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A Blinking Light Up On The Clouded Mountain

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New Amsterdam.

There's a young woman sitting alone at a bar in the busy heart of the city. She has dark, delicate skin, and hair that verges on perfect: tight coils that fall halfway down her back, with a red streak dyed in on one side. A colorful bird daemon perches on the shoulder of her thrift-store-chic blouse.

Carlos spots them before they realizes he's arrived, and squeezes between crowded tables to get to them. "Azalea! Over here!"

His baby sister — who just turned twenty-nine, a fact that Carlos still has trouble processing sometimes — catches sight of him and waves. "You made it! I was freaking out when the blogs had photos of you at the airport — the press didn't follow you here, did they?"

"No, I'm pretty sure I lost them," says Carlos, pulling her into a hug. He's still adjusting to how newsworthy he is back in the US. The physics conference he's in town for is apparently ordering extra security, because it's going to have protestors. The mind boggles. "How are you doing? How's your big gallery show going? Let me buy you a drink."

Azalea says a few things about painting as the bartender mixes their drinks. On the floor by their feet, her tocororo daemon swoops down to land on Isaña's shell.

"But enough about me! How are you doing these days?"

"Can't complain," Carlos assures her. "I've got two pretty major papers to present this weekend, one examining the properties of electrum as an optical Rusakov conductor on Friday, and one proposing a new model for anbaromagnetic field theory on —"

"Oh my god, Carlos, you giant empollón," groans Azalea, dropping into Spanish. "I'm not asking about your job. Tell me about this boyfriend of yours."

Carlos blushes, but isn't complaining. His phone is even stocked with a carefully-curated folder of "Cecil photos that won't freak the family out" for just this purpose — that is, photos where Cecil's daemon is visible, his fashion choices aren't too outrageous, and there's a minimal level of bizarre Night Vale phenomena going on in the background.

His sister listens to various Cecil anecdotes with growing approval. She pronounces Cecil "cute," and declares the fact that Carlos is growing out his hair because Cecil likes it that way "totally sweet." Toward the end of the folder, she says, "Hope he doesn't get jealous easily, because there's at least one person here who's seriously giving you the eye."

Carlos doesn't have to look. "Dark hair, red shirt, lemur daemon?"

Azalea looks startled. "Yeah. How did you...?"

"She's been tailing me since I left the hotel." And pretty subtly, too. Carlos knows a few members of the Sheriff's secret police who could stand to take lessons from her.

"What? But you said the press didn't...."

"She isn't press, she's Magisterium." When Azalea's face goes a little grey, Carlos adds, "Don't worry, I don't think she's going to try anything in public! And I'm watching my drink and everything, just in case, and...uh, does it bother you?"

"Yes, it bothers me!" hisses Azalea. "Does the Church always have people following you around?"

"Not in Night Vale," Carlos assures her. He decides not to explain that this is only because Magisterium agents who enter Night Vale are re-educated out of knowing that he exists. It wasn't his idea, but he's been uncomfortably complicit. "Give me a second."

He steps off the bar stool, Isaña following at his heels. The agent pretends not to notice them at first, then lets her eyes flick up to Carlos's face. Her lipstick as she smiles is very red. "Well, hello there."

"Hi," says Carlos. "World Consistorial Court?"

The agent blinks. "Excuse me?"

"Just trying to guess what branch of the Magisterium you're with."

She recovers quickly. "Conspiracy theorist, are you? Sure, I'm with the World Consistorial Court. Are you with the Illuminati?"

Carlos has, in fact, received invitations to become an adjunct member of both the Alpha Illuminati and the Eagle Illuminati. He's holding out for an invite from the Hungry Man Brand Frozen Foods Officially Sponsored Illuminati. "Listen, it was a valid hypothesis. The World Consistorial Court have already kidnapped me at gunpoint once, so they were the logical place to start."

The agent starts. "And you got away?"

Carlos raises his eyebrows.

After a meaningful pause, the agent relaxes into another slow smile. "All right, you caught me. But I assure you, Dr. Ramirez, my organization would never approve such unfriendly treatment. We don't have to be enemies, you and I."

She bends slightly toward him, all her body language friendly, the fabric of her blouse shifting with the movement to bare an extra inch or so of cleavage. Carlos takes a moment to process what she's doing, then says, "Okay, no offense, but if part of the reason your organization sent you after me was potential seduction factor, they're really barking up the wrong tree."

The woman's smile turns absolutely poisonous. "Is that so? Then the 'confirmed bachelor' rumors we've all been hearing are true?"

So she wasn't even close enough to eavesdrop on Carlos's and Azalea's conversation? Carlos reverses his earlier judgment. The secret police would never be this sloppy. "On the contrary. I'm in a happy, serious relationship, and intend to stay that way. And now, I'm going to go find a nice place to have dinner with my little sister, and if you follow us there, I'll call the police. Do we understand each other?"

He's feeling pretty good when he rejoins Azalea, who now just looks impressed. They finish their drinks and head out together, her little bird daemon once again riding on Isaña's shell.

"I can't believe you threatened to sic the cops on her," says Azalea as they head down the street. "And with a straight face! Are they just not racist at all in Hispania Nova, or what?"

"Um," says Carlos. It's true, it hadn't occurred to him that the police might doubt his word, even in complaining about a woman who is way paler than he is. But only because he forgot that they wouldn't already have a recording of the whole conversation. "Yeah, that's it. Very non-racist, very fair-minded...bunch of all-around great people, those Night Vale police."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Speaking of police: when Carlos gets back to the hotel, there are a couple of squad cars parked outside.

He spends the whole elevator ride hoping they're here about someone else. No such luck. There's a crowd around rooms 212 and 214 — he and Keith Köhler, the two Night Vale experimental theologians in attendance, are in connected singles — and Köhler himself is standing against the far wall, along with his binturong daemon Rozarilde, both of them looking profoundly harried.

"Dr. Ramirez," says Köhler, nodding to greet them. "There has been a break-in. Your room appears to be undisturbed. Mine...does not."

"You're the other theologian here?" asks a man with a scarab beetle daemon on his shoulder, and an NAPD detective's badge pinned to his shirt. "Please stay out here while the forensics team finishes. Then we're going to ask you to go through your possessions, identify anything that's missing."

"Thanks," says Carlos automatically, trying to remember what he brought. Clothes, mostly. His tablet — which has his presentations, but he has backups in his email, and his Friday talk has a co-presenter who should have a copy too. A few small personal items. The bag of marbles the Faceless Old Woman who Lives In His Home stuck in his suitcase at the last minute, for her own inscrutable reasons. Under his breath, he says, "What did they get of yours?"

Köhler looks grim. "My ordinater is missing."

Isaña scurries around his heels to directly address Rozarilde. Low to the ground, the daemons can whisper with even less chance of being overheard. "You did the anti-theft chant, right?"

"I believed we did it correctly," murmurs the binturong. "You must demonstrate it again."

Carlos is in the middle of giving the detective a description of his Magisterium tail when there's a scuffling and a yell from Köhler's room. "There's some kind of animal under here!" yells a forensics tech from next to the bed.

Both Carlos and Köhler straighten up, suddenly hopeful. "Allow me to speak with it," says Köhler, making his way in.

"You're not allowed to keep pets in the rooms!" protests a woman with a finch daemon, in the uniform of hotel security. "This is a serious policy violation...."

"We didn't bring any pets," says Carlos. "I wish we had! A good spiderwolf probably would've kept our stuff safer than your security did."

Meanwhile, Köhler's binturong slinks up to the bed and chitters in a soothing way at whatever is hiding underneath it. "Come here. Is that you? Come on out now. Everything is safe, but the police must take a look at you."

Slowly, hesitantly, his laptop crawls out into the open. Its lid is half-shut, and there are bloodstains where it apparently bit someone, but it's still here. Not in Magisterium hands, or anybody else's.

"The hell is this?" mutters one of the officers. "Some kind of robot?"

Neither Carlos nor Köhler wants to explain that sometimes in Night Vale your gadgets and appliances will develop sentience. "Yes,"says Köhler shortly. "Now, as you collect your evidence, be gentle, or you will startle it."

 

-{,(((,">

 

They get a complimentary re-booking, with the new rooms entered into the hotel's computer system under false names, and a promise of 24/7 security on their floor. It's enough reassurance that Carlos should be able to sleep tonight.

He re-sets his bloodstone circle and does the anti-theft chant afresh. For good measure, he also draws a couple of protective runes on hotel stationary (using that exotic luxury, the ballpoint pen). It's basically the Modified Sumerian equivalent of a Keep Out sign. One copy for himself, one for Köhler; Carlos pricks his finger and demonstrates where to leave a spot of blood for an extra-strong seal.

Before he can leave to jump in the shower, Köhler says, "If you have plans for Saturday at two o'clock, you must cancel or postpone them."

"Uh, sure. Let me check the schedule." Carlos retrieves and flips through the conference information packet. "Yeah, there's nothing on Saturday right after lunch except the big invite-only alethiometry consult, so I'm free. Why?"

"Surely you can guess?"

Carlos gapes at him. "Am I invited to the big invite-only alethiometry consult?"

These only happen two or three times a year. Experts from across the globe meet to discuss questions about nothing less than the fate of the world, and try to parse out the answers their alethiometers have given. If it happens at a conference close enough to Oxford or Heidelberg, one of the alethiometrists might actually bring the device along and do some readings in person. Of course Köhler, as a senior Rusakov researcher at Heidelberg, is entitled to an invitation. But Carlos? It wouldn't even have occurred to him to ask.

"You haven't told them anything about Cecil, have you?" he adds, suddenly worried. It's not that he specifically mistrusts any of these people, but if word gets out that there's an off-the-record alethiometer sitting around unguarded, in the possession of a man with a gift for reading it? Second-rate spies and failed break-ins will be the least of what gets sent Cecil's way.

"I have been entirely discreet," says Köhler. "As I am sure you will be discreet about certain details of past prophecies, which I have not been authorized to discuss with you."

"Won't say a word," promises Carlos. "The only things I know about Lyra Silvertongue are what I've heard from angels. And/or seen on TV."

 

-{,(((,">

 

There are supposed to be two other former members of the Night Vale team at the 2013 International Conference on Applied Rusakov Physics. Carlos keeps an eye out for them during the morning coffee meet-and-greet.

Other people, in turn, are keeping an eye out for him: he gets stopped by a dozen grad students and postdocs, some of them trying to network with anyone they can see, but most of them recognizing his name. At least one doesn't know him at first, then suddenly identifies him as "the guy on the posters outside."

(There are protestors camped outside the conference center. Maybe two dozen of them. They have signs. Carlos is really glad they aren't allowed in.)

A portal physicist with an osprey daemon tries to grill him on why her application to the Night Vale research outpost wasn't accepted. Carlos doesn't know offhand, but he assures her that she can try again in six months or a year, because they're expecting to have more spots open by then.

A man with a strong Texan accent, his daemon a tiny bright-blue frog riding in his pocket, asks with sudden discomfort if Carlos is planning on firing people halfway through their postings. Sheepish, Carlos explains that no, they're just expecting a certain level of serious injury, possibly death, because no matter how competent their latest new hires are....

And that's when he realizes he's talking to one of the new hires. Rayshawn, their new Rusakov archaeologist. Well, this is awkward.

To his relief, Rayshawn isn't too put off. He was on a dig with Emily earlier this year; he's seen her scars, heard a few of her war stories. He also lets Carlos know that Emily isn't going to be here at the conference after all.

"Why not? Is she okay?" asks Carlos, imagining all kinds of horrors: threats from the Magisterium, trouble with the government, meeting with a rogue un-hooded spectre, stumbling across another portal with confused and aggressive otherworldly creatures.

"You ain't heard?" says Rayshawn. "She's pregnant, man."

Oh. "Oh! Good for her."

Which means the only person left that Carlos specifically wants to track down is Gerald, who he'll see tomorrow at their presentation anyway. He excuses himself from the conversation, gets a refill of coffee, and goes looking for a quiet corner to review his notes.

 

-{,(((,">

 

The conference room is packed.

Carlos thinks he sees another of the team's new hires in the front row: Nirliq, their new photography-and-optics expert, replacing the departed Fleur Dirac and Brad Hall. He's looking forward to showing her the real electrum spyglass, the one whose properties are currently not public outside of Night Vale.

He lays out a few of the lenses he's going to be demonstrating today on the table in front of him: lenses made not with Whispering Forest resin, just ordinary non-sentient electrum. They don't show you the glorious spectacle of Rusakov particles in realtime, but they still have all kinds of possible applications.

The audience finishes filing in; the tech people complete their setup. Carlos opens his presentation, taps the mic, and smiles out at the crowd.

"I'd like to thank you all for being here today," he begins. "With a special hello to our official observers there in the back. Just doing your jobs, I'm sure."

A handful of people in dark suits and clerical collars try not to squirm at the attention. Officially, the Church is a neutral observer at theological talks like this. And Carlos has gotten over being scared of their unofficial intimidation.

"I'm sure most of you are here to learn about the properties of Dirac-Hall lenses, and I will get to them in just a moment," he says. "But first...I also have a feeling many of you are hoping to hear me say something dramatic about angels. Is that right?"

Nervous laughter ripples around the room.

"Well, I'm afraid everything I had to say has already been said. So instead, before I left town, I asked a couple of angels if they wanted to say a few words instead. They were kind enough to make a short video, which I'm going to play for you now."

He opens the video file.

With a snap, the power in the building goes out.

The big screens are dead, the mics are dead, and the room is plunged into darkness except for the constellation of LEDs from a hundred mobile devices. Carlos's laptop, now running on battery, is suddenly blinding. He pauses the video, not at all surprised by the timing, and speaks as loudly as he can: "Sorry about that! Give it a second, I'm sure they'll have it back on soon."

Under the table at his feet, the barn-swallow-shaped being perched on Isaña's shell whispers, "Would it help if you had a bright black light? I can definitely fill the room with a bright black light."

"Thank you, but no," murmurs Isaña. "Can you mimic an anbaric current well enough to get things running again? Just in this room? Once the video is out there in spite of their best efforts, I'm sure the power will conveniently come back on."

Personally, Carlos thinks the Church is overreacting. Sure, one of the Erikas in the video mentions the fact that there is no God and religion is a lie, but most of them are preoccupied trying to predict the finale of (this world's version of) Breaking Bad.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Gerald finds Carlos during dinner, at the bar in the hotel connected to the conference center. He's in good shape: he has a cane now, but doesn't appear to be using it. "For emergencies only," he declares, as he and Carlos make their way to a booth with accommodations for his bulky musk-ox daemon. "Why, I feel fit as a forty-year-old. How about you? How's celebrity treating you?"

Carlos groans. "Don't even ask. I tried to go out somewhere for dinner, and five press people were on me the moment I stepped onto the sidewalk. Let's just talk shop, okay?"

"Fair enough. Have you been to the product exhibit hall yet?"

They get into a vigorous discussion of the merits of a new line of vacuum gauges. Carlos daydreams out loud about some of the experiments he could do with one company's comprehensive materials testing system. Gerald relays the industry reviews of a the superconducting research magnets he's had his eye on.

"Even spotted a few products with the Strexcorp logo at another vendor's booth," he says. "I suppose they don't have their own distribution infrastructure in the US yet. Something of a relief to see them, let me tell you."

"Why's that?"

"Well, a few months back I had a thought I might call them up. See if the branch that came up with those handheld Rusakov meters had any positions open. A nice safe R&D job would be easier than being out in the field, especially if the field is in our favorite little town, and I have the experience. Even if they haven't branched out of Hispania Nova yet, my Spanish is up to the job."

"So what happened?"

"It was the darnedest thing. I couldn't find them."

Carlos frowns. "What do you mean?"

"Couldn't find them. Not a trace. No website, no stock market position, no mention of them in industry or trade journals, and nobody I talked to had ever heard of them. I was starting to wonder if they were like that house of ours. Seems like they exist, and it would make sense for them to exist, but...."

"Of course they exist. Our Rusakov meters came from somewhere." Although, now that Carlos thinks about it, he's never spoken to anyone from Strexcorp directly. All his dealings with them have been through Carlo Raimondi, head of the Desert Bluffs control team. Back when they had a Desert Bluffs control team, instead of two dead bodies and three empty shells left behind by a terrible...something, because they got too close to the secret workings of...someone.

He doesn't like to think about it. Looking up the most general information about it scared Cecil halfway to tears. And it shouldn't affect the rest of them, as long as they stay out of Desert Bluffs.

 

-{,(((,">

 

At first glance, the exclusive international alethiometry consult doesn't look like much. Sure, you have to show ID to get in, but behind the guards is an ordinary conference room, with seats for maybe twenty people around a U-shaped table. Everyone gets a complimentary water bottle, a notepad of conference-center stationary, and a pen. Carlos shivers more at the pens than the people.

The room is maybe half full when he gets there. Nobody looks up; they're all busy talking with each other, or making preliminary notes. With the exception of one young woman, everyone looks at least as old as Carlos's parents. Köhler is talking with two people, one of whom is old enough to be his grandfather.

It takes Carlos a couple of seconds to recognize the man. He's the last living direct student of Lyra Belacqua.

And that woman is the head alethiometrist at Oxford. And that man, he basically invented the most modern method of Rusakov detection (or the second-most modern, depending on what Strexcorp's technology uses). And there isn't a single Magisterium observer to be found.

This is so cool.

Carlos finds the seat with his nameplate, between the one for Keith Köhler and the one for Paivi Feldt. He quietly relocates his pen to Paivi's place while he waits for the rest of the attendants to trickle in.

Eventually Paivi — who turns out to be the young woman — takes the seat. She's a blonde in a slimming black suit, on whose shoulder is perched a handsome Lapland longspur, a white-and-brown bird with a bright yellow beak and patches of black and chestnut on his head. "Carlos Ramirez, right?" she says, shaking his hand. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you."

"Nice to meet you too," says Carlos. Now that he can put a name to the face, he realizes that she looks a lot like the the Dr. Feldt from Harvard, the program director who championed the Night Vale research post when it was in danger of being lost to controversy. "Are you by any chance Lars Feldt's —"

Her eyes sparkle with half-hidden amusement, and Carlos abruptly rethinks everything. Nordic woman. Bird daemon. Young-looking at first glance, but with a sense of calm and nobility you don't usually get in people under thirty.

"— mother?"

"Actually, I —" Paivi Feldt stutters in turn, while other people look at Carlos in surprise. "— I...am, yes."

"If I could have everyone's attention, please," says the head Oxford alethiometrist, cutting Carlos off before he can ask what clan the witch is from, or how much their interests have been guiding his career since the moment he submitted the Night Vale research proposal. "As most of you know, last year we had several readings that were cause for unusual concern...."

The lights are dimmed, and high-res video of the Heidelberg alethiometer is projected onto a screen, the needle spinning through symbols to provide the answers. It goes through four old questions, ones where the possible meanings have already been remotely picked-apart by this group for months; and then a fifth, this one new, to be discussed in person. Most of the viewers, even Köhler, spend the whole thing frantically scribbling notes.

It isn't like the calm, sure poetry of Cecil reporting what an answer means. These experts have to ask questions, to call for slow-motion playback of one symbol or another, to go back and cross-reference, to look things up in the Books of Reading and argue over whose interpretation is right. It's fascinating. Even if it is...slow.

And the content is worrying. Someone uses the phrase "the unraveling of all things." That can't be good.

Carlos is seriously considering texting Cecil, asking him to do the same reading and slip Carlos the answer, when one expert says "the young woman," and another says "which one?" — and Carlos realizes they're in familiar territory. He's heard this one before.

The world's foremost experts in alethiometry start arguing. When it comes to averting what might be a multi-world apocalypse, most of them think the key players include a single young woman, while a few are adamant that there are two.

Carlos raises his hand. "It's two."

"Thank you for your guess, Dr. Ramirez," says the chairwoman. "Dr. Schafer, what do you —"

"It wasn't a guess!" exclaims Carlos. The Oxford alethiometrist looks understandably miffed at being interrupted. "Sorry, but there are definitely two. A killer and a walker. Not that there can't be overlap! The girl who walks might have to do some killing at some point, and the girl who kills is probably going to walk places once in a while, but that doesn't make them the same person."

"Doctor, you are not here because of your expertise with symbol reading," says Dr. Belacqua's last living student. "You are here to listen."

Carlos's ears burn with embarrassment. Under the table, Isaña rolls up into an almost-closed ball.

"His interpretation is reasonable," says Köhler from beside them. "The idea of a young woman is consistently associated with the Anchor and the Horse at certain times, the Sword and the Owl at others. These are generally unconnected."

This, people listen to. The debate starts up again, more evenly this time. Carlos tries not to sink down in his seat and pretend he isn't there. He appreciates Köhler's help — the man had been surprisingly quiet before jumping in on Carlos's behalf, so it's not clear whether he already agreed or whether he just trusts Carlos's information to be accurate — but, wow, he'd forgotten how much he hates needing a white friend for backup in the first place.

"This confusion is not academic," says Paivi Feldt sharply. "It is imperative that the witches find this girl. One of these girls. And soon."

"It might help if we had some idea why you want to find her," says the chairwoman, eyeing the witch sardonically over the rims of her glasses.

"You are well aware that I am not authorized to tell you that."

"Witches and their secrets," mutters one of the experts from Heidelberg, a sour-faced man who doesn't sound happy about it.

"As if you can talk! How many secrets are you holding that the general public would love to know? That Dr. Ramirez in particular would love to know? Share a few pieces of your own forbidden theologian-lore with him, go on. I'll wait."

"I really don't need..." begins Carlos, not thrilled about getting to be a chew-toy in this fight.

"All right," interrupts the chairwoman. "Dr. Ramirez, we have in safekeeping at Jordan College a set of records about Dr. Belacqua's childhood travels, as related personally to her students, not shared with the public. The vague yet menacing branch of the Magisterium with which she clashed did not have all its records destroyed, though we allow the present-day Church to believe so. We also know that that clash had nothing to do with why they went on to pursue her across the worlds. They chased her because of her broader destiny — something she did for every universe, everywhere — the reason her truest name was not Silvertongue, but Eve."

The announcement hits Paivi Feldt a lot harder than it hits Carlos. For him, it's just one more thing he already knows. For her, it makes her suck in a hissing breath, stand up so fast it knocks her chair to the ground, and stalk out of the room in a cloud of barely-repressed fury.

And Carlos needed to talk to her, too.

"Will you excuse me?" he says, as politely as he can, pushing back his own chair. "I appreciate everything, and I will try to make it back as soon as possible, but I need to catch up with her."

The sour-faced expert from Heidelberg is positively sneering. "You aren't even listening. The implications of what you just heard, and you —"

"She was Eve. All the worlds were in danger of losing Dust forever, until she brought it back. She also fixed death, and is basically the coolest person who ever lived, possibly tied with Will Parry, and I really do need to go, so if there's anything else, please tell Dr. Köhler and he will pass it on, okay? Thanks!"

 

-{,(((,">

 

He and Isaña catch up with the witch on an empty second-floor terrace. If she left a branch of cloud-pine out here, she could hop on it and be out of his reach for good...but either she doesn't have one, or she allows him to approach.

Her daemon doesn't stick around. He spreads his wings and leaps into the air, soaring off into the maze of New Amsterdam skyscrapers until he's out of sight.

"I'm sorry about...whatever happened in there," says Carlos. He's gotten pretty good at making peace even when he has no idea what's going on. "I don't want to bother you, but there's something I need to ask you, and it might be important."

"My mother was tortured," says Paivi Feldt.

Carlos stumbles to a stop a few feet behind her. He's not sure what brought that up, but it's awful, whatever the details. "I'm sorry."

"Tortured. During the War. And then killed. For exactly the same information that woman just...handed you." She turns to face them, dark-eyed, white-faced with anger. "And she knew that."

"That's terrible," says Carlos softly.

Paivi Feldt's chin trembles as she fights for control. Carlos holds still and quiet until she claws enough of it back to say, "You wanted something."

Carlos nods. "It's about this girl you're looking for. Witch-lore. There are things you can't go around telling people. I understand that. Just tell me this...there's a stretch of land in the North that's dead. Daemons can't enter it. Is this related?"

She stares. (Carlos has the uncomfortable feeling he's being taken apart with something more than just vision.) At last she says, "And if it is?"

"Then I should tell you that I know about a similar place," says Carlos. "Along with a young woman who happens to be going through it. And I know...don't ask me how, I've got secrets too...that she has a destiny, which involves a lot of walking, and which I am almost positive is the same one they were talking about back in there. So if the witches are looking for her because that experience is something she needs, you can relax, because she already has it."

After a few deep breaths, Paivi Feldt says, "Thank you. On more than one count, because now I don't have to go back in there."

"Hey, anything for the fate of the world," says Carlos, offering her a self-conscious smile. "I probably should, though. They're my colleagues, after all."

"There's probably nothing they can tell you that you can't find out on your own," points out the witch. "Or with the aid of some of your friends."

"Um," says Carlos. How much do the witches know about Cecil and his alethiometer? Carlos doesn't know which clan Cecil's long-lost mother was from; is she an ally of Paivi Feldt's? There's no telling how much she knows, how much she could reveal if she started talking....

"I've seen the birds lurking around you since yesterday. Those aren't witches' daemons, are they?"

Oh, right. Carlos rubs the back of his neck. "Erika does like to be helpful."

 

-{,(((,">

 

The afternoon presentation with Gerald goes off without a hitch. After the crowd of questioners has drifted off to the next round of presentations, Köhler finds them, face blank. Gerald's musk-ox daemon puts herself between them and the general public, forcing people to give them a wide berth.

"Hi," says Carlos. "The alethiometrists weren't too mad, were they?"

"I believe they were disappointed," says Köhler. "They are...more informed about your role in prophecy than I was previously aware, and it seems they wished to reveal this to you in person. Instead, they were left to send through me the dramatic revelation that you would, one day, return from the world of the dead."

He says it with such a straight face that it takes a second before Carlos has to clap both hands over his mouth to hold in a guffaw.

"Oh my," says Gerald. "Did you really? Why, I had no idea things would get so exciting after I left."

"It wasn't a big deal," giggles Carlos. "It really wasn't — other people yanked me back — I just got lucky enough to have them."

"You will of course be discreet about this," adds Köhler. "Dr. Ramirez does not need to be accused of having Messianic delusions."

"Don't you worry," Gerald assures them. "I know he's not angling for worship. I'm sure he'll settle for getting everyone to call him Carlos Silvertongue, won't you, Carlos?"

Not everyone! thinks Carlos happily. Just Cecil.

He doesn't repeat that out loud. There are some colleagues you can make oral sex jokes around, but Köhler is really not one of them. Instead, as the giggles subside, he says, "Thanks. To both of you. I'll see you tomorrow, okay? It's getting late in Hispania Nova, and there's somebody I promised to call."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

It is always dark in the dog park.

Cold, too. Dana sits back against the humming stone monolith, which at least has the effect of warming her up, and tries once again to project her spirit somewhere brighter. Her home, perhaps. Or the radio station. Is she still an intern, after all this time away? It is hard to tell.

She thinks she may even be getting somewhere when a familiar voice interrupts her concentration: "Dana."

"Hello again!" Dana covers her eyes. "Don't give me any hints. I can do this. You have long dark hair...tan skin...a compact build...a strong nose...eyes that are sad. So very sad. You are translucent, because you are visiting by astral projection, not in physical form. And, of course, you are wearing the same tan jacket as always."

"Right on all counts," says her visitor. "You are tremendous, you know that? Absolutely tremendous."

Pleased, Dana stands to greet him. "I couldn't have done it without your help." She hugs herself, shivering. "Speaking of help. Do you know any spells for warmth? Or, perhaps, could you ask the Scouts to send me some winter clothing in their next care package?"

The man in the tan jacket frowns. "Are you cold? Is this new?"

"It was always cold. But it is getting colder recently, I think."

The man looks...concerned. No, not concerned. Afraid.

"Could I be feeling hooded spectres?" Dana looks at the barren ground around her. Of course she still can't see them, but she knows the dog park is full of them: lurking and waiting, looking for prey. "Are there some around me right now?"

"There have always been hooded spectres around you," says the man, giving Dana fresh chills. "Sometimes so many that it's hard to see you through the crowd. They sense that you're close to settling. And if you're beginning to sense them too...Dana, I think you should go."

"What? Go where?"

"Out. I don't know how. But I know you can find a way."

"Did your foresight tell you that?" asks Dana, curious. She's learned a lot of useful things from this man, but foresight is one she doesn't seem able to pick up.

"No." He has the grace to look sheepish. "In fact, you told me that. When you appeared across the room from me, not half an hour ago."

So Dana will get the hang of astral projection eventually! The idea that she will become unstuck in time is less of a surprise; she had guessed it from some of the man's vague statements already, and besides, time is an illusion anyway. "Did I give myself any hints? Suggestions on where to begin?"

"Unfortunately, no. Which means you must have remembered figuring it out on your own."

Maybe she can...but Dana really would have appreciated a helpful paradox right about now.

"I'll go find the Scouts. Or Josie," continues the man. "See if they can get one last round of supplies to you before you're gone. But don't wait for me, all right? If you find an exit before I find you again...take it."

"I will." Dana picks up her backpack — one of the first non-food items catapulted over the Dog Park's high obsidian walls to land at her feet — stocked with such necessities as water, protein bars, beef jerky, gloves, rope, a pocketknife, and a tiny bag of thumb-sized bloodstones. "Thank you for everything, Señor—"

"Please," interrupts the man. "I think we can be on a first-name basis by now, don't you?"

"All right." Dana smiles. "Thank you, Emmanuel."

"It was my pleasure, Dana."

He vanishes, leaving Dana alone once more, without even her daemon for company.

She decides to start by investigating the walls. Just because the obsidian is flat and smooth and doesn't have so much as a crack for as far as the eye can see is no reason to assume she can't get through them somehow, right?

Shrugging the backpack over her shoulders, Dana walks straight ahead from the monolith until she reaches the nearest patch of wall, rests her hand against the rock, and digs a deep X in the dirt with the heel of one of her hiking boots. Then she turns left, and begins taking steady, even strides, counting off the paces. Every twenty steps, she makes another notch in the soil.

She feels warmer already.

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

When Carlos and Isaña make it through the last of the aerodock's security measures (which now involve placing your hands on the skull of a librarian and reporting any visions it gives you), Cecil and Khoshekh are waiting for them.

Carlos falls into Cecil's arms for a welcome-back kiss, while Khoshekh lands on top of Isaña and weighs her down like a big lumpy fur coat. "Hi, Cecil. Did I miss anything exciting while I was away?"

Cecil bats his lashes playfully. "Other than me, you mean?"

One of the team's new members is scheduled to arrive on another flight in an hour, and Carlos is supposed to meet her, so they settle in at the aerodock's lunch counter for a snack and some catching-up. Carlos relates how much this world's other prophecy-aware groups know about just what is going on around here. Cecil talks about Mayor Pamela Winchell's latest three press conferences, all repeating the announcement that she's resigning.

They hold hands over the table and play footsie underneath it, unworried about whether it might bother the officer of the Sheriff's secret police hiding under the next table down.

At last the PA announces that the flight has touched down, and they head back to arrivals to meet the new experimental theologian. "She's another specialist in portals and alternate-world physics," Carlos explains to Cecil on the way. "Did her thesis work in Svalbard, then worked there for a couple years before coming back to do government research in New Amsterdam. Her daemon is a mongoose, which isn't in the same family or even the same order as pine martens, but is behaviorally close enough that we're all jealous...."

"Uh-huh." Cecil nods to the baggage carts. "Is that her there?"

"Where?"

"Between the man with the sheepdog and the two teenagers. Right there, see?"

Carlos, who had been looking for a woman alone, re-focuses. That's her, all right. A dark-haired woman in her early fifties, ring-tailed mongoose daemon sitting on his hind legs at her feet, helping a man pile suitcases onto one of the bag carts. The kids are a preteen boy in a neatly-pressed collared shirt (wincing), and an older teenage girl with clothes that match her jet-black hair (gleefully intoning, "Did you like the skull?").

He approaches, cautious, with Cecil following a half-step behind. "Excuse me...Sherie?"

The woman turns. "That's me! You must be Carlos? Such a treat to finally meet you. Everyone, this is Carlos, the nice theologian I'm going to be working with. And who's your friend? Sorry — ¿quién es tu amigo?"

Cecil switches into his flawless English as he shakes her hand. "Hi! I'm Cecil. You're probably going to be studying me. Carlos says I'm fascinating."

"We'll talk more about that later," says Carlos firmly. "Um, excuse me if this is a stupid question, but...did you bring your family?"

"Sure did," says Sherie. "Don't you worry, we know that's not in the budget, so we've got our own place all picked out. It's going to be such a great experience for the kids!"

It's going to be an experience, all right. "Do the kids have any experience handling firearms?"

The overly-neat boy and the goth girl both snap to attention. So do their daemons. (His, not yet settled, flies to his shoulder in bird-form and turns into a small but sharp-eared rabbit. Hers is a massive vulture, with a fuzzy white head and striking black-and-tan wings.)

Their mother just looks baffled. "Never touched a gun in their lives. Why?"

"Any other weapons? How about hand-to-hand training? Do you know any basic blood magic?"

That flips Sherie and her husband from confused to angry. "Now, see here," snaps the husband, his black-and-tan sheepdog daemon baring the slightest flash of teeth. "I don't know what kind of anti-Semitic playbook you people are working from —"

Carlos holds up his hands in surrender. "I didn't ask because you're Hebrew, I swear! It's a thing here, half of town can do it — Cecil, show them something you learned in Scouts, will you?"

While Sherie's family watches in varying degrees of offense, confusion, and fascination, Cecil pulls out a pocketknife, scores a quick line across the back of his wrist, and finger-paints a rune on his skin. In Modified Sumerian, he intones a phrase Carlos doesn't have the oral dexterity to repeat, but recognizes as Let there be light.

His hand and wrist light up from the inside, glowing a dull red-orange. It's like looking at a fleshy lava lamp. Carlos can pick out the shadows of veins, arteries, muscles, bone.

The girl's eyes are huge. "Mom! Can I join the Scouts?"

"You don't choose to join the Scouts," scoffs Cecil. "But I'll let you in on a little secret: Girl Scout sign-up isn't quite as random as it is for the boys! So if you're hoping to get that viridian envelope under your door, I know a few rituals you can try...."

"Maybe we should talk about this more after we get all settled in," says Sherie faintly. "You gentlemen want to recommend a good car rental place?"

"Oh, no," says Carlos. "I'm sure you're both excellent drivers back in the US —"

"Hey, I have my license too!" puts in the teenage girl.

"— that you're all excellent drivers back in the US, but you can't jump behind the wheel here right away. We didn't send you any kind of guide to local traffic cues."

"I can read enough Spanish to get around," protests Sherie.

"How can you tell if another driver has stop sign immunity?" asks Carlos. "What does it mean when a road sign shows time-lapse photography of flowers wilting?"

"Um...."

The glow in Cecil's arm is already fading. He smacks it a couple of times, to no avail, then shrugs and sticks his hands in his pockets. "You probably should not try to rent a vehicle in person anyway, if the two of you have as little hand-to-hand combat experience as your children. How about if I go pick something up for you, and Carlos drives?"

Sherie and her husband agree, and Cecil gives Carlos a peck on the cheek before heading off toward a dark, moss-encrusted doorway under a sign labeled RENTALS. Carlos is offering to help finish stacking their bags when the girl grabs her dad's arm. "Did you guys see that?"

"I'm sure it's no big deal. Men in Hispanian culture are usually more affectionate —"

"I don't mean that, Dad, look!"

She's pointing to Khoshekh, finally drawing the family's attention to the fact that Cecil's daemon is still cuddled up with Isaña. There are at least forty feet between him and Cecil now, and the gap is growing every moment.

Khoshekh smirks up at them, the picture of feline smugness. "It isn't only because we're dating that Carlos says we're fascinating."

 

-{,(((,">

 

It is getting late, and Dana is tired of walking.

She sits down. Then she lies down, in the soft, mostly-dead grass. It's a good thing her hair is braided back; it would have become a horrible mess by now if it were loose.

She takes out her phone and starts to compose a shaky text to Cecil. She's tried texting her mother and brother, but those don't seem to be getting through. Of course, she isn't always sure the messages to Cecil are getting through either. Sometimes his responses are scrambled, and sometimes they don't come at all....

Halfway through her typing, something whooshes through the air above her and hits the dirt with a thump.

Another care package! Dana scrambles to open it. There is food inside, and a warm sweater, and some cans of an energy drink, and....

Earrings. A pair of earrings, still in their packaging: two little silver anchors.

Smiling, she puts on first the sweater, then the earrings. She'll have a meal, get some caffeine in her, and then maybe follow the dog park walls a little longer before catching a good night's sleep.

Dana has never been able to read the alethiometer like Cecil can, but she knows the most basic meanings of all the symbols. He could trust her to recognize this one. The Anchor, first and foremost, means hope.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Henriette is the one who picked up today's new arrivals from the aerodock. Carlos and one of the Li Huas are doing one last round of vacuuming in the smaller of their rental houses — they just turned the power and water back on, after months of not having enough of a team to use the place at all — when the van pulls in.

Omero and Nirliq are both Ph.D. students, in cell biology and Rusakov optics respectively. Omero is a square-jawed young man getting his education on a veteran scholarship; his daemon is a startlingly beautiful glossy starling, feathers in iridescent shades of turquoise, blue, and violet. Nirliq is a few years older than Carlos, switching careers after a decade on some kind of management track that sounds deathly boring; accompanying her is a long-limbed red colobus, wispy tufts of white fur standing out around his keen black face.

"You'll meet Köhler and the other Li Hua later. They're out in the field now," says Carlos, after a round of introductions. "And you're the first two to get here, so feel free to call dibs on whatever rooms you want."

Omero looks wary. "What do you mean by 'the other Li Hua'?"

"He means he doesn't want to let me have any fun before you figure that out," says the Li Hua in residence.

"So...you're twins. Li Hua is your last name."

"No, she's one person who had an exact duplicate of herself created by a freak weather pattern," says Carlos. "We'll explain in more detail later, but honestly, this is only about the twenty-fourth most important thing we have to catch you up on."

"They did say this place was weird." Nirliq's eyes are sparkling with interest. "And when do we get to talk to Fleur? I'm such a fan. I must have cited five of her papers in my master's thesis, and I really want to bounce some theories off of her about enhancing her Dirac-Hall lenses by exploiting the properties of surface plasmons...."

"Fleur's current whereabouts are the seventeenth most important thing we have to catch you up on," interrupts Carlos. "Pick a room and grab some dinner, and then we'll start from the top, okay?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

There is a door.

Not a door in the dog park walls. Those are still as relentlessly solid as ever. This is an old, oak door, unsupported by any structure.

It could be an exit. It could be an entrance to something far worse. Dana can't even tell what side it's supposed to open from. She wishes she had her daemon with her, to talk about what to do.

But her daemon is somewhere far away, and the air around her is cold, and these are two very good reasons why she cannot simply stay where she is.

Dana brushes her fingertips against one of her earrings, then takes the doorknob on the side nearest to her and twists it open.

 

-{,(((,">

 

"Josie, Erika, these are Sherie, Omero, Nirliq, and Quentin. Everyone, this is one of our closest allies, Vieja Josie, and her friends Erika, Erika, and Erika."

The new experimental theologians were hired in the full expectation that they would meet some angels. They're a lot less stunned than Carlos was the first time an Erika said hello to him. Of these four, only Sherie's mouth is hanging open, and if there are any religious sentiments going through Quentin's head as he clings to his crucifix necklace, he doesn't annoy the angels by voicing them out loud.

Quentin is the first hire to be born and raised in Hispania Nova itself. Drove all the way here from Baja California, arriving in town last night in a beat-up Chevy with his worldly possessions in the back and his sweet-faced flying-squirrel daemon in his pocket. His Spanish is perfect, and you don't get far in studying anbaromagnetic field theory without learning plenty of technical English, but his conversational English will be getting a workout on the job.

Josie serves a round of homemade pastries, then she and Carlos retreat to the kitchen. The others can grill the Erikas, on whatever the Erikas feel like answering. Carlos needs to ask Josie about the witch he met in New Amsterdam.

"In my professional opinion," says Josie, sipping her lingonberry tea, "the Lake Enara clan and its allies are probably getting the prophecy from their own sources. There's no reason to suspect Cecil's mother is with them."

"Is her clan one of Lake Enara's allies?" asks Carlos. Of course he would like to assume Cecil's mother is on the same side as the legendary Serafina Pekkala, but it's not like he knows anything about how witch politics work.

"That would be quite a trick," says Josie, "considering that it no longer exists."

It turns out the women who would have been Cecil's aunts and cousins and grandmothers were wiped out in the War. "I'm sorry," says Carlos softly. "They died heroes."

Josie doesn't say anything.

Carlos shivers. "They did, right? They were on the right side of the War."

The witch stands up. "Let me see if your friends want any more muffins."

Erika is telling a story about Will Parry when they rejoin the group, and of course Carlos has to stay and listen. With one thing and another, he doesn't get a chance to ply Josie for any more details before it's time to go.

On the way back out to the cars, Quentin suddenly breaks from the group. "Give me a second," he says in Spanish, and makes a detour to the corner of Josie's empty driveway. As the others wait, he pulls off his crucifix and drops it in the trash. "Okay! Now we can go."

 

-{,(((,">

 

The door opens into what seems to be the basement of an old house. Dana leaves a voicemail for Cecil, doing her best to be a good reporter even when she knows almost nothing about where she is or what is going on, then goes exploring once more.

At first she thinks about leaving her backpack in one room while she explores the others, but is quickly glad she did not. The parts of the building aren't connected to each other properly. You leave a room through one door, and turn around to go back, and you end up in a completely different room. There are no windows — just a lot of photograms of windows, hanging on the walls — so Dana can't even tell if the floors are in any kind of order, or if climbing the stairs just puts you on the same level you left from.

She also discovers an insubstantial John Peters (you know, the farmer?) in the living room.

She calls Cecil again, trying to keep all the details straight in her head. Cecil will know how to put them together for the radio, once she gets them into his voicemail.

The call connects.

Between bursts of static, Cecil's voice says something that sounds like "Are you okay?"

"Cecil?" asks Dana. It is him, right? It sounds like him. "I can barely understand you. Cecil, are you there?"

"...you ever checked?" says Cecil through the fuzz. "...in your work shed."

"No, I'm still in the old house. I made my way out of the basement...." Dana marshals her facts. "....which was empty except for a single photogram of what looks to be a building. It's a framed five-by-seven black-and-white photo of the front of this old building. It hangs crooked just to the right of center on one wall. The building looks to have a row of columns, a terrace, and a series of stairs." At least, that was her best guess. It had been confusing to look at, like trying to interpret a two-dimensional image of something with more than three dimensions. "The stairs didn't go anywhere. Why would you build stairs and not have them go anywhere?"

"...to hover in packs of three or more, in fixed locations, for several minutes...."

Dana frowns. "No, that doesn't sound right. Anyway, once I heard the footsteps above me stop, I opened the door to the first floor. I saw a man standing in the middle of the living room, staring straight ahead at the wall. I couldn't see his face, Cecil, and I couldn't see his daemon, either. I wondered if he was separated from his daemon, like me, or if he did not have one at all. I was scared he might hear me, Cecil."

She isn't scared any more, of course. She's standing next to John Peters (you know, the farmer?) right now, and he still isn't looking at her, or giving any sign that he can hear her right now.

"Be quiet and stay inside," advises Cecil.

"No, it's all right! I already got up the nerve and spoke to him," says Dana quickly. "I said —" She steps right into the farmer's line of vision. "— 'hello, sir, my name is Dana, and I'm sorry to intrude, but I was wondering —'"

Still no response. Dana prays that he can't hear her, any more than she can touch him. Because the alternative is that his senses are working perfectly, but he no longer has the interest or attention to respond.

She goes back to her story. "'— is this your home?' And he didn't move. He didn't make a sound. He just kept staring at another small photo on the wall. I walked closer to him and I said, 'Excuse me, sir. Excuse me, but —' And then I saw. Cecil, I saw who it was."

"Old Woman Josie," says Cecil's voice.

"No, it wasn't her. It was John Peters! You know, the farmer?"

She lays the rest of it out for Cecil: the farmer's non-responsiveness, the fact that he is looking at one of the endless photos of windows, the way that when she tries to put her hand on his shoulder it goes right through him. The general spatial confusion of the whole house. Her own confusion.

"But I know one thing, Cecil," she adds, trying to get to the good news.

"The sunlight has come back," intones Cecil.

"Yes!" exclaims Dana, with a happy laugh. "I can see it right now. There is a door in the kitchen, the door John Peters must have entered through, because it is open, and beyond it is sunlight. I can see sunlight and sand. I'm going through."

"I hope you are safe," says Cecil through the haze.

"Well, I do not know if it is going to be safe," admits Dana. "But I have to go through that door. No matter what! I've got to get back home!"

Whatever Cecil tries to tell her now, it's too broken-up by static to make out.

"Here I go!" says Dana, as loudly and clearly as possible, and hopes her words make it through.

 

-{,(((,">

 

"And here we are," says Henriette, with a sweeping gesture toward the building they've all parked across from. "The house that doesn't exist."

The whole group of new experimental theologians lines up on the sidewalk and takes in the view. It's most relevant to the research of Sherie, the portal specialist, and Nirliq, the Rusakov photographer. Quentin will probably find something to interest him here, as will Rayshawn, the Texan with the frog daemon that Carlos met back in New Amsterdam.

Omero, the biologist, probably won't have much to do with this place. Neither will Perle, their final arrival, a soft-voiced woman with a leopard gecko daemon who came here all the way from Spain. Like Quentin, her first language is Spanish; unlike him, her English is deft and smooth. Her field is linguistics. She's not here to pick apart the DNA or measure the Rusakov concentrations of people like Hiram McDaniels; she's here to talk to them.

Still, no matter their fields, Carlos wants them all to have a thorough grounding in the oddities of Night Vale.

Also, he's hoping at least one of them can be convinced to walk up and ring the doorbell.

The new ducklings don't look nearly as impressed by the house's non-existence as they should. "It looks like it exists," says Omero dubiously.

"And it's got them identical houses on either side," adds Rayshawn. "Would sure make more sense for it to exist than not."

"You would think so, wouldn't you?" says Carlos, folding his arms. "All right, then, you go up and look in the windows. Tell us what's inside."

Henriette nods. "We'll wait right here."

"Or we could just go ask that girl coming out of it," says Sherie.

Carlos whips around. "What? Where?"

The front door is still closed, the windows still shuttered. For a second he feels like an idiot, falling for such an easy gag, and now everyone's going to think he's just gullible —

"Over at the side door. Purple shirt, backpack...looks like she's around my daughter's age," continues Sherie. "Can't see her daemon. I guess she's got a small one...."

And now Carlos sees. "Dana!"

He crosses the road at a light jog. She's back! She's made it out of the dog park — the two anomalies must be connected somehow — he can't wait to look into this in-depth. And, oh, her daemon is in another world — Carlos can't remember how he knows that, but he does — they'll have to rendezvous with Cecil, who can use the alethiometer to tell Dana how to follow....

Dana is talking on her phone. She doesn't seem to have noticed Carlos at all. Carlos catches up with her, not wanting to interrupt.

"...is not Night Vale," says Dana into the phone. "I don't see any town at all. The only thing I can see...."

She raises her head to look out across what is clearly Night Vale. Low buildings, power lines, the Brownstone Spire jutting up into the sky.

"...is a mountain. But mountains aren't real, Cecil! I will have to go back. I will have to try again."

"Dana," says Carlos again, reaching for her. "There's no mountain. We're right here. You're home."

His hand goes right through her shoulder.

The other experimental theologians have caught up with Carlos, circling around where Dana appears to be, but, clearly, is not. "Is everything all right, honey?" asks Sherie, with motherly concern. "Can you hear us?"

Oblivious, Dana turns around, and stares back toward the house that doesn't exist with a look of...panic? Horror? Concern?

She retraces a few of her steps, walking straight through Carlos in the process. Henriette takes it in stride, but all the new team members jump, daemons hiding behind their legs or hunkering down closer on their shoulders. Carlos just shivers. It's like being touched by a ghost, like walking through a cold wind.

Dana looks at her phone. Looking over her shoulder, Carlos sees a Call Lost screen. Her shoulders slump, defeated; she stuffs the phone in a pocket of her sturdy travel backpack, then picks a direction based on nothing Carlos can identify and starts walking, slow and steady.

As she walks, she fades, until she can no longer be seen at all.

Dead silence reigns.

Henriette breaks it. "All right, I think that's something Cecil will want to know about," she says. "Carlos, take care of calling him. As for the rest of you...where were we?...ah, yes: who wants to volunteer to go up and touch the house?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

Aside from good old-fashioned shared terror, there's nothing quite so good for team bonding as working on a project together. In this case, preparing a fresh batch of the Asriel emulsion. The new arrivals are already starting to take a surfeit of photos that need to be developed, and after only one or two weeks in town they have yet to be let in on the secret of the electrum spyglass, so they'll be doing their Rusakov photography the traditional way.

Everyone who works with Rusakov particles is in the chapel's main room, gloves and goggles on, comfortably mixing chemicals. Nirliq has come up with some plans to test her theories for enhancing the Dirac-Hall lenses, and is bouncing them off Henriette and Quentin. Sherie is telling Carlos about how her kids are settling in at the local Night Vale schools, and how surprised she is that their classes are so large, when this town seems so small. Köhler and Rayshawn seem to be half-listening to both.

It's all going swimmingly until Carlos's phone rings.

"Stay on this for a minute, okay?" he asks Sherie, and heads for the edge of the room where his phone is charging, tugging off his gloves along the way.

"That's his Cecil ringtone," Henriette stage-whispers to the group.

"Can't it wait?" asks Rayshawn, with a note of discomfort. He's the only one of the newcomers who seems really put off by the gay thing; not totally unexpected, since the Republic of Texas is the only country on the entire continent that still has anti-sodomy laws on the books. Sherie has been fumbling, evidently not sure what to think, and none of the others have batted an eye.

"Mr. Palmero is an important figure for information in this town," says Köhler. The new folks haven't been told about the alethiometer yet, either, but they know Cecil does the local news. The sooner they catch on to Cecil's relevance, the better. "When he calls, it is most often significant."

Even knowing that Cecil is likely calling about some kind of horrible emergency, Carlos's heart does a little flutter as he answers. "Cecil! Is everything okay?"

"Yes! Yes, everything is fine," says Cecil. He doesn't sound fine. He sounds shaky and nervous. "What about you? Are you all right?"

"Sure. All fine here."

"Where are you?"

"Just down at the chapel. Doing some chemistry, talking shop," says Carlos. Isaña pokes him urgently in the leg, but whatever she wants, it can wait until he's done talking to Cecil. "One of our new people has these fascinating ideas about exploiting surface plasmons — um, those are waves propagated across the surface of a conductor, in this case treated electrum —" His daemon pokes him again. Apparently it can't wait. "Sorry, just a second — what is it?"

The little armadillo looks up at him in panic from the floor. "We had a date!"

"We had a date?" echoes Carlos stupidly.

Silence on the other end of the line.

"Oh my god we had a date," breathes Carlos. "Oh my god, Cecil, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

"So you're not hurt," says Cecil, the anxiety replaced with a steely cool. "Or detained. Or kidnapped. Or temporarily deprived of your memories and staggering in confused circles through the desert."

"No, none of that, I'm fine, I just — I got caught up in things. Lost track of time. And hey, time isn't real anyway, right?" says Carlos with a nervous laugh. It doesn't get any warmth out of Cecil. "Okay, that was stupid, I — should I just come over now? I mean, not now, I have a solution over an open flame here...." He throws a panicky glance at the chapel tables, and discovers his teammates either facepalming or looking utterly unimpressed. "...although it's a routine procedure and my colleagues are very capable experimental theologians, so they can certainly take care of it if I ask!"

"Don't bother," says Cecil. "I am sorry I interrupted. I'll leave you to your routine procedure."

He hangs up.

Carlos's head spins. They had a date. And he forgot. On the scale of relationship sins, how bad is this? Is it closer to "why can't you chew normally" or "with my brother?" (Not that Cecil has a brother, and not that Carlos would cheat on Cecil in a million years with anyone, his brain is just torturing him with wild hyperbole.) Does Cecil think Carlos loves experimental theology more than him, because it isn't like that, not at all, he just...forgot.

"Sweetie, you look like you're going to pass out. Sit down," chides Sherie, appearing out of nowhere to guide Carlos to the nearest chair. Her mongoose daemon keeps Isaña walking in a straight line. "You don't stand this boy up on a regular basis, do you?"

"No," says Carlos miserably. "I mean, I was late that one time...but only because there was a very dangerous portal open, and there are people here who have somehow managed to survive to adulthood with zero survival instincts and will walk right into a seeping mist of toxic gas if you don't keep them out. And right before we started dating there was something I almost missed because I was...um, medically dead for a bit."

"Well, I call that an excuse," says Sherie. "You've been dating for a while? How serious is it?"

"Coming up on three months. I guess it's...very serious? I don't know how to quantify this! And I have no personal basis for comparison, and I didn't know him far back enough to know how his other relationships compare...."

"He's crazy about you!" calls Henriette helpfully from the other side of the room. In Spanish. By this point she knows more Spanish phrases for romance than she will ever have reasonable cause to use.

"And who wouldn't be?" exclaims Sherie, sticking with English. Her discomfort with Carlos's non-traditional relationship appears to have been totally swept away by her sense that he could use some traditional Hebrew mothering. "You're smart, you're handsome, you have fantastic hair...so you missed a date. All right. You keep your distance for a day or so, give him a little space to be angry, then you show up at his place with the biggest bunch of flowers you can find. Does he like flowers? With a girl, it would definitely be flowers."

"He might." Carlos has never needed to know before. "I'll ask around. I'm sure Josie or Steve can suggest something."

"Well, there you go! Don't let it get you down. You'll be back in his good books before you know it."

 

-{,(((,">

 

With Sherie off at her family's place, the Li Huas weren't compelled to bunk together again, and Quentin is the only one of the new arrivals to join them in the larger of the rental houses. He shows up outside the bathroom that evening while Carlos is brushing his teeth.

"We'll just be a minute," says Isaña in Spanish. Carlos has a mouthful of foam.

"Hey, don't rush on my account." Quentin adjusts the bathrobe slung over his shoulder.

His flying-squirrel daemon climbs out of the fluffy pocket and jumps into the air, soaring down to land next to Isaña. "So...Sherie really came around today, huh," she says.

"We thought she might," says Isaña. They did screen the applicants for raging, intractable homophobia. Anyone with hang-ups who made it through has the potential to get over them.

"By the way, we read that paper of yours," adds Quentin's squirrel. "The one with the updated model for anbaromagnetic field theory. Now, maybe you've thought of this already, but we think Henriette's danger meter could be modified to test some of your hypotheses...."

The two daemons talk about the ionization probability of complex atoms while Carlos spits and rinses. They touch on ideas that hadn't even occurred to Carlos. He can't wait to see in practice if they hold up.

As he's leaving to let the other man shower, Quentin adds, "Hey, one more thing — where does a guy go to meet another guy around here anyway?"

Carlos blinks, then blushes. "Um, if you're me, you don't go anywhere. He just spots you at a professional function, and later announces on the radio to the whole town that he's in love with you. Which worked out in the long run, but as methods go, I wouldn't recommend it."

"No kidding," says Quentin. "Is that the only way he tries to pick people up, or are there, you know, hangouts he would know about?"

"I'll ask if he has any recommendations," promises Carlos. "As long as you don't mind waiting a while. I probably shouldn't bring it up until I make sure he's accepted the flowers."

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

"Sorry, no visitors today," says the receptionist, sounding more bored than sorry. Her thrush daemon grooms its feathers, ignoring them. "No exceptions."

Carlos tries not to freak out all over again. This doesn't necessarily mean Cecil doesn't want Carlos visiting the station. It could just be a really busy news day. Or Station Management could be in a mood, the kind where it might get antsy and eat guests. "Could you at least call up and tell Cecil he has a delivery? I'm not sure I can carry this all the way home."

The bouquet in his arms (pink roses, orchids, Texas bluebells, and yellow snapdragons) wriggles, and one of the snapdragons tries to take another bite out of his hand. After the first one, the florist offered to throw in a pair of gardening gloves at half-price, evidently out of pity that Carlos doesn't know how to deal with flowers.

The receptionist dials up to Cecil's office. "Señor Palmero? Delivery for you. Flowers. You got someone else who would be bringing you flowers? All right, all right, you didn't say. He'll be right up." She hangs up the receiver and nods to Carlos. "All right, sign in."

Conveniently, Carlos is already bleeding, so he doesn't have to prick his finger again to leave a dot of blood on the sign-in sheet. He and Isaña get into the elevator, where he presses the button for Cecil's floor...and realizes with a start as the doors slide shut that the lights are off. The button panel is lit up, a set of disembodied hovering neon rings and numbers, and all the rest is darkness.

His eyes have adjusted, as much as they can, when he steps out into a similarly darkened hall.

"Hello?" he says haltingly. "Cecil...?"

"Shh!" The shadowy form of Cecil appears out of the gloom, just as the elevator shuts behind him and the view dims even further. "Keep your voice down. Our current intern had her second-sight awaken in a big way about five minutes after she got in, and of course we can't send her home in that state, so we're trying to keep sensory stimulation to a minimum."

"Oh," whispers Carlos. "Sure."

He jumps when Cecil's hands brush over his. "I guess I'll put these in some water...? If you keep ahold of my shoulder, can you follow me?"

Carlos gladly relinquishes the bouquet. "Of course. Just let me pick up Isaña first."

He scoops up his daemon, fumbles a bit until Cecil guides his hand to the shoulder of a lace-trimmed vest, and lets Cecil lead him slowly down the hall. The break room is in this direction, and as they get closer Carlos recognizes it, the door ajar and the insides lit by a series of tiny yellow flashes.

"Wait here," whispers Cecil, stopping him at the threshold.

Someone inside is taking shuddery breaths. Another set of little yellow flickers, soft and familiar from childhood summer nights, and Carlos realizes he's seeing a firefly daemon. Its glow outlines the huddled form sitting beside it.

"Vithya? This is Cecil Palmer from your present, September 12, 2013," says Cecil as he lets himself in. "I'm getting something to put these flowers in."

"Cecil — don't," pleads Vithya in a hoarse voice. "You're bleeding...there's blood everywhere...."

"There's no blood in September 2013, Vithya." Dishes clank as Cecil rummages through the cupboards. "Present-day Cecil is not hurt."

For a moment Vithya is calmed by this. Then she shrieks. "Where are your eyes?"

"Present-day Cecil's eyes are right here in his head, Vithya!" calls Cecil over the running of water. "There's nothing in September 2013 for you to be afraid of."

Vithya sniffles and shakes. Cecil returns to the hall, now carrying the flowers in a sloshing jar.

"Will she be okay?" whispers Carlos as Cecil takes his hand once more.

"She'll be great. Sudden unfiltered access to all of time and space is never easy, but she took less than an hour to get through the unmitigated-screaming stage," says Cecil brightly. "I bet you anything she'll be finished sorting through all possible futures when the broadcast starts, and have most of the unbearable knowledge safely repressed by the end of the weather."

Carlos swallows. "I'll take your word for it."

Cecil's office is lit by his computer monitor and a handful of blinking lights on the equipment. Heavy blackout curtains are hanging down over the usual blinds; he tugs on a cord and one of them slides aside a few inches, letting in a blinding white streak of sunlight that goes almost up to the ceiling. Voice still low, he says, "Is this enough light for you?"

"That's plenty, yeah."

"Great." Cecil sets the jar on his desk, retrieves a plastic container of peanuts from a drawer, and flicks one at the bouquet. A snapdragon catches it out of the air and crunches down.

Carlos hangs back, setting Isaña on the desk's other end, trying to figure out how much forgiveness all this equates to. "So...are you...still mad?"

Cecil's mouth twists. "I think it's reasonable to expect you to call me when these things happen," he says, folding his arms. "I don't think that's too much to ask."

"It is! I mean, it isn't! I mean, it is reasonable, and it isn't too much!" stammers Carlos. "And I didn't mean to imply that you shouldn't still be mad — I realize that human emotions do not work like chemical solutions, where a measured quantity of gifts can be counted on to neutralize a known proportion of justified anger, especially when I can't even promise that it will never happen again — I've always had experimental theology in my life, Cecil, and there's never been anyone with this kind of legitimate claim to take me away from it before, and I know in theory how to treat you right, but in practice, I —"

He keeps babbling right up to the point where Cecil's arms loop around his shoulders, Cecil's forehead rests against his.

"...hi," says Carlos, and dares to clasp his hands against the dip of Cecil's back.

"My dear Carlos," murmurs Cecil. "The joy of your presence in my life is sufficient to neutralize a much greater quantity of anger than I think you realize."

Too relieved to speak, Carlos pulls Cecil into a tight hug.

"That said," adds Cecil, "if you should also happen to miss our dinner this coming Sunday, you are going to need to budget for much deadlier flowers."

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

The sun that hangs over the vast, forsaken landscape doesn't look right. It is closer, or perhaps larger. It is putting out too much sunshine.

Dana does not know what world she is in. There may be people here, somewhere, with their own maps and directions and points of reference, but she is starting from scratch. Once a full day has passed, she arbitrarily decides to pretend the sun moves the same direction as it does in her own world, which means: she is moving east.

To the south, the hills lead into a range of saw-toothed mountains. At their western tip is something that might be another mountain, but looks too regular to be anything but a man-made structure: a great rearing heap of basalt, dark and foreboding, like a fortress built to withstand assault on a scale Dana can only dream of. She avoids it. She doesn't believe in mountains, anyway.

The plains to the west and north are empty. No, not empty. Barren. There's no life, not a plant or a creature to be seen, but the sandy ground is littered with wrecked and twisted hunks of metal, some of them half-buried by the wind.

Dana is guessing that they're vehicles. She doesn't recognize the construction of most of the wrecks, but she can't see anything that looks like foundations or the remains of walls, so whoever left these objects here must have been traveling through the area, not living on it. Scattered around in the sand are glints of white that might be bone. Whatever left the plains in this state, Dana isn't eager to meet it herself.

Very far to the north, half-hidden by clouds on the horizon, is another mountain. Dana can barely make out the details of this one, although after the sun sets she can see a blinking red light at the peak, a tiny dot of brilliance that flashes through the dark and nearly-starless sky. She doesn't plan on believing in this mountain either.

So, east it is. East, through a slightly hilly country where the wrecks are few and far between, where the sand is broken by the occasional touch of hardy grass and even a few gnarled cacti. Dana has found an empty riverbed, and is following it on a loose path downward. Hopefully there is still some kind of lake or oasis at the end.

After all, if there are people to be found in this world, they will be near the water.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Carlos lets himself into Cecil's apartment, carting a panini press and a couple of light bulbs. The apology bouquet whistles at him from the counter, and a moment later Cecil comes out for a hug, just as Carlos is finished replacing the bulb in his fridge. "Do you need anything before I go?"

"Nope. All set." Carlos nuzzles Cecil's dark hair. "Go do your show. If I've estimated this evening's time anomalies right, dinner should be ready right about when you get back."

His phone, in his bag on the table, chooses that moment to launch into its new-theologian ring tone.

"...unless someone is in mortal danger," amends Carlos, and Cecil reluctantly lets him go. In a town like this, an "all plans can be canceled if you need to save someone's life" policy is an unfortunate necessity.

It turns out to be Rayshawn on the other end of the line. "Hey, uh, Carlos? What're we s'posed to do when suddenly there's a giant, impossible —"

He breaks off, and Carlos can hear the muffled voice of someone else talking in the distance.

"Never mind! Seems it's under control. Sorry to've bothered you." He hangs up.

"So, no mortal danger?" asks Cecil, resting his head on Carlos's shoulder.

"Hard to tell," says Carlos. "There's a giant, impossible something, and one of the new arrivals doesn't recognize it. Which means it could be totally normal, and/or not dangerous, and/or the on-duty members of my team could be perfectly capable of handling it. Or none of these things could be true. I don't have enough data to tell."

His eyes flick to the window ("giant" is relative; it could be visible from here, or it could just be a three-foot-long beetle), then back to his phone. A quick text to one of the veterans should confirm if it's something he needs to help study....

Cecil plucks the phone out of his hands.

While Carlos sputters and tries instinctively to grab it back, Cecil pockets it without effort. "Sweet, concerned Carlos, if they needed your help, I am sure they would have said so."

"Okay, but I still need that!" protests Carlos. "If there's an emergency later — if you need to call me —"

"If anyone needs to get ahold of you, the secret police know where you are." Cecil drops a quick kiss on Carlos's cheek. "See you later tonight!"

 

-{,(((,">

 

The seasoned salmon is broiling in the oven, the hard-crusted potato bread is sliced, the orange glaze is ready to be spread, and Carlos hasn't heard a word from anyone outside this apartment. Not about giant impossible somethings, or anything else.

"If it's important and dangerous, Cecil will be reporting about it," says Isaña. "Where's the radio?"

"Good question," says Carlos. "Let's look."

They turn over the whole kitchen and half of the living room before a bored voice says, "He doesn't have one. Why would he need one? He is the radio."

Carlos doesn't try to see her, just addresses the vague blur off to his left, which he knows to be a Faceless Old Woman with an eyeless white salamander for a daemon. "Thanks."

"This is the kind of support I would provide for every member of the community if I were your mayor," points out the Anciana Sin Rostro. "Can I count on your vote next June? Not that elections are decided by votes, obviously, but it would be a nice gesture."

"I'm not a citizen of Hispania Nova," Carlos reminds her. "I don't think I'm allowed to vote."

"Why would that matter? Hiram McDaniels isn't a native of this universe, and it hasn't stopped him from trying to run."

Carlos sighs. "I'll think about it, all right? In the meantime, could you drop in on the home of someone else who does have a radio, and let me know if there's anything serious going on?"

"Maybe," says the Faceless Old Woman. "What are you cooking in there? It smells very good."

"Salmon paninis. Will you check the radio for me if I promise to stick one in the fridge for you? I'd offer to set a place at dinner, but this is kind of supposed to be a romantic couple's night."

The Faceless Old Woman considers this. "Do not put orange glaze on my bread," she orders at last. "I do not like orange products. They upset me." With that, she vanishes from view altogether.

Left alone again, Carlos and Isaña return to the kitchen to do some cleaning-up. Carlos sets aside a couple slices of bread, and uses a spatula to start glazing the rest when the blur in the corner of his eye reappears.

"Beware, Carlos," she says. "Beware the unraveling of all things."

Carlos's heart skips a beat.

"Not now," adds the Faceless Old Woman. "Just in general. There's nothing going on right now specifically, except for this situation with a horrific invading army and everyone being urged to flee their homes. Or, in my case, your homes."

"What."

"Oh, yes. It's all over the radio. Army coming down from the mountain, very frightening."

This, Carlos has got to see.

He strides over to the living room window and levers it open with his free hand, just as a blue secret-police gyropter goes by overhead. This side of the building doesn't face the road, but now he can hear the unmistakable rumbling, honking, and occasional explosion of a Night Vale traffic jam. And there in the distance, blocking out the formerly flat horizon....

"Oh, that?" says Carlos.

"I can only assume so. Why?"

"Because that's a mirage. I've seen that one before." Carlos waves vaguely with the spatula. "When you get the clouds in a certain way and the temperature is where it's at, you can sometimes get this blinking light/mountain/floodplain/masked army mirage." He leans out the window again, getting a closer look. "Wow, this is a pretty strong one. It should disappear in an hour or two. Listen, do you think you could drop in on the radio and tell Cecil to calm people down? I don't want a blindly panicked populace making him late for dinner."

"That depends," says the Faceless Old Woman, unimpressed as ever. "What are you making for dessert?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

On her third day out here alone, Dana finds another of those old oak doors.

She runs to it. It's chained shut from the far side, but it smells like home, so she pounds on the weather-beaten panels with her fists. Nobody answers.

She camps next to it for the night. There are very few stars overhead, even though she's in the middle of total wilderness and there's no light pollution at all, except for that omnipresent blinking red light on the lone probably-not-real mountain to the north.

Before long, the sun rises again. Too bright. Too hot.

It's as good a time as any to give astral projection another shot. Dana sits cross-legged in the shade of the door, folds her hands, and tries to feel the currents of the world around her. To step outside her body; to let them sweep her away.

Maybe the currents are stronger here, or maybe it's simply easier to concentrate without being surrounded by unseen hooded spectres — whatever the cause, this time it works.

Dana's body slumbers peacefully on the sand, while her ghost floats upward and tilts ever so slightly to the left —

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

"...and so I was hoping we could set aside an afternoon to talk about language with the angels," finishes Carlos. He's in the back seat of the coupe on the way to work, calling Josie on behalf of Perle, their linguist, who sits next to him. "If they existed. Which they don't."

