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A Blinking Light Up On The Clouded Mountain

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A desert not unlike Night Vale (but not like it, either).

Dana settles back into her body after a long absence, to find it lying on its back using her daemon as a long furry pillow.

It's very bright. More so than before. And there's a pulsing heat all around, though for some reason she still feels cold.

Maureen is sitting against the platform's curved wall, a bloodstone-faced angel statue casting its shadow over her head. The phone in her hands isn't beeping or smoking, so she probably isn't playing a game or trying to send a text, but reading fanfiction or something. Her rabbit daemon keeps an eye on the blinking light.

Dana sits up, prompting Maureen to set down the phone. "How's it going?"

"More things are okay than not," says Dana. She's trying to remember to give the important details first, rather than last. "Strexcorp's bomb has not caused our home universe to unravel. I summoned the angels in plenty of time, and with the help of the experimental theologians and their danger meters, the most deadly portals have already been closed. The fabric of space within Night Vale has become so thin that it will be risky for Tamika to use her Knife inside the city limits, but she can still make openings safely at a distance."

"Great. Do you need me to take over the astral-projecting for a while?"

"No, I think not," says Dana, surprising herself as much as anyone. "Most of the rebuilding in Night Vale must be done from within Night Vale. Tamika will not need more otherworldly forces until they advance on Desert Bluffs. I may need to coordinate a few maneuvers in the meantime, but for the most part, I feel that perhaps we can...relax."

"Well, good," says Maureen firmly as they descend the stairs to the shadowed safety of their quarters. "You've been working nonstop for weeks now. It's not fair."

"Isn't it?"

"...Unless you're enjoying it, I guess." Maureen nudges Dana's side with an elbow. "Are you enjoying this?"

"Oh, yes," says Dana earnestly. "Not the part where we are facing even more doom and destruction than usual, of course! But there are plenty of other things to enjoy about this." She answers Maureen's elbow-nudge with a brush of hand against hand. "Aren't there?"

"I'm not saying there's nothing nice going on right now," hedges Maureen, linking their fingers together. "I wouldn't say that."

They end up together on Dana's sleeping bag, Maureen massaging the knots out of Dana's shoulders, while Eustathias turns into a rabbit (the same size as D.L., and twice as fluffy) and grooms her claws through his fur. Maureen's thick red-orange curls waterfall down beside Dana's face; she's got one knee between Dana's thighs, just the right angle for Dana to show her appreciation by stroking one bare foot down the back of Maureen's calf.

It's so very pleasant. Dana's breath keeps catching.

At last she rolls over, their legs tangling together, and pulls Maureen into a kiss. Maureen's glasses are long gone; the hair gets tossed over one shoulder to give them more free airspace. She tastes like citrus and anbaric current.

There's a moment when another flare-up of the light of the Smiling God pours through the windows. Heat fills the room. Girls and daemons shiver. But they're safely in the shadows, and can keep right on caressing without interruption until the terrible light recedes.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Route 800, close to Night Vale.

The caravan is mostly big trucks and tricked-out emergency vans, but there are a couple military jeeps involved, bringing up the front and the rear. Tamika hovers her gyropter — it's purple, the first of their re-appropriated Strex vehicles to get a full new paint job — over the road as they approach, and lands once they figure out to stop.

A couple of guys in uniform with big shaggy canine daemons get out of the lead jeep and come forward. When Tamika steps out of the gyropter, knife in a sheath at her waist and dried-up librarian claw on a lanyard around her neck, the older one raises thin white eyebrows. "What's a little girl like you doing piloting a big vehicle like that?"

"Winning a war, mostly," says Tamika. "You the folks from the Federal Department of Disaster Management? Bringing construction materials, fuel, medical supplies, relief teams, that kind of thing?"

"That's right."

"Good. We're set for personnel, but you can leave the stuff with us."

The guy actually laughs. "You're a little young for highway robbery, sweetheart. Tell you what: call your parents and have them drive you back to school, and we'll just let this budding felony slide, all right?"

