got to the jungle. That could just be just exhaustion, but if so, why was she so poorly equipped with only a gun, helmet and a geiger counter? It didn’t make any sense. She tried to think back. Wasn’t there a storeroom…?
“Come and see.” Noel beckoned again and a fog parted and they were both on a plateau overlooking a brown scar in the a green jungle. In the scar of raw earth, a large camp filled with dozens of tents and hundreds of workers. A stream of workers,like jungle ants, all moved with purpose to and from a large gridded dig site surrounded by thick walls made of the trunks of jungle trees to protect against another landslide. Peggy made to move a step closer.
“It’s everything we ever wanted. A fully funded expedition, the first fossil secure and others being revealed everyday. You’re not alone here Peggy. Everyone believes in the work, some have spent their life savings to get here and help It’s been a long time, Peggy, but I think you can see it was worth it.”
It has been a long time, She thought, returning her focus to Noel. He looked the same as she remembered him, exactly the same. Surely years in the jungle climate would have changed him a little.
And there! A tear in his shirt that he’d caught on a thorn the morning of the avalanche.
“How did you survive?” Peggy asked moving away from the view and closer to Noel.
“What does it matter. What matters is that you have a purpose.”
Peggy touched the tear in the shirt, if felt like material. She pulled it apart and saw a deep red line, a cut in the skin where the thorn had penetrated, still raw with a little congealed blood sealing the wound. It looked no more than a few hours old.
She lept back as Noel reach out to touch her hand, a look of bemusement on his face.
“What are you?” Peggy asked and instinctively reached for her gun once more.
“What am I?” Asked Noel all confidence gone, “Can’t I be Noel?”
A red leather clad arm shot out of nowhere and grabbed Peggy around the waist and Noel grabbed her arm. It was now a tug of war that Peggy was yet to take sides in.
“Don’t leave me Peggy, you give me purpose!” The now panic stricken Noel pleaded with Peggy.
“No, you can’t be Noel he’s gone. You have to be you.” Peggy planted her feet, not willing to be drawn back by the arm around her waist but equally as disinterested in following the creature pretending to be Noel.
“Please…please…” Noel cried
“Peggy! I’m sorry for leaving! Please come back!” A faint voice and a redoubling of effort to pull her back made up Peggy’s mind. With a twist of her arm she shook free of Noel’s grasp and allowed herself to be pulled backwards and away, keeping her eyes on him the whole time.
The jungle disappeared and Peggy fell backwards into Algernon who stepped back and fell into Rain. They all landed in a heap of bodies and limbs amongst the broken and forgotten of the room.
“Out, now!” Barked Rain as he sprung to his feet in time to help the other two.
“What was that?” Peggy asked as both Rain and Algernon grabbed a hand each and ran back for the open door at the far end of the room.
It wasn’t until the storeroom door was closed and they were all back in Peggy’s lab that Rain allowed himself to sink to the floor. Algernon took a stool at one of the lab benches and started removing Peggy’s protective equipment as Peggy stood dejectedly in the middle of her lab.
“I know it’s powered by the Strange, there’s a lot of Strange touched items in that room all in close proximity. But what…?”
“It was a portal, “ Algernon described the portal and the way its event horizon flickered weakly. “You made another one.”
“No, these rooms are lead lined with metres thick walls, my machine could not have made a portal in that room.” Peggy replied back logically, “Besides, I never saw a portal.”
“No, only Algernon could see it.” Rain added from the floor.
“Yeah, what did you see?” Algernon asked Rain, curious as to what had scared his friend so. “Ghosts, people…lost.” Rain stared at the cold vinyl floor, unable to look Algernon in the face.
“Why did you go back in?” “You were there and Peggy was inside…I didn’t want you to face it alone.”
“I heard you, from inside…” Peggy replied, realising it was Rain who she had heard. “I heard you and it help me work out what was real and what wasn’t.”
“What did you see, if not a portal?” Algernon asked Peggy. She looked for a moment like she would tell him to get lost. Instead her face softened and she replied in her most matter of fact manner.
“As I don’t believe in such ludicrous theories as ghosts, I would have to say the portal you described showed me… memories of what I thought I’d lost.”