"I'm sure they would love to," says Josie on the other end of the line, "but they aren't around right now, so it's going to have to wait until they get back. Whenever that is."

"You don't know?"

Josie sighs. "I wish I did! They've been gone for — well, almost ever since you brought your new friends over to meet them. It's never been this long before. They must be doing something important."

Carlos relates the news to Perle. "Of course," she says, resigned, like she was expecting nothing less than for her best study subjects to disappear as soon as she got into town. "I understand."

"They'll definitely be back, though!" Carlos assures her. "There's kind of a thing with prophecy going on, and they're going to be needed."

"Is this the same prophecy that you told us about?" asks Nirliq from the front seat. Her colobus daemon is buckled into the passenger seat like a skinny, furry child. (Perle's leopard gecko, like Isaña, is just riding at his human's feet.) "The one that explains why you're not actually running the project?"

"That's the one."

"I don't understand why you're fighting it," adds Perle softly. "If the nonexistent angels have to come back because of destiny, then you have to betray this town because of destiny, too."

"I am fighting it because free will is the heart and soul of the Republic," says Carlos stubbornly. "Look, if you want to get out of the tape room and do some field work, Josie's tall friends aren't your only options. How about if we get in touch with Hiram McDaniels? You can be the first person from this world to study his world's native language."

"Or to figure out if it really is a language, and he's not just an ordinary guy with a thing for conlangs."

"Um...."

"No, he's definitely from another world," says Nirliq. "He's literalmente, un dragón de cinco cabezas! Haven't you heard the ads?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

Desert Bluffs.

"— look forward to many more!" exclaims the woman at the podium. She raises a glass. "To the company!"

The toast goes up around the room. It's a big banquet hall, lots of people in suits and trim dresses, food piled on bright yellow tablecloths. Dana has appeared between two tables near the back — she jumps, but nobody seems to notice her, and when a waiter with a tray of champagne glasses walks right through her, she realizes she isn't really here.

The woman up front, a blonde in a dark suit with a green-headed duck for a daemon, picks up something gold and vaguely award-like and gets down from the stage. Presentation over, the rest of the people start eating in earnest. Dana sees salads and steaks and cheese plates up front, but when she happens to turn and glance at the table next to her, the people here are eating colorless slabs of something unidentifiable.

Also — Dana flinches in horror — their eyes are all solid black, from corner to corner.

And in the group back here, she can't see any daemons.

Shivering, Dana walks all around the table. She looks in people's laps, at their pockets, next to their feet. She even crawls under the tablecloth, her ghost going right through the drapery and chair-legs and human-legs without a whisper of resistance. Nothing.

Where is she? Who are these people? How —

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Hiram agrees to meet with Perle and Omero, the linguist and the biologist, at his campaign office. Carlos drives.

Little triads of gyropters keep appearing in the skies overhead, hovering in a fixed place before moving on. Instead of the familiar blue, black, and mural-painted, they're an unfamiliar yellow.

"¿Los gyrópteros que son amarillo, lo que significa?" asks Omero in his clunky Spanish. "Recuerdo los que son...azul, negro, y...the ones with the paintings of birds on them."

"I've never seen los amarillos before," admits Carlos. "We'll have to ask around."

But first: Hiram! Whose campaign office is literally a re-purposed basketball court at the Main Street Recreation Center, because the dragon is two stories tall and most buildings can't hold him. His tawny, feathered wings are each as big as the broad side of a barn. Each of his five heads has a brilliantly-colored crest, and a razor-toothed beak large enough to snap a human in two with one bite.

Carlos and Omero help Perle carry the recording equipment inside, where Hiram's burnished-gold head greets them with a friendly drawl. "Lovely to meet you folks! Welcome to town."

His green head, meanwhile, bends low and eyeballs first Omero, then Perle. "WHICH ONE OF THESE SPINDLY CREATURES SEEKS A BOON OF FLESH AND SCALES?!"

Omero stands still and straight with military discipline, his starling daemon perched unflinching on his shoulder. Perle looks to Carlos for a cue. She understood the Spanish, but she's evidently leery of what she would be getting Omero into by giving him up.

"He asked which of you wants the biological samples," explains Carlos in English. He leaves out the "spindly" part, partly to be kind, partly because Omero is seriously one of the most built people he's ever met.

"Right." Omero takes a breath and addresses the heads in Spanish: "That is me!"

"We already gave you samples," says the grey head morosely. "Don't understand why you'd need to come back for more."

Carlos starts to explain the difference between the Li Huas' general research on DNA and Omero's interest in a variety of specific cells, when Hiram's gold head says, "Don't you worry, we understand the principle of the thing. My grey head is just being difficult."

The purple head, meanwhile, snakes down to do its own investigation of Omero. "I like his daemon!" it announces, in a shrieky, paranoid voice, studying her with a vivid green eyeball larger than she is. "I like the colors. They are nice colors!"

"Púrpura es un color agradable," agrees the pretty starling cautiously.

"Violeta!" shrieks the purple...uh, violet...head. "I don't like the word purple. I like violet!"

And Hiram's green head is now sniffing Omero up and down. Hiram curves a foreleg toward him — someone, maybe Omero, is going to have to study him and figure out just how the five heads decide who moves the rest of his body — and taps a claw against his left calf, which clangs. "WHY IS HE MADE OF METAL?" shrieks the green head.

"Now he wants to know how you got the prosthetic," relates Carlos. "If you don't want to talk about it, I'm happy to just tell him he's being rude."

Only the way Omero's eyes keep flicking around the scene betray his nervousness. "I'm here to ask about how his body works. It's only fair to let him do the same. If you'd translate, I would appreciate it."

So Carlos converts the story into Spanish: how Omero was patrolling a war zone when a grenade went off, several pieces of shrapnel were embedded in his leg, and it had to be amputated just below the knee. All five of Hiram's heads, even the usually-listless grey one, listen intently. "Well, that's quite a tale," says the gold head at last.

"HE SHOWS COURAGE AND FORTITUDE FOR A BITE-SIZED SCRAP OF MEAT!" puts in the green head.

"He can have one scale," adds the violet head shakily. "One! And we reserve the right to take it back!"

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

Dana snaps back into her body with a gasp.

The sun is low on the other side of the horizon. Hours must have passed. And all she did was stumble into somebody's party, in a place that was certainly not Night Vale.

"At least I went somewhere," she tells herself. "Which is better than going nowhere."

With the light dimmed, the air is much cooler, and she still feels refreshed and ready to go. She gets to her feet and starts following the riverbed onward.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Hiram may have been admirable toward Omero, but once Perle starts talking, all five heads become downright adoring. They haven't met anyone else interested in hearing their native language in years. They translate phrases for her; they argue over the most appropriate word choices; the blue head regales her with the details of their base-eight counting system and all their vocabulary for math.

After a few hours of Perle filling tape with recordings, Carlos is starting to get hungry. "Omero and I are going to run next door for lunch. Want us to pick you up anything?"

"Just a salad? Thanks," says Perle, barely looking at him. "Now, Hiram's green head, if you were to pose the question you just asked to a being you did not plan on eating, how would you say it then?"

Carlos and Omero leave her to it. There's a Taco Bell on the corner, just a couple doors down; they ignore the constantly-ringing pay phone out back (who uses pay phones any more, anyway?) and go in for burritos.

As usual, the radio is on. A Hiram McDaniels campaign ad is just finishing as Carlos pays for the food, and he leans against the condiment counter to bask in the soothing tones of Cecil's voice. "Welcome back, listeners. We've received another call with an update from Old Woman Josie, which I'm going to take you to now. Josie? You're on the air."

"Thank you, Cecil." Josie sounds...concerned. "Half a dozen of those yellow gyropters we talked about are circling my home. And I'm not getting any sunlight. Even though all my clocks say it's the middle of the day."

"It's true," says Cecil. "I'm looking at our own station clocks right now — including the wristwatch my dear Carlos gave me, which he says is the only real timepiece in all of Night Vale — and it is indeed the middle of the day. Can you tell us anything else, Josie?"

"I made my daemon invisible and sent him up to investigate the gyropters. He says they each have a logo. An orange triangle with an S in the middle. He couldn't see the pilots from within the darkness, and he couldn't get out of the shadowed area to look more closely, either."

"So the sunlight can't get in, and your daemon can't get out." Cecil's calm, professional detachment falters, just a little. "Are you trapped?"

"Protected," corrects Josie. "I think the angels did this, Cecil. I think they came back just long enough to cast this around our home. To protect us."

"Angels are, of course, not real," says Cecil automatically....

"Dr. Perfecto, your order is ready!" calls the cashier, making Carlos start so hard he bangs his hip on the counter. He'd forgotten where he was for a minute there, totally caught up in worrying about Josie, in trying to remember where he's seen a logo like that before, in fretting over the phrase la luz del sol no puede entrar without understanding why it bothers him so much.

He takes the food, then says under his breath to Omero, "Un minuto. Necesito escuchar esto."

(He's too distracted to remember to use English, but it's easy to get "hang on, this sounds important" from context.)

"...listen, we should totally get the team back together and go to League Night again," Cecil is saying, and Carlos dares to hope that the whole conversation has wandered into the meaningless and personal. "Just like old times."

"I would like that, Cecil," says Josie. Softly. Fondly. In the wistful tone of someone remembering the past, but not planning for a future.

Half the people in the Taco Bell are listening now.

Then Josie adds, in a strange, cold voice like the arctic North where she was born, "I'm afraid la luz del sol has come back."

"Uh-huh?" says Cecil, trying to be cheerful. "Can you go outside and let us know if you can get out now?"

Silence.

"...Josie?"

More silence.

"Um, listeners, it appears I have lost the call," stammers Cecil. He recovers quickly, building momentum for a speech about how all of them must protect their town. Carlos already has his phone out, mass-texting the rest of the team: Anybody near Josie's who can check in on her? Hearing some worrying things on the radio.

He hears from Sherie a minute later: Keith and I are about five minutes away. Packing up the equipment and heading over now :)

Nothing else Carlos can do from here. And Cecil has switched to the weather, so the two experimental theologians walk back to the rec center, with Carlos summarizing the phone call for Omero along the way. The sun beats down on them, vivid and brilliant...but it's just the sun, just an ordinary component of the natural world, so why is Carlos so unsettled whenever he thinks about sunlight?

Another trio of yellow gyropters pass almost directly overhead. Carlos can't see them casting any shadows.

 

-{,(((,">

 

When they get back to Hiram's office, all five heads are demonstrating what sounds like a loud, raucous, round-robin drinking song. Even his grey head is getting reluctantly into it. Perle is clapping along, bopping her head, grinning in a way Carlos hasn't seen since...possibly ever. Her leopard gecko has an adorable smile built into the structure of his face, but Perle herself doesn't seem to be the smiley type.

Carlos is just starting to relax when Sherie texts him again: Police have house cordoned off. Won't let us get near. I can see a broken window, and big chunks torn out of the turf. Can't see any sign of Josie.

He reads the message to Isaña, who shivers. "At least the police are on it? And the Erikas probably had more than one trick up their sleeves...metaphorically, since they don't wear clothes...and she's a witch! She has plenty of ways to defend herself, or to get to safety without being noticed."

"All perfectly logical," agrees Carlos, and doesn't point out that no amount of witchy self-defense was able to save Paivi Feldt's mother.

At last Hiram has to send them away, saying he needs to get ready for a fundraising dinner. He showers them with McDANIELS '14 merchandise: pins, magnets, bumper stickers, live rats, funeral masks. It's a nice counterbalance to the Faceless Old Woman T-shirts, fedoras, breakfast cereal, and spiders that the experimental theologians keep finding heaped in their sock drawers. (Their socks usually turn up in the oven. Or on the roof.)

They pile Perle's high-fi recording equipment on a cart and push it out into the front lobby. The radio is on in here too, but Cecil's show must be over, because nothing is playing except a slow dripping sound. Carlos steps ahead of Perle to open one of the doors.

A gust of wind blows a flock of bright-orange leaflets into the building.

One of them catches on the equipment. Carlos picks it up, curious, wondering if this is a new type of Night Vale precipitation or —

STREXCORP SYNERNISTS, INC., the paper announces in large block letters. Look around you: Strex. Look inside you: Strex. Go to sleep: Strex. Believe in a Smiling God. Strexcorp: It Is Everything.

Printed on the corner of the front cover is a logo. A triangle with an S in the middle. Carlos runs his thumb over it, finally remembering: the same symbol is etched on the face of all their Strex-provided portable Rusakov meters.

Strexcorp sent the gyropters.

That's...good. Right? They aren't a threat after all. They couldn't have been trying to do anything sinister to Josie. Maybe the shade around her house wasn't angelic protection after all, maybe it was some kind of dangerous Rusakov anomaly that Strex wanted to help with....

Not that Strex would know if there was a Rusakov anomaly, because the meters they provided around town aren't supposed to be sending information to them....

Perle and Omero have both caught leaflets too. Omero concentrates fiercely on deciphering it, while Perle's good mood is dwindling back to her standard unenthusiastic calm.

"Excuse me?" calls Carlos to the woman running the rec center's front desk. "Did you happen to hear anything about Strexcorp on the radio before the news ended? Or anything else about the gyropters, or Josie?"

"Oh, sure," says the woman, her sparrow daemon nodding along. "Cecil said the gyropters are safe, Josie is safe, and, well, to sum things up, all of us are completely safe."

That's good. That's great. Why doesn't it make Carlos feel better?

He unfolds his leaflet and stares at three columns of friendly corporate jargon. Nothing specific about their products or theological endeavors, just a blur of meaningless patter: excited to serve the community...explore this bright new market...proud to bring struggling local businesses into the thriving Strexcorp family....

"He said all that right after telling us that Strexcorp bought the radio station," adds the woman at the front desk, just as Carlos is reading the words our first acquisition: beloved local community radio station NVCR!

Carlos leans hard on the frame of the door he's still standing in, sick with fear. Strexcorp sent gyropters that chased Josie from her home (please, please, let it be nothing worse than that). The only indication that she's safe is on the radio, and Strexcorp just bought the radio. They are not safe. They were targeted.

Oh, god, Strex started off by targeting the two places in town that have the highest Rusakov concentration. And given that there haven't been any horrific screaming crashes, they must have known to stay the hell away from the dog park.

They knew, Strexcorp knew, they have comprehensive data on local Rusakov levels, oh god

"Are you okay?" asks Perle. "No offense, but you look terrible."

A lance of sunlight beats down on the back of Carlos's neck as he remembers something else. When Cecil looked for answers about the monstrous someone who hurt the control team in Desert Bluffs, the alethiometer kept coming back — over and over and over — to the Sun.

His voice cracks. "I know how I betrayed Night Vale."

A rustle of feathers and expensive-suit fabric at the other side of the lobby: Hiram is coming up. His violet and blue heads poke out through the entryway; Carlos doesn't even want to think about how the fabric of space must be bending to allow him down the corridor.

"It's just like I said," hisses Hiram's violet head in a panicky whisper to the blue. "The Scholar is trying to find all the secrets. They can use that! Use him! I said so, but did you listen? Did anyone listen?"

"I'm sorry!" cries Carlos. "You were right all along! We have to get rid of those meters — even if the worst of the damage is already done, we can't let it keep going, we have to —"

The slow dripping from the still-playing radio is joined by rapid, shaky breaths, which cut into a sudden scream —

in Cecil's voice

Carlos chokes. "— we have to get to the station, now —"

"Sir, you have to get down," says Omero sharply, and yanks both Carlos and Perle out of the way of the open door.

Perle is more than willing to duck-and-cover on command. Carlos isn't happy about it, but Night Vale has drilled a few survival instincts into him, and he knows it isn't going to help Cecil if something shoots/eats/vaporizes him along the way. He stays behind the next (closed) door in the row, out of the way of its single window, as Omero draws a handgun and positions himself just at the edge of the opening.

"Dr. Perfecto!" calls a voice from the outdoors. "We know you're in there. Drop any weapons and come out with your hands up!"

The police. Just what Carlos does not need right now. Except — wait — maybe he does. An experimental theologian understands the value of teamwork. Especially when the man he loves is at stake.

"Omero, don't shoot," he says, stripping off his bag. "Perle, hang on to this for me. Both of you, stay calm, don't argue, don't even make any sudden moves. It's just the police — they're here to arrest me — and I need you both to stay out of trouble while we let them."

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

Two balaclava-clad officers hold Carlos at gunpoint on the sidewalk while they wait for an unmarked van to show up and take him away. One cuffs his wrists — in front of him, thankfully, so he can keep holding Isaña.

He talks. He spills all the details he can think of, because this needs to be out, early and often. Hopefully the team members who were with him are in touch with Henriette and Köhler by now, passing the news to his second-in-commands, plus whatever officers are listening in on their phones. Passing on the order to tear the Strexcorp equipment down.

The police, for their part, won't tell Carlos a thing about what's happening at the station.

Carlos can only pray there's a secret-police detail breaking down the doors. If there isn't — if Strex is just being left free rein to do whatever-the-hell they want with Cecil, and they're evil — he imagines an empty-eyed Cecil chirpily telling him to believe in a smiling God, and his heart twists.

After a torturous eternity of uncertainty, the van shows up. The officers shepherd him roughly into the back and cuff him into a seat. Someone is waiting here with an Isaña-sized fabric-draped cage, which freaks Carlos right the hell out until they explain that he gets to hold it, and then he can deal with it (barely). Someone else has a hood made of matching fabric for Carlos.

"Do we have to bother with that?" pleads Carlos, knees pressed tightly against the sides of the cage sitting between his shoes. "I'm cooperating, I'm telling you everything I know — besides, we're going to the abandoned mine shaft. I know that. Everyone knows that."

"Yeah, I guess this does seem like jumping the gun, doesn't it," says the officer holding the hood.

He puts it down.

Then he backhands Carlos across the face.

Carlos's head snaps to the side, cheek stinging, too stunned to make a sound. His gaze darts to the eyes of the other three officers around him, desperately looking for regret, understanding, an ally, anything.

He's still searching when the hood comes over his head, and all he can see is black.

 

-{,(((,">

 

The new kid at Tamika's school seems to be kind of useless at everything.

He refuses to deal with corrosive substances in chem. He complains that they shouldn't be learning algebra during Spanish classes (or reading classic novels in math, though Tamika is in the Advanced Readers, so she doesn't have to get offended in person when he complains about their books). And he handles a good honest Glock like it's as dangerous as a slice of bread.

She hunkers down low in the shadow of her African-buffalo daemon, slingshot ready, as they creep through the darkened stacks of the Night Vale Public Library. Rashi moves like a heavily-muscled shadow. Tamika watches like a hawk.

Seth's daemon isn't settled yet, but as far as Tamika is concerned, the fact that he always wears his shirts buttoned right up to the top button tells you all you need to know about him. So he's pretty ridiculous, and she isn't really surprised nobody talks to him much...but the thing is, you don't always get to choose who you're stuck with when a crisis hits. Tamika or someone she cares about might be stuck relying on him at any time.

Someone has got to build this boy up.

Besides, as Rashi pointed out when they were making their to-read list for the week, his mom is one of the new experimental theologians, over at the chapel next to Big Rico's with all the humming anbaric equipment. He's probably really smart. Could be useful even if his aim never gets good enough to hit the broad side of a secret-police van.

So they sneak down the foreign-languages-other-than-Sumerian aisle, and Tamika sinks into a crouch to grab a couple of Spanish-English dictionaries from the bottom shelf. She drops them in the bookbag hanging from Rashi's side, on top of Fritz Leiber's The Night of the Long Knives. They'll figure out how to talk to the boy, and everything else will follow from there.

The to-read list is in the bookbag too, but Tamika doesn't need to pull it out. She knows by heart that Nicola Griffith's Ammonite comes next. Assuming they can get to the speculative-fiction-about-anthropologists aisle without losing any limbs.

 

-{,(((,">

 

The interrogation room is either the same one Carlos was tortured in last year, or an exact copy. His wrists are clamped to a familiar table. His Isaña is in an identical cage.

At least the cage is between his feet this time, and his legs are free to kick anyone who tries to lay a hand on her.

So the panic attack bearing down on him is a lot milder than it could have been. Lots of shaking, but that's mostly because they keep throwing cold water over him. Occasional wave of pins-and-needles. And he hasn't felt like he can think straight since he got in here...which would be debilitating if he were trying to lie or weasel out of something, but he's just trying to tell them the truth.

He's gone over everything he can think of. How Strexcorp has comprehensive Rusakov-concentration data for Night Vale going back more than a year, how they targeted the angels and the alethiometer (he keeps forgetting to clarify that angels aren't real), how they've drugged and/or killed his long-lost five colleagues on the Desert Bluffs team. He's described all his interactions with Raimondi since the man's team first came in contact with Strex, including the one he had in a bloodstone-circle vision, which might or might not have been a product of his own subconscious. He's urged the police to do whatever they can to get in Strex's way, because all the signs and prophecies point to them being the group trying to bring on a multi-world apocalypse.

No, Carlos doesn't know their specific plans. No, he doesn't know exactly what was done to the control team. No, he has no idea what their plans are for Cecil! His vision said they've done something to the radio host in Desert Bluffs — Kevin, that was his name, the one who looked so eerily like Cecil — but he doesn't know the details of that either, and hitting him again is not going to make him remember something he never knew!

He's been socked once in the jaw and once across the side of the head, and his shoulders and torso are aching from the one interrogator who keeps whacking him with a nightstick every time he doesn't have an answer. Which is often.

They took his shoes and socks. They took his chapel coat. His T-shirt is soaking wet, sticking to his skin like a freezing blanket. His hair is tangled and dripping.

Through the bars of her cage, Isaña presses her face against his ankle.

A new interrogator lets slip that the police have managed to nab three Strexcorp employees and bring them out here (Carlos is briefly relieved)...but aren't having any luck re-educating them. Funny coincidence, isn't it, how they never had any luck re-educating Carlos either?

No. Not funny at all. Carlos isn't working with Strex, hasn't gotten any secret benefits from them, was never anything but an unwitting patsy, and this was a terrible idea. He should have kept his mouth shut and gone straight to Cecil. That way he could be helping Cecil right now, and these officers could be doing the same, instead of wasting their time and energy trying to beat information out of Carlos that Carlos doesn't have.

He's on their side. Don't they understand that?

On top of which, don't they understand that he is in no mental state to convincingly lie to them right now? If he'd had any intention of hiding things from them, it would have evaporated the instant they sat him down in this chair.

The left side of his face is throbbing. He's guessing he has a black eye, or is on the fast track to getting one. It's swollen enough that he can't open it all the way. (They took his glasses.)

Carlos doesn't know anything else. He doesn't. Have they rescued Cecil yet? Please, if they could just tell him what's going on with Cecil.

He's repeating the plea for the nth time when his latest interrogator tells him to shut up for a minute, and listens to something via her earpiece. She says "Yes?" and "Okay" and "Right" a lot.

At last she says, "Congratulations, we're sticking you in storage for a while. If you remember anything interesting while you're in there, just holler."

 

-{,(((,">

 

There's a stash of damaged and disabled Strex-brand Rusakov meters in a box in one of the chapel storage rooms. Henriette digs it out and carries it downstairs, her marmot daemon padding worriedly along beside her.

Carlos is in police custody. Cecil hasn't answered her text. Omero and Perle are standing by at the radio station, where they went at Carlos's plea, only to find that the secret police have it surrounded and aren't letting anybody inside. If anything changes, they'll let her know.

In the meantime, she has to figure out if their Rusakov meters really are tapped, and, if so, whether they can disable the bugs without having to give up the whole array.

"This is them," she announces to the current present company. Nirliq, hauled back here from the photogram project she and Henriette had been working on, down by that mysterious old oak door in the desert. Quentin, hauled away from the modeling he was doing on the ordinaters upstairs. And one of the Li Huas, voluntarily joining them while her double keeps up the processing of their latest sample of Cecil's DNA.

"Seriously? They're even smaller than I thought," says Quentin, picking up one of the handheld yellow meters. It's not much bigger than a large calculator. "What do they run on?"

"Triple-A batteries. There's a panel in the back." Henriette uses English, which Quentin follows much more easily than he speaks. The rest of them in turn can follow his Spanish. It's good comprehension practice all around.

Quentin pops it open and examines the batteries. "And how often do they have to be changed?"

"That's a good question," says Li Hua. "When do you guys have to put in new batteries?"

Henriette chews on the inside of her cheek. "So far? Never."

"Are they solar-powered?" wonders Nirliq, turning over another of the meters. "I don't see any photovoltaic cells, but it's the only way I can think of for them to run...."

"Magic," Quentin reminds her. He's turning the device over and over, screwdriver aimed at its corners, looking for the place to start taking it apart. "Always an option in this town."

None of them can find any screws. They try prying the metal panels apart, or getting a blade under the dull screens where the readouts would have been if they were working. Nirliq's colobus daemon pokes over every inch of the devices with tiny fingers, and Quentin's flying squirrel does the same with even tinier claws. No luck. Even the meters that got severely dented and dinged from the Sandstorm are shut tight.

"How do you guys feel about trying a bone saw?" asks Li Hua after a while.

Nirliq raises her eyebrows. "You have a bone saw?"

She and the others have been gently warned about the Li Huas: their lack of empathy, their well-controlled sadism, the way they will feel no guilt about abandoning you in a crisis if it becomes necessary for their own self-preservation. Reactions have varied. Nirliq seems cautiously intrigued by the whole thing, while Quentin seems to think the existing team members aren't giving the Li Huas enough credit.

It's probably easier to believe the truth when you've seen one of them gun down half a dozen copies of your teammates, and the other grinning and elated, covered in blood, having just killed the final double with no weapons at all.

The present Li Hua flashes that same manic grin now. Both of them have been gradually giving more freedom to their scarier impulses when the new arrivals are present. "Are you kidding? There was a special on them at the Raúl's back in June. We've got six!"

The tool she retrieves is a flexible razor-wire saw. Nirliq retrieves one of the chemistry clamps and bolts a Rusakov meter to the edge of the table, and they all stand back to watch as Li Hua slices her way through the metal.

It's like watching an amputation. For a second Henriette's eyes play tricks on her; it's as if she can actually see blood welling up around the wire....

Wait just a damn minute.

There is something dark and viscous oozing out of that crack —

Li Hua razors all the way through the top panel and slices right down the thin metal sides. Nothing in between gives her any resistance — there's no circuitry, no screws or wires, just a soft glut of slippery pinkish meaty things swimming in a spilling pool of crimson —

Nirliq chokes on a shriek. Quentin throws himself backward, slamming into the next table over. Henriette's head spins, her vision momentarily blotted out by an image of the blood and viscera from the hole a Li Hua blew in her own double's torso.

"Whoa," says Li Hua, backing away — she knows a potential biohazard when she sees one — but looking thrilled. "Did not see that coming."

"I think I'm gonna be sick," says Quentin faintly. Nirliq shooes him in the direction of the sink.

Henriette leans against the furry bulk of her daemon as she marshals her thoughts, even while her eyes are fixed on the blood splattered across the floor. "Li Hua, get that in a sterile container, and wash up whatever's left. We need to test it. Figure out the species, for one thing." Figure out if it's human, like the DNA they got off Cecil's clothing after he wandered through that portal into a gore-strewn probably-Desert-Bluffs.

And of course Raimondi was covered in blood when he delivered these meters in the first place. Most of it looked like his blood, but how could they be sure? Why didn't they put some of it on ice, instead of washing it all down the drain?

She could really use a drink.

"But first," she adds, to the rest of the team and to herself, "we need all hands on deck to take these things down."

 

-{,(((,">

 

"Storage" turns out to mean the standard prisoner cells, which means a nice bed, a fully-stocked bathroom, a TV, and paintings of flowers on the walls.

Carlos strips off his wet shirt and jeans and climbs under the covers, holding a cold soda wrapped in a towel against his throbbing face. His body protests with every motion, and when he settles into the sheets he knows it's going to be a long time before he's up again.

Chiding voices echo through his mind. Hiram McDaniels' violet head, over a year ago: He wants to know the secrets! They can use that! And Josie, more recently, echoing the sentiment: If anything is going to be your downfall, it's that way you can't stop trying to know everything about everything.

They were right. He was easy. Strex tossed him the bait and he took it, hook, line, and sinker.

Granted, it was pretty good bait. The team has gotten so much done in the past year-and-a-bit that they never would have accomplished if they had to take manual daily readings. But at what cost?

Isaña, fully buried in the blankets, sniffles against his hip.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Rashi crashes through the window, his horns shattering glass and splintering wood, and thunders out onto the Night Vale street. Tamika leaps out after him, glad that the spray of blue-green librarian blood won't leave visible stains on her black sweater.

A horrific animal shrieking comes from inside the building. Tamika spins on her heel. "Yeah, that's right, yell all you want!" she shouts at them. "You can't come after me. You don't have the jurisdiction. I got no late fines!"

She takes a couple of backward steps, slips on something that isn't firm cement, and nearly falls on her butt. Rashi catches her just in time.

"What's this?" asks Tamika out loud, paying no more attention to the mad howling of the thwarted librarians. She picks up the orange thing. Some kind of leaflet. She hadn't even noticed, but the streets are littered with them.

"Must've been dropped by those new gyropters," says Rashi. "That, or it rained while we were inside."

Tamika narrows her eyes. There isn't a cloud in the sky, and while it might have been a new type of shower from the Glow Cloud for whose passing they all have total amnesia, she can't smell any vainilla. Must've been the gyropters.

She's been noticing them all day. She doesn't like the look of them. Not at all.

"Better hold off on the books for now," she tells her daemon. "This just got punted to the top of the to-read list."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos dozes, never quite sleeping, trying to rest up without losing track of his surroundings completely. Just because he's not planning to fight when they come back for him doesn't mean he wants to miss it.

His eyes are closed and he's half-dreaming about being out in the desert, getting spied on by the sun, when the door opens.

"You get one hour," says a guard.

One hour until they come back? One hour to nap? Carlos can live with that. He doesn't stir.

The door closes.

"Carlos?"

Carlos snaps fully awake in an instant. "Cecil!"

He's sore from the waist up, but he manages to pull himself into a sitting position, so when Cecil drops onto the mattress beside him Carlos can cup his boyfriend's face in both hands.

Cecil does the same. He isn't visibly hurt, which is more than can be said for Carlos, although there's plenty that could be hidden under his clothes (fuzzy bolero jacket, popped collar, leggings, crocheted shorts...and the alethiometer tote bag safely over his shoulder). "Are you okay?" asks Carlos. "I heard — Strexcorp bought the station, and then you were screaming, the police wouldn't tell me anything, I was so —"

"Shhh." Cecil touches his lips. "You first, my Carlos. You're bruised." His eyes narrow. "Did they take your clothes?"

"No! Well, my chapel coat and shoes. But the rest is just drying in the bathroom," says Carlos quickly. "They threw water all over me. And hit me a bunch. That's all. No anbaric current, no mental stuff, no...nothing else. If I'd known you were coming, I would've gotten dressed."

"Dear Carlos." Cecil's fingers ghost over a bruise on Carlos's upper arm. For a second Carlos wonders how he can see it, without Khoshekh's color vision around to borrow...but of course, these are marks left intentionally, by a conscious being. They must stand out to Cecil as brightly as handwriting does. "Don't ever feel you have to put clothes on for me."

Carlos blushes, then allows himself a small smile. "Okay. But I'll have to put them on when we leave...when are we leaving?" When Cecil hesitates, he adds, "You're here to get me out, right?"

"Soon. As soon as I can," says Cecil. "The fact that they were persuaded to grant me a...well, sort of a conjugal visit...is a very promising sign! Normally you have to sacrifice a couple of lemurs before they'll register you with visitation rights."

"But I'm on their side," pleads Carlos. "Not that I'm not grateful for the leniency — we all know how expensive lemurs are this time of year! — but I've told them everything I know, and it's not like I realized what I was doing when I —"

Cecil kisses him. Which is normally the last thing in the world Carlos would object to, but he was trying to talk, here, and he has the distinct feeling Cecil's tongue is being stuck in his mouth mostly to shut him up.

He doesn't return the kiss. He does, however, shut up.

Cecil recognizes pretty quickly that his point is made, and lets Carlos go. "Precious, anxious Carlos," he says, running his thumb over Carlos's lips to discourage Carlos from speaking again too soon. "I need you to listen to me very carefully, okay?"

Carlos nods.

"My station, my job, is under new management. By Strexcorp Synernists Inc., which I understand also sent you some equipment they had manufactured. What a coincidence, huh?"

Cecil pauses after that last phrase, and mouths Say yes.

"Y-yeah." Carlos nods again, playing along, though he isn't sure why. No matter how carefully they tailor this conversation, the secret police do have video cameras in here, and Cecil must have noticed that he hasn't gotten a chance to cover them up. "Coincidence."

"And right after that happened, you heard something that frightened you, and you overreacted." Cecil takes a second to fold down his collar, then holds Carlos's hand against his cheek, expression smooth and even. "You do tend to get irrationally worried when you think my safety is involved."

"Well, yeah." This part is easy for Carlos to go along with. "I mean, I love you."

A real smile breaks through Cecil's careful, deliberate mask. He doesn't fight it, just takes a moment to kiss Carlos's non-throbbing cheek before getting back to business. "But the truth is, there is absolutely no reason to worry." He moves Carlos's hand downward, sliding it along the slope of his neck, curling it around the back. "We are completely safe. My new supervisors are wonderful people —"

He accompanies this with a quick, emphatic shake of the head.

"— and as for what they've done to me, well —"

He rubs Carlos's fingers in soft circles at the nape of his neck — and that's when Carlos feels it. A small, raised bump under Cecil's skin, just above the first thoracic vertebra.

"— nothing but a normal employee orientation," finishes Cecil. "Any screams of agony that might theoretically have been involved would have been entirely unintended. Why would they hurt me? It's not like they're evil."

Eyes widening, mouth pressed into a tight line, he beckons for Carlos to agree.

Carlos feels sick. They're not staging this conversation for the police at all, are they? It's all for Strexcorp's benefit. Strexcorp bugged Cecil.

"Not evil," he echoes, throat dry. Silently, he mouths, Can I see? and motions for Cecil to turn around.

Cecil nods, but puts a finger to his lips.

When he turns, using one hand to hold his hair up against the curve of his skull, it takes all Carlos's self-control not to gasp out loud. The skin on the back of Cecil's neck is reddened and puffy, and not just from the device injected into the tissue underneath, but from the new tattoo. Black ink lines, stark and crisp, in a bloc about as wide as Carlos's thumb is long.

It's a bar code.

"So, in short, there is nothing to worry about," lies Cecil, casual as anything, like an apocalyptic corporation hasn't just taken over his livelihood and marked him up like a can of soup. "Your team is fine, they know where you are, and I will be working with the secret police to get you back to them as soon as possible."

When he turns back around, Carlos mouths, Khoshekh? Normally he wouldn't think twice about seeing Cecil alone, but, oh, god, if Strexcorp has some kind of hold over his daemon....

"Oh, and Khoshekh is fine too," says Cecil smoothly, flashing a thumbs-up to indicate that it's true. "Sorry he couldn't make it, Isaña! He had to pay a visit to a friend."

"It's okay," says Isaña, from the mattress next to Carlos's hip. "We're glad you came."

"And we're so sorry," adds Carlos. "About this — about, um, getting all worked up over nothing — you have no idea how sorry I am."

"You didn't know." Cecil runs his hands through Carlos's tangled hair. "You couldn't have known."

His grip tightens. The lamplight glints off his pale purple eyes.

"I always knew you wouldn't mean it," he whispers.

Carlos folds Cecil into an embrace, though the hug makes his abused arm and back muscles throb in protest. It isn't worth complaining about, not when Cecil's silent tears start dripping onto his shoulder and running down his neck.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Sherie will help her colleagues with their last-minute collection project as much as she can, but first she has a kid to pick up.

Susannah has these after-school classes at the community center, catching up on some of the things Hispania Nova teaches before eleventh grade that the USND doesn't. She found it all on her own by asking her classmates, and it seems to be boosting Su's confidence and helping her make friends, though Sherie still doesn't know exactly what it's about. One of the other PTA moms told her that there's a similar class for her son's age group, but the move itself has pushed Seth so far out of his comfort zone that Sherie doesn't want to stress him any farther right now.

She and her mongoose daemon sit in the parking lot for a couple minutes, until half a dozen chattering teenagers come out of the rec center doors. It's easy to pick Susannah out of the crowd. For one thing, Su's griffon vulture is the size of a coyote, even with his wings folded closed. For another, Su is the only one dressed head-to-toe in black.

"Hi, sweetie," says Sherie, as her daughter hops into the back seat, kicking off a Strexcorp brochure that got stuck to her shoe on the way. "We're going to take a little detour before we head home, okay? The team has a couple of Rusakov meters in the area, and it turns out something's wrong with them, so we're going to take them down."

"Uh-huh. Sure, Mom."

"So how was your day? You looked like you were having fun back there."

"Oh, yeah, everyone's great," says Susannah with a brilliant grin. (Sherie thinks it would be prettier if she didn't insist on wearing all that black lipstick, but it's Su's face, she can do what she wants with it, even if her mother doesn't understand her fashion choices at all, not a judgment, just an observation.) "Had a whole conversation with the hot football player in remedial Spanish — the one who only speaks Muscovy, remember? — and then the self-defense instructor said I was making awesome progress with the mace."

"That's wonderful." Sherie still doesn't believe this town is so dangerous her children need to be walking around with firearms, but any teenage girl should know a little self-defense. "So you're getting used to aiming for the eyes, then?"

"What? Harsh, Mom! Way harsh."

"It's going to get in their eyes anyway, honey. You might as well be direct about it, right?"

"How is...Oh! I'm not talking about mace, the pepper-spray stuff. I'm talking about la maza, you know, like a big club? Did you know if you get one with a flanged head, it can rip right through armor?"

She goes on to regale Sherie with all the details of medieval-combat weapon strategies and upper-body strength training, until they stop next to the White Sands Ice Cream Shop to pick up the first of the Rusakov meters.

The device is fixed under a windowsill out back. Susannah goes inside for ice cream while Sherie takes the meter down, switches it off, and turns it over in her hands. Her ring-tailed mongoose, on her shoulder, leans down to invesetigate. "Doesn't look all that insidious."

"Except for how the rest of the team could only take them apart by force," says Sherie. "And I can see why. This thing is built like a tank."

Her daemon snorts. "Well, if it turns out we're in a hurry to destroy them, we can always get Su to smash them up with one of her maces."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Cecil spends the bulk of his allotted hour with Carlos under the covers. They can't talk about anything significant and Carlos doesn't have the stomach for small talk, so they mostly stay quiet, just holding each other and soaking in the comfort of being together.

When the guard returns, Cecil doesn't fight it. He pulls Carlos into one last kiss — this time Carlos returns it, in earnest, and if they're giving their observation an eyeful, well, good — and tells Carlos to get dressed, because Cecil will have him out of here, hopefully sooner rather than later.

"Just take care of yourself," implores Carlos. "Don't take any risks to get me out of here faster, okay? I'll be fine. An experimental theologian is always fine. Knowing that you're safe is the most important thing."

 

-{,(((,">

 

He doesn't remember falling asleep, but he wakes up groggy, on the floor of a moving vehicle with Isaña in a basket next to him.

He tests his hands. Not cuffed. Not that he's lucid enough to do much with them anyway. "Y'gassed me."

"The other option was tazing you until you were too jittery to fight back," says the secret police officer. There's only one with him in the back of the van this time, rat daemon at her side and AK-47 hoisted in her arms. "Sarge said we could go with the gas."

"Gee, thanks."

The officer snorts. "If it was up to me, I'd'a said to zap you until you'd screamed exactly as much as Cecil did."

Carlos lies still, trying to breathe the stuff out of his system. "If it'd help Cecil in any way, I'd let you."

He's still heavy-limbed and dizzy when the van stops, and the officer half-helps, half-pushes him out the back. Isaña topples onto the asphalt beside him. At least he's not in the middle of nowhere this time; he's surrounded by other cars, even as the unmarked van speeds away. A parking lot? There's a lit gas station down the street, and a couple of other buildings scattered around; they're near the edge of town. Carlos leans heavily on one of the cars' hoods.

Neon green paint across the windshield screams a price at him.

"Not in the market, sorry," mutters Carlos to the paint. At least now he knows where he is. The car lot.

Which means...yeah, across the lot is Josie's picturesque little house, dark and motionless. He can see the broken window, its curtains ripped and yanked down.

No way Carlos is making it home in the state he's in: drugged, sore, still barefoot. But it's not such a dire situation that someone needs to pick him up before he dies of thirst. Would it be safe to crash on Josie's abandoned couch? Surely, wherever she is, however she's doing, she wouldn't begrudge him that.

He and Isaña start to make their way down the line of cars....

A motor revs on, headlights gleam, and someone yells, "Carlos!"

Change of plans. Carlos stumbles in the other direction, toward the familiar hybrid coupe.

Quentin, behind the wheel, sucks in a sharp breath when the light from inside the cabin falls on Carlos, and Rayshawn gets really still when Carlos tumbles into the back seat beside him. "Palmero said you'd need ice," he says, holding up a first-aid kit. "And some painkillers...?"

Neither of the other daemons, Quentin's flying squirrel or Rayshawn's frog, are large enough to pick up Isaña, so Carlos has to scoop her into his lap on his own. He slumps against the headrest and, since his jaw is throbbing worse than before, lets her take over the talking. "Hand it to us."

"Whoa, you can't give them that," says Quentin in Spanish, pulling out onto the main road. (He's gotten used to Night Vale street signs faster than any of his peers.) "They've obviously been dosed with something, you don't know how it's gonna interact...."

"Say again?" asks Rayshawn in English.

"Drug interactions," explains Isaña in kind. "Give us whatever Cecil said we'd need. They're fine."

"Uh-huh." Rayshawn sounds dubious, but shakes a couple of pills into Carlos's palm and uncaps a water bottle for him to chase them with (over Quentin's protests of "fine, but if he dies, this is all on you"). "And how does Cecil know a thing like that?"

"Long story." They had been planning to show the new ducklings the alethiometer this Friday. Go down to Cecil's office, do a whole big demonstration. Will that still be possible?

"Your dashboard snowman's on," puts in Quentin. (They didn't waste any time introducing the new ducklings to the clandestine jamming devices.)

"So you can be straight with us," adds Rayshawn. "In a manner of speaking, anyway. He have some kind of in with them? Or is this just past experience? They go harder on...folks like you?"

"Brown, or gay?" asks Carlos rhetorically. Is Rayshawn asking out of self-interest, or prurient interest?

"Either way, no," adds Isaña. "Straight peninsular guys get beat up, indefinite detention without trial, the whole deal, same as the rest of us. This isn't Texas."

Rayshawn's tiny frog daemon lets out a huff of discontent. He scoops her off the seat and drops her in his pocket. "Ain't like I approve of that. No way to treat a person, no matter what. And I'm sure your government ain't perfect either."

Carlos catches himself before getting snippy about how yes, obviously he knows, his government just tortured him with full legal impunity. It's silly of him to be possessive of the Night Vale legal system at the best of times, and it'll sound particularly insane now. "I'll give you that."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Tamika was supposed to be asleep hours ago.

Instead she's under the covers, wide awake, flashlight out. Rashi sits between her and the door, his bulk blocking any stray light from making it to the hall. The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot, lies spread-open across the sheets. Tucked behind her ear, ready to jot down any significant lines, is an illegal ballpoint pen.

She reads.

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

When Carlos gets up the next morning, the swelling around his eye has gone down, though he's still startlingly bruised and has to be careful wearing his glasses. He jumps in the shower (during which Isaña has a chance to give his back a thorough check-over and tell him where the worst of the damage is), shaves as tenderly as possible, and heads down to breakfast.

Henriette takes one look at him and says, "Take the day off."

"Can't," says Carlos. "Too much work to do. We need all hands on deck." They have to figure out how to build a new Rusakov array, and fast. Even if they go back to manually lugging their old readers from block to block and taking readings one by one, it's no substitute for the kind of town-wide realtime data they've been counting on to keep on top of Night Vale's...Night-Vale-ness.

"Carlos, I remember the day after a police interrogation. It took all my mental energy just to remember where I was half the time."

"You got a different interrogation package," points out Carlos. "I know where I am. Honest. Looks worse than it is."

Henriette considers this for a moment, then reaches across the kitchen table and pokes his bruised-black cheek.

Carlos yelps. "Don't do that!"

"You're still in pain, and your reaction times are shot," says Henriette firmly. "Take a sick day. I know I don't get to give you orders any more —"

"Huh?"

"— because now that the prophecy has hit, there's no point in keeping you from running the team, but as your friend, I'm telling you...."

A light thumping on the window cuts her off. Carlos's heart leaps when he spots the familiar silhouette, and he scoops Isaña off the ground by his feet while Henriette gets up and wrenches the window open. It's less than six inches, but that's enough for Khoshekh to flow through.

"There you are!" exclaims Isaña, as Khoshekh lands daintily on the table between the bowls of oatmeal. "Is everything okay?"

"Oh, no," purrs Khoshekh. "Everything is never okay. Most things are usually not okay, in fact. But there is good news." He rubs his face against Isaña's in greeting. "It is not a bug."

Carlos catches his breath. "You mean the chip? The one Strex — that one?"

"The one they put in Cecil, yes," says Khoshekh. (Henriette shudders.) "It does not transmit. It contains information, it can be scanned and used to pinpoint location from up to five hundred feet away, and from a similar distance it can be triggered to directly stimulate the region of the brain that normally processes input from pain receptors. Steve thinks he can disable that feature." He rolls his eyes, as if Steve Carlsberg's incompetence with anbarics is the most aggravating thing about this scenario.

"Let's hope so," says Isaña. "And if he has any trouble, we have people who can take a look at it too."

"Of course. Clever cientificos. In the meantime, it's nothing a good healing talisman won't bring down. Speaking of which...where is yours?"

Henriette frowns at Carlos. "You have a healing talisman?"

"Of course. It matches yours, haven't you noticed?" To Carlos, Khoshekh says "I'll go find it for you."

He soars out of the kitchen and returns a moment later with the pendant Josie sent Carlos last Christmas: a polished piece of electrum with an otherworldly insect trapped inside. The other team members at the time got similar gifts; Henriette's is a bracelet, a string of electrum beads in silver settings. Carlos feels ridiculous that he never asked Josie what they did.

Quentin shows up in the kitchen while Carlos is looping the pendant around his neck. "Whoa. Who's the flying cat?"

"Khoshekh hasn't met any of the new people except Sherie, has he?" realizes Isaña. To Quentin's flying squirrel, she says, "This is Cecil's daemon. Come say hi."

The little daemon hops off of Quentin's shoulder and soars down to the tabletop, where she and Khoshekh touch noses.

By now Carlos has seen Khoshekh from a lot of angles, and he can't see any shaved patches in the margay's fur. No bar code for him. Good. "Hey, Khoshekh, they haven't...I mean, are you all right? They haven't put anything in you, or...or anything?"

Khoshekh grins a wide, sharp grin. "Our new supervisors' daemons are a mouse and a duck. I will eat them alive if they try to touch me."

 

-{,(((,">

 

The pendant works wonders. Carlos sweeps into the chapel with new energy. New focus. A new sense of purpose.

Also, a new chapel coat. And this one's tailored.

Sherie is already in the building when the rest of the team arrives. "Honey, you look like you lost a fight with a tractor," she says, coming over to get a closer look. "Are you sure you're good to work today?"

"I swear, it doesn't actually hurt any more," says Carlos. "It's just bruising, it'll clear up — it's not like they broke any bones this time! — and they only used the knockout gas once, so my head's clear."

While Khoshekh greets the rest of the team's daemons, Rayshawn frowns at Carlos. "If this is you tryin' to be reassuring, I'd sure hate to see you goin' for scary."

"We don't let them pick on team members," says Henriette quickly. With a nod to Omero and Nirliq, she says, "Especially not grad students. You should be fine if you remember your basics — angels don't exist, the local government is a fine upstanding model of civic responsibility, shape in Grove Park, what shape in Grove Park? — but if you get picked up for something unexpected, that's our fault, and you say so. Send them after me or Carlos, we'll take care of it."

"Not —" begins Carlos, because taking the heat is his job again, not hers....

And Köhler, whose job it has never been, cuts him off: "Or myself. Whichever is most expedient at the time."

With a sigh, Carlos swallows his protests. He has good teammates, and he needs to appreciate them, not insist on always throwing himself into danger first to salve his guilty conscience. That isn't going to help Night Vale, and it sure isn't going to help Cecil.

Instead he claps his hands for attention. "I'm happy to discuss this in more detail later if anybody wants to, but right now I want you all to make it to the ordinater room in the next five minutes for a full staff meeting. That's a general schedule, not a specific one, since none of your timepieces are real! Just try not to be so late that we have to send someone out to round you up. And yes, Li Hua, we're going to need both of you. I won't keep you long."

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

Half a day after she gives up on the locked oak door and starts following the dry riverbed again, Dana finds herself approaching the basalt fortress.

That can't be right. She's been walking steadily away from it for days now, and it had faded into the horizon behind her. If the planet were small enough for her to have walked its full circumference already, it wouldn't have nearly this much gravity. And the big freestanding mountain with the blinking light on top has been visible this whole time, which wouldn't be possible if she were circling the outside of this mountain range. Unless it's following her, but how could that be? Things that don't exist can't follow you.

"So I am trapped in a geographical loop," says Dana out loud. "But what is the focus? This fortress? The blinking light? One of the strange abandoned vehicles on the barren plain?"

Without a daemon to talk to, she sits in the shade of a many-legged vehicle half-buried in the sand and does the next best thing: types this all up in an email to Cecil. Then she gives interworldly astral projection another shot.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

"— spotted flying out of Niton Canyon early yesterday morning by several alert hikers," says Cecil's voice over the loudspeakers in the NVCR hallways.

Cecil! thinks Dana in delight, not even listening to what Cecil is saying. Home!

"Excuse me," she says, as an intern strides past. Her own replacement, apparently: a college-age woman with short, spiky hair and a brown-and-white Pomeranian daemon. "Excuse me, could you tell me —"

No response.

Dana really hopes it's just because the new intern is extremely busy with critical station duties, and not because Dana is invisible again. She hurries after the woman down the hall.

"The hikers said they were able to identify McDaniels because he matched police sketches of an eighteen-foot-tall five-headed dragon that had been posted across Night Vale," continues Cecil from the booth. "Fingerprints later confirmed that McDaniels was definitely a dragon."

That sounds...odd. Has Hiram been arrested again? But wouldn't they already know his species from the last time they brought him in?

Dana is still wondering about this when she follows the other intern right into the bathroom, where Khoshekh is floating next to the sink. The intern pulls something out of the folder in her hands and holds it up for the margay daemon's inspection. "Here's the most recent photo in our records."

"And, well, listeners, our station intern Stacy just handed me a photo of Hiram McDaniels," says Cecil's tinny voice. "He's a very dynamic-looking dragon! The raw power. The intensity in those five faces, those many sets of piercing blue and red and black and green and yellow eyes...."

Oh. Now Dana understands what's going on. She's gotten the time wrong. This is Hiram's first arrest, back before she even started working at the station; Intern Stacy was one of her predecessors, whose name she recognizes from those engraved on the break room floor.

"Khoshekh, can you see me?" she says anyway, while this past version of Cecil continues to gush over Hiram. "Can you hear me? Can you perceive me with any familiar or unfamiliar senses at all?"

When he doesn't so much as twitch a whisker, Dana takes a deep breath — it's horrible, this thing she's about to try, but she's desperate — and tries to rest a hand on his back.

She goes right through his fur, with, still, no reaction.

Cecil switches gears. "Further updates on wheat and wheat by-products. The good news is that they are no longer poisonous serpents. The bad news is that they have transformed into a particularly evil and destructive form of —"

Before Dana can hear any more, her place and time loses its connection with this one.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (present time).

"Our new mission — and believe me, you're all going to accept it — is to hack together a set of manageably-sized, wirelessly-enabled Rusakov meters that do not run on dark magic and human viscera."

Nods all around the room. Everyone's attention is fixed on Carlos. On the table next to his laptop, Khoshekh curls around Isaña and watches with bright violet eyes.

"Now, I realize nobody else in this world has ever done it before, but we here in Night Vale have a few extra tools at our fingertips. One: bloodstones."

He pulls up a video clip from the first time he inadvertently had a bloodstone-circle vision, painstakingly digitized from film developed with the Asriel emulsion. It shows off the abnormally strong patterns in the way the Rusakov particles move around him. They're not just reflecting his intentions; they're being focused.

"Two: non-evil magic." A few clicks, and the image projected at the front of the ordinater room is a chart of the Modified Sumerian runic alphabet. "For the biologists and Perle, we may be setting you on researching this while the rest of us figure out the physics."

Omero, the Li Huas, and Perle nod.

"Three: the electrum spyglass. You all know about the Dirac-Hall lenses? Those were the prototype. This is the latest version."

Carlos switches on the webcam, and rotates the laptop so it's facing out at the group. The camera sweeps over an ensemble of humans, daemons, and machines. While everyone is checking their own appearances, he pulls out a ring stand filched from the chemistry cupboard, with an electrum spyglass (its frame made of plastic, not cardboard and duct tape) tied to the clamp (with string. Hey, they're still on a budget). He places it so the spyglass is hanging over the top of the laptop, and slides it over to sit in front of the lens.

The video feed lights up with the flow of Dust.

Even Perle and Omero, the non-physicists, are impressed. Nirliq, the optics expert, looks like Christmas and her birthday just came all at once. Quentin is pleasantly stunned, while Sherie and Rayshawn look like they don't know whether to be amazed or mad. "How long have you had this lying around?" bursts out Sherie. "What are we doing not using it?"

"There's a condition," warns Carlos. "You're going to have to take a blood oath to never use them against the interests of the town. It would be really nice if all of you agree as quickly as possible, so we can call Night Vale General and set up an appointment to do them all in one pass."

Omero sits up straighter. "And if someone doesn't agree?"

"Then it's been a pleasure working with them, and the project will be happy to cover their travel costs home." And the secret-police memory modifications before they go will be entirely complimentary.

"Consider yourselves lucky you're getting a choice," puts in Henriette. "The rest of us just woke up one morning with blue gyropters on our lawn."

"It's no big deal, geez," adds one of the Li Huas.

Her duplicate finishes the thought: "Although if any of you want help practicing with blood loss first...."

"Enough, both of you," says Carlos. "You want to experiment with viscera, you have dozens of Strex meters to play with."

He turns the laptop to face him again, switches the camera off, and finds another video file, this one in a password-encrypted folder: Cecil at work.

"There's one more resource we have that most of the world doesn't," he tells the group. "One more extremely valuable, extremely powerful tool. As important as the spyglasses, if not more."

"Seriously?" says Rayshawn. "Man, with that kind of buildup, you better be about to pull out an alethiometer or somethin'."

(Carlos can do a pretty sharp grin himself when he wants to.)

 

-{,(((,">

 

Cecil is sitting at a row of pushed-together tables when Carlos and Perle arrive in the wheat and wheat by-products speakeasy under Big Rico's. He's already ordered soup and bread for Carlos.

While Perle takes a look at the menu over the bar, Carlos slides into the seat next to Cecil and steals a kiss. "The rest of us will be trickling down in twos and threes. Give it about half an hour. How are you doing?"

It's lunchtime on Friday. NVCR has been under new management for most of the week, and Strexcorp has also bought up the Antiques Mall, the Trader José's, and the only two independent bookstores in town. Carlos happened to pass Frances Donaldson in the fire section of the Raúl's yesterday evening, and she was wearing a vintage buttoned shirt whose collar went all the way up to her chin.

Strex doesn't own Big Rico's, but there's nothing to stop their newly-imported managers and supervisors from eating here, which is why this little demonstration is being taken underground. They know about the alethiometer, but they don't seem to know how deft Cecil truly is at using it, and Cecil would like to keep it that way.

"As well as can be expected." Cecil is wearing his Harvard scarf looped around his neck, which hides the bar code. (Also, a lightweight kimono-style blouse and fringed shorts, which hide...less than they could.) "Management hasn't made any changes to our regular programming, except the inclusion of their ads. I've gone along with it. So there hasn't been any need for them to provide...encouragement."

He pulls Carlos's arm over his shoulders, and Carlos lets it rest there, warm and steadying.

Perle gets a salad with lots of croutons, and sits across from Cecil, who strikes up a conversation and ends up getting quizzed on some of the foreign-world-language audio recordings he's provided for her. The rest of the team joins them at a nice non-suspicious pace, with existing members using the code phrases and vouching for the new arrivals to get them inside.

Henriette gets muffins. Köhler has been working his way through the sandwich options. The Li Huas can never resist their sugary cereals.

Everyone else, whatever they're eating, is quick to swallow when Cecil brings out the alethiometer.

"I understand you're each going to have a control question, and then we move on to actual questions?" says Cecil — holding it, as always, like it's just an ordinary treasured possession, not one of the rarest artifacts in the world. "Should we just go around the table?"

He correctly identifies the heirloom Nirliq's grandmother passed on to her (diamond earrings), the job Rayshawn had while he was an undergrad (fast-food cashier), Quentin's childhood vacation spot ("I would not have guessed mountains, but there must have been a few real ones where you were, because that's what it says"). He hesitates when Sherie asks whether either of her children had health problems when they were born, and ends up pulling her aside to answer in private, but whatever he says, it's evidently right.

Omero wants Cecil to look up his favorite flavor of ice cream. Cecil comes up with "Existential Pistachio Crunch." When Omero says that isn't right, Cecil counters, "Have you tried Existential Pistachio Crunch? Well then! Go down to the White Sand this afternoon, order a scoop, and if it doesn't turn out to be your favorite I will personally order you a sundae of whatever is."

Perle says she's satisfied with the proof from everyone else, and just wants to skip to the real questions. So Carlos asks where they're supposed to start with the Rusakov tracking array, and if there are any interesting and/or dangerous anomalies they should keep an eye out for in the next month or so.

"Just keep doing...whatever you're doing with bloodstones," reads Cecil. "Ooh, Carlos, it says you're praying on a middle-school level now! Which is very good for someone who only started this past year. And, um...apparently there's going to be a massive influx of portals to unstable pocket dimensions in a couple of weeks. Starting out back of the Raúl's. You might want to look into that."

It's always relevant to ask what, in general, is the most important thing they should be doing. Cecil sobers when he sees the answer to this one. "Do not work for Strexcorp. Do not share information with Strexcorp. Do not have anything to do with Strexcorp if you can possibly help it."

"I have another question, if that's all right," says Perle.

Cecil nods. "Go on."

"What's the worst thing Strexcorp has done?"

"That's an awfully fuzzy notion," says Cecil. "Do you mean the thing with the greatest death toll, or —"

"The thing that would horrify me, personally, most. Is that a metric you can work with?"

Carlos squeezes Cecil's shoulder before Cecil can start turning the dials. "Sorry, if I could just get a clarification — is it not horrifying enough that they're sticking anbaric-shock-enabled tracking chips in people?"

Perle stiffens, looking as defensive as Carlos feels. "That's terrible, of course."

"Then what else are you looking for?"

"Are you saying I can't ask?"

"She can ask," says Cecil. "I'm happy to check."

Carlos's jaw tightens. "I'm just trying to figure out what she's hoping to get out of it."

One of the Li Huas leans forward, eyes sparkling. "We're interested too. Tell us some lurid horror stories, c'mon."

"That is not why I'm asking!" hisses Perle.

"They aren't teasing you, they're serious," says Henriette, "and don't be afraid of Carlos, he just gets snappy when he's worried about Cecil."

"It would be beneficial to have this answer," adds Köhler. "We should know what we are up against."

Great. The entire old guard is on Perle's side, which means Carlos probably is being unreasonable. And knowing when to stop digging in your heels against your subordinates is an important part of being a project chaplain. "Okay. You're right. I'm sorry. Go ahead, Cecil."

"I just want to know why they're worse," says Perle softly.

Cecil looks up from the dials. "Hm?"

"We're already tracked, everywhere we go. There are observers in our bushes. Bugs in our cars," says Perle. "And if you step too far out of line, you get locked up for the day and come back covered in bruises. I want to know what makes Strexcorp worse than what's already here, and not just...more efficient."

"Ah." Cecil turns back to the alethiometer. "And I can tell that it will not help to remind you that the secret police are here for our protection. Just a moment, please."

It probably won't help to start talking about apocalypses or "the unraveling of all things" either. Unlike Rusakov particle physicists, linguists aren't used to dealing with serious end-of-the-world prophecies. So Carlos watches in silence as Cecil turns the hands to point at the Owl, the Alpha-and-Omega, and the Sun.

The needle-fine fourth hand races around the symbols. It ticks off the Walled Garden, the Crocodile, the Baby, the Alpha-and-Omega again, the Bird....

Cecil catches his breath.

In an instant all Carlos's attention snaps from the alethiometer's face to Cecil's — to see fading composure, trembling lips, the way Cecil's Adam's-apple bobs as he swallows, once, twice. His breaths start to come fast and shallow; his gaze never turns away from the alethiometer, but Carlos can see what an effort it is to keep watching.

At last Cecil sets the device on the table, hands shaking. He buries them in the soft knit of his scarf and pulls it closer around himself, like wrapping up in a tiny, narrow blanket.

"They sever children," he says.

The world stops.

Carlos can't have heard him right.

"It's a power source!" adds Cecil, voice wavering with more than a touch of hysteria. "Did you know that? Is that something that's been — empirically proven — in our world? Pretty strong one, too! And they use most of the energy generated. They have batteries for it. Or something. They're very —" He chokes, scrubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. "— efficient."

Everyone is pulling their daemons closer — even the Li Huas, though it's hard to tell whether it's a real reaction for them or just part of an effort not to stand out. Isaña leans against Carlos's leg, and he scoops her into his lap. Khoshekh isn't around, so Cecil just clings to the scarf, fighting for calm.

Rayshawn breaks the silence that has fallen over the tables. "So we're all agreed?" he says, both hands clasped over the shirt pocket where his frog daemon is riding. "We gonna take these folks down?"

"We sure as heck are," says Sherie. "Cecil, honey, where do we start?"

Cecil gives her a watery smile. "You're here to do experimental theology," he says. "So that's what you do."

Carlos touches his wrist, and Cecil's hand folds into his. "Tell me one thing." He waits for Cecil to look at him, then says, "The Desert Bluffs team...?"

"Yeah." Cecil swallows. "They do it with adults too. But Perle was going to be most horrified by the children."

"She is a sane and rational person," says Carlos firmly, "and we are lucky to have her working with us."

 

-{,(((,">

 

The whole team is on fire that afternoon.

Nirliq gets an early blood-oath appointment, so that an hour later, when Omero drives her back from Night Vale General, she can throw herself into testing the electrum lenses. By dinner she has multiple spreadsheets stuffed with observational data. "I really need a laser to get some of these tests right," she declares.

"We don't have a laser," says Henriette from over by the Rusakov isolation cage, where she and Sherie have been trying to pin down some details about bloodstones.

"Well, that's just great. Carlos! Can we get a laser?"

Carlos has been spending most of his day helping Quentin tinker with a danger meter, and arguing in a mix of Spanish and English about the math of the waveforms involved. In the process, they've been building up a pretty long shopping list of their own. "I'll put it on the list," he tells her, and enters it in the notepad file on his tablet before carrying the thing up to Perle in the ordinater room. "Hey there — sorry to interrupt, but would you mind calling Night Vale Community College and asking if they could lend us any of these items?"

"Of course." Perle scans the murky Spanglish list. "For the laser, do you want the kind that makes light, or the kind that cuts through things?"

"I don't know. Just to be safe, let's ask for one of each."

When Cecil's show comes on, the old-fashioned radio in the main chapel room switches itself on automatically, and Carlos calls the others to attention. "This may or may not become relevant, but it sure looks cool," he tells them. "Grab a spyglass and take a look at the radio."

As with any object created by sapient intention, the machine attracts Rusakov particles. When Cecil speaks, though, they don't just drift in the usual random patterns. They ripple, like a lake with a rock dropped through the surface, like ordinary matter vibrating with the sound.

A few news items in, Sherie says, "Carlos, can we borrow you for a minute? We need you to go sit in the isolation chamber and pray. What exactly does that mean to you, by the way? I know you're not addressing God, here."

"That's right," says Carlos sheepishly. Sherie and her family aren't exactly pious, but Hebrew religion and general culture are woven together in ways he doesn't want to step on. "It's more like meditation. Getting into a certain relaxed mental state, being open to receiving the messages of the universe...and, uh, the first time I did it, I sort of pretended I was asking for advice from the ghost of Lyra Belacqua."

He's expecting that to either cause offense, or be warmly mocked. Instead, Sherie gives him a thoughtful look, then says, "Well, what can I say? If it works, it works. Over here, now. Nirliq! Would you mind taking some video?"

They all set up around the isolation chamber, while Carlos kneels on a cushion in the middle of the awkwardly-relocated bloodstone circle. It isn't like the quiet, well-kept little room reserved for this purpose. It's bright. Busy. He's keenly aware of the observation.

And it's very hard to relax when in the back of your head is a constant drumbeat of they sever children, they sever children, you have to do something, Cecil's working under them right now and they sever children.

Carlos closes his eyes and holds Isaña, rubbing her ears and under her chin. Trying to relax.

The radio is still playing: "Dear listeners, here is a list of words. Basalt. Adamant. The living. The dead. The shining. Drumbeat. Hoofbeat. Downbeat. Heartbeat. Heartbeat. Heart. Beat. Beat. Beat...."

It's as if Cecil knows exactly what they're doing. The warm, strong surety of his chant lulls Carlos away.

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

There is a mountain. Dana stands at the base, and the peak stretches up, up, up, wreathed in clouds.

Mountain is hardly the right word for it. For one thing, it isn't resting on the ground: the base hangs at least four stories above the desert floor. For another, it doesn't look like a three-dimensional object. It warps through space in all the wrong ways, folding in on itself, a mathematical impossibility illustrated in cumulus and granite.

A red light blinks at the distant top.

Carlos drags his eyes down from that light and yells, "Dana! Dana, can you hear me now?"

As with the last time he saw her, Dana doesn't seem to notice. Her hair, Carlos realizes, is longer than the last time he saw her. And her face is sharper. More keen. She's grown older.

Out of nowhere, a black-and-brown bird the size of a Prius appears in front of her.

"Yes, that will do," says Dana, and the bird bows its head so that she can climb onto its broad back.

Carlos and Isaña try to run toward her, hoping she'll have a better chance of perceiving them if they're close. Running is hard when your feet don't always line up with the ground and keep going through rocks, but they try.

The bird sits up. Dana is clinging with all her limbs to its feathered neck and hips. "One moment," she says, and raises her head, looking over the vast expanse of the bird's wings. "Carlos?"

Carlos comes panting to a stop a few yards away. "That's right!" he calls. "I'm having a vision. Or something. Are you doing okay? How —"

"— do not know if you can hear me." Dana is still talking, right over him. "I do not know if you can see me. I do not know if the information I was given about our time and place nearly matching up was correct. But I hope that it is. And because of this hope, I will pass on the message I was given."

If the situation weren't so personally frustrating, Carlos would find it fascinating. Of course. Her timeline is out of sync, the way it was the last time he saw her, when she was just finishing a phone call that Cecil appeared to take in realtime several hours later. But now she's the one in the relative future. She can't see him; she's just forewarned that this is the moment when he will see her.

"Use all the bloodstones," says Dana.

Yes? thinks Carlos. And then what? Use them for what?

But the image is already fading....

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

Dana comes back into her body with many things to think about, and very little to do about them.

"So I can make it to Night Vale, but not in the correct time," she muses. "And I can make it to a place that is not Night Vale. Perhaps, in that place, I was in the correct time."

All she has to do is put the two skills together! She really is getting the hang of this now.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (present time).

Carlos comes back into his body with many things to think about, but a lot of difficulty remembering them.

"Use all the bloodstones," he says out loud, before he forgets. And there's another phrase, the same one Mateo came back with when he did the same kind of prayer, all those months ago: "There is a light. A blinking light. Up on the clouded mountain."

"What does that mean?" asks Henriette. "Where were you?"

"Um...." Carlos massages his temples. "Logically, I suppose I must have been on or near the clouded mountain. And no, I still don't know what that is."

"At least you got something new," sighs Henriette, fingers fluttering over her tablet screen. "Use...all...the...bloodstones. And we have amazing data, don't worry."

That's a relief. "How long were we gone? More or less."

"Eighteen minutes by the video camera timestamp," says Nirliq.

"That can't be right," says Sherie. "My watch says it's been at least twenty-three."

"And my tablet says twenty-one. You might as well give up on wearing watches," says Henriette. "We did have one functional, accurate timepiece at one point...then someone decided it would look too good on his boyfriend to hang onto."

