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A Blinking Light Up On The Clouded Mountain

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Night Vale.

Morning. The experimental theologians trickle into the kitchen one by one, representing various combinations of tired, injured, and hungover. There's still no anbaric power on their block; Sherie gives Seth a wad of cash, tells him to buy whatever he wants at school for breakfast and lunch and treat himself with the rest, and enjoy the air-conditioned classrooms. As for the rest of them, with nothing in the fridge and no powered cooking devices, they're left to eat whatever's in the cupboard, however they can cook it using a can of fire.

They end up having coffee and toast. A lot of toast.

(At least they have a lot of bread. The team can't agree on a single favorite wheat alternative, so they have five different loaves.)

Nirliq, the only one who slept in the other house (Perle crashed in this living room rather than trying to walk), comes over as soon as they text her. She's bearing muffins and her laptop, prompting Carlos to say, "By the way, today is Theological Amnesty Day. If it isn't a direct order from the Book Club...or on-air from Fey or Cecil, or a call from Dana or Maureen, or anyone else who would need us for the war and recovery efforts...we're not doing it. Any deadlines that get missed, so be it."

"That's all well and good for field work," protests Nirliq, "but I'm supposed to finish a thesis at some point this year."

"You're already going to go down in history as a co-inventor of the Atal lens," says Sherie reassuringly. "It's not the end of the world if you don't get around to defending your thesis until next semester."

It isn't long before Carlos and Cecil take off together. Cecil won't skip his own work today, and Carlos probably only made the declaration in the first place so he could focus on looking out for his boyfriend. Not that Sherie blames him.

She takes a plate of toast and juice to Perle, and gives Tock the sludge monster a couple of empty jars to crunch on. Back in the kitchen, Keith has gotten out his own laptop, and he and Nirliq are both looking at the screen. "Something tells me that's not a cat video."

"A concerned email," says Keith. "From colleagues at Heidelberg. They report heightened readings on the danger meters at several disparate research posts, and ask for our consultation."

"How are you getting online? The network's down."

Keith raises his bushy eyebrows. "This ordinater has legs, walks on its own, and has been known to bite people when it feels threatened, and the feature that confuses you is its satellite-based wireless access?"

"...point taken." Sherie walks around, careful to step over the long tail of Keith's binturong daemon, and squints over his shoulder. "Are those the numbers? Those don't look so bad."

"No," agrees Keith. "They are easily within normal ranges."

"...for Night Vale," finishes Nirliq.

So much for not working today, thinks Sherie. "I guess this is the kind of thing we should look into."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Before Tamika can take off on a rescue mission, she's got to set a few things moving here at home. Starting in the yard at Vansten's place, where Dana says she can open a window on a group of otherworldly caterers.

The mansion's rooms are full of displaced folks from around town, plus a whole lot of witches. Vansten's third-highest-paid personal chef is in charge of the kitchen, and made sure everyone here got a continental breakfast and mints on their pillows. Now there's a couple dozen people watching from balconies and the back porch as Tamika and Rashi stand in the flower garden, flanked by Advanced Readers, a handful of police officers, and two seated giants.

"Same rules as the other portals!" announces Tamika. "Be on your best behavior. Anyone who's sick, keep your distance from the visitors. Anyone throws trash through the portal, you get taken straight to a cell in the abandoned mine shaft! We've got a gentleman here who is both a theologian and an angel, so if he says the window needs closing, you back off and let him close it."

She nods to Erika, in the form of a white bird with diamonds of blue around his eyes, perched on one of Vansten's marble birdbaths. The angel taps a claw against one of the theologians' electrum spyglasses and nods back.

"Everybody ready?"

The chant goes up all around. "Ready!"

Tamika draws the Knife. A Weird Scout beside her switches on the radio he's been carrying, and they wait for Fey to calculate that Tamika is ready. "...will be open for business today. Sixteen hours, twenty-four minutes until a Very Bad Thing happens. To request cleanup services for a Strexcorp decoration job, please call...."

"—Stop!"

Tamika stops. Not that she's obligated to answer to the witches, but it'll be prudent — not to mention, polite — to at least figure out what this one wants.

