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Adolescence of Bilious Slick

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    When to the new eyes of thee
        All things by immortal power,
        Near or far,
        Hiddenly
        To each other linkèd are,
        That thou canst not stir a flower
        Without troubling of a star;
                from 'The Mistress of Vision', Francis Thompson

 

They say when the universe-frog was newly made, the sky was clear and filled with stars. There were infinite systems filled with different kinds of life and everything was at peace.

No one knows when things began to change. Across the worlds, disaster struck. A shattering of space-time caused systems to scatter across multiple dimensions and communication was lost. In the isolated Skaia System, preserved and protected within a bubble of the horrorterrors, but reeling from the loss of its central star, trouble continued to brew in the form of natural and political catastrophes.

Oceans rose. Cities fell. But hope survived with the rise of a new power.

DERSE, or the collection of Dimensional-Engagement and Relations-Stability Emissaries, is an interplanetary organization based in an edge dimension with the ability to port from planet to planet, lending aid and advice to the planets still within its influence. Piece by piece, it restored planets to their pre-shatter states and mended all changes, all but the missing Skaia. It recruits from the population, those best and brightest who still retained some measure of aspect and wish to seek their fortunes. There are no longer infinite worlds, but there are some . . .

 

The evening wind twists the sand far below and whips Roxy's hair into a tousled tangle. Roxy adjusts her goggles and sights down the barrel of her scope to the open square. The timepieces projected on her lens gives her a full half-minute to rendezvous. The survey team had given a thorough write-up on this meeting spot, but she had gotten in the habit of doing her own recon work. So far, it was looking like a whole lot of nothing.

No, wait.

Short dark hair bobbing in the distance. Her contact, Jane Crocker, hails from LOCAH although the file said that she left just before the Reckoning to seek her fortunes as a private investigator on other worlds. There isn't much said beyond that, but all agents are familiar with the aftermath of that planetary blight. Some more than most. No living souls remained, only skeletons wandering elaborate crypts.

Roxy jumps down from her pink castlesque perch and weaves her way into the crowd.

"Detective Crocker," she says a few minutes later when she emerges behind Jane. She flashes her handheld-ID and offers up her hand in one smart motion, all professionalism. "I'm Agent Lalonde. Are those the papers?"

To her private delight, Detective Crocker turns a perfect about-face without any sign of being startled and clasps Roxy's hand in her own. It's the solid handshake of an honest woman or a brilliant liar and Roxy knows which side of the coin she's hoping for. "A pleasure, Lalonde. Yes they are. You're right on time. Shall we?" She gestures towards the cafe. Detective Crocker has classic manners, the hint of a LOCAH accent, and sparkling cerulean eyes highlighted by the light blue face mask she wears under her trenchcoat.

They shall and they do. It should be a quick assignment: establish contact, exchange information, and egress. But although Roxy knows they are pressed for time, by the time they are seated, conversation is flowing and she finds herself reluctant to leave the good detective's company. They speak of what little they can share of their jobs, their sadly neglected personal lives, career opportunities available with DERSE; on such a lazy evening, no one seems to mind if they remain seated.

"So, you aren't from LOLAR are you?" asks Detective Crocker as they finish up. Jane, as Roxy now thinks of her, has as keen an eye for detail as one would expect for one of the top new P.I.s on LOLAR. Now she gestures to Roxy's fashionable purple scarf, currently wrapped around her mouth to block out the sand, but a bit too heavy for the LOLAR weather. "They sell masks for that here. It's how I could tell. All the locals use them but most tourists forget. They're really nice. Lightweight. Pretty."

"Lawl, is that where you got yours? It's cute."

"Thank you." The corner of Jane's lip crooks in invitation. "I can take you looking if you'd like."

Roxy smiles but shakes her head. Time may not run strictly at a 1:1 ratio between the Skaia system and the edge dimension of DERSE, but it helped if you didn't stretch your world visitations too far beyond your appointed time away from headquarters. If she had known Detective Crocker had the gracious manners of a LOLAR heiress and a mind as sharp as Rose's thorns, maybe she would have anticipated remaining at least into the evening. If she had known Jane smiled like the sun rising and smelled like brown sugar, maybe the evening would have stretched into a full day's visitation. The morning after too.