The doorbell rings. Quentin goes to answer it while Carlos glowers at Henriette. "Teasing. Spanish. Or does this place just descend into anarchy when I leave my body for somewhere between fifteen and twenty-three minutes?"

Quentin returns, arms laden with delicious-smelling bags. "Who ordered the Cathay food? Because you have amazing timing."

With all the experiments, Carlos hasn't had time to think about dinner, let alone eat anything, and he's not the only one. They all gather out behind the building, on the back steps and the bench, and divvy up the cartons and plastic forks. Whoever called in the order didn't consult the rest of the group, but got more than enough for everyone.

At least Köhler isn't too hungry to be suspicious. "Who placed this order? Has that been answered? Do not start eating until we know."

An uncertain chorus of "Not me" goes up around the group. Everyone is present except the Li Huas, and it sure wouldn't have been them.

Köhler turns to Quentin. "You answered the door. Who was the delivery person? What did they look like?"

"Um," says Quentin. His flying squirrel daemon cringes under a glare from Köhler's binturong, who could probably snap her up in a single bite. "I don't remember, all right? I didn't get a real good look at his face. Some guy in a tan jacket."

Carlos breathes a sigh of relief. He's just sorry he won't be able to remember to pay the man back. "In that case, we couldn't be safer," he tells the others. "Dig in."

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

Cecil is collapsed on the couch in front of the TV when a tired Carlos enters the apartment, carrying a bag of cheap hamburgers. At least this time he remembered to call, to say he'd be working late and wouldn't have time to make anything. "Hey, Cecil. Dinner's here."

It's been a week since the revelation in the speakeasy, and Carlos breathes a little easier every day Cecil comes home without haunted eyes or fresh scars. So Strex isn't interested in torturing him on a daily basis. After the horror of that first day, all he's gotten is a "friendly reminder" from his new program director that "we love this station's local traditions, and don't want to dilute your small-town charm, but any future lists of things will have to be run by a supervisor for approval before reading them on-air."

Sure enough, tonight Cecil sits up fluidly and easily. He's tired, that's all, he's not hurt in some way that makes it hard to move. "My hero. How was your theology today?"

Carlos slides into place beside him, toying with one end of Cecil's shimmery fringed scarf, while Isaña hops into the Khoshekh-sized basket at the foot of the couch. (Khoshekh isn't there at the moment. The alethiometer bag is, but it doesn't take up too much space.) "I am about eighty-five percent certain that we're on to something. Do you think you could come by the chapel at lunch some time in the next few days? There's a test we want to run with someone who prays...above a middle-school level."

Cecil makes a face. "Not lunch. I get exactly half an hour for lunch now, and I don't even get to pick which half-hour. But I could ride over with you tomorrow morning...?"

"That sounds perfect."

Carlos pulls up Cecil's Netflix queue while Cecil opens the burgers. With his daemon out and about, Cecil won't be able to see it, so Carlos picks a Ukrainian opera, where he in turn won't be able to understand the audio. They take turns whispering explanations to each other until shortly after they finish eating, when the screen goes dark mid-sentence before skipping to a completely different song.

"Well, great," says Carlos. "Now neither of us knows what's going on. Except that someone needs to send the secret-police censors to a video editing class."

Cecil giggles and slides down into his lap.

The sweetness of the moment is undercut when the friction tugs loose his scarf. Cecil tenses, pulling it against the nape of his neck again, but now it's only covering half the bar code.

"It's okay," says Carlos. "I mean, I know it's there, and I know you didn't ask for it, you don't support....You don't have to hide it from me."

"Yes," says Cecil quietly, half drowned-out by the opera's big final number, "but I would rather not have you looking at it."

"Then here." Carlos tugs at the fabric, moving it back up over the full sweep of the marked skin. "Let me fix this for you."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Sherie has started going to work earlier in the morning and bringing projects home at night, but she's made a promise to herself not to let it interfere with either of two things: PTA meetings, and family dinners.

She doesn't talk much about work at dinner. For one thing, she's not sure how to explain some of the details of what she's doing. She hasn't even told Sam what Strex has done with intercision, and normally Sherie tells her husband everything, but with this...she just can't.

And for another, this is her big chance to focus on the kids. "Those are...interesting earrings, honey," she says to Susannah, as a polite and non-judgmental conversation-starter. "Where did you get them?"

"This girl in class," says Su with a shrug.

"Oh? Is she a friend? Was she trying to convert you? Didn't she have any Star of David earrings lying around?"

Su rolls her eyes. "Geez, Mom, they're just crosses, it's not like I got baptized! She wasn't even Christian either, she just thought they looked cool. Plus, it'll be useful if I meet, like, a vampire. They're real silver and everything."

"I don't think vampires are real, sweetheart," says Sherie. "Even in this town."

"And what do you mean, 'wasn't' Christian?" adds Sam. "Something happen to this girl?"

"Well, yeah. I mean, she worked at the radio station." Susannah grins. "It's totally dangerous. If you get accepted to work there, you have to make out a will before you start. And Vithya's not dead, but she's, like...the other girls called it municipalmente muertos, which means her will kicks in anyway...and she said all of us in class got to divvy up her clothes and stuff."

"It means municipally dead," puts in Seth. "Which means she's dead according to the city."

Sherie turns to her son, whose daemon is hanging around his neck in the form of a pencil-thin adder. Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but Seth's moodiness seems to have calmed down in the past week or two. Hopefully it means he's adjusting. "That's right! You're really starting to pick this up now. Keep going at this rate, and you'll be having wonderful conversations with your classmates any day now."

Susannah's grin fades. She's been having a lot more fun with this place than her brother has, but on some things she'll take his side anyway. "Easy for you to say. All the people you work with speak English."

"Don't be rude to your mom, Su," chides Sam.

"It's just because someone in class got me a dictionary," mutters Seth, withdrawing again. "A book, so it works, not like the dictionary app on my phone that translates everything as vacío or sándwich."

"Well, I think that's great. It's good that you're making friends." Sherie pauses. "Unless this person is dead too? Or municipally dead?"

"No, they're fine."

Sam raises his eyebrows, picking up on a nuance that Sherie missed. "Is this person a girl person, by any chance?"

"Well, yeah." Seth shrugs. "So?"

"Hang on." Now it's Su's turn to catch something her mom isn't getting. "A girl in your grade who got a dictionary? Did she get it from the library? Do you know Tamika Flynn? That is so — I'm so jealous."

Sherie trades a confused look with her husband. They were both warned about the dangers of the Night Vale Public Library before they moved here, but neither of them have heard of this girl. "Is she someone famous?"

"She saved like three people in my grade last summer," says Susannah. "I mean, Mario and Ramona can't really talk any more, they communicate mostly by grunting and biting, but Mario is still first-chair violinist and Ramona works part-time at the ice cream place, so it's not like it's held them back. Tamika is...she's...." She frowns, then turns to her brother. "Let me borrow that dictionary."

Seth gets up without asking and leaves the table to retrieve it. The kids spend a few minutes flipping through pages together, arguing about spelling under their breaths, while Sherie and Sam pick at their meatloaf and gravy.

At last Su has a full English translation, for another phrase she must have heard at school. She and her daemon recite it together: "She is the beating heart. She is the breathing lungs. She is the lips that chant."

It's a little eerie, to be honest.

Sherie doesn't say that out loud, of course. Eeriness has been Su's thing for at least four years now, and it is Sherie's job not to make her feel bad about it, even if she does wish her baby girl would wear some color once in a while, for goodness' sake. "So my son is making distinguished friends, is that what you're saying? Because that's just wonderful. I couldn't be prouder."

 

-{,(((,">

 

"There is no possible way we can afford this," says Carlos under his breath.

On the far end of the main room of the chapel, Nirliq is explaining their next bloodstone test to Cecil, while Rayshawn and Sherie set things up. That leaves Quentin talking with the veteran Rusakov physicists, trying to hammer out a budget for the next couple of months. "I know it's expensive," he says, flying-squirrel daemon riding in his coat pocket. "But we're not just taking existing equipment and welding it together in new ways — no offense, Henriette —"

"S'fine. None taken." Henriette waves for him to go on.

"— we're trying to build all-new high-sensitivity equipment. Mostly from scratch. And if we want to keep the electrum lenses secret, there's a lot we can't contract out."

"I know. And I know the theory is sound. And I know we need to figure this out," says Carlos placatingly. "But there are only so many grants in the world, and being The Field Project That Concluded God Is Dead means plenty of them won't touch us with a ten-foot pole, and I can tell you right now that Night Vale Community College is not going to be able to rent us equipment to do photolithographic transistor printing."

Köhler steeples his fingers. "I will contact the Heidelberg alethiometrists. Perhaps they will be able to direct some positive financial attention our way."

"Hey," says Henriette. "Hey, you know who we should ask?"

Carlos raises his eyebrows. "Who?"

"The Museo de Tecnologías Prohibidas. Bet they've got something we could use. Probably lots of things."

"Probably," agrees Carlos. "All of them forbidden. Thus the name."

"You know who we should really ask," adds Quentin. "Cecil."

That...is a very good idea. "We will definitely do that. After this test," says Carlos. "Köhler, get in touch with Heidelberg. Quentin, if you can throw together a grant proposal covering some of the components we can get from other sources, I'll polish it up and send it around. Henriette, come with me for a second. I have to ask you something, and we'll need...." His eyes flick toward the nearest window. "...privacy."

While the others scatter, Henriette and her marmot daemon accompany Carlos to his office. He motions for her to close the door, and switches on the MP3 player he has hooked up to a set of five-dollar speakers for quick and easy audio cover.

Once the Battlestar Galactica soundtrack is filling the room with tinny orchestral grandeur, he says under his breath, "Do you need to sit down for a while and have a glass of water, or something?"

"What?" Henriette blinks at him a couple of times, then shakes herself. "What, no, I'm fine."

"You don't sound fine." Carlos folds his arms. "You sound...slurred."

"I had a bad night, all right? Bad dreams. Had a glass of wine with breakfast. Nothing to...don't worry yourself, here."

"Just a glass?" Carlos has known Henriette a long time, and her tolerance is way too high to be stumbling over her words that easily.

"Yeah. Just a glass. I'm tellin' the truth about this, Carlos, I'm not an alcoholic." Henriette's brow furrows. "Local vintage, though. Y'think it was stronger than the other stuff we get?"

Carlos is so incredibly relieved. Of course Night Vale grapes, or whatever else was fermented to make the stuff Henriette drank, would be more potent than the rest of the world's. Probably a side effect of the rituals used to make fruit grow in the middle of the desert. Or a deliberate marketing angle, for a population desensitized by how often they drink to forget. "Yes. Yes, I do think that. Listen, how about I go grab you a water bottle and some pretzels, and you stay here with your phone until you're sober enough to clear fifty lines in Tetris."

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

In the shadow of the basalt fortress, Dana climbs. It's a nice change of pace from the twin monotonies of walking in circles and astral-projecting into all the wrong places.

She has made a few more appearances in the radio station, usually during a broadcast she recognizes from her own relative past. Once she nearly walked through a Cecil who wasn't much older than a lanky teenager himself. Once she manifested to hear a broadcast being addressed to Night Vale in an unfamiliar man's voice, though she never did figure out if it was Cecil's predecessor or some alternate-world version of himself. And once she appeared in the booth next to a Cecil with the same face and voice, but wearing glasses, and doing the broadcast in English.

Other times she's stepped into her own past. Most recently, seventh-grade algebra, where she watched her younger self struggle to focus on linear functions instead of Maureen's low-cut top. And one time she even appeared next to Carlos the Experimental Theologian, in a hotel room with a large city outside the windows, from a time she had no way to identify.

Her other efforts have only gotten her into places that were deserted, or places full of people she did not recognize.

So here in her relative present, Dana climbs, and looks for entrances. It is slow work. The fortress has crumbled since the days when it was presumably in use; piles of rubble are littered around the base, including slabs of rock taller than she is. Many of the doors must be covered, or caved-in.

At last, beneath an archway, she finds a set of iron double doors with nothing crushed against them. Once they had windows; now each has a blank square hole with the occasional shard of glass jutting up from the rim. Dana approaches, cautious of any glass still scattered on the flat stone approach.

The doors are locked.

Dana can see very little through the windows, but she cannot imagine there is anyone inside who might come to let her in. As an experiment, she digs the rope and grappling hook out of her backpack and tosses the hook through one of the openings, trying to catch and lift a bolt. There do not seem to be any bolts to catch.

"I do wish I had better equipment," she says out loud. "Or better luck with doors."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

With Cecil on his knees in the bloodstone circle, the Dust ripples outward around him the same way it does from his radio broadcasts. Rayshawn and Carlos are watching through electrum spyglasses, while Nirliq and her colobus daemon handle the filming, Sherie and Köhler operate the danger meter, and Quentin monitors the anbaric equipment hooked up to the Rusakov isolation cage.

"It does that with you, too," Nirliq informs Carlos. "Doesn't look nearly as impressive, though."

"And the isolation cage is probably screwing up its typical patterns," adds Quentin. "We should try this again to see how they interact with a non-artificial environment."

"We got any idea what happens to these stones, before they're sold as circles?" asks Rayshawn, the archaeologist. "Can't just be dug out of the ground and left in their natural state. The resting concentration's far too high."

"There is a factory, owned by the City Council, in which they are produced," says Köhler. He visited the factory in person not long ago. (Carlos would have gone too, but he had a date.) "The raw materials are examined for impurities, cut and shaped, and treated with radiation. Chants are performed over them at several stages throughout the process. The particular details of the treatments and chants used at the local factory are trade secrets."

"Does that mean the general idea is something we could find?" asks Sherie. Her mongoose daemon sits on her shoulder, keeping a bright eye on the meter. "Like how Big Rico's has its own secret set of pizza ingredients, but that doesn't mean you can't still look up a recipe online?"

"Oh, you could find it, all right," says Cecil. "But information like that would be in...a library book."

Carlos frowns at the bloodstone circle. "Cecil, you're still conscious? You can hear us?"

"Yes," says Cecil — except that Carlos is watching closely, and Cecil's mouth is definitely not moving. "I was trying to astrally project myself, but it seems that I cannot get anywhere outside this fascinating chamber of yours."

On that note, he stands up.

Sort of.

There is a standing Cecil in the chamber. To visible light, he is translucent. Through the electrum spyglass, he is surrounded with as much Dust as you would expect with an average adult human being.

There is also a kneeling Cecil in the chamber. To human eyes, this one is opaque and solid. Through the spyglass, he has as much Dust as a Cecil-shaped sculpture — which means less than even a small unsettled child. A lot of it is probably not him at all, just the clothes he's wearing.

"Whoa," says Nirliq. "We're studying this next, right?"

Carlos would have thought Nirliq would want to get back to her thesis once they get a new set of Rusakov meters. But he isn't her adviser, it's not his job to question her focus, and besides, maybe she'll want to change her topic to the optical effects of your ghost stepping away from your body. "It's going near the top of our list."

Since they've got Cecil here, they ask for a brief rundown of his capabilities in this state, including getting him to touch the bloodstones and see how they react. Cecil can't see the theologians, only hear them, so Carlos makes sure to speak up every couple of turns to reassure Cecil that he's still there.

At last he settles back into his body, and Carlos and Isaña, both a little rattled (even though Carlos's ghost has left his body before, with no long-term ill effects), hurry forward to let him out.

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

Now Dana needs a break from fighting with doors.

She finds a nice clear space in the shade of a massive (but stable) slab of basalt, sits with her back to the wall, and considers her travel options.

"I know there was at least one time Emmanuel saw me, and spoke with me," she reflects. "And I have not heard from anyone else in my past that I will speak to them in my future. Perhaps, instead of trying to reach Cecil or my family, I should focus on reaching him."

It sounds logical enough. Dana closes her eyes, and leaves her body behind.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Henriette rejoins the group as Cecil is gathering up his things, including the alethiometer. "Thanks for coming," she says, sounding a lot less fuzzy. "Could you take a moment...if it's not too much trouble...to look up what happened to Josie? Is she okay? Where did she go?"

"Shhh!" hisses Cecil. "Keep it down, will you, geez."

"Sorry...."

Returning to his normal voice, Cecil says, "No, that's the answer I got when I asked earlier. Is there anything else I can look up before my bus comes by?"

Carlos shuffles his feet, not sure how to approach this. "There is one thing, yes. It's pretty awkward, but...there's this equipment we need, and it's really expensive, way out of our current budget...."

"Oh, gosh, I know exactly how to handle that," says Cecil brightly. "Talk to Marcus Vansten!"

"Marcus Vansten?" echoes Henriette. "Isn't he kind of a...you know...."

"...friendly, generous, all-around wonderful person?" fills in Cecil. "I know, right? You have to be pretty amazing to get as rich as he is." He gives Carlos a peck on the cheek. "Good luck! I'll see you tonight."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Unknown.

Dana's ghost steps into a bathroom, just in time to hear a child giggling.

The room is spacious, with brass fittings, rose-and-white tiles on the walls, and a woman kneeling beside the ceramic tub: apparently bathing her child, a preschooler with messy hair whose daemon splashes around as a delighted otter.

"Excuse me!" says Dana. "I didn't mean to intrude."

No reaction. The mother keeps washing the kid's hair, while the kid keeps on laughing and tries to take a bite out of the duck-shaped soap.

"Do not eat that, son," warns Mom, taking the soap out of his grasp. She squirts a dollop of shampoo into his palm instead. "Eat this. You must build up your tolerance."

"Okay, Mommy," says the boy, and licks it off his hand, getting it all over his mouth and chin in the process.

It's a heartwarming little family tableau, raising Dana's spirits. If she had to land somewhere utterly random, she's glad it's here, and not another empty tundra or desolate ruin of a town.

But then...what if this isn't random? The woman is nobody Dana recognizes, but the boy...could she have managed to direct herself into a long-gone, and adorable, stage in Emmanuel's life? His hair and skin are close to the right shades, and the woman could be his mother for all she knows, and of course at this stage his daemon won't be settled into a form she would recognize....

"We are being observed," says the woman. "Can you tell?"

Possibly-baby-Emmanuel grins. "Sec'et police!"

"No, not them," says his mother...and points directly at Dana. "Someone is there. Someone is watching. Someone is cold and clammy from wading through the Void."

"Oh." The little boy leans over the edge of the tub and stares at Dana. No, not at her. Through her. He waves in her general direction. "Hi hi!"

Dana smiles. "Hello," she says, because the fact that someone has no perception of your existence is no reason to be rude to them.

"One day you will be able to know." The woman cups her son's head in her hands, and uses her thumbs to gently guide his eyelids closed. "One day you will not see. And then you will see. You will see so many things."

"Are they still there?" asks the boy, unbothered by his temporarily-induced blindness. "Hello, are you still there? I'm Cecil, who're you?"

Oh!

"I am Dana," says Dana, entranced. "And one day you will know me."

The boy's daemon — Khoshekh! — pops out of the water, lands on the floor as a gosling, and waddles a couple feet in Dana's direction, oblivious to the way Dana is cooing out loud over how perfectly cute he is. "I don't see 'em."

Thumping footsteps outside the door, as what sounds like a slightly larger child runs down the hall beyond. A new voice filters through the wall: "I'm going now, Mom!"

"Don't forget!" calls Cecil's mother. She doesn't specify what not to forget.

Dana wants to stay here longer, so that one day she can laugh with Cecil about all the cute things he said to her before she was born, before either of them knew who she would become. But she turned her head to the left at the sound of the new voice, and now the whole scene is fading away.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (present).

As Tamika is shoving things into her locker at the end of the day, trying to cram her calculator and everything into what little space isn't packed with books, the new kid says, "Hi, Tamika."

"Hi, Seth." Tamika shoves her locker closed and spins the bloodstone dial. She's got a single locker on its own wall this year, to keep Rashi away from the usual rush of kids grabbing for backpacks, so anyone who comes over here has to be specifically looking for her. "What is it?"

"Thank you for the dictionary," says Seth. His Spanish grammar is getting better, even though his pronunciation is abysmal. (There are, Tamika grudgingly admits, a few things books can't teach you.) "My mom wants another book. A library book. She wants to know if you can help get it for her. Please."

Tamika considers the request. Then she says, "Follow me."

Seth trots after her down the hall, his own daemon riding as some kind of ferret on his backpack. The crowds part around them: nobody wants to touch the buffalo daemon by accident. (And they all know Tamika would gut anyone who did it on purpose.) She doesn't head for the bus lanes (not that she's riding a bus today anyway, Mario is driving her and a bunch of other kids out to the sand wastes for the afternoon), but for the gym.

"Put your stuff down," she orders, dropping her own backpack at the edge of the room.

He watches in confusion as she drags out one of the brightly-painted practice dummies from the equipment room. It isn't until she's actually putting the crossbow in his hands that his eyes widen with realization.

"Okay," says Tamika, pointing to the dummy and switching to her own heavily-accented English. "Shoot it. In the head." She taps her own head. "The head, understand?"

"No!" Seth is all pale behind his glasses, and that's saying something, because he was pretty pale already. "I can't. I don't want to. I won't."

"You can too." Tamika falls back into Spanish. "It's got two heads, and they're both real close. I'll even give you extra shots if you miss."

"I don't want to," repeats Seth. "I don't want to shoot things."

Tamika crosses her arms. "You want me to get this book for your mom? You suck it up and take the shot. It's not like it's gonna bleed on you."

The ferret daemon turns into a yellow bird, perches on Seth's shoulder, and whispers something in his ear. It's in English, so Tamika doesn't catch it. But she's banking on the kid being, at heart, a good Hebrew boy who loves his mama, and sure enough a moment later Seth raises the crossbow and takes aim.

His first shot goes wild, embedding itself in one of the Night Vale Scorpions pennants hanging on the wall.

His second, even though he's still kinda shaking, hits the dummy in its right-side forehead.

"Good," says Tamika. Still not someone she'd pick to be trapped in a firefight with, but at least now he won't freak out at the whole idea of holding a weapon. "So what's the book your mom wants? I'll get it to you tomorrow in chem."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos and Nirliq, who along with Quentin knows the most about the equipment they're hoping to get, take a ride over to Marcus Vansten's stately mansion. Inside the gold-plated gates is a garden full of exotic flowers, hedge sculptures, and a fountain carved in the shape of a whole lot of naked people spouting water from...assorted body parts.

A valet takes the car, and directs them around back.

"Mr. Vansten does realize we're in the middle of the desert, right?" whispers Nirliq as they head down a marble walkway, armadillo and colobus daemons at their heels. "How much is all this costing?"

"I don't even want to know." They reach another gate (also gold, also with a giant M-V wrought into the swirls of the bars), and Carlos calls past it: "Señor Vansten? Are you there?"

"Yeah!" calls a gravelly voice. "Yeah, c'mon in."

Carlos probably could have guessed that Vansten would have a pool in the back yard. An absurdly luxurious pool, even. What he wasn't expecting was for Vansten to be sitting in the pool, lounging in a hot-tub-sized circle set aside from the main body of water, with a little waterfall pouring in from a decorative stone wall to his left and a velvet-lined tray with a glass of something bright-green sitting at the poolside to his right.

He also didn't expect Vansten to be completely naked.

"Uh," says Carlos. "Should we give you a minute to, um, get out?" And get dressed? he does not add, but really, really wants to.

"Nah, this is fine," says Vansten. "Sit down. Stick your feet in the water or somethin'. Feels good. Either of you want a margarita?"

"Nothing to drink, thanks." Carlos hesitates, then crouches down and unlaces his shoes. They might as well humor the billionaire, and besides, it's really hot out. Nirliq follows his lead, and they toss back their chapel coats and sit on the edge of the pool across from Vansten, dangling their bare calves in the water and trying not to look at what else is underneath it.

Vansten's daemon, floating in a little custom-sized inner tube on the surface beside him, flutters her wings and circles around until she can see them. She's some kind of pigeon, almost pure white, with a cartoonishly fluffy ruff of feathers around her neck. Like a human in a huge fur shawl, her vision is blocked in all directions except straight ahead.

"So," says Vansten. "You folks wanted some money, right?"

"We would really appreciate a grant, Mr. Vansten," affirms Carlos. "We need certain equipment to test some new methods for keeping track of —"

The man waves for them to shut up. "Already bored. How much do you need?"

"Well, that's —"

"One million? Two?"

Carlos and Nirliq both gape, openmouthed.

"Sorry," says Nirliq at last, "maybe I don't understand. Are you offering us...a million Spanish dollars?"

"Or two," repeats Vansten. "Did you need two?"

"We cannot possibly accept —" begins Carlos.

Nirliq elbows him hard in the side. "Excuse us," she says sweetly to Vansten, before grabbing Carlos's arm and hissing to him in English: "Two million dollars! That's five hundred thousand pounds Halifax!"

"People do not just go around offering other people two million dollars!" whispers Carlos. No matter whose native currency you convert it into first.

"So when they do, you take it!" counters Nirliq. "I used to be division manager of the accounting department of a very profitable megacorporation, remember? This is professional advice!"

"Professional advice for an industry that deals in these kinds of sums. Experimental theology does not work on that scale! Our last NSF grant came to a hundred and seventeen thousand."

"Meaning if you take this, you won't have to write another grant proposal for how many years...?"

That hits Carlos where it counts. No experimental theologian likes writing grant proposals.

"Look, do you need three?" puts in Vansten, in Spanish. "I can get you three."

Carlos is starting to feel dizzy. Maybe he can bargain it down? Which sounds like a crazy thing to do, but..."In our field, if a guy gives you three million dollars, it means he wants something," he insists under his breath to Nirliq. "There are strings attached. Probably integrity-compromising strings. What's the least we can ask for? Including insurance, and a healthy margin of error for replacing stuff we break on our own?"

Nirliq has to have the number, but she doesn't hand it over. "I'm telling you, this guy doesn't sound like he cares enough to want anything."

They both sit up straighter, and Carlos switches back into Spanish. "Mr. Vansten, we're, uh, we're really bowled over by your generous offer, so I was wondering, is there anything you were hoping we could do for you in return?"

"Uh...I dunno." Vansten raises his voice. "Jake!"

A man in a suit materializes in the gazebo on the far side of the pool. That isn't a metaphor for him being really efficient, either. Maybe it's astral projection, maybe teleportation or invisibility, but whatever power he has, it means one second he isn't there and the next he is. "Yes, Marcus?"

"Jake, do I have any...theology-type stuff that needs doing?"

"Not at the moment, no."

"Didn't think so," says Vansten. "You wanna grab me another margarita?"

"Right away, Marcus," says Jake politely, and vanishes again.

"I mean, listen, Dr. Perfecto, if you really wanna make my day." The very rich, very nude man flicks his daemon's inner tube, so she spins in a lazy circle on the water. "You'd be a serious asset at a naked pool party. Got one coming up this weekend. Bring your boyfriend, what's-his-face." He grins. "What's-his-legs, more like."

With perfect calm, Carlos says, "If I'd taken that drink, I would be throwing it in your face right now."

Vansten shrugs. "You've got better things to do, whatever. Your loss. Just thought you should know, the option? Is totally open."

In a more subdued tone, Nirliq whispers to Carlos, "Four hundred and thirty thousand."

(As Carlos is relaying the number, Jake reappears, holding a margarita and a checkbook.)

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos doesn't say anything to Cecil about Marcus Vansten's hopefully-joking-but-maybe-not attempts to buy his way into Cecil's pants. (Or, at the moment, kilt.) He just sweeps into the apartment and pulls Cecil into an especially warm and loving kiss the first chance he gets.

"Mmm," sighs Cecil, cuddling up against him and undoing his ponytail to more effectively run adoring fingers through his curls. "I guess the funding request went well, huh?"

Carlos also decides not to mention how Vansten started tearing up when filling in the "Purpose" line on the check. If a billionaire is going to cry at the prospect of giving away a couple hundred thousand, that's weird, but not Carlos's problem. "We got the money, yeah. Have I mentioned lately how amazing you are?"

It isn't long before they've moved the kissing to bed, leaving the kilt and Carlos's chapel coat on the floor along the way. Carlos slips the high-collared jacket off Cecil's shoulders with tender care. He won't have to see the back of Cecil's neck as long as they stay face-to-face. (And Cecil can grab a scarf if they want to spoon afterward.)

Isaña waits in Khoshekh's basket. Around the time Cecil pushes Carlos over on his back, the margay daemon bursts through the window and tackles her onto the cushion.

Cecil takes his sweet time with getting all their clothes off, and it's loving and thorough and glorious —

— until someone's phone goes off, with a ring tone Carlos has never heard before.

Cecil stops short, a dark cloud falling over his face. Through still-heavy breathing he mutters, "Management."

In his distraction, Carlos almost asks when the eldritch horror-creature that is probably from another dimension learned to use telephones.

He tries to caress Cecil back to calm as the music finishes, but the song just restarts, and Cecil is visibly too unsettled to focus on Carlos while it's running. "Answer it," says Carlos at last. "Not worth antagonizing them. I'll still be right here when you're done."

So Cecil climbs off of him and goes, one hand cupped over the nape of his neck. His side of the conversation filters down the hall: "Hello?...Lauren, hi! No, this is a really bad time, I'm actually in the middle of something...I'm sure you won't. Uh-huh? Uh-huh. Okay. Sure, I understand. Thanks for the heads-up."

Back in the bedroom, he practically throws himself on top of Carlos, plastering their bodies together and nuzzling into Carlos's hair:

"Tomorrow's going to be a slow news day."

"Yeah?" If this is code, it isn't one Carlos has heard before. He starts into the caressing again, and this time Cecil is much more receptive. "What does that mean? Are they...cutting your hours, or something?"

"No, no. I have the same work day. The same amount of air time to fill. Which is why I've been asked to show up with some alternative time-fillers in mind, because there will be an unusually small amount of news...that I get to report on."

"Oh, Cecil." Carlos kisses his temple, strokes through his hair. "Is there anything I can do?"

"For now...?" Cecil rises up on his elbows and rocks his hips firmly against Carlos's. "It would certainly be morale-boosting if you got your pants off. Mmm. And...maybe put your chapel coat back on."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Sherie sticks the frozen peas in the microwave while her kids scoop macaroni onto their plates. Susannah is in a good mood, but Seth's optimism seems to have regressed.

He waits until they're all sitting to speak up. "Tamika wasn't in school today. Sorry, Mom."

"Tamika," echoes Sam, in a voice that doesn't spell out the word crush but does leave it hanging in the air. "This is the nice girl with the books?"

Seth ignores the bait. "Yeah."

"She agreed to pick up a book for me," Sherie reminds her husband. "I hope she's all right."

"Of course she's all right," says Susannah. "Maybe she had to take a sick day for something, but it's not gonna keep her down for long. I mean, she's Tamika goddamn Flynn."

"Su!" exclaims Sherie. "Language!"

"Mom!" counters Su, in a sing-songy parody of the scolding tone. "Showing proper respect for Night Vale's most awesome monster-hunting twelve-year-old!"

"All right, settle down," says Sam. "Don't worry about it, Seth. You'll probably get to see her tomorrow, good as new."

"Yeah," says Seth again. He looks calm on the surface, but the daemon in his lap is in the form of a small wildcat, and Sherie can see her tail lashing. "Dad?"

"Yes, kiddo?"

"Can I have my own crossbow?"

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

Carlos puts the coffee on, feeds the plant, then steps out into the hall. Cecil is rummaging through the closet, on hands and knees while wearing a pair of red vinyl short-shorts and beaded halter top that keeps riding up his back, so Carlos relaxes and takes a minute to enjoy the view.

The moment gets interrupted when Cecil tosses something red and dripping over his shoulder. Carlos yelps and dodges just in time, and the rag hits the wall next to him with a splat.

"Oh, Carlos! I didn't know you were there!" exclaims Cecil. "I didn't hit you, did I?"

"You missed, don't worry." Isaña trots up to the wet rag, sniffs it, and inches uncomfortably backward. "Why do you have blood-soaked rags in your closet?"

"I know! I haven't cleaned up in here for ages. It's so embarrassing." Cecil sits back on his heels, holding a fist-sized lump of what looks like Fireland spar. "Don't know why I have this, either. Here, take a look. Maybe it's interesting from a theology perspective."

Carlos takes the mineral crystal and turns it over in his hand. If it really is Fireland spar, it'll do this cool thing where it doubly refracts the image of whatever's behind it.

Instead of exhibiting birefringence, the crystal reflects a face at him.

Carlos jumps. "Mamá?"

No, that isn't his mother's face — the jaw is too strong, the nose too sharp — but the silver curls look exactly like hers, and the lines on the dark skin move in the same way hers do when she's giving her children a wistful smile —

"Hm?" asks Cecil, from deep in the closet again. "Did you say something?"

"I think this crystal is showing an image of what I'm going to look like in a couple of decades," says Carlos.

"Neat," says Cecil, now dragging out a cardboard box labeled only in runes. "Let me guess. Handsome and distinguished."

He unfolds the box's battered flaps. Packed inside is an old Boy Scout uniform, complete with a purple neckerchief and a sash covered in badges; a single vertebra from some unknown animal, half the size of Carlos's head, cocooned in bubble wrap; and a stack of old cassette tapes, all labeled in pen.

Cecil picks up one of the tapes, and gets that same wistful expression as he gazes at the handwritten label. "Speaking of versions of yourself far-removed in time from your present...."

Carlos leans over his shoulder and takes in the words on the tape's spine:

CECIL RADIO TEST - AGE 15

 

-{,(((,">

 

"But if you're solving for the derivative of E with respect to t squared —"

"That's not a derivative, it's a partial derivative. Can't you tell the difference?"

On the other side of the ordinater room, Carlos buries his head in his hands and seriously considers copying all these datasets, plus installing the associated program, to the machine in his office. It would tie them all up for a couple of hours, but it just might be worth it.

"Can't I tell the difference between a d and a partial-dee when it's written in mostaza with a popote de café?" (Quentin is using English for the math talk, but slips back into Spanish for food words like "mustard" and "coffee straw.") "No. No, Nirliq, I cannot. Can't you type your equations up before asking me to look them over?"

Nirliq flips back her hair with a hand bearing a ring inscribed in Cyrillic. "Well, excuse me for trying to appreciate the local customs of the town that's helping us revolutionize particle physics!"

The pair have pushed a couple of machines aside and spread out a stack of papers between the monitors, their attention going back and forth between two screens, a sheaf of highlighter-strewn printouts, and the occasional note or diagram handwritten with food products. It's all in the service of calculating exactly what they want to create when the new and shockingly-expensive equipment arrives, so they waste as little time as possible on test runs. It's a worthy goal. Carlos is glad they're enthusiastic! Really!

It's just that Quentin, normally the sweetest guy in the group, turns out to have an impatient streak that sits up and bites when he has to work with people who can't keep up with him. Which is everyone, at some point or another. Meanwhile, Nirliq is embracing Night Vale's oddities with the enthusiasm of a tourist, which is alternately fun and annoying. (Carlos is just glad she hasn't decided to start wearing a soft meat crown.)

With wonderful timing, the doorbell rings. "I'll get it while you start typing," says Quentin briskly.

"Fine." Nirliq rummages through the papers while Quentin scoops his flying-squirrel daemon into his pocket and heads for the stairs.

In the sudden quiet, Carlos notices that Nirliq is typing without her eyes ever leaving the screen. Does she have the equations memorized? But her colobus daemon is looking at the papers, so it's possible she's just in four-eye.

He can ask later. Right now he needs to try to focus....

Quentin bursts back into the room, taking shallow breaths.

"Hi," he squeaks. "Um, Carlos? There's some kind of Strexcorp official. Downstairs. At the door. Wants to come in. What do we do?"

Carlos stands bolt upright, taking a quick mental inventory of who's in the building today. Köhler, Sherie, and a Li Hua are out patrolling with the danger meter. Henriette took Rayshawn and Perle down to the range to get some firearms practice. Three physicists and two biologists left.

"Quentin, go back downstairs, go into the main room, and make sure all the electrum lenses are out of sight. Along with anything else that isn't public knowledge," he orders. "Nirliq, hide everything up here, put the computers to sleep, then go give the bio folks a heads-up."

He scoops up Isaña. Henriette is a smoother liar than they are, and Köhler is better at evading questions and making you feel like you're being a churl for asking, but they aren't here. Whatever Strex wants, it's all on Carlos Tongue-Tied to manage.

"And we'll go say hello to our guests," he finishes, trying to keep his tone light. "Wish us luck."

 

-{,(((,">

 

"Eighteen. Twenty-two. One. Seven. Thirty-six." (Chimes.)

The radio at the White Sand ice cream shop is tuned to WZZZ. At first Sherie thought the numbers interspersed with chimes were just another one of NVCR's unique local programs, but no, the owners are opting to listen to the town's other local station: the one that never breaks for a Strexcorp ad.

The team's minifridge-sized and hand-soldered Gaillard Compass, colloquially "danger meter," is parked next to their booth. If it picks up any readings that suggest Strexcorp is doing something involving portals, Sherie, Keith, and Li Hua will leap into action. In the meantime...Sherie's giving a scoop of Existential Pistachio Crunch a try.

The Li Hua with them today is working on a cup of mango-snozzberry shaved ice, casual as anything, like there's nothing odd about the AK-47 slung over her back. Sherie tries to put it out of her mind too, and make polite conversation. "Li Hua, have you ever thought about doing something different with your hair?"

Li Hua frowns. "Why? Is there something wrong with a ponytail?"

"No, not at all! I mean, something different from your...double. Twin? Do you think of yourselves as sisters?"

"Sisters don't have identical memories for the first twenty-nine years of their lives," says Li Hua dryly. "The term double is fine. Technically only one of us is a double, but nobody else needs to know which."

"Sixty-three. Sixty-one. Forty-seven. Eleven. Thirty. Fifty-nine." (Chimes.)

Sherie's mongoose daemon climbs into her lap, where she pets his fur. (Keith's binturong is curled up under his chair in a big lump of blue-black fur, while Li Hua's wren is nesting in her chapel coat's front pocket.) "All right. I can understand that. But you really don't want to look different, or go by different names, or anything like that?"

"Nope."

A thought occurs to Sherie. "Is it so you can both talk to your family back home, without having them wonder why your haircut keeps getting short and then growing back between one day and the next?"

Li Hua hesitates, then lowers her eyes to her shaved ice, rearranging it in the dish with her spoon. "We don't exactly talk to our family."

"Oh!" Now Sherie just feels awful. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize."

Keith, who has been reading the latest issue of Progress of Theoretical and Experimental Physics for the past half hour, looks up from his tablet. "Is this because they see you as someone to avoid, or because you are simply too uninterested to maintain the contact?"

"Keith! What kind of a question is that?"

"Yeah, Keith," says Li Hua. Her whole wounded-but-dignified posture vanishes, replaced by an elfin smirk. "How can you be so callous? Can't you see this is a very painful subject for us?"

She's using the flippancy to mask the emotional strain, right? Anyone would be upset if their relations with their family broke down. Even if it's all for the best, which can happen, lord knows Sherie has relatives she keeps at a healthy distance from the kids, there's still the grief for what could have been. And just because Li Hua is a little...off...sometimes doesn't mean her parents don't love her. Sherie and her husband have certainly considered whether Susannah's fascination with the macabre is something more worrying than a teenager's desire to be shocking, but —

Li Hua sits up straighter, eyes going out of focus. "Strexcorp's at the chapel."

Sherie tenses. Speaking of people who aren't good for children.

"How do you know this?" asks Keith, just as alert. He's not a parent, but he's just as revolted by the company's intercision efforts as the team members who are. Any normal person would be. Even the Strexcorp rank-and-file, the middle managers and pencil-pushers (literally, since they're allowed to have pencils) who make up the bulk of its employees — they can't possibly have any idea what they're harboring.

"We're in four-eye," says Li Hua in a low voice. "Shh, let us listen."

That doesn't make sense. Her daemon is right here in her pocket, so how —

Unless the wren here at the White Sand isn't hers. Unless the sameness between the doubles runs so deep that they can exchange daemons as easily as phone numbers. And judging by Keith's reaction, the other members of the old guard didn't know about it either.

Silence, except for the bustle behind the counter and the ongoing recitation of the numbers station. "Fifty. Two. Twelve. Thirty-one. Twenty-five. Fifty-two. Fifty-seven. Nine." (Chimes.)

After a few minutes, the Li Hua in residence relaxes. "Just one person — we can take 'em, if necessary — and it sounds like it won't be."

Keeping his own eyes on the readout of the danger meter, Keith says, "What is happening?"

Another of those pleased smirks. "I'm pretty sure Carlos's strategy is to talk her to death."

 

-{,(((,">

 

"But that's not even the really interesting part!" On the ordinater in his office, surrounded by maps and empty coffee mugs and jars filled with the sludge that lives in Night Vale timepieces, Carlos clicks to the next slide. "If you take a look at this chart...."

His Strex-affiliated visitor, a dark-haired woman in a severe dark suit whose daemon is a massive dark-maned lion, has been keeping up a look of cheerful interest for a quarter of an hour now. On this image, it finally wavers. "Is this all gamma radiation?"

"Sure is! Now, I know what you're thinking, Dr. Thiébaut." Carlos beams at her. "You're thinking, gosh, Dr. Ramirez, if these levels are accurate, shouldn't everyone in town be suffering massive cell damage, aplastic anemia, hair loss, hemorrhaging, and, in short, painful death within four to six weeks of exposure?"

"The thought had crossed my mind," allows Zariya Thiébaut. She introduced herself as Strexcorp Labs publicist, but going by her reactions so far, she understands the physics of what the Night Vale project is doing. Either she's an extremely well-educated layperson, or she's a fellow expert, undercover.

"Well, that's just it," says Carlos. "We should!"

"Come again?"

"We should all be dead," repeats Carlos cheerfully. "We've double-checked our equipment, verified the readings, everything, and none of us have any idea why we're still alive. Isn't that fascinating?"

"It's certainly worth follow-up research. I'll make a note for our people to do some independent studies." She pulls out a notebook and an orange-and-gold ballpoint pen, with the name and logo of Strexcorp printed on the side. Carlos tenses, but keeps himself from reacting. Let her find out on her own what the consequences of pen use are. "Would you like us to send you a copy of the results?"

"Tell you what," says Carlos. "Leave them with Carlo Raimondi. He can pass everything on."

For a split second Thiébaut starts to roll her eyes. (Very dark eyes. Even here, in an office with only indirect sunlight, her pupils are hugely dilated. Carlos isn't sure if that's a red flag, or just a bit of harmless Desert Bluffs weirdness analogous to, say, that thing Coach Nazr al-Mujaheed can do with his tongue.)

Her daemon jumps in, covering for her. "The man with the hyena daemon? That's right, you work with him, don't you? We'll keep it in mind."

So they know Raimondi. More personally than they want to let on. And a year ago Carlos would have totally sympathized with anyone rolling their eyes at the man, but now? The version of Raimondi that Thiébaut knows must be the shell left over from his intercision.

Does she know what's been done to him? Carlos has the horrible feeling that the odds are high. If so, does she know that Carlos knows? Does she suspect? Can she guess that he knows that she knows?

"I appreciate it," he says out loud, and does a quick pivot: "Now, how about if I show you —"

"What I'd really like to see, Dr. Ramirez, is some of the research you've been doing with your Strexcorp-brand Rusakov meters," says Thiébaut. "It's my area as well, and I've been following your team's recent publications with great interest. Are they still working out for you?"

It's the trap Carlos has been waiting for. She knows the meters are gone. She can't admit she knows they're gone. But Carlos in turn can't give away that the whole reason they're gone is because he knows how she knows. "Actually...I'm sorry to say we lost the whole array a couple of weeks ago. Our current theory is that they were knocked out by a radiation surge that was even more deadly than usual. That, or an earthquake. We haven't felt any earthquakes, but, you know, around here that doesn't mean much."

Thiébaut looks deeply sympathetic. "I can't imagine how much that must have cut into your productivity. But there may be a silver lining, because our techs have just finished a new prototype! You'll want a full set for testing, I assume?"

"Oh, I couldn't possibly accept that much generosity," says Carlos warmly. "Besides, our research focus has shifted somewhat in the past few months. You might be aware that this team has very high turnover? And with new members comes a new set of interests. We even have a linguist now. If you've ever been curious about the verb conjugations carved into the stone tablets down at City Hall...."

"Surely you still have active Rusakov researchers on your team, though?" Thiébaut smiles right back at him. The light from the window glances off a sun-shaped orange pin on her lapel. "I know Quentin Armenteros has put out several innovative papers over the last couple of years. And —"

And Carlos is not going to stand here and listen while she shows off how well Strex has been keeping tabs on his people. "Well, this is embarrassing," he says, with a self-conscious laugh. "The thing is...I don't actually understand the project Quentin's been working on. So it's not something I could introduce you to."

"Oh? That seems like an awkward position for a project chaplain to be in."

"Not at all! I can follow it enough to know it's good work. It's just, try to delve into the specifics and my brain shorts out somewhere between the third sigma and the fifth nabla."

All of this is actually true. Carlos is ten years older than Quentin and ten years farther from his Ph.D. research than Nirliq, and when he looks at the equations they've been wrestling with, he feels it. Reading them is like listening to a symphony: he can tell that they're elegant and powerful, but he doesn't know enough to dissect the chords or the instruments and articulate why.

"How would you like to get a look at some of our past projects instead? The photograms of the Glow Cloud are absolutely stunning. As long as you don't mind the dead animals. You don't, do you?"

"I have a high tolerance for disturbing content in the pursuit of experimental theology," says Thiébaut. "So this 'Glow Cloud' causes animal deaths?"

"Not exactly. They're already dead. It just drops them as it goes past. So if you happen to see it going by, you should take shelter under something firm," Carlos tells her. "Most of the animals it drops are relatively small, but once in a while it spits out something large enough to crush the roof of a car. For instance...lions."

Neither Thiébaut nor her black-maned daemon bat an eye. "Is that so."

"Oh, yes," says Carlos, with all the pure-hearted theological fascination in his soul. "I was present for one of those, as it happens!" (He doesn't technically remember it, but Thiébaut doesn't need to know that.) "Some people had kidnapped me, you see, and a lion was one of the large dead animals the Glow Cloud dropped on them. Long story short, nobody's tried a kidnapping since! Isn't that interesting? Come on, let's go see those photos."

 

-{,(((,">

 

At last Carlos ushers the visitor out the front door and shuts it hard behind her. His throat is sore from talking so long.

He gives himself a few seconds to breathe, then goes to find the rest of the team. Turns out all four of them are crowded behind the nearest door. Omero's hand is on the gun in his thigh holster; his glossy starling daemon's wings are half-spread, ready to take off at any second. "Is she gone?"

"Yes, she's gone. Which means you can all relax, stop being on your best behavior, and head out for a late lunch," says Carlos. "Save the receipts and I'll even reimburse you."

"Not hungry," says Nirliq. "I got Arby's an hour ago — will you comp me for that?"

No, because that defeats the whole purpose of shooing them out of the chapel. Carlos takes a step toward her and puts on his serious face. "I insist."

It clicks for Li Hua first. Omero at least catches that Carlos is trying to send them away, even if he doesn't realize why. Between them they manage to get Nirliq and Quentin outside and hustle everyone down to the bus stop, under a sky dotted with the occasional silhouette of another yellow gyropter.

Carlos has his phone out, composing a mass text. "I recommend Gino's Italian Dining Experience And Grill And Bar," he says presently, finishing it up. "Nicest place in town. Somebody bring me back an extra-rare portobello mushroom."

Quentin frowns. "Aren't you coming?"

"Obviously not," says Li Hua. "He's got some urgent tidying-up to do. Carlos, if you find anything interesting...."

"...I'll set it aside for you," promises Carlos, and sends the text.

He heads out back, to enlist the help of the secret-police observer in one of the trees, while his teammates' phones buzz as they get the warning: Sweeping the chapel for bugs. Keep yourselves busy elsewhere until I send the all-clear.

 

-{,(((,">

 

They find three.

Including one on the inside lining of Carlos's coat sleeve. Must have gotten there while he was shaking hands.

"Quick thinking, Dr. Perfecto," says an officer with a tiny antelope daemon, handing him the inert remains of the last bug. Carlos thanks her, scoops all the devices into a jar for the Li Huas to dissect, and lets the team know they're good to return just as the radio is switching itself on.

 

-{,(((,">

 

"Hi, Cecil here. Mom gave me this recorder for my birthday so I could make my own radio shows, just like Leonard Burton's show at the real Night Vale Community Radio. I'm going to replace Leonard one day! I really want to, plus the tablets down at City Hall say so, so I better start practicing now."

Sherie listens with rapt interest. This is Carlos's boyfriend as a teenager? What a sweet boy he must have been. And how nice of his mother, supporting his interests....

"Excuse me," says a woman in a White Sand apron, interrupting Sherie's thoughts. "You're the experimental theologians, right?"

"We are," says Köhler.

"Thought so! Delivery for you just came in. It's up on the roof."

Li Hua frowns. "Who would be delivering something to us here?"

"Don't know. They didn't leave a name. Just landed a heavily-dented yellow gyropter, set down a stack of books, and took off."

 

-{,(((,">

 

"That thing he described," murmurs Isaña, as the present-day Cecil on the radio segues smoothly into traffic. "The flickering, and the static. Doesn't it sound like...?"

"...being chased by a temporarily de-personified Li-Hua," finishes Carlos. Was this younger recorded version of Cecil being stalked by a similar buzzing shadow-creature? Or some other Rusakov-particle-depletion phenomenon? Either way, this recording is no longer just a cute bit of nostalgia. It's theology.

He listens as present-Cecil brings past-Cecil up once more....

"Cecil again! My brother says that I'll never make it in radio, because my voice isn't right for it. I need to get more like Leonard, with that perfect radio voice — all high-pitched and grating like sandpaper, just the way radio voices should be."

Carlos frowns. What brother?

Maybe he should have guessed. Given the mortality rate in this town, it's much more plausible for fifty percent of the Palmero children to have died young than zero percent. And of course, if it's a painful memory, Cecil won't want to talk about it....

"Um, I've been seeing that movement more, even here in Brazil. It's like someone is walking towards me."

"But there's nothing there," says a new voice. The voice of a teenage Khoshekh. "I keep doing flyovers and I've tried a ton of different kinds of eyesight, and I'm telling you, there's nothing."

Fifteen-year-old Khoshekh, not yet fixed in the form of a Brazilian margay. Carlos curls his arm around Isaña, imagining their suave, confident beloved flipping between the shapes of birds and bats and honeybees, as well as weird, otherworldly creatures with weirder types of eyesight.

It's all very charming until present-day Cecil comes back on the air and says that he doesn't remember having a brother.

 

-{,(((,">

 

"Maybe I'll be able to see it better after the surgery," muses the young Cecil, as Sherie and Köhler spread the books across the table to take a look.

They asked for one book on bloodstones. They got almost a dozen. A textbook and four other serious scholarly tracts in Spanish, three of the same in English, one in some kind of runes, and one picture book with glossy watercolor illustrations. On top of the heap is a yellowed, amateurishly-printed paperback in German, with a bookmark sticking out of it.

Köhler reports that it has nothing to do with bloodstones, but flips to the bookmarked page, where he finds a couple of sentences underlined. There's no translation, no annotation except on the bookmark itself, where ~T.F. has been scrawled in ballpoint pen.

"What does it say?" asks Sherie.

"A moment." Köhler and his binturong daemon study the text together. At last he settles on the phrasing. "Experimental theology is the first of sins, the germ of all sins, the original sin. This is all there is of morality — 'Thou shalt not know' — the rest follows from that."

"Kid doesn't pull her punches," says Li Hua admiringly. "Glad she's on our side."

Sherie is glad to have the books, no question. And it's a relief to know that Tamika Flynn is doing well, mysterious disappearance from school notwithstanding. But she listens to Cecil intoning an ad for Strexcorp over the speakers, and spots a yellow gyropter going past in the sky outside, and her phone is still warm from the text informing them that Carlos has cleared the bugs out of their workplace...and she's also glad her own children are safely in class, where they belong.

 

-{,(((,">

 

"Hello? Hello? I'm Cecil! Cecil Guarnieri Palmero! And you cannot scare me! You cannot! You canno—"

Carlos knows all this happened almost two decades ago, knows that teenage Cecil made it safe and sound and whole through so many years afterward. His heart is in his mouth anyway. Most of the rest of the team is back at the chapel and getting actual work done; he and Isaña are glued to the radio.

At last present-day Cecil cuts to the weather, and Carlos turns to his daemon. "He doesn't know he was a radio intern?"

"I know!" exclaims Isaña. "We've only been here a year and a half, and even we knew about that." Just because Cecil was guaranteed a radio job through prophecy doesn't mean they would let him skip out on the process of proving himself up to it....

"Carlos?"

With a start Carlos looks at the radio. The weather is still playing.

"Over here," says Cecil.

Turns out he's standing in the middle of the next table down, translucent and flickering: astral-projecting, probably from the station's bloodstone circle. The old Boy Scout neckerchief he found this morning is fastened around his throat, folded carefully over the back of his neck.

"Hi," says Carlos softly, standing to greet him. "How are you doing?"

"I believe I have sufficiently distracted the population from noticing that Strexcorp has simultaneously purchased every residential property rental company in town," says Cecil. His eyes are reddened and his face drawn with concern, but he manages to keep his tone dry. "It will go entirely unnoticed until it gets mentioned in the next bulletin of the Night Vale High PTA, which, incidentally, is released tomorrow."

"You're wonderful." Carlos pauses. "Wait — does this mean — do they own your apartment complex now?"

Cecil's mouth twists. "Among other things. Dear Carlos, I don't have much time — would you mind picking a few things up at the store for me? If you can bring them back to the chapel, I'll come and meet you here after I sign off. Is that all right?"

Carlos has his phone out before Cecil finishes speaking, notepad app open. Mostly herbs. Spell ingredients. He reads the list back at the end, confirms that he has it all straight, then says, "Cecil...re-education?"

"They would not dare," says Cecil darkly. "Kill someone, yes, but erase them completely afterward? Even if they were to try, there are limits. You can only take so much from a person before there isn't enough left to patch up. And to do the same with everyone who knew my family growing up? With Steve, with Earl, with Josie...? Most likely the tapes are wrong — they've been in the back of that closet for a long time, it isn't an archival-quality preservation environment at all, things are bound to degrade — but I — I must check."

 

-{,(((,">

 

"Can I help you find something?"

Carlos is peering at the spice aisle in the Raúl's, full of rows upon rows of little jars that are almost identical. He really hopes he isn't looking for one of the ones that keeps rattling and hissing, or the ones that are eating through their own lids. "Yeah, thanks. Do you guys have bee sage? Or red sage?"

A polite cough. "Uh, Carlos."

At last Carlos actually looks at the person addressing him. Tan jacket. Insect-daemon lanyard. Deerskin briefcase. "Oh, sorry! I thought you were an employee."

"No offense taken." The Man in the Tan Jacket bends to pull one of the jars from a lower shelf, and hands it to Carlos. "Red sage. Bee sage is down at the end."

Carlos checks the label before dropping the herb in his basket (along with plums, cold iron, toe of frog, and rigatoni), and he and Isaña follow the man along. Something is tickling at the corners of his brain, like a word on the tip of his tongue, like the memory of a dream. He tries to relax and let whatever-it-is come back to him naturally. "Did you...get us something, recently? An appliance? Or food?"

"I sent your team dinner not long ago."

"Right! At the chapel." Carlos frowns, rubbing his temples. "Or was it at the houses? Either way, I should pay you back."

"Don't worry about it. Consider it a thanks for your services to Night Vale." The man stops to pluck another canister off a shelf at eye-level, then one from the very top. "Bee sage. Also, red crowberry, which is much more common in memory spells than red sage. Save you a trip back to the store after Cecil realizes his mix-up."

"You know, it is really unnerving when you do that," grumbles Carlos.

He says it without thinking, still looking at the new labels. It takes a second to notice the other man has frozen in place, staring at him with a guarded, intent look.

"Do you do it a lot?" asks Isaña. "You must, right? It sure feels familiar..."

"...even though I can't recall any specific incidents," finishes Carlos. Shopping list complete, he starts toward the checkout, but nods for the man to come along. "Sorry, didn't mean to get your hopes up...I guess you're familiar with memory spells for a reason."

The Man in the Tan Jacket nods. "I do have a certain...personal interest."

"And no luck so far, huh? Except with Dana, I guess." Carlos pauses. "Hang on. The Apache Tracker. You were always hanging around with him, even with the...you know." It feels rude to complain out loud about the man who saved his life, so he just mimes the loose shape of a giant racist plastic feather headdress. "Could he remember you too?"

"Yes."

"...Have we figured that out before?" asks Isaña.

"You stumble upon it about once a month, yes."

"I'm guessing we apologize to you a lot too." Carlos picks up the jar of red crowberry from the top of his basket and turns it over. The substance inside looks like pine needles; half of the label is blacked-out. "Any chance this is an unlabeled toxin? Or an allergen?"

"Not to you," says the Man in the Tan Jacket, now worrying his lanyard with his free hand. "Go on and try it."

So Carlos uncaps the jar, breaks the seal, and takes a deep inhale of the herb inside.

There's no sudden unlocking of hidden memories, no dawning realization of moments lost. Just the smell of pine and sour cherries. He takes another breath, just in case, then closes it with a sigh. "I'd promise to have Cecil show me how to do the actual spell on you, but I assume that by the time I see him I won't remember wanting to."

"You never do."

Swallowing the impulse to apologize yet again, Carlos leans over to let the self-checkout machine do a retina scan. "Are you even really shopping, or did you just come here to help me out?"

"I'm here for my own reasons, don't worry. But before you run off and forget this ever happened, let me help you bag." He brushes past Carlos to the end of the conveyor belt. "Paper or feral dog?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

When Carlos gets back to the chapel, everyone is there, and most of them are reading.

Cecil is with them, Khoshekh draped over his shoulder, sitting next to Rayshawn and translating passages from what looks like a Spanish-language geology textbook. "'Fluid inclusions may be found in gangue minerals in hydrothermal vein deposits'...I hope this means something to you, because it is entirely opaque to me...."

"Ain't even gonna ask how you're translating into words you don't know," says Rayshawn. His poison dart frog daemon walk-hops in circles around the bloodstone on the table in front of them, examining it from all angles. "Think y'all can find a section on chalcedony?"

Khoshekh, meanwhile, spots Carlos, and nudges Cecil to get his attention. "Allow me," he says, nodding in Carlos's direction.

"Oh!" Cecil gets up in a hurry, leaving the textbook open for Khoshekh to page through. He grabs a volume of his own and holds it against his chest as he approaches Carlos: a mass of browned and flaking pages falling out of their binding, the cover torn off entirely, a spidery drawing of a broad-leafed plant visible on the title page. "Carlos, hi — I'm so sorry, I would have texted you, but I got a message from Dana earlier and my phone has been sprouting thorns ever since — it wasn't red sage I wanted. It was —"

Carlos pulls the red crowberry out of his grocery bag and holds it up.

Cecil's already-clouded eyes get misty. "You are magical sometimes, you know that?"

"Just lucky, that's all." Carlos leads Cecil back to his office. "Have you asked the alethiometer...?"

Cecil adjusts the bag over his shoulder, not answering. Khoshekh is quiet too as he catches up with them on silent cat feet, trotting along next to Isaña. It isn't until the door is closed behind them that Cecil says, "The tapes are not wrong."

"I...I'm sorry." Carlos doesn't know what else to say.

"When I left the station, two officers of the Sheriff's secret police were waiting outside." Cecil holds up a hand to keep Carlos from jumping to conclusions. "They did not start this. But if a person's memory is altered or lost for some other reason, and the modified version is determined to be better for their mental health and the stability of the town, they will take it upon themselves to do...maintenance."

Now Carlos is worried for a whole new set of reasons. This could be ordinary, average-human, trauma-based memory repression — and that doesn't happen lightly. Maybe Cecil's brother was abusive in some way, and disappeared because someone had him locked up, or killed, for Cecil's protection? Given that Cecil hasn't forgotten about his mother forcing him through a separation ordeal, Carlos doesn't even want to imagine how far someone would have to go to make Cecil's brain lock the memories down. Or it could be something the brother wasn't responsible for, just involved in. If he died in some horrific way, and teenage Cecil was a witness....

Cecil sets his things on Carlos's desk and closes the distance between them. Carlos gladly folds him into an embrace. "Are you still going to go after the truth?"

"Yes," says Cecil. No hesitation, no interest in justifying himself.

"Okay." Carlos brushes aside Cecil's bangs and kisses his forehead, just beside the trepanation scar. "Did the police decide to let you, or are you...on the run?"

"I invoked a couple of statutes too obscure to be in their standard training." Cecil's voice is muffled in the crook of Carlos's neck. "They asked if I would mind waiting down at the station while they looked my information up. I...made it clear...that I would mind very much. Eventually they saw my point of view."

"Good." Of course Carlos would have sided with Cecil against the secret police, but it's easier if he doesn't have to.

"I can't stay long, though," adds Cecil. "The spell will need a bloodstone circle, and I didn't realize yours would be...dismantled."

"We can re-assemble it, if we can study what you're doing," says Carlos. (Cecil's grip tenses on the fabric of his shirt.) "Not that we need to! All I mean is, I don't have a right to commandeer team resources unless there's research involved." He takes a deep breath. "But we've got non-research circles too. Back at the houses. Come home with me."

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

When Carlos wakes up, alone, he almost doesn't remember that anything unusual happened last night. It isn't until he rolls over and reaches for Isaña, only to find the mattress completely empty, that it comes back: his daemon is in her basket, where she slept with Khoshekh, while Cecil fell asleep next to Carlos.

It's the first time Cecil's been the one to stay over.

Granted, they didn't do anything Carlos would have been embarrassed to have his housemates overhear. After almost an hour in the bloodstone circle room with no results, Cecil was too exhausted and crabby to do anything but fall into bed and implore Carlos to rub his back until he dozed off.

And now he's gone. Back to his own apartment, or just to the bathroom or something? (Hopefully nobody took down the curtain Carlos tacked in front of the mirror last night.) Carlos changes into his Northern Lights T-shirt and a pair of khaki shorts, and pulls his now-collarbone-length hair back into a ponytail as he ventures downstairs to find out.

What he finds...is Cecil, Omero, and Quentin sitting in a line on the couch in the living room, all furiously mashing at video-game controllers, while on the flatscreen three humanoids in camo gear battle some kind of hunchbacked, armor-plated monster with knives for teeth.

"C'mon, Palmero, we need backup! Lock and load!" urges Quentin. (In English. Carlos is guessing he picked up all his military slang from New Dane war movies, and/or English-language MMORPGs.)

"I am trying!" complains Cecil, jabbing at buttons with his thumbs.

It's an oddly heartwarming scene. They're all in casual clothes — in Cecil's case, Carlos's casual clothes. He's the only one who's bothered to shave; Quentin's neat goatee is frizzier than usual, and Omero is just outright scruffy. Khoshekh is draped over the arm of the couch like a cat-shaped wax sculpture that's started to melt. Omero's prosthetic leg is unbuckled and resting in the chair next to them, with his glossy starling daemon perched on top of it. Quentin's flying squirrel is actually sitting on his head, lounging on his pile of tightly-coiled hair like it's a taupe-colored, well-moisturized cloud.

"Hit B to fire," Omero reminds Cecil. "Two ups and a B only works if you've been charging for —"

Carlos didn't think his footsteps could be heard over the ruckus of the game, even with its volume turned down in deference to the people still sleeping. But Cecil perks up as Carlos approaches from behind, and looks over his shoulder (while Khoshekh, beside him, gazes fixedly at the screen) with a smile. "You're up!"

"I'm up," agrees Carlos. "Having fun?"

"Oh, yes. This is so —"

The TV lets out a series of crackling sounds, then a sphere of purple-white light appears in one of the characters' hands. It swells with a roar like wind in a tunnel, eclipsing everything else on the screen, before the image fades back in: three humanoids and one pile of ash.

VICTORY! announces the game.

Quentin and Omero both stare. "How did you do that?" demands Quentin. "Some kind of cheat code? What did you hit?"

"I don't know!" exclaims Cecil. "It's your game! I was just pressing buttons. What do we do next?"

"Get to a save point," says Omero. "Don't want to fight that thing again if you don't know how to do that twice."

Carlos leans on the back of the couch and frowns at the screen, watching the characters jog down a murky corridor full of pipes and fluorescents. The rendering is jerky and boxy, but it has enough resolution to see that something is missing. "Where are their daemons?"

"On a separate mission," says Omero. His glossy starling daemon nods. "In the Resident Portal Effect universe, the military has a top-secret way of extending a person's range, so all their high-level spies can go miles away from their daemons. Like witches." He frowns. "Or Cecil."

"Mom was a witch," says Cecil casually. Not actually lying, just giving a wink and a nudge in the direction of genetics, and letting people imagine the connection on their own.

"That explains that," says Quentin.

Omero, who is both a biology grad student and a former member of the military, doesn't say anything. Carlos wonders what he knows — or can reasonably deduce from the evidence he has.

Quentin hits a couple of buttons (SAVED! reports the game). "Say, about witches...maybe that's why you have problems with your memory? A witch did it? Maybe a witch who didn't like your mother?"

Cecil grimaces. "Unlikely." He doesn't elaborate.

Seems like a good time to change the subject. "I don't want to interrupt your game," says Carlos, rubbing Cecil's shoulders and adoring the way Cecil relaxes into it, "but would you like breakfast?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

Having no luck with the basalt fortress, Dana moves in the direction she arbitrarily designated south, and finds a craggy cavern in the side of the mountain range. With her phone switched into flashlight mode (this never-dying-battery thing is so convenient, Dana doesn't know why she's never tried it before!), she ventures in.

The first time the tunnel splits, she backtracks hard. Being stuck in a geographical loop above-ground is bad enough; she isn't going to let herself get stuck in a loop of her own poor planning in the center of a mountain.

Not far from the cavern's entrance, the remains of an old firepit lie on a shelf of rock. Dana gathers up some charcoal and tries the caves again, this time drawing an arrow on the wall when she reaches the fork, and another one every twenty steps to leave a trail she can retrace.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Carlos makes scrambled eggs. Cecil seasons them with a personal mix of herbs, including some of the sage and crowberry left over from last night's efforts. Their bare feet rest together under the table, next to where Khoshekh is wrapped around Isaña. It's been a rough twenty-four hours, but it looks like Cecil is going to be okay.

The eggs turn out to be kind of disgusting, but honestly Carlos could be eating sand and he'd still appreciate this moment, so he sucks it up and eats.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (future).

"Hello, listeners. We have some news that will affect your morning commute, so let's dive right into it. WALK signals across the whole of Night Vale are malfunctioning...."

Dana jumps. A moment ago she was marking an arrow on a granite wall, then she turned slightly to the left, and suddenly she's looking at the inside of the NVCR booth.

She turns carefully, trying to stay here as long as possible. There's Cecil at the microphone, her Cecil, with the right voice and the right hair and the right language and everything! He looks slightly older than she remembers from the last time they were in the same world, with more streaks of white in his glossy black hair. And while the broadcasting equipment is the same, a few things have been replaced: the chair is much nicer, and the coffee cup on his desk is a new one, marked with a logo Dana doesn't recognize.

Can it be? Is this, at long last, her relative present?

"Citizens are standing by the side of the road," reports Cecil, "unsure of whether they are allowed —"

"Cecil!" exclaims Dana, waving a hand in front of his face. "Cecil, it's Dana! Can you hear me?"

No response. Not only that, but Cecil is already starting to fade!

Dana sighs. "This is making it very difficult to communicate."

It's quiet again — so very quiet, except for Dana's own voice — but it occurs to her that the rest of the scene is not fading. Cecil is translucent, a soundless afterimage of himself, and the studio and its equipment are not. Whatever tangent of dimensionality adjacent to Cecil's that Dana has shifted into, the broadcasting rig has shifted here with her.

"Can anyone hear me after all?" asks Dana — and the light on the sound board flickers, not in response to Cecil's unheard voice, but to hers.

Is she...on-air?

"I'll keep talking, just in case," says Dana out loud. She's never addressed the whole town like this, isn't sure how to do it, so she sits on the dimension-straddling desk next to the sound board and focuses on her half-seen former boss. "Cecil? I have been in this desert for months now. Years, maybe...."

She tells him about the blinking light up on the clouded mountain, on the far side of a vast desert plain. She talks about the old oak door she found, that nobody would open even when she knocked. She explains the geographical loop, the way she ended up back at the abandoned basalt fortress, here in the mountain range on the near side of the vast plain. She describes the cavern in the mountains, and how she ventured inside, to find tunnels sloping down.

"Hopefully I will know something when I am down there that I did not know when I was up here," she says, while the sound board LED glitters at her speech: a miniature blinking light of her very own. "Depth must equal knowledge. It must! Because nothing else has."

And with that, she's covered everything. Which means it must be time for her to go back and keep exploring.