Oh, right. Tamika's so used to being automatically treated as a well-read leader, she forgot these people would need some exposition. "I'm here on behalf of the Mayor of Night Vale. Space is weird around town, and the experimental theologians say it'll be even weirder than usual while the rest of the world is still getting patched up, so we'll handle transportation from here. Mayor Winchell will be here any minute to authorize the transaction in person. Seems like her ride got distracted."

"Look, kid...." begins the older guy.

The less-old one, though, clears his throat and nods toward the sky way behind Tamika. "Sarge? Is that what I think it is?"

"Don't know," says the sergeant. "I can tell you what it looks like, but I'm sure it's not literally a five-headed dragon."

"That'll be the Mayor's ride," says Tamika. "And yeah, he is literally — and I say that in the original sense of the term — a five-headed dragon...who cares."

She keeps them stalled until McDaniels lands, with Mayor Winchell and her caracal daemon riding on his back. People are coming out of the other vehicles by now, staring at the dragon so much they hardly pay attention to Winchell flashing her municipal ID. Well, their lax security is not Tamika's problem; she hops back in the gyropter and takes to the air.

Gonna need a big interworldly opening to let this supply-carrying team through. She hovers and swerves and uses the Knife to open a window the size of the broad side of a barn.

Once it's done, two dozen full-grown dragons, each sporting three to ten heads in a whole rainbow of colors, wing their way through.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Cecil is in and out of microchip-extraction surgery a lot faster than Carlos expected. (The fact that they don't have to bother with anesthetic probably helps.) He emerges with a bandage on the back of his neck and a smile on his face, and the doctor runs both of them through instructions about keeping the surgery site clean and not doing certain chants or spells for at least a week.

His car is in a temperamental mood and doesn't respond to its key. They have to pet its hood and say nice things before it relents and lets them in. Since Cecil is not only fresh off the operating table, but hasn't been re-certified to drive since his daemon's major eye injury, Carlos drives.

If he doesn't get re-certified at all...he'll probably have to take the bus a lot more. Carlos can't be available all the time to play chauffeur. He won't even be in town all the time in the near future — he's agreed to spend some time with the Book Club once they've taken Desert Bluffs, to do things like determine whether Strexcorp has any other machines so evil they need to be destroyed ASAP, and out in the professional world his expertise is in higher demand than ever. Four different physics conferences have offered to dump their scheduled guests of honor and instill him as a last-minute replacement, and that's just over the next month.

But he'll give Cecil as much warning as possible before taking off anywhere, and they'll coordinate their schedules, and they'll work it out.

"Carlos?" asks Cecil as they head for the station. "I told you that I talked to Josie, right?"

"Not directly, no. But you mentioned on-air that...." Carlos takes a left on Bandera Street, and groans. "Oh, come on!"

The road is totally blocked with construction vehicles. A crane across two lanes, a churning cement mixer across two more, and a stack of I-beams plopped down in the middle. And this route was supposed to be a detour in the first place! Sure, it's a theological marvel that these houses are being rebuilt by angels, but you would think angels would be more careful with their road signs.

A ten-foot-tall, translucent-gold, four-winged angel, naked except for a tool belt and a hard hat, lands in front of the car. "Can I help —"

Cecil shrieks in existential terror and tries to throw himself into the back seat — the seatbelt catches him with a yank — he thrashes against the restraint, gibbering in Unmodified Sumerian.

"Cecil!" Carlos scrambles to put the car in park and switch it off, then fumbles to unlatch Cecil's seatbelt without either of them getting punched or choked in the process. With a spare elbow he rolls down the window. "Erika, turn it off!"

"What?"

"He sees in Rusakov radiation. He can see you!" Carlos still hasn't dared to look at an angel through an electrum spyglass since his own terrifying first attempt. (He hid behind Josie's bookcase. He totally sympathizes with Cecil, still speaking in tongues while trying to stuff himself under the dashboard.) "The thing you're doing, stop it!"