And on any other evening, she might have called it in but on this day, she thinks it would be better not to draw out her mission as is her habit. Not when there's so much going on back at base. Not when her clouder might be waiting.

Although Archagent Rose Lalonde would never let on, the scene hadn't been good when she had left.

*

It had been a routine call-in. Maintenance, really. Rose didn't really need her there but rarely shooed her away, and sometimes Roxy just liked to watch her work. The weekly reports from agents on long-term missions had been filling in when every screen had blinked simultaneously.

Roxy had gone stiff. On the live feed was what could only be LOFAF. And LOFAF could only mean Jade - Agent Harley. In her memory, Rose waves a hand at the light and a window blooms across the holo-plas.

It's not technomancy, not exactly, but Roxy has seen Rose swap feeds before they changed and bring up appropriate viewports before their owners could ping her station. Her light aspect can be creepy that way. It isn't why DERSE hired her—that would be her particular brand of brute force tactics—but it is why she spends a disproportionate amount of time clouding for a wandkind user.

Roxy's own abilities are classified as void-so called because no one has yet figured out what her gift is really about. Historically, they once had abilities equivalent to any other user who retained Aspecty Thing, but all but the most basic functions had ceased at the time Skaia disappeared from their planet system. Even the most basic functions had not returned until around the Reckoning of LOPAN. A fair amount of DERSE R&D power went into researching exactly this phenomenon.

Being unable to execute a fraymotif didn't stop Roxy from being one of the best field agents DERSE had-the privilege of partnering with the other Lalonde was one she had thoroughly earned. Her elite haxxors helped too.

Without so much as a gesture from Rose, the new window began its relay. It shows a live video feed of what takes Roxy a moment to realise is LOFAF. The landscape streams past unevenly and it isn't the planet's characteristic snowy forest.

"—on top of the zit-fucking volcano!" Jade's voice comes in crackling bright green over the thud of her boots and the hiss of miles and miles of frost melting away under the flow of something bright and steaming. "Are you getting this, HQ? Lalonde? Jesus Christ!"

"But we expected this," says Rose, words calm and knuckles white. A mission summary blooms on a secondary screen. "Your last report had projected a geologic awakening within this time frame. A volcanic eruptions is well within the–"

"No no no, look." And the camera swerves even more wildly than before, and Roxy realizes that Jade is running backwards now. There is a clear shot of the volcano.

And the thing above it.

The sky of LOFAF is twisted and cracked; the ever-snowing clouds have become boiling steam, churning in nauseating shapes that outline impossible dimensions that don't fit together correctly. In the spaces between them, pulsing red fractures lance the sky, wriggling as though alive.

The feed had died shortly after, and although Rose tries and tries and even Roxy takes the programming helm, neither Lalonde could get a fix on her location. Only radio silence and nothing but dead air.

*

"Roxy? Agent Lalonde, are you all right?"

In the present Roxy shakes her head clear of the lingering memories. They say it's easier to fall out of world time if you linger too long in DERSE headquarters. Flashback after-effects are a common enough affliction for a full time agent. "I'm fine, Jane. ‘Fraid I’m gonna have to give you an IOU on our girltime, though. We're kind of having a bit of a... situation at home."

"What sort of situation?"

"LOFAF is..." Roxy stops. It isn't like her to let proprietary information slip like that, but she had forgotten who she was speaking to. Jane isn't a DERSE agent. Jane is just a civilian contact. She flashes a jaunty smirk she does not feel. "That's classified, detective."

"Wait, LOFAF? Roxy, please. What happened on LOFAF?" Jane's face is twisted with anxiety and Roxy remembers with a pang that she wasn't a LOLAR native either. And the files had mentioned a father.

"You know someone there, don't you." Roxy says instead of asking. The surviving residents of the devastated worlds had found homes on all the remaining planets of the system.