Before turning her head in the way she knows will move her back to the desert, Dana tries to put her hand on Cecil's arm. Or at least, on the patch of air in this dimension that overlaps with the arm in Cecil's. "I will see you again, perhaps," she says. "From inside the mountains, which I wanted to think were not real...but which I now know, without a doubt, are. Just me, always me, but from further down."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (present).

The truck with the team's first shipment of new equipment is backing into the driveway.

It's a beautiful sight. Carlos hadn't realized until now just how worried he was that the deliveries would get stuck in the warped space around Night Vale, and never make it through at all.

His teammates pull together to help unload the boxes, and check one-by-one to make sure they all contain what they're supposed to contain. Sure enough, absolutely nothing has turned into lettuce or pterodactyls or the rusted future wreckage of itself along the journey. There's a moment of confusion when Carlos signs for the packages — it's still the 18th in Night Vale, and the driver was under the impression he had left on the 19th — but it's all settled in the end.

The largest of the equipment gets hauled into the room on the first floor that used to be the darkroom. It's been cleared out, the tools and chemicals packed away: it isn't like they have to develop photos with the Asriel emulsion these days, and the electrum lenses aren't photosensitive, so they can be produced on a corner table in the main chapel room. Nirliq is entranced. "I still can't believe we got a laser!"

"We can't do most of our planned experiments until the reflective high-energy anbaron diffractor gets here," points out Quentin.

"Can't do any of mine, least not the ones with bloodstones, 'till we get the substrate manipulators," adds Rayshawn.

Quentin coughs. "Actually, the PLD workstation comes with an oxygen-resistant substrate heater built in. It was in the spec sheet on the website."

"You know what else was in the spec sheet?" adds Nirliq. "The fact that you can do precision substrate heating with the laser. Which we now have. Who wants to help me set it up?"

For all their reticence, Rayshawn and Quentin end up following her. Köhler rounds out their group, while Sherie, Carlos, and Henriette unpack an unrelated set of boxes. Instead of being full of pre-assembly components to build a workstation the size of a large desk, they hold fully-assembled pieces of equipment, each about as big as a microwave:

Professionally-produced, military-grade danger meters.

And even though they're hardly cheap, or easy to build, the team has eight of them. Each half the size of one of their early, non-Strex-brand Rusakov meters: thanks in part to advances in anbarics over the past two years, but mostly thanks to the power of a couple strategically-placed Dirac-Hall lenses. There's a digital readout for the Rusakov concentration, and another for the local rating in Fatality Units, plus a directional gauge — the Gaillard Compass — to point them in the direction of the most fatal thing around. They're all wirelessly enabled.

"Would you look at that?" breathes Henriette, as she and Carlos lift the first one onto a table. "Our baby invention's all grown up."

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

The tunnels go very far down.

And at the end of one of them, there is light.

It isn't bright enough to be the sun, and it's too steady to be the flickers of a fire, but at the same time it has too much movement to be from any light bulb Dana is familiar with. It is faint, and golden, and the motion reminds her almost of the way light reflects off the surface of the pool at the rec center, throwing out spurs of illumination that wobble and wave across the ceiling.

Dana remembers Eustathias turning into a dolphin and lancing through the water at that pool. She remembers her brother's daemon becoming a seal, and the four of them blowing up a beach ball and playing catch, or a game somewhat like volleyball with much looser rules.

She misses her daemon. She misses her family.

She walks...and all at once the tunnel before her opens up, becoming a the mouth of a vast cavern big enough to hold the entire rec center inside it, with enough space left over to park a couple of aircraft carriers.

(Not that Dana has any aircraft carriers she needs to park. Or knows anybody else who does. Except maybe Marcus Vansten.)

The walls of the cavern vault upward above her for several stories, and pitch down some unknown distance from the rock on which she stands. The faint gold light is coming from down. Dana only has a narrow ledge to work with, here; she unstraps her pack and leaves it at the mouth of the tunnel, then inches forward, trying to figure out what lies below.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

With a danger meter and a couple of electrum spyglasses packed in the back of the van, Sherie and Henriette take a drive out toward Josie's place. They don't want to plant a meter in the house itself — even with the windows boarded up and the police always watching, it's too vulnerable to a break-in — but hopefully someone in the area, maybe the proprietor of the car lot, will be able to host it.

Other meters are set to be stashed near the dog park that they don't acknowledge or speak about, the house that doesn't exist, the taco place that is inexplicably run by hooded spectres, and, of course, the radio station. It's a drop in the bucket compared to the kind of array they're trying to reconstruct, but it's a start.

Henriette has a headache, so she gets Sherie to drive, letting Sherie's mongoose daemon have the passenger seat while she chills out in back with her marmot's head in her lap. Lucky for her, the older portal specialist is in a mood to keep up most of the conversation. "Have I told you my theory about why it's only bloodstones we're interested in? That is, why only dark green chalcedony with inclusions of red has these properties, and not any other color combination?"

"Nope," says Henriette. "Shoot."

"I think this world got a silica deposit from another one at some point...."

"Silica?"

"Silicon dioxide — this was all in the Spanish textbook, it took about half an hour to translate — bloodstone is heliotrope, right? Which is a form of chalcedony. The red spots can be iron oxide or jasper, and in ours they're jasper, which is another form of chalcedony. Which is, in turn, a mix of the minerals quartz and moganite, which are both different crystallizations of silica."

So what Henriette is getting from this is that it's all silica, just under about ten different names. (Also, that they really should have hired a geologist. Rayshawn, the archaeologist, knows a fair amount about how the earth moves, but only to the extent that it affects the things he actually studies.) "Go on."

"All right. This deposit, it's been affected by another world's physics and chemistry — maybe even treated by its local version of witch-lore. Then it ends up here. It isn't heliotrope yet, though — it's just the jasper. Later, something in this world happens, maybe an earthquake, to break the deposit up. And the dark green chalcedony from our world forms around the fragments."

"Explains a lot," mutters Henriette. Some of the readings they've gotten from the bloodstones aren't consistent with local rock or with otherworldly artifacts, but would make perfect sense if the mineral combination was a mix of both. "How come I didn't think of that?"

"It didn't click with me either, until Rayshawn explained the geology," says Sherie reassuringly, braking for a purple light. "Could also be that some of the quartz is from this world and the moganite from another. Or vice versa. Either way, there's probably a lot of heliotrope around the world that doesn't have any special properties at all — it's not the color that's important, it's the fact that it comes from a specific quarry site."

"Mmhmm."

"Keith told me there have been problems with people selling cheap 'knockoff' bloodstones, that don't come out with the same effects if you use them in a bloodstone circle. I just bet you they're minerally identical to the City-Council-certified ones, and it would take instruments like ours to detect the difference." The traffic light flashes a pattern of yellow and green that indicates left turns are allowed, and the van pulls forward again. "If we could buy a set, run some tests...are they actually illegal to buy, or is it just frowned upon?"

Henriette shrugs. "Never checked. Sure we can get some, though. Research purposes."

There's a long pause, then Sherie says, "Honey, I don't mean to pry, but are you all right? With that...headache, and all?"

"I...may be a tiny bit hung over," allows Henriette. She plucks at her electrum bracelet, the jewels luminous in their silver settings. Ever since finding out it has healing properties, she's been wearing it everywhere. "Coming down fast, though. Nothing to worry about."

Judging by how careful Sherie's reply is, she isn't as convinced as Henriette wants her to be. "Well, that's good. But next time you go out for a night on the town, invite me, all right? Lord knows there's enough to drink about around here."

She has no idea.

None of the new crowd do. They only know Cecil as Carlos's adorable boyfriend with the miraculous alethiometer-reading gift, a helpful figure like one of the exposition-delivering sylphs from the old Lyra-and-Pan cartoons (complete with the finest of 1970's fashion). They don't realize how mysterious, powerful, and casually-terrifying he can be. They're sorry and sympathetic to hear that he got a family member wiped from his memory, and possibly from existence, but they don't appreciate how monumental it is that he can't do anything about it.

Henriette doesn't try to explain any of this to Sherie. She also doesn't admit to drinking at home; it's not like Sherie, whose apartment is in a different neighborhood from the rest of the team, will know the difference. All she says is, "Will do. And hey, I mean it, don't worry. I ever get screwed-up enough to start missing hormones, that's when you know something's wrong for real."

"Hormones?" echoes Sherie. "You mean birth control?"

Henriette trades a dry look with her daemon. Clotère starts snickering first.

"Oh!" exclaims Sherie. "Oh, god, sorry, I forgot that you — that you were —" She stumbles, obviously not sure what the current non-offensive term is.

"— actually born with a same-sex daemon?" suggests Henriette. "No sweat. 'S a compliment."

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

Dana hopes to find answers, bounded by the stone walls of this dimly-lit gorge. She hopes to find anything.

Here is what she finds:

Dust, mostly.

The vast pit below her is deep, maybe forty feet, and at least ten of those feet are filled with a soft swirling slush of golden particles like dust motes in the sun. Dana recognizes them from the images of Rusakov particles in her physics textbook. She had always thought you needed special instruments to see them, but apparently when you have a critical mass in one place, the rules change.

As she scoots forward on her stomach and leans further over the rocky edge, a fine golden trail rises up from the rippling surface and drifts toward her. It disperses into invisibility before it can reach her height, but she is certain that with the right instruments she could see it reaching her.

How did it all get here? Even if this cavern was carved with purpose by intelligent beings, even if it once had a whole settlement across its floor, it can't have involved more consciousness than the basalt fortress outside, or the wrecked war machines down on the plain. Was it drawn here some other way? And then, perhaps, with the world outside abandoned, there was no consciousness left to draw it back out.

The flow is stunningly beautiful. Dana can't look away.

She edges toward it a few inches more, her head and shoulders out over the edge now, hands braced on jutting spurs of stone a little lower than her level.

Her hand slips.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Carlos and Omero bring a danger meter to the NVCR studio. It's the first time Carlos has been there under the new management, and while he doesn't think they'll try anything too drastic, he'll feel safer in the company of a loaded gun and someone who knows how to use it.

They bring takeout, too. (Arby's.) Cecil ushers them into his office at the beginning of his lunch half-hour, and takes a roast beef combo in exchange for a small Tupperware container full of squished Strex bugs. Omero does some preliminary poking at them while Carlos sets the danger meter on the floor behind Cecil's desk and demonstrates how the various settings and switches work.

"It has an alarm you can set to go off if certain conditions are met. For now I've put the whole thing to silent, so none of your...co-workers...will ever have cause to investigate the thing in your office that's beeping," he says. "Can you read the LCD displays without Khoshekh?"

Cecil shakes his head. "I can see the labels next to them, though. They're printed a little bit raised. What does 'cps' mean?"

"Counts per second. It's the unit we measure the Rusakov concentration in." Carlos answers a few more questions, makes Cecil promise to call if he thinks of any others, then says, "While I've got you here...I've been thinking."

"You have?" asks Cecil, in that way he has that makes it sound like whatever he just heard is a fascinating, news-worthy event.

Carlos blushes. "Part of being an experimental theologian," he says self-consciously. "It's about something on that tape."

Cecil sits up straighter. Carlos waits for a nod to continue — after all, Cecil might not want to talk about it at all, let alone in front of company (though when they're using Spanish, Omero is unlikely to follow much of it). After a moment Cecil says, "Go on."

His elbow is leaning on the desk, hand hanging over the edge. Carlos rests his own hand over Cecil's. "The younger you said...your brother was howling over breakfast, right? Is there a common reason people would do that around here? Could he have been working on his Howling Badge for Boy Scouts, or anything like that?"

Cecil shrugs. "Nothing I can think of. Everyone I know finished their Howling Badge when they were, like, eight, so it probably wasn't that."

It gets Carlos's attention in a hurry. "So you remember that he was older than eight?"

"I — what?" Cecil's brow furrows. "I didn't...I don't know why I said that. Was there anything about age on the tape?"

"Not that I remember."

For a moment they just gaze at each other, absorbing the implications. Feeling the spark of hope. Maybe this scrap of knowledge would have drifted up on its own, or maybe all Cecil's chanting and herb-mixing was necessary to knock it loose, but either way, he still has it. His brother isn't entirely lost.

At last Cecil coughs and waves for Carlos to keep going. "You were saying?"

"Well, I was remembering the day I came in and Intern Vithya was having all that trouble, with her second sight awakening," says Carlos. On the carpet, Isaña leans against his ankle. "You said something about her going through an unmitigated-screaming stage...?"

Cecil's clouded lavender eyes widen. "And at fifteen I might not have had the fine grasp of the differences between screaming and howling that I do today."

"Um, yes." Carlos had not realized that was a concern, so he's glad to have it cleared up. "And if it was right afterward that he disappeared, maybe that means that instead of something happening to him, he saw something that made him realize it was important to leave."

Maybe — and Carlos knows that foresight is not like having an advance copy of a book, that you don't get every detail, and you can't even choose what to look at — but in the best-case scenario, maybe Cecil's brother will be able to see how to come back, and how to put Cecil's memories back together. Maybe he already knows how, and is just waiting for the time to be right.

Alternately, maybe the next thing that happened to Vithya could have happened to Cecil's brother too. Carlos doesn't mention that hypothesis out loud, though. Even if Strex isn't listening in on this conversation, the Sheriff's secret police still are.

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

Dana is balanced rather than falling, but the difference between the two is slim.

All the blood is rushing to her head. Her arms ache from being braced on unstable rock. She does not dare to breathe too hard, afraid that the motion will send her sliding.

Eustathias would be able to turn into something big and strong, and pull her back. Eustathias could have turned into a bird and gone soaring down into the golden lake of Dust in the first place, so she didn't have to take the risk. Dana misses her daemon more than ever.

At least, if she dies, her last sight will be of something beautiful....

No sooner has she thought this than the faint glow of the Rusakov particles is eclipsed, the entire cavern illuminated with a bright black light.

"Dana!" exclaims a familiar voice. "Don't move. I'm going to pick you up. Don't struggle, okay?"

The next thing Dana knows, strong glowing arms are hooking under her shoulders. Grams of dirt and chips of rock skitter downward around her as she is lifted, tumbling down and out of sight.

She does not struggle. She is carried a few steps backward into the tunnel from which she emerged, and laid to rest between a couple of rough, banded stalagmites.

At last she allows herself to gasp for air.

The angel who came to her rescue pauses across from her, dimming the brilliant black light to leave a barely-visible silhouette in the air. (There's something odd about the figure, but without seeing it clearly Dana can't put her finger on it.) "Stay right here," she orders, in a voice with a Brytannian accent. "I'll just be a minute."

Off she soars, diving over the edge of the pit.

When the angel returns, she is totally visible. A flight through the lake of Dust has left her softly glowing all over, like a sculpture of gold-tinted glass. Now Dana can see what makes her unusual: instead of the feathered bird-wings sported by most of the angels Dana has not seen because they do not exist, this one has a pair of translucent, veined insect-wings, with a second, hardened pair above them. The outer pair folds down like a sheath, clicking shut to keep the inner wings protected when not in flight.

Aside from that, she seems like an average angel. Humanoid. Wearing no clothes. Perhaps shorter than the average, no more than eight, eight and a half feet tall. And her face....

Dana gasps. "Vithya?"

"Yeah," says Vithya-the-angel, grinning. "Well, sort of. It's more Erika now, right? But also Vithya, a bit."

"What happened to you? How did you get here? Is it okay if I still call you Vithya?"

Vithya counts off on her strangely-elongated fingers. "One: turned into an angel, obviously. Two: special angel powers, what else? Someone said you needed a rescue, and I said, hey, I know that girl, can I have a go? Three: fine by me, but don't let Erika hear you doing it, yeah?"

"I will keep it in mind." Dana brushes dirt off her shirt and shorts, wincing as she finds a scrape on her upper arm. She hadn't even noticed it before, but when her fingers smear blood across her skin it's like the nerves all wake up at once. "Ow! Can you help me get a bandage on this?"

It turns out Vithya left Night Vale before the WALK signs malfunctioned, so Dana recaps her explorations once more, while Vithya sprays antiseptic on her arm and wipes it down before sticking a long bandage over the cut. In return, Vithya explains what she knows about this cavern. During the War ("don't know much about that, except that it's got a capital W"), someone set off a bomb so powerful it split fissures in the very structure of the worlds. Inside this mountain, a massive ravine was blown open, going straight into the Void itself. Rusakov particles drained into it in massive quantities, and when the angels finally sealed it this world had been abandoned, leaving nothing outside to draw the remaining Dust back from where it had pooled.

"Don't think any of us know what to do with it, to be honest," says Vithya, nodding to the pit. "Maybe you'll come up with somethin'? What were you in here for, anyway?"

"Looking for answers." Dana hugs her knees, while Vithya sits cross-legged beside her. "Which I suppose I have found. And looking for my daemon, which I have not."

"Well, you've not got much chance of that in here. This place is a dead end, no openings to other worlds left. Our lot saw to that a long time ago."

"Then I suppose I must start walking again." Dana looks curiously at the angel, whose daemon settled as a firefly back in the eighth grade. Here, there is no firefly to be seen. "Is your daemon all right? For whatever your personal definition of all right happens to be. When you ascended, did it alter your range, or did something else happen to him?"

"Somethin' else," says Vithya self-consciously. "Most of the angels that used to be conscious beings are glorified ghosts, when you get right down to it. They die, daemon vanishes, ghost starts on their scheduled detour through the world of the dead, but, whoops, someone catches it out before it gets there. But me...well, I didn't exactly die, so he hadn't disappeared when it happened. So instead, we more sort of...soul-merged."

"So the two of you are both here, in one body!" exclaims Dana. "And that's why you have your face, but his wings?"

Vithya grins and snaps her insect-wings open again. "Yeah. You like 'em?"

Picking up herself and her backpack, in that order, Dana says, "They're absolutely gorgeous."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (future).

Again, Dana finds herself in Cecil's booth. He looks the same as her last appearance, and is wearing the same clothes. It seems very likely that, in this world, only a few minutes have passed.

Again, the light on the sound board reacts to her voice.

Dana talks, but this time, she is more circumspect. Vithya has warned her that there are certain things she cannot give away, not on an unsecured broadcast, not to everyone in Night Vale who might be listening. There are people in Night Vale who cannot be allowed to hear some of the things she knows.

So she does not talk about angels, or Dust with a capital D, or the War with a capital W. Instead she talks about the weather, and dust and dirt and debris and other things with lower-case Ds, and about the hand-carved table she remembers at her grandfather's house. She talks about her family. She talks about the blinking light, still visible in the distance when she and Vithya emerged out onto the side of the mountain range.

She looks at the orange triangle stamped on Cecil's coffee cup, and talks about how she is afraid...no, concerned...no, afraid that she will not make it back here again.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (present).

"Cecil!" exclaims an ear-splittingly sunny voice. "You have visitors?"

Cecil and Carlos both jump, while Omero whips the container of bugs behind his back. And just in time. The office has been entered by a blonde in a dark suit and a bright-yellow collared blouse, with a sun-shaped pin on her lapel and a mallard duck daemon trotting along next to her polished three-inch heels.

"Hello, Lauren," says Cecil, in a strained imitation of friendliness. "You remember, of course, that this is my scheduled lunch break."

The blonde smiles. Her teeth are unnaturally sharp. "Of course! And the guests in the building are properly signed-in, I'm sure?"

"Naturally," says Carlos, holding up his visitor pass. In English, he adds to Omero, "She just needs to see your badge."

"Delightful," says Lauren. "And...why, you must be Carlos the Experimental Theologian! You look just like Cecil described you. Delicate, dark skin...perfect hair with the distinguished touch of grey...teeth like a military cemetery."

Carlos cannot imagine Cecil telling Lauren anything about the people he loves. And while he used to gush about Carlos on the radio all the time, he saves it for their in-person encounters now that they're actually dating. Either Strex has been prying information out of other people in town, or they're mining Cecil's past broadcasts for details they can use.

"His beauty and grace are very distinctive," agrees Cecil. "Hard to imagine anyone you could mistake for him! Except perhaps that double who appeared during the Sandstorm earlier this year. The doubles were all physically identical to the originals, right, Carlos?"

"That's right," says Carlos, not sure where he's going with this.

"But not mentally identical, isn't that true?"

"Well, yes. They were sort of psychotic. Which our original team members were...mostly...not."

"Of course! Now I remember. Your double even tried to murder you!...What happened to him after that?"

Ah. Now Carlos understands. "One of my teammates shot to kill, obviously. Straight through the lungs! Looking out for each other like that is an important part of being a team."

"Gosh, what an exciting story," says Lauren, leaning on the door handle and resting her other hand on her hip in an affected aw-shucks pose. "Maybe you could try to get some of that cooperative spirit to rub off on your boyfriend! Cecil has so much talent, but he just isn't a team player sometimes. Well, I'll let you get back to lunch. Which is over in three minutes. Keep an eye on the clock!"

With that, she swishes out. Her collar is low in the back and her hair is gathered into a ponytail, with the dark lines of a bar code visible underneath.

Carlos opens his mouth to say something, but Cecil shushes him and hurries over to the door. He checks the underside of the handle, sighs, and says in English, "I think, in the name of not risking my productivity, you two should be on your way. It was lovely to see you again, Omero, and of course you too, Carlos."

Omero keeps an eye on Carlos, following his lead in deciding when to get up, then stands at the door with military stiffness while Cecil and Carlos share a quick goodbye kiss. He keeps all comments to himself until they get out to the coupe, at which point he says, "That woman seemed very...disciplined."

"Probably the kindest possible way to put it."

"Do we treat her as a civilian? Or is she some kind of enemy combatant?"

Carlos doesn't know the fine points of military enemy designations. All he knows is that Lauren Mallard was the one who ordered Cecil's bar-coding, and if Cecil knew the right buttons to press, she would probably be a pixelated pile of ash by now. "We treat her as dangerous and untrustworthy, and not somebody you ever approach unarmed."

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

The rendering on the screen is blocky and pixelated, but as long as you can tell which parts are the bloodstones and which parts are the fabric of the universe vibrating around them, it's good enough for Sherie's purposes. "And this is why, geometrically and theologically speaking, a properly-constructed bloodstone circle has thirteen stones."

"It's so elegant," breathes Carlos. He's got that dazzled expression on his face that he reserves for cool theological breakthroughs, and/or talking to Cecil. "It's like...like looking at a molecule, where you can see exactly why each atom has to sit where it does for the bonds to be stable."

"And these distortions probably help channel the Rusakov particles," adds Henriette. "I bet that's what makes it so easy to draw on them while you're in one."

"What I want to know is how they would react to a portal," says Sherie. "Any chance we can get our hands on one of those on-demand around here?"

"Maybe pick it up at the craft store," adds her mongoose daemon from her lap. "Between the dried frog parts and the sewing supplies."

Carlos grimaces. "There are people around here who can open portals, yes. And some of them might even be willing to help us. But we can't risk it. Not now that Josie's friends aren't around to make sure anything we open gets closed afterward."

"Right. The legacy of Will Parry." Sherie shakes her head. "I still can't believe that boy was real. And my son's age, too."

"Nothing changes your expectations of teenagers like having a teenager," says Henriette dryly.

"You got that right. At least mine are handling this place all right by now. Oh! Did I tell you, Susannah got her viridian envelope? She's officially invited to join the Girl Scouts!"

Both Henriette and Carlos tense.

Sherie frowns. "Is something wrong?"

"Best-case scenario, no," says Henriette, getting up. "Excuse me, I suddenly feel the need to go pray in our new backup bloodstone circle."

"On a completely unrelated note," adds Carlos, "have you been down to the gun range lately? Because I was going to stop by this afternoon to get some practice in, and I'd be happy to take you along."

"Now, hang on just a minute," says Sherie. Henriette is already out the door, so she turns her ire on Carlos. "If there's a reason I should be worried, I need you to give it to me straight. This is my daughter we're talking about, here. And her entrance ceremony is today after school."

Carlos sighs, running a hand through his hair. "There are lots of reasons to be worried. Comes with the territory. But if the ceremony is already scheduled, there's nothing you can do to stop it, so the most effective strategy is to try to relax and focus on the things you can do. Like practicing your aim."

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

With Vithya's help, Dana finally makes it inside the basalt fortress.

The interior looks like it's been looted. Holes are punched in most of the walls, revealing the gaps where pipes must have been. Only large pieces of furniture are left, and only things made of wood, sometimes with deep gouges where some kind of inlay was ripped out. No cloth remains, no metal, nothing either useful or decorative that would have been small enough to carry in a bag over your shoulder. By the soft glow of Vithya, Dana can see the marks where light fixtures were torn off the walls.

"But nothing seems to be rotten or moldy," observes Dana, pulling open the drawers of a battered desk by the holes left where their handles used to be. "I suppose any mold that tried to settle here will have packed its bags and moved to a wetter climate. Very little dust up here, too. The kind with a lowercase d, that is."

"Makes sense," says Vithya. "Lowercase dust, that's mostly skin cells, innit? Not a lot of people with skin 'round here these days."

There's a strange fixture on the wall behind the desk. Dana gets down on her knees to see, then crawls under for a closer look. "Could this be an outlet? An anbaric outlet, designed for a plug with a foreign shape?"

"Lemme have a look."

Dana scoots back out and lets Vithya takes her place. The angel's double set of insect-wings are half-spread, and Dana tries not to get distracted by how she is very naked under the veined film, and awfully attractive once you adjust for the eerie distortions caused by being eight feet tall but still no broader than Dana is.

"Think it might be, yeah," reports Vithya. "No wire left in it, though. Makes sense. Someone coming in here to scavenge for valuables would've stripped the copper first chance they got."

In trying to find a way to explore the other floors, they come to a shaft that looks like it might have once held an elevator, long disabled. Dana decides to take the stairs.

They ascend one set of spiral staircases until they reach the parapets, where the clouds look very close to their height, though the top of the Clouded Mountain on the far horizon is still higher. They descend a different set until they reach the lowest levels, where no windows open on the sunlight, where everything is dark and dripping and Vithya's glow doesn't reach all the corners.

Dana is pushing open a heavy metal door when Vithya flickers. "I have to go."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

At the range, Carlos loans Sherie a hair tie to hold her mass of fluffy brown hair back from her face, and helps her find safety goggles that fit over her glasses. He's just picking out earmuffs in Isaña's size when an unfamiliar voice exclaims, "Carlos? Carlos Perfecto?"

It's a long-haired man with a kangaroo-rat daemon, one that Carlos thinks he's seen around town, but can't place off the top of his head. "That's me. Sorry, you are...?"

"Tristan Cortez. Board president, Night Vale Green Market Co-op," says the man, offering a hand to shake. "Or should I say, Night Vale Green Market Incorporated, a subsidiary of Strexcorp Synernists Inc. Say, is it true what I've been hearing? Did you open the doors for them to make the transition into our little town?"

Carlos can't deny it. "Not willingly. Not knowingly. But...yes."

Tristan clasps his hand. "Well, sir, I can't thank you enough!"

Carlos blinks. That should have sounded sarcastic, but it didn't.

"The Co-op has been really struggling this past year. Thanks to Strex, we're on solid financial footing again! And they've already made some very promising reconstructions to our business model. Discontinuing the unproductive 'fresh fruit and vegetable sales' division, expanding our espionage surfaces, and best of all, I don't have to handle customer satisfaction surveys any more! They have a whole separate division that does that! You have no idea how much I appreciate it."

"Um," says Carlos. "You're...welcome?"

Tristan's wearing a shirt with a high collar, and if his hair was tied back while shooting it's been taken down now, so Carlos can't see if there's a bar code on his neck as he leaves.

"I don't think I followed all that," says Sherie apologetically, in English. "Were you talking about a farmers' market, or some kind of spy program?"

"The farmers' market is a spy program," sighs Carlos, switching languages to match. "Most community organizations are. I take it you haven't been called up for any operations with the PTA yet? Let's just hope the secret police aren't still outsourcing surveillance projects to the former Co-op now that they've been taken over."

"Of course not," says another voice, this one English with a strong Spanish accent, and partly muffled by the ceiling tiles. "What kind of operation do you take us for?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

"Is it dangerous?" asks Dana, stepping back from the door. "We can choose what doors we go through. It doesn't have to be this one."

"It's not the door. I really do have to leave. Important angel business, yeah? Look, I'll give you a ride upstairs before I take off. I'm not leavin' you down 'ere."

Dana follows Vithya back to the stairs, nearly jogging to keep up with the angel's long strides. "I'm sorry," she says. "If I had known you would be leaving so soon, I would have explored less...and talked with you more."

She thought she had gotten used to being alone. No, not alone...lonely. But now that she's had a reprieve, she isn't certain how easily she can go back.

"Hey, that's all right," says Vithya. "You've got your job to do, I've got mine. I'll come back 'round if I can, all right? Here, let me pick you up."

She gets one long arm under Dana's knees and another behind her back, and scoops her into a princess carry.

Dana's backpack is up at the entrance, which is nice because it makes her less to carry, but she wishes she had brought the flashlight. Vithya's flesh, while surprisingly soft and warm where Dana's hand rests on her collarbones, is more translucent than before. It isn't just a subjective effect caused by the atmosphere. She's dimming.

"Can you use the effect with the bright blackness again?" asks Dana, as Vithya flits up the spiral stairs. "I'm just...concerned...that you'll bump into something. Or that you will bump me into something."

"Used that all up for the moment, sorry," says Vithya with a shrug.

"Of course." Dana tries to sound polite about it, but draws her knees up tighter and leans close against Vithya's chest. The spiral is so dense. It's making her dizzy.

Vithya's voice is soft, close to her ear. "You really don't like this, do you?"

"You're in a hurry. I appreciate that."

The angel sighs. "I do have one more light trick in my arsenal. But you've got to promise not to laugh, understand?"

Dana nods.

A brilliant golden light swells from somewhere below her, lighting up the stairwell for a dozen floors above. When they reach the ground floor and Vithya soars out into the hall, it glows through the entire corridor.

Although Dana does not laugh, she has to smile. Of course. Vithya is her entire self, the human and the firefly daemon sharing a single form. Which makes it beautiful, heartwarming, and deeply symbolic that her butt lights up.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

The entrance ceremony for newly-inducted Girl Scouts is in Mission Grove Park. Sherie says they're all invited, so Carlos puts on his nicest chapel coat and comes along. (As does Perle, recording equipment in tow.) Considering how the last Scout-related ceremony he attended went down, he also puts on a shoulder holster, borrows one of the Li Huas' guns, and packs an electrum spyglass and a danger meter.

The setup in a clear area of the park is familiar: no rain tent this time, but there's the usual temporarily-constructed podium with a bloodstone circle at the side, a dozen rows of folding chairs, and a couple of tables with snacks and plastic dinnerware. Carlos spots a familiar tray of scones, though he doesn't see Steve Carlsberg offhand. Probably somewhere in the crowd.

Sherie's husband, Sam, brought lemon squares. In between double-checking the local concentration of fatality units, Carlos tries one. Definitely better than the scones.

He's lucky he gets to them early, because only a few minutes later comes a massive downdraft from the beating of mighty wings, and by the time Hiram McDaniels has landed at the back of the seats, all the food is covered in a fine layer of dirt and grass clippings. "Pleasure to be here," drawls Hiram's gold head. "I believe that children are our future, and that's why supporting the youth organizations of the Night Vale community is very important to me as your future mayor."

"I was here first," mutters a petulant voice from behind Carlos's left ear. He can't quite see them, but he recognizes the Faceless Old Woman who lives in his home, probably carrying her eyeless salamander daemon. "And I have watched over every single one of these girls as they sleep. If supportiveness is a quality of mayors, I think we can all agree who is more mayoral."

Privately, Carlos thinks Pamela Winchell is more of a mayor than both of them put together. He doesn't get into it, though, just makes his way over to Sherie and Sam.

The rows of chairs are divided, two and two, humans and daemons. He sets Isaña down on the chair directly behind him, next to Sam's big shaggy sheepdog, and says hello. (Their twelve-year-old, Seth, is sitting between his parents with a book open in his lap, and his own daemon as a small snake braceleted around his wrist. Perle and her leopard gecko are still over with Hiram.)

They make small talk — Carlos learns that Sam is a freelance coder and web designer, Sam learns that Carlos renders scatter plot matrices as a hobby in his free time — until something Sam says catches Sherie's attention. "Honey? Did you just say you didn't drive Su over here?"

"No, I just picked up Seth. The invitation implied she was here already."

"Well, I didn't bring her. Have you seen her? I haven't."

An awkward pause, while they all process the idea that Susannah might not have made it to her own induction ceremony.

"This might be normal," says Carlos hopefully. "The Scouts have their own particular ways of doing things. I'll go ask Steve."

Turns out Steve has settled down at the edge of the row in front of them...and is fervently arguing with his seatmate, a woman Carlos remembers from PTA meetings. The takeover of the water systems, he insists, is obviously the first step toward inducing mind control in the citizens, and with that in mind, how can she justify hiring a Strexcorp plumber?

Renée, ten years old and shooting up like a weed, is in the seat next to her father, suited up in her own Girl Scout vest. She's picking bits of grass off a slice of chocolate cake, while her daemon perches on the back of her head in the form of a large, jeweled butterfly.

"Hi," says Carlos, once he can get a word in edgewise. "Can I ask a quick question? Where are the girls who are getting inducted today? And if my colleague has no idea how her daughter is getting here, is that a bad thing?"

"Tell your colleague not to worry," Steve assures him. "The Troop Leaders will have made sure they all got to the entrance of the catacombs! From there, ideally, they make it here on their own."

"And non-ideally...a Troop Leader picks them up?" prompts Carlos.

"Is that how they do it in the US?" asks Steve, with genuine interest. "Huh. I guess every country holds its Girl Scouts to different standards."

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

Evening sunlight on the mountainside. The twilight makes Vithya more visible than she would be in full day. She sets Dana down next to the untouched backpack; the caress of her hand lingers on Dana's shoulders.

"You'll probably be fine," she says. "It's just until your daemon gets here, right? And that'll be soon, I bet. Can't say for certain, I only had second-sight for about a week as a human before it got replaced with angel-sight — which is bloody brilliant, I'm not complaining, just not the same — point is, you keep searching, she keeps searching, you're bound to find each other eventually. Law of the universe, or somethin'."

Dana does not think that is any guarantee, but all she says is, "Thank you."

Vithya's fingertips almost, but not quite, brush against her cheek. "I'll be back if I can, yeah?"

When Dana nods, the angel gives her a crooked smile and steps to the side, slipping out of this universe entirely.

She is alone again.

On the far horizon, under the looming silhouette of the clouded mountain where it hovers in the air, a crack of lightning arcs down to the dry earth.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

All the adults have taken their seats now, except for a couple of Troop Leaders, who stand in wait on the temporary stage. The existing Girl Scouts, meanwhile, are standing in a horseshoe formation around the rows of folding chairs. Of the older girls, Carlos can pick out the ones who have Scouting down to their bones: the ones whose daemons are foxes, rabbits, skunks, blue jays, river frogs, flatwoods salamanders.

A current of nervous tension runs through most of the group. The recent arrivals in particular; Sam is drumming his fingertips against his pant leg, while Sherie keeps unconsciously picking at her nails. Only Seth is still absorbed in his book. Looks like fiction, in Spanish, at the reading level that is mostly words but has an illustration every few pages. His daemon is in his lap now, shaped like a lizard, reading along with him.

Carlos is focusing so hard on deciphering the book that he almost doesn't notice the daemon. Then she shifts position, and the movement is weird and unnatural, and Carlos catches his breath.

She has wings.

But she's definitely a lizard.

She's a dragon. Not a feathered, beaked, dinosaurian dragon like Hiram McDaniels, but a storybook dragon, with a single head and dark green scales and batlike wings. A tiny, pet-sized storybook dragon. What are those called? Wyverns, right? Are those precious wings her forelimbs, or does she have front legs and back, for a total of six?

As Carlos is trying to unobtrusively find an angle where he can figure it out, Seth's daemon notices the attention. In an instant she's an ordinary vampire bat, with mouselike ears and a fluffy stomach and a squashed mammalian face.

Carlos turns his attention to the danger meter at his feet, embarrassed to have been caught staring. It's not the first otherworldly daemon he's seen around here; of course there's Khoshekh, and one of the cashiers at the Raúl's has a three-headed dog, and he's seen Renée's Tovitthae become a jackalope a couple of times. It's unexpected with Seth's daemon because she's an outsider, but he doesn't know how unusual it really is, and he shouldn't make her feel self-conscious about it.

Especially when he has bigger things to worry about. The reading on the danger meter is seven FUs above average, with the needle on the compass pointing directly at the stage.

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

In the pitch-black night the wind has picked up, and while Dana cannot hear rain, she can hear the crack and rumble of the distant lightning perfectly well.

She carries her backpack through the knocked-down door of the fortress, uses her flashlight to make her way to a room that does not open on the outside, and spreads her bedroll on the abandoned floor. It is, for the first time, chilly. Dana wraps herself inside the covers and tries to read a series of texts from her brother.

When her phone insists on rendering them entirely as a series of flower emojis, she puts it down and decides, instead, to try being somewhere else for a while.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Sherie has practically chewed all her nails right down to the quick when the girls around them start chanting.

There aren't any words she can pick out, just a low, guttural, nearly-toneless series of moans. The voices from girls of all different ages blend seamlessly into each other, creating the illusion that none of them are stopping for breath. It's nice, in a strange way. Sort of hypnotic.

Just when Sherie thinks she's really getting into it and relaxing, of course, that's when something behind the podium explodes.

Chunks of dirt and grass pelt against an invisible shield, a dome in a radius just large enough to encompass all the chanting Scouts, and slide to the ground. Someone is blasting their way up from beneath the surface of Mission Grove Park. A couple more explosions and they've hollowed out a serious pit, tiny fires licking and dancing in the grass around the edges, the roots of a nearby oak tree half-exposed as they extend down into the depths. A few hard pieces of something white — bone? — are flung up over the edge.

And a largeish blonde third-grader, with bloody scrapes all over her arm, hauls herself up by the roots of the tree. A bird daemon follows her up, turns into a bear cub, smothers the nearest fires, and rolls out of the way so she can throw herself onto the turf.

Applause goes up from the crowd.

Leaning on her daemon and grinning fit to burst, the girl hauls herself toward the applauding Troop Leaders at the podium. Sherie is torn between watching her and gazing intently at the pit. Sure enough, a beetle-shaped daemon buzzes up next, followed by another girl of around the same age with a dozen tight braids and and a slingshot sticking out of her back pocket. People clap harder.

Three more girls drag themselves to the surface in similar ways. All are younger than Susannah, even the one whose daemon is already settled as a non-flying animal, a brown-and-white rat that rides in her hood. If the youngest children could make it through...whatever this is...then surely Su can too. And wouldn't it be the considerate thing to do, to let the little kids go up first?

The existing Scouts are still chanting, a constant hum under the waves of applause.

One by one the new arrivals run or stumble or stagger to the stage, where they do something around the bloodstone circle that Sherie isn't paying attention to. Her own daemon has climbed up onto her shoulder, the better to watch for himself. Where is...?

Up flaps a stunning four-foot-long wing, feathers in layers of tan, white, and black.

Sherie feels a whole lot of things then, in real quick succession. Relief that Susannah and her griffon vulture are on their way up. Astonishment on realizing that Su's daemon isn't just accompanying her, but half-carrying her, helping drag her upward the way his wildlife counterpart might drag a coyote carcass. Shock at the sight of Su's favorite cardigan (black, obviously) torn into strips and wrapped around her torso like a bandage. Horror when she reaches solid ground and crumples onto all fours, swaying, coughing up blood.

Before she can consciously think about it, Sherie is on her feet.

The woman next to her jumps up and grabs her arm, holding her back and scolding her in Spanish. On her other side, Carlos is doing the same to Sam. Unbothered, Sherie throws off her assailant...just as somebody else's eagle daemon darts forward and grabs her mongoose off of her shoulder, dragging him backward and yanking her in tow.

But the winged daemon has a range too, and it keeps him close enough to the ground that Sam's sheepdog can bound onto the chairs and leap from there to tackle him, sending both crashing into the grass. Once her own daemon is free, Sherie bolts for the aisle between the seats. More people are yelling now, but she doesn't have the presence of mind to parse it — even Carlos has forgotten himself and is yelling in Spanish — Sherie doesn't understand, and doesn't care to, her baby needs help. "Su? Su, I'm coming!"

This time, she's the one who gets physically grabbed. A toothed beak large enough to fill a bathtub clamps down on the back of her shirt and chapel coat, so roughly it nearly shreds them, and lifts her into the air.

Her daemon is forced to scamper after her as Hiram's gold head drags her to the back of the seating area, setting her down so sharply it sends a jolt of pain up her ankles to her back. The dragon's violet head curls down in front of her and gasps out something in screechy Spanish. And Perle leaps down beside him — was she riding on his back? — to hiss, in blessedly familiar English, "They're saying you'll make it worse if you get in the way. She has to finish this on her own! Now calm down, you're going to disrupt my recording of this chant!"

"At least tell him to move over and let me see!" demands Sherie.

Perle whispers it to Hiram. The violet and gold heads sink to the grass, curling around Sherie low enough that she can watch the podium over their feathery crests. Hiram's gold head is watching too, but his violet head makes a point of eyeballing her, and she won't be any help to her daughter if she gets snapped in half by a literal five-headed dragon.

Over where Sherie was sitting, a bunch of chairs have been knocked down, and in the middle of the chaos it looks like several humans are holding Sam on the ground. And Seth...he's on his feet, daemon a hawk, not fighting with anyone, just watching.

Su has crawled most of the way to the makeshift stage by now. Her hair is a tangled mess; her makeup has been reduced to a few black smudges around the mouth and eyes.

Sherie wrings her hands. "Come on, baby girl, c'mon, you can do it...."

On her knees in the grass, Susannah leans on the edge of the stage and asks something of the nearest Troop Leader. Maybe the woman says she's come far enough, because Su doesn't drag herself the rest of the way onto the platform, just coughs into her hand and then grabs one of the bloodstones in the circle, smearing actual blood down the surface of the rock.

The crowd goes wild.

Hiram's heads pull away, and Sherie charges down the aisle. She leaps right over the platform, never mind that it makes her back scream in protest, and is at Susannah's side only a few heartbeats before Sam gets there. "Oh, sweetie, you did it! I don't know what you did, but you did it!"

"Hi, Mom," croaks Su. "Got a little impaled down there. No biggie." She coughs again, then grins, showing bloodstained teeth. "I'm a Girl Scout!"

One of the Troop Leaders bends down to greet them. "Está bien," she tells the parents. "Is okay. La ambulancia está llegando. Ambulance, ¿lo entiendes?"

"Si, si, ambulancia," says Sherie, as the other half-dozen newly-inducted Scouts — at some point in here they've all managed to put on their new green vests — gather around Susannah for mutual congratulation. "Hear that, honey? You're going to the hospital, and you'll be fine."

The Troop Leader frowns, beckons to someone at the front of the platform — Carlos obediently hops up to join her — and speaks to him in rapid Spanish. Carlos nods, holds up his electrum pendant ("¿Puede usar esto?" "No, something something something"), then sinks into a crouch and speaks over the other Girl Scouts' heads.

"Once Susannah got to the bloodstone circle, she activated a healing spell," he explains in English. "All injuries she got during the trial are already in the process of self-repairing. Interfering in that process can only slow it down. The ambulance is because, if I understand Troop Leader Craton correctly, you are one wrong move away from seriously pulling a muscle."

"Wha...?"

Su coughs again. Sherie twists back to check on her — and something in her lower back flares with pain, hot and sharp.

Carlos is already pulling off the pendant. "This will take the edge off until it gets here."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Unknown.

The room has the bland white walls, sterile equipment, and soft turquoise tint of an operating theater. Dana has appeared beside one of the walls, lying on a table with surgical equipment, some of which is going right through her.

She sits up. There are only two other people in the room with her: one stripped to the waist and lying on a reclining bed, the other, in a long white coat, standing between him and Dana. The man in white is facing away from her; the only identifying feature she can pick up is some kind of tattoo, black ink against the pale skin on the back of his neck. She can see no daemons around either of them.

She can, however, see a distressing amount of blood. Spots and flecks of it on the sheets. Dry scrapes of it on the floor. A spatter across one of the walls, leaving streaks across a framed motivational poster that says Make Each Day A Productive Day!

"You should clean yourself up before you get here," chides the man in white, stepping aside for a moment to drop a blood-soaked rag in a bucket already full of them. He uses Spanish, with a strange accent. "It would make the preparation a lot more efficient!"

With a gasp, Dana takes several steps forward, going halfway through a cart of surgical instruments in the process. "Cecil!"

Because the man on the table, his eyes closed and his bare chest damp from being sponged off, is familiar. His hair is cut short, and there are rusty streaks on his face and forearms that Dana does not recognize, but in every other detail, he is Cecil.

Until he giggles and says, "Aw, I tried! Is it better than last time, at least?"

The high-pitched voice is familiar, but not Cecil's.

"All I can tell you, Kevin, is that it's not perfect," says the man in white (nurse? chapel technician?), returning with a fresh cloth and carefully wiping off his patient's forehead.

"Kevin?" repeats Dana.

The same Kevin who came into Cecil's studio during the Sandstorm? Then this must be Desert Bluffs, the home he returned to afterward. Dana did not see him when he spoke on NVCR...but she did clean up the blood he left behind, which makes them connected, in a way.

Kevin sighs, though his wide, toothy smile doesn't falter. "I know company policy, silly," he chides, as the chapel tech towels him off. "I had the rulebook memorized long before you got here."

He opens his eyes.

Or...not.

He has no eyes.

It's all the more eerie because the rest of his body is almost unscarred. The only other old wound Dana sees as she circles the pair is a couple of missing fingers, whitish skin drawn taut over the stumps.

The chapel tech moves on to attaching a series of anbarodes to Kevin's now-clean chest and arms, working with calm efficiency. His own eyes are still in his head, but the pupils are hugely dilated for such a bright room, and there's a blankness in them that unsettles Dana almost as much as the gaping holes in his patient's skull. It reminds Dana of when she materialized at that awards dinner, where the people in the front of the room had daemons, but the ones at the tables in back had only vacant smiles.

To her surprise, Kevin is thinking along the same lines. "Hey, Carlo?" he asks. "Do you ever miss your daemon?"

"Nope!" says the tech. "Why should I? I have Strexcorp. It is everything."

"I know! I have it too," says Kevin. "But still...you can't cuddle Strexcorp. Or boop its little nose. Or high-five its little paws. I never had a daemon, and even I miss having one sometimes."

"You do have one, remember? It's just inside you," says Carlo cheerfully. "And you also have...."

He looks around the operating theater, gaze sweeping briefly through Dana, before pointing at something in a corner.

"...that!"

Dana looks.

There is, it turns out, a third figure in the room. Has it been here the whole time, unnoticed? It's quiet and unobtrusive, almost colorless, watching Kevin in silence. It is neither tall nor short, neither fat nor thin.

"Neither of those helps with the booping-its-little-nose question," says Kevin, sounding almost petulant. "I'm not sure you're grasping the root of the issue here."

"Uh-huh?" Carlo starts plugging in the anbarodes, but cocks his head as if listening to something, and Dana realizes there's some kind of anbaric earpiece fixed to his ear. It has an orange triangle stamped on the chassis. "Uh-huh. Okay." He returns to attach a couple more to Kevin's face. "Good news! The division administrator is adjusting your medication. You can pick up your new dose at the front desk on the way out."

Kevin beams at him. "Gosh, how exciting! Thank you for telling me. And for helping me get set up for the tests."

He clasps Carlo's hand in gratitude.

Something goes snap.

Carlo holds up his hand and shakes it, gazing dispassionately at the way the index finger of his glove is hanging at all the wrong angle. He doesn't comment or complain, just puts his wires down, peels off the glove, and retreats to a nearby shelf to get a splint.

As Carlo is setting the finger bones, Kevin turns and faces Dana.

"How about you, Vanessa?" he asks. "Do you ever miss your daemon?"

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

A massage from a local chiropractor with four arms does wonders for Sherie's back. She gets sent home with a compression back wrap, wears it with a heating pad during a long conversation with Sam, then switches to an ice pack before they call the kids into the living room.

Susannah is moving mostly normally, not at all like someone who got impaled through the intestines earlier in the day, though her black tank top is still catching on the bandages underneath it. A cut above her left eye has already healed to a white scar. Seth has pulled back to his cagiest, most withdrawn expression; his daemon is riding on his shoulder as a stick insect, impossible to read.

Taking a deep breath, Sherie squeezes her husband's hand and says, "We'd like to know how you two would feel about moving."

"Back to the US," clarifies Sam. As if the kids might have thought they were planning on jetting off for Cathay next, or Svalbard, or something.

Su crosses her arms. "This is because of me, isn't it."

Sherie nods. "That's certainly part of it."

"So...you didn't have any problem moving us across the continent, yanking us away from all our friends, expecting us to keep up with grade-level work in a language we don't even speak, in a school with no computers and librarians that try to eat you," says her daughter. "But when I go and set out to do something for myself — and do great considering I'm the only girl in town who hasn't been learning to scry since before I could walk — that's when you decide maybe it's time to bail?"

"Sweetheart, of course we're very proud of you, but you got impaled," protests Sam. "By — by — what did it, anyway?"

"I don't know! Some kind of re-animated bone creature. It's not like I was...taxonomizing it while I was trying to dismember it."

"That's not a word," mutters Seth.

"Who cares? You knew what I meant!"

"Honey, please," says Sherie. Her mongoose daemon crosses the carpet and rests a soothing claw on one of Su's griffon vulture's talons. "Just be serious and think about this. Even with magical healing, you're going to have scars from this for the rest of your life, and I'm sure that goes just perfectly with your current...aesthetic, but ten years from now...."

"Ten years from now I'll stop thinking it looks totally cool and start being ashamed like a normal person?"

"That's not what I'm saying...."

"It's exactly what you're saying!" (Su's daemon pushes Sherie's away, not gently.) "If you came down to the pool at the rec center some time, you'd see that like everyone has scars. Nobody cares! Just because you're afraid to wear a bikini doesn't mean the rest of us have to be!"

Sherie cringes.

"Don't you give your mother that attitude," says Sam firmly. His sheepdog daemon isn't big enough to look intimidating in front of the massive vulture, but she tries.

"It's not my attitude that's the problem!" yells Susannah, blinking back tears. Why does raising a teenage daughter have to be so hard? "If —"

A small glowing portal chooses that moment to appear in midair in the middle of the room, spitting a green-fletched arrow that whizzes past Su's head and embeds itself in the wallpaper between the kids' class photos.

While the rest of the family is gaping in astonishment, Seth calmly gets up, pulls the arrow out of the wall, and unrolls the piece of paper wrapped around the end. "Says it's from the Scouts," he reports, handing it to Su. "I guess it's for you."

Susannah reads it, swallows, then takes a deep breath and puts her shoulders back. "Mom, I'm sorry. And Seth, if you're still miserable here then I think we should move back home, okay? Maybe I should've said that first."

All eyes turn to Seth.

"You don't have to be sure what you want right now," says Sherie. She knows it's a lot of pressure to put on her boy, making him the linchpin of this decision at a moment when, if he doesn't keep the conversation on him, it'll go right back to his parents and sister yelling at each other. "But if you have any feelings, we'd love to hear them."

Seth doesn't answer right away. His daemon becomes a brightly-colored dragonfly, no easier to read than the stick insect. Eventually he says, "Well, we have to stay here until the week after next, anyway."

"Why's that?" prompts Sam.

"A week from Thursday we have Career Day. And I promised I'd help with something."

"Oh? A school thing?"

"...Sort of."

"It's all right if it's something with your friends, too," says Sam, clearly trying to be encouraging.

"It's both, I guess," says Seth. "There are some people from Strexcorp coming to talk to us on Career Day. There's gonna be an assembly and stuff. So it's school. And I said I'd be on the lookout team while Tamika and some other people steal their vehicles. So it's friends."

 

-{,(((,">

 

In the ground-floor room of the Night Vale clock tower, at the head of a circle of low folding canvas chairs lit by a series of oil lamps, Tamika Flynn sits back against the bulk of her buffalo daemon and says, "Let this meeting of the My Little Pony Appreciation Fan Club come to order."

As she's talking, Renée Carlsberg sets a breadbox-sized Twilight Sparkle on the table in the center and squeezes the pony's right front hoof, to a soft clicking sound. One of the older kids, a fifteen-year-old Morrigan Scout with a protective case for her katydid daemon hanging around her neck, checks her phone. "Signal's dead," she announces. "We're clear."

"Good." Tamika unzips the bag next to her chair and starts handing out books. Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities for the nearest Morrigan Scout; a collection of Shirley Jackson short stories for the Blood Pact Scout next to her; Joseph Addison's Cato, A Tragedy for Josh Craton; Rainbow Dash and the Daring Do Double Dare for Renée; and so on. "Quick updates, everyone. How are our contacts doing?"

A stocky Weird Scout whose mom is a shift manager at the Raúl's starts them off. "Not good. We can't count on the Raúl's any more. I know they're a chain, but apparently there's some kind of local management contract...thing...and, well, guess who bought it."

"The White Sand is fine," reports a seven-year-old Nightshade Scout with killer slingshot aim. "They're still giving out free sundaes for anyone who finished their sticker chart at the Summer Reading Program. And they broad-ened their def-i-ni-tion of what counts as a sticker chart. I made a bunch!" Her daemon, turning into an orange-furred monkey, lopes around the circle giving everybody a few sticker-covered bookmarks, napkins, store receipts, leaves, and/or baseball caps.

On they go around the circle. They make plans to scope out the bloodstone factory, which it would be real bad if Strex moved in on, and to get in touch with the radio station, which could be a big help if they can sneak around the Strex managers already there. They review the series of operations for Career Day, which will double as a loyalty/stress test for some of the kids at school who seem sympathetic to their cause.

And they compare opinions about the end of Kindred. (Tamika liked it, even if that one twist that was supposed to be shocking could've been avoided, easy, if Dana had followed the proper unstuck-in-time safety practices.)

Finally, two of the guys get into an argument about which of the Cutie Mark Crusaders is the best, and Renée switches off the jamming device mid-sentence. They're not sure how well they can be tracked inside the clock tower, especially since it's teleported twice since they got inside, but it never hurts to be safe.

The rest of the kids filter out, with the last of them helping Tamika blow out the oil lamps and fold up the chairs for storage. At last it's down to one lamp and one Tamika.

Rashi comes up behind her and nuzzles his face against her side. "We going home?"

Tamika scratches above his brow, right around the base of the thick fused horns. Once Strexcorp figures out who's been coordinating all the thorns in their side lately, the Flynn house won't be safe. But she's pretty sure they haven't hit that point yet. "Yeah. We're going home."

 

-{,(((,">

 

The family hasn't made any plans to leave town by the time Sherie retreats to the laundry room to do some folding. It isn't that she needs to — Sam, as the parent who works from home, has been good about shouldering most of the chores — but she could use the excuse to be alone and think.

She'd been counting on the kids to be relieved at the offer of leaving Night Vale. To help her put aside her misgivings about abandoning the research team. Just her luck that they don't want to go.

"I wonder what the Girl Scouts said, that made Su back down so fast," muses her ring-tailed mongoose from on top of the pile of clean towels.

"The usual," says a bored-sounding voice in Spanish from the supply cupboard. "Yo me esforzaré por: Ser honrada y justa, cordial y servicial, considerada y compasiva, valiente y fuerte, etcetera, etcetera. They highlighted considera y compasiva. Standard friendly reminder."

Sherie isn't as disturbed by this as she might have been. She's heard enough campaign ads to recognize the voice of the anciana sin rostro who lives in her home. "Really, all they sent her was a copy of the Girl Scout Law? I never thought Susannah would take something like that so seriously."

"If you don't respond to the first reminder, the second one involves firing the arrow into the most convenient limb," points out the Faceless Old Woman. "By the way, I borrowed one of your necklaces for a campaign event. The coral one. Really brings out my lack of eyes."

"Happy to help," says Sherie, turning one of her daughter's blouses right-side-out for folding.

"No, you're not. You're annoyed. But you're faking it admirably, and I appreciate that."

Wait, maybe the blouse was right-side-out before? There are visible seams either way, and Sherie can't tell the real ones apart from the fashionable goth-grunge ones.

"Your daughter can tell when you're faking too, you know. And when you're projecting your own issues onto her. She just doesn't have the emotional dexterity yet to deal with it in a sophisticated way, so she loses her temper instead. What kind of scarring do you have? I'm deathly curious."

Sherie focuses intently on matching socks. "I don't think that's any of your business. Although if you live in this house and you're effectively invisible, you probably know already."

"I don't peep on my housemates in the shower, if that's what you're insinuating," huffs the Faceless Old Woman. "But surely it can't be that bad. Look at me, I don't even have a face, and I'm not trying to hide from it."

"I can't look at you," Sherie reminds her. "That's a big part of what effectively invisible means."

"You can if I allow it," says the Faceless Old Woman...and climbs out of the supply cupboard.

She has pale hands, well-fluffed silver hair, and no facial features whatsoever, only blank skin with patterns of wrinkles drawn by the muscle and bone underneath. The daemon she sets on the towel pile to touch noses with Sherie's is a Texas blind salamander, opalescent white with spindly legs and no eyes.

"I...appreciate the thought...but I still think I'm entitled to some privacy in my personal life," says Sherie, crossing her arms. "No matter how visible you get."

"Oh well," says the Faceless Old Woman. (It's even more eerie when you can see her lack of mouth movement.) "It was worth a shot."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos is frankly surprised when Sherie turns up to work the next morning. He thought it was more likely he'd be reading an email of resignation from a hastily-booked Kinlání hotel room by now. "Are you sure you don't want to take a few days off?"

"I'll be fine as long as I don't have to lift anything heavy. Or drive," says Sherie. "And if this were any other town I'd be good to drive, too. It's just that, around here, it's too likely to require sudden, panicky swerving."

"I wasn't only asking because of your back...."

"The kids are at school. Sam has to do as much work as he can while the Internet is up. Not much point in me staying home, is there? Now, before we head out into the field...have you heard about the local schools doing a Career Day? Is that something we could get involved with?"

Carlos delegates the job of calling the schools to Henriette, because he's not sure which way the faculty and staff lean on the "you brought growth opportunities for local businesses" to "you sold out our town and all its people for some free gadgets" opinion spectrum. When he and Sherie get to Point E, setting up the team's new extra bloodstone circle and half a dozen different meters facing the house that doesn't exist, she texts to let him know they should plan to petition the Glow Cloud for involvement (also, its general mercy and benevolence) at the joint PTA-School Board meeting on Friday afternoon.

 

-{,(((,">

 

There are only a couple of booths at the White Sand fitted to accommodate a daemon Rashi's size, though it's still more than some places have. Tamika gets an iced tea, settles herself down in the one closest to the back door, and makes notes in the margins of The Word for World Is Forest.

"Well, aren't you an industrious little girl, sitting here reading all on your own!"

Tamika doesn't raise her eyes from the pages. She would rather not acknowledge the woman with the desert-impractical three-piece suit and the duck daemon at all, but the barest minimum of politeness demands it. "It's a good book."

"I'm sure it is. Your teachers must be very proud! Putting in all that extra effort to be more productive in their classes, when they're not even on the clock."

"Uh-huh."

"But there's just one teensy problem," continues the woman. "Police!"

She holds her position in front of the booth while the officer hiding under the window comes inside. Like Rashi couldn't stomp her little mallard daemon in two seconds flat, if they really wanted to get past her. Tamika waits until the last possible moment before looking up, to make it clear she isn't impressed by the secret police officer one way or the other.

"I do hope you'll go easy on her. She's only a child, after all," says the woman sweetly to the balaclava-clad cop. "But she has been using a pen for the last fifteen minutes. I forget, does that call for juvenile detention? Or simply tasing, the way you do for the children who don't make it to school on time?"

"It's not a pen," says Tamika.

"Ah, denial. Aren't you a little old to think adults will fall for that?"

The cop shuffles uncomfortably. "It does look a lot like a writing utensil there, Miss Flynn."

"Just what is going on over here?" interrupts a new voice. And about time, too. It's one of the owners, Miz Lucy, with her own daemon — a whiptail lizard whose flanks are spotted with iridescent cyan — riding on her shoulder. "You have no right to disrupt my business and hassle my customers."

"Your customer," says the woman with the mallard, "is breaking the law. I don't know what kind of business model you're running here, but at Strexcorp and its subsidiaries, we have the highest respect for local regulations —"

"But I guess you don't have a whole lot of respect for child literacy rates," says Tamika innocently. "Seeing as how you're giving me such a hard time about my sticker chart."

"Your...what?"

Tamika hands the pen — its plastic casing adorned with glittery stickers of hearts, smiley faces, and construction equipment — to Miz Lucy. "Brought it in for the free sundae."

Miz Lucy turns the pen over in her hands. Her nails are painted a bright cyan to match her daemon. "Looks good to me. Well done, by the way. What flavor would you like?"

"You're conducting a black-market operation with an officer of the law right in front of you?" demands the woman from Strexcorp.

"No, I'm conducting the rewards program that several of us locally-owned businesses have set up for kids who keep their reading skills sharp over the summer," says Miz Lucy. "Bring in a sticker chart, get a free scoop of ice cream. With up to two toppings."

"Melange and strawberry sauce," puts in Tamika. "On a scoop of mint, please."

The Strex woman's friendly smile looks like it's gonna fall off sideways. "That doesn't look anything like a sticker chart!"

Miz Lucy frowns. "Can't you see the stickers?"

"It does have stickers on it," agrees the secret police officer. "Awful lot of them, too. Nice job, Miss Flynn."

"Thanks."

"I'll just go get you your scoop," says Miz Lucy cheerfully, and bustles off.

The cop breathes a sigh of relief. "Well, I can't see any illegal activity here. But thank you for your diligence, Ms. Mallard! If you'll just give me your Alert Citizen Card so I can stamp it, I'll be on my way."

The Strex woman tenses. "I...must have left that in my other wallet."

"Really? Isn't that a shame. We'd better take you down to the station and get you a new one, then," says the cop. His daemon, a large border collie, circles around the duck and takes the opportunity to do some herding.

Tamika really wants to finish Section Two of the book this afternoon, but she lets herself enjoy the view as Ms. Mallard is escorted out through the revolving door. In the same spin as it moves her out, it spins Cecil Palmero in; as Miz Lucy is bringing over Tamika's ice cream (and returning the pen), Señor Palmero is settling into the next booth over with an invisible sundae slathered in chocolate sauce.

He drums his fingertips idly against the table until Tamika taps out O-K with her foot in Morse code.

Señor Palmero's finger-tapping switches to the same, and spells out a reply: OMG THOUGHT SHE WOULD NEVER LEAVE.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Henriette can see the TV in the living room flickering through the shades as she rests the six-packs on the front stoop and fumbles the keys out of her pocket.

Behind her, Omero and Quentin are finishing with unloading the trunk (mostly beer, but they stopped for nachos and dip on the way home). Nirliq should be back any minute now with Sherie, who insisted on going to her own place for dinner instead of coming straight here. It's going to be a weird crowd for a party, the middle-aged women plus the guys in their twenties, but if they can't bond over junk food and making fun of bad spec-fic movies, what kind of team are they?

The key turns, and she steps inside to find an educational documentary about Klein-Gordon traveling wave solutions on the big screen, and Carlos leaning over the back of the couch and shushing them. "Keep it down, okay? Cecil's asleep."

Inconvenient. Sweet, but inconvenient. Henriette waves for the guys to hang back, then whispers, "Can we carry him upstairs?"

"He spent half an hour this afternoon tied up in a closet by an evil computer," protests Carlos. "I really think we should let him rest."

"Most of us spent half an hour this afternoon fighting a ravenous pack of spiderwolves," counters Henriette. She gestures to her marmot daemon, whose right front leg is wrapped in an Ace bandage. "Clotère's still limping from when one of them got its teeth into him."

A pained expression crosses Carlos's face. "Point taken. Help me get him up."

Cecil looks so utterly conked-out, drooling on the arm of the couch with his legs across Carlos's lap and his daemon draped like a pat of butter across his chest, that Henriette almost feels bad for disturbing him. Almost.

There's a brief dilemma when they aren't sure how to transport Khoshekh. Clotère can't take the weight on his leg right now, while Isaña, Omero's starling, and Quentin's flying squirrel are all too small. Henriette asks, tentatively, if Carlos can do it — Carlos, horrified, hisses that he only touches Cecil's daemon when invited, and given how shockingly intense that is already, how can she think he could just grab him?

In the end, the problem solves itself. While Carlos is gently shaking Cecil to wake him (and only getting a couple of sleepy grunts in response), Khoshekh rolls right off his chest and "lands" in a hovering position about six inches from the carpet. From there Isaña and Clotère can push him through the air like the world's weirdest balloon, while Carlos and Henriette each get one of Cecil's arms over their shoulders and lead him stumbling to Carlos's room. The daemons can't heft Khoshekh all the way up to the bed, but they nudge him over Isaña's basket, where she gives him a gentle tug and he falls the rest of the way onto the cushion.

Cecil is just lucid enough to direct his own fall onto the mattress. Carlos smooths down his hair. "Be back soon," he murmurs, before following Henriette out.

"You know," says Henriette once they're back in the hall, "this kind of thing wouldn't happen if you two just got your own place, already."

Carlos does a double-take like she just whacked him in the face with a haddock. "If — what?"

Henriette frowns. Carlos is a thirty-seven-year-old who spends half his nights at the apartment of the man he's been dating since, by her own count, this past February — an apartment with evil landlords, no less. How can the idea of moving in together not be on his radar? "Is that not where this is going?"

"Um," says Carlos. "No, it is. I mean, I think it is? I guess? We haven't — it hasn't come up. Is that bad?"

Shrugging, Henriette tries to play it off. "By this town's standards? Hell if I know. Listen, think you might join us for movie night? We could probably convince everyone to go for the one where Lyra and Pan conquer the Martians, if that would sweeten the deal."

"Thanks, but I'm just gonna brush my teeth and sit with Cecil. Maybe start trying to write up the materials and methods for the experiment with the cross-world heliotrope radiation absorption spectra."

"Good luck getting them in a form the City Council won't censor into incoherence once they get their claws on it." Both metaphorically and literally. "Won't the light disturb Cecil, though?"

Carlos gives her a strange look. "He's never had trouble sleeping next to me before."

Right. To Cecil's improbable (but experimentally validated) Rusakov-particle-driven vision, another human will look brighter than any digital screen ever could. Every time Henriette starts thinking of him as just a normal guy deep down, she gets a reminder like this. "Sorry, wasn't thinking. Forget about it."

 

-{,(((,">

 

The first time Tamika wakes up in a tent in the scrublands, it's an hour before her alarm, because she got jabbed in the ribs by a stupid root she rolled over on. Maybe she should've tried to get into Scouting when she was a kid. Then she'd have some experience with camping.

Well, it's not like this hideout is gonna last long. And in a few days she's got a stretch of book-club members lined up to do secret undercover sleepovers with, which will be just like being at home again, except less watched.

She changes out of her PJs, does a couple stretches, and goes outside. Rashi, who doesn't fit in the tent anyway, is already watching the sky. "May as well get up," he says. "We have to get Three Hundred Years Hence back today, and the librarians are always pretty sluggish this early."

"Sounds good." Tamika loads up the books, climbs on his back, and has a juice box and crackers for breakfast as she rides into town.

They're just walking around the north edge of the Whispering Forest when the wind tosses a couple of leaflets across the scrub. Remembering the last time the town was littered with mysterious brochures, Rashi pins one with his hoof, and Tamika pulls it up to give it a look.

This one doesn't have any Strex marketing jargon on it. Just four words, in a thick black scrawl:

CONDOMINIOS A LA VENTA

 

-{,(((,">

 

FU ratings on all eight of the team's danger meters have shot upward overnight, and keep ticking slowly higher as the sun inches an unusually jagged path across the sky.

"I really hope this is from those portals to unstable pocket dimensions that Cecil warned us about," says Quentin, when he gets a look at the chapel's danger meter. "Because if this is something he didn't think was worth giving us a heads-up on...we're in a lot of trouble."

Carlos addresses the group. "All right, physicists, time to drop everything...well, not everything, don't drop any instruments you're going to use for study...and make sure to pick up any instruments you're planning to use that you don't already have...and go find out just what's going on around here."

"Just the physicists?" protests a Li Hua. "Oh, no. If pterodactyls start coming out of any of these portals, we're not letting the Sheriff's secret police chuck them all back in before we get a sample. We're coming too."

"And if these portals are connected to strange, potentially daemonless children who speak a language not known in this world, perhaps Miss Supelli should accompany us," says Köhler, indicating Perle.

The rest of the physicists have scattered to pick up equipment. Carlos turns to Omero, the biologist, the only one not yet spoken for. "I'm guessing you want in too?"

Omero hesitates. "If you think it's strategically advisable."

Carlos gives him a wry smile. "Trust me: being able to split into three teams, and have one bio person on each team, is some of the best strategy this project has ever had."