“Why didn’t the portal affect you the same way?” Rain asked Algernon who just shrugged.
“I guess I never lost something I missed.”
“You’re whole planet, your culture, your people?”
Algernon just shrugged,
“Nothing as good as what I have here.”
A grim little smile crept over Rain’s face and he nodded picking himself off the floor.
“Well, I think it’s pretty clear what we have to do.”
Rain didn’t answer. He walked out of Peggy’s lab and climbed the stairs to Hetzfeld’s office door. A few locks picked later and the three of them were standing in front of a metal locker, its door open revealing a gun-like device with a wide barrel and a large battery where the ammunition usually sat.
“We don’t need to close it down straight away,” Peggy looked at the device remembering how effective it was at disrupting and dispersing the portal that had opened in her lab a few months earlier. “ It’s hardly a portal at all and that’s the point. It’s creating a connection with us powered only by a few odd and broken items linked to the Strange. How? What instigated the connections? Could we use the process to power our own devices like Hertzfeld’s glove?”
“You can do all the studies you want after the portal is gone.” Rain glared at the device and stepped aside for Algernon.
“There can be no study once the connections are disrupted. I won’t let you destroy this discovery like…” Peggy’s voice rose as she realised she was once more the brink of an incredible discovery that was about to be snatched away.
“Like what Peggy? The little day dream we interrupted? It wasn’t real…” Rain’s own emotions fizzed inside him, wanting a release “Oh like your ghosts?” Peggy quipped back making it very clear what she thought of his imagined spirits.
Algernon quietly stepped between his two quarrelling family members and picked up the gun. It was heavier than he expected, heavier than most he’d practised with on the gun range. He’d seen Hertzfeld wield the gun against the aborted recursion and knew it was a simple point and shoot.
“Those ghosts were real for me, Peggy. In the past just as much as they were in that room.”
“Maybe if you thought less about your past and more about what your senses tell you in the here and now you wouldn’t be such a gibbering mess.”
“Says the woman who planted landmines at her front door against underground fish people!”
Algernon looked at Peggy and Rain. He knew that a gun may get their attention. He could grab Peggy’s gun from its holster and point it at them. It would shut them up for a moment, but then what? He couldn’t stop them from thinking the way they did with a gun, and neither did he really want to. But, he knew what to do with the gun he had. He left them to their bickering and started back down to the storeroom.
It was quiet in the storeroom after the yelling match upstairs. This time Algernon found the switchboard and turned on all the lights to the room. The fluorescents moaned and flashed before filling the space completely with white light. Under their glare the room looked smaller and more shabby than it had in the dark. The piles of broken and forgotten objects were smaller, more mundane.
Hefting the heavy gun across his body, Algernon started down the aisle marked with the giant mole rat skull knowing the portal was at the other end. At first he thought it had disappeared, finally blinked out of existence with too little energy to support it. As he stared at the spot where he knew it had been, his eyes picked up the shimmer of blue, like that off the surface of a pond. It was here, but like a torchlight in the sun it was washed out by the brighter light source. Algernon expertly adjusted the gun in his arms, flicked off the safety and raised it to his shoulder. His finger found the trigger and was about to squeeze it just as he practiced when he became aware of a buzzing coming from all around him.
Curious, he lowered the gun and listened trying to hone in on the sound. As he did the sound cleared and a voice soft at first, could be distinctly heard.
“Please…please…” “Please what?” He asked, his response bouncing off the stained white walls.
“What… what…” The voice echoed and he wondered for a moment if he’d misheard the first plea at all. Then he realised whatever the intelligence was, it was using his words because it had none of its own.
“What I’ve lost? What I want?”
The response when it came was not words, more a feeling of warmth and approval. Agreement. Yes.
“I have what I want. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t fight, sometimes I wish they were better, but they’re my family.”
Again a response, not as words but as a feeling of being directionless, lost and confused, not knowing what to do. For a while Algernon just thought. He knew that feeling very well. That first day hiding in the abandoned house after Peggy’s machine had dragged him into this world. With only what he wore on him he spent hours wandering around the empty ruin wondering what next? Where he was? What should he do now? Who could he turn to?