"I– No, I–" Jane looks away." I have family there."

"I'm sorry." Roxy says as gently as she can. "I know from... our files about your..." She looks away too. "You were right. I'm not from LOLAR. But before I worked for DERSE, I lived on LOPAN."

Now it's Jane's turn to give Roxy an anguished look.

In her dreams, Roxy still sees the sickening stillness and the lifeless glow of post-reckoning LOPAN. In the sky, a strange blue light had appeared-to match the pinks and lime-greens on the planet that had been her home. It had only grown brighter when LOCAH had likewise succumbed. That ominous radiation was masked here on LOLAR, but it haunted her time sleep and the time she spent out in real-space. At least in the edge dimension of headquarters, she could forget it.

She clears her throat. "We think it was PROSPIT again. The Primary Retconning Oncologic– whatever. There was a new weapon. Fast. Way too fast. Wriggly things from the sky."

"That doesn't sound like them. The Reckoning has always been some kind of blight. A compulsion to build graves and die." Jane shakes her head. "I would look into other suspects."

"Well, who else could it be?"

"I... I would need more information." Jane frowns, but Roxy is satisfied. Who else could it be? "So. LOFAF. It's gone too? Are you sure?"

Roxy nods. "I'm so sorry. We'll get the ones responsible. I promise." She stands up, suddenly anxious to be back. To start helping with the relief efforts that would no doubt be needed. "Your information will be very helpful. Thank you, detective."

"It was my pleasure, agent," Jane replies just as formally. She looks anything but convinced, but Roxy doesn't have the patience to combat her skepticism now.

Instead she leans over and whispers against her ear. "You know what we were talking about earlier? About how you would fit right in at DERSE?" Jane nods uneasily. "Well, I'm serious about that now. You're real smart and we're at the front of the line for taking down PROSPIT. We don't know what these 'Red Miles' are or what they can do. Think about it, okay? I just know we could use more agents like you in the investigation."

"All right, I'll think about it," says Jane.

Roxy straightens again, fixes her scarf. "TipsyGnostalgic. Do you use pesterchum?"

"Um, yeah! I'm gutsyGumshoe."

"Of course you are. That's fuckin' perf." Roxy blows Jane a kiss and sweeps out the door. "Catch you online, GG!"

*

It only took a few weeks for Jane to take Roxy up on her offer and apply to DERSE. Just as Roxy predicted, she gets in almost immediately and rockets her way up the echeladder. Jane and Roxy continue to talk as often as they can, which turned out to be every day after Roxy figured out how to finangle her handheld for cross-dimensional signals.

