"A new man came into town today", says Intern Ana on the radio. "He says he is a scientist."
As she follows with a description, and then a short interview, Carlos freezes in place in the lab, then tidies up the day's experiments and drives home. At home, he checks the doors and windows are all bolted shut, then tops up the salt lines around the apartment's perimeter. He carefully pours a fresh offering to the bloodstones from the pint of blood in the fridge (his own, taken last week: Cecil had seemed rather relieved to allow Carlos to take over the household's ritual blood work, and Carlos had taken the chance to streamline and modernise things), and re-draws several chalk pentagrams above the doors.
With the bloodstones sated and the house secure, Carlos begins to relax a little - it's not as though he knows where you live, in any case - but what's he doing here at all? does he even know? - no reason to be too concerned just yet, that his ex-partner has glided into the town where Carlos had thought he would never have to deal with him again. He'd thought he could start over - new colleagues, new challenges, lovely new boyfriend.
Earlier this week, Cecil had been snatched from their bed in the middle of the night by two officials from the secret police. It hadn't come without warning - City Council elections were next week, and that evening he'd advised families to sleep in their shoes and to keep a bag of spare clothes close by. Cecil himself had also prepared a thermos of coffee on the side table, just in case, and he had been delighted when the police came to escort him to the abandoned mine shaft outside of town. "This must mean you're eligible to vote this year, dear Carlos! It's an honour to be your chosen family member", he had called, waving the thermos, as the van doors were closed on him.
From Cecil's texts, he'd spent most of yesterday catching up on season five of Game of Thrones - a cryptic message from that morning said he still had his money on the street cats of King's Landing to ascend before the season was done. If he were honest with himself, Carlos was quite glad to have the space to think. After over two years in town, he was starting to wonder whether Night Vale could really feel like home, long-term. Cecil had never left the place, and Carlos doubted he could move him out to Boston or California - but then again, he wasn't sure he could see himself continue to narrowly escape death and save the town every single week, either. There had been tense, late-night conversations about it, and painful silences, and Carlos was worried. Yes: it was good to have their interactions simplified down to easy, affectionate texts.
In the absence of wanting to worry Cecil, Carlos dials Josie.
"It's not that it was anything awful", Carlos says, rocking gently in a chair out on Josie's back porch with a rum-spiked cocoa in hand. "It's just - James, he's ambitious, you know? We knew each other at MIT, and I should have known better than to try and date someone on my course, but it all started out great - we'd collaborate on projects, and it was so good to have him around in the lab, it was still tough but it was fun too, right? And then he'd just get, distant, or something, he'd stop wanting to share ideas, said he was concerned about bias, and then after hours he'd all dismissive of my major, like astrophysics didn't have any kinds of real-world applications besides being, like, basically the coolest thing ever and some tiny way to understand our amazing universe, you know, no big deal. So he'd put me down to our friends and then months later I'd notice he'd published a paper with some of the ideas we'd talked about, and he'd applied my ideas to earth sciences, or whichever, and never mentioned it, or even said he'd gotten published.
"Jeez - it all sounds small and silly now, I know, but back then, before I was published at all and was just working away in this tiny class of astronomy nerds, that felt like quite something, you know? And it felt silly and paranoid to bring it up, so I didn't - I mean, ideas can come from anywhere, right? We broke up months after that, just before graduation, over something silly, I forget what, even."
Erika tops him up from a steaming saucepan, and Josie nods and makes sympathetic noises.
"It took me ages before I even had enough clarity to look back onto it, and think, yeah, that was messed up", he says, gazing out at the desert, elbows resting on his knees and inhaling spices from the mug warming his hands. "I mean, I hadn't dated much before then, so there was all the excitement of my first long-term boyfriend, and he was a scientist too, so I thought, you know, I'd be dating someone who actually got me. But, no, it wasn't great in the end. He said some stuff- well, afterwards, he wasn't very kind. Not much at all."
Josie clucks her tongue and squeezes his shoulder, indignant on his behalf. There's no sound but the scrapes and squeaks of small desert animals and the distant hum of the glow cloud. Erika stands at a distance, quiet and solid.
"What I don't understand is why on earth he'd come here. I thought - well, no offence, but whenever I report back in Boston it feels like they send out funding just cause they're not quite sure what else to do with me, you know? Night Vale doesn't seem like the highest priority, I don't think half the team there even believe it exists - just, look, he graduated in the top 10%, right? I remember - I was there, standing with the top half, already worried about my employment prospects afterwards, and then this came up. I just, I don't know why they're using his time here. Not to mention that I figured our team had this project really well in hand already. No-one told us he was coming, and I don't know what's going on."
"Drink up, dear", says Josie gently, and Carlos is faintly surprised: she's always leant more towards brisk and practical with him before. He drinks deep, and Josie looks thoughtfully out over the desert. "Well, I'm sure he won't fit in here anywhere near as well as you have. In fact, I wouldn't be too surprised if his visit's cut short - he doesn't sound like quite the type to take this place seriously, and that never ends well." She's a little menacing at the end there, not unlike the voice into which Cecil slips occasionally on the radio. Carlos is too preoccupied with his thoughts to notice.
The Glow Cloud's daughter had emerged from the library at the end of the Summer Reading Program just behind Tamika Flynn, wide-eyed, clutching her sticker chart and flashing muted, erratic colours. Cecil had keened before the Cloud all of that afternoon while Carlos and his colleagues had patched up the children as best they could, Carlos himself working on the Glow Cloud's daughter's scrapes, which were leaking faint rainbows into the air from her knees. She'd left the lab happier, skipping hand-in-hand with Tamika and shedding termites and stag beetles in her wake, and the Glow Cloud had drifted after them. As it moved over Carlos' car, the Cloud had deposited a chicken carcass onto the roof with a thump, which Carlos had taken home and found to be perfectly edible.