The witch soars down from a balcony on a branch of cloud-pine and hovers in front of Tamika. She's got golden-blonde curls and soft skin, and the cut of her black silk outfit marks her as Lake Enara. She addresses Tamika in urgent, rapid English.

"Slow, slow!" exclaims Tamika in kind, gesturing for the Weird Scout to turn the radio down. "English is not good."

"I can translate," says Erika, first in English, then repeating himself in Spanish. He flutters over to perch on Rashi's horns. "Say that again?"

The Lake Enara witch repeats herself.

"She says that knife is dangerous," translates Erika. "Every time you make a cut between worlds, it releases something...like a piece of the void, and it's hard to see, but you can tell when it's close because you feel cold? And, ah, I think she's talking about mysterious hooded spectres." He switches to English. "Are you [something something something] spectres?"

"We [something something] spectres, yes. You know [something] them?"

Tamika points to a couple of hooded spectres drifting around by Vansten's pool. "Spectres, like that?"

The witch follows Tamika's finger...then yanks back on her pine branch so hard she lurches up four feet into the air, turns to her companions, and starts yelling in what is probably a whole other language because all Tamika gets is "[something something something something]!"

Tamika's English is not nearly up to explaining this. "Will you tell the lady to calm down?" she urges Erika in Spanish. "How they never kill people this far from the Dog Park? And can somebody volunteer to go poke a spectre to demonstrate?" She'd do it herself, but they're scared of the Knife, and she's not letting anybody else hold it.

All the observing witches are in the air, bird daemons circling around them, as a couple of Blood Pact Scouts with lizard daemons go over to the pool and poke the mysterious hoods.

Sure enough, the spectres only buzz with static and drift off over the water.

Under her breath, Tamika asks Erika, "Any chance she's right about the other part? Is my Knife making these things?"

"Gosh, no," says the angel without hesitation. "Maybe she's thinking of some other knife? But with this one, given all the tests and theological observations our research team put it through...if it was releasing soul-eating abominations every time you made a cut, that's definitely the kind of detail we would have noticed."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos would just as soon have Cecil stay home today. Dana could queue NVCR's equipment to play reruns all day — they might even get decent ratings, if they used their most critically-acclaimed episodes of Morse Code for Trumpet Quintets — while Cecil stayed in bed and Carlos thought up sweet things to do for him. Maybe the power would come back on, and they could watch one of Cecil's favorite sepia-toned Westerns. Maybe it wouldn't, and...well. They'd come up with something.

But Cecil insists on going to the studio. And since the car Carlos would've taken is still in the college parking lot, they ride in together on the bus.

The moment they step through the reclaimed-bloodstone doors, Carlos is glad they came after all. The lobby is sparkling clean: not a bloodstain or bone fragment to be seen. The carpet has been ripped up and disposed of, leaving a hardwood floor polished to a high gleam. Everything smells strongly of cleaning agents, but it's a welcome change from raw meat, and there's no other sign that it hasn't been this clear for ages.

At the front desk, instead of a secret-police substitute, there's one of the familiar security officers Carlos knows from any number of visits. The speakers are playing the current broadcast: a pre-recorded ad for Best Buy, no Strexcorp rhetoric whatsoever. And down the hall, he can hear...singing?

"What happened here?" asks Cecil in awe. Khoshekh floats beside him at waist level, nose twitching.

"Scouts sent a cleanup crew," says the desk officer. "Strangest children I ever did see, and that's including City Council messenger brats, but they do good work, don't they? Mikaela from sales came in, so they're fixing up that division now. You're about the only other person here, so your office can be next if you ask."

The barcode scanner has been disabled. Cecil doesn't have to worry about the freshly-Sharpied-over tattoo on his neck, just signs in with a modified typewriter and a drop of blood, like a normal person. Carlos does the same, and they venture into the hall, following the mysterious chorus.

NVCR's sales offices are indeed being sanitized by a group of unfamiliar Scouts, all wearing black sashes with hand-sewn badges and being led through a call-and-response song in a language that sounds like a cousin of a cousin of Italian. It's a mixed-gender group, maybe eight-to-twelve years old. Strange children, all of them. Strange, daemonless children.

And sure enough, leading the chant — while hoisting a girl on his shoulders so she can sweep bits of Strexcorp marketing executive off the top of a filing cabinet — is Earl Harlan.