GG: How's it going over there? No more arms dealing?
TG: fabulous
TG: my little minions are scrubbing down tonight and ill be zapping on home come daylight
GG: We were learning today about historical human-carapace relations, but local carapaces always seem to like you a lot?
GG: What's your secret?
TG: u sayin im not inherently likable p.i. is that what youre saying?
GG: Roxy.
TG: but yeah no i totally lucked out this time
TG: one of the local heads of state used to visit lopan a lot and we hit it right off
GG: So that's why you always pack glowsticks.
TG: and extra servings of pumpkin pie
TG: bingo!!
TG: so besides picking up tips on insider pumpkin trading how are your studies going?
TG: gotten to the trolls yet?
GG: Are you kidding? I think we skipped straight to that chapter.
GG: You know, I used to think this was just some overbloated government bureau that had a lot of paperwork going on but didn't actually get anything done.
GG: I didn't realize how much we actually do here!
TG: rofl sorry i was under contract not to warn you about that
GG: But some of this stuff is actually pretty shady. All of this undermining governments and dissemination of technological information and confabulatory propaganda business.
TG: it takes some getting used to but we know what were doing
TG: we take our emissarying super seriously
TG: we generate a shitton of useless memes we try to drown the archagents in paperwork and we run dozens of simulations before every major engagement
GG: Engagements where we interfere with less advanced societies just because we can?
TG: hey u tellin me u want ray guns released out into the general salamander population
TG: no one would be beholdin anything those things shred by feedback in these high humidity atmospheres
GG: I'm not saying we should give salamanders ray guns!
GG: Your mission is definitely an important one. Even if it is sort of our fault a shipment of guns landed there in the first place.
TG: welp
GG: I'm just saying...
GG: It feels weird, you know? Deciding which planet can or cannot do what, which leaders should or shouldn't come into power. It feels kind of evil.
TG: yeah i hear what youre saying
TG: lmao its weird rose and i used to talk about this too back in the beginning
TG: the prime directive or whatevs
TG: but then she showed me the numbers
TG: since DERSE became a major interplanetary power the casualties from famine drought and flooding have been reduced by 83%
TG: unplanned deaths planetwide have only been decreasing
TG: even if planned ones are goin up some like wat do you expect
TG: and youre taking that history class now right? you know what they used to describe how something as simple as sleeping could get
GG: Half the population suffered from delusions of prescience and the other half swore they could speak with ghosts. I know.
GG: I've seen the numbers, Roxy. I'm not denying that it looks like in the next decade or so, everyone will live forever, sleep fantastically, and our biggest problem will be trying to expand into the Furthest Ring.
GG: I just don't know about manipulating whole populations like this.
TG: yeah its heavy stuff
TG: uuuuuuuuuuuuuururreggghhgh
TG: listen lets talk more when i get back ok? i have an early day tomorrow herding nakodiles
GG: Oh gosh, that sounds like quite the trial.
GG: Have fun, Ro-Lal.
TG: u got it <3
GG: <3

*

Hours in the future, but not many...

GG: Hoo hoo hoo, that is the best ever!
TG: thats right laugh it up
TG: once youre a runner well see how you like it when your locals try to cook you into soup
GG: I am raising my eyebrow in challenge as I type this. My soup would far out-class yours.
TG: lol in ur dreamas maybe
GG: Although I find that I'm actually more interested in clouding.
GG: Oh, hold it, someone else is pestering me.
GG: It's Rose!
TG: hahaha you fukced up
GG: Roxy!
GG: I don't think I did. Oh no, now I'm really worried, I thought I was doing alright in my classes.
TG: nah ok but like its probably fine
TG: miss grimdark probably just wants to get to know you
TG: sussin out ur major weaknesses to use for laterz
TG: if she asks we never went beyond first base
GG: Very funny, Roxy.
GG: She'll break my face if I break your heart, is that it?
TG: def
TG: for my honor
GG: :B
TG: no but rosey doesnt use company comms for that kind of thing she probably just wants you to practice more stiming or something like that
GG: Well, I hope so. She just said that she wanted to see me in her office.
TG: well dont do anything i wouldnt do!

*

Rose's office is not what Jane expected. She had figured somewhere cold and sterile, even laboratory-like, perhaps with subtle highlights of fashionable elegance–like the woman herself. Instead, it is a chaotic mess. The not-ungenerous space is scattered with everything from massive crumbling texts to incomplete knitting. The posters don't bear close inspection.

And seated in the middle of it all is the Archagent herself.

"Junior Agent Crocker," she says, shuffling papers behind a blank folder. It's probably for the look of the thing. Jane has been finding that DERSE isn't huge on hard copies which can be infected with organic diseases or corrupted by magic. Nothing like digital files, oh no. "It says here that you come from LOCAH."

"Yes ma'am."

"Before the Reckoning of LOCAH which both you and your father miraculously escaped."

"Yes ma'am." Conversations always seem to open this way in at HQ.

Rose continues, "Terrible, what happened there. You know, they say that the desolation of those planets hit by PROSPIT look very much like the effect of Life Powers. Or rather, anti-Life Powers."

Jane doesn't speak. Her aspect is a matter of public record. Everyone's is.