 

-{,(((,">

 

The epicenter of the danger is, as Cecil predicted, more or less behind the Raúl's. It isn't as focused as the portal that opened during the Eternal Scout ceremony; the electrum spyglasses aren't picking up any anomalies yet, but with the danger meters they map out an area all the way around the Oxford Street strip mall and its parking lots, and a couple of mostly-residential blocks to the northwest of that.

For some reason, all the parking lots are packed.

It doesn't look like there's a sale at the Raúl's or a rush on the barbershop (which still hasn't removed the Telly's sign from over its doors, although at least somebody took the time to duct-tape a big X through the name). In fact, the crowd they finally find is gathered around...the abandoned naptha station.

Luckily, a space opens up just a few meters from the crowd when a feral Toyota crawls out of it and screeches off into the distance. Carlos's team takes it, while Köhler's heads for the far end of the residential area and Henriette's finds a space close to the mall. Nirliq and a Li Hua pull a cheap folding table out of the trunk and start setting up equipment; Rayshawn and Carlos head over to see what everyone is here for.

Janis Rio, the doctor who supervised their blood-oath loyalty ceremonies, smiles when she sees them. Her football octopus daemon, in a rolling tank by her feet, waves a friendly tentacle at their frog and armadillo. "If it isn't our favorite team of experimental theologians! What are you up to?"

"The usual," says Carlos. "Our optics student and our anbaromagnetic theorist are going to test what happens to several different types of laser-cut electrum lens when you run an anbaric current through them in the presence of a portal. In the meantime, our portal specialists —"

Janis's face is still drawn into a polite smile, but her eyes are already glazing over.

Carlos shakes his head. "Theology," he mutters. "We're doing experimental theology. How about you?"

"Oh, gosh, we're all in line for los condominios." Janis pulls a folded-up brochure out of her pocket and hands it to Carlos. It's...direct, he'll say that much. "Some of us to buy one, some of us just to find out what they are."

Rayshawn, who has pretty good conversational Spanish but falters on rare vocabulary, says under his breath, "That does just mean condos, right?"

"Right," says Carlos, although around here, who knows what that means. Or why they're being sold from inside an abandoned, locked, and unnaturally darkened naptha station....

"Your name, sir?" asks a new voice.

Carlos starts. "Sorry?"

"He's Carlos el Teólogo Experimental," says Janis helpfully. "And I'm Janis Rio, from down the street."

The new voice — it's an unfamiliar man in a suit, with bright yellow eyes and a handsome white-tailed doe for a daemon — enters both names into a spreadsheet. "We'll call you when your number is up," he assures them, before moving on down the line.

All Night Vale realtors have deer daemons. Great. Carlos just got signed up to look at condos.

He doesn't think anything more of it until they get back over to the van. Nirliq and her colobus daemon (wearing matching sets of safety goggles) have set up a whole range of electrum lenses in metallic casings, with a string of anbarical wires hooking them up to the car battery. Her laptop is on the table too, with a Skype connection open to show Quentin doing the same thing over with Henriette's group, and of course there's the usual camera on its tripod...now wired to the laptop, so it can upload the footage to a remote server. Probably a wise idea, since the Glow Cloud has coalesced over the abandoned naptha station, and it has a tendency to wipe out digital footage. And/or crush your equipment by dropping a dead owl on it.

With the van battery powered on, the radio is on too. Cecil is on, already talking about the bubbling darkness in the naptha station, the shoving and yelling that are beginning to spread through the crowd, and the man (Roger Singh, apparently) waving a detached spine at the dark window.

"And…all right, I know this is out of nowhere," adds Cecil's warm, soothing voice, as Carlos hunts around in the trunk for the electrum spyglasses they brought, "But at what point in a relationship is it normal to think about living together?"

Carlos stops short, cheeks flushing.

"Is…let's say…buying a condo a sign that you want to move to that stage?" frets Cecil, like he's just chatting with a friend over coffee and not broadcasting to the entire town. "Is that what an action like that might hypothetically be indicating?"

Li Hua, perched on top of the van with her rifle over her shoulder, snickers. Carlos contemplates climbing into the trunk and hiding there until the weather, when he can call Cecil and explain the misunderstanding. Over by the equipment, though, Nirliq says "Yes, he's here" into her webcam, then calls, "Carlos! Henriette wants a word."

While Cecil goes back to talking about Roger Singh, Carlos shuffles over to the ordinater. On the other side of the Skype connection, Henriette says, "Eff-yous over here have plateaued, we're starting to see areas between one and two feet square that are either absorbing or repelling all their Rusakov particles, and when you're thinking about moving in with someone it's typical to mention that to them before you go house-hunting."

Scanning the area around them with his electrum spyglass, Carlos only sees normal movement of Rusakov particles. "No Dust anomalies over here, and I am not house-hunting! Cecil's just confused."

"Cecil has an alethiometer!"

"So his information isn't wrong, just incomplete! We happen to be by the Condo Rental Office, but it's for professional reasons, not personal ones. And I sort of accidentally got on their list, because they thought I was standing in line instead of next to the line. It wasn't — wait, I think I see the anomaly you're talking about. Approximately cube-shaped?"

"That's them."

Carlos tries to focus. Miniature Rusakov dead zones — like the dog park, which is only a couple of blocks from here, or the former site of Jorge's Tacos — although these ones don't seem to be centered on anything. (And, mercifully, no sign of mysterious hooded spectres.) No, wait — when he looks more closely, he can see a few tiny golden particles drifting through the nearest anomaly. "They're not dead zones. They just have Rusakov levels that don't match with the local scenery," he reports. "If anything, they're like the house that doesn't exist...."

Behind him, Cecil's voice bursts out, "But, do you know what I mean? Like, could this be a sign, that he wants to move things in that direction? You know, I just wish he would communicate more directly sometimes!"

At Carlos's feet, Isaña rolls closed in embarrassment.

"But theologians don’t communicate directly," continues Cecil on the radio, sounding weary but resigned. "Everybody knows that. They communicate using a series of obscure and arcane codes and signals. That is what it means to be a theologian."

"I don't want to get in the middle of nothin' here," says Rayshawn, "but would it help if I took the spyglass for a while, free you up to do a little communicating with your boyfriend?"

"Oh my god yes," exclaims Carlos, practically throwing the spyglass at him. "Yes, please. So sorry about this. I'll make it quick."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Throughout the Night Vale public schools, at an unspoken signal, dozens of children from all grades and all reading levels abruptly and simultaneously announce they have to go to the bathroom.

A Dreadnought Scout with a provisional license pops the trunk of his parents' van. He and his whole troop got their Auto Engineering badge by refitting it, from the layout to the suspension, to handle an African buffalo. Once Rashi is safely in back, Tamika hops in the middle seat next to a third-grade scrying prodigy holding a mug of water. "Let's go."

As they pull away from Night Vale Middle School, the chop-chop-chop of gyropters echoes overhead. They're painted with murals of diving birds of prey, which makes them way too conspicuous for Tamika's tastes, but it's all the book club has...for now. "Turn up the radio, will you? I can't hear."

Her driver turns it up, just in time to hear Cecil stammer, "Carlos?"

"Yes!" exclaims a voice made tinny by a phone connection. "I mean, um, theologically speaking, that is who I am."

"Oh, yes, of course," says Cecil. "I'm very into theology. But, hey, listen, I'm in the middle of a show."

"Yeah, I know, you're covering the story about the condos. That's sort of why I called."

"Uh-huh? They're...they're very exciting, right?"

"Everything is exciting!" exclaims Carlos. "Particularly existence. Existence is the most exciting thing of all!"

"Nerd," mutters Tamika.

"But you're being careful, right?" asks Cecil. "I'm getting...reports...that it's even more fatal outside than usual."

"By 19 Standard Fatality Units, I know," says Carlos. "I have a danger meter right in front of me. Listen, Cecil, I —"

In the background, a machine starts beeping, and the vague, distant commotion gets overwritten with yelling that can't be far away.

"— I called to talk to you about something important, but now I don't think I have time," says Carlos rapidly. "Something very theological is happening, my team is calling my name — I have to go. I'm sorry. I'll call you back later. Probably! Everything is some level of 'probably', nothing is a promise, I —"

"No, I understand, I lo—"

"Listen, I lov—"

While they fumble their way through the world's most awkward goodbyes, the scrying prodigy stares into her water. Her daemon has transformed into a small, huge-eyed lemur. "They're here."

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

The condos are here.

They are featureless black cubes, the smallest over nine feet tall, the largest at least the height of a two-story building. They are sleek and dark and sharply angled. They have displaced nearly half the strip mall, taken chunks out of most of the tract homes across the road, aggressively re-shaped the skyline.

According to Henriette's readings, each one is a portal. If her readings can be trusted. Three-dimensional doorways between worlds are a construct right out of the farthest edges of "so theoretical we're never going to have a practical use for it, we're only here because of how cool the math looks" physics; none of her instruments are designed to deal with this. The best she can do is take a constellation of measurements from different angles, and pray they can eventually reconstruct it into something meaningful.

Omero is standing at attention, his starling daemon perching on his shoulder to watch the area behind him, ready for anything. Quentin switches on the anbaric current to his string of electrum lenses...and three of them immediately crack in their cases.

 

-{,(((,">

 

If Sherie hadn't relocated some of her bloodstones when the cube-shaped Rusakov anomaly got a little too close, she wouldn't have enough left to make a circle.

From a safe distance, she rearranges the bloodstones on the pavement, kneels in the center, and observes the nearest condo through her electrum spyglass. The spyglass tells her that there are Rusakov particles inside the shear black walls, though they're opaque to the naked eye and don't seem to be letting particles from either side come through. The bloodstones tell her that there is some other force at work. It's hard to make sense of what she's feeling; all she knows is that, on a level none of their instruments can quantify, the condos are pulsing.

Perle has her recording equipment running, though none of them are expecting to hear any otherworldly languages now. Keith is keeping an eye on everything else.

"Well, I'm disappointed," says the Li Hua sitting on the tailgate of the car.

"To our field, these are highly interesting," says Keith. "Perhaps you will be lucky enough to see pterodactyls next time."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos approaches one of the condos in the no-longer-vacant lot behind the Raúl's, a Rutherford counter in hand. Behind him Rayshawn watches through an electrum spyglass, ready to holler if he steps into a danger zone, while Nirliq busies herself unplugging the electrum lenses that seem to have exploded.

"They're putting out radiation," Carlos calls back to the others. "High compared to the town average, very high compared to what is generally considered safe for humans, but low compared to what we usually see from portals around here."

He's within a few feet of the opaque, perfectly smooth black wall by now. Another step down the sidewalk and he could touch it.

Other people are touching them. He can see Janis Rio, down the street, placing her hand on the wall of what Carlos can only assume is her condo. She was here to buy, right? Not just to look? They wouldn't have given her a condo if she hadn't paid for it.

The shiny black cubes aren't blowing people up, or sucking them in, or making them scream in agony. Everybody who touches one seems to be coming away fine. Awestruck, possibly terrified, but still alive and well.

Carlos didn't give anyone any money. None of these ultra-modern featureless structures can be for him. Will he get the same reaction if he touches one? Or no reaction at all?

Only one way to find out.

 

-{,(((,">

 

People touch the condos, and recoil in awe and fear. Then the people who recoiled begin getting restless. Then the restless people begin returning to touch the condos a second time...and sending Henriette's readings completely haywire.

Not fifty feet from her, the body of Roger Singh drops to the ground beside the wall of his cube. His red-limbed, golden-faced monkey daemon doesn't disappear, but walks right through the surface. Watching through the spyglass, Henriette can see that his ghost has walked through with her.

The Sheriff's secret police have finally showed up, with patrol cars and a couple of blue gyropters hovering around the condo area. They are, as is so often the case, utterly useless, even when deploying their strongest passive-aggression techniques. "Sure. Go ahead. Touch the cube again, I guess," blares a loudspeaker carried by one of the gyropters. "I mean, if you don't care about your community, and your fellow citizens, then I guess you probably should."

Omero turns to Henriette and asks if the team should use force to break one of these things open. And by force, he means the mass of a bullet, multiplied by the acceleration of a gun.

"I don't know," admits Henriette. She's holding still, trying to get this reading consistent, but her marmot daemon is going to pace a hole in the sidewalk at this rate. "I'm trying to map this to Kruskal-Szekeres coordinates, which are the only theoretical model we have for a three-dimensional portal, but...."

"...but those are designed for a deformity of spacetime caused by a gravitational singularity," puts in Quentin. His flying squirrel daemon keeps scampering between the electrum lenses on the table in front of him, looking closely at the ones that cracked, or blew up in a puff of smoke. "And it would take days to adjust the math to compensate for the lack of any relativistic effects, which obviously we would have to do, considering that the planet underneath us is still in the same shape —"

Omero looks from one to the other, then picks a rock off the ground and throws it at the nearest condo.

It ricochets right off.

While Henriette and Quentin are staring, and hopefully looking as mortified as they deserve to, Omero says, "I would like to withdraw the idea of using bullets."

 

-{,(((,">

 

"We won't miss you anyway!" exclaims the speaker from the secret-police gyropter. "Like, no big deal. Touch the cube if you want!"

Down below, in her bloodstone circle, Sherie is "in the zone." She's not lost in a vision, either; she's lucid, hyper-aware of the scenery around her, of....

On the radio, the Faceless Old Woman is in the studio, talking to Cecil. "Your words hold a lot of meaning intrinsically. Almost everything we say does. If you looked at any word in the English language close enough, you would see within the great, glowing coils of the universe unwinding."

That sounds right. Sherie is aware of the great glowing coils of the universe as they turn.

"There's a pattern in these cubes," she says out loud. "Is it showing up in any of the readings?"

"That depends," says Keith. "What sort of pattern? Ordered, tessellated, fractal...?"

"Semi-random. Almost entirely random. But not quite." Sherie turns the electrum spyglass on the bloodstones themselves, watching the Rusakov particles swirl around them as she thinks. "Imagine...throwing something at a window. The cracks, the way they radiate outward and make a spiderweb, you know, it's irregular. Not perfect or geometric. But you can still look at it and tell where the impact was. That's what this is like. Someone tried to punch through...I don't know, the universe, I guess...and these are all the cracks."

"That doesn't sound like the kind of thing you can do on purpose," says Perle.

"And yet." Keith stops at the danger meter, inspecting its dial, then scans the sky. "A similar event occurred in this area several months before your arrival. Human-caused portal activity, on a scale that would have been catastrophic if left unchecked. Of course, in that incident, the epicenter of the danger was Desert Bluffs."

"You think this could be the fallout from some Strexcorp experiment," says their local Li Hua. "Or maybe this is the experiment. Either way, this time they had the good sense to set it in the next town over, so if it had gone out-of-control it would have taken us out first."

"And if it works as planned, they walk out with the data from a successful test and the proceeds from a whole lot of condo sales," finishes Sherie. It's sound capitalist logic, in a bizarre Night Vale sort of way. "How did the last one end? Did you make it through without losing anyone?"

Keith hesitates. "It was solved through the intervention of...many of Juosukka Hirsti's tall companions." (Not reassuring.) "As well as the efforts of Dr. Ramirez and Mr. Palmero." (Better.) "Many people in town were lost, but all were later recovered."

"Hey, speaking of Ramirez," puts in Li Hua. "He went and touched a condo." (Back to not-reassuring.) "He's pretty out-of-it, but so far it sounds like Henriette's handling it."

 

-{,(((,">

 

"I'm telling you, this is completely unnecessary," protests Carlos, as Nirliq's colobus daemon lifts Isaña off the ground and holds her where her face and claws can't reach anything to fight back. Having a daemon with a shell for a spine can be really inconvenient sometimes. "I'm not hypnotized, I'm not under any kind of spell, I am completely in control of my actions. I just happen to be aware that the condos are perfect, and the vision inside it was amazing but incomplete, and I have to go back and see the rest."

Nirliq doesn't respond to his impeccable logic, just turns to the webcam and says, "See?!"

Henriette and Quentin are both leaning into the frame of the camera on the other end. "Who let him touch the condo?" demands Quentin. "Was it you, Rayshawn?"

Rayshawn throws up his hands. "Man, how was I supposed to know that was gonna be a problem? Watch while I test for radiation, he said. He tested. I watched!"

"Out of the way, both of you," order Henriette. "Carlos, listen to me for a minute. Do you remember the first time we studied the dog park? Remember how Adriana got mesmerized, and tried to walk in, and you had to hold her back until she snapped out of it?"

"Sure, I remember," says Carlos. "But that was different! She thought she wanted to go, to a dangerous place, for no reason. I really do want to go, to a perfect place, for sound theological reasons."

"Uh-huh. Just humor me here. Remember how most of us didn't get swept up in that because we were distracted, thinking about other things? Do me a favor and think about whatever it was that distracted you. Really focus on it."

Carlos folds his arms. "I was mostly thinking about having sex with Cecil. Which would be a lot easier to do if we had our own condo!"

Henriette looks taken-aback. Rayshawn develops a sudden hacking cough. Quentin lets out a long oooooh...!, while Li Hua just cracks up. "Oh my god, hypnotized Carlos is great."

They're not the reactions Carlos expected, and it gives him pause. "I...don't usually say things like that, do I?"

"No," says Nirliq, eyebrows practically disappearing into her bangs. "No, you do not."

"And you really think I'm...under some kind of influence."

Nods from everyone.

"Okay." Carlos runs a hand through his hair. "Okay, so if I'm not, how would I prove it? If there's an experiment we could do...preferably something simple and fast, because I know you all have work to get back to...."

"The simplest and fastest thing to do isn't an experiment," says Henriette. "Is there still rope in the van?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos would still much rather be going back to the condo. But to be fair, he would rather be just about anywhere except tied into the van's passenger seat, his torso and upper arms lashed together and pinned to the fabric-covered back. The only reason he agreed was that the other simple and fast thing to do was locking Isaña in the trunk, and Carlos has had enough of his daemon being caged to last a lifetime.

At least she's safely in his lap. At least his hands and forearms are free. At least Rayshawn was kind enough to bring him his phone, and at least he has the comforting voice of Cecil on the radio to keep him company.

Or, well, the non-comforting voice. Cecil is reporting a clearance sale at Dark Owl Records: one more local business going under.

Not far off, Janis Rio lifts her octopus daemon out of his tank and leans against the wall of her condo, both of them wearing far-off smiles. They fall right through, leaving only the daemon's tank and Janis's body behind. Carlos gazes wistfully at his own cube. Now that would be comforting.

He dials Cecil's number before he really thinks about it, and hears the ringtone on-air in tandem with the one close to his ear. Having his elbow pinned means he can't quite hold up the phone normally, but he can get close enough. "Hello, Cecil. Are you there?"

"Carlos?" asks Cecil, his voice eerily doubled. "Hi. Um, I'm on the air. I'm still doing the show."

"Right, no, I know," says Carlos cheerfully. He can hear it, after all. "It's just — I got a condo. A condo for us."

Cecil stammers and splutters in stereo. Carlos pushes on over it, trying to explain what he saw. His team might not understand, but surely Cecil will get it, right?

"You touched the condo?" interrupts Cecil, focusing on what is clearly the least interesting part of the story. "Don't! Don't touch the condo. Don't touch it again!"

Carlos starts to repeat the part about the flasks full of liquid — and all the liquids bubbling! — when someone grabs the phone out of his hand. "¿Hola, Cecil? This is Rayshawn, from the theology team. Carlos is a little hypnotized right now, but don't worry, we have everything under —"

Carlos gets up.

"— we are going to have to call you back," finishes Rayshawn, and ends the call. "Hey, can I get a little help over here?"

Carlos can still hear Cecil's voice calling after him as he walks toward the condo, Isaña trotting along at his heels. Should he be worried? No, probably not — Cecil will come join him in the condo eventually. That's the plan, right?

And it isn't like he's breaking his promise to Henriette. His body is exactly where she told him to keep it: tied up in the car.

 

-{,(((,">

 

The nightmarish, majestic new cityscape is exactly how it was described on the radio. Tamika and her companions park directly to the north.

One of the book club's borrowed gyropters — entirely gilded in gold and silver, with the cursive letters M-V embossed on its flanks (Vansten has a whole fleet, he won't miss five or six for the afternoon) — hovers at rooftop level, and drops a football-sized bloodstone onto the asphalt. The co-pilot, a girl the same age as Tamika but already taking advanced geometry classes, astral-projects herself down to street level and shows them where to put it.

This is the ninth one. She'll text once all thirteen are in place, so Tamika can send the signal, and then...they pray.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Inside the pocket dimension is strangely soothing.

The atmosphere is dense, almost liquid; Isaña floats easily, and Carlos wishes he'd brought his physical form so he could find out if it floats too, and how well it breathes. There's no obvious source for the distant light above them. It's like being under the ocean, everything dark and blue-tinted and dappled in shadow.

Are we still mesmerized? he wonders. Or are we lucid again, just really relaxed?

We're thinking about this as a pocket dimension rather than a 'condo', points out Isaña. That's probably a good sign.

And we can see the flasks of liquid aren't real now, adds Carlos. Or the notebooks with all the numbers.

He isn't disappointed. They're not real, but they're not exactly illusions, either. If anything, they feel like a rough approximation of something infinitely more meaningful. As if he's suspended in the presence of the Platonic ideal of experimental theology, and these symbols are just the way his senses translate it into something his mind can grasp.

It's so pure. So rarefied. So perfect. He and his daemon can float here and simply be, the undiluted essence of Carlos the Experimental Theologian....

No Magisterium here, Isaña reminds him.

That's right. He doesn't need to filter anything through their terms, does he? Not even in the most cursory of ways. They can be nothing more or less than Carlos el Cientifico.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Henriette gets to the abandoned naptha station about two minutes before Cecil. They've untied Carlos's body — don't want to accidentally cut off the blood flow to any of his limbs while his mind isn't present to stop it — and laid him out on the grass. His eyes are glazed, his daemon missing, and even though Henriette can see the rise and fall of his chest, she keeps checking his pulse to confirm that he isn't (yet) a corpse.

"Astral projecting!" she calls, as Cecil throws himself out of his car and sprints toward them with Khoshekh right behind. Carlos will look even more like a dead body to Cecil, who can see at a glance that his ghost is missing too. "Don't ask me where he learned, but he did it. Isaña followed."

Cecil cycles through several emotions in seconds: horror, grief, determination. "Which one did they go into?"

"Whoa, hang on, you can't go in there too," says Rayshawn. "Ain't safe —"

Cecil whirls on him, Khoshekh's teeth bared — and the clear mauve sky echoes with the world's most conveniently-timed thunderclap. "Which one?"

Rayshawn shrinks backward. Nirliq takes a half-step in front of him and wordlessly points to the condo in question.

Cecil leaps out of his own body so hard it topples forward face-first.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos has no idea how much time has passed when the atmosphere in his perfect sub-dimension changes.

Snow-capped mountains carve a line through the sky on a distant horizon. The Northern Lights dance overhead, lancing rose and blue and violet against the blackness of the night. And above him all light is blotted out, by the massive silhouette of a dark planet lit by no sun.

What higher-order concept of existence all this might be reflecting, Carlos has no idea. Still, he knows that it is pure and kind and beautiful, and he loves it dearly.

Familiar arms wrap around him from behind.

Cecil, he realizes, clasping Cecil's hands to his chest. Of course. My Cecil. You came after me.

Cecil's head rests on his shoulder. I did. My dear Carlos. Now let me bring you back.

Am I thinking clearly? asks Carlos, as Khoshekh winds around Isaña like a furry inner tube. He might not be sure of his own senses, but he trusts Cecil's. I see and feel that everything around us is perfect. Is that true? Or is something tricking me into thinking that?

Cecil hesitates. If something is tricking you...then it has me too. This is perfect. For us, everything here is the way to perfection. I understand.

Then — let's stay! thinks Carlos. He isn't sure he could move if he wanted to, but he doesn't want to. Stay with me. Let me be Carlos Perfecto for you, by objective scientific standards. Stay where I don't have to be the Carlos who forgets to show up for dates, who gets his team members killed or turned into trees because he didn't do the right preliminary research, who accidentally sells out a whole town. Leave behindCarlos Traidor, Carlos Culpable, Carlos Que Mastica Odiosamente Fuerte. Stay.

The sunless planet rotates overhead as Cecil lets this sink in. As he thinks about having perfect Carlos...or perhaps about becoming perfect Cecil, about no longer frustrating Carlos by oversharing on the radio, or making terrible eggs that Carlos has to fight to choke down, or being helpless to repair the ragged holes in his memory where an older brother used to be.

Not that Carlos loves him any less for all of that, but, but —

No.

Cecil clings to him, more tightly than ever before...and pulls.

 

-{,(((,">

 

"I know the local regulations, Officer, and I appreciate the position you're in," says Henriette in Spanish, as placatingly as she can when she's only about 65% sure there's any chance of getting either Carlos or Cecil back...and, just to spice things up, there's a loaded gun aiming at the ground perilously close to her feet. (God, she needs a drink.) "But we cannot allow you to take these bodies right now."

"It isn't a question of letting, ma'am," says the officer with the green tree-frog daemon, whom Henriette is politely trying to pretend she doesn't recognize as the ambiguously-gendered sibling of Francis Donaldson from the Antiques Mall. "The Sheriff's secret police do not need permission or warrants to seize certain types of property, so I really need you to move aside —"

"You heard the person, Henriette," cuts in Li Hua. "Move over. It'll give me a clearer shot."

She's well-concealed behind the hood of the van, rifle loaded and ready to fire. (Rayshawn is back there too; he's just hiding. Nirliq is the only one here who's still trying to do research.) "Nobody is shooting anybody," says Henriette firmly.

"I'm a faster draw than she is anyway," says the officer.

"I have a double," counters Li Hua. "You take out either one of us, Germaine Donaldson, and I guarantee the other will hunt you down and gut you like a seventh-grade biology project."

Germaine's balaclava-clad frog hides behind their leg.

"Incoming!" calls Nirliq. "From the condo!"

While her daemon keeps his eyes on Germaine, Henriette glances at the cube that swallowed Carlos. Then she whips out her electrum spyglass.

She's just in time to see the massive swirl of Rusakov particles gathering in front of the portal's rippling surface, before two figures topple backward out of it like a comet, like a firework.

The nearest danger meter starts chiming, using the loud, insistent tone that means the local Rusakov concentration has shot to a level so high its readings are no longer accurate. Henriette herself has to squint against the brilliance, the blaze of intention, so thick the two human silhouettes are nearly blotted out.

...and is there a third figure with them, trailing after Carlos?

For the first time, she lowers the spyglass in order to see better.

And then all she sees is the guy who used to give exams with questions about cartoons on them, getting half-dragged, half-carried by a boyfriend who dresses like an extra from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. No phantom extra figure. Just her friends.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Okay, Sherie thought she was "in the zone."

When another bloodstone circle activates around hers, this one hundreds of times larger and run by a dozen people who have been practicing since before they learned to walk, she realizes she barely knows enough to appreciate how much she is not in the zone.

She does get a few moments to admire the geometry of it before quietly passing out.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos still has that floaty, underwater sense of buoyancy as Cecil pulls him from the soothing darkness to somewhere too bright to see. They stumble to what must be the ground; Cecil scrambles to pick him up; his business-casual chapel coat drifts around him as he clings to Cecil's shoulders.

Khoshekh flows through the air beside them with his usual grace (although Carlos doesn't miss that his tail is puffed up to three times its usual size), carrying Isaña in his mouth like a kitten.

His metaphorical-equivalent-of-eyes have adjusted better by the time Cecil staggers to a stop. Everything is still bright, like a TV set with the contrast up too high, but he can pick out his own body and Cecil's lying on the grass, with his teammates and a cop gathered around. We're...back?

"We're back," murmurs Cecil, sinking to his knees so Carlos ends up in his lap. The astral projection makes him sound distorted, washed-out. "We're home free."

Carlos is the most confused mess of feelings he's ever been. He's glad to be with Cecil, and already he senses the pocket dimension wasn't as perfect as it seemed, but he can't mirror the simple relief in Cecil's voice. Existence in the real world is as difficult as it is exciting, and regrets are heavy.

"My Carlos imperfecto."

...That helps.

"Is he okay?" asks Nirliq from behind the electrum-lens-fitted camera. Oh, thank goodness someone thought to film this the first time, because Carlos is never, ever doing it again. "Can he hear us?"

I'm in my right mind again, most likely, and yes, I can hear you. Did you get all that on camera? If yes, I'm making you a trophy.

"He can," says Cecil. "You just can't hear him. Carlos, you need to get back in your body now, okay? I don't mean to be alarmist, but this kind of projection you're doing, especially as a novice...it's a little dangerous."

Carlos pulls him into a quick hug, then gives the rest of the team a thumbs-up, meeting their eyes one by one. Rayshawn and Li Hua wave in acknowledgment from behind the van (where they're hiding, for some reason). Nirliq returns the gesture. Henriette's eyes and nose are red from not-quite-crying, so Carlos puts in the extra focus to make his projected image mouth it's okay, it's okay. She nods, and gestures for him to hurry up already.

Sliding his legs off of Cecil's lap, Carlos looks over his own body — on its back in the grass, not all well-ordered like a corpse in a casket, just casually flopped there like it's asleep — and experimentally puts his hand on his hand.

It goes right through.

Isaña, standing beside the not-exactly-joined hands, suddenly jumps and skitters backward, staring at something behind him. Carlos! What's that?

Carlos follows her gaze, and catches his non-existent breath. There's a familiar figure standing in the near distance, not far from the edge of his condo. Daemonless. Genderless. Almost colorless.

Cecil looks too. "What is it? Is something there?"

I don't like it, thinks Isaña, her whole body shaking. Khoshekh hunkers down next to her, eyes wide and ears pricked, trying to see. Make it go away, Carlos!

It's okay. It's not coming any closer. Not today, thinks Carlos firmly, addressing his death as much as his daemon. The last time his ghost left his body, it was with the death's help, so hopefully the figure is just confused. It isn't malevolent, at least. There are very few sure things in experimental theology, but this is one of them. Help me out here, Cecil. How do I get re-embodied? What's the first step?

"There aren't really, um, steps." Cecil waves his metaphorical hands vaguely in the air. "You just sort of go. Maybe it'll help if I demonstrate?"

His projection promptly vanishes, and his body's eyes fly open, back arching with a gasp.

And Carlos still has no idea how he did it.

 

-{,(((,">

 

The condo cubes are fading. The sections of homes and buildings they displaced are returning, though visibly older, more dilapidated, more worn.

Now that the process is in motion, it should roll to completion on its own.

Tamika would prefer to keep the prayer going anyway, but there's a sharp, crackling explosion in the sky overhead. One of their gyropters has sent up a bright yellow flare: They're coming. Scatter.

She gives it a count of ten, to make sure everyone else has a chance to cut their praying short, then hefts the nearby lunch-box-sized bloodstone off the ground. If they make good time, she might even get back to school before meteorology ends.

 

-{,(((,">

 

"Finally!" exclaims Germaine Donaldson. "Now, I'm going to need you to sign a couple of forms testifying that you are no longer disembodied —"

"If you don't back off," growls Henriette, "I will tell the Li Huas they have my blessing to relive seventh-grade bio."

Cecil is more sanguine about it. "We'll sign them together. Oof," he grunts, levering himself up on his elbows with slow, stiff motion. "Give us a minute."

He touches Carlos's face (the real one). Carlos (the projected one) can't feel it. Maybe if he lines his ghost up with his body...right now he's kinda sitting in the middle of his pelvis, which is a start....

Think about sensation.

Carlos frowns at the death. It's closer now, although still keeping a distance, maybe in deference to how badly it scares Isaña. What do you mean?

"What does who mean?" whispers Cecil.

Touch. Taste. Smell. Bodily sensations, confirms Carlos's death. Think about them. I understand it helps.

Think about being embodied, paraphrases Carlos. We can do that.

"He's talking to someone or something that I cannot hear," Cecil explains to the others. "It's very disorienting."

Carlos can practically hear his teammates rolling their eyes.

He remembers the feeling of rolling his eyes. Followed by the feeling of laughing so hard his sides hurt. The way his mouth went all tingly after the first spoonful of Existential Pistachio Crunch. The refreshing shock of pouring a cold water bottle over himself on a hot, sticky Night Vale afternoon, and having a cool wet T-shirt cling to his skin. The weight of a bowling ball in hand, and the stretch of muscles as he sends it rolling down the aisle.

(The way Cecil's fingers are still caressing his cheek suggest a whole other subset of sensations, but Carlos refuses to sex-talk himself back into corporeal form. Not in front of his co-workers or his death.)

Wading through the snow on campus when they hadn't plowed our shortcut yet. The way it crunched under your feet, volunteers Isaña. The taste of Mamá's lasagna, with extra cheese. That bitter smell the Asriel emulsion gets halfway through simmering.

Above, the racket of gyropters intensifies, as one of the silver-gilded ones flees directly over their heads...and, across the lot, a trio in sunshine-yellow roar into view.

Carlos thinks about the flap of a Strexcorp brochure hitting him in the face. About the tenderness of the nape of Cecil's neck under his fingers, freshly chipped and tattooed. The various pains of waking up with recent bruises, bites, stings. The heart-pounding adrenaline as Cecil swerved the car past a group of buzzing shadow-beings. The swelling of his throat and the seizing of his lungs when he collapsed onto the shale of an otherworldly cave.

He doesn't get the dramatic spasm and shuddering deep breath that Cecil did, just a small twitch, and then, "Oh — oh, ow."

"We're okay!" adds Isaña to the team. "Just pins-and-needles."

Cecil looks around in alarm. "Where?"

Carlos smiles, even though his face is as tingly and prickling as all of his limbs plus his torso. His whole body must have fallen asleep. "Not literal. An expression. It's fine. Thank you — thank you, everyone — it worked. I'm okay."

"No lingering desire to enter any black cubical 3-D portals?" asks Nirliq hopefully. She and Rayshawn are both alert and watchful, prepared for the situation to do another one-eighty at any moment. Henriette, meanwhile, is on her knees hugging her marmot daemon, looking like she couldn't juggle another crisis today if she wanted to.

"None." Carlos's arm explodes with prickles as he moves it to cling to the end of Cecil's neckwear-of-the-day (a lacy scarf crocheted out of red-and-pink yarn). Cecil wraps a protective hand around his own. "Not interested."

"You sure about that?" asks Li Hua. "What if they had lots of notebooks full of numbers and charts?"

Carlos's face heats up. "That made more sense than it sounded like," he protests. "Oh — did I — was it on air I said...?"

Cecil's grip on his arm suddenly tightens, nails digging in through the chapel coat. "Carlos? Your car radio. Did someone turn it off?"

Everyone goes quiet, looking at the dashboard of the van.

The weather isn't playing any more.

Nothing else is playing, either.

Until the pleasantly bored voice from half of the campaign ads crackles through the air. "Hola de nuevo, radioescuchas," says the Faceless Old Woman who lives in all of their homes. "Cecil aún no ha vuelto. Supongo que somos sólo ustedes y yo ahora."

"Oh, no," breathes Cecil. "No, no, no, oh beams help us no."

Germaine Donaldson clears their throat. "Can I offer you a priority high-speed ride to the radio station, Señor Palmero?"

"Yes!" Cecil springs to his feet, nearly tripping over Carlos in his hurry. "Yes, please. And on the way, I swear to you, I will fill out any forms you want."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos sits for Nirliq's camera and recounts everything he can remember about the experience. Everything except the details about his death. Documentation is important, but some things are personal.

To his relief, Khoshekh stays with them. In four-eye, so if anything goes wrong where Cecil is, Carlos will be the first to know.

The portals are gone. Janis Rio is gone, and a lot of other people with her. The Sheriff's secret police are collecting bodies from the once-more-vacant lot behind the Raúl's (still with that massive hole in the ground from last year's Eternal Scout ceremony), the parking lot of the strip mall, the roads that lead off between the houses. Carlos can only hope their deaths will find a way to reach their ghosts.

Other people who were on the condo interest list never got sucked in at all, and Carlos sends Nirliq and Rayshawn off to do interviews, to find out whatever they can.

Henriette compares experimental notes with Quentin (via webcam) and Köhler (via the Li Huas, briefly, before they take off to negotiate with the secret police for biological samples). Carlos listens, still flexing his sore muscles to make sure the feeling is coming back properly. His brain is spinning on ideas for how the bloodstone circles might have interacted with multidimensional portals — he'll want to hear Sherie's account firsthand, and hopefully something from a few of their mystery rescuers, before settling on which theories to chase — when Cecil comes back on-air.

Cecil saw the mountains too. And the dark planet. And bare-armed figures swaying on a vast, bleak tundra.

As Cecil launches into a soliloquy on the value of imperfection, Isaña leans against Khoshekh. "I know this may not be the best time to ask," she begins. "Partly because in the wake of serious personal danger is not the most emotionally stable time and therefore not ideal for making major life decisions, partly because this specific danger was so intent on manipulating the idea of home, or at least the pretense of it...although if we had stayed in that other dimension I guess technically it would have become "home" by virtue of us existing there, because there are lots of theologically valid definitions of "home"...but the fact is that we were considering, before all this happened, if it would, more broadly speaking, be an appropriate time in our relationship...with due consideration for the fact that time is not real anyway...do you think that, you know, given theology, and everything, you would want to...make a home together?"

Khoshekh starts purring.

Carlos's heart is in his mouth, expecting the answer to come through Khoshekh, so he only notices the tail-end of Cecil saying "...want to...make a home together?"

They're still in four-eye. Carlos's awkward (and personal!) babbling is still making it on-air, and he doesn't even have the excuse of being hypnotized this time.

"...and I said yes!" squeals Cecil, and it's the most beautiful sound Carlos has ever heard. "Yes, that — that would be neat!"

Leaning on the side of the van, Carlos gazes blissfully through the open window at the radio.

"But somewhere else, okay?" continues Cecil. "A duplex, or an apartment, or...I don't think a condo."

"No, not a condo," agrees Carlos.

"And then he said, No, not a condo."

"I had something else to ask too, but if you keep repeating all this on the radio I'm not going to."

"And then he said...." Cecil trails off. "Listen...he thinks I shouldn't tell you everything."

"But tell me," purrs Khoshekh, from his position hovering above Isaña's shell.

Carlos does.

 

-{,(((,">

 

By the time they start packing up the equipment, Carlos has a long to-do list. Data to look at. Tests to run on their bloodstones. Tests to have the team run on himself and Isaña, and on the body of Roger Singh, and on Leann Hart and her rainbow lorikeet daemon (who got a condo but weren't swept in, and who agreed on the condition that the Night Vale Daily Journal gets exclusive print rights, and no bloggers are allowed to watch).

And he has to call Mamá and say that yes, he'll be bringing that sweet radio boy of his home for Christmas.

He's just helping Rayshawn lift the folding table into the trunk when Khoshekh lets out a keening whine and hits the ground with a thump.

Carlos manages to get the table the whole way in, then drops to his knees next to the margay daemon...who's shaking all over, limbs convulsively contracting and stretching like a human having a seizure. "Honey, what's wrong?"

"Stay back," pants Khoshekh. His tail, freshly-puffed, whips to swat Isaña away, and Carlos can't tell if it was deliberate or just a well-timed muscle spasm. "Be fine. Couple minutes."

"Has this happened before?" Could Carlos have missed his boyfriend having a seizure disorder? "How can you be sure it isn't getting worse?"

"Carlos. Dear Carlos. T-trust —"

Another convulsion cuts him off. Carlos whips out his phone and practically throws it at Rayshawn, the nearest other person handy. "Go into the contacts and call Night Vale General, understand?"

Khoshekh's middle legs kick against the scrubby grass. "Don't!"

"Then who should we call?" If this is the kind of thing only Josie could have handled, Carlos is holding Strexcorp personally responsible for —

Oh.

"Steve," pants Khoshekh a few moments later. He's still quaking, but the violent spasms seem to be calming down. "Just Steve. Tell him — pick up Cecil." He whuffs in disapproval. "And — tell him he's a lousy engineer."

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

On the ride to Steve's apartment, Khoshekh starts to fall asleep. "Sedation," he mumbles to Carlos and Isaña, both of whom have been watching him like a hawk for any more signs of distress. "Don't worry. Not th' bad kind."

He's dozing when the bus reaches their stop. The driver extends a ramp when Carlos asks, and Isaña tugs the gently-floating margay down to the sidewalk.

In the lobby, an unfamiliar woman's voice answers when Carlos rings the bell. At first he thinks he's hit the wrong button. "Sorry, I was looking for Steve...."

"Who is this?"

"Um, Carlos. The experimental theologian."

The door buzzes open.

The same woman is in Steve's apartment. She's arguing with someone on the phone — "Either you keep taking our good Hispanian money, or we find another supplier, and that's all there is to it" — and splitting her attention with a pot of rice and sauce on the stove. Her daemon, a small, skinny lizard with a dark green-brown back and yellow-white pinstripes, rides on the shoulder of her matching blazer.

She looks vaguely familiar, but Carlos can't put a name to her face. "Excuse me? Excuse me!"

"Hang on a minute, I've got to take this," says the woman into the phone. She presses a button, then looks at Carlos. "What do you need?"

Carlos doesn't beat around the bush. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"

Maybe he's being rude. If, for instance, this is Renée's mother (she's not peninsular the way both Renée and Steve are, but genetics can play tricks like that sometimes), she has far more claim to being here than he does. But he isn't taking any risks.

The woman sighs and transitions into a sweet, professional smile. "Hannah Gutierrez. I'm here because I picked Renée up from school today, and decided to stay and make sure there was something wholesome to eat in the house before her father leaves for his date tonight. Assuming he doesn't stay in working on Cecil until sunrise."

"So they're here? Steve and Cecil?"

"Do you see them anywhere? Now, if you don't mind, I have to make sure the store still has fruit in stock next week." She goes back to her phone. "Sorry about that, Marco. As I was saying...do we have a deal?"

Carlos sets Khoshekh to rest in a heap on the couch in the TV room, then does a quick check of the other rooms, because Do you see them anywhere is not the same as They aren't here. The bathroom, the bloodstone circle room, Steve's bedroom, and Renée's bedroom are all empty when he peeks in. That just leaves the room Carlos is absolutely forbidden to enter.

He doesn't try. Instead he returns to the couch, where he lifts Isaña onto the cushions so she can snuggle up against Khoshekh, before taking a seat beside them.

Sure enough, a few minutes later Steve and Renée come out of the forbidden room, both wearing dusty old T-shirts and peeling off gloves. "And that's why the anbarodes are made out of iridium?" asks Renée, her daemon loping along beside her as a black-and-white colobus (the same family as Nirliq's daemon, but with fur that matches their father's badger).

"Exactly."

"But how come you can't insulate them with —"

"Just a minute, hon, let's say hi to Señor Carlos." Steve nods to Carlos, while Taeminlahn hops up on the couch to touch noses with Isaña. "Glad you could make it. Would you mind staying for a few hours? Cecil was scheduled to babysit, so of course he had to go get himself incapacitated for the evening, and I don't want to impose on Hannah any longer than I have to."

"Dad!" protests Renée. "I don't need a babysitter. I'm old enough to look out for myself!"

She's carrying a keychain, a cartoonish little rubber frog that squeaks when you squeeze its tummy. As she talks, she twirls it up into her hand and starts squeezing, making a series of short chirps and slightly-longer whistles.

"You never know when you'll need backup. No matter how old you are," replies Steve. "And gyropter is spelled —"

He steps over to the nearest wall and taps briskly against it with his knuckles, a sequence of short and long. Morse code.

"I'd be happy to stay," says Carlos, addressing the out-loud conversation rather than whatever's going on in the coded one. "And, listen, Renée — there was a pretty big commotion downtown today, that got fixed by a bunch of well-coordinated kids in borrowed gyropters. My team would love to interview some of the people who were involved in that. Is there any chance you could help us out?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

In the gutted, stripped shell of the basalt fortress, Dana takes the stairs.

"Depth brought knowledge," she reasons out loud, as she works her way up to the next landing. "But I seem to have exhausted the limits of depth. So it makes sense to follow that with height."

Next on her list is breadth: crossing the vast desert wasteland to the Clouded Mountain. If necessary, when she reaches it, she can give height another try.

Her other option is projection, and Dana does not want to try that again. Not unaided. Not when there looms the possibility of appearing next to strange, eyeless, blood-covered duplicates of people she knows, who turn to her with jagged smiles and address her as one of their own broken friends.

She sends Cecil a series of descriptive texts along the way, keeping him up-to-date. Whatever version of him they may or may not be reaching.

Climbing the tall, fortified central tower. The keep?

Is it still a keep if it isn't part of a castle?

Sun very bright today

Reached the top. Stairs open on a wide circular platform, maybe 30ft across

The basalt bricks up here are dull and grainy. Dana can see the platform is surrounded by a safety wall anchored by steel poles — some of the rare metal that has survived here — and interspersed with stone pinnacles. She'll need to move a few steps higher before she can see the tops of these, but the shadows they cast across the floor of the platform are not regular. They look almost decorative. Like sculptures.

Weird soda rows

^Shadows

Sorry, autocorrect

Cloud cover now

Going out to take a look

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Alone in her room, with a playlist of wailing prog rock and a half-empty bottle of something labeled in Modified Sumerian, Henriette grips an orange-lettered business card so roughly it bends the cardstock and waits for her phone to ring.

She is so done with these people. And it's about time they knew it.

The other end of the line picks up. "Zariya Thiébaut's office," says a smile-wreathed voice.

"Good," snaps Henriette. It's the Strexcorp employee who came to visit their chapel. Henriette hadn't been 100% sure the business cards she gave out were genuine, but it looks like yes. "You put her on."

"To hear this menu in English, press nine. If you know your party's extension, dial it now."

Oh.

Henriette frowns at the dancing numbers on her keypad, and jabs the nine.

"For a list of office hours, press one," continues the automated voice. "If you are a business associate, press two. If you would like to schedule an appointment, press three. To leave a message, press four or stay on the line."

It would be fastest to press four, but Henriette's hands are shaking and if she hits the wrong buttons she'll probably end up committing to drive a shipment of Strex-brand widgets from here to Florida for 30% off. She waits.

"Please leave a message with your name, your position of employment, and a callback number after the tone. Have a productive day!"

"Productive," mutters Henriette. "I'll productive your...."

The phone chirps at her.

"Hello, Dr. Thiébaut? This is Henriette Gaillard. Independent goddamn theologian, Night Vale research team. And I don't know who you are, or where you fit in the big ol' Strexcorp hierarchy, but you have got to talk to your bosses, or your bosses' bosses, and you tell them, you tell them to knock it the hell off."

Yeah, that feels good.

"Because I don't know what your safety protocols are, but the thing is? They're not working. Unless your safety protocol is 'sit back and wait for someone from Night Vale to save our asses.' Because that is working great. We saved your asses back in July. A bunch a' middle-schoolers saved your asses today. Except the thing is? The thing is, you have got no guarantee that's gonna keep working! One of these days you are gonna break the whole damn world, and we are not —"

"Dr. Gaillard! I'm so glad I caught you."

Henriette stops short, and drops the finger she had been shaking vigorously at thin air. "Wha?"

"This is Dr. Thiébaut, publicity coordinator, Strexcorp Labs physics department." She's using Spanish with a thick accent that sounds mostly French, but not like any of the versions of French Henriette is familiar with. "You are dissatisfied with the results of some of our work, is that correct?"

For a couple of seconds Henriette just splutters, trying to recover her cool. "Yeah," she says at last, in shaky Spanish. "Yeah, you're damn right we're dissatisfied."

"Strexcorp is always looking to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our research," says Thiébaut amiably. "I myself was stationed in this area during the incident in July, when we had to shut down operations for an entire evening due to personnel shortages. It was very unpleasant! Not at all in line with the company ethos."

"You were in...this area?" echoes Henriette. She means this world, right? Which means...since Strex was only in Desert Bluffs back then, and Desert Bluffs was at the epicenter of the whole thing...she's implying she would've spent some time as a buzzing shadow-being. Right?

"I certainly was. So you can understand why I — like all of Strexcorp — have only the best interests of the greater Desert Bluffs metropolitan area at heart. Why don't we sit down for a business lunch, you and I, and talk in more detail about how to make that happen?"

"What? No!" This is the Strex official who put a bug on Carlos the first time she had a chance to shake hands with him, and she thinks she can just invite a Night Vale theologian out for burgers and pleasant conversation? Henriette is only drunk, here, she's not a moron. "I am not having lunch with you!"

"Suit yourself," says Thiébaut. "I will pass your criticisms on to my manager. If you ever change your mind...well, you have my number! Pleasure talking to you."

She hangs up.

Henriette is still staring at her phone when there's a knock on the bedroom door.

"Jus' a second!" She pulls on a bathrobe over her nightgown, cinches it tight, then she and her marmot daemon pad over to the door. Rayshawn is on the other side, little blue frog riding on his shoulder. His room is in the other house, so he must have come over for something specific. "What is it?"

"Uh, is this a bad time?" asks the archaeologist. "I can come back tomorrow."

"It's not a great time," admits Henriette. "Can you make it quick?"

"Yeah, all right. I just need to know how...I mean, what's the procedure for...You know what? I'm just gonna go grab Dr. Köhler."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Renée finds a stack of paper and a set of crayons, takes Carlos into the relative privacy of the bloodstone circle room, and starts drawing him diagrams.

When they come out, the stove is off, Hannah and Steve are both gone, and the couch has been unfolded into a bed with Cecil and Khoshekh asleep on top of it. Carlos and Renée tiptoe past.

They help themselves to a couple of plates of Hannah's rice dish. (Something spicy and broadly curry-like.) Carlos doesn't know if he can keep quizzing Renée for details out here, or should talk about something else. How do you make small talk with ten-year-olds?

They eat in silence, though, and just as they're finishing up Cecil comes into the kitchen, yawning and stretching like he's just come from a good long nap. "Hi, Carlos. Hey, Renée. What did I miss?"

Carlos fixes him a plate. Renée shares the distasteful news that her father is on a date, then announces she's going to eat dessert in her room. There's an awkward pause in which Carlos and Cecil try to figure out if this is allowed — and, if not, whose job it is to stop her — and before they recover, the kid has disappeared, along with what looks like half the contents of the cookie jar.

Resigning himself to the fact of being outmaneuvered by a ten-year-old yet again, Carlos lets it go. It's more important to make sure Cecil is okay. He can't be totally recovered yet; Khoshekh is still asleep on the couch. "How are you feeling?"

"Deeply gratified that my new management has not been able to work out how to use the Dark Box," says Cecil, as lightly as he can. "It stings, sure, but it could have been much worse! Why, if I remember correctly, Steve and I got me up the stairs all on our own, without having to bother the neighbors. That's practically a first."

Carlos swallows. "I — I'm really sorry."

"You? Whatever for?"

"Because you missed part of the show to come rescue me...."

His hands are clasped together on the tabletop. From the chair beside him, Cecil lays his fingers over Carlos's wrist and squeezes. "Carlos. I missed part of the show...because my program director, in her infinite wisdom, decided to interfere with the run time of the weather."

The implications take a minute to sink in.

When Carlos has processed it enough to speak, he whispers, "I hate them so much."

"They are awful," agrees Cecil. "Lesson learned, though! Never again will I leave during a broadcast without having the mobile broadcasting equipment along." He pauses. "Speaking of things I cannot afford to leave behind — the alethiometer —?"

"Khoshekh and I busted it out of your car. It's in my bag." In a Tupperware container lined with tissue paper. (It deserves a leather-bound, velvet-lined, custom-sculpted case, but they didn't have any of those lying around the chapel.)

Reassured, Cecil sets to devouring his not-quite-curry. "Korma," he identifies it, when Carlos asks. "Hannah's always been a big fan of Magadha food."

Soon enough Carlos retrieves the alethiometer, and loads their plates into the dishwasher while Cecil relocates to the pull-out couch to look some things up. Carlos joins him to find Khoshekh's head in his lap, the alethiometer's three large hands pointed at the Compass, the Cornucopia, and the Bird, and the fourth hand also pointing intently at the Cornucopia.

"My sense memories for some of the afternoon are a little scrambled," admits Cecil, as Carlos scoops Isaña into his lap and sits down beside them. "For instance, I have the impression that you were in the studio, although I know you stayed with Khoshekh and I was only seeing you through his eyes. But...you did ask, wherever you were, if we could move in together."

Carlos blushes. "Yeah. I did."

Cecil suppresses a squeak of fresh joy.

"And to come home with me at Christmas," adds Carlos, just in case he's forgotten.

"Yes! Yes, that too, I can absolutely do that," says Cecil. "I have so many vacation days saved up, you have no idea. But the moving-in. We should talk about that. I do want to! I totally want to, it's just, there are things we should maybe talk about first? Things we should be sure are all squared away before start picking out curtains. You know?"

"Of course! Yeah, we should probably make sure we're on the same page. About...stuff." Carlos puts an arm around Cecil's shoulders, and rests the other hand on Cecil's thigh. "The rest of the team will still be using the houses, so I don't have to worry about breaking a lease. How about you?"

Cecil sets the alethiometer on his knees and laces his fingers through Carlos's. "Well, um, the apartment is month-to-month. I just have to get them some notice before leaving. And since it's already so late in the year, they'll need me back in March for the vernal equinox maintenance chants, so you might have to do those on your own...do you feel up to it, or should we shoot for moving in no sooner than April?"

When it comes out that Carlos has never done a maintenance chant in his life, Cecil starts, then says ruefully that that explains "the things under the carpet." Carlos makes a mental note to check under all the carpets, as soon as he gets the chance to arm himself with a good strong bottle of bleach. And maybe a spear.

"We should take a look at our wills, too." Cecil laughs self-consciously. "I know you're supposed to update it every five years, but I don't think I've looked at mine more than once since the college course when I made it. Vieja Josie is probably still the executor...Anyway, on top of it being good practice, if we make a financial commitment together, and then something happens to one of us...we should be set up so the other isn't left hanging."

"Absolutely." Carlos doesn't remember which Night Vale catastrophe prompted him to make a will, but it's current. There's a bequest to Harvard in there, a lot of his equipment goes to the team, and everything else gets divided up among his siblings: not because they need it, more because they're the only people he would want to have it. Or at least, they were. "I'll put you on my life insurance policy, too."

"Your what?"

Carlos explains the concept of life insurance.

Cecil's mouth opens and closes several times. "I am not a businessman, Carlos, so maybe I am missing something obvious here, but how is that in any way a viable financial model?"

"There are a lot fewer accidental early deaths outside Night Vale, that's how. Also, people with high-risk occupations or family histories of health problems have to pay more. Oh, and you can't murder people for the insurance money! You don't get anything if you do that."

It doesn't seem like Cecil is totally convinced, but he's willing to let it go. He glances over their shoulders to make sure no one (except their secret-police observer, and possibly the Faceless Old Woman) is listening, then rests his head on Carlos's shoulder and switches into English. "There is one other thing. Kind of a big one."

"Go ahead."

"You see...if, one of these days, Steve and his big mouth should happen to get themselves in more trouble than they can get out of...I'm sort of his daughter's designated guardian."

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

Around the wall are pinnacles, and on each pinnacle is a sculpture. They are marble, veined with gold and bolted together with steel. They are the first element Dana has seen in this entire world that is made to be beautiful, rather than functional.

They are angels.

Tall and unclothed, with imposing figures and feathered wings, they stand sentry over the tower, all facing outward. Dana considers texting Cecil Found angels (not real), but she has a feeling that might just be confusing, so she picks one and approaches it, leaning on the top of the wall to get a look at its features from the front.

She is briefly distracted by the rest of what is beyond the wall. This still isn't high enough to disappear into the clouds, but the sloping mountainside at the base is awfully far away.

"Well," she says out loud, trying to reassure herself, "at least I can say that I have achieved height."

She raises her eyes to the face of the angelic statue...and catches her breath.

It reminds her of Kevin, a little. Partly because there are no eyes, just holes in the stone. Partly because the rest of the carved complexion is spattered with red.

Dana does a quick three-sixty, counting the pinnacles around her. Her first assumption was wrong! They are beautiful and functional. She is standing in the middle of a circle of thirteen bloodstones carved into angel faces.

She considers sending a text to Cecil about it, but if she stands close enough to the center of the circle and says a quick prayer, she should just be able to tell him in person....

As Dana is contemplating this, a fierce, avian shriek echoes across the sky.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Köhler ushers Henriette down to the kitchen, makes her start working on a glass of orange milk and a bowl of oatmeal, and tells Rayshawn to go ahead and book a flight. Henriette and Carlos are the only ones who can authorize a reimbursement, and Henriette knows when she's too sloshed to be doing money things, so Köhler promises he will make sure one of them takes care of it in the morning.

"And so we enter the fleeing-in-terror stage," mutters Henriette over her oatmeal. Her marmot daemon is curled up in an off-white heap of fur on the tile next to her chair, dozing softly. Köhler's binturong watches him in narrow disapproval. "You kinda missed that for the first wave, didn't you? And th' second wave...none of you actually fled. Mateo died, and Li Hua, well. Li Hua liked livin' here so much, she did it twice."

Köhler sits across from her and folds his hands on the tabletop. "Indeed."

"It was the archaeologists who left the first time, too," adds Henriette. "Maybe that's the problem. Maybe we should quit hiring archaeologists."

"I...suspect that is not the problem."

"It was a joke. Yeesh."

The problem, she knows, is that Rayshawn had the second-closest brush with the condos of anyone on the team. He was standing next to Carlos when they went to check out the sign-up line; it could easily have been him, not Carlos, who accidentally got put on the list. So it understandably freaked him out to see how easily Carlos's conscious mind was overwritten, and how nobody without a weird alethiometer-reading boyfriend made it back out of the portals after going in.

Well, it freaked Henriette out too, but you don't see her skipping town over it. No, she's doing the sensible thing: drinking to forget.

"I believe you should know that I am...concerned," says Köhler presently. "I am considering entreating one of the other women, with the exception of the Li Huas, or perhaps Dr. Ramirez, to search your room."

"Mm," says Henriette, trying to sound nonchalant. "How come Carlos? He's gay, that means he counts as a woman?"

"He is a long-time colleague. You have granted him a certain measure of trust. His...romantic preferences...are unrelated." Köhler twiddles his thumbs for a moment, then looks away and mutters, "You will note that I did not also cite Dr. Armenteros."

Henriette frowns. "Quentin's gay? You know that for a fact, or are you just assuming 'cause he's kinda...swishy? Because you know that's not th' same thing. It's a, what'sit. A Venn diagram."

Köhler looks about as flustered as she's ever seen him. "I have overheard...certain conversations, which indicate that Dr. Armenteros's...romantic preferences...include his own gender. I could not say for certain if this preference is...exclusive."

"Oh my god," mumbles Henriette, burying her face in her hands and giggling. "Wish I could go back in time, like, ten years, and tell myself that one day Keith Köhler would be sitting across from me, desperately trying to avoid using th' word bisexual. Wish I could see my face."

She thinks she's handling this whole thing pretty well, until Köhler gathers himself and says firmly, "I am also trying to avoid using the word alcoholism."

Ah.

Henriette is glad she's got her face covered, because she probably looks about as obviously guilty as Carlos tends to.

"Yeah, all right," she says at last, sitting up and giving her oatmeal a stir. "I had a bad day. And you're worried. I get it. But listen: drinking to forget, it's a proud local tradition. Y'know? I mean, remember that day Steve Carlsberg's kid came over to th' chapel, an' we all had to watch her? Usually Cecil babysits that kid. But he couldn't that day, because he was spending it recovering from th' doubles thing. How? Gettin' blind drunk, that's how. Right? And he didn't...like, he wasn't out driving, or anything. When he picked her up in the evenin' to take her home, he took the bus."

Köhler considers this. "So your argument is that I should withhold my concern until after you become a danger to yourself or others?"

"My argument is...is that I won't. Be a danger. Necessarily." Henriette decides not to mention drunk-dialing Strexcorp officials. That wasn't dangerous. Just probably not a great idea. "I...."

Her stomach lurches.

"'Scuse me," says Henriette, pushing back her chair and getting to the sink a split second before everything she's been ingesting comes back up.

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

The sound — if it is from a living thing — heralds the first non-angelic living thing Dana has seen for...days? Weeks? However long it has been since she stepped out of that old oak door and into the light of the wrong sun.

For all she knows, it may be the only other creature in this universe.

"I can only pray that it isn't evil," she muses, as she hides in the shadow of the nearest angelic statue. "That wouldn't make for much company."

The plains and the desert spread out far beneath her, the wrecked vehicles strewn across the wasteland like pebbles in a sandbox. She can't pick out any trace of the door she slept under, however long ago that was. The other mountain and its blinking light are still suspended above the far horizon, the only visible motion coming from the clouds drifting around it and the shadows they cast.

Again, the bird-cry, echoing off the sides of the mountains.

Dana scours the pale-blue sky overhead, then takes another look down at the plains. She's high enough that a bird, if it is a bird, might be below her as easily as above. Everything is so distant, though. It strikes her that she might need glasses, and out here she would have no way to test....

A dark speck of movement. Low to the ground like a shadow, but under no cloud.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Steve gets home late enough that Cecil has made Renée brush her teeth and go to bed: with the lights out, although Carlos suspects her of reading by flashlight under the covers.

The grungy work clothes Steve was wearing when Carlos saw him earlier have been exchanged for something a lot more starched, pressed, and color-coordinated. Hopefully the smear of green on his collar is nothing more sinister than lipstick. And there's a spring in his step, one that mellows when he addresses Cecil, but doesn't entirely fade. "I see you're up."

"No thanks to you, Mr. Always Overdoes It On The Sedative," mutters Cecil. "Did you fix it this time?"

"You know perfectly well there's a limit to what I can do to the chip without cutting you open. And I think your oh-so-attentive employers would notice the scars," says Steve. "I tried something new. Either it works, or it doesn't."

"Oh, are those the options? Gee, Steve, thank you for that keen insight into basic logic."

Carlos puts a comforting hand on Cecil's shoulder. "Thank you for picking him up. And for doing what you could."

"We really appreciate it," puts in Isaña from by their feet. In a way that could mean her and Carlos, or Carlos-and-Isaña and Cecil-and-Khoshekh.

"Not a problem. Thank you for stepping in for Mr. Would Be Easier To Dose If He Ate On A Normal Schedule."

Cecil rolls his eyes. "And on that generous note, Steve, can I talk to you in the other room for a minute?"

He, Steve, and Steve's badger retreat to the TV room, while Khoshekh waits with Carlos and Isaña next to a bookshelf. There's a framed photo of Renée at eye level, a few years younger than she is now, in a soccer uniform with her daemon sitting prairie-dog-formed on the ball.

Cecil was quick to assure Carlos that all the financial responsibility for her would stay on Cecil, but honestly, Carlos had been more worried about the emotional issues than the monetary ones. Money issues are fixable. You can get more aggressive about grant applications and patent licenses; you can dial back your contributions to the Trimountaine Museum of Experimental Theology and the MIT Alumni Fund; if the need gets really desperate, you can always show up to one of Marcus Vansten's sexy pool parties in nothing but a chapel coat and a Speedo.

Keeping the world from falling apart for a kid who just lost a parent, now, that isn't something you can fix by pinching pennies and mugging for the local rich guy. Carlos is not prepared to sign up for the role of emergency step-parent. He's had enough trouble balancing work and Cecil, and Cecil is a grown adult who can deal with being disappointed. If Carlos ever got so wrapped up in an experiment that he failed to pick a child up from Girl Scouts....

So he told Cecil he couldn't commit to potential co-parenting. But he could certainly provide...backup. Be the default babysitter, the way Cecil is now. And he could do half the dishes and vacuuming and scraping scales off the walls for three people, as easily as two.

He stands up straighter when Steve and Cecil return. "So," says Steve, "if your boyfriend should happen to end up needing to open your home to a certain someone...you would be okay with that."

"That's right."

"You wouldn't interfere with his parenting decisions. Or at least, when he makes really questionable ones, you would try to redirect him in private. Not in front of the certain someone."

Cecil frowns. "What do you mean, when I make questionable decisions?"

"Keeping the certain someone's life stable would be the most important thing," says Carlos. "Besides, Cecil understands what kids around here need a lot better than I do. And, presumably, what kids in...certain family situations...need."

"Good to hear." Steve relaxes into a smile. "All right! When you two find a place, we'll drop by City Hall and get you to sign something that underlines that. Assuming the arrangement hasn't changed on our end, of course."

"It might change on your end?" asks Carlos. Last he heard, Steve's father was alive but in no condition to raise a kid, and his ex-wife...well, Cecil declared in no uncertain terms that if Renée's mother tried to claim custody, he would fight her over it. Carlos still isn't sure if he meant going to court (and since the former Mrs. Carlsberg now lives in a completely different state, that would be federal court...which is a culture clash Carlos would theoretically love to put to the test, but not if it meant risking people he cares about), or instigating some kind of ritual duel.

"What Steve is insinuating," says Cecil, "is that his latest clumsy attempt at a relationship might be going somewhere. And with hard work and dedication, he has managed to overcome his miserable taste in romantic partners, so it might even be somewhere promising."

Steve looks sheepish, but pleased. "What can I say? She's smart, she's funny, she thinks I make great scones. And she has a kid herself, so she understands how it gets. We're about at the stage where all four of us start going places together, and cross our fingers the girls take it well."

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

The distant figure is small and brown and winged. As it wheels higher through the air, Dana sees its silhouette more clearly: sharp leathery angles, a long beak, a stiff crest at the back of its head.

It's a pterodactyl, she thinks, followed quickly by Oh—!

With all the power in her lungs, she shouts, "UP HERE!"

There is no response — of course there isn't, Dana has many abilities but a supernatural Voice is not one of them — anything she says at this distance will be lost to the wind.

So instead, she backs up into the center of the bloodstone circle, focuses, and leaps out of her body.

She doesn't leave this world or this time. She wasn't trying to. All she has to do is send her projection racing along the currents of Rusakov particles that drift around this sky. Fine and thin as they are, she has a strong circle to lean on, and an unparalleled force of determination.

Her ghost whirls around Eustathias, a hurricane in miniature.

"Dana!" cries her daemon, switching in a flash to a six-foot-long red-gold snake of a dragon, with long curved horns and a crocodile grin. She spirals in midair like an anbaric coil. "Dana, where are you?"

"On top of the basalt fortress. Come on!"

It is infinitely easier to follow the currents in Eustathias' wake. They soar together to the tower, where Dana lands back in her body while Eustathias turns into something puffy and light, bounces off the stone platform, then becomes a bear-sized black dog with piercing yellow eyes. Sweltering as it is up here on the sun-baked rock, they scramble to each other, Dana burying her face in her daemon's fur.

"I was so concerned it would be hard to find you." Eustathias flips between half a dozen large cuddly forms, all different colors and patterns and builds, not one of them recognizable as a non-extinct species from Dana's world. "And now I can't have been in this world for more than five minutes, and here you are!"

"Five minutes?" sputters Dana.

"And here you are," repeats her daemon, now a lion-headed creature with long hooved legs and a scaly tail that lashes around Dana. "How many minutes has it been for you? You were still in the dog park when I went through the door in the desert, so it can't have been long!"

Dana chokes on a laugh. "Oh, my dear Eustathias," she says, cuddling into her daemon's pearly coat. "It has been so many minutes. Hours. Days. They all ran together. I lost count! The only way I can measure them is by saying I have so much to tell you."

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

A rhythmic tap-tap-tapping on the window lulls Carlos awake. Like a tree branch or something, getting tossed by the wind. Carlos smiles, enjoying the rhythm.

It isn't until Cecil sits up beside him and knocks a brief response against the wall that he remembers two things: first, Cecil's apartment is much farther off the ground than any of the trees around here; and second, all the trees in town (except those in the Whispering Forest) have been missing since Tuesday.

"Mrgh," mumbles Carlos. "Who's that? Anyone I'd know?"

"Just a work thing." Cecil yawns, stretches, and drops a kiss on Carlos's cheek. "Dear Carlos...would you mind not going to the chapel today?"

Now Carlos is definitely awake. "Wouldn't mind, no. Is there some kind of danger scheduled in the area today? Or do you just want me staying with you to help out with something?"

Cecil plays with a stray lock of his hair. "No, I don't want you with me — or rather, I want you with me very much, but I have to be at the station, which don't want you getting anywhere near. It's just that it might not be safe to work on a lot of your projects this afternoon. Especially the ones that can go wrong if you aren't paying careful attention. Oh, and you shouldn't go anywhere else that requires a commute, either! The roads are likely to be especially fatal today."

So it's important to pick a place early, stay there, and find a low-stakes project to occupy yourself. "Okay. Let me tell my team."

The Faceless Old Woman has arranged all Cecil's kitchen appliances in a precarious pile in the center of the floor, and placed Carlos's phone on top of it. He retrieves it as carefully as possible (nothing falls, although the coffee maker wobbles in a disconcerting way), and sends a mass text:

Cancel all plans for today. We're cleaning house.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (???)