Earl waves to Cecil and Carlos, finishes the latest round of the song, then exclaims, "Cecil! I've been out of town for less than a year! What have you been doing with the place?"

"I will have you know there were not nearly as many hostage situations as the spring of '98," says Cecil, mock-offended. "How have you been doing with the post-apocalyptic wasteland you adopted?"

"Oh, the kids are making incredible progress. We've re-established mining, large-scale farming, vaccination, and the printing press. Got a little stuck on long-distance telecommunication — embarrassing, right? Who doesn't have the schematics of a basic telegraph memorized? — but for helping with Night Vale's disaster cleanup, we're getting compensated with —"

He stops short as the pleasant, squelching melody on the office speakers fuzzes into static, then a disturbingly even hum....

"...I'm so sorry, am I interrupting something?" coos Lauren's voice. "I'm sure it's nothing important."

"Oh, no. No, no, no," says Cecil. "Earl, do any of your kids need combat badges? Because I've got a job for them."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Tamika opens a palm-sized window to a world full of thick brambles and snow. When Erika reports that the danger-meter readings are within safe levels, she cuts it wider, enough so Carlsberg can look through. "How about this one? Any sky-chart there?"

Carlsberg peers into the other world and gazes up at its clouds. "There is, but it's the wrong one! It doesn't explain how the structures and divisions of Strexcorp are interrelated. All it's showing me is recipes."

They go through half a dozen more worlds this way. Erika orders Tamika to close two as soon as they're opened. A third-grade scrying prodigy vetoes another, saying it's the airspace of a seriously paranoid government and they'll be shot down mid-flight if they use it. Carlsberg dismisses several as having the wrong kind of circles and glowing arrows, and a few for not having any at all. In one, he urges Tamika to hurry up and close it: not because the dotted lines are unhelpful, but because they outline a world with no safe paths, because its equivalent of Strexcorp is everywhere.

Finally, Tamika catches the Knife on a familiar-feeling snag in the air, and opens a window on a prairie ghost town. Crumbling brick buildings with mildew-rotted holes for windows, train tracks overgrown with weeds, a heavy stoplight lying in the dirt under dead power lines.

Carlsberg sticks his head through and looks up at the bright, sunny sky. "This will work! The arrows are showing me exactly where to go. Strexcorp is in this world, but not in this area. Not for hundreds of miles."

"Sounds great." Raising her voice, Tamika addresses all the Advanced Readers gathered in the stolen-aircraft rehabilitation hangar. "Suit up, Book Club! We've got a flight path!"

 

-{,(((,">

 

The studio is empty.

"We're broadcasting from a secret location," says Lauren's daemon over the airwaves, "because of some...recent changes to the town of Night Vale. Strexcorp was in the process of bringing together the Night Vale and Desert Bluffs Metropolitan Area, but there was some..."

"...miscommunication," finishes Lauren sweetly. "All we ever wanted was to help you reach your full productive potential!"

"Cecil, would you mind walking the kids through how to find and disable broadcast tampering devices?" asks Earl. "I think they'd get a lot out of seeing a live demonstration."

"Gladly." Cecil starts addressing the kids in their own language, unscrewing the top panel of the mixer and ushering them in to get a closer look at the internal components.

Still on-air, Lauren and her daemon carry on about how awful it is that Night Vale has secret police listening in on your every conversation instead of deregulated corporate observers. That nobody is allowed to purchase any of Strex's high-quality wheat and/or wheat by-products. That teenage girls are allowed to start militias, instead of being given good, honest jobs.

While Cecil and the others work on shutting her down, Carlos retreats with Khoshekh to Cecil's office. Khoshekh ought to lie down so he doesn't wear himself out, and this way Isaña can curl up with him. Not quite as good as cuddling at home, but it can still be relaxing, in its own way....

Right on cue, he gets a text from Sherie: global danger levels rising. we're looking into it.

 

-{,(((,">

 

"If you could pick up the danger meter and move it approximately ten meters, on a line perpendicular to the direction of the threat...."