Rose leans forward at her desk, unsmiling. "Our techies are very good, Junior Agent Crocker, and we like to keep a careful eye on our networks. Someone intercepted communications with the distinctive coding tags of an entity known as the WITCH who is suspected of working with anti-Life Powers on those planets struck by the Reckoning." If anything, Jane's expression goes from shock to fierce delight. Rose frowns. "Now, why would someone like that be trying to contact you?"

Jane's smile slides into a quieter shape, cold and corporate. "Very clever, Archagent. There was always a risk you would find me out. I thought it might be sooner. And then I thought: not at all."

"At least you know your acting limits. Very refreshing. Security is waiting to escort you to a holding cell where you will be thoroughly questioned. However much good that will do us." Rose's voice is lazy, bored. The papers and folders get tossed haphazardly over her shoulder, spilling out over the cluttered floor as the simplest filng system there is. "As of now, you are relieved of your status. Do you have anything to add?"

Jane's lips tighten in a thin line. Her pose slips and she bites her lip. "I suppose there's just one thing. Please don't tell Roxy."

Rose smirks. "Agent Lalonde is difficult to put off. We'll see."

*

TG: you WHAT??? rose why would you do that?
TT: You have been sent the official write-up on exactly why Junior Agent Crocker is now in custody.
TG: you mean "sectB.11.11.11.drs"?
TG: theres something wrong with it maybe becauase OH NOTHING S IN THERE
TG: everything is blacked out
TT: Roxy.
TG: and if you say somethin about my clearance levels

-- tipsyGnostalgic [TG] is now an idle chum! --

TT: ?
TT: Roxy, are you still there?

-- tipsyGnostalgic [TG] is no longer an idle chum! --

TG: yeah
TG: ill be realy upset rose so just
TG: fukgign
TT: ...
TT: Incoming file: personal.rlalonde.sectB.11.11.11.drs?view_ID=3141025
TT: I know you thought she was your friend, but she's a major lieutenant of PROSPIT.
TT: Don't do something stupid.
TT: Roxy?
TT: Roxy?

-- tipsyGnostalgic [TG] is now an idle chum! --

TT: Dammit.

*

Of course it isn't easy to break Jane out, not in a rush, not on her own. Roxy's void powers, admittedly limited, still make her a crack shot at extractions. But the facilities of DERSE aren't some medieval construction. They're the best of worlds. Making it harder is the fact that Jane won't come willingly until it looks like Roxy will also be caught. Too many close calls later, they flee into the depths of headquarters.

Safe in one of the myriad hidden spaces in the labyrinth of hallways, Roxy glares at the girl who has become her bestie. Said bestie glares right back.

"Good grief, I can't believe you did that, Roxy!"

"Well it worked out, didn't it?"

"They're going to figure out it was you!"

"Yeah, and being mistaken for a traitor is one of the worst possible things, right? Aren't ya at least going to thank me?"

Jane huffs. The huff startles a pair of hopeful LOFAF butterflies drifting past. Various other creeping totem critters scuttle uneasily in the shadows, unused to the dramatic and dramatically stomping company. They seem to have wound up in a totem critter corner. "Yes. Thank you for rescuing me, Roxy. What were you thinking?"

"Double-you tee eff, I was thinking you were innocent, Jane!" Roxy exploded. "Are you telling me if it were me in there, you wouldn't be bustin' all your moves to get me outta there?"

"Of course I would! But it's not what you think."

"Yeah, I'm getting that now." There isn't too much else to say, is there? She hadn't seen the signs... no, she just hadn't wanted to see them. They're written all over Jane now. She says, "It's true, isn't it. You really are a traitor, like Rose says."

"I'm afraid so."

Roxy buries her face in her hands. "And I guess now I am too. You would not believe how incredibly stupid I feel right now. I hope you have a good reason or else it'll only get worse."

"I do." In the darkness of their temporary sanctuary, Jane sinks down to the ground, hugging her knees. After a moment, Roxy joins her. "What is it DERSE does, exactly, Roxy?"

Immediate. "We help people. We fix planets. If someone has a problem or is going to have a problem, we step in and solve it."

