A desert not unlike Night Vale (but not like it, either).
Carlos's astral-projected form materializes on top of the basalt fortress; Dana's phoenix-formed daemon shows him to the craggy entrance of a cavern in the rock. It's a bright, uncomfortable trek, with the Clouded Mountain standing menacing in the distance. He's glad to be able to venture into a tunnel just for the sake of the shade.
They follow a trail of charcoal arrows on the walls. Eustathias explains that Dana made those when she first walked here, when human and daemon were still in separate worlds.
(She explains other things too: their observations of the Clouded Mountain, their time-displaced meetings with the man who built this fortress, their friendship with the Man in the Tan Jacket. At one point Carlos is calculating Rusakov densities in his head and gets distracted, and asks if she would be kind enough to repeat herself. She only sighs.)
The tunnels slope down, and down, and down. They take one fork, then another. Carlos wonders how long this can go on before they've reached ground level at the foot of the mountains. Or gone below it.
At last, at the end of a tunnel, there is light.
It's faint and golden and inconstant, like the reflections of water off the surface of a pool. The palette is the same one Carlos knows from looking at the world through an Atal spyglass.
Dragons and witches soar overhead, getting into dogfights with Strex jets.
The giant masked commanders start a large, distracting offensive on the town's southeastern front.
Groups of tiny Laputian spies descend on a strategically-chosen group of suburbs and districts: finding and disabling the local Strex-brand Rusakov meters, so security forces won't be able to detect it when the angels arrive.
Teams of Girl and Boy Scouts parachute down beside a block of damaged or collapsed apartments. The youngest daemons take small, lithe forms and slip through cracks in the ruins, searching the outermost rooms for survivors. To find people trapped more deeply than a normal daemon's range can reach, they also have the help of thousands of flies: the daemon of...someone. (Tracking whoever-it-is is Janice's job, not Tamika's.)
At a nearby office building, half a dozen of the best liars in the Book Club walk right up to the door, wheeling boxes full of Strex-drug antidotes. The boxes are appropriated from one of the Night Vale business owned by Strex until last week, and are stamped with the orange triangle logo. The kids are dressed in the crisp white-and-yellow uniforms of Desert Bluffs schoolchildren.
"An executive hired us to distribute the new company medication for one-quarter of minimum wage," they inform secretaries and floor managers and security personnel on every floor. "It's a school project to learn about capitalism and the joys of work. Won't you be a team player and let us distribute them?"
A desert not unlike Night Vale (but not like it, either).
At last the rocky enclosure opens into a vast cavern. The floor spills downward into a gorge, exactly as monumental as Dana described it. Mindful of his lack of mass, Carlos walks right up to the uneven crags of the edge.
Isaña, sitting with his body back in Night Vale, thinks at him, Carlos, breathe.
Probably the highest concentration of Dust in one place that any living being, in any world, has ever seen. CERN has made huge leaps in the understanding of physics, and even for them, synthesizing something this dense would be a fairy tale — it's an environment that has never been available for empirical testing, ever —
According to the set of equations Carlos thinks most likely to be accurate, the Rusakov particle mass of his whole planet circa 2010 would become visible if compressed into a space the size of a refrigerator.
This lake could submerge thousands of them.
Thousands of worlds, wholly reduced to unlivable Rusakov dead zones. Thousands of billions of people dead from whatever process drained all the consciousness away from them.
It's a relic of the War. It has to be. This is the fate Lyra Silvertongue saved them from.
He's standing before the most monumental graveyard in the history of the multiverse.
We're going to need specialty lenses, he thinks at his team. Focus on the concrete, the applicable, the doable. Don't start trying to grasp the amount of death that made this possible, or you'll never stop reeling. Have to figure out if that's something we can make on-site, or will need to order. Should probably get a new Rusakov isolation chamber, while we're at it. And we'll need a lot of bloodstones. And a spot in Tamika's schedule....
"Does that mean you can repair intercision with this?" asks Eustathias softly, perched on a spur of rock beside him.
You could become a god with this, thinks Carlos to himself.
Out loud to Dana's daemon, he says, "We are sure as hell going to try."
The masquerade didn't last long. A warning bulletin about the imposter children goes out across town on the official corporate radio frequency, and they're being trapped in standoffs at different office buildings.
On the plus side, the sky is theirs.
Tamika, who has made a point of learning some key strategic phrases in the masked warriors' language, sends one battalion fording through the streets toward the radio station, and another toward the hospital. They're going to need control of both.