Dana flickers into existence in an elegant walnut-paneled room, with gold chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and an oil painting of a woman in violet robes on the nearest wall. (The elegance is only slightly interrupted by a plastic trash bin heaped with takeout containers.)

She does not recognize the room, but she does recognize the woman. The same painting was in her local history textbook. It's one of Night Vale's former mayors.

So she is in Night Vale! Or something very like it.

That is, her ghost is in Night Vale. Her body is in a gaudily overdone bloodstone circle she found in an otherworldly desert, and her daemon is wrapped around it, giving her the extra strength she needed to get this far.

As she is taking a closer look at the painting, a low voice says, "Dana?"

It takes Dana a moment to recognize the man at the other end of the room. She still relies on the briefcase and tan jacket more than she should; without them, her memory needs time to force the pieces together. "Emmanuel!"

"Keep it down!" hisses Emmanuel, gesturing for her to hush. "Dana, I am very proud that you've worked out astral projection, but you need to remember that people can see you."

Dana does her best to suppress a laugh of delight. People can see her! And he has no idea how unprecedented that is. "I will try!" she whispers. "Does this mean this is the first time I have appeared for you?"

Emmanuel looks startled...then begins to connect the dots. "It is. Are you implying that you're from my future?"

"I am not certain how to answer that," admits Dana. "Our time and space match right now, so I am in your present. Does this present also include a Dana in the dog park? Because I am from her future. And I have been trying for so long to find you, so I can tell you the things that you will tell her."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (present).

Sherie gets the text just as her children are throwing stuff in their backpacks before the normal last-minute rush to catch the bus. (A regular Night Vale municipal bus, that is. School buses around here are pitch-black, windowless, and ony rarely stop at an actual school.)

"Hold on a moment, you two," she calls. Maybe this is literally about cleaning the houses the other team members live in, and Carlos absent-mindedly sent it to her as well, but maybe it's code for...something. She types a reply as fast as she can: Does this apply to my family too?

"If we miss the bus, I can drive Seth in," says Susannah hopefully.

"Not until you have your Road Safety badge," says Sherie, not for the first time. The rule is part of an effort she's making to have faith in the Night Vale Girl Scouts, and to support her daughter's involvement. (Sam isn't as happy about trusting the Scouts' judgment here, but they've at least agreed not to fight about it in front of the kids.) "This shouldn't take long."

The phone hiccups with Carlos's reply: Kids will be safest at school. You and your husband are invited to come keep us company for the day. Bring something to work on while we do the chores!

(This is followed by an emoticon of two werewolves doing the gavotte next to an old-fashioned jukebox.)

Standing by the window overlooking the road, Seth reports, "The bus just went."

Sherie sighs. "Did it really? Okay, I'll drive you in. Get your backpacks while I let your father know."

They all fit easily in the minivan, Susannah in the middle row with her griffon vulture daemon relaxing in the seat beside her, Seth riding shotgun with his daemon riding as a much smaller bird on his shoulder. Sherie's mongoose rides in the scoop next to the driver's seat. As they make the turn onto DuBois Avenue, he gives her a quiet signal.

"Seth, honey, about Career Day," begins Sherie. "Like I said at dinner, I'm officially signed up to do a presentation about being an experimental theologian. So if there's anything else I can do while I'm there...."

Seth shrugs. "Dunno," he says, the picture of casual preteen disinterest...except for the way his daemon springs into action, leaping from his shoulder and turning into a field mouse on the way down. "Su, can I have your MP3 player? I want to put on some music."

"Music," repeats Su. "Oh! Yeah, okay."

While she unzips her backpack, her own daemon turns his claws on an inside panel of the van door.

There's a snapping of plastic, and a tearing of fabric from under the passenger seat, and Sherie barely holds herself back from yelling at the kids not to tear apart the car. Her daemon watches with interest as Su's griffon vulture retrieves a small anbaric bug from inside the door, and Seth's crawls out from under the seat in the form of a sharp-clawed lizard with a matching one in her mouth.

Su dials up the volume on her headphones so loud Sherie can hear them in the front seat, and hands them to Seth. He sticks them in a pocket of his own backpack (which is stuffed nearly to bursting with books), along with both bugs.

Susannah grins. "Hope the Sheriff's secret police like symphonic goth metal."

Seth is less interested in relishing the victory than his big sister is. "Mom, you can't just ask things like that around here. You have to take precautions."

"Well, now, sweetheart, we know that," says Sherie's daemon patiently. Every generation thinks it's the first one to figure these things out. "Which is why the eyelash curler in our purse doubles as a short-range signal jammer, and why I switched it on before asking."

"But that was a good effort you two just made!" adds Sherie. "I'm so proud of you for working together like that. Seth, does this mean you've thought of something I can do after all?"

Her boy considers. "I'll ask Tamika in chem," he says at last. "But they've got stuff all planned out already. They won't want you to mess it up."

"Maybe if she just made her talk really long," suggests Susannah. "Then she wouldn't have to be involved, but it would slow the Strex people down, right?"

"And how much do you know about this plan of theirs?" asks Sherie.

It's her daughter's turn to shrug. "Not a lot. I mean, c'mon, I'm a high school senior. It's not like I'm deeply in touch with the social lives of the local seventh-graders."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Tamika is not in school today. She is not conducting drills out in the sand wastes, either. Or holed up with a book in some secret place unknown to Strexcorp. Or running a raid on any of the businesses Strex owns.

She was supposed to be returning a stack of library books this morning, and she has been sitting on the building's front stoop ever since, leaning against her buffalo daemon's flanks. They rise and fall as he breathes, steady and slow.

"I think we screwed this up, Rashi," she says listlessly.

A few minutes later, Rashi says, "Yeah."

Tamika flicks the scaly, withered claws of the librarian hand that now hangs around her neck. "Should prob'ly go tell Señor Palmero. Have 'im sneak a code in the broadcast. Tell everyone. Call it off."

"Mmhmm."

Neither of them gets up.

 

-{,(((,">

 

It takes a lot of running, yelling, and flailing with nets and pitchforks, but the team finally manages to capture and subdue all five of the Things Under The Carpet. And the only damage they did was scuffing a few walls and knocking over their fourth ugliest lamp.

Carlos looks sheepishly at the lamp's shattered remains as he puts down his pitchfork. "I think that was me. Did one of us own that, or did it come with the place? Hang on, I'll sweep it up."

He bustles off to the broom closet, looking downright energized by the chase. Henriette, meanwhile, is exhausted — a lot more than it feels like she should be. Is she getting sick? But if she says anything, there are more than a few people here who will jump to pin it on her drinking, so maybe she shouldn't risk it....

"Phew," sighs Nirliq, taking a heavy seat on the crate in which the Things Under The Carpet are squirming and wailing. Her red colobus daemon swings up to join her and leans against her side. "Does anyone else need a break after that?"

"I could use some downtime," agrees Quentin. His flying squirrel daemon is clinging to his hair. How she managed not to fall off during the hubbub is one of the great mysteries of modern physics. "Who else wants lemonade?"

While Carlos sweeps up the broken glass, the rest of the team settles down in the living room. Everyone who's still in town is there, plus Sherie's husband, although he excused himself and his laptop to another room to work on...something to do with e-commerce. Sherie herself is on the couch reading a sheaf of crayon diagrams, when Henriette settles in beside her. "Finding anything interesting?"

"I should be." Sherie frowns. "It's the strangest thing. I can't seem to focus. I don't know if it's something about the diagrams themselves, or...some other thing."

"Maybe the Sheriff's secret police switched your coffee with decaf," remarks Perle from the chair beside her. Trust Perle to jump to the most ominous explanation. "Or the Faceless Old Woman."

"Wasn't me," protests a voice from the ceiling.

"Hey, she's not the only tired one. Maybe all the coffee in Night Vale has spontaneously switched to decaf," says Nirliq. Her eyes sparkle with interest, even as she drops to a seat on the carpet and doesn't look in any hurry to get up. "Do we have equipment to do tests for that?"

"I think I've seen test strips at the Raúl's," puts in Omero. His glossy starling daemon has landed on top of the cabinet with the TV equipment, and already looks half-asleep at her perch. "Do we know how long it's supposed to be before the roads...aren't safe? We could go get some."

"Sure, we probably could," agrees Henriette. "But there's a catch."

"Yes?"

"It would mean we'd have to get up."

Quentin and Köhler come in with a pitcher of lemonade and a stack of glasses. They barely get everything set up on the coffee table before they both find places to sit. Henriette is thirsty, and the rest of them probably are too, so she makes herself take on the effort of pouring. It's a lot of effort.

Carlos, though, practically skips into the room. "Okay, the lamp is taken care of! I'm thinking we should do a round of dusting next, then vacuuming. And does anyone want to flip me for cleaning the bathroom?"

"What's 'flip me' mean?" murmurs Quentin to Perle. His English understanding is sharper every day, but he still gets tripped up by idioms on a regular basis.

"Echar un volado," translates Perle. "The loser of the coin toss has to clean the bathrooms."

Carlos frowns. "What do you mean, loser? Who wouldn't want to play with that many chemicals?"

General silence.

"Okay, how the hell are you so perky?" bursts out one of the Li Huas. Both of them are outright sprawled on the floor, one with her head resting on a pillow borrowed from the couch, the other with her head resting on the first one's stomach. "Do you have some kind of house-cleaning fetish? Was it something you ate? What's the deal?"

It settles Carlos down, though he still looks an order of magnitude more alert than the rest of them. "Sorry. I think I'm just antsy. As long as we're stuck in here, I want to be doing something."

"At least sit down for a minute," complains Henriette. "You're making the rest of us look bad."

Carlos sits. He pours himself a glass of lemonade. He has a quiet drink.

Nobody else moves.

"Okay, no pressure," he says at last, "but while you're all waiting to get your second wind, I'm going to go mow the lawn."

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

Dana is unexpectedly tired when she returns to her body, on the bloodstone-circle platform that caps the basalt fortress. Maybe her astral projection is taking more effort now that it has become more powerful.

Eustathias turns into a creature that looks like a football-sized pile of tan fur, and Dana carries her down to one of the empty rooms directly below, where her backpack and supplies are stored. Once they're stretched out on top of her bedroll, Dana finds enough energy to relate her whole conversation with Emmanuel. Not only did she speak with a friend, but she closed a time loop, which can only be good for the universe.

"He never did tell me where we were," she muses. "It was a strange building. The only thing I recognized was the portrait of Mayor Danielle DuBois on the wall."

Although she can't see Eustathias's expression through all the fur, she gets the impression her daemon is frowning. "You said it had wood paneling? And Emmanuel said it was dangerous? It sounds like the library."

"I suppose it could have been that," says Dana. "Not one of the rooms with books, but a conference room of some sort, with rare documents and artifacts protected in the covered shelves...but what would he be doing there?"

Again Eustathias changes, becoming a cat-sized creature with leathery wings, a chicken's head, and a knobbly, scaled tail. Her eyes, now that Dana can see them, are full of concern. "Didn't he tell you...?"

"Tell me what?"

"He told me about the library," remembers Eustathias. "He told me a lot of things. I thought he would have told you all the same things. Perhaps the difference is that I am a daemon. Perhaps he was more inclined to talk to me the way he would have talked to Neharah."

"Perhaps. But what did he tell you?"

"The library is poorly maintained in some ways, but very well in others. It has both heating and air conditioning, and is always a comfortable temperature, whatever the weather outside. It rarely loses power or water, even when there are outages in the rest of town. The bloodstone circle is well-constructed, and only needs someone to clean it once in a while to keep it strong."

Dana feels a strange, dizzying sense of...annoyance? No, impatience. Strange and dizzying because she has never felt this with her own daemon.

(When relating experiences to other people, has she always taken this long to get to the point? She never noticed it before. But it stands out so starkly now that she finds herself listening to a story which is told in the same way, but to which she does not already know the ending.)

"Eustathias," she says gently. "Skip to the end. Then skip back to the details that lead there."

Eustathias turns into a white-furred, doglike creature with a fluffy red tail and a red lion's mane, and bumps her cold nose against Dana's hand. "It's where he lives."

Dana catches her breath.

"Because it's a good place to live, if you have a condition that keeps your presence from disturbing the librarians," continues her daemon, curling up beside her. "Much more comfortable than a shelter. And since nobody else is truly safe from librarians, their presence will keep other people from disturbing you. There's no risk of someone stealing your things, or renting the space to someone else because they forgot their tenant existed."

"Yes. Yes, I see. It makes sense." Dana runs her hands through Eustathias's mane: embarrassed that she never thought about Emmanuel's condition deeply enough to realize this, worried that in her ignorance she might have said something that made him reluctant to tell her. "I hope he is all right, living like that. I hope there were no times when he needed help that I could have given, and I did not give it."

From her time in the dog park, she understands the discomfort of being forced to sleep in a place that is not your home, of depending on the generosity of others for food and supplies. But there is so much she cannot understand. There are people back in Night Vale who remember her existence. There is a bedroom with her name on the door, waiting for her to return to.

"We could try another projection," murmurs Eustathias. "To meet him again. To make the offer."

"Mmm."

"Or...we could take a nap."

Dana lets her eyes fall closed. "A nap sounds good."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

To the extent that she has the energy to worry, Sherie is worried. None of them have moved, except to slump into even-more-relaxed heaps on their respective items of furniture or spots of carpet, like a bunch of wax sculptures melting. Henriette slid sideways about half an hour ago, so she's leaning against Sherie's shoulder, possibly asleep.

Sherie wonders if Sam, in the next room, is collapsing in the same way. But she can't make herself get up to check.

"This is weird," mumbles Nirliq from the floor.

"Uh-huh," says Omero. "Maybe we should study it."

"Get Carlos to do it," grumbles one of the Li Huas. (The other is snoring softly. Both wren daemons are cupped in her hands, sedate little balls of feathers and fluff.)

Outside, the lawn mower grinds and rattles as Carlos pushes it past the window.

Keith's binturong daemon, sprawled across his lap like a thick blue-black fur blanket, mutters some comment in German. Keith himself is asleep in an armchair, mouth hanging open, glasses slipped precariously down the bridge of his nose.

"Should study Carlos," mutters Perle. She can still manage English, but only with a much thicker accent than usual. "Why's he immune?"

Sherie thinks this over. She thinks about it as hard as she can. At last she summons all her strength and announces her conclusion: "Theology, probably."

Eventually the radio turns itself on. Which is considerate of it, because nobody else was going to do it. On-air, his voice droning more than usual, Cecil reports that it's a lazy day all over town. Sherie is relieved, to the extent that relief doesn't take much effort.

"Si hablar me costara un poquito de energía, si no fuera un mero reflejo de mi forma viva, entonces yo mismo no hablaría tampoco," continues Cecil. "Carlos—perfectamente imperfecto Carlos—es el único que se siente industrioso hoy. Está cortando el césped y silbando. Y el césped está devolviéndole el silbido."

So...the only people in town who are powering through this day at all are Cecil, because of weird radio reasons...and Carlos?

Draped against Sherie's shoulder, Henriette mutters, "There's a great joke in this, if I had th' energy t' make it. About 'something he ate.'" She pauses, then clarifies, "A sex joke."

After a long, dragging moment, Quentin responds for the group: "Hah."

Cecil goes on to talk about Tamika Flynn conducting organized militia drills out in the sand wastes. Now this gets Sherie's interest. It gives her the strength to fight the lethargy, just for a few minutes, just enough to hang on to every word as long as Cecil is talking about something that affects her kids.

 

-{,(((,">

 

It isn't until Carlos finishes with the lawn and gets back inside that he finally clues in to the fact that something is wrong.

Nobody on the team can summon up the energy to talk, but Sherie manages to point to the radio, and Carlos listens until he thinks he can understand. This is all over town, and it's weird...but not necessarily dangerous. It might even be kind of relaxing. A nice break from all their busy routines.

If Carlos had known he wouldn't be affected, he could have planned to take advantage of it in some meaningful way. Maybe sneak into a Strexcorp establishment and sabotage their research, or make off with useful records. Trouble is, he didn't know, he's had no time to plan, and by now there's no time for him to get to any Strexcorp establishments, because the motor vehicles of Night Vale aren't operating at full speed any more than the people are.

So...he might as well go back to cleaning.

He sweeps and vacuums, in the rooms that aren't piled with people and furniture he and Isaña have no hope of moving on their own. He clears out his closet. He scrubs the bathroom, using all the chemicals it needs, and a few it doesn't.

They're doing a walk-round of the freshly-mown lawn when gravity itself starts to loosen its hold, and there's a moment of panic as Carlos and Isaña float up off the grass. It's not as fun as it sounds if you don't have any of the control or coordination that Khoshekh does. Carlos manages to grab the rain spout and maneuver himself around to grab Isaña with his legs, then knots his coat into a makeshift bag around her, holding them securely together.

"Can you pull yourself around to the front door?" asks Isaña. "Uncontrolled drifting would be a lot less risky with ceilings."

"Good plan." Carlos pulls himself hand-over-hand up the spout, so he can work his way around by clinging to the eaves. But once he's up there..."How secure are you in there?"

"Tight as can be. Why? Is there something out here we should study?"

"Lots of things," says Carlos automatically. "But I was mostly thinking that this would make it really easy to clean the gutters."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Five minutes later, the light of the sun itself starts dimming, and Carlos realizes with horror that he has completely miscalculated how normal-for-Night-Vale this is.

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

Drifting, unfocused, Dana wonders if there is any point in continuing to reach out from this world.

She has closed the time loop with Emmanuel. She knows of no other loops she is involved in. No other compelling reason to try to project herself into Night Vale, or anywhere else.

What is the point of trying?

What is the point of...well, anything?

Doing things...making effort...existing...it's just so much work.

Dana sleeps, and does not dream.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Everyone on the team is asleep, floating in the middle of the living room. The house danger meter, sitting by the door, is powered down. It's plugged in, but no longer able to draw current.

And the radio is playing static.

Carlos does a round of checking pulses, shoving his way through the air from one person to the next, feeling like a particularly inept fish. Heartbeats are still going for everyone, though Nirliq's and Köhler's are distressingly weak, and Carlos has no idea what he'll do if they fail.

"Bloodstone circle room," says Isaña. "Hurry!"

Carlos does, stopping only long enough to pick up the crayon-drawn diagrams floating around Sherie.

The bloodstones themselves are still sitting on the ground, and once Carlos is hovering over the center of the circle, he finds that with a little concentration he can make himself sink back down to their level. So far, so good. Now...now....

"Now what?" whispers Isaña.

"I don't know!" says Carlos, voice cracking. He doesn't even understand what's going on. Is it another Strexcorp scheme? He has Renée's notes, but they describe a method for closing portals — and even if that can help somehow, it calls for a whole group of trained experts. Carlos is not a trained expert! Not at anything remotely related to this.

Cecil's show has devolved into static. Cecil's show never devolves into static. Not within Night Vale's borders. You can smash a radio into dime-sized pieces and it will still happily broadcast the traffic, the weather, the dulcet tones of good night, Night Vale, good night.

Isaña struggles out of the folds of the chapel coat, and Carlos gets her into his arms, clutching her against his chest. Help me, he thinks, not addressing any person or deity in particular, just flinging a plea wildly into the void. Help me, help me, help me. I can't fix this on my own.

"— Carlos!"

Never in his life has Carlos been so relieved to see a translucent teenager. "Dana!" he breathes. "Dana, there's something going very wrong, and I don't know how to fix it — and you might not know either, but you're the only other person here — and normally not-knowing is an exciting part of experimental theology, but right now —"

"It's going to be okay, Carlos," says Dana. She is gentle, and confident, and so much more direct than he remembers. "You are a younger Carlos than the one I usually see, so whatever's going on here, we will get through this. Tell me what is going on."

"Cecil told us to stay home today," begins Carlos. "We were going to clean the house. Then my teammates started getting tired —"

"Everyone ended up falling asleep?" interrupts Dana. "Gravity stopped working? The sun is going out?"

"Yes!"

"All right. I know when this is. Scoot back a little." Carlos does, leaving room in the circle for Dana to kneel facing him, her insubstantial knees overlapping slightly with his own. "Think about how someone from your parents' religion would hold themselves when praying, and hold yourself like that."

Carlos folds his hands in front of him, fingers laced together. Dana clasps her own hands and holds them so they intersect with his.

"I am going to chant," she says, looking directly into Carlos's eyes, "and you are going to keep doing whatever you were doing when you called me. That will get us started. Later we may have to stop and do something else, but stay the course unless I tell you otherwise. Are you ready?"

"Y-yes. Go ahead."

She begins to speak.

He closes his eyes, and lets her words wash over him.

 

-{,(((,">

 

They are not alone. Other citizens of Night Vale are waiting to hear them: people who managed to get to their own bloodstone circles before the full effects of the lazy day descended, so they were shielded from the worst of it. No one else had the strength to reach out, but when Carlos reaches them, they can respond.

Carlos counts six, eight, nine — mostly adults, although one has the shimmer of a girl around Renée's age. He thinks he can feel her mentally applauding as Dana pulls her in.

No time to stop and bask in the congratulation. They reach farther.

A handful of people outside of town are waiting for them too.

Carlos has no sense of how far they're going until he recognizes — Adriana! The team's very own Adriana, now working with CERN near Geneva. It's the middle of the night there, she must be tired, but somehow she realized there was trouble in Night Vale and got to her bloodstones to help.

Most of the others are older minds, cold and steady as glaciers. Witches. Carlos recognizes none of them, and is intimidated by all. Dana simply invites them in — with a confidence far beyond her years — and they follow.

They follow.

Whatever Dana is creating runs on Rusakov currents, but the details beyond that have outstripped Carlos's perception by leaps and bounds, a geometry spiraling off through dimensions he can't grasp. Maybe if he knew the theory. If he'd seen the process expressed through equations. And, ideally, a whole lot of graphs.

Instead he strains — blood pounding in his ears, whole body hot and starting to sweat — under the golden fractal weight of something he can only hope is working.

He can't falter. No matter how painful. No matter how likely it is that he's no longer necessary for this, that Dana is driving a car now and he was just the jumper cable. He can't risk making this fail, because the world needs it to work, because Cecil needs it to work —

— and one of the ice-cold minds seals down over his own....

 

-{,(((,">

 

Henriette wakes with a start, and at first she doesn't recognize the living room. For one thing, she's on the floor. For another, all the furniture has been jolted around and rearranged, like a dollhouse that somebody picked up and shook.

"I know what you're thinking," says the voice of the Faceless Old Woman from somewhere off to the left. "But it wasn't me. I don't even like this couch. I would've taken it out back and set it on fire."

The rest of the team is strewn around the floor along with the chairs. They pick themselves up one by one, yawning, stretching. Henriette does a quick headcount: everyone here except Carlos. Last thing she remembers, he was going to organize stuff in his room....

Omero asks if anyone else feels like they got a knock on the head from whatever happened while they were asleep, and Nirliq, next to him, offers to take a look. Sherie abruptly remembers her husband, and runs off to check on him. Cecil, on the radio, announces, "Welcome back! I guess, from a crisis." Around them, lights flicker on and phones start to ring, apparently out of the sheer joy of having anbaric current again.

And Carlos stumbles in from down the hall, leaning against the wall, one coat-sleeve smeared with red from using it to wipe up a nosebleed. "Hi," he says faintly. "Did anyone die?"

"So far, so good," says Henriette, trying to gauge whether the imminent-panic phase is really over. "What happened? Is the danger past? Sit down, let me look at you — I think your ears are bleeding too."

Carlos shakes his head. "Lemme look at the sky first."

"How was it solved? How was the day saved?" asks Cecil from the speakers. After a pause, during which he apparently looks up the real answer and decides it isn't safe for Strex to hear, he launches into philosophical denial: "It wasn't. It didn't need to be. There are lulls and gaps, and rests, and stops. But this world stumbles on."

Waving off all offers of help, Carlos makes it to the window, Isaña trotting at his heels. Whatever he sees out there, it makes him sigh and relax.

"The sun flared back, the world restarted. Still bodies, blue in the gray street, gasped suddenly, and rose back into the blue-gray light of day. We wake up, we move on."

"Would you guys mind doing me a huge favor?" asks Carlos, absently wiping a trickle of blood from his left ear. "Would you deal with the local press? And any outside theologians, if they try to get in touch? Tell them everything we know. Oh, and while you're at it, say hi to Adriana for me."

"We'll get right on it," says Quentin. He's awake enough to be using English again. "But, uh. What do we know?"

"Right now? Basically nothing. You should maybe work on figuring it out, too." Carlos yawns. "There's about nine people in town who oughta know something helpful, if you can track 'em down. You get lucky, Dana will pop back in and explain. But as for me...I 'ave had a busy day, and I'm'a gonna take a nap now."

Henriette doesn't try to stop him. She does, however, grab a spare electrum spyglass from the TV cabinet to watch him go. Instead of the bright cloud she was expecting, long golden trails of Rusakov particles flow in his and Isaña's wake as they climb the stairs, like the tail feathers of some luminescent bird.

She hands the spyglass to Köhler, and, while the team passes it around, tries to gather her thoughts. "Okay. Let's see. A couple people need to go to the chapel, look at the equipment there." She rubs her temples. "Nirliq and Sherie...Sherie, get back in here!...go reconstruct everything you can about what just went down in our bloodstone circle. Someone else needs to do a pass through the outside news, figure out if the rest of the world noticed anything weird about the sun this afternoon. Oh, and Cecil's gonna show up at our door any minute now, so someone's gotta tackle him and not let him plow through to Carlos until we get a couple alethiometer readings."

Is that everything? Probably covers all the immediate stuff. If there's more, Henriette can deal with it later.

She claps her hands. "Gonna be working late tonight! You guys fight over jobs. I'll go make coffee."

When she tries to head for the kitchen, though Köhler quietly but firmly plants himself in her way. "You must get in touch with Adriana. I will prepare the drinks."

As if there was any danger of Henriette spiking the coffee. She's not getting drunk until after she has a nice long talk with her former advisee. "You do that," she grumbles, and hunts down her phone.

There are a couple of missed texts. One, from Adriana's official CERN contact number, simply says if you're still alive to get this, call me!

Another is from a number that isn't in Henriette's contacts list, but that looks oddly familiar. On a hunch, she opens it up.

In a flash she remembers. It's the sequence of digits she hand-dialed the other night: the one on the Strexcorp theologian's business card. The text from this number is even shorter than Adriana's:

FYI, that wasn't us.

 

-{,(((,">

 

"It was them."

Hundreds of eyes, including Tamika's deep and dark ones, are on the young Girl Scout with the best foresight in her generation. Hundreds of ears listen. Hundreds of children and teenagers sit around this hilltop in the sand wastes, under the glittering and distracted stars.

"What we set in motion shouldn't have gone that far. But they hijacked it," the girl continues, voice magically amplified to reach them all. (It's part of earning her Public Speaking badge.) "We gave them an opening to mess with this world, and they took it. So we can't ever try anything like that again, because they might hijack that too."

A hand goes up in the audience.

Tamika, sitting on Rashi's back on the hilltop, points to the owner: an older Scout with jet-black hair, black lipstick, and a griffon vulture daemon. In halting Spanish, she says, "You say 'openings' and 'worlds'. This means it is something about portals? Or alternate universes? Because if it is that, maybe my mom and everyone can help."

Ah, yes, this is one of the outsider theologians' kids. The one who isn't fussy around maces. "Maybe they can," says Tamika. "After the meeting, you stick around and come talk to me. Anyone here who's very into experimental theology these days? You stay too."

A teenage sharpshooter with a hawk daemon raises his hand next. When Tamika calls on him, he addresses the Scout on the hilltop (who, like, Tamika, is riding on the back of her daemon, in the form of a midnight-black horse). "I got a question. How come you didn't see this coming? Isn't that basically all we count on you for?"

The kid next to him jabs an elbow in his side to make him shut up, but the girl isn't fazed. "What poked into this world is something I can't look at. It's something nobody can look at. Could you stare directly at the sun? How about for a couple hours in a row? That's what it's like, trying to use your foresight to look at the Smiling God."

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

In spite of the disaster that was the Lazy Day, the Book Club's plans on Career Day go off without a hitch. With the help of one of the experimental theologians stalling for time, Tamika and company make off with four Strexcorp gyropters.

They don't take the prizes near any of their actual bases of operations. Can't take that risk while they don't know what kind of tracking devices these things might have. Instead they park everything in a sheltered cavern in the walls of Niton Canyon, and a dozen Scouts working on mechanical-engineering and/or spycraft badges start tearing them apart for study.

Tamika alternates between keeping a lookout and supervising the process, leading a comparative discussion on the treatments of regionalism in One of Ours versus The Country of the Pointed Firs.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Teddy Williams shines a light in Carlos's ears, tests his reflexes, takes a few drops of blood for testing, and reports that the damage is "nothing you won't recover from." He's gone and popped holes in both his eardrums, which sounds a lot worse than it is: they should heal on their own without permanent damage, and it'll only take a few days if he wears the healing charm round-the-clock.

He leaves Williams's medical office and emerges into the main body of the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex, where Cecil is waiting, playing pinball. "Good news! I don't need surgery, and the ringing in my ears should go away soon."

"Oh, that's not in your ears," says Cecil, face fixed on the machine as he smacks levers and makes things light up. "There's been a high squeaky tone all over town, on and off, since this morning. But I'm so glad for the rest of it! I really wish you would be more careful with yourself."

Carlos stands awkwardly to one side, clutching the lapels of his chapel coat. "I'll try."

The pinball machine shrieks and flashes red, letting Cecil know that he's lost. He throws himself to the side just in time to avoid having it spit fire in his face. "That isn't even close to my high score," he says crossly, before giving Carlos his full attention. "Carlos...? Is everything all right?"

Carlos swallows. "Most things are all right. But I think...based on the latest neurological research about factors that affect the chemicals related to emotion...it would really help, you know, theologically speaking...can I have a hug?"

Cecil opens his arms, and Carlos snuggles into them. His neckwear today is layers upon layers of filmy green fabric, which for some reason smells like peanut butter. For a moment Carlos just leans into it, breathing in. His Cecil. Still here.

"I screwed up, Cecil," he says, trembling. "You kept talking about how industrious I was being yesterday, but that's not true — I was being lazy. When the town is in danger I'm supposed to think of a way to help. Thinking is what an experimental theologian does! But instead I wasted time screwing around with mindless chores — while people were dying! — and there's no way to tell how close I cut it — maybe if I'd been a few minutes later, they would have been permanently dead — maybe you would have died —"

"Perhaps I would have," murmurs Cecil. Other sounds are a little muffled for Carlos right now, but his Voice is crystal-clear. "Or perhaps another solution would have presented itself. Someone else in town could have called Dana. Someone outside of town could have started a similar process. Your former teammate realized something was wrong because of theology, right?"

"S-sort of." Even Adriana isn't sure, in retrospect, if she was alerted by a real emergency or by well-timed equipment failure. The official word on the CERN website is that some of the LHC's detectors need to be temporarily shut down while parts are replaced, and it isn't like there's any other facility measuring the angular distribution of B meson decay products, so they have no way to double-check if the ratings might actually have been right.

Cecil nods. "And I know the schools where you grew up have gutted the funding for their scrying and dark magic programs, but surely there are a few people here and there who preserve the arts."

...In spite of this muddled understanding of why schools in the US don't teach magic, the overall point isn't wrong. Carlos's tense muscles relax as the logic of it sinks in. Night Vale isn't the only place on Earth with prophecies, with alethiometer-reading skills, with connections to other worlds and all the potential that implies. The odds are higher here, nothing more. None of Lyra's allies from this world were born here, and that hardly stopped them from saving it.

"The one thing I do know is that it will not help to worry about it." Cecil kneads soothing circles into Carlos's shoulders. "As Mom used to say: except for psychics and time travelers, no one is ever told what would have happened."

Carlos takes several deep breaths, then nods. "Yeah. All right, yeah."

He relaxes out of Cecil's embrace, and they leave the arcade arm-in-arm.

The mention of Cecil's mother, though, reminds Carlos of something else he's been worrying about. When he was linked to all those other minds, one of them reacted when he thought about Cecil. He's almost certain it was a witch, and it wasn't familiar enough to be Josie. He can't think of anyone else it would be except..."Listen, Cecil...."

"Hm?"

Carlos opens his mouth, but before he can admit his suspicions, a building across from the Arby's catches his eye. "Hey, didn't Dark Owl Records close? I thought they were having a going-out-of-business sale."

"They were. At the last minute, another company bought them out." Cecil's mouth sets into a hard line. "A company about whom I am contractually obligated to say only nice things."

"...Oh."

Cecil squeezes his hand. "Were you going to say something else?"

"Just that I'm going to have to work late tonight. If you want to stop by the chapel and get takeout or something, we can still eat together, but I won't be able to get back to...whoever's place we're sleeping at tonight...until bedtime."

"Then as soon as the broadcast is over, I will call you up and take your order."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Sherie returns from Night Vale Middle School with a spring in her step.

The kids applauded after her presentation. A lot harder than they applauded for the man who explained how it's important to work hard and play hard, but it's mostly important to work hard, because that's how you make money...for your company, which is even better than making it for yourself. When the assembly was over, a couple of eighth-grade girls even came up to ask Sherie about how many years it took to get the degrees she had.

And one of them slipped her the directions to a meeting place and time, written on a bookmark in an English-language paperback copy of Milton's Samson Agonistes. (The page it was marking has a couple of lines underlined: "Boast not of what thou would'st have done, but do / What then thou would'st.")

Meanwhile, the flyers she put up around town this morning have already gotten a couple of responses, from people claiming to have been involved in yesterday's sleepiness-reversing spell. "Sounds like most of them can come over on Wednesday afternoon," Sherie tells Carlos (who has promised he'll be able to recognize everyone involved, and weed out any fakers). "One young lady asked if she can bring her infant to the chapel too. Single mother, needs to know if she'll have to arrange childcare. Is that something we can handle?"

"If she's really one of the people we want to study, we can reimburse her for the cost of a babysitter," says Carlos. "As long as it's not one of your kids. Financial conflict of interest."

"My daughter isn't exactly the babysitting type." A beat later Sherie's brain catches up with what Carlos actually said. "I guess my son might be...he does have more of a subtle touch...but Seth is a lot more hesitant with all this self-defense stuff than Susannah is, and, oh, gosh, with the kinds of disasters that happen around here? Leaving an infant in the care of somebody when you can't imagine them singlehandedly fighting off a spiderwolf...it just wouldn't be responsible."

Carlos grins. "Sounds like the two of them have the makings of an unstoppable team-up."

"You know, I think they've been starting to figure that out recently," says Sherie with a chuckle. Now, if only it wasn't her and Sam they were doing most of the teaming-up against...not that she wants to complain, because at least they're fighting with each other less, and that's the bright side, which means it's what she's looking on. "And speaking of children and team-ups...."

She doesn't talk out the whole schedule with him, just leaves him with the bookmark, and heads off to let Cactus Jane know that childcare costs are taken care of.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos is trying to put together a diagram of Dana's relative timeline — comparing what she said yesterday, her appearance to Cecil on the tapes from the subway, and that vision he had a while ago, cross-referencing statements about who she's seen and what she's done — when he notices that some of his teammates are hovering outside the office.

"Hey, guys. Did you want to talk?"

"Well, yeah, but it can wait," says Quentin. Nirliq nods in agreement, and, for explanation, gestures to Carlos's speakers. They're plugged into his phone, whose FM receiver is picking up Cecil going over the traffic report.

"It's okay, really," protests Carlos. "Just because my boyfriend is on-air doesn't mean you're not allowed to talk to me. Do I seem...touchy, when people do that? Or dismissive, or something?"

"Not touchy, no! And you always make us feel like our work is important," says Quentin. Carlos isn't sure if he makes a conscious effort to be diplomatic most of the time to make up for how snappish he gets when someone is Wrong About Theology, or if he's just naturally warm and earnest, and people being Wrong is the one thing that gets under his skin.

"It's just that while Cecil's on, you're...easily distracted," finishes Nirliq. Not being accusing, just direct. "It's fine. We'll wait for the weather."

A few minutes later, the broadcast cuts to a pretty flute melody, and Quentin pulls out his tablet.

"First of all, do you ever look at the data from the chapel magnetograph? I would understand if you don't. It's not involved in any of the projects we're currently working on."

"I don't," admits Carlos. "Remind me again why we bought it?"

Quentin looks sheepish. "Well...."

Nirliq steps in. "We have it because a rich guy was throwing free money at us, and as long as I was getting expensive lasers, we figured Quentin deserved a superconducting quantum interference device. And in a minute you're going to be glad we have it. Just look at the graph, okay?"

Carlos looks. He isn't familiar with the units, but the timestamps are clear enough. Every line takes a dizzying plunge yesterday afternoon, before clawing its way back up to the average not long after Dana appeared. "That sure is...striking. What does it mean?"

"A major weakening in the Earth's magnetic field," says Quentin. "Now, it does have some natural variation, and it's been on a downward trend over the last couple of centuries...but if this is right, it lost between seventy-two and seventy-five percent of its strength in a period of half an hour. You know what that should mean for the planet?"

"If you don't, Quentin promises he'll explain," adds Nirliq. "In small, friendly words."

Carlos scoops Isaña into his lap. "I couldn't tell you all the theological implications, no. Although I know they would be bad."

Quentin glances at Nirliq. "I'm allowed to use bigger words than 'bad', right?"

The picture he ends up painting is a grim one. The geomagnetic field protects the planet from solar wind and cosmic radiation. If it lost this much strength, even for a short time, the Earth should have been bombarded with enough high-energy particles to fry all their anbarics, kicking humanity back to the Bronze Age before leaving it to die a slow death from radiation poisoning.

"Okay, I don't know if there's any way to retroactively test this, but I have a theory," says Carlos slowly. "Let's say it's all accurate. The magnetic field in Night Vale got sleepy, or the anbaromagnetic-wave equivalent of sleepy, and stopped working like it usually does. What if the solar particles that hit us also got sleepy? They made it into town, but by the time they got here they were too tired to do any damage?"

Quentin blinks. "Huh. That actually makes sense."

"Not that it would need to," adds Nirliq. "We could just as easily chalk it up to typical Night Vale weirdness. The readings say we should be dead, and yet here we all are...must be a day ending in Y."

(There's a pause while Quentin runs through the English names for days of the week under his breath.)

"But then I asked Quentin if we could get hard data on how weird it was compared to the rest of the world...."

"...and I said, yes, what do you think INTERMAGNET is for? Carlos, you know what INTERMAGNET is, right? Please say yes, because I have money riding on this."

"Global network of magnetic observatories," says Carlos promptly. He's never worked with them directly, but one of their institutions was on Quentin's résumé, so he looked them up a while back. "They coordinate their data, make it all available in a standardized format...."

He trails off, suddenly worried, Unlike the Large Hadron Collider, this group collects readings from over a hundred different facilities. If one fails, or even if several fail at the same time, the overall picture won't be compromised.

Quentin takes the tablet, clicks a few settings, and hands it back to him.

More graphs. In the same units, during the same timeframe. But these are labeled with the names of cities...and the nearest one Carlos sees to Night Vale is Black Hill, more than five hours' drive away. They're not all in Hispania Nova; they're not even all on the continent of New Denmark. Hornsund is on Svalbard — one of the many theological outposts that are only allowed by treaty with the panserbjørne. Novosibirsk is somewhere in Muscovy. Honolulu is on some tiny island country in the middle of the Peaceable Ocean.

And every single one of them takes the same dizzying plunge.

Nirliq breaks the silence. "So...what do we do with this, boss?"

"We tell the rest of the team," says Carlos softly. "We tell the rest of the anbaromagnetic-field-theory community that this is a Night Vale thing. A lot of them will probably assume we're out of our minds, but they deserve to have the information in hand, in case it happens again. And then...we pray to THE BROWNSTONE SPIRE that it never, ever happens again."

 

-{,(((,">

 

The directions on the bookmark lead to an old mine entrance, with rusted trolley tracks leading down a tunnel that rapidly becomes pitch-black. Rather than walk straight in, Carlos and Sherie both pull out electrum spyglasses to check out what they're getting into.

A handful of figures are waiting in the shadows. Different sizes. Different Rusakov concentrations. None of them look malicious to Sherie, although some of the unsettled children are dim enough that it's hard to tell.

The theologians approach, daemons keeping close at their heels.

Once they're fully out of the sunlight, an unseen child speaks from the darkness. "Turn into the cavern at your left. Take twenty paces, then stop."

Sherie links arms with Carlos so they don't lose each other, and counts under her breath.

When she gets to fourteen, the voice exclaims, "No, stop now!"

"I told you you should've made someone taller count the paces," adds a different voice. "I told you!"

An older child sighs. "Just do the lights."

Candles flare to life.

Sherie and Carlos are surrounded by about a dozen children...no, she does a quick headcount, exactly thirteen children. (Assuming the detached adult man's hand down there is a child.) Their faces and figures are concealed by hooded cloaks, most of which look like old sheets with holes cut in them. Some have matching pillowcases covering their daemons. None of them are Tamika Flynn; her buffalo daemon would be pretty hard to disguise.

"Experimental theologians...." The speaker, a teenage boy with some kind of bird daemon, clears his throat and tries again, this time with an affected deep voice. "Experimental theologians, it has come to our attention that you want to support the Night Vale Young Readers Book Club. You can work with us, but under our conditions. We will decide when and where to meet with you. You will not know our real names, only code names."

"Mine is Skywalker," chimes in a kid whose cloak is printed with Star Wars characters.

"Mine is Agent Jupiter!" pipes up another.

"Mine is Shadowraven."

"It is not! I called Shadowraven. I have dibs!"

"See, this is why we should've done numbers," complains a girl who sounds close to Susannah's age, with a frog daemon sitting at her feet. "Nobody would've fought over numbers."

"As long as I get four!" pipes up the child to her left. "'Cause I'm four."

"Can I talk for a second?" Carlos holds up his hands for attention. "I think —"

"It's been a second," interrupts one of the Shadowravens.

Carlos sighs. "Technically true. Can I keep talking for a few more minutes?"

The kids mutter and look around at each other, until the boy with the faux-deep voice says, "You may."

"Thanks." Carlos sinks down to one knee so he's closer to the group's average eye level, and motions for Sherie to do the same. "Code names sound like a great idea. But they need to be short, so it won't take too long to include them when you're sending secret messages. For example: you, young lady." He addresses the detached hand, whose daemon is next to her in the form of a black cat's paw. "You can be Agent M."

The detached adult man's hand, which had been "standing" on her fingers, rolls over on her side and gives him a thumbs-up.

"And you," he continues, addressing a girl with four eye-holes cut in her cloak. "We can call you Agent R."

Sherie wonders for a moment if Carlos is going to recognize every one of these kids. Fortunately, he doesn't need to; they catch on to the pattern and volunteer their own agent names. There's a brief crisis when two of them lay claim to the title of Agent J; Carlos saves the day by dubbing them J1 and J2.

"Didn't know you were this good with kids," murmurs Sherie in English. "I'm impressed."

"Hey!" exclaims Agent R, in the same Spanish as the rest of the group. "No talking in code allowed unless it's by us."

Carlos nods. "Por supuesto. Please accept our apologies. Now, Agents, what can we help you with?"

"We are going to draw you some...things," rumbles the boy with the bird daemon, now dubbed Agent L. "And you're going to look at them, and tell us some...stuff. And it will all be very theological. Okay, who has the crayons?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

Once Carlos finally starts to feel caught up with work again, he spends a morning down at City Hall. Not looking up fire codes, municipal zoning laws, dueling regulations, or any other statutes he's worried about his team running afoul of...but with Cecil, filing the updated versions of their wills.

It's the most morbidly romantic thing he's ever done.

"They probably have the original copies of the ones I did when I was younger, back in the archives," remarks Cecil. "Do you want to see?"

Carlos hesitates. "That depends. Are the archivists in this town anything like the librarians?"

"Oh, gosh, no! Archivists are much smaller, and easily frightened by bright lights. If we take in a couple of camping lanterns, they'll probably be too shy to ever get near us."

Turns out there are lanterns available at a kiosk outside the iron gates to the climate-controlled stacks, along with pitchforks, night-vision goggles, and (in a padlocked cupboard labeled EMERGENCIES ONLY) a variety of archival-quality acid-free pens. Carlos and Cecil rent a lantern each, make their way through the iron gates and the stone doors beyond, and find themselves in a cool, dark room packed with a labyrinth of metal shelves.

Khoshekh isn't with them, so it's up to Carlos to read the labels printed on the ends of the shelves (and/or describe their symbols, until Cecil hears enough detail to recognize them). Based on the reading, Cecil leads them around corners and through tunnels. At last he exclaims "Ah-hah!" and cranks one of the shelves aside, opening an aisle so long Carlos can't see the end.

Shy or not, the archivists have kept the place well-organized. It only takes Carlos a moment to find the box with the number Cecil told him to look for, and when he sets his lamp on the edge of its shelf and opens it up, there's a folder with PALMERO, CECIL / חשֶך typed neatly on the label. "Looks like this is yours."

"Oh, good," says Cecil...but doesn't reach for it. "Just out of curiosity...who else's folders are in here?"

If Cecil asks him to dig through someone else's private papers, Carlos is going to decline...but he doesn't feel bad about just looking at the names. There are eight total, going from PAGET, SADIE / ROCHDALE to PALMERSTON, MARIA / ZÁYAS. Only one is unidentifiable: the folder directly after Cecil's, which is jet-black and sealed shut with duct tape.

"That'll be Mom's," says Cecil with a nod. "Is there any chance something might be missing?"

Carlos checks the content list in the front of the box. This, at least, is written in plain Spanish and has only minor burns around the edges, so he doesn't need help to interpret it. "There's a chance, sure, but only in the sense that almost anything is theologically possible. If someone took your brother's file, they reprinted the finding aid afterward, so there's no evidence."

Cecil says nothing.

"If that's what you were looking for!" adds Carlos. "I didn't mean to assume...."

"Let's see what's in mine," says Cecil briskly, plucking it out of the group and flipping it open. "This file on top should be the latest version. Does it have a grade, or is that the one under it?"

It's a blatant subject change, but Carlos rolls with it. They sit shoulder-to-shoulder in the aisle, leaning against the shelves and turning over pages. Sure enough, the second set of papers has a big red 88% inked across the top, along with a scrawled comment from a teacher. (Did this fall under Night Vale Community College's exemption from the writing-utensil ban, or was it long-enough ago that pens were still legal?) And underneath it is a third....

"That's NVCR letterhead," breathes Cecil.

Sure enough, the name of the station is lightly embossed across the top of the front page. Carlos turns to the end: there's Cecil's signature on one line, the name Leonard Burton in loopy script on another, and, on a third, a pulsing splotch of void that hurts Carlos's eyes to look at. "I guess this is the one you had to make when you got the intern job."

"I guess so." Cecil picks it up to give the signatures a closer look.

One last piece of paper slips away from under it and flutters to the floor.

Isaña catches it, and brings it carefully back. It's a single sheet, older and more frayed than the others, on cheap printer paper — in fact, there's a classroom vocabulary worksheet printed on one side. Carlos scans the vocab words (organism, adamant, mesmerized, spectre, pulsing, heartbeat, heartbeat, heart, beat, beat, beat, and foundation, nothing unusual there) before taking a look at the back.

"It's hand-written," he murmurs to Cecil. "Can you see it? I think that's crayon."

"Can't see a word." The handwriting of adults generally shows up for Cecil, but the writing of unsettled children is much fainter, and this was certainly written long before he and Khoshekh settled. "And of course I don't remember creating it, but that's hardly surprising. Gosh. Who did I leave things to?"

"Looks like...hm, you let your mom keep your clothes. How generous," says Carlos warmly. Dear lord, this is adorable. "Earl Harlan gets your toys. And, um, something called the Little Reporter’s Book of Big-Boy Note Taking."

Cecil giggles and cuddles against his shoulder. Like they're on a couch in their very own den, instead of on a cold stone floor in a thicket of dark shelves. "I do remember that! So I must have been at least five when I wrote this. Mom got me the book to celebrate, when the City Council revealed I was the next destined Voice of Night Vale."

"That's...."

Carlos trails off, as he finally reads the next line of uneven green writing. (It's all green except at the very end, when Cecil must have either lost or used up the crayon, and switched to purple.)

"Um, Cecil? What's a...'sifferburg'?"

"Silfurberg?"

"That could be what you were trying to spell, yeah."

"It's a kind of rock," says Cecil, puzzled. "Mostly found in Iceland. That chunk of rock I found in the back of my closet could've been silfurberg, now that you mention it. I must've thought it was really cool when I was little. Why, who did I leave it to?"

Carlos swallows. This is misspelled too, but he can parse it into recognizable Spanish words. "Your big brother."

 

-{,(((,">

 

At first Cecil accepts Carlos's offer to come along for the rest of his errands. Then, when they reach the bank (which has wisps of green, onion-scented smoke leaking out from behind the doors, and large serpentine shapes visible behind the tinted glass), he hesitates. "Are you sure you want to do this, Carlos? I'm sure you have other things to do that aren't so...."

Ominous? Threatening? Marked by exhausting physical combat?

"...boring."

"No, this definitely looks as interesting as anything else I might be working on today," says Carlos with perfect honesty. "Is the bank always like this?"

Cecil shrugs. "I've only been here once or twice since management — that is, our previous management — started doing direct deposit, so I honestly couldn't tell you. The molding looks new, I think?"

Carlos shares a frown with Isaña. "Wait, Strexcorp has stopped doing direct deposit? If they're so into efficiency, why would they switch you from an automatic system to physical checks?"

"Not even a check! Cash," says Cecil. "Don't ask me to explain it. Administrators do strange things sometimes. I remember one week, our previous management paid the whole staff entirely in snails! I can only assume it makes sense if you have an accounting degree."

Maybe it does. Maybe this is taught in Econ 101 at Night Vale Community College, and these pangs of suspicion Carlos is feeling are completely mis-aimed. But. But asking questions is part of being an experimental theologian. "Would it be okay if I took a look at one of the bills?"

"If you like, sure." Cecil pulls a well-stuffed envelope out of his bag, tears the end open, and thumbs a bill off the top of the pile.

It's the right size. The right kind of paper. To Cecil's senses, it would look and feel just like the currency he's used to. And even for Carlos, at a casual glance, the colors and the layout give him the impression that it's something to spend. But it is not any denomination of Spanish dollar bill produced by the government of Hispania Nova.

"Carlos...?"

"It isn't," says Carlos. "Cash, I mean. It isn't real money, it's — well, this one says Redeemable for HN$20 worth of Merchandise and/or Services at any Strexcorp Business or Subsidiary. They're paying you in company credit."

"Oh," says Cecil.

A long pause.

"Well, that certainly complicates my policy of only shopping at locally-owned businesses," says Cecil at last. "But hey, at least this means I don't have to fight the basilisk that guards the ATM, right?"

"That sure is convenient," agrees Carlos, trying to sound as upbeat and reassuring as possible. "And at least it won't stop you from paying your biggest expenses, given that...um, that you already live in...a Strex-owned...."

He trails off. Cecil's face is turning slightly grey.

Isaña nudges Carlos's leg to be picked up, which Carlos can do entirely on autopilot, or he wouldn't have had the focus to do it at all. Once she's in his arms and closer to their boyfriend's eye level, she says, "Cecil, I have a hypothesis that it would be good if you stopped talking about our relationship developments on the radio."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Henriette is lounging on the back steps of the larger rental house, looking at the stars and trying to figure out if there's a single familiar constellation out tonight, when Nirliq comes out of the next house over. "Hey there. Mind if I join you?"

"Be my guest."

Nirliq's red colobus daemon rides on her shoulder, long tail swinging in a curl behind them. Now that they're off work for the day, she's put on a nice blouse and some jewelry. Henriette (feeling underdressed in a tank top and jeans) scoots to the end of the step and pats the stone beside her; the grad student takes the seat, resting her chin on folded hands.

It's a surprisingly nice night, fake constellations and all. A warm breeze blows over them. The grass hums.

"I was thinking about quitting," remarks Nirliq.

"Oh?" Henriette is surprised. Maybe she shouldn't be. Sure, Nirliq is the most enthusiastic about getting to work with lasers, and is the only one who always finds it cool instead of annoying the first time they encounter something like the emergency dream broadcast system...but she's still a rational adult human being. She knows how to do a realistic calculation of reward versus risk.

Nirliq nods. "Got serious enough that I started talking with Quentin about whether we could still collaborate on the electrum lenses long-distance. That's when we looked up the geomagnetic field data — and realized that inexplicable, should-be-fatal phenomena aren't just for Night Vale any more."

"Not necessarily fatal," points out Henriette. "Could've been equipment failure."

"If it was one or two instances, sure. But all the magnetograms across the planet failing at once? That is by definition not normal. And what if next time it's all the pacemakers, hm? Or all the air traffic control towers?"

"...I didn't even think of that."

"It was the first thing I thought of," admits Nirliq. "There's something trying to get this world — maybe because we're Dr. Belacqua's world, maybe because we just happened to be next on their hit list, I don't know — and Night Vale may be the front lines of this war, but that doesn't mean anywhere else is safe. Not really." She runs her hands through her dark hair with a groan. "Ugh. Any chance you have a drink around?"

Henriette was just thinking Nirliq looked like she could use one. Her alpine marmot daemon rolls over, so she can grab the bottle of Night Vale single malt he'd been sitting on. "It's almost full. Have at it."

"Thank you, I will." Nirliq takes it —

— and hands it to her colobus, whose long limbs carry him up the side of the house in an instant. On the edge of the roof, he twists off the cap and starts pouring it out onto the grass.

"What — hey!" exclaims Henriette's daemon while she gapes, brain scrambling to catch up with what just happened. "Give that back!"

"I just said we're on the front lines of a war," says Nirliq firmly. "Which means that anybody who can't deal with that shouldn't be here. Now, all the locals have been training to face off against unimaginable danger since they learned to walk — to the point where a seventh-grader is running the most competent resistance group in town." She waves in the direction of the nearest bush and switches to Spanish: "Congratulations, by the way! You raised that girl well."

"We're very proud of her!" replies the bush in kind. "I'd promise to pass on the compliment, but she hasn't been home for a month, so I can't say when I'll get the chance."

Back in English, Nirliq continues: "And then there's us. I know we can't all be like Carlos, who's taken to this place like a witch to the sky, but at least nobody else here is sneaking around hiding bottles. So what's the deal, Henriette? Are you going to keep pretending like you can cope when you can't, or are you going to pull it together and be ready for this war?"

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

Carlos grabs a bag of potato rolls and tosses it into the shopping cart, adding it to the milk, potato chips, eggs — no not those eggs — the other eggs, iguana cutlets, and decorative pebbles. "What's next on the list?"

"Yogurt," reports Henriette, reading from her phone screen. "Aisle 5. Perle wants coffee-flavored, Quentin wants bell pepper, the Li Huas want blueberry and copper."

Carlos pets the handle of the cart, and it purrs in appreciation before trundling through the Raúl's, past the humming refrigeration units along the back wall and the comforting crackling flames of Aisle 12.

Neither of them has said anything non-grocery-related all trip. Carlos isn't sure if he should try, or if it would be better to just go on pretending they don't both know this is mostly to keep Henriette occupied, while the rest of the team finds and removes anything alcoholic from the chapel and their homes.

Henriette insists it's only detoxing. The amount she's been drinking compared with her body mass indicates that she's been physiologically desensitized. Basic biology.

Carlos isn't sure if he believes her, or if he's just afraid to hypothesize that there might be an emotional component. Because if it's the latter, the logical experiment would be for her to go to counseling...and Night Vale's mental health services are run by cats. That's not a metaphor. Carlos went to one of the clinics last January (hoping that he could talk around the secret-police observation enough to get some help with his nightmares), filled out an intake form, and was told to crumple it up so the therapist could bat it around for ten minutes before falling asleep in a sunbeam for the rest of the session.

"By the way, Sherie offered wanted to know if the US expats on the team were doing anything for Thanksgiving," says Henriette, interrupting his thoughts. "We didn't last year, but I think that was mostly because it was right after the wheat and wheat by-products fiasco, so nobody wanted to deal with stuffing and bread crumbs."

"I didn't have any plans," admits Carlos. Without the standard barrage of ads for turkey sales and food bank collection drives that heralds Thanksgiving in the US, or the standard plastic-sheeting sales and recruitment of volunteers to open their homes temporarily to refugees that precede any major holiday in Night Vale, he had forgotten it was even coming up. "But if she wanted to organize something, I'm happy to help cook."

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

"I miss food."

"So do I," says Eustathias, in the form of a chicken-sized feathery lizard curled up in Dana's lap. "Or rather, I miss meals. The togetherness. The sense of the connection."

"The table," adds Dana, leaning dreamily against the basalt wall. "That one Abuelo had, I mean. With all the carvings. You remember?"

Eustathias sighs. "That was an amazing table."

It isn't that Dana wants to complain. She's very lucky that her body seems to have stopped needing food and water. If this hadn't happened, she would have expired of dehydration long before finding her daemon again.

But the reunion with Eustathias has thrown into sharp relief all the other things Dana misses. People. Places. Activities. The very act of the passage of time.

"I miss Abuelo. And Mamá, and our brother," she adds, belatedly thinking that her family should have a place on this list.

This perks Eustathias up. "I have an idea. Why don't we work on trying to visit them?"

"What?"

"Or rather, on sending you to visit them," amends Eustathias. "Unless we can develop the ability to send me through astral projection as well. That's another idea! We can work on both ideas at once."

"I don't know," begins Dana...but even as she says it, she isn't sure what it is that she does not know. She has discovered nothing new that she might try to report back to Cecil. She has closed the time loop she was working so hard to address. There is no duty standing before her, no direction to guide her...no reason for her not to try doing something purely for herself.

Eustathias turns into a small monkey-like creature, with green fur and tufts of orangey-yellow hair on the top of her head, and climbs into the pocket of Dana's hiking shorts. "Is something wrong? Are we scared?"

"No," decides Dana, and ascends the stairs to the bloodstone circle platform with Eustathias riding in her pocket. There are so many things in all the worlds to be scared of, but this is not one of them.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (???).

On her very first try at reaching her family, Dana appears in a room that looks just like the house she grew up in.

There is a crowd of people here, but they are nothing like the crowd in the auditorium from her mis-aimed manifestation so long ago. This time, the people are accompanied by daemons. This time, there is human warmth and excitement on every face.

And this time, she does not go unnoticed.

"Intruder!" yells a person dressed all in black, from sneakers to balaclava. Someone else hits an alarm, setting off flashing violet lights and angry chirping. The ordinary people cry out and back away from her, frightened and confused, while more people in black push through the crowd to converge around her.

"It's okay! It's just me. Just Dana Cardinal!" cries Dana, as the Sheriff's secret police (or so she hopes) back her up against a wall. She tries to back through the wall, but finds she cannot. "I'm not here to hurt anyone. I am not a threat!"

"Someone reinforce the wards!" orders an officer with a screech-owl daemon and a silver star pinned to their chest, addressing the others but aiming a blowdart gun at Dana. "Whoever was in charge of those is fired. I don't know how it got in, but it is not getting out!"

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (definitely).

Sherie is going to have nightmares about crayon drawings tonight, she just knows it.

Sometimes she can't figure out what the kids were getting at. Other times, the only explanation that makes any sense is also theologically impossible — and not in the "typical local paradox" way, in the "you seem to have spelled a couple of words wrong" way. And sometimes, well....

"I don't think we should second-guess any of it," says Carlos, when she first brings up her concerns. "These are the experts we're dealing with."

"They know a lot, I'm not denying it," says Sherie. "But they're still children. Teenagers at most! They're not adult colleagues sending you standardized data collected under the oversight of a review board. I don't think half of them have any idea about the theology behind what they've done. You wouldn't assume someone knows how to calculate the projectile curves for different levels of atmospheric resistance just because they're a great Little League pitcher."

"We can't write off what they're saying just because they're young," protests Carlos. "Believe me, I understand the temptation to dismiss things as errors or tampering when you don't see how they can be true! But these kids are incredibly skilled, smart, and focused, and —"

Sherie hands him a pre-chosen sheet of paper, and points to a series of lines and curves drawn on one side in purple crayon.

"Um," says Carlos, knocked back from earnest to flustered almost instantly. "Well, ah. I can see how, at first glance, that might seem...extraneous. But...."

"Carlos." Sherie folds her arms. "That is not a geometric representation of anything with deep theological relevance. That is a crude cartoon drawing of a penis."

Carlos sighs. "...I am beginning to appreciate your point."

 

-{,(((,">

 

It's later that afternoon when Cactus Jane comes to visit.

Jane is stunning, friendly, forthcoming...and eager to know if the experimental theologians have heard the good news about "the all-powerful beams that guide our lives, our hearts, our souls." Sherie has to keep politely steering her back into talking about the tests, focusing on the bloodstone circle around her, and trying to re-establish a connection with Carlos in the circle on the other side of the chapel.

(Jane's daemon, for the record, is a cactus. A literal, squat, basketball-sized lump of a cactus, with yellow spines and a tuft of yellow flowers on top. He rides in a special compartment in the baby's stroller when they're out together, and has a small wheeled cart of his own for times like this.)

Nirliq, Quentin, and Keith all pitch in to do the readings and get things on film. Sherie knows they're all thinking about the message Carlos got from this Dana person, not last week, but a couple of months back. Use all the bloodstones. Now that they know you can link multiple circles together, it sure seems like that's what she was getting at.

But even when (if?) they figure out how multi-circle connections work...what exactly are they supposed to use them for?

When their study time is up, Carlos peppers Jane with questions: some layperson-friendly, some not. Poor Jane does her best to answer, but within ten minutes she's bewildered and clearly starting to get distressed. Again Sherie steers the conversation, this time to the subject of Jane's little boy, and they wind down the meeting by relaxing with several dozen photos of a blue-eyed baby with a foreign face and a handsome, but terrible, beard.

"She's not a theological expert either," says Sherie quietly to Carlos after they've seen Jane out. "Just a sweet young woman who found herself in the middle of a prayer at the right time to be helpful."

Carlos sighs. "I know. I see that now. It's just that we only have so many leads here, you know? I don't want to miss anything."

"Carlos, I don't mean to be critical, because lord knows I understand the two of you were in a stressful situation the last time you saw each other...but surely your friend could have passed on a little more detail while she was here? She was from the relative future of the last version of her you saw, right?"

"...yeah, I was upset about that at first too," admits Carlos. "But it's like you've been saying — she's another non-expert. And she's a kid too, she's only sixteen or seventeen."

It gives Sherie a start. Had she known before that Dana was Susannah's age?

Either ignoring her surprise or oblivious to it, Carlos continues: "I don't think she could give us enough detail to successfully reverse-engineer whatever-it-is, even if she wanted to. We have to figure this out from scratch if we want to understand it enough to use it successfully. And if that means sometimes our research goes down the wrong track...well, the alethiometer wouldn't give us any specifics either, just said we had to do experimental theology. Wrong tracks are an important part of experimental theology."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (???).

"Officers, stand down!" orders a voice from the far side of the panicking crowd.

The stoic, blowdart-gun-wielding, ominously-chanting secret police surrounding Dana do not stand down. They do at least stop chanting, but their bodies remain in formation, their weapons aimed at Dana.

For her part, even though she is a ghost and unlikely to be in danger, Dana stands very still and keeps her hands in the air.

The civilians, though: they begin to move aside, letting someone through.

A moment later, that someone breaks through the crowd: an unfamiliar woman in an unfamiliar suit and half-moon glasses. She has short, natural hair, and the bearing of someone important. Someone with authority. Someone in such a position that, if this is Dana's own Night Vale, Dana should have heard of them.

"I said stand down," repeats the woman. She glows with confidence. The police lower their weapons and shuffle backward. "Everyone, stop panicking! Didn't I tell you this would happen? It's okay! It's okay."

She holds up her hands, and the crowd quiets. She turns to Dana, and she smiles.

Oh.

"I told them this would happen," repeats the future Dana gently. "I told them you would be here. I am sorry Eustathias could not be — there is so much for us to do! — but you will be going right back to her soon, won't you? So it's all right."

She opens her arms, and the present Dana — or rather, the past Dana, for this is not her relative present — steps forward. They can touch. They embrace.

The fear of the crowd has changed to wonder, and now two more people are making their way through. With a start the teenage Dana recognizes her mother and her big brother, also much older than the ones she remembers, their expressions fading from apprehension to relief and joy when their eyes fall on her.

"Stay with the bloodstone circle for now," whispers the elder Dana in her ear. "Use it to help you focus, and go wherever it takes you. You will give messages to some people, and receive messages from others — sometimes the same people, sometimes not. And one day you will get the message that lets you know where to go next."

Shaking with emotion, the younger Dana nods. She's always going somewhere, isn't she? But one day she won't have to go. She will just be, in the place that she is. In a time and space that stays in line with those of the people around her.

She is already blinking out of this time and place, but not so quickly that she cannot hug her family before she goes.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (present).

When Carlos's phone makes its "someone is trying to reach you on Skype" noise in the line at the White Sand, Cecil starts pouting almost instantly. Carlos pulls it out of his pocket to switch it off — they have so little time here as-is, on Cecil's highly-regulated lunch break — but stops short when he sees the caller's screenname. "Sorry, Cecil! I have to take this."

He takes the call on the way out the door, and emerges into the hot desert sun just as his mother's face appears on the screen, with her raccoon daemon sitting by the keyboard so he appears in the frame beside her. "Carlos, ¡mi tesoro! It worked! Your baby sister will be so proud. She's here for her vacation, and I said, parajito, you must teach me once and for all how the Skype works. I don't care if it takes all week."

"That's great, Mamá," says Carlos warmly. "And, listen, even if you lose the call, don't assume you did anything wrong, okay? The Internet is really spotty around here. Is Azalea with you right now?"

"No, she and your father are out shopping. But you made me promise to call when your package arrived."

"It came? Fantastic." Carlos had been half-convinced it would make itself impossible to deliver. "Have you opened it yet?"

"I have! Are they a decoration? Or...something else?"

"Carlos?" interrupts Cecil, coming up behind him. "What on earth is going on?"

Carlos stutters, abruptly self-conscious. In preparation for Christmas, he's already sent Mamá and some others a short list of pointers on How To Cope With Cecil. (Everything from "he's visually impaired, so don't expect him to read any text unless his daemon is around" to "please don't freak out about the fact that sometimes his daemon won't be around.") But he has yet to give Cecil any information on How Not To Scare The Family.

"Oh! Are you in the middle of something?" exclaims Mamá. "I don't want to interrupt."

"I was about to start lunch," admits Carlos. "Cecil, it's my mother. Mamá, it's fine, the whole reason I asked you to call is that it's important! Cecil understands that sometimes things are important."

His mother looks like she can't decide whether to be thrilled or horrified. "This is the boyfriend? If I had known he would be here, I would have put on something nicer than sweatpants! And my hair, it must be such a mess —"

"Impossible," cuts in Cecil, with all the gravitas of his most solemn on-air pronouncements. "Admittedly, I cannot see it on-screen, so I have no direct evidence to the contrary. But all the related genetic evidence in the form of experience with Carlos's hair indicates that it cannot be any less than stunning."

"Oh, my," says Mamá. "Does he always sound like that? I think this one is a keeper, quirquinchito."

Carlos's face gets hot from the roots of his hair all the way down his neck, while Isaña rolls up tight enough to hide her face. Partly because oh god our mom thinks our boyfriend is hot (which is probably better than the alternative, but still), and partly because of Cecil's muffled noise of glee at Mamá calling them lil' armadillo. "He is, in my experience, always wonderful, yes. About the heliotrope — it's not decorative, no. It's more...protective. You have to set the stones up in a circle — I'll walk you through how to do it."

"Well, tesoro, this is certainly very thoughtful of you," says his mother. "Is it like that healing crystal jewelry your sister wore so much of back in college?"

Carlos sighs. "I realize that it looks like that, okay? But it's way more complex and theological, for reasons that I do not have time to explain right now."

 

-{,(((,">

 

He gets through the entire setup, and the first sentence of his reassuring you probably won't even need this, it's just to be safe speech, before the call cuts off. No Signal (Sorry) reads the text across the screen of the phone.

"Thank you," he says to Cecil. "For being patient. How much time before you have to go?"

Cecil checks his watch. "Seven minutes, maybe? Not that I'm upset! Not this time. I wouldn't have wanted to get in the way! Do you think your mother liked me? What am I missing about sweatpants?"

"I think you made a great first impression...um, sweatpants?"

Cecil reminds him of Mamá's self-conscious comment about her attire, and so Carlos tries to explain his hometown's parameters for when this particular item of clothing is socially acceptable to wear. At first his boyfriend listens and nods, intent on soaking it all in; but when Carlos mentions that there are also standards of color and size, Cecil looks heartbreakingly overwhelmed. "Dear, helpful, sartorially literate Carlos — when it comes time to pack for this trip, will you help pick out my wardrobe?"