"You interfere." Jane frowns. "Long ago, every planet had an ancient power. A creature that oversaw its growth and development, that guided it's–"

"The denizens?" Roxy laughs too loudly, bright and false, more like she's irritated than anything. "This is about those evil creeps?"

"They weren't evil."

"They were killing people, Janey. They didn't 'oversee' nothin'. They spread plague, they started earthquakes, they forced consorts to build their own graves for crying out loud."

Jane snaps. "But they were necessary! We needed them! Members of the Noble Circle offered DERSE the chance to rule this universe, to have a tentacle in every pie, to make every major play from the shadows. And all they wanted was help sealing away the powers of the denizens? Do you think they wanted nothing back?"

"You really are a terrorist," Roxy says in dull horror, leaning away. "All those planets PROSPIT hit... You helped bring about the Reckoning!"

"I'm setting us free!"

"You destroyed LOPAN!" Roxy shrieks. Tiny insect legs clatter in distress. "My home, Jane! My everything, it's just a glittering graveyard now! And you're telling me you did this because horrorterrors wig you out? Newsflash: they wig everyone out! But they're helping us which is more than I can say for your people!"

"It's not that simple."

"Like hell it isn't! I can't believe I almost had feelings for– I can't believe you believe this bullshit. You really think–"

"They're feeding on us."

"... What?"

"They're feeding on us," Jane says again, then laughs without humor. "The souls of the dead and the dreams of the living. You know all those numbers in DERSE propaganda? The dreamless sleeps and the disappearing dead?"

Roxy fidgets. "I don't believe you."

"You should. I'm affiliated with life, Ro-Lal. You know what I can do. I can feel it... all the time."

"But. How can they?"

"They're draining our whole universe of Life." In a sudden motion, Jane slams her fist violently into a wall. A wandering scarab beetle comes away on her fist, still twitching. After a minute, the twitching stops. "Fires and floods, those are terrible things. But they're natural things. They shape the land and the life in it. Things change. With DERSE acting as their puppet, nothing changes. Our populations are complacent. We're herd animals they pick away at. Nothing more."

On her knuckles, the crushed beetle glows blue until it is suddenly whole again. It crawls off her fist. Jane doesn't even look down. It's the most terrifying display of aspecty thing Roxy has ever encountered, and her clouder is Rose.

Jane looks over at Roxy, eyes shining. "There's more out there, Roxy. More planets. More people. We've been in this bubble for so long, most of us have forgotten, but I've talked to an affiliate of Space. There are other worlds than these. We need to get out."

"The light," Roxy says to herself, thoughts numb and spinning too quickly to catch. "The light in the sky after LOPAN. After LOPAN was gone."

"Skaia," says Jane, satisfied. "We didn't lose our sun, they took it from us! Our universe is behind schedule. PROSPIT is working towards accelerating the maturation process. Decades of disaster - it's a mess! Like a forest that never burns, a spark could set us off! The WITCH and I... we were nearly through before things they caught on."

"It was Jade, isn't it," says Roxy sadly. "Agent Harley. You don't even need to say it. When we met, you reminded me a little of her. I always wished you guys could have met, but I guess..."

"They must have found her. The things you described when we met - it's a cosmic assassin."

"But it doesn't make sense," says Roxy. "Why not just tip her hand? DERSE communes with upper management all the time. Why not just tell us that our greatest enemy was right there?"

Jane's lips are a thin line and for a while she doesn't answer. Then, "Rose. They would have told Rose. I don't know why she kept her cover, but when she didn't eliminate Jade, they took it into their own... appendages."

"And now they know about you."

"They know about me."

"Rose must have been trying to protect you too." Rose must have figured out that those of the Furthest Ring pulled a double-reacharound on their entire bubble.

"And I told her not to tell you." Jane clasps Roxy's hands in hers, deadly earnest. "Roxy, now that you know, you have to help me. We're so close to the end! Once one more world meets its graduation parameters, Skaia will be fully realized and we can pop this stupid bubble and be free." Roxy sits, numb and silent. Jane exhales loudly. "You recruited me once. Now I'm recruiting you. Even if they get me, I need to know that you'll to keep going."