Her gyropter radio crackles with a panicky transmission from one of her commanders: a force of eyeless, blood-drenched security officers, with crisp uniforms and jagged knives, has a dozen of them cornered in a Human Resources office. Like most HR offices, it's full of embalming fluid and explosive chemicals, so they're wary of starting a shootout. Tamika sends a couple of angels off to do recon, and tells the kids to break a window and send out a flare. Help is on the way.
The experimental theologians know a lot about intercision in theory. Carlos especially. But none of them have any practical experience with the kind of severed connection they're going to try to repair, and the more data they have, the better.
Before they bring their equipment into Renée's room, Carlos repeats the quiet directive that if anyone has to leave, they should leave. No judgments made, no questions asked.
Sherie lasts about two minutes before she has to run to the bathroom and dry-heave over the sink.
She's never been good with horror movies. And now here's this poor girl turned into a literal zombi. The child's body isn't hurt, no blood or internal organs spilling out all over the place, but it could hardly make Sherie's stomach turn any more either way. Oh, beams.
"I'm scratching your back. You can't feel it, but I am."
Sherie can, in fact, feel the Faceless Old Woman's nails sending sharp relief down her nerves. And they're not even tearing up her chapel coat. "Thank you."
"You should go home," says the woman. "Or go do some other part of your job. Whatever other parts there are. Your work is largely uninteresting to me, so I haven't bothered to learn about it. Unlike bees. Or cake. I made you a delicious cake. It's waiting in your front closet right now. Your old colleague with the big furry tree cat is also having stomach pains, but none of the cake is for him. Okay, I lied. There is no cake. You should still go home."
In the middle of the hospital cafeteria, Tamika carves open a portal to a lightly-forested otherworld and sends up a non-toxic flare into the sky. With a good headwind, the mulefa should have the catering to her location by dinnertime.
Can't raid the cupboards here for food or for medical supplies, not when they don't know what's safe and what isn't. Can hardly even sit on most of these surfaces. Tamika starts cutting narrow slashes that open in the depths of her favorite otherworldly ocean, using them to power-wash the bloody floors.
Cecil's show is still far from over when Carlos drops by NVCR.
The building looks good, inside and out. The dingy floor under the ripped-up carpets has been washed; the holes and stains in the walls have been papered over with non-Strexcorp motivational posters, most of them featuring purple, spine-covered kittens. A new intern leads Carlos upstairs — a young man with a fuzzy camel spider on his shoulder, still wearing checked pajamas, which means he probably woke up in the studio and was put right to work — and the golden glow of former Intern Vithya is visible from the tape room, giving them extra support.
Fey is still co-hosting. Mostly to look up facts and figures when Cecil requests them, but he gives her a whole editorial comment to herself, which she delivers with novice excitement. Carlos wonders if this is just a temporary arrangement until Cecil recovers from the ordeal of being taken prisoner in his own studio, or if the ordinater is looking to break into the field permanently.
The editorial finishes. Cecil cuts to the weather. Carlos stands outside the studio window and waves.
Cecil lets him in right away. (Khoshekh, resting in a basket under his radio desk, looks up; Isaña trots over and hops in to sit with him.) "Carlos! Did something happen? Is there an important theological development I need to report after the weather ends?"
"No, nothing like that," says Carlos. "After the day I've had...what with, you know, theology and everything...I just wanted to see you."
Cecil's face softens. "She's hard to look at, isn't she."
Throat dry, Carlos nods.
He ends up sitting behind Cecil and redoing the Sharpie blacking-out in the bar code tattoo. The skin on the back of Cecil's neck is healing but sensitive, so he goes slow and gentle. Then he goes back over it to bubble in any flecks that were left missing. Cecil picks up the show again while it's still in progress, and by the time he says his good-nights Carlos has rounded the whole thing out with some scribbles and loops and a Fischer projection of a carbon chain.
"I, um, may have gotten a little carried away," says Carlos sheepishly, as Khoshekh floats up to take a look.
"It's...interesting," says Cecil, studying it through his daemon's eyes. "Does it mean something? No, wait, tell me over dinner. How would you feel about Arby's?"
Megan Wallaby cracks the super-advanced equipment at Desert Bluffs Corporate Radio, and a couple of Scouts working on their Subversive Radio Host badges start putting out messages.