Nirliq is on the phone with a Dust research facility in Nippon. Keith is talking to people at Heidelberg, presumably having the German version of the same conversation. Sherie sits between them at the ordinater with the local Rusakov array, trying to find a way to filter out the standard Night Vale danger levels and scan for imminent portals in the sand wastes beyond...or, heaven forbid, as far as Kinlání or Black Hill.

"Yes, I know that'll disrupt the integrity of the data. Triangulating the source of the readings is more important right now! If you had more than one danger meter, we wouldn't have this problem."

Her phone hums with a text from Carlos. How global is "global"?

"We have eighty!"

every meter outside nv is above its recorded average. 11 in concerning ranges. not sure yet if they're near safe-ish future portal sites, or far from dangerous ones.

"No, they're not mass-produced. They're a lot of fun to make, all right?"

could be one of strex's famed universe-shattering projects, on a bigger scale? trying to get enough data to identify the pattern. ask cecil to look up the cause.

"Because there's a lot of danger here, that's why! The readings you're getting are lower than what we saw last Thursday. Now, please, lean on our experience and let us help you study them."

Can't. Cecil's alethiometer was destroyed. I'll ask him to put out a call for information on-air; you get in touch with Fey.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Lauren is in the middle of a flowery declaration about how perhaps Strexcorp brought this on themselves — by loving Night Vale too much! — when the signal finally gets disrupted, and Cecil addresses the town. "Sorry about that, listeners. That was not on the schedule for our broadcast day. Technically, this isn't either...but in light of recent events, we're changing the schedule to dedicate all our programming to the revolution.

"We're also trying to cross-stream our broadcast with that of WZZZ, so we can make sure all important information is broadcasting on both frequencies, and no one will miss anything! Thanks to the help of the talented young Megan Wallaby, currently on a playdate at Fey's studio, and my talented childhood friend Earl Harlan, right here in the booth. Is it done yet? Fey, are you with us?"

"Here I am!" exclaims Night Vale's Numbers Leader. Carlos, listening from Cecil's office, smiles at her enthusiasm. "Happy to report that Night Vale has power restored in 92% of households, water in 98%, and telephone service in 100%. Also, there are fourteen hours and fifty-nine minutes left until the Very Bad Thing."

"Sorry, what was that?" asks Cecil. "What kind of bad thing?"

"I don't know! I think it's the same Bad Thing the experimental theologians are predicting, but even that isn't totally certain. So I'm really glad we're co-broadcasting, so you can help fill in by looking up the things I don't understand! And also, maybe, deliver some inspirational messages? I'm not good at those. They're hard to quantify."

"Um, Fey...I'm afraid I can't look things up that easily any more," says Cecil. "My equipment has been, ah, compromised. I can still find obscure town statutes, fanfic recommendations, things like that...but no secret enemy plans."

"Ooh," says Fey. "What about your nice friend Dana? Could she go back in time and get a younger version of you to look it up, when your equipment was still working?"

"Next time I see Dana, I will ask! But if she had done that, my present-day self would probably remember her doing it, and we wouldn't have this dilemma in the first place. That's how all our other Dana-related stable paradox loops have worked, anyway. What about your friend who was teaching you how to interpret your readings? Can't he check it out himself?"

"His experimental theologian says he needs a break," laments Fey. "I'm not even being allowed to talk to him."

Carlos gets up.

"Oh dear. Well, in that case, listeners...if any of you have information on upcoming Very Bad Things via foresight, good scrying technique, a prophecy carved into slabs of granite and buried in your yard, or other proven methods of future-prediction, please call in and let us know! Fey, do you want to do the honors...?"

While Fey is giving the phone numbers, Carlos stands outside the studio and waves for Cecil's attention.

Cecil dutifully takes in the message and passes it along. "Listeners, my hero theologian boyfriend Carlos just tapped a request on the window of my studio in Morse code. He would like to go down to Fey's broadcasting bunker and talk directly to her friend's theologian, one scholar to another. Can somebody give him a ride?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

The next world over.

Eight repurposed yellow gyropters fly in perfect formation. Tamika pilots the one in the lead, Carlsberg and his badger daemon giving directions from the passenger seat, Rashi watching from the back.

They're soaring over yet another cluster of abandoned and half-collapsed buildings when Tamika realizes why she recognized the texture of this universe. It's one of the worlds Kevin had her practice on...because it's the one Strexcorp got him from in the first place.