He realised, like his words, the intelligence was also using his own feelings to communicate. That’s what it had been doing all along, using memories and feelings from both Rain and Peggy to communicate. It had been born into the dark of a forgotten storeroom from the broken leftovers of The Strange. It was just unfortunate that the two minds it should first meet were so broken themselves.
“You want to know your purpose, you want to know where you belong and what you should be doing?” He said, the gun now forgotten, pointing at the ground. He was physically knocked off his feet when the response came back. Bright and loud like a shout, not of anger but absolute joy. The emotion was completely overpowering dulling all his other senses so he was only vaguely aware of his body falling backwards.
Hands cupped his head and held his shoulders as his world tilted until he found himself looking up at the concerned faces of both Peggy and Rain.
“Hey mate, stay with me.” Rain said moving around to take Algernon’s hand as Peggy checked his automatic responses with her light.
“I’m here.” Algernon blinked and Peggy lowered her torch.
“We stopped yelling when we noticed you were gone. What happened?” She asked, slowing lifting him up to sitting position against the nearest pile.
“I heard it, the intelligence powered by the Strange.” Algernon replied, “It was born here in the dark and was alone not knowing what it was or what it should do.” He sat up straighter feeling more himself, then remembered the gun and turned on the safety and it powered down. “The first person it met was Rain and it found memories and emotions that it understood in your mind. Rain, you’re pretty messed up.”
Rain’s look of concern turned into one of his knowing smiles. He let Algernon continue. “Those memories were too much for you and you ran. Then it met Peggy and found something in her too, but you were right Peggy, it was just memories of being lost, alone, not knowing what to do…”
“Yes, thank you Algernon well put.” She interrupted Algernon and gestured for him to continue. “But what about you? How did it finally communicate with you?”
“I think it had learnt from you two. It couldn’t confront me with my memory without making me scared like Rain. There was no one I wanted to talk to, so it had to use what it had learnt from us already. It used emotions from my mind to ask me what it’s purpose was. When I understood it was so pleased that it …it was very happy.”
“So, what’s a pile of junks purpose?” Peggy asked completely oblivious to the larger story laid out in front of her.
“The same as every intelligent creature ever.” Rain beamed now appreciating the wonder they had discovered. “You were right, Peggy. We can’t destroy it, but I don’t think you have the right to experiment on it either. We have a brand new life on our hands.”
“New life, made from remnants of the Strange?” Peggy mused, “It would probably be best in its own habitat.” She stood up and walked back down the aisle to the mole rat skull. She picked it up and returned the two men still sitting on the floor.
“If it were to travel out to Railsea but stop part way, it would find itself in the Strange. There it could find purpose, but I don’t know how to communicate all that to a being with no language.”
“I’d say if it can use our memories and feelings, we can use them too.” Rain pointed out and brought his legs around to sit cross legged. “Think of that journey we took to Railsea. We moved from world to world all swimming in the energies of the Strange. The feeling of acceleration through the stars.”
Algernon closed his eyes and listened for the intelligence. It seemed silent at the moment, but he knew it was still there, listening itself, waiting. He thought of that trip, the tug as they left Earth and travelled as stardust across the Strange to Railsea. He also thought of all the broken ciphers and oddments that powered the creature and made a connection between that power and the vast swirling energies of the Strange.
A bright sharp thought, like an intake of breath, a sudden realisation, a rush of knowing.
Algernon’s eyes flicked open in time to see the faint blue shimmer coalesce and form a tight ball of energy. The ball drift between Rain and himself and into the skull, filling it with the same pale energy until it was too intense to watch and Algernon had to look away. When the glow subsided he opened his eyes. The light had gone and the mole rat skull sat there in Peggy’s arms as before.
“Right. There’s obviously been an appalling lack of cipher safety in this room.” Peggy suddenly very brusk, started ordering the two men about. “I’ll stay here and find anything Strange-touched, you two move everything else out.”
Algernon wasn’t sure, but it seemed her eyes shimmered like the light from the portal.
“Everything?” He asked getting to his feet.
“I think chopping down the tree outside the lab would have been easier,” Rain joked also rising to pat Algernon on the shoulder, “Nevermind, I have an idea. Peggy, just let us know what we can take.”