"I don't know what you —"

"Erika!" calls a blessedly familiar voice. It's followed by a short order in Modified Sumerian, as Josie herself (wearing a safety vest, and a hard hat over her wheat-blonde hair) soars over the nearest dump truck and intercepts them. "That should do it. Hello there, Dr. Perfecto."

"Josie!" It's Carlos's first time seeing her face-to-face, though he caught the announcement on last night's show that people would face no legal repercussions in allowing Juosukka Contractors, Inc. to rebuild their homes and businesses. "Welcome back! I missed you, I — oh, god, at first we were scared they had killed you — I am so glad I didn't —"

The witch lands next to the car and clasps Carlos's hand through the window. "It's all right, Carlos Traidor. You are forgiven."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Sherie spends much of her day touring the city block by block, riding on a cart of bloodstones the size of a city bus.

Two masked warriors are wheeling the cart along. Trish Hidge, the high-strung aide from the Mayor's office, is making sure every household that needs a circle gets a circle. As for Sherie, she has a bag of pocket Rusakov meters, and is asking the homeowners if they can add (or re-add) the restored circles to the theologians' monitoring network.

Trish extracts a burlap sack's worth of bloodstones to distribute through an apartment complex. Cactus Jane answers the third doorbell, wearing a tank top and pajama shorts, sleepy-eyed and yawning. While she and Trish are picking out a set of thirteen, little Champ toddles over to the group and thrusts a Strex-brand plastic gyropter at Sherie. "Mweh! Amabla bwoo."

Sherie tries not to let her distaste show. "Where did you get that, little guy?"

"I'm so sorry," says Jane. "Strex was giving out free toys at an informational meeting about their childcare services, and he loves it. I told him these were the people who bombed the temple and killed Elder Ted, but he doesn't understand. He cries when I try to take it away."

Once she confirms that the toy has been checked for bugs, drugs, and curses, Sherie relaxes. It's not as if Champ, in his green rompers with his daemon riding mouse-formed in the pocket, can really grasp the meaning of his new favorite toy. "Have you tried painting a Book Club symbol on the side? That would turn it into a rebel gyropter."

"Oh, that's smart!" exclaims Jane. "I don't know why I didn't...it sounds so obvious when you say...."

"No one person can figure out everything about parenting by themselves," says Sherie quickly. "And you're doing a fine job raising him on your own."

Jane flushes with appreciation. Champ stares blankly at Sherie, then sticks the tail of the gyropter in his mouth and gnaws on it. Drool runs down his handsome-but-terrible beard.

"My kids' father is living out east," adds Sherie. "Can I ask...is Champ's father out there somewhere, or dead, or...?"

"I haven't the faintest idea." Jane gathers bloodstones into her arms. "We're not sure who his father is. He could be partenogenética. Is that something experimental theology can figure out?"

Oh, dear. Is this Night Vale memory loss, or was she...assaulted, or are there just too many possible candidates to narrow it down? If it's that last one, well, that can't be healthy. Not that Sherie is judging. But she's judging. "I'm afraid we don't have the equipment right now. And the theologians who knew how to run it are busy with...extracurricular activities. Are you sure this isn't something for the Sheriff's secret police to look into...?"

"I asked, the last time I got taken in for unlawful assembly," says Jane. "The officer was kind enough to go through the data, and their observational records match my memories. One morning, I wasn't pregnant at all. That evening, I was in labor."

All right, now Sherie isn't judging, she's just interested. This might really be the kind of strangeness that falls under her team's field. "We can try to look into that, yes. Could you tell me the date...?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

In the Boy Scout base out in the Sand Wastes, Tamika slices open a portal for a squadron of otherworldly spies, and explains to them what intelligence they'll need to pick up in Desert Bluffs.

Broad aerial surveillance is handled by witches, at least at night. Daylight hours are, for most of them, too plain hot. Tamika's never seen Janice or Vieja Josie hide in a dark room by an air conditioner just because the weather app says ninety, but they weren't literally sleeping on ice floes a week ago, so maybe it's different.

For the tiny little up-close details, though...they've got an army of tiny little dragonfly-riding ninjas.