Tamika's glad all over again that Strexcorp doesn't have him any more. And she makes a mental note to start visiting as the drugs wear off. Poor guy might not have anybody else to come looking.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

"I'll tell him exactly what I've told everyone else. I've cut Enigma off," snaps Dr. Caleb Rose over the airwaves. "He is exhausted, and that's after hooking him up to all of this! You can't see it, but I just made a big sweeping hand gesture to indicate everything in this room, which includes the most advanced processors my universe has invented. You dealt with your own problems before you met us, and you can deal with them now while he recovers."

Carlos and Isaña are listening to this transmission from the middle of Fey's concrete bunker. (It's just them in here at the moment. Megan is outside, watched over by her mother, playing tag with some of her more...mobile...friends.) The conversation isn't being included in the WZZZ/NVCR joint broadcast; there's a low copy of that audio running on her speakers in the background, and right now it's Cecil talking, delivering a short inspirational speech in eight languages in a row.

"I promise you, I don't blame you for feeling that way," says Carlos into Fey's nearest microphone, addressing the otherworldly scholar. "My own boyfriend just spent twenty-four hours held prisoner and chained to a sink, and if I could protect —"

"Excuse me? What are you insinuating?"

"Oh — sorry, I didn't mean to —"

"I don't know how they run governments in your dimension, Ramirez, but there is no homosexuality in the United States Office of Strategic Services."

"That's not true!" pipes up Fey, ever ready to provide some helpful numbers. "The rate of homosexuality in your department is four point three percent, with an additional eighteen point one percent experiencing —"

"Fey!" interrupts Carlos. "I'm pretty sure what he means is, there is no homosexuality in his Office of Strategic Services, just like there are no angels in Night Vale."

"But there — ohhhh."

"What I'm trying to say, Dr. Rose, is that I know we're asking a lot," continues Carlos. "We're giving a lot ourselves. One of my team members has a leg she can't walk on right now, another got his neck snapped, a friend's daughter has been taken hostage, my boyfriend lost an eye — we are coping on our own with as much as we possibly can. But there's a very real chance that, in less than fifteen hours, someone is going to try to blow up our universe."

"You're sure this is reality we're talking about," says Rose, arch with skepticism. "Not, say, the plot of a pulp sci-fi serial."

"I didn't see it coming either," says Carlos. He isn't sure what "sci fi" is short for (science fighting? science file?), but he gets the gist. "But trusted sources have assured me it is a real thing that can be done. Someone set off a bomb on that scale during the War, and the angels — who, and I reiterate this for legal purposes, do not exist — were repairing the cracks for at least a decade. So we need to know what's coming, and how to brace ourselves."

Rose sighs. "All right. I'll pass on the question. Just the one! And if Enigma tells me you're full of it, I'm unplugging this radio receiver and throwing it out."

"Understood."

They wait. Carlos fidgets, seated but restless, scratching his injured leg around the edges of the bandage. Isaña paces around his feet.

At last Dr. Rose comes back on the air. "Apparently you're not full of it. But it's not going to be nearly as bad as you think. Just make sure there are no open portals from your world when it happens, pray in your bloodstone circles that things hold together, and have your ex-intern friend hurry up and find those nonexistent angels so they can mop up afterward. I hope you know what all that means, because you're not getting follow-ups."

"We do," says Carlos. "On behalf of all seven billion of us: thank you."

"Seven bil—you know what, no. I don't want to know. I don't want to know!" exclaims Rose. "Hurry up and close this window. If you survive, you can open it again and tell me where all of you fit."

 

-{,(((,">

 

For some reason, Dana had assumed today would be quieter than yesterday. Shows what she knows.

"...so we need you to drop everything and go figure out where the angels, if they existed, would be hiding, and go to that place and bring them here," finishes Cecil. "On the plus side, you have plenty of time! Like, the whole rest of the day."

The audio around them starts hissing and sparking.

"Also, maybe you could ask Maureen to project herself over here for a while? Our current intern just started today, half the staff are dead or refused to come in, and even with all our equipment de-bugged, this other radio signal keeps trying to interfere with our own...."