For the rest of the afternoon they moved boxes from the storeroom on to the green lawn of the campus commons. When Peggy found an item that set her sense tingling she put it carefully aside ready for proper disposal or storage. Rain arranged the boxes and old furniture into a pyre lighting it just as the sun disappeared from the winter sky. The fire started slowly in the cold night air, stacks of paper and cardboard not being the best fuel. Eventually the wood and other combustible ignited and the warm glow lit the whole common.
The few security that remained at the Campus swarmed the commons, equipped for an emergency. A quick word from Rain and the mention of Peggy’s name and reputation soon had the security officer in charge noting that the fire was their responsibility and soon left them to their blaze.
“Where’s Peggy?” Rain basked in the glow of the fire. For the first time that day the little man looked at peace.
Algernon shook his head,
“I guess still down in the lab, she said she had something to do.”
“Her loss. You know, every Christmas they burn bonfires just like this one up and down the Mississippi River. Even if her Yaya didn’t approve, Peggy could not have helped but know about them.”
“Another Christmas tradition?”
“Yep. I guess it shows how important it really is.”
They stayed out watching the fire until it was little more than ill-shapen coals and the heat no longer kept out the cold. With a shrug they silently made their way back across the now darkened common to the dormitory building.
Before they had even entered, there was a noticeable difference to the quality of the light coming from inside. Gone was the fluro white shining through the windows. It was replaced by a softer warmer glow coming from one source. Rain stopped, his mouth agape in delighted surprise.
“No way, she didn’t!” He exclaimed, racing up the few steps and in through the front doors.
Puzzled, Algernon ran after him, stopped by the wondrous sight that now filled the lounge. Instead of the leaning dead fir tree of the morning, the tree had been propped up on a tripod made for the task. The branches were wreathed in red, green and gold bands of tinsel with every second or third holding a warm yellow light in the shape of a candle. On top of the tree a silver blue star perched, reflecting back the light from the tree below. The effect was balanced and aesthetically pleasing. Algernon wasn’t sure if it warranted the killing of a tree, but he could appreciate that it was beautiful.
“You crazy unbelievable woman!” Rain turned when Peggy appeared from out of the women’s dormitory room. He ran to embrace her but was held back by a stern look and a warning finger, “For someone who said they never killed a tree at Christmas, where did you learn to decorate like that?!”
“My Yaya would not have a tree.” She acknowledged walking back to the lounge to gaze upon her work, “But my parents, on the other hand, love their plastic spruce. It was a family ritual to decorate it altogether on December first. When I found the boxes of decorations, it seemed only appropriate that I put them to good use.”
“Your parents?” Algernon asked, noting this was the first time she’d ever spoken about family other than her grandmother or brother.
“Yes, I did have them.” She replied in her usual matter of fact tone that cease all further conversation. When Rain stepped up to the tree to tweak a light and move a piece of tinsel she stepped closer to Algernon and whispered,
“You asked before why I’m not going home for Christmas.”
“Y-es.” He stuttered very aware of how she’d responded to him the first time.
Instead she just looked up at the tree and Rain fussing at the decorations.
“I am where I belong. If that is not my home, than where is?”
* * * * * * * * *
The day after Boxing day the Estate started coming back to life again as staff returned to work from all over the world. No less at the dormitories where a large figure, carrying a noticeably lighter bag, pushed open the outside door.
“Brucie! Welcome back!” Rain called across the dormitory as Bruce walked back in. ”I never thought I’d say it, but don’t ever leave again. This place falls apart without you.”
“Oh does it.” He responded, putting his bag down to admire the tree, “Why? What did you do?”
“Attention all staff, “ The artificial voice of the announcement program broadcast through the Estate’s PA system, “Would Rain Bigby please report to Mr Keaton’s office immediately.”
Rain rolled his eyes, patted Bruce on shoulder by way of welcome and silently walked through the doors that Bruce had only just entered, Algernon in his wake.
“Why? What have you done, Rain?” Bruce repeated now concerned over what had happened during his absence. He started to follow Rain but was called back by Peggy.
“Sit down Bruce, “ She ordered, pointing to one of the lounge chairs that had been rescued from the embrace of the tree, “Let me tell you about our very Strange Christmas.”