First: that senior management has returned, and is asking all local security officers to stand down. Then: the first message was a lie, and local security actually needs to converge on the military hangars, to protect the aircraft. Company-approved medical treatments are being distributed at the school — no, at the rec center — no, at the hospital. No, cancel all of the above, everyone should stay home.
In between sowing as much confusion as possible, they queue up the audiobook of Max Barry's Jennifer Government, then M. T. Anderson's Feed. For anyone who tunes in throughout the night, that'll give them some interesting listening.
It's a text from Pamela Winchell, of all people, that sends Dana trying once again to project herself into Desert Bluffs. She appears in the middle of a StrexBooks Purchase Center, grey pre-dawn light just starting to come through the shuttered windows.
Within a few hours, the Advanced Readers have descended — not to destroy any of the books, they love books, even the worst and most useless of the lot — but to weed through the collection and heap the worthless ones under a giant sign labeled FREE.
Tamika has a handy way of washing the floors. Sometimes her ocean also spits out gaping-jawed, eyeless fish, or chunks of pillow-sized jellyfish shredded by the sudden pressure. Dana worries at first that they'll release some deadly undersea plague, but apparently Tamika confirmed with Enigma that, for complicated theological reasons, no living thing from that world can survive in this one. Not even the microbes. The only problem they have to watch out for is splattering any of the books with jellyfish, because that'll be hard to get out.
"I detest having to pretend that Hiram is running for re-election."
"Mmhmm," says Sherie, massaging the Faceless Old Woman's mostly-bare back.
It's a hot morning, all right? And the woman fell asleep in Sherie's bed, which is a first. A milestone-y kind of first, Sherie thinks, that deserves a little physical intimacy in commemoration.
"Why couldn't that child with the knife have solicited help from a world full of faceless old people? Why did it have to be dragons?"
Unless the benchmarks are radically different when the person you're sort-of dating has been secretly living in your home this whole time anyway, and has probably already spent many hours sitting on your bed watching you sleep in hopes that you'll accidentally eat a spider.
"Someone with five heads / has no business running for / one mayoral spot. That was a haiku, by the way. It's Poetry Week. We have quotas. You'd better start working on yours."
Sherie sighs, and starts counting syllables on her fingers. She isn't up for doing it in Spanish, so she uses English: "Look, what is your name? / If you won't tell me, I'll start / calling you something."
"You're lucky I didn't demand it a month ago," says Sherie sternly. "Hmm, your daemon is a salamander...I could start calling you Sally."
The cave-pale salamander in the basket next to the bed, curled up with Ahisamach's mongoose nose in his fronds, raises his eyeless head in alarm.
The woman hesitates. "I'll make you a deal," she says at last. "I'll tell you my real name if you survive whatever you're planning to do with all those bloodstones."
"Survive it?" echoes Sherie. "We might or might not be able to heal that little girl, but it shouldn't be dangerous to us."
"No, I mean the next thing you're planning," says the woman. "And in the meantime / yes, you may call me Sally. / If you really must."
It's a long siege.
Even after several days, when the main commercial district has largely fallen to the Book Club's control, Desert Bluffs is still crawling with true believers and highly-expendable foot soldiers. They have to coordinate the rehabilitation of thousands of panicky rescuees, weed through homes and offices for holdouts, and fight off disorganized-but-ruthless counterattacks around every corner.
City Hall, the local Strexcorp headquarters, and a major network of theology buildings are all well-fortified enemy strongholds. Control of the radio station switches hands at least once a day.
Tamika's glad she brought a lot of audiobooks.
Fey's bunker isn't the most comfortable place to have a largeish meeting. People hold their daemons in their arms or on their shoulders if possible, and lean against the walls; Khoshekh and Kaisa are here in place of their humans; and Maureen, when she projects herself into the room, ends up standing in the middle of Fey's chassis to free as much space as possible.
"My abuelo — you know, John Peters? — has been studying the Smiling God and the terrible light," she explains to the crowd. (The songbird-shaped Erika next to Kaisa murmurs a running translation.) "He's figured out the bloodstone-circle formation we'll need to suppress the Smiling God and the Clouded Mountain's defenses so we can attack."
"John Peters is an authority on that kind of thing?" asks Carlos, surprised.
"Well, yeah," says Maureen. "He was in 4H? He's a farmer? I can't believe you don't know that."
(Carlos doesn't even try to answer that one.)
"We're looking at two interlinked chains of thirteen circles. Fey, you can calculate the best subset of our allies to run them, right?"