In the lab, Carlos listens to Intern Ana. "James Smith - you know, the new scientist who came into town last week? Said he wanted to investigate these earthquakes further, as though our own team of scientists didn't have that already in hand, don't you think, listeners? Well. It sounds as though yesterday Dr Smith was caught out in a downpour, right under the mighty Glow Cloud, without an umbrella - an easy mistake to make, I'm sure we can all agree. Onlookers reported seeing two falling armadillos strike him in quick succession, followed by several large and poisonous spiders who unfortunately burst open upon hitting the sidewalk, sending messy and noxious slime all over the place. Such good news, listeners, that the Glow Cloud has given this newcomer quite the welcome! All hail the Cloud, in its mercy to those who submit before it. All. Hail. And now, traffic."
When Carlos' team had first arrived, the scout master had invited them to come and give a presentation to the weekly meeting of the Weird Scouts on their research, and what it was that interested them about Night Vale. Earl Harlan had encouraged the boys to listen attentively, and he had squeezed Carlos' hand with a kind smile when they'd finished. The week after that, several members of the troupe had joined the scientists in collecting rock samples and radiation data from Radon Canyon. Carlos' team had been instrumental in keeping the children safe from the pterodactyls that had escaped the PTA meeting: Carlos remembered feeling surprisingly calm as he'd run around flapping a spare lab coat to distract the pterodactyls while his colleagues rushed the boys to safety. It was only much later, once he was alone in his little room behind the lab, with all the young people accounted for and most of their limbs confirmed intact, that Carlos had allowed his rational brain to catch up. He'd spent the rest of the night curled under the bed, making notes into his dictaphone.
James Smith felt a sharp pain in the side of his neck as he was walking out of the Ralph's. He came awake to blaring white light and several adolescent voices demanding to know where he'd been, why, and with whom. Twelve confusing and terrifying hours later, the new scout master shook his hand as he was allowed out into the parking lot where his car waited. He thanked James for his valued services to the local scout community, then turned to pin brightly coloured "kidnapping and interrogation, level 1" badges on to the boys neatly lined up behind him.
"There was a power cut all across downtown Night Vale late last night, listeners. I do hope that you were all able to stay safe, and to hold on to what vestiges of your selves you were able to, in the darkness. Sounds like a certain visiting scientist may have run into a little trouble, there - seems as though someone replaced all his working light bulbs with blown-out, dead bulbs, yesterday afternoon while he was working. We at NVCR do hope he was able to stay safe, as we hope all of you are able to stay safe, in this vast, terrifying and unpredictable world of ours. Rest easy, listeners. Good night."
When Carlos had given Cecil an after-hours tour of the lab, Cecil had immediately gone to open the window and cheerily address the tree outside. "Geoffrey, is that you? How lovely to see you here - I hope the children are holding up well? Oh, my manners - Geoffrey, this is my Carlos, though of course you'd know that, hah, dear Carlos, meet Geoffrey. He must have been watching the lab most days since you first arrived, the lucky thing!" Since then, Carlos has been leaving a cup of coffee out on the windowsill every morning when he makes a round for the team: it only seems polite. They've not seen each other since Cecil's introduction, but the coffee mug is always empty an hour later, and Carlos thinks he occasionally sees a branch twitch in acknowledgement.
It's through a colleague that he hears: some new visiting scientist had been taken in for re-education that morning, on account of using pens. Feeling only slightly guilty, Carlos makes a note in the pencil he's been using all week, before turning over today's tap water samples and resetting the timer.
He wonders, now, if the town has already claimed him as its own. He remembers long, windowless hours in humming fluorescent labs in California, and trying to date men who only ever seemed to want to plan as far as that weekend's parties. He thinks of the endless fascination - and frustration, and terror - that work in Night Vale provides, and of Cecil's warm limbs wrapping around him at night, kind and generous and expecting nothing. He wonders if he'd already made the only decision he could ever have made months ago, and if it's just that the town itself has been patiently waiting for the rest of his mind to catch up. He thinks he should call Cecil, this evening.
He returns from the mine shaft brimming with excitement over Game of Thrones - "I couldn't possibly spoil it for you, dear Carlos, but oh, you're in for an exciting time this season" - and is effervescently pleased to be home, as though to curl up on their sofa with Carlos is all he's ever wanted. Carlos, for his part, is calmer now. He doesn't bring up the subject of moving away or staying, but he smiles when Cecil notices the constellation tattoos across his shoulders seem to have started shifting, ever so slightly, to match the night sky's movements. Cecil is thrilled - "lovely Carlos, don't you know what this means? I think the town's finally taking you in, like a true Night Vale citizen!" - and Carlos doesn't mention, just yet, the lightbulbs and the armadillos and the Scouts and more, the fact that he's felt, inexplicably, completely at home since he first arrived and heard Cecil's voice welcoming him.
The City Council have been re-elected with an overwhelming majority, and that evening, Carlos drinks wine with Old Woman Josie and looks out at the sky. Cecil's show plays softly on the radio - "didn't Intern Ana do well? Strange news, listeners: the new scientist that arrived last week seems to have packed up and left town without so much as a goodbye, late last night. Perhaps he didn't feel that our fair burgh was quite scientifically interesting enough to be worth his while." Josie smiles, and tops up Carlos' glass, and as the strains of the weather drift out over the sands, they wait for Cecil to finish and join them.