"I would love to," says Carlos. Maybe a little too quickly. "That is...not that I think there's anything wrong with your regular clothes! You should feel free to wear sweatpants or furry pants or anything else you want, whenever you feel like it. Even if it isn't 'normal'."

"But I only wear those things when they are normal!" protests Cecil. "Do you see me wearing furry pants to go bowling? Or skinny jeans at the opera? I don't want to show up at your family's home dressed in something your culture thinks is as inappropriate for meeting your boyfriend's parents as...as putting on sequins for recreational screaming in terror at the void! It isn't that I'm not proud of my culture, Carlos, but I don't want to spend this visit being the quirky Hispanian tourist. I just want to look as boring and mundane to your family as I do to everyone here at home."

Carlos resists the instinct to say you could never look boring. It's true, but not the reassurance Cecil is looking for. "Then I'll help out in any way I can."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Outside of time and space.

The subway car is dim and odd-smelling, with the great brass pipes and mills of some otherworldly industrial district churning and rusting outside the windows as it speeds along its track.

Cecil is wearing olive-green flared pants, a T-shirt with lots of sequins, a red-and-white-striped scarf, and an oversized blue plastic bowler hat printed with the logo of a sports team Dana does not recognize. The mobile broadcasting equipment is crouched on the floor by his feet. At first Dana thinks she is accidentally intruding on another show...except that Cecil is staring directly at her, his features at once fearful and hopeful, as she fades in.

"Hello?" says Dana hopefully.

Grabbing one of the subway bars, Cecil pulls himself to his feet. "Dana?"

"Cecil!" exclaims Dana. "You can see me? Hear me?"

"Yes!" He takes a few halting steps forward, reaching for her without seeming to know it. "Dana, how did you get here? How can I —"

He stops. This close, Dana can see that he is much more disheveled than she is used to, with rumpled clothes and mussed hair.

"Oh," he says softly, face falling. "I see. Astral projection. You are not, strictly speaking, here at all."

"That's right, Cecil. But at least we can still talk!" says Dana, trying to lift his spirits. "That is a step up from the last time our paths crossed. You were in your booth at the station. You looked much the same as you do now, perhaps with a few more lines around your eyes, and there was more white in your hair. I did not want to interrupt the broadcast...but it turned out not to matter, because you couldn't even tell I was there."

Again, that wary hope. "You saw a broadcast? Do you remember what I was talking about?"

Dana describes the broadcast, as much as she remembers before her own voice overwrote it. She knows most of the details of her travel will be on record when that happens, so she doesn't pre-empt them now. Cecil clasps her shoulders, hesitant at first, then with fervent gratitude once he's sure his hands won't go right through her. By the time she finishes assuring him that she's seen both of their future selves back in Night Vale, he is hugging her tightly: as if he, too, has been exiled for far too long without human contact.

That idea is certainly supported when he adds, "Have you — by any chance — have you seen Carlos?"

It takes a second of thinking for Dana to remember. Yes, she has, although she doesn't know where or when. The few details she does know, she describes as best she can.

"I see." Cecil swallows hard. "Well...thank you anyway. Thank you for telling me." Pulling himself together, he lets her go and adds, "How are you doing? Is your journey going well?"

"It's hard to tell," admits Dana. "I think so. My daemon found me a few weeks ago, and everything seems much more promising with her around. She said Emmanuel showed her the way to —"

"Who?"

"The Man in the Tan Jacket. I forgot, you can't keep track of his name. He's the one who taught me how to do astral projection, too. He says he believes in me. Of course, he could just be trying to be encouraging."

Cecil's eyes narrow. "Or he could be doing some kind of misdirection. I don't trust that guy."

The directness of it shocks Dana — upsets her, even. She's only ever heard Cecil speak about the Man in the Tan Jacket on the radio, with careful professional detachment. For his distaste to be this blatant in person...no wonder Emmanuel avoids dealing with Cecil directly, instead sending help and support via Carlos, even though that means compensating for Carlos's own memory issues along the way. "You can trust him, Cecil! He loves Night Vale. He —"

She hesitates.

"Cecil," she says at last, "I was told that because of my condition, I can carry messages for people. I was never asked to deliver this one, and I do not know if you will be able to remember it after you have heard it, but nonetheless, while I am here I will tell you as much as I can."

And she does.

And Cecil keeps track.

Or at least, he appears to. His emotional reactions follow a progression, each one building on the last: disbelief, horror, guilt, yearning, hurt, determination. He asks questions. He asks further questions that relate to her answers, stretching the limits of her knowledge, and then the limits of her informed speculation. He —

He stops, abruptly, and turns his head from side to side. Confusion washes over his face.

"Dana? Hello?"

"Yes! I'm right here," says Dana, though she guesses, correctly, that it will be no use.

"Dana, I can no longer see or hear you, but if you are still here...." Cecil blinks back tears. "Please be safe, and well. And please, if you see them again, tell Carlos and Khoshekh that I love them?"

No mention of anything in the second half of their conversation. As if he's lost it, all at once, just like that.

Again Dana glimpses how strongly Emmanuel must want to avoid this. She is only a tangent to these people and their connection, not a part of it, and for her it is still wrenching enough.

"I will," she says, as she fades. Cecil's request is one of the least newsworthy messages she could think of, but surely she can do this as a gift to a friend. "It'll be the very next thing I try to do."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

"I'm thankful for my brilliant, driven, and supportive colleagues...even if they do go a little overboard sometimes," says Henriette, kicking off their as-traditional-as-possible Thanksgiving potluck. (The Raúl's isn't stocking turkey this week, so the bird is cassowary, and the corn-on-the-cob is imaginary. Henriette is just glad they made it through the cooking without having any of the dishes dissolve or explode.) "You didn't all have to limit yourselves to sparkling grape juice, honestly."

They've rearranged the living room of the larger rental house to accommodate dinner for eleven. Cecil is there as Carlos's guest; there's Henriette, the Li Huas, and Omero; Sherie brought her family; and they left an extra chair for the Faceless Old Woman, because she's been lurking just out of sight in the kitchen all afternoon, oddly fascinated with what the foreigners are up to.

In the chair to Henriette's right is a Li Hua, who says simply, "I'm thankful for coagulation factors."

The Li Hua beside her nods. "Me too."

The Faceless Old Woman seems to be keeping up with their English-language conversation, even though when the turn comes to her empty chair, it's a Spanish-language voice that addresses them from behind the TV. "Estoy agradecido por su wifi. Y para las arañas."

"Ooh, that's a good one," says Sherie's daughter approvingly. "I'm thankful for spiders too. And my family. And Tamika Flynn. And the fact that I am a great survivor, as evidenced by this awesome scar which I am proud to have."

That seems...unusually pointed. But Henriette doesn't know what the subtext is, and Susannah's family doesn't rise to it; Sherie just clucks her tongue and says "Yes, sweetheart, we all know you're proud of it. I just wish you didn't feel the need to cut up perfectly good clothing until every top you own is a crop top."

Before the quieter younger brother can add his own answers, the lights flicker, and then the whole house is plunged into darkness. Judging by the way the refrigerator has also stopped humming, it's a normal power outage, not some kind of light-suppressing Night Vale weather pattern.

"I'm thankful for flashlights and candles," says Carlos wryly, getting a laugh out of some of the others. "Cecil, honey, we just lost our light. Would you mind? There's a big lantern in the bottom cabinet next to the stove."

"No, it's cool, I got this!" exclaims Susannah. There's a scuffling and a clinking as she fumbles for something in the darkened thicket of dishes. "We practiced this at our troop meeting, like, last week." So saying, she starts chanting in Modified Sumerian.

A gasp from Cecil's direction. "No, don't —"

With a foom the room is illuminated again — because the tablecloth in front of Susannah has burst into flame.

Everyone jerks back in surprise except Cecil, who was already in motion, grabbing the pitcher of lingonberry iced tea and sloshing it over the fire. "You never do that chant without a target prepared," he scolds Susannah as he douses it, one splash at a time. "Are you going to need bandages? I have some in my bag."

Before the girl can answer, they all hear the thwok-thwok-thwok of gyropters in the distance.

Once a rattled Susannah confirms that she has her own bandages (the Boy Scouts aren't the only ones who can be prepared), everyone falls silent in order to listen. Cecil retrieves one of their lanterns, gives it to Carlos, and a bunch of them get up to cluster in front of the window.

Henriette can't pick out the colors at this distance, only the fact that the tiny specks in the sky are in groups of three. Cecil, though, uses some other sense to confirm who they are. "Strex," he says darkly. "Not close to this part of town, but very close to other parts."

"Can you check on what they're doing?" asks Carlos. "And see if there's any way for us to make it harder on them?"

Khoshekh soars out to the hall closet and retrieves the alethiometer from Cecil's bag, hovering over the huddled watchers and lowering it into Cecil's raised hands. Cecil turns the dials to the Sun, the Owl, and the Cornucopia, and watches the needle spin.

"They are looking for someone," he reports. "They will not find her. Not in any of the places they are looking tonight. But failure will only motivate them to try something else."

"It's Tamika," says young Seth, whose daemon is on his shoulder as a gossamer-winged moth. "They're trying to catch Tamika."

"Yes."

"This sure is a lot of effort to put in to go after a twelve-year-old," says Sherie's husband dubiously. Beside him, his sheepdog daemon (currently little more than a big furry shadow) huffs in agreement.

"Thirteen," corrects Seth. "Her birthday was on Monday. We had cupcakes in homeroom for it."

"So these people are supposed to be doing late-night gyropter flyovers to find a kid they could pick up at school any day?"

"I didn't say Tamika was in homeroom. She hasn't been at school for weeks, except for —" The boy fumbles, then goes on: "Nothing. Secret reasons. It's not important. And she doesn't go home at night, either."

"Does she need places to hide out?" asks Henriette. "I'm sure we can arrange a few safe spaces for a kid to camp out overnight."

"That would be awesome," says Susannah from over at the table, where she and her griffon vulture daemon are still sitting. "She probably moves around a lot. And it would be logical to think she doesn't have a fixed schedule, because that would make her easier to catch. Most likely, the more options she has, the better."

Seth turns to his parents. "We can put her up at the apartment too, right? If she needs to?"

"Now, son, I'm not sure that's a good idea," protests Sam. "It would be inappropriate, and it might not be safe, if this girl is in trouble — I know you've been a little starstruck ever since you met her, but —"

"Oh my god, Dad —" begins Susannah.

And Seth's daemon springs from his shoulder to become —

For the second time that evening, everyone jumps back. The kid's daemon looks like a large rodent, maybe a short-haired cousin of Henriette's alpine marmot, with striped orange fur. But her ears are long and pointed, her tail is a whipcord longer than her body, and she crackles with arcs of yellow-white lightning from nose to tail-tip.

"When will you stop cracking jokes about me having a crush on her?" demands Seth, while his living anbaric generator of a daemon outshines the lantern as she stares down their father's sheepdog. "Even if I did, the only thing that would be inappropriate is not helping her! Don't you get it? If they catch her, they will kill her!"

Sherie puts her hand on her husband's arm. "Honey. He's right."

"On the contrary," says Cecil.

"Aha!" exclaims Sam. "See, kiddo? The psychic guy thinks you're overreacting."

Cecil folds his arms. "I didn't say anyone was overreacting, I said they wouldn't kill her. The fate Strexcorp would like to visit upon Tamika Flynn is much, much worse than death."

"And we will help her," says Sherie, addressing her son but visibly clutching Sam's arm as a warning not to interrupt. "Your father and I will have to talk about the details, but I promise, Strexcorp is not going to catch your friend without us getting in their way first."

A grim silence, except for the crackling of the anbaric daemon's fur and the distant sound of gyropters.

"Just to reiterate," says Henriette after a moment. "Any of the rest of you want to break out a glass of the hard stuff, don't hold back on my account."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (???).

When Dana and Eustathias focus on sending her to speak with Carlos, she ends up in a dark room, with high windows and four stone walls.

The light outside is a familiar teal; the air smells like Night Vale, all sour peaches and burnt almonds. Inside, Dana sees a large crate filled with bloodstones, several pieces of powered-down anbaric equipment all shoved up next to each other, and a haphazard stack of cardboard boxes with labels like BEAKERS and THE WHIRRING BLUE THING.

A sliding door in one of the walls rolls open...and in steps Carlos the experimental theologian, his armadillo daemon trotting along at his heels. "Dana!" he exclaims, peeling off a pair of blue rubber gloves, then tugging his safety goggles off over his short mop of curls. "I was hoping it was you. Did you get the message from Maureen?"

After a long pause, Dana says, "The only message I have is from Cecil, for you. He says he loves you."

Carlos stops breathing, the grin freezing on his face. He looks like he's been kicked in the gut.

That is not the reaction Dana was expecting.

"It's probably a very out-of-date message," she adds, hurried and apologetic. "You are undoubtedly in the future of all the other Carloses I've seen. The short haircut could be from your past as well as your future...but I am certain I would have noticed that scar before."

"Oh!" exclaims Carlos after a beat. The tension that had seized up his body falls away; he sags with relief, breathing again, actually giggling. "Oh, praise the beams, you're a past Dana, that wasn't — god, don't scare me like that! You say this is the first time you've seen the scar? Hang on, let me get out my chart." He pats his pockets, finding a small notebook, its pages bound with large blue plastic rings. "The message from Cecil — where and when did you get it? Who else have you interacted with? And where in the desert are you, as of your own relative now?"

"I wasn't able to tell the place or time. All I know is that Cecil was on a subway car." She hesitates, waiting for Carlos to pull out an illegal writing utensil to go with the notebook, but he only beckons for her to continue. "The last person I spoke to was that same Cecil. I am speaking to you now from the top of the basalt fortress, where my daemon has found me, but there is no one else to —"

"You're alone? But still at the fortress?" interrupts Carlos's daemon.

Carlos finishes the thought: "Does that mean you haven't been to the Clouded Mountain yet?"

"No," says Dana uncertainly. "Should I have been? Can I see the chart?"

"No!" Carlos clutches the book to his chest. "No, you are way too early to be looking at this version of the chart. But it's good, your current time and place — it's fantastic — see, in my relative past I had a vision of you at the base of that mountain, and just before you got on your daemon's back and flew up, you gave me a message. And that's still in your relative future?"

Now Dana begins to understand. "It is! What's the message?"

"Use all the bloodstones."

Dana repeats it back to him. "And what should I tell you to use them for?"

The corner of Carlos's mouth tugs on his scar as he breaks into a grin. "Don't worry. We figure it out."

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

Tamika knocks on Señor Palmero's door three times before the experimental theologian opens it, wearing boxers and a short bathrobe and not another stitch. "Oh!" he exclaims, looking from the dried-up librarian claw hanging around Tamika's neck to the book-laden bulk of her buffalo daemon. "Oh, geez, you better come in. You're here to see Cecil, right?"

"If he's in the middle of something, I can wait," says Tamika dryly, though she and Rashi don't waste any time getting in from the hall. They don't know how many of the radio host's neighbors they can trust.

"It's not — uh — he just needs to get dressed," stutters Dr. Perfecto. "Sit here in the kitchen, okay? Are you thirsty? Help yourself to anything in the fridge. Except the blue pitcher! That's not a beverage, that's just being chilled to keep it quiet until I can get it back to the chapel and figure out what it is."

Tamika pours herself a glass of orange milk (she's in the middle of her growth spurt here, she needs the calcium) and kicks back at the kitchen table. A few minutes later, out comes Palmero, in a long nightshirt and with his face and hands still kinda flushed from being hastily scrubbed.

"Hey there," he says, dropping into the chair across from her and drumming his fingers on the tabletop: SOS?

ALL CLEAR, taps Tamika. NEED TO TALK HARDWARE.

She outlines the progress of her team's gyropter work with one hand while drinking her milk with the other. Two of their appropriated Strex vehicles blew up during dissection, and a third was booby-trapped in a way that shot up a Weird Scout with some kind of drug they haven't identified yet, even with several aspiring medics scouring Byron's The Two Foscari. But they're on top of the situation now, and getting better all the time.

TOWN MUST KNOW SOME GYROPTERS ARE OURS, she concludes. CAN YOU GET IT OUT ON AIR?

Palmero considers. CAN IT WAIT 2 WEEKS?

Rashi snorts in disapproval as Tamika narrows her eyes. RELATED TO YOUR VACATION W/ BF?

POSITION IS TOUCHY, Cecil reminds her. RIGHT B4 SCHEDULED TRIP IS FREEST TIME 4 REBELLION. BUILT-IN BUFFER FROM RETALIATION.

It's not like Tamika doesn't sympathize. Palmero walks a fine line, going in to work every day with these people breathing down his neck. (Or...not breathing, seeing as how some of the Strex transplants seem to have a major lack of biological functions.) She's just pretty sure he could get around this if he really wanted. IIRC YOU HAVE LIKE 500 VACATION DAYS. USE SOME EXTRAS. GO EARLY.

The Voice of Night Vale shakes his head. BETTER IF CARLOS NOT FORCED 2 TAKE UNSCHEDULED EXTRA BREAK FROM THEOLOGY. HELPS EVERYONE WHO BENEFITS FROM CARLOS'S WORK. INCLUDES U FTR.

SO JUST YOU GO EARLY, suggests Tamika. HAVE DR. PERFECTO JOIN YOU LATER.

IMPERFECTO, corrects Palmero. PERFECTAMENTE IMPERFECTO, he further corrects.

SEMANTICS, taps Tamika sternly.

It earns her a theatrical sigh, but at least the man moves on from the precise details of his pet names for his boyfriend. MY POINT IS: HE GOES WHEN I DO.

HE'S A GROWN MAN. HE CA

Palmero takes her hand and clasps it between his own, cutting her off. "Tamika. You're very brave."

"Not sure I believe that," mutters Tamika. Bravery, according to the wise mentor figures in half the classic kids' novels she's read, means standing up in the face of your fears. And ever since the library, she doesn't really have those any more.

"Very strong, then," says Palmero, unbothered. He turns to glance at the doorway, even though the experimental theologian is around a couple corners and not visible without a periscope, then faces Tamika again, already tapping soundlessly against the inside of her wrist:

I HAVE FEARS.

I FEAR FOR CARLOS

I FEAR FOR NIGHT VALE

I FEAR FOR WHAT WE DON'T YET KNOW THAT WE DON'T KNOW

AND I AM NOT THAT STRONG.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Sherie spends the rest of the night expecting Sam to re-open one of their Night Vale arguments.

It doesn't happen. When she tries to start a discussion, he waves her off, saying it's a lot to think about, and he just wants to sleep on it before they talk about anything.

Makes sense. They're both tired. All this will be easier in the morning.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos waits in the bedroom, expecting the tension and adrenaline to keep him alert until Cecil's conversation is over.

Tamika Flynn is here. He's half-expecting Strexcorp enforcers to descend on the building at any moment. In the basket at the foot of the bed, Isaña shivers; Khoshekh hovers above her, warm and protective, but not so entwined with her that he isn't ready to spring at any moment.

The next thing Carlos knows, Cecil is shaking him awake.

He startles, neck and shoulders strained from leaning awkwardly against the headboard. "Eh? Is she — is everything —?"

"Everything is as it was." Cecil shooes him under the covers, climbing in after him. "Our visitor elected not to stay in a Strex-owned building for the night. She left you several volumes of the poetry of Mary Robinson. I told her you would read them in the morning."

"Mmm. Good call, thanks."

Cecil drops a sleepy kiss on his cheek and a light push on his shoulder. "Roll over? Wanna be the big spoon."

(Since the bar code, he never lets himself be the little spoon.)

 

-{,(((,">

 

Morning. The sunrise is late, the sky turquoise. Sam offers to drive the kids to school; Sherie doesn't make a fuss, but decides not to leave for work until he gets back. One way or another, they're going to have this talk.

When the drive takes longer than she expected, she takes a leaf out of Carlos's book and keeps herself busy by doing little bits of tidying-up. There's a clock radio in the bedroom; she can listen for traffic updates while she dusts.

...and that's how she notices that some of her husband's favorite books have vanished from the shelves.

Casually, as if the Sheriff's secret police might call her out for snooping if she acts too suspicious, Sherie heads for the closet with the vacuum cleaner — and, on the way, takes an offhand peek into the little room they fixed up to be Sam's home office. His laptop is missing too.

"He isn't," says her mongoose daemon out loud. "He couldn't be."

Raising her voice and switching into Spanish, Sherie addresses the walls: "Did you move any of my husband's things recently?"

"Is the silverware his?" asks the Faceless Old Woman. "Because I did rearrange that, yes. A few of your spoons had to be destroyed in the process, but it was for the best. The books and the anbarics, no, he took those on his own."

Sherie takes a heavy seat in the nearest chair. Her daemon flops down by her ankles, overwhelmed. Sam's fleeing town. Didn't talk to her, didn't think she might agree that this is what's best for the kids, just bundled them up and went. They're probably halfway down Route 800 by now.

"You could call the Sheriff's secret police," suggests the Faceless Old Woman from under the chair. "Ask them to blow out the tires and bring everyone back. They have some lovely new rocket launchers they've been itching to try."

"Nobody is shooting rockets at my family," says Sherie wearily. Part of her wants to catch a bus to the aerodock and throw herself on the next flight after them. But her work here is so important. And isn't this the best of both worlds? Staying in town to help defend the universe, while her children get evacuated from the danger zone?

There's a creaking and rustling from under her, and something gets tossed in the air to land in Sherie's lap.

It's just a box of tissues, but her heart is going a mile a minute from the shock anyway. "I would appreciate a little warning next time!" she sniffles.

"You could be a little more grateful," huffs the Faceless Old Woman. "Here I want to all the trouble of stealing those from Chad in 3B, just for you."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Here Tamika went to all the trouble of an early-morning library run, and by the time she and her companions have finished checking out, there are yellow gyropters hovering outside.

They huddle in front of one of the big glass windows: Tamika with her slingshot raised, Rashi with bags of books slung over his wide dark back, a Weird Scout who now insists on being addressed as Agent D (his daemon riding on his shoulder as a grey squirrel), and the ten-year-old with the uncanny foresight who's started answering to Agent J2 (riding on the shoulders of her daemon, in the form of a sturdy brown ibex). "Backup should be here any minute," murmurs Agent D. "They can take the 'ropters down, right?"

"In the middle of town?" counters Tamika. "Sure, but it's gonna take planning if they don't want to bring 'em crashing down on any non-Strex businesses."

In the dark aisles behind them, something rattles.

Tamika narrows her eyes. "We gotta get out of the light."

"Circle around through spec-fic?" suggests D. "That's usually pretty clear."

He should've been right. It should've been easy. J2 doesn't see any problems coming, and while she's not a perfect barometer of what's going to happen in the immediate future at all times, she usually gets some kind of psychic heads-up if there's mortal peril around the corner.

But no. Just their luck, today...the speculative fiction section is being weeded.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos has a feeling that Sherie is unusually down today, but he doesn't pry, just tries to focus both of them on their work.

It lasts until he's in one of the bloodstone circles for observation...and feels himself being called.

"I'm getting someone," he says out loud, hands curling around Isaña more tightly. "Are the recordings all running? Someone's trying to reach out...if I can pull them in...."

...and the translucent figure of Sherie's daughter appears in front of him, all fishnet sleeves and spiky jewelry and a bloodshot cast to her black-rimmed eyes. It's eerie to see her ghost without the griffon vulture daemon beside her, even though Carlos is a lot more comfortable with daemonless people than he used to be.

"Omigod," says Susannah. "I did it! Thanks — Mr. Carlos, right? Is my mom around?"

Carlos nods toward a thunderstruck Sherie. "Right behind you."

Susannah whirls around. "Mom! You have to come get us."

They talk, Sherie's voice wavering, and Carlos quickly puts together the picture. Susannah's weak, frantic projection is coming from the balcony of a hotel room in Kinlání: far out of the reach of the Night Vale authorities. Sherie's husband took her and Seth there. Without telling Sherie, or either of the kids, what he was doing.

"Baby girl, I know you liked it here, but maybe your father's right," says Sherie. "You're going to be a lot safer out there."

"Safe?" exclaims Susannah. "He threw out our phones so we couldn't call you! He's basically kidnapping us!"

"He certainly isn't choosing the best way to go about this, and it was wrong to get rid of your phones," allows Sherie. "But, Su, I need you to be completely honest here, no drama, no exaggerating...do you think you're in any kind of danger with him? I wouldn't expect it, but you're the one who's there, not me. Are you just upset, which I would understand, or do you have some reason to be afraid?"

As the antenna for Susannah's signal, Carlos can feel it like a physical sensation, the way she bristles at the insinuation that any of her honest worries are "drama". But she's a Girl Scout, which means she has sworn to be honrada y justa, so she puts the defensiveness aside and answers: "No, it's fine, he's — he's not gonna — hurt us, or anything."

"Then let's give him a while to cool down, and —"

"I know this is my fault!"

Sherie looks about as taken-aback as Carlos feels.

"And I'm sorry," continues Susannah, ghost-voice faltering. "I shouldn't have started that fire. I shouldn't have kept bringing up my Girl Scout initiation when I knew it upset you. If we come back I'll be more careful, I swear! I just wanted you to respect me, I didn't want this!"

"Oh, honey...." Sherie tries to reach for her daughter, but her hand goes right through Su's shoulder, so they end up standing awkwardly across from each other instead. "I respect you. I do. But just because you can handle things doesn't mean you should have to, understand? And you sure deserve better than to be yanked back and forth while your parents get their act together. I will talk to your father when you get the chance. Can you hang in there and look out for your brother in the meantime?"

"I can, but —" Susannah swallows. "I don't think Dad's gonna talk to you. Like, ever. He's saying — stuff — about you. Not good stuff."

When Sherie speaks, it's with exquisite hesitation. "Su, hon...."

"I am not lying!"

"She isn't," says Carlos. Both women turn to him, tense, defensive — and Carlos knows his opinions are neither needed nor wanted here, so he keeps his voice even and sticks to the facts. "Speaking purely as your relay station, Susannah: if you were making that up to manipulate your mom, I would know. And you aren't."

Susannah nods, then bursts out, "Dad thinks your boyfriend's a freak."

Carlos grits his teeth. She's not making that up either. And while Carlos's opinion on it still might not be relevant, he sure as hell has one.

To her mother, Su exclaims, "Your boss is on my side!"

Carlos winces. "Look, to be honest, I never thought you kids should've come here in the first place."

"But you're impressed with how well we've adapted, right? You are! Admit it!"

"Sweetie, stop telepathically prying into my boss's feelings. It's not going to change my mind, and it's very rude."

"You don't agree that he's a freak, do you? Or Michael, or Señor McDaniels, or anyone else? You aren't mad about what Seth's daemon did last night."

Sherie takes a deep breath. "I think there's absolutely nothing wrong with being...a little odd. And you tell your brother that I will love him and support him no matter what he settles as. If we decide against letting you two come back here, it'll be because this place is dangerous and it would break our hearts if anything happened to you, not because of some kind of silly prejudice against people with more than one head."

It doesn't take any kind of special connection to feel that Susannah wants to argue, but Night Vale's fatality rate is hard to deny. "O-okay. Okay, listen, I gotta go. What's your number, in case I need to call from the hotel phone or something?"

Sherie rattles off a list of digits, finishing it off with, "and I love you very much."

Susannah repeats the number back to her, then gulps and adds, "Love you too."

The link flickers and dies. Carlos hadn't realized how much of a strain it was until it's gone, leaving him with a pounding headache.

"...You think it's the right thing, keeping them away?" asks Sherie quietly. "What if they really have gone native?"

Either Carlos has gone native more than he realized, or he's still feeling too defensive over Cecil to think clearly, because he hesitates for a moment before saying, "No matter how much they've adapted, it's still safer for them not to be here. Even if they were Night Vale born and bred, there are plenty of things around that could and would eat them alive."

 

-{,(((,">

 

The first couple of librarians are easy to take out — Agent D sets one on fire, and Tamika takes out the other with a couple of rocks to the eyes — but their screeches call down more. While Tamika is busy slingshotting a flock of small bat-winged librarians into a display of the works of China Miéville, a bigger one, furry and snake-necked and broad as a city bus, knocks Agent J2 off her daemon's back and pins her to the ground.

The daemon, Tehom, turns into a massive vulture and goes for the librarian's yellow eyes. It roars, twisting away and snapping at him with fangs each as long as Tamika's hand; by pure vicious luck it catches his leg, and swings him off across the aisles. Both Tehom and J2 wail in pain at the sudden distance.

Agent D leaps onto the creature's back, swinging his axe at the nearest muscle group. It rears back and rolls over, temporarily freeing J2, but smashing the bulk of its weight down on D. He lets out a noise too choked to be a scream.

Tamika charges forward, Rashi's horns lowered and ready to slam into the librarian's side — but there's another one advancing on J2, spiny-tailed and snarling, and they didn't bring enough people for a battle like this, they can't protect everyone right now —

The spined librarian takes an arrow to the knee, and another one straight into its mouth. It collapses before it can reach the girl, spitting and gurgling in fury.

Rashi plows into the largest of the librarians, Tamika cracks her biggest rock against its skull, and two more arrows pierce the soft underside of its throat. Blue ichor dribbles from the wounds. It isn't down, not by a long shot, but it seems to realize it's been outnumbered; the books on their shelves wobble and thump against each other as it staggers back.

Agent D's body is left on the floor, wrecked, unmoving. His daemon is nowhere to be seen. A smaller librarian is already chewing on him.

"Nothing you can do for him," snaps an unfamiliar voice. "Keep your weapon out and come with me."

It's their unexpected arrow-slinging rescuer. An adult, a man Tamika doesn't recognize, standing over the shivering-but-alive Agent J2. He is holding a longbow, and wearing a tan jacket.

Tamika keeps her slingshot out, all right. Keeps it aimed at this guy, in case he's up to no good. He doesn't tell her off or anything, just gets down on one knee next to the girl and says, "While I carry you to where your daemon landed, can you hold my bow?"

Biting her lip hard to keep from crying, J2 nods. And she's a good judge of character, even through crushing pain, so Tamika goes for it.

The librarians have either settled for fighting over the Weird Scout's body or just plain fled the area. No more spring out of the woodwork to attack while Tamika and Rashi escort their companions down past the public-use computers. Tehom is hiding under a chair next to the Biography aisle, in the form of a small black cat; he staggers out the moment they're in sight, and the Man in the Tan Jacket sets J2 in the armchair so her daemon can turn into a bird and take a flying leap into her arms.

Keeping a sharp eye on the hopefully-empty gloom around them, the Man says under his breath, "Do you have a pen?"

Tamika hesitates. Is this guy with the police? Although if he tries to make any trouble, she can always give him a couple mortal injuries and leave him for the librarians to finish off, so..."Yeah, I got a pen," she says, her and Rashi making a protective stand between her comrade and everything else. "What about it?"

"Your friend could use some lingonberry tea right now. The best stuff in town is still in Josie Hirsti's cupboards. You'll want to break into her house and brew some. Better write this all down, or you'll forget as soon as I'm out of sight."

He's got that bow in hand again, and he doesn't want to get eaten by librarians any more than the rest of them, so Tamika risks holstering her slingshot and getting out a pen and some paper from Rashi's bookbags. Lingonberry tea. Old Woman Josie's place. Helpful for someone who's had their daemon hurled out of range for a few minutes. And speaking of help..."This forgetting-you business...that mean we've forgotten about you before? About you helping us out?"

"A couple of times," says the Man in the Tan Jacket calmly. "Not during the Summer Reading Program itself. I was locked out of the building like the rest of town. That was all you."

Good to know. Tamika jots it all down.

Something snarls at them from the media room. In seconds — if he grew up here, he must've been at the top of his archery class — the Man in the Tan Jacket has an arrow on the string, drawn, aimed, and set loose. The librarian yips in pain and retreats.

"You doing all this out of the goodness of your heart?" asks Tamika. "Or are you gonna want payback at some point?"

"One of these days I'll come find you and ask for a favor," says the man. No shame, no weaseling around it, just facts. "When you can do it. If you can do it." He turns to Agent J2 and Tehom (now in the form of a fluffy dog as big as his human, and being cuddled accordingly). "How much of young Ms. Flynn's destiny can you see?"

"Not a lot," says the girl. "No matter what way it goes, eventually it gets too close to the Smiling God. Then I can't look at it. Ooh, ooh, but I can see we're clear to leave now! And we gotta go, fast, before the replacement gyropters show up."

"Good call. Can you two walk? If you can't, don't push yourselves."

"If they need carrying again, I'll do it," says Tamika. She probably isn't as tall or toned as the Man in the Tan Jacket (probably. It's hard to tell anything direct about what he looks like. She's just estimating based on the size of that bow), but she's stocky and sturdy and more than capable of carrying a ten-year-old piggyback. Especially one who's this light, thanks to the whole leg thing.

J2 nods. "Yes, please."

Tehom turns into a beetle and rides on her head, Tamika crouches down so the girl can clamber onto her back, and they all head for the windows again.

When they get there, Tehom turns into a buffalo like Rashi, and the two of them headbutt through the nearest pane together. It's the back of the building — the parking lot. Even with the skies clear, they bolt across the pavement as quickly as possible, ducking into a hardware store that Strex has, miraculously, still not managed to buy. There's a handy display of patio furniture that they can all sit on and catch their breaths.

Tamika still has a note clutched in her hand. She unfolds it. A reminder about lingonberry tea.

While she's texting a couple of the Book Club members with driver's licenses, soliciting a ride to Old Woman Josie's place out by the car lot, J2 says, "He didn't come out with us."

"Agent D knew the risks," says Tamika. "I'll write the note to his family."

"No, not him!" protests J2. "The guy! The guy in the tan jacket, remember?"

"I've seen him around town sometimes...why? Was he around here?"

J2 sighs and looks away. "Never mind."

 

-{,(((,">

 

November fades into December. Carlos goes to the Desert Flower for a medical follow-up, in which Teddy Williams pronounces his eardrums healed and healthy. This time, when he gets out, Cecil isn't playing a pinball game; he's in the snack area by the bowling aisles, diligently paring away at a block of wood with a knife.

"What are you carving?" asks Carlos, leaning over the side of the booth.

"Gah!" Cecil jumps, nearly slicing off a chunk of his thumb. He drops the tiny-bladed knife on the table and tries to hide the wood under his scarf. "Don't scare me like that."

"Sorry! I didn't realize you were so, um, absorbed." So this is why the apartment has smelled like pine shavings for the past couple of weeks. "Is it a secret project? If you want to hide it, I'll look away."

Cecil sighs. "No, it's okay, you were going to find out anyway. Here."

Carlos slides into the seat across from him as Cecil rests the carving next to their basket of mozzarella sticks. It's...a raccoon. About the size of Carlos's fist, stylized and elegant, sitting alert with its little wooden ears pricked. It's even been carved in such a way that the banding of the woodgrain makes the bands of its tail.

"That's amazing," breathes Carlos, scooping Isaña up onto the table to get a closer look. "Just like Mamá's daemon."

"Oh, good," says Cecil. "You think she'll like it?"

Carlos does a double-take. "You made it for...? Is this why you asked me to confirm what everyone's daemons were? Cecil, this is incredible — how many of them have you finished?"

"Um, your siblings, and your sister's two settled children." Cecil fiddles with the tail end of the scarf (literally; it's knit in the shape of a cat), sheepish but pleased. "But before that I finished a set for all your teammates, because I wouldn't be able to finish any of theirs at the last minute on Christmas eve...not without any Erikas around to do late-night deliveries. And also, ah, Sherie's family, I know they don't celebrate, but I didn't want to leave them out...I may have gotten a little carried away?"

Isaña circles the precious little raccoon. "When did you even find the time?"

"Mostly at work. Not being allowed to leave the office doesn't mean you get more done, it just means you finish what you were already going to do and then have all this down time to kill. And, well, it's relaxing. Watching the wood get brighter as it takes shape, you know? It's sort of therapeutic."

Of course it makes Cecil happy to increase the amount of Rusakov particles in the world. Carlos is dizzyingly in love with this man.

...but not so dizzy that he can't pay attention to other things. "Listen, I'm sure the rest of the team will be flattered, but about Sherie's family...you might want to hold off on that. And did you include one for Seth?"

"It would be pretty rude to give his sister one and not him," says Cecil reasonably. "I don't know if this is how he'll settle or not, but that anbaric mouse-thing his daemon turned into on Thanksgiving was so intriguing...."

Worse and worse. Carlos hurriedly explains the rift in Sherie's family, and how it's probably only going to agitate her husband more than ever if he starts getting gifts from a Night Vale native. He's worried about Sherie enough as it is; she's having non-secret conversations with her kids again, but in between she's started working late nights at the chapel, ordering a lot of takeout and stocking the break room fridge with TV dinners.

Frankly, he's worried about half the team these days. Henriette's on edge because of her detoxing, though she snaps at anyone who tries to be supportive that if they get any nosier she's going to need a drink. Nirliq's electrum lenses keep exploding. Omero had a terrible time with the dull, floating faces that followed everyone around on Thursday; he kept catching them out of the corner of his eye and thinking he was being stalked, and got so keyed-up he nearly shot one of them before locking up his gun until the apparitions went away.

Cecil listens with rising sympathy. He seems a little lost about why Henriette would be avoiding her municipally-sanctioned drinking-to-forget, but accepts it as one of those inexplicable outsider quirks. As for Sherie: "Do you think it would make her feel better or worse to have the opportunity to babysit? I know Steve and his lady friend are always looking for people to watch the girls during date nights."

"Not sure," admits Carlos. "Next time I get the chance, I'll ask."

 

-{,(((,">

 

He doesn't get the chance.

There are yellow gyropters in the sky again today, and as the afternoon wears on, they start dropping posters. Hundreds of them, thousands, dotting the walkways and getting blown into windows. One smacks against the glass pane of the ordinater room at the chapel and gets stuck there; it's recognizable as a wanted poster even though the text is sympathetic, even though the headline above the black-and-white class photo of Tamika Flynn reads simply PERDIDA.

"Is it all right if I clock out early?" asks Sherie. "I think I...left the oven on."

Quentin frowns. "Wouldn't the Faceless Old Woman just turn it off if you...."

Henriette, Köhler, Carlos, and Nirliq all shush him at once.

"Sure," says Carlos in the tense silence. "Go ahead and check on your...oven."

Quentin looks from the departing Sherie to the piece of paper fluttering against the glass. "Oh," he says. "Oh."

 

-{,(((,">

 

"I am not missing!" shouts Tamika from the pedestal of the bronze statue in front of the Night Vale Post Office. She swings the head of one of the bat-winged librarians from last week's raid to punctuate her point. The most battered of the books she walked out with, a copy of Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, sits heavy in the back pocket of her cargo shorts. "I have never been missing!"

Yellow gyropters are circling overhead, but they can't land. Not close to her and Rashi. Not with the solid crowd of Night Vale citizens — plus the outsider theologian whose apartment she stayed at last night — taking up so much space around the pedestal, blocking their way.

"I am found!" repeats Tamika, voice ringing across the plaza, and silently adds, dammit, Palmero, you better have my back.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Everyone at the chapel (well, half of the Li Huas, all of the everyone-else) is huddled around the radio, riveted, by the time Cecil reports on Tamika's dramatic stand. They shudder in sympathetic distress when he recites the cadences of a management-mandated Strexcorp ad. And they tense when he announces that his producer is shutting the broadcast down.

The distant chopping noise of nearer gyropters has been going by overhead all day, but during the weather it gets louder. And louder.

"Oh, god, they're coming here," says Sherie. "What do we do?"

"Carlos. Duck," snaps Henriette. Carlos promptly drops to the ground and gets under a table, out of the line of sight of any of the windows; Köhler and his binturong daemon move to shelter him and Isaña from the direction of the door. "Let's get the shades. Then you go hide in the darkroom...I mean, uh, the...whatever we're calling it now."

"The laser room," says Nirliq, heading to the nearest window to take the blinds down.

"Right. That. If they ask, he's not here, he's...um...."

"Tell them I'm at the House that Doesn't Exist," stage-whispers Carlos. "You really want to stump them, tell them I'm in the House that Doesn't Exist."

"What if they don't believe us?" hisses Perle. "What if they decide to come in and search by force?"

"That's why, if they knock, Omero and Li Hua are helping me answer," says Henriette. "You guys are armed, right?"

"Yes, ma'am," says Omero, working on another window.

"You know it," says the Li Hua in residence. "Even better: the other me is upstairs getting out the machine gun right now. I see any trouble, she'll blast 'em from above."

"Good. I think." Henriette rubs her temples. The gyropters are deafening, landing on the sidewalk outside; she has a headache already.

Perle still isn't happy. "And what about those of us who didn't sign up to be Carlos's human shields?"

"You come and hide behind me, that's what," says Carlos without missing a beat.

"The windows are covered," Köhler informs him. "Go."

Carlos and Perle both make a break for the laser room, Isaña running at Carlos's heels, Perle's gecko daemon riding on her shoulder. Quentin and his flying squirrel look like they aren't sure whether to follow, but Nirliq cuts them off. "You stay out here and help me look busy." To Henriette, she adds, "If we're going to use the talking-them-to-death strategy this time around, Quentin is our best bet to handle the talking."

The doorbell rings.

"It's not about us," says Henriette, more to psych herself up than to motivate the team. "They're not after the rest of us. Not yet."

She doesn't move.

Köhler does. "Dr. Zeng, Mr. Stepanyan," he says, nodding to Li Hua and Omero in turn. "If you would."

While he leads the door-answering mission, Nirliq and Quentin start getting out the reactants for the Asriel emulsion, and Nirliq pauses next to Henriette in the middle of pulling on gloves. "You're probably right. If they were making aggressive moves against us for our own sakes, we would've noticed. For one thing, some of these MISSING pictures probably would've had Sherie's kids on them."

That's...discomforting, but probably true. "Sure," says Henriette, shaking herself. "Sure, you have a point there. Lemme help you with the Erlenmeyer flasks."

She tries, but she and her marmot daemon are doing a miserable impression of a non-suspicious working theologian and they both know it, so it's a huge relief when Köhler returns: accompanied not by a uniformed Strexcorp agent, but by the Carlsberg kid, proudly wearing her Girl Scout vest. "Hi! Is Señor Carlos here? We brought an armed yellow gyropter escort for his drive out of here, so Strex will see he already has a gyropter escort and won't send a whole new gyropter escort that isn't run by the Night Vale Book Club. Ooh, what are you making? Does it explode?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

They pile into the vehicles, with Carlos, Perle, and a slingshot-wielding teenage Morrigan Scout in the coupe, and switch on the radio just in time to hear Cecil growling, "Espero que ella los encuentre primero, claro está." A trail of three stolen, Scout-piloted gyropters follows the line of theologians down the roads. Carlos can only pray that Cecil, now broadcasting from the station roof with jury-rigged equipment and auxiliary power, is as well-watched as they are.

When the radio moves on to silence, self-reflection, and a long pause to hear yourself think, Perle says softly, "You really did let me hide behind you."

"Well, yeah," says Carlos. "None of you were hired to be human shields. You were hired to do theology."

The Scout (whose daemon is some kind of long-nosed water shrew) touches an earpiece, then says, "Are you all packed, Dr. Perfecto?"

Carlos blinks. "Packed...? For...my holiday vacation? I'm not leaving for a week."

"You sure? According to Agent M, your boyfriend's meeting you at the aerodock in...ten minutes."

 

-{,(((,">

 

A yellow gyropter ferries Carlos, Isaña, and their hastily-packed suitcase to the aerodock. There's a landing pad on the roof.

As Carlos is lifting his daemon down to the roof, a second gyropter descends beside them: painted with elaborate murals of diving birds of prey, and full of a smoky haze too thick to see the pilot or any passengers. Until the door opens, and the haze physically manifests enough to shove out a pair of suitcases covered in stickers (some of them airport stickers, others...flowers and sharks).

Cecil and Khoshekh emerge a second later, coughing, but able to give their smoggy pilot a congenial wave before gathering up their luggage.

Carlos and Isaña run to them. "Cecil! Oh, thank the beams you're okay! You are okay, right?"

"Against all odds...." Cecil pulls Carlos into an embrace, hands tangling briefly, fiercely in his hair. "They tried to activate the chip. While I was on the roof. It tingled."

When they get back, Carlos is going to give Steve a medal.

"And then I got a direct pickup from...whatever organization runs those gyropters there." Cecil nods to the shadowy haze. "Apparently their stratusmate manages a Whole Foods, so I was able to make a deal for some free advertising time. Now, my employers aren't going to be thrilled about giving away their ad space like that...so just to be safe, I think we should start our vacation a few days early."

Carlos laughs in sheer relief and kisses him. They can't walk downstairs hand-in-hand because Cecil needs both hands for his bags, but Khoshekh picks Isaña up kitten-style and carries her along, and that's just as good.

"We can't just descend on my parents' house a week early, though," realizes Carlos as they approach the check-in terminal. (The plane always becomes a familiar airline by the time it deposits them in St. Louis or Austin or wherever the layover is, but on this end, the only available company has a name in runes and a logo that vibrates. Carlos wouldn't even try to pronounce it.) "Where are we going?"

"Anywhere we want! My treat. I have a ton of frequent flier miles saved up from all the traveling I did when I was younger."

For a moment, in spite of the fear and the uncertainty of tonight (this whole week) (this past few months), Carlos is starry-eyed as the possibilities unfold. They can go anywhere. And Cecil seems able to speak any language — including all those spoken within the bounds of Night Vale, plus several from outside its borders, even outside its world — so Carlos doesn't have to do the kind of frantic preparation he would be doing if he were visiting an exciting foreign country for professional reasons. Come to think of it, they could probably go to a foreign world, couldn't they? If he suggested they visit Luftnarp, or Finland, or Brazil....

"Oh!" exclaims Cecil. "I've never been to Oxford!"

Really?

"I bet you know all about it, right?" continues Cecil, clasping his hands together. "You could show me around! And tell me all the neat stories about things Dr. Belacqua did there! What do you think?"

Carlos thinks it sounds like a heartbreaking waste of opportunity. On the other hand...Carlos is not the one whose bosses just tried to torture him for reporting unpleasant truths, or defending a bunch of teenage revolutionaries. And Cecil looks so eager. So innocently delighted at the idea.

"Sure," says Carlos, swallowing his disappointment and forcing a smile. "Two tickets to Oxford."

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

When the TSA ceiling-child makes the usual demand for the names of everyone Carlos and Cecil, respectively, have ever kissed, Carlos is prepared to be embarrassed.

About thirty names into Cecil's list, he's mostly just gobsmacked.

The first of the names is Earl; the last is Carlos himself. Most of the ones in between are masculine, though a few sound distinctly feminine to Carlos's ears, and several are either ambiguous, "other", or too foreign to identify. And Carlos is stuck on one of the specific male names in the middle there. "Cecil...when you said Steve, was that...?"

"A nauseating and regrettable tragedy for all involved," says Cecil solemnly. "But you know, kids, wild college parties, we all do our share of foolhardy things...like playing Truth or Dare. I was double-dog-dared, Carlos! You don't need me to tell you the consequences of backing down when that happens."

The flight is already boarding when they make it to their gate. (Aside from the two of them, the passengers are three ghosts and a family of tarantulas.) Distant gyropters can be heard outside; Carlos takes a window seat and pulls down the shade, and they all hold their breaths until the plane is in the air and passing through...well, judging by the jeweled, shifting colors shining around the cracks, it's the Glow Cloud.

"All hail," says Cecil, eyes glowing briefly, as he slumps into his seat. "Dear Carlos...I think I may be experiencing some sort of adrenaline crash. You won't mind if I sleep until we get there?"

"Of course." Carlos folds down the mid-size daemon platforms from the backs of the seats in front of them, so Khoshekh and Isaña can settle in, then finds a small airline-issue pillow for Cecil. "We're not flying straight through to the Oxford airport from here, are we?" It would be at least an eighteen-hour flight, but if any plane could pull that off, it's a Night Vale plane.

"Oh, gosh, no." Cecil rests the pillow on Carlos's shoulder and cuddles against him. "First we've got a layover in Boston."

 

-{,(((,">

 

United States.

Carlos hasn't had as much stress this evening as Cecil has, but it's a long flight, and the next thing he knows he's waking up as they hit the runway in a time zone where the light outside is normal pre-dawn grey. The interior of the plane is twice as large now; Cecil is in a middle seat, rather than an aisle one; the seats are crammed together, with no daemon platforms in front of them at all.

He can't see Isaña. But he doesn't feel any tension that suggests she's out of range. And after a moment of searching he realizes she's curled up in the backpack under the seat in front of him. (Apparently his messenger bag has either transformed into, or been replaced with, something that can hold her.)

He's checking the bag to make sure the rest of his things survived the transfer — here's his tablet, good, and the power cord, and his wallet, and — when Cecil whispers, "You'd better zip that up."

With one last yawn, Carlos complies. The lower the chance of people bumping into Isaña on this suddenly-more-crowded flight, the better.

In fact, it doesn't just feel crowded, it feels downright claustrophobic. Khoshekh presses himself against the plane ceiling until they're out in the walkway, then hovers a full four feet above Cecil's head once they emerge into the terminal. (He's protected from curious stares by Cecil's don't-look-at-me bit of witch-lore. It takes an effort for Carlos to remember that he's there.) People are bumping and shoving all over the place — it's really obnoxious — someone's daemon is going to get kicked if they're not careful....

Carlos stops cold.

It's not too weird to look at a crowd and not see daemons immediately. They might be small and riding in pockets, or in your baggage like Isaña, or even in protective cases if they're small and delicate enough. And the people with really large daemons are likely to avoid air travel in the first place.

He relaxes for a moment when he spots a golden retriever daemon...and there's another canine daemon, a chocolate lab...except that when he looks more closely, he realizes those aren't daemons at all. They're just...dogs.

But these people don't look mutilated, they all look pretty much like Cecil when Khoshekh isn't around: creepy at first, but ultimately fine....

"Carlos?" Cecil hovers at his shoulder. He's wearing the dark sunglasses Carlos suggested, to keep people from staring at his eyes, plus a glittery silk scarf wrapped around his head and neck that's probably drawing attention anyway. "Are you okay?"

"I'm guessing this is a place your bosses can't follow us?" says Carlos, with a helpless little laugh. Strexcorp may have a bigger foothold in some worlds than others, but if he knows Cecil, this one — where the people have internal daemons, where there's no telling how much more exciting weirdness will unveil itself now that he's looking — is safely outside their reach.

Cecil grins. "The fact that the local free trade agreements have strict, heavily-enforced rules against being evil may have been a factor when I suggested the destination, yes."

 

-{,(((,">

 

They aren't carrying any currency for whatever country they're in. Carlos finds a booth with a big sign proclaiming INFO, and Cecil follows him over; but they don't even have complimentary tourist brochures, just a set of website addresses and several free apps the travel agent offers to transfer to his phone. When Carlos actually looks at said phone, the screen reads No Signal (Where The Hell Is This), and when he tries to get one of the apps loaded, it laughs at him. Literally cackles.

"Where you even get this dinosaur, brah?" asks the travel agent. (A dark-haired woman wearing what Carlos would call "hipster glasses", except that he has no idea if "hipster" is a concept this universe knows of. And no daemon. Even though Carlos keeps reflexively looking for one.) "Do you re-enactment?"

It's English — basically — but her accent is like nothing Carlos has ever heard before, all the vowels shifted, plus the occasional syllable flung in there that he can't parse at all. "No, just passing through," he says, trying to casually stick the phone back in his backpack without dropping it on Isaña's head.

"Really? With that accent, I figured y'all had to be SCA."

"I can assure you," purrs Cecil, "the lyrical and rhapsodic tones of my boyfriend's voice are entirely natural."

One of the duty-free shops does have some big glossy photo books, and Carlos stands around flipping through them for as long as he dares. The city they're in, "Boston", it turns out...is Trimountaine. Or at least, close enough that the familiar details are startlingly familiar, while the differences all but jump out and slap Carlos in the face.

"I've walked by this exact statue!" he hisses to Cecil, angling the brochure so Khoshekh can see the photo of the bronze Ben Franklin. "Only the one in my city has his rattlesnake, obviously. And look at this flag, on the building behind it!" It looks like the flag of the United States of New Denmark, same color scheme, same stripes, but instead of a modest circle of stars it has a whole brick of them. At least twice as many as he's used to. Maybe more. "How many states do you think this US has?"

"Fifty-two."

"Excuse me?"

"The US? Fifty-two states," reiterates the clerk. "You gonna pay for that?"

At last the trans-oceanic flight starts boarding. Cecil and Carlos are literally the only passengers with paper tickets. There's a full multimedia hookup in every seat, and while it offers to connect to any number of accounts Carlos does not have with brand names he doesn't recognize, it does at least have a standard media selection available as backup....

Only about half of the films have a "watch in 2D" option. And one of them has a 2115 release date.

"Oh my god, Cecil." It's getting weirdly hard to breathe. "Cecil, we're in the future."

"No, Carlos, we're in a different time zone," says Cecil patiently. "If you called one of your friends back home, they would assure you that it is still the present, just...reckoned with different numbers. Oh, look! They have a bunch of Westerns. Do you want to watch one together?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

They watch a Western. It's jarring, and not just because it's all in English. The tropes are all slightly off-kilter.

They follow it up with a film, which, based on the title, Cecil thinks will be a romantic comedy and Carlos expects to be interestingly theological. It's neither. Apparently that's just the name of a band.

They watch a documentary about a war designated World War One. At the time it was just called the Great War, same as the one in Carlos's world, but in this world it had a follow-up, which prompted the switch to a numbered system. As the documentary unfolds, Carlos comes to understand that except for the name, it doesn't have much at all in common with the Great War he learned about in history class. It started several years earlier; Germany was a single nation from the beginning, instead of the German Electorates unifying in the 20s; and there are several countries involved that Carlos doesn't recognize at all.

He sits with his backpack on his lap, so Isaña can watch the screen from between the teeth of the zipper, and so Carlos can rest a hand on her shell when they need the self-soothing.

They do find an actual romantic comedy, but oddly enough, Carlos finds this harder to get through than the war film. The war is only grim and disturbing in the familiar ways that all wars are grim and disturbing. Whereas the comedy keeps trying to convince Carlos that these two people are falling for each other, and that it's heartwarming and adorable...without ever showing their daemons nuzzling up to each other. It's like watching a movie where the romantic leads never make eye contact. Subtle at first, then more and more disturbing as the effects add up.

At some point in the middle, the flight attendants bring around...whatever you call it when it's your first meal since waking up, close to noon in the city you just left, and approaching five PM in the city you're going to land in. Carlos comments with approval on what he assumes are wheat-based rolls. Cecil wonders out loud how much an organism can be genetically modified and still count as "wheat."

Carlos quietly offers Cecil his roll. Maybe in this world genetically-modified food products are as normal as 3-D movies, but he'll stick to the 2-D offerings and the organic lettuce.

As with the tickets, the two of them are the only ones to get their passenger arrival forms in paper, instead of filling them out on their devices and uploading them to a server somewhere. The attendant apologizes for not having any in Braille — apparently it's been years since they had any visually-impaired passengers who didn't bring their own adaptive equipment. Cecil warmly assures her that Carlos will help (he doesn't have the stamina to keep up a nothing-to-see-here spell for ten hours straight, so poor Khoshekh is riding in the overhead bin), waits until she's gone, then sheepishly asks Carlos what it is that they're supposed to be filling out.

The first couple of questions are easy. Carlos pens in the correct name (PALMERO, CECIL G) and gender ([_] Female [X] Male [_] Other [_] None). After that, it gets trickier. They're both citizens of countries that don't exist in this world, born in years that are about a century too early. It's bound to set off a hundred red flags unless Carlos lies like a rug.

Cecil, unbothered, tells him to go ahead and write the truth. "Let's save the rug impressions for the hotel."

 

-{,(((,">

 

United Kingdom.

Instead of expensive metal detectors or long lines to talk to stern-faced customs agents (questions about kissing optional), the passengers disembarking from international flights are queued up single-file and funneled down a short hall. From the back of the queue, it looks pretty empty. Carlos pulls forward on the straps of his backpack, hugging Isaña close. "They must be doing some kind of scan, right? What do you think it is?"

"I'm not qualified to say," demurs Cecil. Khoshekh is floating over his head once more. "You'll probably figure it out, though! I'm sure it's very scientific."

"Sure," agrees Carlos. "Very — what?"

"They don't use a lot of religious terms in the UK," says Cecil. "It's a dialect thing."

Carlos feels lighter on his feet just hearing it. No matter how creepy the daemonlessness is, this place clearly has some serious perks.

He strolls forward with the rest of the queue, into the observation hall...and his eyes widen.

The wall to his right is made entirely of a double sheet of treated electrum.

It's golden at an angle, translucent when viewed head-on, and impossible not to recognize. Because the three security officers watching them from the far side are enveloped in loyal, protective, inquisitive currents of Rusakov particles.

Cecil has to grab his hand and pull him forward; the people behind him are starting to grumble about the queue being held up. Carlos's face hurts from how hard he's grinning. This world has done it! They don't just have electrum spyglasses, they have electrum walls, in public use as a common security measure! And the privacy issues are worked out, at least enough that the public is satisfied — it probably helps that it goes both ways, citizens can look right back at the officers watching them, can see clear as day that the information won't be abused —

Who discovered this? How did they develop it? Did this world have any trouble while implementing it? Are the trees that the resin comes from native to here, or do they have their own imported Whispering Forest? He wants to know everything. He wants to know all about the botany, that's how bad it is.

"You're in luck," purrs Khoshekh, as smug as Carlos has ever heard him.

"What do you —" begins Carlos, before remembering not to look like he's yelling at thin air, or security is going to pull him aside, no matter how harmless his intentions, for his own safety as much as anyone else's. "What's he talking about?" he asks Cecil instead. "If you're trying to kill me with anticipation, you're getting off to a great start!"

"Carlos, I would never," says Cecil loftily. "I believe what Khoshekh is referring to is...maybe you've heard that the UK is very big on renewable energy?"

"Cecil, I don't know the UK from Finland! What about renewable energy?"

"And you're aware that Rusakov particles are an energy source...?"

"I remember that piece of theo— of science, yes."

They turn another corner and find the baggage carrier looming in front of them. "You pick up the bags while I go get a couple of traveler's debit cards," says Cecil. "I managed to book our hotel through the airline rewards program, but we're still going to need to eat while we're here, and you'll probably want souvenirs, and of course there are cab fares to think of...so we're going to pop into a couple of energy-collection booths and put some credit in our account. I was planning to earn my share by working a little more on your brother-in-law's Christmas present. But you, if you like...and I suspect you will...you can spend the time browsing Wikipedia."

 

-{,(((,">

 

There's a sleek, black, ultra-modern device in Carlos's booth, connected to the airport wi-fi. He sets Isaña on the desk next to the keyboard and types Rusakov particles into the online encyclopedia. Even though he has no idea whether they'll be named after Rusakov in this universe, or whether Rusakov existed at all, or....

Gibberish appears in the search box.

While Carlos is staring at the screen in confused disappointment, Isaña thinks to look at the keys themselves. "Carlos, the keyboard layout's different."

"Oh!" exclaims Carlos, and, instead, hunts-and-pecks on the strange mix of letters until he's typed keyboard layout.

 

-{,(((,">

 

An hour and a half later, Cecil puts his foot down. They have more than enough credit, and it's high time they put on their coats (Cecil has a brand-new one lined with rabbit fur, since it's been years since he last visited a place where the temperature got below fifty degrees) and made their way to the hotel.

Carlos spends the whole cab ride talking. "It looks like the US started out looking like the USND did, but then it just kept going. They have half of New France, half of Hispania Nova — I went looking for every place our team members came from, and all the ones from the New Denmark continent would've been 'Americans' here — they controlled Hawai'i for more than a century! Can you believe it?"

He pauses long enough for Cecil to check in, then goes back to talking as they lug their bags up to the room. "I went looking back at the revolution, and it's weird, they had a lot of the same names — sometimes in different roles, John Adams was president and Ben Franklin wasn't, but it seemed like they were basically the same people — oh, and their keyboards are different! Someone named Dvorak invented the one we use, but it never caught on. I have no idea why! It's experimentally proven to be less straining on the hands for people typing in English, and there are so many more people typing in English in this world!"

The hotel furniture is all sleek curved lines and strange materials. Carlos finally lets Isaña out, and keeps up the patter as the both run around investigating. "English is the official language of Florida. Florida! There are less than a thousand native speakers of Muscogee left! I was just looking into that when you made me leave. Do you think one of these sleek black devices here will connect me to the Internet? I can't tell right off the bat what any of them do, but I'm sure at least a few of them are anbaric."

"Carlos, if you're awake all night you're going to regret it when you're jet-lagged in the morning," warns Cecil. "You do want to be awake tomorrow to do things with me, right?"

"I can do things with you right now!" protests Carlos.

Cecil raises his eyebrows. "Ohhhh?"

Carlos blushes at the accidental innuendo...then thinks, well, why should he be embarrassed? Judging by the non-reaction when they checked into a single-bed unit, the idea that he might be having sex with his boyfriend tonight isn't a scandal to this world in general. Gathering up his nerve, he adds in a rush, "I think if you want me to fall asleep, then you have a responsibility to wear me out first."

 

-{,(((,">

 

For all Cecil's fussiness, Carlos is the one who wakes up first. Probably a side effect of being the only person here who has a normal work day, one that sometimes finishes before Cecil even starts his evening broadcast. It's a little after noon, local time, when he starts trying to figure out the machine he assumes is a futuristic coffee maker.

Turns out it's more of a coffee printer. Takes the raw materials and combines them into a liquid chemical mixture with the flavor and caffeine content you program in. Carlos's mouth is watering by the time he gets his first cup, for more reasons than one.

He doesn't want Cecil to wake up alone, so he sends a text request down to the concierge (once he figures out the texting system) to bring up a paper map and some information on local attractions, and scribbles on those while eating a printed bagel with marmalade. Then he jumps in the shower, finally scrubbing the dust from all those backpack rides off Isaña's shell and combing it out of her fur. Then at last he prints a cup of coffee for Cecil and shakes the man awake.

"No," pouts Cecil, hiding his face in the pillow. "Too early. Cannot human. Try again later."

"Cecil, it's half past one. You're gonna lose the whole afternoon at this rate."

"Wha...?" Cecil drags himself up on his elbows, bleary-eyed and horrified. "I'm late? The show...!"

"You're not late! You're on vacation, remember?"

"Oh…" A moment of blank staring, then Cecil collapses back onto the mattress. "Mmkay. Then sleep."

Eventually Carlos coaxes him up again. Cecil huddles in a nest of blankets, sipping his futuristic pseudo-coffee; Khoshekh floats up onto the bed and sits with Isaña at his feet. Once it looks like they aren't going to go back to panicking, Carlos says, "What happens to the show now? I mean, with you away, it's been one broadcast already...can Strex bring in a substitute who will spend your whole vacation toeing the company line?"

"I'm sure they'll try," says Cecil. "But the contract governing my substitutes is almost as vast, unknowable, and unbreakable as the one governing me, so I don't expect them to have any luck. When I'm on vacation, the role of the Voice falls to whoever in town is most able to handle it, for as long as they can keep it up."

"And you think they can handle it for long enough to cover our whole trip?" asks Carlos, imagining the poor intern-of-the-week (it's a girl named Maureen now, isn't it?) trying to fill Cecil's shoes and flaming out in some horrible way after a few days.

"Oh, easily. It'll take three or four people to fill each broadcast, and we'll be gone for...fled before yesterday's show, back in time for the 28th...fifteen days? That's sixty, right? There's more people than that in town."

Carlos revises his mental image to include lots of people flaming out in horrible ways. "Cecil...when these temporary Voices can't 'keep it up' any more...they don't, um, die or anything, do they?"

Cecil frowns at him. "What a morbid idea. Clearly we need to go out and do something to cheer you up! I hope there's a science museum in town."

Nodding to his map, Carlos says, "I checked! There are three."

 

-{,(((,">

 

The Museum of the History of Science dates all the way back to 1683. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History was founded in 1850. And the Museum of Physics is the baby of the group, only established in 2029. Carlos can't tell from memory whether any of them is an alternate-universe version of the Museum of Natural Theology, or whether they're completely unique.

He decides to visit them in chronological order, because if he tries to go in order of which one he wants to see most, he's going to have some kind of nervous breakdown trying to decide.

Once they reach their destination, the decision-making gets simpler: the MHS has an exhibit on the history of radio, so of course Cecil has to go see that first. Carlos reads inscriptions out loud, for the benefit of both Cecil (wearing his dark glasses, paired with a bobble-laden fuchsia scarf that looks like somebody tried to knit a tentacle) and Isaña (riding in Carlos's backpack again, along with a striped blanket, because even with the shelter it's chilly outside).

He's enraptured. There are terms here that are completely new because his own world hasn't invented the technologies yet (spinplasmonics, Rassilon virotherapy), and others he doesn't recognize on the placards, but can map to familiar ideas after seeing a few of the devices (electricity is just anbaric power, while nuclear power turns out to be atomcraft). Some of the familiar discoveries are made by people he's never heard of (Marie Curie, Oliver Payne), while others have names he recognizes from back home (Tycho Brahe, John Dee).

Cecil takes one look at the items in the John Dee exhibit and claps his hands over his mouth to muffle a snicker. Dr. Dee claims to have talked to angels, and judging by the accuracy of the Unmodified Sumerian in his writings, he really did meet an Erika or two. Judging by the content of the Unmodified Sumerian, which Cecil refuses to translate in any specifics, it was an Erika with a filthy sense of humor.

They're absorbed in a display of sixteenth-century astrolabes when the museum closes, and they take a short walk looking for a Magadha restaurant — no, here they call it an Indian restaurant — are the countries the same, or is it just that the territories overlap? One more thing on Carlos's to-look-up list — that seems trendy. Carlos all but skips down the drizzly night street with his hand in Cecil's.

 

-{,(((,">

 

On the walk from dinner to a university library to top up their accounts, they pass a church. Carlos can't tell how many of these are active and how many are just historic relics. This one looks almost medieval...and has a statue of Jesus in one of the stone niches on the façade.

It's Carlos's turn to have a fit of scandalized giggling. Only when Cecil asks what the joke is does Carlos remember that, oh, right, sculpting a Christ without the dove daemon on his shoulder is normal here, and not the kind of blasphemy that as recently as fifty years ago would get you jail time in most Western countries.

Finals week just ended, and many of the students are already gone; most of the Dust-based energy-collection booths are free. The librarian at the front desk helpfully walks Cecil through the use of a device that accesses their audio catalogue, while Carlos settles in at the nearest booth with a hyper-futuristic ordinater.

(He would just as soon have Cecil come in and sit with him, maybe do a little cuddling while they read together...but the library has strict rules against more than one person crowding into a booth, and with their main audience being uni students, Carlos can't say he blames them. Sure, it would generate a fair amount of Rusakov particles, but it would get pretty tiring having to hose the place down all the time.)

For the second night in a row he can't stop talking. On the bus ride back to their hotel: "No wonder the Church here doesn't have the same amount of power. It isn't just the expected decline since the early 21st century. In the 16th century there was a revolution! They kept having a Pope, but half the Christians in this world aren't organized under him at all!"

In the shower: "The Middle East is crazy. I didn't have time to read up on it in any detail, but I think even if I did, it would take weeks to have any real sense for — mmm — yes, right there — for how it happened. I know almost nothing about the history of the region — even in our world — I can't — ahh, Cecil, Cecil — I mean, obviously colonialism screwed it over, that has to be a big part of — ngh — ohgod. Oh. Ah."

In bed: "Tried to figure...what witches thought about...this. All this. Couldn't find anything. Mythical witches...kids' books...that's it. Y'think...here, maybe...maybe they don't even have…?"

He falls asleep before he can finish the thought. The last sensation he feels is Khoshekh licking Isaña's ears.

 

-{,(((,">

 

The Museum of Natural History doesn't have anything radio-related. It does, however, have dinosaurs. Towering sauropods, thick-skulled triceratops, light-footed raptors with beautiful reconstructed feathers. Several full skeletons of flying and swimming ancient reptiles are hanging from the ceiling.

One of the glass cases has a display of more recent extinctions. Carlos's mood takes a hit as he starts looking through them. The kakapo? He once had a student with a kakapo daemon. And the Zanzibar red colobus — that's the species of Nirliq's daemon. He pulls his backpack closer, relieved not to see any armadillos, three-banded or not, in the mix.

Along with the skeletons and the cases, there are a handful of kid-friendly activities and interactive exhibits, including one where you can do a cheek swab and get your DNA scanned. Cecil is on the verge of sticking his in the machine when Carlos finishes reading the label. Isaña yanks on his attention and pokes him in the spine, and Carlos grabs his boyfriend's wrist just in time.

"Carlos! What…?"

"You can't. Cecil, you can't. Throw it out."