"Can do!" chirps Fey. "Do you want the top twenty-six overall, or the set of twenty-six who will do best together? The second one will take longer to calculate, but I bet I can work it out in a few days with a dedicated subroutine."
"The set," says the man they all assume is the Sheriff. (His daemon, they all assume, is concealed under his miter.) "We need to take the time to do this right."
"And don't include anyone who has more important things to do!" exclaims Trish Hidge, here representing the mayor's office. Her cowbird daemon's feathers ruffle. "The Mayor is needed in town!"
"Tamika and Dana are also irreplaceable in their roles," says Khoshekh. "And my focus will be with the radio."
An eagle-shaped angel — Xaphania, who introduced herself to Carlos once before, and who is much more of a leader among the out-of-town angels than he realized — clears her throat. "You said this would allow us to suppress the Enemy. What are your plans for destroying it?"
"I'm pretty sure we don't have those," says Maureen. "I can double-check with Dana, but I think our whole plan is to hold it off while we beat up its forces, then drag everyone out of there, close all the doors, and leave it isolated in a deserted universe where it can't hurt anyone."
"Unacceptable," says Xaphania. "There is no safe prison for a being with the power and inclination to devour the Republic of Heaven, world by world. It must be destroyed, or it will be no time at all before this war resumes."
"If you have any ideas, we'd love to hear them," says Carlos, arms crossed. His town has put up an incredible fight, and he won't hear it dismissed by anyone who can't do better. Millennia-old angel or not.
Kaisa addresses the group. "The weapon used by Señorita Flynn may be an option," the Erika beside him hastily translates. "In one language, that type of knife has a name which translates to God-Destroyer."
A string of numbers is already marching across Fey's screen as Maureen says, "So you don't just want us to restrain the Smiling God wherever it is? You want us to lure it out into the open, then restrain it? That sounds insanely more dangerous."
"But the witches are right, the Knife will work!" reports Fey. "As long as we can get someone close enough to wield it against the Smiling God in person."
"Isn't that likely to kill the wielder?"
"Oh, with the complicated light-blocking devices our theologians have been inventing, I'm sure it'll be fine," says Khoshekh. "You'll ask your abuelo how to set it up, right, Maureen?"
Maureen opens her mouth like there's something she really, really wants to say to him. Whatever it is, she sighs and lets it go. "Yeah, okay."
Taking on the theology complex is a long, tense, complicated chess game.
One of the Strexcorp theologians comes out with upraised hands and declares her own surrender, then nearly gets away with releasing a sample of a virus from another world that only Strex employees are inoculated against.
The Book Club tries a counter-fakeout, with Janice sneaking in and pretending she's willing to switch sides in return for longer and stronger legs. It's less than five minutes before a biomachine employee notices that she's bugged, and they only pull off an emergency extraction because they have a guy on their side who's unmemorable, even to biomachines.
A chemical storage warehouse goes up in a fireball of multicolored flames. For several hours each side assumes it was deliberately triggered by the other, until one of the larger dragons admits to having set it off accidentally with a poorly-aimed sneeze.
There's a fast-paced chase sequence through a series of air ducts, culminating in a pitched battle between a handful of dragonfly-riding Laputian warriors and three chirpy, hamster-sized StrexDaemons (TM).
Tamika ends up in one-on-one physical combat with a division director, whose daemon, a massive black-maned lion, gives Rashi a fight almost as formidable as a librarian. The buffalo's hide is slashed up with claw marks by the time Tamika gets a blade through her opponent's lungs. With her last raspy breath, the director smirks and declares that the Smiling God will reward her in the next world — and once Tamika dies, which can't be far off now, she'll see the error of her ways. Oh yes! She'll see.
When the lion daemon vanishes, Tamika stands, breathing heavily, and checks on the people around her. No more ongoing combat in this wing, just a bunch of Strex's blank-eyed severed drones, herded into a circle by a team of witches and watching the death of their supervisor with vacant smiles.
There's no chance saving these ones, Dr. Perfecto has told the theology liaison team. Not with their daemons...dissolved.
And if there's anyone who deserves the peace of the next world ASAP, it's them.
Groom Lake Base, Nevada.
Enigma listens, fascinated, as Dana describes how Tamika and her armies secured various Desert Bluffs buildings. It's hard to tell his exact expression because of the machinery covering half his face, but his mouth keeps smiling, and the speakers hooked up to his system occasionally prompt Dana to go on.