The static reaches a fever pitch, then fades to reveal Lauren Mallard's voice. "...branding, social networking, and upbeat music. Ah! We're back in."

Cecil kicks at the carpet with his feet so hard, his chair rolls away from the desk.

"Hi, Cecil! Sorry to break into your signal, but I wanted a moment to talk to you."

"She won't stop." Cecil's voice is small and the mic is far away; only Dana hears. "Why won't she stop?"

"Gently talking solves a lot of things!" puts in Lauren's daemon. "Boycotting products, and attacking your employers with their own gyropters, and refusing to participate in trust exercises, all of that solves nothing."

"I don't care what happens to her. I don't." Both of Cecil's hands are clamped over the back of his neck; there are goosebumps all up and down his arms. His breath catches. "Don't want revenge, don't want her to see the error of her ways, I just want her to stay off my radio station. Is that so much to ask? Why can't she leave me alone?"

"You're resistant to change, that's what it is," continues Lauren. "We tried to give you the room to understand what you needed. We tried to show you sympathy. But it's obviously not working! No, you just had to lash out, throw your little tantrums, and keep pushing this adorable idea of revolution...."

"Don't pay any attention to her, Cecil," says Dana, stepping right up to the microphone. The pieces here are already in motion, so she doesn't need to stay around...but it sounds like the deadline on this angel mission is fairly relaxed, so there's no need to leave Cecil alone with his Lauren-induced terror, either. "Her time is almost up."

"Ah, you must be Dana!"

"I am. And I give you...hm...sixty seconds to flee."

"Or are you Dana's double? You don't even know, do you?"

"No, I'm Dana," says Dana politely. "I'll admit, I wasn't sure for a while. But not long ago I met a pair of people, one of whom is an Outsider experimental theologian and one of whom is her Sandstorm double, and I learned that the only reason nobody can tell them apart is because they are both amoral, murderous sociopaths. So I'm not worried any more! Forty seconds, by the way."

"I think I've met the theologian you're talking about," says Lauren. "I can't understand why she never accepted our employment offer. I felt an instant kinship with her the moment we met. She would have been a perfect fit in Strexcorp! We could have been BFFs! We even have the same age, height, weight, and build, so we could have shared clothes!...But I digress. We were talking about you, Cecil, and your silly refusal to —"

"Ten seconds. You really should run."

"— accept a Smiling God into your heart, and mind, and digestive system."

Dana smiles and gives Cecil a thumbs-up. He manages a weak smile back.

"But it's going to be all right, Night Vale. The Smiling God is forgiving! Much more forgiving than your own government, or School Board president, or that weird murderous shape you have in Mission Grove Park, or...."

There's a muted commotion somewhere around her mic, like someone breaking down a door, followed by a yell: "Vive la révolution!"

Cecil gets up the courage to scoot back to the mic. "Hello? Who's there?"

"We are Girl Scout Troop 49þ®€!" announces a teenage girl's voice. "Tracked down the source of this broadcast using a radio triangulation technique we learned by reading an anthology of Emily Dickinson poems. You're welcome."

"You think you scare me?" scoffs Lauren. "A bunch of kids with slingshots, and large hard-bound editions of nineteenth-century plays? It just so happens I have my own slingshot...and an extremely heavy edition of the Strex Employee Handbook. With all the annotations."

"Yeah, well, we're not even here to fight you anyway," says another girl. "We just had to find you."

"Is that so?"

"It totally is! She's gonna get you. Says she has dibs." Addressing the she in question, the Scout adds, "Save the book, though, okay? It's probably the worst book in history...but Tamika would want it safe."

"I will," says a warm, cultured voice. "Hello, Ms. Mallard."

Lauren doesn't sound impressed. "Should I know you?"

"Oh, not at all," purrs the newcomer. "We are the Sheriff's secret police, after all. Even when I was among the rank-and-file who hide in the bushes, I was much too good to be caught unintentionally. And these days...why, these days I hardly leave the office at all, unless something draws me out. Would you like to guess what, in this case, that something was?"

"I really wouldn't."

"Then I'll tell you! It's very simple: You. Threatened. My. Daughter."

A few seconds later, the invasive signal drops out of the frequency. Exactly the way it would if the broadcast equipment had been smashed with a very large axe.