Some of the Advanced Readers, especially the younger ones, get way too excited about this. Good thing they've already been working with the giant masked army for a week, so Dana can say, how would you feel if one of the warriors picked you up like an action figure and started moving you around whether you wanted it or not? Wouldn't appreciate it, huh? Then don't mess with the Laputians.

(And don't pet their mounts, either. Those are serious working animals, not the puppylike sidekicks you've seen on TV.)

Two four-winged, ancient-eyed angels help translate between the Laputians' quick, clipped language and the Advanced Readers' rolling Spanish. Once the miniature spies are on the wing, Tamika takes a long, satisfied look at the Big Map. Between the reality bomb and the disappearance of Strex's senior management, Desert Bluffs is already starting to fray.

She ducks out for a catnap while the reconnaissance is running, and dreams about crumbling buildings and cartoon bugs.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Cecil and Carlos take the bus to Applebee's after the show. It turns out to be a prescient move: half the parking lot is occupied by two dragons (sixteen feet tall with four heads and eleven feet tall with seven, respectively), squawking and trumpeting at each other. One car has already had its trunk irreversibly stomped on.

Carlos hangs back, nervous. "Are they arguing? Is there any chance they'll accidentally, or on purpose, start setting things on fire?"

"One of them is explaining to the other how they're not allowed to eat any of us tiny meat creatures, by order of Mayor McDaniels," translates Cecil. At Carlos's frown, he explains: "Dana had to tell them Hiram was mayor. It's the only way they'll respect local municipal laws...other than having Mayor Winchell defeat one of their generals in hand-to-hand combat, and while I'm sure she could do it, the mess would be more trouble than it's worth."

In spite of the commotion outside, most of the restaurant's tables are full. Cecil has been imploring everyone on-air to make an extra effort to support local businesses in this time of rebuilding, and people seem to be taking it to heart. He asks about Carlos's afternoon, and Carlos tells him all about doing a Rusakov-array consult with a university in Minsk while they wait for their appetizers.

When their chips and guacamole arrive, Cecil pokes halfheartedly at the dip. (It was made by Earl Harlan's otherworldly Scouts, apprenticing at different restaurants to earn their cooking badges, and it's smokier than usual.) "Carlos?"

"Oh, sorry, I should have explained — typical Rusakov particle flow patterns can be disrupted by —"

"I talked to Josie," says Cecil.

"About Rusakov flow patterns?"

"About my brother."

Oh. He's trying to change the subject. Carlos tries to adjust. "How did that go?"

"It went...well. I think. Once I convinced her the recovered knowledge wasn't going to send me into hallucinatory sobbing trance states...um, again," says Cecil. "Her own memories are pretty vague. It's been a while, and she was doing some amateur DIY repression of her own in order to keep from accidentally bringing it up where I might hear. But she was able to confirm some things for me."

Carlos is half listening, half mentally working out how the Rusakov flow disruptions in Minsk might be present in Desert Bluffs. "Yeah?"

Cecil nods. "He was about six years older than me. You were right; his foresight came in when I was fifteen. We had different fathers. His came after the original Señor Palmero, and wasted away after a mysterious illness. Mamá went on to meet my dad a few years later."

"Uh-huh."

"Apparently there's a reason I don't miss Papi as much as I might have." Cecil snaps a corn chip in two. "Apparently he was...cruel...to my brother. I was told this, once I was old enough to ask, and only forgot when I was re-educated."

Something he said is sticking in the back of Carlos's mind. Echoing a fragment of something else Carlos heard, though he can't remember when, or in what context. ...the mystery of why Papi died.

"Josie suspects he thought his relationship with Mamá would give him some kind of immunity from her vengeance." Cecil's voice darkens. "It did not."

"Mm?"

"This has not been pleasant to re-learn," admits Cecil. "But I am proud — more so than I have been, perhaps, in some time — to be my mother's son. I am proud to — Carlos? Are you listening?"

"What? Yes." Carlos massages his temples, fighting a sore, throbbing pain that's building behind his eyes. "Listening. Go on."