His scientist, Caleb, tries to put on a polite front of listening, but keeps getting distracted by the need to check some dial or tighten some screw on Enigma's equipment. Dana doesn't blame him. Anyone would be worried, knowing that someone they cared for was about to make a potentially dangerous trip.
Every twenty minutes or so, she projects herself back into her own world, checking on the Advanced Readers' progress. At last she has good news. "They've completed the secure, sterile quarantine environment in the room in my world that corresponds to this space. Our knifebearer is suiting up and going through decontamination as we speak."
"Are you sure it's all up to code?" asks Caleb, through the helmet of his own well-filtered suit. "Your world may be more sophisticated than ours in terms of computers and spaceflight and not having race riots, but how good are you with hazmat suit technology?"
"Good enough," says Enigma through the speakers. "Their power supply is good enough. Their food will be good enough. And they'll find you a place to stay that's much nicer than your apartment. I promise."
Tamika must remember the feel of cutting into this world, because a sliver of unnatural light appears in midair without anyone having to direct her. Caleb sucks in a breath. Indicator LEDs across Enigma's machinery flicker on.
"Hello!" says Enigma, once the window is wide enough to show a face. "Hello, are you Tamika? Fey's told me so much about you!"
"I am Tamika, yes." That's all she can manage in English; in Spanish, she continues, "Dana, please thank him for being Fey's friend, and for all the world-saving he's helped out with. Tell him we're happy to welcome him here, and look forward to hosting him as long as he needs."
Dana translates for Caleb and Enigma while Tamika expands the window, and a couple of young technicians stand ready to reconnect Enigma's equipment to a Desert Bluffs power supply. The scene behind them is a lot of translucent plastic sheeting, hanging in a bare yellow hospital room. All the furniture and equipment, even if it wasn't gory or bloodstained, has been cleared out. There aren't so much as curtains to decorate the windows.
It all seems quite drab and unremarkable to Dana, but when she glances at Enigma, he's grinning as widely as his cheeks will let him. "Look, Caleb!" he exclaims, digital voice crackling in his excitement. "Sunlight!"
The new equipment being shipped in from out-of-town is due to arrive this afternoon. Nirliq and Sherie hang around the college mail room, waiting to sign for it when it shows up.
For the equipment arriving from out-of-world, Carlos and Köhler drive out into the sand wastes.
They arrive at Point F — the old oak door in the middle of the desert — a few minutes before the Book Club gyropter and its dragon escorts. Although Cecil has been giving hopeful updates on the Desert Bluffs situation on-air, that's no substitute for the relief of seeing Tamika in person. She and her daemon look like they've been hit by a tornado...and come out swinging.
Carlos gets an uncomfortable jolt when she cuts open a window, and the next world over is apparently full of people in scrubs and surgical masks. One of them hurries to explain that it isn't because they're contagious — just the opposite. They want to make this delivery without accidentally re-exposing their universe's population to the common cold, and...whoa, is that a dragon?
They end up having a short but energizing conversation about dragon anatomy and the physics of flight, while the heavy-loading equipment (on the other side) and the dragons (on Carlos's side) transfer six industrial-sized crates of terrible-light-blocking material into Carlos's world. If they need more, she says, just have Dana place an order. The part of the other world that corresponds to Night Vale is hundreds of miles from the nearest civilization, but that's no burden when you can ship things on supersonic jets.
It all leaves Carlos with a warm glow of hope for the future...which does get tempered after the window closes, and Tamika gives them a stark reminder of the present: "We found your colleagues. The ones you sent to Desert Bluffs."
The ones who were severed, she means. The ones who are too far gone for any amount of experimental theology, even in theory, to save.
"They have been...taken care of?" asks Köhler somberly.
"Yeah." Tamika's fingers tap the hilt of her sheathed knife. "Don't know if they still feel pain, but we made it painless anyway. One of their ghosts manifested for a few seconds afterward." She nods to Carlos. "The one who looks kinda like you, but more pale. And with worse skin."
Carlos swallows. "That would be Raimondi. Did he say anything?"
"Asked if you'd sent us. I told him we worked together. He said..." Tamika switches into English to deliver a direct quote: "...'it's cute that he lets you think that'." She rolls her eyes. (That's Raimondi all over.) "Then he started fading away, but said, next time I saw you, to tell you: 'hey...thanks.'"