 

-{,(((,">

 

The next world over.

"A couple steps forward," directs Carlsberg, absently adjusting the rifle holstered over his shoulder. "Bigger steps!...Not that big."

They're on the ground again, the gyropters parked just outside a tall brick abandoned building, Tamika and a handful of others working their way in. The floor is littered with dirt, plaster, and paint chips; the walls are marked with rusted radiators and empty picture frames; metal pipes hang out of the collapsed ceiling. It is creepy as hell. And this is coming from Tamika, who has looked a librarian right in the place where the eyes would be if librarians had eyes.

Carlsberg is way too preoccupied to care. He circles around to get different angles, holds up his hands like he's framing a shot for a photogram, steps over cinderblocks and unidentifiable hunks of plastic without a second glance. "Right there! Find a catch-thing into our world, at about knee-level."

Tamika cuts a small opening...then turns it into a long, wide one. They're looking down on a windowless white-walled room with two yellow-painted bunk beds...and a groggy Advanced Reader lying on each mattress.

They're each chained down with a cuff around the ankle, but to Tamika the solid steel might as well be construction paper. She and a couple of others climb down the beds' ladders and lift the prisoners one by one; daemons in the shape of monkeys and large birds carry the dozing daemons alongside their bodies, until they're safe out in the fresh air. A couple quick blood tests and they'll know which drugs Strex has been using. The antidotes are already on hand.

None of these four are Agent R, so it's no surprise Carlsberg is already pacing on the other side of the broken-down room as Tamika seals the portal. "The next one's over here. Come on, hurry!"

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

It's kind of nice, Carlos reflects, to have a little forewarning before everything goes to pieces.

Fey churns out a list of phone numbers of all the people outside Night Vale who have bloodstone circles and would be willing to help, and the team divvies them up. The first person on Carlos's list turns out to be Hannah Gutierrez, prompting the secret-police officer monitoring their call to exclaim, "I knew you weren't dead! Delarosa owes me twenty bucks."

Former team members are well-represented on the list; they haven't been shy about shipping gifts cross-continent. One of Carlos's numbers is Gerald, who is absolutely tickled to hear that little Megan is now taller than he is. Carlos even lets Megan's mother borrow the phone a minute to say hi.

Next up is Emily, the first person who ever left the team. She opens the conversation by flat-out refusing to get anywhere near the greater Night Vale area ("I still have nightmares about pterodactyls"), but is willing to help out from a distance. And she softens when Carlos reveals that he's wearing some exciting permanent facial scars of his own these days. Ends up telling some proud stories about her three-month-old.

And of course, there's Carlos's family. "Hi, Papi. We might have to save the world later today. Would you like to help...?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

Desert Bluffs.

Four rescuees becomes eight becomes eleven, but they're standing in the last room and there's only two kids here.

Carlsberg's daughter is the missing one.

Completely understandably, Carlsberg himself is a mess. "She's close. They haven't taken her far!" he insists, hands flat against the cell door, badger daemon poking at the bottom edge like maybe she can dig underneath it. "What are you waiting for? Cut through the wall!"

"We can't save her by getting captured ourselves!" hisses Tamika. "Take two deep breaths, in and out, then you're gonna answer some questions for me, got it?"

Though he looks like he'd rather crawl out of his own skin than be calm right now, Carlsberg takes the breaths.

"What kind of security is out there? Guards, cameras, motion sensors? How much can you see?"

"Cameras. Motion sensors. But all the real guards are outside the building! Inside, it's all scholar types! They're Strex, they'll still tear your throat out if they get close enough, but we're armed, we have good aim — she's right here in the facility, just one floor up, and with you here we can make an escape route from anywhere — Tamika, please —"

"We're on it," decides Tamika. "You stand right there and study your dotted lines and figure out the absolute fastest way to get there, understand? We'll bust through in just a minute." Climbing the rungs of the nearest bunk bed in three steps, she leans out the top of the portal. "Gyropter pilots, stay here! We're closing this window — give us thirty minutes, and if you haven't heard from us, assume we're taking another way out! Everyone else — grab a weapon and follow me!"