It doesn't convince Cecil for a second. "Carlos, I appreciate that you've had a lot of important experimental theology to do lately...."

Under the table, Khoshekh nuzzles Isaña's cheek. "Are you okay?"

"...and that I've had more personal struggles to deal with than perhaps you were expecting, especially this past week, which has been wrenching for everyone...."

"Fine," says Isaña tightly, though Carlos is not fine. A hurt, accusatory voice thrums across his neurons: All the pieces are right there, and you still can't put them together.

"...so I won't cry on your shoulder all night or expect you to personally resolve all my emotional dilemmas, but if you could let me talk this out, just give me your full attention for ten minutes, it would mean so much to...."

Khoshekh flows into his arms, cutting him off. "Cecil — when they were captured, when Strex took them — they were poisoned over appetizers."

Cecil catches his breath.

In fact, Carlos is pretty sure this has nothing to do with lingering trauma. He isn't feeling dizzy and lightheaded, or touchy and aggressive, the way he gets when he's triggered; it's just the normal frustration of having a theological mystery he can't wrap his brain around. Plus a headache.

But it'll only upset Cecil if he says it's nothing to do with that, I'm just distracted for no good reason. "I think I might need to get out of here, yeah."

 

-{,(((,">

 

"We're making our move in a couple days," says Tamika. "We could get you out of here early, if you agree to join in."

The man on the bed in the secret-prison cell doesn't answer. Doesn't move. If he wasn't breathing, Tamika wouldn't be sure he was alive.

"It'll be most helpful if you remember things about Desert Bluffs. Street layouts, who's in charge, how the theology offices are organized...anything like that," she continues. "Do you remember...?"

"Oh, I remember everything," rasps Kevin. (The guards behind Tamika tense. She waves for them to relax.) "Wish I didn't. Then maybe I could sleep. Or eat."

"Haven't they given you anything to deal with that?" When Kevin doesn't answer, Tamika raises her voice and addresses the microphones: "For godsake, serve the man some alcohol!"

"Yes, Tamika," says a crackling voice over the speakers. "Right away."

"Tamika," echoes Kevin. His eye sockets, two fleshy pits each about the size of a thumb, stare emptily at the ceiling. "I won't help you. I can't help you. Bribe and threaten all you want, but I'm a loyal company man. You know why."

"Yeah," says Tamika. She's been anticipating and dreading this moment. "I know. Thing is, Kevin...it's too late."

"What?"

"Strexcorp ever tell you anything about alethiometers? We've got one. She looked up your family for me. Your sister, your nephew — I'm sorry, we would've tried to rescue them if we could — but they're gone. Their deaths took them away a couple years ago."

With a guttural keen of despair, Kevin rolls over so his back is to the door and flips a pillow to cover his head.

"You can get revenge," presses Tamika. "Take down Strex. Make them pay for everything they did to —"

"I don't care!" snaps Kevin. "Either you're lying, because you're a vicious, manipulative monster, or you're telling the truth, and I —" He clamps the pillow down harder over his ears. "And nothing matters. Do me a favor and kill me, or leave me alone."

His death is standing at his side. It's probably been there the whole time.

Tamika catches the death's eye, and makes sure it's paying attention as she hefts a few things out of the bag slung over Rashi's shoulder. A miniature clock radio. A double handful of audiobooks on CD. She leaves them silently on the carpet, where Kevin can get them when/if he's in a state of mind to listen to something, then she and her daemon step back toward the door. "I'm going. If you ever decide you want company, though, you just tell the cops to call me, understand? If I'm in town and still alive, I'll come visit the next chance I get."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Khoshekh stays with Cecil's wallet to get the check, while Cecil takes Carlos and Isaña to the skate park a few blocks down to get some fresh air.

There's a group of otherworldly visitors playing on the ramps and loops: deerlike creatures with elephantine trunks and four legs arranged in a diamond pattern like Khoshekh's. In the dull glow of the streetlamps Carlos can't tell if they're wearing skates, or if their middle legs have some kind of organic wheels.