A desert not unlike Night Vale (but not like it, either).
Tamika saddles up on Rashi's back, wields the theologians' first completed light-blocking device (which is like an umbrella, but way heavier) so it puts them both in shadow, and rides down the dry, cracked dirt of an otherworldly riverbed.
She's been walking about twenty minutes when Dana's daemon, phoenix-shaped and dazzling, soars out of the pale sky and matches pace with her.
Tamika rides Rashi for a lot of the hike, and starts walking once they get into the slopes of a mountain range. She fills Eustathias in on their latest progress as they travel. The Advanced Readers have found, and sealed off, the office in Desert Bluffs that communicates with Strex's multi-world headquarters in the Clouded Mountain. (Nobody was using it since senior management fled their universe, but it doesn't hurt to be safe.) Fey and Cecil are confident they can cover the siege with a joint broadcast. The experimental theologians will have twenty-six Smiling-God-restraining not-umbrellas assembled soon.
The climb up the mountains is followed by a descent into a network of tunnels. At last they're on the edges of an underground cliff, looking down on a vast canyon full of Dust.
It's something, all right. Tamika isn't gonna get shaky just trying to describe it, the way Perfecto does...but she's impressed.
When she unsheaths the Knife and feels for the snags in the air that open onto her own world, she feels the uncomfortable resonance that means the other side is under solid ground. Good thing they'd suspected that might happen. Tamika opens reconnaissance windows on sand and clay and fossils; Dana's daemon turns into a beast like a giant mole, each of her powerful clawed forepaws as big as Rashi's entire body, to study the other side with senses known and unknown.
"Here," she says at last, about ten feet back up the tunnel. "We have a safe path to the surface here. Get out your flare gun. I'll start digging."
On a void-dark night with no moon or stars to be seen, Carlos stands on the roof of Cecil's apartment building, watching for flares.
There's a flock of airborne witches doing the same a thousand feet overhead, covering more space with sharper eyesight than he alone could hope to. He's superfluous, here. He just doesn't want to be in the middle of something else when the signal arrives.
Besides, it gives him some time to work on finishing out his Poetry Week quota.
His latest slapdash haiku is spelling itself out on the pages of the Little Theologian's Book (It's very dark out / But I'll take that, over it / being much too bright) when, in a soft whoosh of silk and breeze, Serafina Pekkala swoops down and lands next to him. Carlos slips the notebook back into the pocket of his chapel coat and stands up straighter. "Your majesty."
Serafina nods in greeting. Without preamble, she says softly, "Do you really think this plan of yours will work?"
"I think...it has a good chance," says Carlos. "Good enough that it's worth trying."
"It's ambitious. You must know that. During the War, the very idea of healing children who had been severed was an unthinkable dream."
Carlos scoops up Isaña, holding her against his heartbeat. "It's theologically improbable. That doesn't mean we should ignore evidence that says it's possible. A year ago I would have thought programming an ordinater to be an alethiometer sounded like an unthinkable dream...then I found out that Mary Malone did it in 1995 on a floppy disk."
The witch-queen's gaze snaps over to him. Green eyes burn in the near-darkness. "How did you come to know that?"
"Her world had a museum exhibit about it! Cecil took me there for a visit." In spite of everything, Carlos grins at the fond memory. "Half of the rest of the museum was about her too...and no wonder, considering...but, wait, you would have met Dr. Malone when she was alive, right? I don't have to talk her up to you!" He resists the urge to add a volley of questions: What was she like in person? Was she nice? Was she funny? What did she smell like?
"I knew her for some time, yes." There's a strange tension in Serafina's voice. "She is honored in her world, then? Did it happen only recently, do you know? Or did she come to be respected during her lifetime?"
"During her lifetime! I also watched this documentary about her work, and it included live footage and interviews, so...."
Carlos trails off, mind racing as he puts pieces together. The fierce intensity in Serafina's eyes, the tight self-control she's holding...that means something.
And, oh, wow, her daughter — Stella Maris. It's always seemed like one of those bizarre celebrity baby name choices, for someone who's never been a follower of the Church to name a child after an epithet of the Virgin. Unless that was never the Mary she was named for in the first place.
"I have biographies," blurts Carlos. "Two of them. I couldn't bring back video in any usable format, but I got printed books. Do you want to borrow them? Or...have them? I know witches don't really do material possessions, mostly...but if you want these, it sounds like maybe you're the one who should have them."