There's a flurry of motion as people put down medical equipment and take up their slingshots and their novels. The team barely fits in the little prison cell; they all have to scooch up against the walls or squeeze onto one of the bunks to leave room for Rashi, who comes down last, uses the other bunk as a stepping-stone, and hits the ground with a resounding thud just as the wood goes crack! in his wake.

"Carlsberg is navigating. I'm taking out barriers. Everyone else is covering us," says Tamika, as she carves three long lines in the wall in front of them. Up...across...down. "Clear?"

"Clear!"

"We are the beating heart —"

"— we are the lips that chant!"

It's ready. Tamika steps out of the way. "Our god is —"

"— not a Smiling God!" chorus her young fellow-citizens, as Rashi lowers his magnificent buffalo horns and smashes the wall down.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Carlos sits on the grass outside the WZZZ bunker, Isaña in his lap, watching the sky. It's broad daylight, so a flock of angels won't be as spectacular as it was against a velvet starry night almost a year ago, but it'll still be cool if he can catch them.

It'll probably be either the condos or the buzzing shadow-beings all over again. Whichever one it is, they'll handle it. Patch up the cracks, wash away the blood, and start rebuilding. It's what they do. Given enough time and gumption and teamwork, there's nothing Strex can do to them that they can't fix.

"Carlos...?"

Carlos rubs Isaña's ears. "Yeah?"

"When Strex first tested a process that accidentally made an uncontrolled rip in the universe, and they couldn't fix it...the senior managers fled this dimension, right? Grabbed their valuables — including Kevin — and abandoned everything and everyone else?"

"That's the story Thiébaut fed Henriette trying to recruit her," says Carlos with a grimace. "Take it with a grain of salt."

"But it does sound like something a group of evil plutocrats would do," presses Isaña.

"Well, sure."

"And now they're planning to use a process that they know will make uncontrolled rips in our universe. But they're not doing it right away. They're leaving all this time, risking us finding a way to prepare, or even to stop them before they start."

"...and that doesn't make sense unless they're using the buffer time for something. Maybe to evacuate," finishes Carlos. "Maybe, since they have forewarning, they're taking the opportunity to do the long version of evacuation."

"Right."

"But they would need a controlled portal for that. And...and without the Knife or Kevin they don't have any low-energy way to do it, so...." Oh, god.

"So the real deadline is to get to them before they open the escape window," whispers Isaña. "And maybe — they might already —"

Carlos is already on his feet. They've got new numbers to run. Now. "Fey!"

 

-{,(((,">

 

Desert Bluffs.

Five hostiles taken out. Six. They turn a corner and plunge into a stairwell. Seven. Alarms are going off. Eight.

Carlsberg stops in front of a heavy metal door with a fingerprint scanner and impressive locks. "She's right through here!" he yells over the sirens, and pounds on the door while Tamika starts carving through the security. "Honey, can you hear us? We're almost in!"

Tamika shooes him out of the way so she can finish this without lopping off any of his limbs by accident. (The stumps of her own missing fingers throb in sympathy.)

A couple of serious-looking guards appear out of nowhere. For all Carlsberg's well-deserved distraction, he whips out that rifle and the next thing you know they've both taken bullets between the eye sockets. He keeps that half of the hall covered while Tamika makes extra cuts to weaken the structural integrity of the door, and Rashi backs up as far as he can before charging.

Tamika leaps across the threshold —

— and stops cold.

"Hold him back!" she barks to the others, over the sound of industrial-grade fans cooling the recently-used machinery. "Don't let him in!"

The kids trust her. They jump in front of Carlsberg before knowing why. Large daemons grab Carlsberg's badger; unsettled daemons switch to large forms and help.

"Wha—? Let me go!"

Tamika's already cutting an escape route. Doesn't matter what world. Get them all out of Strex's path first, then they can talk about why.

But Carlsberg has been a rebel longer than any of them have been alive, on top of which he's a frightened parent. It's no contest. He fights his way through the Advanced Readers — they've got his daemon pinned, he should be tethered by range alone, but now he's farther than Tamika's ever seen any normal human get and he's still going —

— and then he's past her, and there's nothing more she can do to protect him from understanding.

Tamika doesn't have a lot of nightmares.

But when she does, Carlsberg's scream when he sees his severed daughter is going to haunt them.