"I'm sorry," says Cecil, as they settle onto a free bench. "I was so invested in supporting local employees, I didn't even consider...."

"It's okay," says Carlos. "I'm fine."

He shifts his daemon into the crook of one arm, takes Cecil's hand with the other, and makes himself stop thinking about...whatever it was he'd been inducing that headache by thinking about.

"An experimental theologian is...usually fine. Not always. I don't know if I've ever told you this, but during the team's first few months in town, there were times when I nearly called off the whole project."

Cecil's eyes widen. "I had no idea. What changed your mind?"

"You did." By going after Carlos's torturer with swift and irreversible vengeance. By demonstrating that he was, not safe (because nothing and nowhere is truly safe), but protected. "By being your mother's son."

 

-{,(((,">

 

The Scout-run funeral is held at the Main Street rec center, which has a sprawling memorial in the lobby to mark the occasion. Sherie's daughter brings lemon squares. Her son brings flowers.

Sherie herself brings tissues. There are fewer tears than she expected, but Strex has sowed enough of a death toll that even Night Vale can't shrug it off without grief, and she runs out fast.

The Cabrera/Carlsbergs are nowhere to be seen. It's a shame, Sherie thinks. They deserve the support...the emotional closure...the honor of hearing Tamika proclaim little Renée among the town's fallen heroes. But Renée is still breathing, which means Steve won't leave her side, not even to attend her funeral.

Eventually the mourners start breaking off into small groups: people who have lost the same friend, people who have known each other for years. Susannah is with the other girls in her troop. Seth has probably hidden out somewhere with his daemon and a book.

Sherie checks her phone, and finds a text summoning her to the empty lot across the street.

There's a gleaming new sign planted in the bare earth — Futuro hogar de la Antigua Casa de la Ópera de Night Vale — with Quentin-the-angel perched on top in the shape of a white-feathered bird. "Nirliq had me ask around, check local records, on that date you were curious about. While I was at it, I took a look at the INTERMAGNET records."

"We're looking into one woman's mysterious pregnancy," protests Sherie. "I don't think that's the kind of thing that would show up on the anbaromagnetic field data for the whole planet."

"Oh, I agree!" says Quentin encouragingly. "Which is why I was not expecting to find what I found."

 

-{,(((,">

 

A desert not unlike Night Vale (but not like it, either).

Dana is asleep, but Eustathias is awake. Or perhaps it's the other way around. Whichever it is, she is half dreaming, half listening sleepily to the cadence of voices from D.L. and Maureen.

"...promised ourselves there were things we weren't going to do," the rabbit daemon is murmuring. "Especially not with someone who's in...I don't know what to call what she's doing now...."

"Heroics?" suggests Maureen.

"...but it's going to get her killed. The chances are overwhelming. Dana being Dana is probably even more dangerous than working in radio."

"I know," says Maureen softly.

Silence.

"And she's so hot when she's gathering armies and calmly standing in the face of almost-certain death."

D.L. groans, the sound muffled like he's buried his face against Maureen's side. "I know."

Dana or Eustathias smiles against the plush lining of her sleeping bag. It's hard to argue with that kind of motivation.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Carlos leaves Cecil a voicemail, asking all of Night Vale for input. Cecil plays the message on-air. The calls start coming in.

Apparently there are a lot of local stories about causality not lining up the way it should.

In their NVCC headquarters, the physicists pick over confusing data and Cathay takeout. Carlos weeds the stories, trying to separate fact from fantasy, the useful from the mundane. Quentin, hunched over in a chair too small for his ten-foot angel body, checks geomagnetic field data. Köhler is going back through the team's Rusakov readings. Sherie and Nirliq are looking through news archives.

They have personal anecdotes to add to the list, too. Sherie remembers the House that Doesn't Exist being different on the inside than out, and a woman on the inside proclaiming that she's lived there for nineteen years, though the whole housing development is only three years old. Carlos recalls his latest stint in prison, with Delphine reminiscing: Papi was living an ordinary single life one day, and the next he woke up in a different house with a new job and a daughter. At the time, he'd figured she was being poetic. What if it was literal?