Roxy frowns at their hands. She links their fingers. And at last, she says, "I've always thought I'd make a fantastic ROGUE operative."

"So, you'll help?"

"What do I have to do?"

"Just get me to LOLAR."

*

They arrive on LOLAR to a scene of carnage. The planets that had been hit before had been sterilized, barren and wasted with little more than walking skeletons to tell of what had come before. But the sands of LOLAR are covered with gore. Thick tubes of red drape across the land, still weakly pulsing and leaking into the water. They lace between the blasted battlements of rose and orchid, slippery from the ever-present rain.

Everything is deserted. The streets, the buildings, the little café where Roxy first met Jane. There are no people, no consorts, no carapaces. There aren't even any skulls.

And in the middle, Rose and Jade, silhouettes merged, specibi drawn. The points of Rose's needles dig into Jade's palms, still sparking with energy and sending the scent of burnt flesh chasing the salt and blood in the wind. The tip of Jade's rifle digs a violent bruise into the side of Rose's neck, wedged into the hinge of her jaw.

They are snogging. Hatesnogging.

"I thought you were dead!" cries Roxy to Jade. Probably to Jade.

"So did I," says Jane more accusingly.

"I'm sorry," says Jade not sounding the least bit apologetic. "After they tried to have me assassinated on LOFAF, I thought it might be better if I laid low for a while. By the time I was able to communicate again, you were working for DERSE???" The excess question marks dampen beneath the drizzle.

"I was going to take it out from the inside," Jane mutters.

"Oh, I see how it is," says Roxy, but smiling, "I thought I had mad convincing skillz but you were just playing trojan horse all along."

"Well," Jane say, perfectly prim if lightly flushed, "I may have had some other reasons. Some excessively smug pink-texted reasons."

"This is touching and everything," says Rose, "and I'm so happy for you both, but as you can see, ex-agent Harley is decidedly not dead. In fact, she's quite well! She was just explaining the situation to me–" from over her shoulder, Jade mouths ' explaining' and winks aggressively, "–not that I didn't already understand. And I take it you both are up to speed?"

Roxy splashes through more of the pulverized remains of the Miles. "Sure. We have to initiate this planet's maturation sequence. That's what the two of you were up to, isn't it? M-rating the land?" She makes little 'c' shapes with her hands and mashes them together in the air.

"It's the oceans, isn't it," Jane says. "I can feel– It's something in the water?"

"That's right. Well done." Rose brushes back her hair with a gooey red hand, a delicate gesture that brings Roxy back to DERSE headquarters and the way Rose slid into her role as clouder. "Or rather, what isn't in the water. The Denizen of LOLAR should have taken care of it long ago, but as long as the ocean still lives–"

"I can take care of it."

"Jane?"

"The life in the ocean - it's not consorts, is it? Not carapaces, not human. I can feel them... but they're not real. Not in the way totem animals are real." Jade hides a smile, full of pride, as Roxy frowns at her creepy bestie.

She says, "You're only a junior agent and it's an entire planet, and frankly, you are, like, the least gothy person I know. Are you sure you can do that much Lifey thing?"

"I've been doing the Lifey thing forever, Rox. I'm not a DERSE junior agent. I'm a PROSPIT double-agent. I helped clear LOCAH. And LOPAN." Jane nods to Rose. "I can do it. Just get everyone else out."

"Already done," says Jade, the walking talking reason for the unlikely missing-persons statistics after the Reckoning of three planets prior. She gestures to the eerily empty streets, residents all ported off by spacey thing and relocated.

Now she relocates the four of them.

It turns out PROSPIT headquarters is a mysterious golden ship of unknown origins and it is a teeming mess of fantastical creatures. There are refugee consorts and rescued carapaces from now four different worlds wandering between decks, glubbing and nakking willy-nilly. Roxy even spots an orchid turtle of LOPAN before her attention is drawn back to LOLAR.