Serafina swallows. "I would like that, yes."
Before Carlos can ask more, or decide if he even has a right to, she nods to the horizon.
"There's the flare."
Carlos follows her gaze...then looks down at the patch of town below, the glimmer of streetlamps and fast-food signs. "No, that's something else. A known local phenomenon. It's...."
Dana chooses that moment to manifest beside them.
"It's visible!" she exclaims. "That is good news indeed. Our portal is unstable, so I was worried that the signal might not have gotten through...and all this time, it's been right there above the Arby's."
A [canyon deep under the surface of] a desert not unlike Night Vale (but not like it, either).
It's going to take a whole team of people to pull this off...and Night Vale rises to the occasion.
Josie leads a team of angels in flying the experimental theologians' equipment down through the swirling portal, one highly sensitive item at a time. An unmarked white secret-police van — with the clearance to break more local traffic laws than anyone else, even an ambulance — ferries over a couple of doctors and the gurney on which they're carrying Renée, with her body and her daemon both wrapped up as warmly as possible.
The manager of the Arby's even brings them all free sodas. "If you folks pull this off," he tells the physicists, "we're naming a local menu item after you."
A handful of witches from the Lake Enara clan fly down under their own power. Köhler, Nirliq, Sherie, and Carlos all get carried down by Erikas: daemons in their arms, sacks of bloodstones over their shoulders. The people who love Renée most come down last: a hollow-eyed Steve, his own aging father, Delphine and Janice, and finally Cecil.
(...Was there someone else here, briefly? Someone who told Janice he couldn't stay, because he didn't want to risk disrupting anybody's memories of what happened here? Carlos thinks there might have been, but his head aches when he thinks about it too hard, so he lets it drop.)
The lake of Dust is even more dazzling in person, and downright magical when they're lowered into it. Like being inside a snowglobe, except that instead of plastic and glitter, they're surrounded by the very essence of conscious thought. Carlos is a little breathless as he gives directions. Rusakov isolation chamber goes here. Bloodstone circles get set up at these angles. Nirliq, and her fancy new specialty laser, stand right inside.
They arrange Renée and her hummingbird-shaped Tovi inside the enclosed space, right next to each other, the better to saturate the snapped connection between them with as many Rusakov particles as possible.
Renée's body shivers, staring vacantly at the surface below her feet. Carlos and his team stand in formation within the bloodstones, link their minds together (in this sea of Dust it's easier than ever, like they've been shouting to each other underwater this whole time and suddenly they're out in the fresh air), and focus on holding the teeming flow of particles in place around her.
Most of them can't bear to look at her directly. One of them will have to, so it's lucky Nirliq has turned out to have a strong stomach. While her colobus daemon monitors the scene through an electrum spyglass, she aims a high-powered Rusakov-radiation laser at the severed child and switches it on.
To use a highly simplified and theologically imprecise analogy, they're trying to weld the connection back together.
If it works, there's no telling what the side effects will be. Whether Renée will come out of this with a normal range. Whether she'll be able to settle in a healthy way. Whether she and her daemon will have all the skills and sympathies they could have developed otherwise.
But if it works, then she'll come out of this.
Rusakov particles swirl and dance around Carlos's hands in sparkling trails of gold.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees one of Renée's hands grope aimlessly around the floor...
...and rest on Tovi's feathered back...
...and sit there. Just sitting.
Nobody breathes. The only sound is the hum of the equipment. Carlos can practically feel the pulse of the universe right now, but he can't feel whether any of this is making a difference, he can't —
— With a sharp gasp, Renée grabs Tovi and clutches him against her chest.
Carlos dares to look.
"Renée?" asks Steve, echoing off the cavern walls. "Sweetie?"
Both hands splayed around her daemon, Renée raises her head.
Wary, alert, conscious eyes find her family.
Steve lets out a sob of pure delight and runs to her.
Utter chaos. Everyone whoops and cheers and grabs the nearest person for a hug — friend, total stranger, it doesn't matter, they're all the greatest people in the world right now. Carlos gets tackled by a witch; Cecil sobs into an angel's chest; on the ledge above them all, Maureen grabs Dana by the waist and spins her through the air.
An ominous rumbling goes through the rock around them in the midst of the celebration...but for the moment that battle is outside and far away. Here and now, Steve has sprinted into the chamber to throw his arms around his daughter while Renée's are wrapped around her daemon, and there's nothing in the world more important than that.