Cactus Champ's birthday is the only date where they find physical anomalies embedded in the data. Quentin's records show that the polarity of the Earth's magnetic field was reversed for two discrete periods, one of them more than an hour long. (He claims he could spend at least that long detailing all the reasons why it's impossible for that to have happened so fast, let alone with nobody noticing.)

There are matching jolts in the readings from their old Strex-provided Rusakov meters. All the numbers are in normal ranges, which explains why it never sent up any red flags in their data. But if you make the numbers into graphics and animate them, it's easy to see the abrupt jump-cuts, as if long stretches of readings were spliced in from completely different days.

The next call Carlos makes is during the weather, so Cecil picks up.

"Hi, honey," says Carlos. "Can you put out one more message before the show ends? Tell people, the next time they see Dana...."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Outskirts of Desert Bluffs.

"...to go talk to the experimental theologians!" says Tamika over the thwock-thwock-thwock of her gyropter's blades. "We can handle this from here!"

"I understand," says Dana, and winks out of sight. Either she left on purpose, or they've hit the border past which her astral projection is blocked by the worship of the Smiling God.

Tamika isn't worried. Saying they could handle it wasn't just bravado. She's got humans from this world in gyropters and fighter jets and on branches of cloud-pine; angels and dragons soaring unaided through the clouds; Laputians zipping along on their dragonflies; and masked warriors whose giant legs eat up the distance as quickly as any set of wings. It's all very Battle of the Five Armies.

The glass-and-steel buildings of downtown Desert Bluffs gleam in the sunlight dead ahead. Even at this distance, they can see some of the buildings have collapsed, more shaken by the earthquake from Strexcorp's reality bomb than anything back in Night Vale. This mission might be as much search-and-rescue as it is search-and-destroy.

Either way, Tamika's forces have a strong tailwind, and Rilke quotes on their lips, and the morning sun at their backs. They are ready. And they are not afraid.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

"We're afraid someone's been time-traveling."

Dana, astral-projecting herself into the middle of Carlos's living room, raises her eyebrows so high there's a real danger they'll fly off her forehead.

"I mean other than us!" exclaims Carlos. (On the couch, Tock raises a sludgy appendage at the noise.)

"Oh! That's different. Go on."

"All you and I have been through are stable time loops," continues Carlos. "When we go back in time, our actions end up causing the future we just came from. We're afraid someone is controlling time in a way that makes it unstable."

When the first experimental theologian had voiced the theory, the temptation was immediate and obvious. If the past they all remember isn't a given — if time can be changed without shredding the fabric of reality beneath them — how many deaths (and worse) could be undone?

But every risk, every death, every loss has been part of the fight to get as far as they have. Yank out one thread, and who knows what you'll unravel. It's a dangerous fallacy, assuming people with foresight can make everything work out the way they want it to. Carlos remembers hearing that somewhere recently.

(Foresight, he has foresight, put the pieces together....)

He shrugs off the stray thought and goes back to addressing Dana. "Fey hasn't been able to tell us anything. Says it's outside her ability to measure. So we're turning to you. Is there any chance you've been working with some...I don't know, futuristic space-traveling people from Mars, who might be accidentally scrambling the course of time with a temporal shift beam generator, but who are ultimately on our side?"

Dana gives him a stern look. "Carlos, please. This is no time to be ridiculous."

"Right. Sorry. I don't know what came over me." Carlos massages his temples. "It could be nothing to do with us. It might even be a natural phenomenon. But if it's Strexcorp...if they've come up with a more controlled version of those time-traveling deer, for instance...."

"...they could unmake everything we've fought for, and we'd never even know it." Dana shudders. "I'll look into it. Can you give me any idea where...or rather, when...to start?"

"We think the House that Doesn't Exist may be involved. Any time between three and nineteen years ago." Knowing Dana's history with that house, Carlos wasn't expecting her to like this option. Sure enough, she doesn't look enthusiastic. "But the biggest nexus of potential distortions we've been able to find is last year, early afternoon, March first."