In the end, there isn't much of a final battle. From the deck, they watch as Jane wipes out all life in the seas.

The universe DERSE once nurtured into complacency is shattered with the loss of the lynchpin planets. Already the dreams of the living and the souls of the dead dissipating out into wider space, no longer trapped within the parasitic confines of the reality bubble. And with them, the universe is abandoned. They no longer have the protection of the whispering deep. Instead they have the chance for more.

Jane sinks gently the the ground before Roxy catches her in a dive. There is another power in the fabric of spacetime. "Phew, Janey, you look wiped," says Roxy over the static rush of nothingness that is sound in space. "Check out Skaia; we've got a full-blown system goin' now!"

"It's beautiful," laughs Jane from her place in Roxy's lap.

"It's not over yet," Rose says.

Jane grimaces. "What's left? We've hit all the lynchpin planets. I can feel the universe expanding. Like a migraine."

"We've got half the doorway open," Even through their triumph Jade manages to look grim when she answers, and Roxy remembers that this is Prospit's WITCH. "But even if all the worlds are safe, I don't think it's going to be so easy. Look up further."

"It's us." Her voice a perfect calm, Rose repeats it. "They're coming for us."

*

They're right at the edge now, the shell of their universe as it presses back against the place that obeys the laws of neither space nor time, the realm of the horrorterrors.

The scattered skeletons of LOPAN and LOCAH, the burning end of LOFAF, and even the oozing gore of what remains of LOLAR are nothing like what comes from the beyond. The space above Skaia writhes with impossible shapes with too many eyes, mouths, voices like a dental drill at the base of the skull. There is no question of fighting.

"We need to move quickly. Take us down into Skaia," orders Rose. "Hang on everyone, we're going to experience some turbulence." Jade flips Rose the bird but the ship moves towards the glowing light. Faster, faster. Over the streaks of speeding light, Rose continues, "I have a theory about your powers, Roxy. And about what we'll find at the center of our missing star."

"What's that?" asks Roxy, still hanging onto Jane. Jane groans but keeps her eyes shut. The universe frog is, changing, growing, and with that metamorphosis comes fresh pain. "There's something coming from there. Not more creepy sushi. Something else."

"You're feeling the breach, Roxy," says Jade encouragingly. "We've been in a bubble for a really long time, but it's not healthy to be like that! You're feeling the universe next over."

"You have to open it," says Rose, and her voice is tight. "In a few minutes we're going to hit the Battlefield and when we do, your powers will be able to break through both space and time."

"But I'm void!"

"You're our best agent," corrects Rose. "And if I'm right, the sealing of our universe by the members of the Noble Circle also sealed off the source of your aspecty thing. That should be broken now, so I'm going to need you to void us out of here."

"I don't know what that means," Roxy pleads, but she concentrates. The brightness is blinding now. Clouds stream past. Images, memories, madness! And growing larger as the fall until it fills the horizon: the Battlefield. Jane gives her hand a little squeeze as Roxy calls on that sense of nothingness that lies on the flip-side of space.

"You have to void us through the battlefield," Rose says, urgent now. "They won't be able to follow and Jade's Spacey thing will do the rest!"

"We won't survive the impact," says Jade, less than helpfully, Roxy feels.

"Roxy," says Jane quietly. "Roxy, you can do it."

There is a tug at the back of her mind, and a tug on her hand. The void reaches for her and she reaches back...

"Now!" screams Rose. "Open it now!"

And she pulls...

*

They tear through the between place where two universes meet and the Furthest Ring will not bother reach. Somewhere in the distance, Roxy can hear the clink of quartz. Or a tick. There's is the glitter of crystal or maybe light on metal teeth. Through the blinding green and eyeball sucking black of space and void, there is a sense of movement and a deep red pulse, and a player of time pulls them through as the skin of their dimension tears open into a new universe of possibilities.

There are others here. A lot of others. Rose holds up Jade as space E X P L O D E S

And in Roxy's arms, Jane looks up and laughs and laughs and laughs.

As far as the eye can see, the sky is filled with stars.