"Will you at least tell me why?" pleads Cecil.

"In a minute." There's a family in line for the machine behind them, a couple of parents with small children, and he's getting disapproving looks from the adults. "There's an important th— important scientific thing we have to do in the next room. I'll tell you when we get there."

He steers Cecil through to another gallery; the signage explains that this is a second, distinct museum, but it looks like the architectural twin of the first, just full of anthropological artifacts instead of natural specimens. They stop in a quiet row, between an Arctic sledge and a case full of what look like trepanned skulls (with labels like Cave date 31,259 BCE).

"One of the things that machine scanned was mitochondrial DNA," he explains. "We've talked about that, right? You know what it is?"

In spite of his frustration, Cecil nods along. "That's the one passed on from the mother, right?"

"Right. And being a witch is also passed down exclusively from the mother. So if you go back far enough, all witches have the same matrilineal ancestor...and she's different from the matrilineal ancestor of the rest of humanity. Which means their mtDNA lineages are different too. And since they don't seem to have witches in this world…."

"...then I might have mtDNA they've never seen before?" finishes Cecil. "Because the lineage I got from Mom could have died out? Or never existed?"

"Exactly." For that matter, there's no guarantee Carlos's lineage will still exist. He thinks it's more likely than Cecil's, but he's not doing the scan either, just in case.

Cecil chews on his bottom lip. "Isn't that what happened with the body your team recovered from the attack by the strange, daemonless children?"

Carlos folds his arms. "It is. And if you were a dead body too, I would be happy to present you to the theologians here as a scholarly gift, to test and dissect and research as much as they wanted."

"Ah," says Cecil. "I see what you mean."

 

-{,(((,">

 

For dinner tonight, Cecil found a historic pub he wants to visit. Apparently it was the favorite hangout of some local authors, and celebrates them with fan-created displays of their works. Right now that means beautiful, elaborate Christmas decorations, including a diorama of a snowy winter scene with Santa and a procession of mythical creatures. Carlos and Cecil sit under a chain of wreaths with gold-trimmed red ribbons, and order a couple of pints and a basket of fish-and-chips.

When Cecil's phone buzzes, Carlos jumps. "You're getting reception?"

"My plan has very robust coverage," says Cecil brightly. "It's the same one our former station intern Dana uses! And we're not nearly as far out of normal time and space as she is. Would you mind taking a look and telling me who it's from?"

Carlos makes a mental note to change carriers, and takes the phone. It's Henriette, so Cecil prompts him to go on and look at the message too, since he might be the one she's really trying to reach anyway. Carlos reads it. Then reads it again.

"Carlos…?"

"The Sheriff's secret police are having an auction," says Carlos, a little dazed. "Catalog went out this morning...which I guess was only an hour or two ago, Night Vale time. The title of Lot 37 is Cecil Palmero, with no description. She wants to know if this is normal," although judging by the look on Cecil's face, it is emphatically not, "and if you have it taken care of, or if the team should send someone to buy it for you and let you decide what to do with it when you get back, or what."

"Give me a minute," says Cecil eventually. "Khoshekh needs to look it up on the alethiometer, and I...I need to finish my Guinness."

He downs the rest of the pint in a series of gulps, then covers his face with his hands, blocking off the sensory input from his own (much more recent) trepanation to make it easier for Khoshekh, back in the room, to focus. Carlos keeps the noise down as he types a reply. This is Carlos on Cecil's phone. He's looking up what to do. Is anyone else for sale or just him?

Henriette's reply is quick: Just him. Perle & quentin both went thru all the listings. Coulda had a "got here safe & not dead" from u earlier, btw. If cecil hadnt posted uk selfies on his tumblr i wouldve been worried.

Sorry, we're in an alternate universe where my phone gets no bars :(

I hope u appreciate what a lucky goddamn bastard u are.

In the same breath, Cecil slumps on the table with a groan of relief. "It's okay! It was a clerical error. Tell Henriette not to waste any money, I'll be fine."

Carlos slips the phone into his backpack (currently on the bench next to him) so his daemon can read over the texts. "How does someone make a clerical error that leads to saying they're going to sell you?"

"When we went into the condos. The police seized all the bodies people left behind, remember? And tried to seize ours in the process, only we got back in them just in time. Looks like the half-finished report of me-as-contraband got submitted instead of deleted, and ended up in the auction catalogue. What a proofreading blunder! Someone is going to get the axe for this, I can tell you."

Isaña types a summary of this for Henriette, while Carlos tactfully refrains from asking if there will be any literal axes involved.

 

-{,(((,">

 

"Get you anything else?" asks the server...then blinks at Carlos's half-open backpack and adds, "Hey, 'sthat an armadillo?"

"A southern three-banded armadillo," says Carlos automatically. The way he would if the question meant "what species is your daemon?" instead of "why do you have a wild animal in my pub?"

"My Carlos is a huge fan of the Narnia books," puts in Cecil, coming to the rescue. "But he always thought they needed more armadillos. So he made his own Talking Armadillo. If you squeeze her claw, she says things from the books! The Spanish translation, that is."

"Fetch," says the server approvingly. "Can I hear?"

Carlos squeezes his daemon's claw. In Spanish, Isaña says, "Please say you can make up something convincing."

And in English, Cecil reports, "That was 'What do they teach them at these schools?'"

 

-{,(((,">

 

Before their evening library visit, Cecil sweetly reminds Carlos that he was promised a tour, so Carlos starts by looking up some of the university landmarks he had in mind.

The results are...disheartening. To say the least. After not finding the first half-dozen sites, he searches for St. Sophia's College itself, and comes up empty.

He borrows Cecil's phone again, this time to double-check things on his own world's Wikipedia, and cross-references the maps. The street layout is identical, and many of the older buildings are in the same places, but half the college names are different and the territories don't entirely match up. St. Sophia's, where Dr. Belacqua did her undergraduate studies in alethiometry, isn't here. Neither is Jordan, where she grew up (and which, around the same time, funded the research that developed the Asriel emulsion).

As it turns out, the question of "what places do I show off to Cecil, if any" doesn't need solving right away. On Monday it rains. A miserable, soaking, freezing sleet of rain.

Cecil votes they stay at the hotel for the duration, maybe rent a couple more movies. Carlos is torn. On the one hand, he really wants to see the Museum of Physics. On the other, after yesterday's near-miss with Isaña, maybe he needs a day to relax and move normally instead of keeping part of himself bundled and zippered up just so he can walk around.

When Cecil figures out the movie selection and announces that the hotel offers several Academy-Award-winning films from Brazil, that settles it. They're staying in.

 

-{,(((,">

 

The next day is cold but sunny, and for the first time they're up early enough to get to the hotel brunch buffet, instead of eating from the 3-D printer (which is still fascinating, but Carlos has started to notice a plastic-y aftertaste from everything it makes).

He's wrangled together a list of sites that are more-or-less relevant to Dr. Belacqua's life, all marked off on a printed map, and Cecil follows with interest down the narrow roads and broad parks. This is (equivalent to) the building where she made some of her most important advances in Rusakov physics. This is (on the same plot of ground as) the home where she had an apartment during her undergraduate studies. This is (the alternate-universe version of) the building where she lived when she was a child, before departing for the North.

The Botanic Garden is the one landmark that didn't give him any trouble. It's in the same place, under the same name.

Even in winter, with most of the trees bare and none of the outdoor plants in flower, it's a lovely park to stroll through. They stop in one of the greenhouses to see the Christmas displays, a fir hung with hand-made ornaments and brightly-colored displays of poinsettias and holly, then head back out into the afternoon. After Cecil assures him there's no one around, Carlos gets Isaña out of his backpack, and she trots beside him along the gravel paths and around the dormant stone fountains.

There's a tree close to one of the walls that's absolutely dripping with mistletoe. Carlos takes full advantage. Cecil melts into the kiss, curling his hand around the back of Carlos's head, then nuzzles their cold noses together. "And you don't think plants are good for anything."

"I have never said that," complains Carlos. "I'm not unreasonable. I just happen to think they're a little laughable as a topic for serious theological study."

"Really? But didn't Dr. Belacqua study them? Isn't that why we're here?"

"She didn't study them, she just liked them," groans Carlos, his exasperation only half fake. "Or at least, she liked gardens...at least, this garden...at least, a version of this garden."

Cecil re-wraps his scarf around his face. Carlos curls a hand around Cecil's and slips them both into his pocket, keeping them warm as they continue on down the path.

"She was a lifelong patron. Always came back to visit at least once a year, no matter where her research was at the time. She was sort of notorious for never scheduling anything or accepting any invitations for late June, no matter how prestigious, because she was going to visit the garden...it's weird, but frankly, when you save the entire multiverse I think you've earned the right to set your own priorities, even if...whoops!"

He lets go of Cecil and drops into a crouch, shielding Isaña from the view of the person down the way. At this distance they'll probably think she's a small non-daemon dog, like the ones he's seen people walking around with...but he'd better bundle her back up, just to be safe....

"Carlos? What's wrong?"

"Someone on that bench," says Carlos, jerking his head in the direction of same.

Cecil follows his gaze. "Where?"

Carlos scoops up his backpack and stands, his daemon's head still poking out of the side. At this distance he still thinks it's a human silhouette, but Cecil will be looking for brightness, and if he's not seeing it..."Am I getting all worked up over a statue?"

"Either that, or a corpse," says Cecil cheerfully. "Or a plant with a very distinctive growing pattern."

They make their way over, until Carlos can see that sure enough, it's a bronze statue. A stocky man in a long coat, reading a book. Carlos has a weird, jarring moment of bracing himself for the lack of daemon, seeing an animal figure anyway, wondering why this statue has a daemon, then realizing it must just be that the subject really liked cats.

All the other statues in town have been of famous scientists. Carlos's curiosity is piqued. Even if this guy is just a botanist....

The bench is made of metal too. There's a plaque mounted on the center of the top beam.

Carlos bends closer to read the inscription.

He expects anything, absolutely anything, except what he gets:

Donated By
THE MALONE FOUNDATION
In Memory Of
DR. WILL PARRY | KIRJAVA
1983-2081

Chapter Text

Oxford (Will's world).

Carlos drops his backpack.

Isaña tumbles out from her shelter and raises her face to the bronze cat: not a wildcat like Khoshekh, but almost as large, its fur cast in thick, lustrous waves. Kirjava. The daemon they thought was fictional a year and a half ago, were calling Moxie until this time last year, and whose name they hadn't known how to spell until seeing it just now.

It's him. Oh dear lord and all the beams, it's Will Parry.

Breathless, Carlos turns to Cecil — he's shaking, wide-eyed, Cecil's gonna think he's having a panic attack if he doesn't say something quick, but he can't speak, are there even words

Wringing the tassels of his scarf in his hands, Cecil says, shyly:

"Merry Christmas? Do you like it?"

"Ce—" Carlos chokes on the syllable, over the lump in his throat. "Do I like —"

By some incredible failure of understanding, Cecil takes this as his cue to be more insecure, not less. "Should I have told you earlier? I know you like to be told things, but with this I thought you might have fun finding out...."

Carlos is not going to cry, he is not going to cry, he is not going to...

...who is he kidding. This is the closest thing to a religious experience he's ever had — and that includes speaking to angels, and returning from the dead. He's standing at the memorial for Will goddamn Parry. He is going to fall on Cecil's shoulders and sob like a baby.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (Lyra's world).

This has been the least productive week ever.

First, our flagship talent goes on vacation with less than twenty-four hours' notice. Of course, a good corporation has backup plans in case the unexpected happens, so we here at Strexcorp were all set to implement our "in case Mr. Palmero suddenly and without warning disappears on us" protocol...except it turns out the station has its own protocols, and we haven't figured out how to supersede them, no matter how diligently and ferociously we work at it. Every afternoon I have people from upper management calling and breathing down my neck, saying, for the Smiling God's sake, Lauren Mallard, you're supposed to be a program director, why aren't you directing....

...oh, wow, hang on, am I on the air? Is this being broadcast?

Gosh, what a relief! Now at least I can have some control over what goes out on air.

Not that we don't have control normally, of course! But some of these substitute Voices we've had lately...well, gosh, Night Vale, if you've been listening, you've caught all the ups and downs. That beautiful young woman who just wanted to preach about the healing power of the beams, for instance. Or that time we had twenty solid minutes of whispering tree-voices telling you all how nice you smelled, and saying that was a really clever text post you made on your Tumblr.

We value all of your views, citizens, but some of them are just not suitable for primetime broadcasting.

And then there was the gentleman encouraging you all not to purchase Strex-brand products, or give your patronage to Strex-owned businesses. Now I understand why your regular Voice complained about him so much. What a troublemaker that Steve Carlsberg is!

Well, as you know if you were listening through the end of that monologue, the Sheriff's secret police were able to track down Steve Carlsberg and do the first test of a few of their new Strexcorp-mandated protocols!

Oh, has anyone mentioned that we bought the Sheriff's secret police? Because that seems pretty newsworthy! You see the things you miss, Night Vale, when your beloved nightly news broadcast keeps getting passed around to any old random person with no corporate oversight?

If anyone has information about how to wring back the breath of control from the neck of poorly-managed once-independent community broadcasting, please call in. If you have a good lead, there might be a reward in it!

For us, I mean. There might be a reward in it for us.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Oxford (Will's world).

They don't even try to have a dining experience, just stop at the first internet café with rentable devices that they pass on the street.

Instead of sleek black freestanding machines with their own screens, like at the libraries, the devices here are wearable sets of goggles with a virtual display. Once you put them on, you can manipulate the display without any worry about corrupting it with a spilled drink or sticky fingers. Carlos, eyes still sore, sits back in a comfortable chair and hugs Isaña's backpack to his chest with one hand while figuring out the interface with the other.

Cecil gets a bunch of interestingly-shaped desserts from the display shelves, sits on the arm of the chair, and rubs Carlos's back. "What are you finding?"

"Future alternate Wikipedia wanted to know which 'William Parry' I meant," says Carlos faintly. "There's a priest, an Arctic explorer, a mathematician, a surgeon...and a fictional character. The surgeon is the real Will. And instead of just kids' stories based on what he and Lyra did, they have novels. A whole trilogy."

This world's information on Parry and Belacqua isn't perfect. In some ways it's misguided, or downright laughable. Lyra in these books is sixteen when the story begins; Pantalaimon is referred to as her "spirit animal"; and in between the usual saving-the-multiverse adventures, she struggles with a love triangle between Will and some guy named Roger Parslow. (When Carlos explains that part out loud, with palpable irritation in his voice, an advertisement pops up in the corner of his display asking if he wants to purchase any Team Will merchandise.)

But the Book of Dust trilogy gets things right that the Lyra-and-Pan stories in Carlos's world don't. Will's race, for a start. The only adaptation here that makes him white is a live-action film adaptation from the 2010s, which was a widely-criticized box-office flop. And they know his daemon's name, and there's a cultural awareness that the fictional Lyra is based on a real person, even though she was from another world.

And, most absorbing of all...Will isn't the only real citizen of this world who got involved in the War.

"I would've found it all out if I looked up Rusakov particles from the start, instead of getting distracted," laments Carlos. Cecil's thumbs dig soothingly into his shoulder blades. "Or electrum lenses. Obviously they don't use those names, but if I'd taken a page out of your book and looked up what they are, instead of what they're called...."

A search for elementary particles of consciousness would have gotten him to information on "shadow particles" or "shadow matter." From there it's only a few clicks to read about the invention of lenses made of specially-treated...amber, they call it, and these particular amber lenses are Atal lenses. A main character in the Book of Dust series was this world's real discoverer/inventor of both.

"I saw her name in the museum." Carlos may be starting to tear up again. "She's the one who worked out the dates of all the artifacts. It didn't make it sound like she was important...but anthropology wasn't her field in the first place! I bet once we get to the Museum of Physics, every other placard will be crediting Mary Malone."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Back at the hotel, Khoshekh is floating next to the bathroom sink. Cecil scolds him for lazing around there all day while Carlos looks through the video offerings again.

Dr. Malone — not even her fictional YA counterpart, but the real one — appears in several miniseries and scientific documentaries, including an episode of 2014's Cosmos. Dr. Parry was a medical doctor rather than a science one, so he's not in the same kinds of films, but he and Dr. Malone are both interviewed in the making-of special for the 2016 Book of Dust film.

Starry-eyed, Carlos and Isaña queue up everything they can find.

At some point they look up to realize Cecil is asleep, snuggled under the covers beside them, a pillow over his head. Carlos self-consciously turns down the volume, and they keep watching.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (Lyra's world).

My name is Renée.

I won't tell you my last name. None of us will ever tell you our last names. Whenever I do use a last name, it's a fake. My daemon's name might be fake too.

And we won't tell you the name of our town, or our school, or even what state we're in. If I told you my name, they would be able to find my friends and me. And if they ever find us, it will be the end.

They might kill us. Or worse.

Yes, there really is something worse than death. I've seen it. I've heard the cries of despair from those doomed to be slaves of the Yeerks. I've watched as —

Shh, Janice, don't interrupt, I'm trying to read to the little kids here.

What?

I'm on the radio?

Do I have to do anything, or can I just keep reading, because this book is really good, and plus it has a lot of good stuff about siege tactics that would be pretty useful for people who can't make it to Book Club for whatever reason....

No, the main character's name isn't really Renée, but they didn't know that!

Okay, great! Where was I?

Ahem.

I've watched as the evil gray slugs writhe and squeeze in through the ear....

Oh, disclaimer! All of this is fiction. The real Yeerks have been totally playing by the rules of the treaty that ended the Blood Space War, and so they're basically our allies now, I think. I dunno. You should probably go look at the ACN website or something if you want stuff about real politics? I'm only a Nightshade Scout, and we don't do badges about interstellar diplomacy until you get to Morrigan.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Oxford (Will's world).

The Museum of Physics in Will Parry's Oxford is, bar none, the most theologically interesting place Carlos has ever been.

Within a few minutes he's only half-aware that Cecil is still here. He's still talking, reading things out loud and explaining their meanings, but that's for his daemon's benefit, not his boyfriend's. He skips words, sometimes whole sentences, or makes references and leaves them unfinished, plunging forward the moment he senses Isaña's understanding.

This world only discovered shadow particles in the mid-1990s. A clunky little Oxford research unit that was looking for something completely different stumbled across them, and the field went from "elementary particles that react to consciousness, what a silly idea" to "here's the chemical composition of the Asriel emulsion, and we'll be producing Atal lenses en masse once these trees mature" in less than three years. Almost singlehandedly because of Dr. Malone.

In fairness, Carlos's world did discover some of these things long before they had ordinaters to speed the research along. But in fairness to Mary's world, they did it all without an alethiometer around to give them hints.

Until....

Cecil shields his forehead, as if one of the exhibits in this row is unusually bright. "What's that in the case on the left? Third from the end."

"Looks like a three-and-a-half-inch floppy." A singed one, with a cracked case. It's in between two other displays of damaged computer parts. Carlos approaches, and starts reading labels.

When the truth hits, he stops flat.

"I think I need to sit down," he says, and does. Right there on the floor.

Cecil sinks into a crouch beside him. "Does this mean it's good?"

"It's amazing," breathes Carlos. "It's — they don't say it in as many words, but — it's an alethiometer. Or parts of one. It's the machine they were using, over a hundred years ago — and the disk is the interface — if I'm reading this right, it didn't even use any existing OS, it was an independently bootable operating environment, and if that means the same thing on these ordinaters as it does in ours — Cecil, Mary Malone programmed an alethiometer in 1995 and ran it off a floppy disk."

A security guard chooses that moment to meander over. Either because Carlos is behaving oddly and they're concerned he'll do something erratic, or because it's not very reassuring for patrons if they see people passing out in the middle of the halls. "Awright, there?"

Cecil nods. "Fine, thank you."

The guard pulls something out of their pocket and extends it. A tube, the ends capped, but when expanded it's just the right length to hold two Atal lenses and make a working spyglass. "M'I take a look?"

"Go ahead."

They look. And, almost immediately, wince away, shielding their eyes with one hand.

The possibility of getting in trouble with security cuts through some of Carlos's breathless joy. Pulling his backpack closer against his back, he says, "Is everything okay?"

"Not in trouble," the guard assures him. "You science? You're way bright."

Cecil chuckles. "He does indeed science! And yes, he's been doing this ever since we got here."

 

-{,(((,">

 

The museum closes, but the gift shop is still open. Lingering in front of a set of posters with gold-washed Atal-lens photos of Oxford, Carlos remarks, "When you say I've been bright since we got 'here'...."

"On and off since we got to Oxford," clarifies Cecil. "Entirely on since yesterday, and getting especially bright at certain points in this museum. Looking at that model...that alethiometer ordinater?...." He smiles, fond and adoring. "Even when you talk about Dr. Belacqua, I've never seen you get that bright."

For some reason, Carlos bristles. Like he's been accused of something. "Of course I'm getting bright! This is new. I'm excited. I'm a theologian! Getting excited about new things is what I do."

"Oh, of course! It's perfectly natural."

See? Nothing here to get defensive about. Carlos makes himself relax....

"And after all, if I understand everything you've been reading correctly, Dr. Belacqua and Dr. Malone must have been good friends at one point...so I'm sure Dr. Belacqua wouldn't be offended that she's your new professional idol."

Carlos's face flames. "She is not!"

Cecil's mouth curls upward like the cat that found the cream. "You like her work," he coos. "You think she's smart and her theoretical equations are pretty and I bet you want to read all her books."

Carlos bats at his arm. "Cecil, stop it!"

"Am I wrong? Have you not spent most of this afternoon daydreaming about living a hundred years ago so you could sit in on Dr. Malone's lectures?"

"No!" Averting his eyes, Carlos mutters, "Only a small part of the afternoon."

"Mmhmm."

It isn't that Carlos has any less respect or adoration for Dr. Belacqua. He could never. When it comes to sheer, unadulterated heroism, Lyra Silvertongue is hard to beat. It doesn't look like Dr. Malone ever brought down a corrupt branch of the Magisterium, or overthrew the dominion of death itself, or nearly-singlehandedly restored Dust to all the worlds.

But if you look specifically at their contributions to the progression of th— of science in their respective worlds, over their entire adult lives....

As a conscious, self-aware being, Carlos has to appreciate Dr. Belacqua more, but as a scientist....

"We should pick up some gifts for my team while we're here," he stammers, anxious to change the subject before it gets too obvious that Cecil is right. Between the museums and the university bookstores, they should be able to find something from all his colleagues' fields, to bring home a tiny fraction of this amazing experience for each of them. "Is there a weight limit to what we can take back?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

Milford, Swannendell (Lyra's world).

I can't decide if the weirdest thing about being here is the trees or the water. Or the cold.

...I just said that out loud.

...I just said that out loud and I can't make myself stop talking, what is this, what —

Excuse us, we have to go to the bathroom!

Good thinking, Zeph. Can I at least whisper? Oh, good, I can keep this to a whisper. Should we really go to the bathroom? Or go hide somewhere else and hope this wears off?

The locker room? It'll be empty until this period ends.

Good thinking again. Geez. At least I started talking in Spanish, and it wasn't in Spanish class, so the teacher will just think I'm being obnoxious instead of, you know, crazy.

Although, I mean, everyone already thinks I'm kinda nuts around here. What are they supposed to think, when someone shows up halfway through the school year who has to introduce herself as "hi there, my name is Susannah Oppenheimer and this is my daemon Zephaniah, and we just moved back to the US from Hispania Nova because my dad's afraid my little brother is gonna settle as a dragon"?

Not that I said it exactly like that. But people pick up on stuff, you know?

This is a Night Vale thing, right? It's gotta be. And if there's an Avoiding Mysterious Talking Compulsions badge, I didn't have a chance to get the damn thing. Come on, mystery compulsion, gimme a break here, let me focus enough to text...my...mom....

I think it's the water, by the way.

Hm?

The weirdest thing. Night Vale still had trees, especially that big forest we weren't allowed to go near, and it could get pretty cold at night. But when you're out for a walk and you get to the end of the street and suddenly there's a big half-frozen lake next to the sidewalk...that never happened in the Hispania Nova desert.

Yeah. That's a good point.

Okay, sent.

And, like, don't get me wrong, I am not complaining that we don't have to time our showers any more. Or that we can write the grocery list on a whiteboard on the fridge again. Or that I don't have to remember not to say stuff like "Vithya Banerjee turned into an angel back in October" out loud.

If I was going to complain about stuff, I would start with: my phone went feral after Dad threw it out, and even though we managed to get my number transferred to a new one, I still lost all my photos and contacts.

Or maybe I would start with: Dad asked if there was anywhere in particular we wanted to go live, and Seth and I both wanted to move somewhere down near the Florida border, so we could keep our Spanish up. And instead we moved to Swannendell. Swannendell! Two states north and we'd be back in New Amsterdam!

I don't think he even cared about our answer. I think he was just hoping we'd agree we wanted to live near Gramma and Grampa, so he could make us feel like he was taking our input, but he was going to go there anyway.

No, okay, here's what I would complain about first: even the goths here think I'm a freak.

Mom and Dad think I dress like this to be edgy, but I don't! I mean, if I did, wouldn't I have stepped up my game in Night Vale? There were people in my class with everything pierced. There were people in my class with extra appendages just to fit the extra piercings. Every week there's somebody or other who comes in covered in blood from whatever they had to fight in their front yard that morning. Tamika Flynn wears a dead severed monster claw just hanging on a cord around her neck. I'd have to be a moron to think I was scaring those people by wearing black lipstick or whatever.

I just like black lipstick, okay? And I like these knee-high black boots with the skull buckles. And these fingerless black lace gloves are pretty sweet too. And this ring, omigod, it's great. Makes me feel like I could punch through a wall without breaking a sweat.

And maybe if I wore polo shirts and khakis, people would have an easier time brushing it off when I say something about getting homework help from a faceless old woman who whispered verb conjugations from the depths of my closet.

But I don't want to be some fake version of myself to be normal. I wanna be me, and have that be normal. Is that so much....

Hang on, text from Mom.

Whoooooahmigod, this is all on air.

Uh.

Hi, Mom?

Hi, Night Vale!

Shoutout to all my Girl Scouts!

Michael, dobav' menya na Facebook already!

And, um, ignore that thing I said about Vithya Banerjee, she's not....

We're still not IN Night Vale. We're not even in the same country! We're completely out of their jurisdiction.

Oh, right!

But we still want to go back there as soon as legally possible, so again: Vithya's not an angel, angels aren't real, we know nothing about them or their hierarchies or anything like that.

But there's something we do know! And that is this:

Strexcorp is evil.

Don't trust them, guys. Don't support them. Absolutely do not believe in their Smiling God. That thing is the worst.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Oxford (Will's world).

Even with Cecil's help, Carlos has to buy a whole new suitcase just to carry his shopping.

In between the gifts, he wants to pick up a print copy of the Book of Dust trilogy (which he's half thinking of as the Lyra-and-Will stories), but they're almost out of credit and they still have to eat. Over a split platter of local seafood with lemon and spinach, Carlos debates out loud the merits of spending tomorrow at the Museum of Physics again, crashing a university library, or showing up on campus and posing as a prospective student looking for a tour of the facilities.

Cecil nods a lot, doesn't say much, and munches on his Cornish sardines, until some instinct makes Carlos trail off. "Cecil?"

"Yes?"

With an effort of will like almost nothing he's ever managed before, Carlos forces himself to say, "Is there anything else you want to do...while we're here...that isn't...related to science?"

Cecil looks at him for a long moment. "There are things I'm curious about that we haven't been to, yes," he admits. "But Carlos, I am getting the distinct impression that if we did something that took you away from studying the local science, you would hate every minute of it."

"No! Not that much...not every minute...okay, yes," bursts out Carlos. "Not for personal reasons! It's entirely professional! I'm a physicist, and there is so much physics here to look into — I don't even want to sit around eating now that I know where we are, and eating is a biological necessity."

Cecil considers this, then says, "Would you like to go get a head start at the nearest all-night library, and I'll catch you up after I get the check?"

"That's not what I...." But now that he mentions it...Carlos would like to.

"It isn't as if I can afford to bring you here again," says Cecil self-consciously. "And I only have to look at you to see how much you're getting out of it...you should make the most of it."

Carlos swallows. Pokes at an oyster with his fork. "We do need to go to the library anyway, right? Are we even covered for the bus fare home at this point?"

The corners of Cecil's mouth twitch upward. "That sort of depends on whether we get dessert."

Carlos mirrors the awkward smile. "Okay. Um, how about this. I'll go, but when you come after me, don't let me stay for more than...half an hour? Then we go back to the room, and spend the rest of the evening watching one of the Lyra-and-Will movies. Together."

"Oh, but Carlos!" exclaims Cecil. "We haven't read the books!"

"And there's no way I'm getting on that plane back to Trimountaine without a copy of the trilogy in my luggage, so we can read those at our leisure back home," points out Carlos. "There's no way to get the films in a format that's been invented in our world, or on a device we'll be able to run. I know it's not an ideal situation...but I'm okay with spoiling myself if you are."

 

-{,(((,">

 

According to Carlos's last-minute library research, the 2036 miniseries is still the defining live-action adaptation as far as the fandom is concerned. When Cecil shows up he checks the updated balance on their account, gasps, and announces that as long as they have this much to spend, Carlos can keep reading for a little longer while Cecil finds a convenience store and picks up some instant popcorn. And maybe a few stylish new scarves.

At last they cuddle together on the bed, daemons curled up at their feet. Cecil will be watching through Khoshekh's eyes, so he lies down in Carlos's lap, where Carlos gives his scarf a quick straightening before settling in to massage his scalp.

The series opens on the teenage actress playing Lyra, complete with CGI Pantalaimon, causing trouble in her Oxfordshire boarding school...until she and her sweet, straight-laced BFF Roger stumble over a conspiracy in Exeter College's multi-world research unit. Cecil murmurs approval at the dramatic first alethiometer-reading scene. Carlos is pleasantly surprised at the accuracy of the physics-related exposition. And while the handling of the daemons is weird, it's just eccentric, not uncanny-valley creepy.

By the end of the first episode, Lyra has met a stoic and mysterious romantic hero from another world, and they're planning to have her sneak into a sinister facility that Carlos thinks is supposed to be Magisterium-run. The connection makes sense once you recognize the director isn't familiar with the standard dramatic tropes used to indicate menacing fictional organizations that are definitely not the Church, and only has vague secondhand information about how its real-world structure works in the first place.

In the second episode —

Carlos doesn't see it coming. How could he? A normal television series would build up to something this dramatic. A normal series rated TV-14 wouldn't show such explicit violence on-screen in the first place.

In the second episode Lyra's undercover act is blown, and one of the agents of the not-Church subdues her by grabbing her daemon.

Carlos and Isaña are riveted, all their eyes fixed to the screen.

Cecil shudders in his lap. "Oh. Oh, that's really quite — Carlos, if you want to stop —"

But the scene is already fading to black as Lyra-the-character loses consciousness. And while it's hitting Carlos hard, it isn't setting off any of the miswired panic switches in his brain. This is something different. "No. Don't stop it. I want to see her take these people down."

 

-{,(((,">

 

She does.

There's a fresh cliffhanger at the end of this episode too, but the not-Magisterium facility is a pile of ashes, and in the wake of the end credits Carlos sleeps more soundly than he has in years.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (Lyra's world).

I think we're in real financial trouble. My wife doesn't want me to know, keeps saying "it's all right, Lucy, I'm taking care of it," but she can't hide that she's worried. Not from me.

Hannah's always been good at hiding things. It's how she made it through four years of business school in San Francisco after growing up in Night Vale, on top of being whip-smart and knowing when not to care what people think.

Or at least, most of the time she knows. The first time she asked me out, I just about had a heart attack — it was the middle of the Res Life office, with people all over the place, and I was working there as part of my scholarship package, so I couldn't leave or make her go away. If there had been a public GSA openly campaigning for tolerance on campus, she would've figured out the way things stood on her own, but there wasn't even that! We met in secret, in the library basement, and were too busy being a support group for each other to go around pushing for change.

Not that I'm criticizing! She gave me a scare, but at least she managed not to get in any real trouble over it. Compare that to the first time I came here over vacation to spend a couple weeks with her family. I got myself arrested on the second day for bringing a pocket calculator.

When the theologians first came to town, Hannah sort of asked if I wanted to make friends with them, but it didn't seem to me we had a whole lot in common. Then one of them got arrested, when I hadn't gotten picked up by the police for eight years and counting, so I decided it was safer not to associate with them. At that rate they'd all be dead or gone in a month anyway.

Shows what I know.

The whole thing has been better for Hannah's social life than mine. Since high school I don't think she'd said more than two words to Cecil Palmero, maybe nodded at each other when they passed in the Raúl's...then he falls for one of the Outsiders, and ever since this summer she's been the de facto leader of the "help, I'm afraid the love of my life is going to get chosen in the lottery because they never learned to sense the emotional aura of colors" support group.

I did finally learn the color sensing, if you want to know. A few years back. Maybe I didn't adjust to living in a different culture as fast as Hannah did, but I have adjusted. People don't look at me and think "Outsider" any more. They look at me and think "yes, I am welcome to the White Sand! Now give me a double scoop of mint chocolate chip with extra hemlock."

Here you are, sir! I just hope you'll still be able to have one next month, or the month after that.

I'm not saying that it's that bad, because I don't know it for a fact...but it might be. Hannah won't show me the spreadsheets.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Oxford (Will's world).

Carlos spends most of Thursday in the archives of the Oxford college with the most prestigious physics department, devouring their scientific journal publications on Rusakov particles from the 1990s through the 2010s.

Cecil spends it running around town taking in the non-scientific sights. He meets Carlos in the evening with boxes of mince pies and Christmas crackers, hardbound copies of two different biographies of Mary Malone, and a harrowing tale of almost having the books soaked when one of the actors in a panto sprayed water all over his section of the audience.

For dinner they have takeout Cathay food in front of the Lyra-and-Will miniseries, moving on to the adaptations of The Bridge to the Stars and The Republic of Heaven. It keeps right on being excellent drama, even when the worldbuilding is distractingly wrong (panserbjørne aren't that big). A fictionalized version of Serafina Pekkala gets involved, played by an actress who is, in a refreshing twist of racebending, not white. Then at last Mary Malone joins in, swayed instantly to the cause of the Republic when Lyra gets her computer to generate a beautiful holographic alethiometer.

It's all well and good, until the second-to-last episode.

This time, Carlos should have seen the problem coming. He didn't have any warning about Pantalaimon being touched, still doesn't know if that happened in real life or was just a dramatic invention; but he knows full well how Lyra got her range. And he could have guessed the filmmakers knew too, as soon as they dropped the first piece of foreshadowing about the world of the dead.

With a CGI Pan, they don't have to resort to camera tricks or deceptive intercutting of footage to show the distance between Lyra and her daemon as the boat pushes away from the final shore. They can do long sweeping zooms from their Lyra's heartbroken face to the tiny, huddled, pain-wracked form she's leaving behind....

Barely audible under the swell of the music, Cecil says, "Carlos, I —"

They're sitting shoulder to shoulder this time. Carlos glances his way, and — oh — there are tears on Cecil's cheeks. "Do you want to stop?"

Cecil gulps and nods, then hugs his knees to his chest and just...folds up.

Khoshekh, meanwhile, hops off the edge of the mattress and bolts underneath it. Out of reach. Hiding.

Isaña trots across the covers to Carlos, who curls a hand around her shell, already suspecting they won't get to see the end of the series. "Do you...want to be touched?" he asks Cecil, not sure what his boyfriend's sensitivities are right now. "Would you rather be...alone?"

"You stay right here," says Cecil wetly.

Carlos stays.

Presently, Cecil gathers himself enough to add, "Talk to me? Tell me something you learned today."

Now there's something Carlos can handle. "The many-worlds hypothesis was first proposed in this world in the 1950s," he begins. "Paralleling our 1840s. But it wasn't based on reality or observation at the time, just on a theoretical attempt to work out what they perceived as paradoxes in quantum physics. Once they discovered Rusakov particles, one of the first projects of Dr. Malone's new research unit was to re-evaluate whether it really was a paradox that we experience the subjective appearance of waveform collapse...."

He keeps it up as Cecil's shoulders quit shaking, as Cecil scrubs away the tears.

"A series of experiments at the CERN chapels — I mean, the CERN laboratories — confirmed their findings in the 2010s, and it's been an accepted principle of physics ever since. Did I mention they have a CERN here? Or at least, they had it — it got folded into another organization a couple of decades ago. It did the same kind of research ours did, and it's also where they invented the Internet."

Summoning the energy to go into motion, Cecil swings one leg over Carlos's, so he's straddling Carlos's hips. Carlos loops his arms around Cecil's waist, while of course Cecil's hands go immediately to his hair.

"I had to pull an intro physics textbook just to make sure I had all the particles straight. Obviously they call them electrons instead of anbarons, and they have all these cute names for quarks, and some terms are just contracted, they say muon instead of mu lepton...oh, and get this: they used to call those mu mesons. Can you believe it?"

"I...don't know," says Cecil. His voice is hoarse. The Voice is never hoarse. "Is that funny?"

"It's very funny," Carlos assures him. "They're basically giant anbarons. And for a while the whole field was going around calling them hadrons."

"...I thought you said they called them mesons?"

Carlos's amusement dims as he understands that Cecil won't share it. "Because mesons are a type of...um, maybe I should draw you a chart?"

Cecil makes a face. (It's so cute the way he scrunches up his nose like that.) "I'll manage."

With the lights still off and the screen plunged into a power-saving blackness, the only illumination in the room is from a streetlamp outside, shining between the gap in the curtains. A cold drizzle makes patterns in the stripe of light that falls across the bed.

"I'll go for a — a long walk, tomorrow morning," says Cecil. His wandering fingers have completely undone Carlos's ponytail by now; the hair tie has ended up around his wrist. "So you can finish the series before we check out."

Carlos shakes his head. "Don't worry about it. I'll read the books."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale (Lyra's world).

My voice is still for war. / Gods! Can a Roman senate long debate / Which of the two to choose, slavery or death? / No, let us rise at once, / Gird on our swords, and, / At the head of our remaining troops, attack the foe, / Break through the thick array of his throng'd legions, / And charge home upon him.

Joseph Addison: Cato, A Tragedy.

Stand by your radios, Night Vale, because in a minute I'm going to find where I put my notes from Death Comes for the Archbishop, and then you'll be in for a real treat.

Chapter Text

Trimountaine (Lyra's world).

When Carlos turns on his phone for the first time after the plane has touched down, it nearly vibrates out of his hand. He has eighty missed calls or messages. Eighty. The latest being from his baby sister, saying she's made it to the train station, and to text her when his plane gets in.

Their book-laden suitcases are heavy enough that it takes all of Carlos's scien— all his theological willpower to drag them along. (What would Dr. Belacqua think if he left any of his information-filled purchases behind? What would Dr. Malone think?)

Cecil makes a startled noise when they get outside, zips up his fur-lined coat, and sticks his hands under his arms to keep them warm while they wait for the T. Carlos pulls up his own coat's hood, while Isaña huddles in the blanket in his backpack. Khoshekh trots along beside them in a fluffy plaid cloak, the loose drape of the fabric concealing his unorthodox leg arrangement. Anyone who spots his unusual gait should put it down to a missing limb, or something else mundane.

The airport shuttle is packed with holiday traffic; humans are shoved close together on one side of the aisle, daemons on the other, the suitcase racks piled to the ceiling. Cecil is up against a wall and practically nose-to-nose with Carlos, which is cute until they go underground, at which point he bites his lip and turns to stare out the windows. Though he isn't even using them, his eyes are wide behind his dark glasses. "Tell me how long this ride is again."

"Fifteen minutes," murmurs Carlos. "Give or take. Then we get out of here and get right back on solid, non-mobile ground."

 

-{,(((,">

 

As promised, it isn't long before they're lugging everything out onto the South Station platform. Other passengers stream out around them, hauling their own bags, making for the elevators or the stairs or the next platform over. Next to a wall nearby, a couple of women with guitars stand by a microphone, crooning a slow Christmas carol: "This is the time of year / We hold our families near / But God, let us be a friend to the hurting...."

"Need just a minute," pants Carlos, leaning on the handle of the nearest suitcase. Khoshekh, carrying Isaña, trots to a stop beside him. "Gotta catch my breath."

"Oh Immanuel, God with us / Spirit revealed in us," sing the carolers. "That we may be your hope to the world...."

Something about the music catches Isaña's ear. She tugs at Carlos's attention, and he listens.

"Oh Immanuel, God with us / With a light to break the darkness / That we may show your hope to the world...!"

Carlos doesn't recognize the carol itself, but something about the lyrics is tugging at the back of his mind. "Can we stay another minute? I want to ask them something."

Cecil seems puzzled, but gives him the go-ahead, so they roll over to the singers: a blonde, a redhead, and their daemons, crooning in four-part harmony. Carlos tosses a couple of dollars in the guitar case at their feet, then acts distracted while they finish the last verse, so he won't unnerve them by staring. (He's not dangerous to them, for a multitude of reasons, but they don't know that.)

When the last chord fades, there's a smattering of applause from the few people waiting for the next shuttle who don't have their own music turned up too high to hear. Carlos claps a couple of times, then says, "Can I interrupt? That word you were saying, that name...Emmanuel? Where's that from?"

Both musicians light up. It's probably the first time they've actually been asked to preach at someone.

"It's from the Book of Isaiah," says the redhead, in a heavy Trimountaine-Irish accent. Her daemon is a palm thrush. "One of the oldest prophecies that the Messiah would come. The scripture was fulfilled when the virgin Mary gave birth to a son who was the Lord God incarnate. That's why he was called Immanuel — which means God with us."

"Yes, yes, all that," says Carlos, a little impatiently. He did go to Sunday school, even if he can't remember ever taking the religious details as fact. "But is it a reference to anything else? Or anyone else?"

"Even if it was, there are so many other prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled in the Gospels," says the blonde (her daemon: a stocky beagle), utterly misunderstanding his concern. "We have a pamphlet — and there are links to more on our website — when you look at all the evidence together, it's incredible to think there are people who don't believe it."

"Or who have their faith shaken by some elitist researcher who thinks being as controversial as possible is a good way to get famous," adds the woman with the thrush. "What evidence do they have for their theology? A blurry video that's supposed to be an angel? That hardly compares to thousands of years of scholarship."

Khoshekh hisses.

"Ah," says Carlos. "Yes. Well. Thank you for your time, but we should get going now."

He doesn't escape without a pamphlet, and gets warmly God-blessed and merry-Christmased as they haul their luggage toward the elevator. Cecil holds it together just long enough for the doors to close, then snarls, "The nerve of those people! If you hadn't warned me to check in with you before correcting people, to make sure it's okay for them to know and/or admit knowing the truth, I would have let them know exactly what I thought of their smug, dismissive, stupid faces. How dare they accuse you of doing bad theology? How dare they? And bragging about their scholarship when they don't even have the translation right!"

"Thank you for holding back," says Carlos. He doesn't trust himself to say much more without breaking into angry venting of his own. "What do you mean about the translation?"

"Immanu'el in Hebrew — that was Hebrew, right? — doesn't mean 'god, with us'," says Cecil. "It's not an epithet for a nearby deity. It just means 'god is with us'. You might as well saying that someone who named their child —" He spits out a collection of growls and hoots. "— was claiming they had given birth to the beams incarnate, when all it means is 'the beams are all-powerful'."

"Makes sense." Lots of babies are named after the parents' beliefs (or hopes) regarding whatever deity they happen to worship. Carlos probably had a student or classmate named Emmanuel at some point, and that's where this déjà vu is coming from. "Hey, Cecil, I forgot to mention this earlier, but when you're talking to my family...don't hoot."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Azalea and her tocororo daemon find them on the train platform. "So this is the guy!" she exclaims, shaking Cecil's hand. Like Carlos, she gets her height from Papi's side of the family: she's a full inch taller than Cecil is. Unlike him, she's gotten a haircut recently, leaving her curls in a short bob. "I like the dye job! Very striking."

"Thank you," says Cecil warmly. (In this case, if he had asked, Carlos would have said it was okay to explain that his hair has been turning white all on its own. But Cecil is already self-conscious about his status as an Outsider; he might not want to draw attention to his weird genetics.) "Your jewelry is beautiful. Handmade, right?"

It's the perfect thing to say. Azalea and Cecil spend most of the train ride talking about the local hand-crafting industries in New Amsterdam and Night Vale respectively, while Carlos finishes catching up on his texts (he's too afraid to even look at his email). No serious crises and nobody on the team has died, thank the beams. Most of them are off on their own holiday vacations by now, leaving a skeleton crew of the Li Huas, Nirliq, and Sherie to keep an eye on the chapel.

As with last year, Lena is waiting at the tiny central-Narraganset train station to pick them up. Her furry bat daemon, who handles the cold better than her older brother's desert-dwelling armadillo or her little sister's tropical bird, flaps down to the ground to touch noses with Khoshekh while Lena helps lift their suitcases into the van. "Oof," she complains, hefting one of Carlos's. "What did you put in this, rocks?"

"Books," says Carlos sheepishly. "We just got back from Oxford, so I picked up a lot of books you can't get here at home."

"Well, color me unsurprised," sighs Lena. "But if I were you, I would've had them shipped."

Cecil turns to Carlos as they pile into the van. "Should I tell them...?"

"Go ahead," says Carlos, flashing an OK sign with his hand. (Their agreed-upon signal for "really, you can tell the truth here," as opposed to a thumbs-up, which is "just kidding, lie like a rug.") He's already grinning as he anticipates the looks on his sisters' faces when it comes out that he was worried about cross-dimensional shipping fees — because he's been playing tourist in Will Parry's universe.

So Cecil explains, "For security reasons, the Night Vale post office destroys most packages it receives."

Right. That too.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Mike, May, and the boys are spending the holiday with May's side of the family. They'll be dropping in for a day or two after Christmas. Carlos knows it probably would have gone that way no matter what — they spent last year with one set of grandparents, they'll spend this year with the other, it's only fair — but he can't help but worry about May's ongoing disapproval of her gay Magisterium-defying brother-in-law, and what that might mean for next year.

Lena's in-laws aren't up for hosting big gatherings, so her husband and kids are at the house when they arrive...along with Carlos's parents.

Mamá does some preliminary fussing over him and Azalea, then lights up as she invites Cecil in. "Welcome! Come in! It's lovely to finally see you in person, after Carlos has been talking about you for months and months. Let me take your coat." (Her raccoon daemon, at the same time, is insisting on helping Khoshekh with his cloak.)

Cecil practically sparkles at the attention. "You're very kind, Señora Ramirez," he says as she helps with his coat and scarf. Underneath, he's wearing a knit purple sweater, hiking boots with purple laces, and tuxedo pants — which were the fifth most normal type of legwear Carlos found after going through his whole closet.

"Oh, cielito, you must call me Iris," chides Mamá. "And this is Carlos's papi, Tierno. Any boyfriend of our son's deserves the best hospitality. Let me show you around."

One perk from Mike and his family not staying in the house: it frees up the pull-out couch. No air mattresses for Carlos this year! Cecil is relieved to find that the mirror in one of the bathrooms has a thick black cloth draped over it. (Carlos didn't even try to explain that to his parents, just said "it's for cultural reasons.") And they're both glad to hear that downstairs, next to the washing machine, the bloodstone circle is ready and waiting.

"The children wanted pizza, so we ordered just before you got here," adds Mamá, giving them a quick list of the agreed-upon toppings. "Is that all right with you two?"

Cecil hesitates. "Is this a situation where, if we don't eat the pizza now, it'll be mandatory to have some later? Or is this purely opt-in pizza?"

"With two teenagers in the house? Opt-in, don't you worry. It'll vanish in a day or two, even if you never touch a slice."

"I see," says Cecil seriously. "Are there other age-related food-vanishing conditions I should know about?"

Carlos squeezes his shoulder. "She just means they'll eat it. Hey, speaking of Lena's kids, where are they? I was expecting at least one 'hello, what cool foreign candy did you bring us this time' on the way in."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Turns out the rest of Lena's family is in the computer room, all on various devices. Ten-year-old Rosa is on her grandparents' old desktop ordinater, playing around on some brightly-colored website, while her unsettled daemon hangs over her shoulder in ferret form. Dawn, now fifteen, is sitting at the other desk and frowning at the screen of a graphing calculator, while her father tries to explain one of the equations on what is presumably homework. And fourteen-year-old Lucas....

Lucas is comfortably in the corner with his laptop, so busy with his MMO that he doesn't even look up when Carlos and Cecil come in. His daemon is still the white antelope...and Carlos, seeing her, isn't even having the tiniest of panic attacks. How cool is that.

Rosa is more cautious than Carlos remembers, keeping her cards close to the vest while she takes Cecil's measure. Dawn just looks relieved at the excuse to put down her homework. Once they've had names and introductions all around, she says, "Mom said Uncle Carlos says your daemon can fly. Can he really?"

"I prefer to call it floating," purrs Khoshekh, and launches himself off the ground. The move earns a delighted gasp from Rosa, who turns her chair to watch as Khoshekh flows through the air to hover next to Dawn.

It gets even Lucas's attention. "Whoa," he says, voice notably deeper than last year. "It's like you got a flight cheat code, but IRL."

And Dawn's jeweled lizard daemon, poking his head out of her pocket, says, "Would it be okay if I looked at your spine?"

Cecil beams. Even Khoshekh looks gratified as he lands for inspection. "Ah, I can see you have theologian genes! When your aunt Isaña first met me, she said the exact same thing."

"Do we, uh," says Lucas. "Do we call you, like, Uncle Cecil? Or what?"

"Mister Cecil or Señor Cecil is fine," says Cecil. Given that they've barely been dating six months, he and Carlos agreed that anything else would be jumping the gun. Still, Carlos doesn't miss the way the phrase Uncle Cecil makes him smile.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Sherie could have been taking the day off. Just because she's still in town doesn't mean she doesn't get vacation time. And while the four of them (three? what's the best way to quantify the Li Huas?) are still on duty to provide any necessary theology in an emergency, there aren't any emergencies now. It isn't even her turn to keep an eye on the danger meters! She could have been at a spa right now.

But she has a volunteer test subject who couldn't make time to come in until today, and it's related to the ongoing bloodstone-circle project, so she wasn't willing to bump it down the line any longer.

The chapel doorbell rings precisely on time, which is a neat trick in a town where none of the clocks are real. Sherie does a quick check through their new electrum-lens-equipped security-camera system, just to make sure it isn't a representative of any of the various forces and entities who might have it in for them. "Good news," she tells her mongoose daemon. "It really is Delphine, she brought her daughter, and it looks like neither of them are evil."

When Sherie invites the guests in, Delphine clasps her hands in greeting and does air-kisses on either side of her face. "Sherie! You haven't been to PTA meetings lately. We've been worried!"

"I, um, no longer have children in the Night Vale school system," says Sherie awkwardly. Her Spanish understanding is much better than it used to be, thanks in part to those meetings, but her accent is still middling and she knows it.

"That doesn't stop anyone else from coming!" exclaims Delphine. "I don't know if you were here the week when all the children disappeared? Well, we still got together Thursday evening. And we had one of our most productive meetings in years."

"I'll try to put it back on my schedule," says Sherie. "Here, let me show you the equipment."

She leads the pair into the main room of the chapel, where the bloodstones and various meters are waiting.

Delphine, as usual, is dressed and made-up like she's going to something much fancier than this. Her dark hair is in a stylish updo; her earrings match the frames of her half-moon glasses. Her daemon, a silver-and-white Lapp forest cat, pads along beside them: genetically not a wildcat, but still twice the size of the average house cat, with thick fur that makes her look more like a small lynx than anything else.

(There was a time — more recent than Sherie would like to admit — when she would have treated Delphine like a drag queen. As if the woman deserves less respect than Henriette just because she wasn't lucky enough to be born with a same-sex daemon or a relatively fine bone structure, so her biology is more obvious at a casual glance. Sherie feels ashamed of herself just thinking it.)

Delphine's daughter follows behind them, riding on the back of her own daemon: unsettled, currently in the form of a stocky palomino pony. She's about ten, with dark braids and violet eyes that match the bands on her braces. The reason she's riding instead of walking is immediately obvious — her legs are stunted, half the size of most girls her age. Judging from the way she's kicking her heels, they're not paralyzed. They just don't look capable of holding her weight for long.

It's the first time Sherie has seen this girl's face...but she can't help but recall that one of the kids in Tamika Flynn's theology liaison team also rides her daemon everywhere. And is this exact size and build. And wears different masks, but always topped with those same glasses.

After giving them a brief introduction to the setup, Sherie adds, "I'm afraid that because Dr. Ramirez is away this week...."

"Yes, when will he be back?" interrupts Delphine. "Him and Señor Palmero. Steve used to know, but he's lost track of the date, and he's awfully anxious about it."

That's right, Delphine's dating Steve Carlsberg, isn't she. Sherie gives her the date, then goes back to the explanation. "Since Carlos is away, he won't be able to confirm that you were one of the people involved in the Lazy Day spell. Not that I don't trust you, but a theologian always gets corroborating evidence. We'll still do all the —"

"Sorry," interrupts Delphine again, with an isn't-this-silly laugh, "but are you talking to me? You think I was in that spell? Oh, no."

Sherie frowns. "But...the research invitation you responded to...."

"...was on behalf of my daughter, of course. Didn't I make that clear? Say hello, Janice."

"Hello, Señora Oppenheimer," says the girl, with a little wave. "I'm Janice, and this is Tehom, and we have never met you before, so it's nice to be introduced to you, for the first time."

Now it all comes together. Sherie returns Agent J2's wave. "The pleasure is all mine."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

"Oh! By the way, Rosa — there's something important I need to ask you about."

Cecil sinks into a crouch so he's below Rosa's eye level instead of looming over her. It's a nice, calming thing to do...although the effect does get offset when he pulls off his sunglasses. Rosa is much too polite to say anything, but she's visibly unnerved by his pale, clouded eyes.

"You see, all month I've been working on what kind of presents to bring," continues Cecil, undeterred. "I've figured out the gifts for most of the family — but for you, I'm stuck. So can you tell me a little about yourself? What your hobbies are, what you like to do?"

"I dunno," says Rosa. Her daemon has turned into a mouse, small enough to be half-concealed by the side ponytail falling over her shoulder. "Internet stuff. Nothing important."

"You're really into this Neopia thing," volunteers her father. "Tell Mr. Cecil about that."

"It's Neopets, Dad," protests Rosa.

"Uh-huh?" says Cecil hopefully. "What's that?"

Rosa points at the website on the screen beside her. "It's this."

"Khoshekh, come over here!" calls Cecil. "You can borrow him back later, Dawn, okay? I just need him to see right now." To Rosa, he adds, "Did your mother explain about my vision? How I can't see things on screens when I'm not in four-eye with my daemon? That's also why my eyes look like this."

"Mom just said we shouldn't ask you to read things," says Rosa. Her daemon turns back into a ferret and leans slightly closer to Cecil, relaxing a little now that they know his eyes are something they're allowed to talk about. "Were you born like that, or did something happen?"

Carlos, sensing that he doesn't need to keep hovering here, touches Cecil on the shoulder. "Hey, I'm going to go get some work done. I'll be in the den if you need anything, okay?"

"Of course, of course! Enjoy your theology," says Cecil. His voice fades behind Carlos and Isaña as they retreat down the hall: "There was an accident, when I was around your sister's age. I'm afraid I don't remember the details. Now, about this website. Ooh, that thing's cute. What's it called...?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos curls up on the den couch with one of his new books, intending to enjoy it until dinner arrives. He only gets halfway through the first chapter. After the third time he reaches for the nearest anbaric device to look up one of the cited studies, only to remember that it was done in another world and is out of his reach for the foreseeable future, he ends up staring blankly at the page.

They can do the same studies here. Build up the same body of knowledge. He knows they can.

But it makes him feel hollow and tired to think about how much new sci...theology was around him over there, and how tiny a fraction he managed to cling to on his way back. It's like being pulled out of the condo all over again, except that what he lost wasn't an illusion that only felt like perfection while he was inside it. This was real. And he's always going to be conscious of how amazing it was.

He puts the book down and lies down, curling an arm around Isaña. They won't be able to sleep, they got a long nap on the transdimensional flight, but there's no need to rush through the reading, right? For that, he has all the time in the world.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Someone calls him when the pizza arrives, and given that Carlos is opting out, he heads to the kitchen to rifle through the fridge. It isn't long before Cecil joins him, accompanied by Lucas.

From the sound of it, Cecil took a turn with Lucas's game as well as Rosa's. "I'm sorry, I don't know where my head is today. I must be more out-of-practice than I realized."

"You kept aiming too low at the last minute," advises Lucas, leaning on the counter while Carlos lays out the ingredients for a couple of burritos. He's gotten so much taller this year, it's incredible. "You need to aim so the sight is over the target, and then hold it real steady."

"Oh!" exclaims Cecil, his furrowed brow smoothing over. "Of course! Silly Cecil. I was compensating for the kick — when it fires — but this game doesn't simulate that, does it? No wonder I kept missing."

"What game do you play where it does simulate the kick?"

Cecil hesitates, then touches Carlos's arm and moves his thumb against the knitted sleeve: brush, tap, brush, brush, tap. "Is there hot sauce?"

Carlos flashes him an OK sign. Yes, Cecil can answer the gun question honestly. "I'll check the cupboard."

"Um, not a game," says Cecil to Lucas, pouring a generous helping of shredded cheese on his tortilla. "And not a simulation. I'm used to practicing with real firearms. Not the kind they made up for your game, obviously, but ones that look a lot like it."

"No, that is a real gun," says Lucas. "It's called a Zastava M-70."

Cecil frowns. "That was supposed to be an M-70? Then where were the cooling slots on the foregrip? Honestly, that is very slipshod animation. If I were you I'd find somebody to complain to."

The pizza boxes are going around the table when they enter the dining room, and the conversation stalls as Lucas joins the rest of his family in filling his plate. His oversize daemon sits across the threshold of the door behind him; Isaña and most of the others sit under their humans' chairs. Drinks get passed around too.

Carlos is just handing on the hot chocolatl when Cecil gasps, staring at the box in Lena's hands. "Are those — breadsticks?"

"That's right," says Lena, handing it on to Rosa.

"Real breadsticks? Made with flour?"

Lena's husband raises his eyebrows. "Sure. Don't they have those where you come from?"

"They do, but the black-market price-gouging has been terrible lately. I haven't been able to afford them for...oh, gosh, at least a year."

The non-Night-Vale-based adults at the table trade "is he joking?" looks. Rosa, meanwhile, just hands the box down the table without taking any. "You can have my share if you want, Mr. Cecil."

Cecil looks stricken. "Oh, I — I couldn't possibly —"

"We can get more later, easy," Carlos assures him. "Go ahead, help yourself. Thanks, Rosa."

"He deserves it!" exclaims Rosa, her daemon riding on her shoulder as a red-furred squirrel. "He's so nice. He did a faerie quest on my account, and the faerie gave him a Lost Desert Paint Brush, and he said I could keep it. Those are, like, three million Neopoints!"

Her older sister, across from her, huffs in disapproval while fighting to detach a slice of pepperoni-and-onion. "He probably just doesn't buy into your fantasy capitalist system in the first place. Did you see his tattoo?"

Cecil spills all the breadsticks across his plate.

"Hey, save some for the rest of us," jokes Lena's husband. Blushing, Cecil mumbles an apology and starts putting them back.

Carlos could kick himself. Of course — Mamá took Cecil's scarf at the door. And neither of them thought twice about it. Carlos doesn't remember noticing the ink at the time, but maybe Cecil's collar had ridden up high enough to cover it...or maybe he just didn't pay attention. Either way, the thick knit sweater is settled now, and the way the collar hangs, half the ink is exposed. Dawn probably could have seen the whole thing while Cecil was leaning over one of her younger siblings' shoulders.

"All this, and a tattoo too?" says Azalea, with a roguish grin. "What is it?"

"It's a bar code," says Dawn, oblivious in her enthusiasm to Cecil's distress. "I have never in my life seen such a perfect commentary on how our individuality gets commodified by corporations! And that's saying something, because I'm on Tumblr a lot."

"Oh?" Cecil's voice shakes as he tries to sound normal, passing Carlos the half-full breadstick box. "What's your username? Do you tag for the endless uncaring void of the night sky? Because I would love to follow you, as long as I can filter for that."

And now he's won the admiration of all three kids for things that are not cringe-inducing misconceptions. Carlos hands the breadsticks on to Mamá and says quietly, "You look cold. Let me grab your hat and scarf."

"Would you?" breathes Cecil. "Thank you."

By the time Carlos gets back, Cecil is in the middle of an earnest discussion with Dawn about whether or not it's speciesist to include warning tags for tarantulas. If it weren't for the lightning speed with which he wraps the scarf around his neck, Carlos wouldn't have guessed he was bothered at all.

 

-{,(((,">

 

In fleecy pajamas, an oversized sweater, and a wool hat with cat ears on it that matches his scarf-of-the-moment, Cecil still pulls the blankets right up to his neck. Their daemons are huddled in a basket next to the fold-out mattress, under similar layers. "Does it always get this cold here in winter?"

"Afraid so." Carlos drapes a protective arm over him. "You want a hot water bottle or something?"

"Those are real?" exclaims Cecil. "I — I thought that was just something made-up for books and movies! Like truth serum, or drawbridges."

"I can get you one right now. Hang in there." Carlos rolls out of bed, pulls his bathrobe (which is not a terrycloth bedtime chapel coat, no matter what Cecil calls it, and the fact that it is long and white and has pockets is pure coincidence) tighter over his own PJs, and makes his way out into the kitchen.

His parents are probably asleep by now, and Lucas is off somewhere with his MMO, but there's a soft sound of conversation from the living room. They've turned off the lights — Azalea and Lena, Lena's husband, and the girls — to sit around the tree. As the water boils, Carlos weighs the merits of joining them, versus the (considerable) appeal of snuggling back into bed and basking in Cecil's awe....

Gasps from the front room.

Carlos tenses, already guessing this is going to be about him. Sure enough, Lena shows up in the doorway a moment later, fruit bat daemon hanging from her arm. "Carlos? Do you and Cecil know a translucent lady with no daemon? Because there's one here asking about you."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

This late at night, the flat roof of the White Sand is in shadow, giving Tamika all the cover she needs from the streetlights on the ground. One of the other Advanced Readers takes out the observer on the rooftop across the street, while Tamika herself uses her trusty slingshot to knock out the ones on ground level.

As long as Strex doesn't send around any gyropters with spotlights, they have the area secure. Again.

Tamika sits, leaning back against her buffalo daemon's bulk, praying to anything but a smiling god that Palmero will get his act together and answer this time.

She's gotten a lot of arcane and forbidden knowledge of the inner workings of NVCR, and its interplay with the local government and police forces, from that latest volume of Dylan Thomas poetry. Likely as not Strexcorp has no idea what they're doing — these are the kind of power plays they'd be making anyway, it could be dumb luck — but she knows. And just in case it's on purpose, someone needs to tell the Voice that his bosses are one step closer to the control they need to replace him.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

Their translucent visitor is Hannah Gutierrez, the woman with the nice suits from the ice cream shop. Not daemonless, just appearing by astral projection, whiptail lizard daemon not included.

"Where have you been?" she demands (in Spanish; Azalea and Lena watch with tense fascination, while Wes, Dawn, and Rosa are just confused) once Cecil has been hauled out of bed to stand in front of her. "Someone have been trying to reach you every day this week."

"I was out of astral-projection range," says Cecil irritably. "You could have called. Or texted."

"We couldn't," says Hannah. "That's what we needed to tell you. Don't trust your phones. Don't trust any device or area that you don't know for a fact is secure. They bought the secret police."

Carlos freezes. Cecil sucks in a gasp between his teeth.

"This is your family's home, right?" adds Hannah to Carlos, folding her translucent arms. He can see angel ornaments on the tree shining through her shoulder and elbow. "You should reinforce the wards. They let me in right away, and we don't know each other nearly well enough to have that level of access."

"Sure," stammers Carlos. "I'll look into it first thing tomorrow."

"And you." She turns to Cecil. "Drop in on Steve some time soon. He's fine, but he's been through something, and could use a friendly face. Or a surly face. Whichever you happen to have at the time."

Cecil scowls. "Of course I'm going to have a surly face when Steve has such awful timing. I'll look in on him tomorrow."

"See that you do." Hannah holds the stern face a moment longer — then switches into a pleasant customer-service smile, which she aims at the rest of the family. "It was a pleasure to meet you all. So sorry to interrupt your family evening. If you ever happen to visit Night Vale, stop by the White Sand Ice Cream Shop and tell the server you're related to Carlos the Experimental Theologian, and we'll give you a free scoop each."

On that note, her projection vanishes, leaving empty air.

"Was that...¿un àngel?" asks Azalea after a moment. She's the only person in the room who hasn't seen an Erika in person.

"I don't think so," says Dawn, in English. "Angels are taller."

"And naked," adds Rosa, making a face.

"And usually bring better news," finishes Cecil.

He's still excited when Carlos finally gets him that hot water bottle, but it's nothing more than a brief distraction as he gets out the alethiometer and pulls the covers completely over his head. Carlos ducks under there too, though of course he can't see a thing under the quilts, just hear the sound of turning dials.

"Cecil," he whispers, "if it's bad enough at home that you think we should go back...."

He doesn't finish the thought out loud for fear of jinxing it...but the Night Vale definition of "fine" doesn't always line up with his own. What if Steve is in worse shape than he sounds? If the situation were reversed, if something had happened to Lena and Wes — Carlos isn't even the first-line backup caretaker for Dawn, Lucas, and Rosa, and he would still drop everything if they needed him.

"If we go back early, it will give Strexcorp suspicions that we do not want them to have," says Cecil darkly. "It isn't worth the risk. The broadcast protocols are holding. Tamika Flynn and her fellow middle-school armed insurgents are operating as smoothly as ever. Your team members are watching their backs. And Steve...ah."

"What? What is it?"

"Steve, who is still drawing a normal salary in real money, is moving out of his Strex-managed apartment and into his girlfriend's duplex," growls Cecil. "Apparently their daughters know each other from Book Club, and get along already, so there's no issue there. Ugh, what a show-off. I am going to sleep, and pray that my dreams will include absolutely anything except that jerk."

Chapter Text

Central Narraganset.

Warding the house turns out to be a simple process. Cecil kneels in the bloodstone circle for five minutes, chants a few things, asks (and is granted) formal approval from Carlos's mother, and that's that. He says afterward that he's amazed how little invasive mental pressure there is around here.

Aside from Carlos, the only family member who comes downstairs to watch the whole process is Azalea. Not surprising, since she's the sister who went through a healing-crystals-and-mysticism phase a while back. Or maybe she isn't quite through it, Carlos thinks, when she produces a piece of amethyst on a nice decorative chain and asks for Cecil's expert evaluation.

"Well, this does absolutely nothing," reports Cecil after a moment of inspection. "Very pretty, but anyone who told you it had protective or healing properties was running a scam."

"Really?" asks Azalea. The tocororo daemon on her shoulder cocks his head. "You can tell that just by looking?"

"Sure."

"How?"

Cecil's brow furrows. "By...looking? Like you just said?"

"Yeah, but what —"

"Cecil, you wanted to call Steve, right?" cuts in Carlos. "Should we give you a few minutes to do that?"

"Would you, please?" says Cecil hopefully. "I'll come back upstairs when I'm done."

Carlos carries Isaña under his arm up the stairs, Azalea following a half-step behind. Under her breath, she says, "Was I bothering him? Or offending him? I didn't mean to! He's just hard to read."

"I think he was just flustered. Confused," says Carlos. Sure, Cecil can shut down and be totally impenetrable when he wants to, but just then his feelings had seemed pretty obvious. "You really think he's hard to read?"

"He isn't great at making eye contact...and his daemon is floating five feet off the ground next to the TV in the den," points out the tocororo. "I guess you're used to it? But we're not."

"Oh. Right."

"So I could ask more when he's done with his...call?" asks Azalea. "Or, oh! You could do the asking!"

"He has built up a pretty high tolerance for getting lots and lots of questions about mundane things. Especially from me," says Carlos sheepishly. "The problem is, half the time it turns out he doesn't even know how to explain what he's perceiving. It's like...if you saw a really well-done photogram, and I asked you to explain in technical terms why it was good, what would you say?"

"Well, I might talk about the composition, the lighting, the values, the framing, the sense of balance, the sense of movement, the symmetry or asymmetry, the rule of thirds, the —"

"— so, lots of different things," summarizes Carlos. "Now, what if you had never learned any of those terms? And grew up speaking a language in which most of the words didn't exist in the first place?"

"I...would be flustered and confused by the question. Gotcha."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Cecil won't tell Carlos anything specific about his chat with Steve, just groans and rolls his eyes a lot and protests that he can't even with that jerk, which means things can't be too bad. So Carlos relaxes and lets himself enjoy the morning: the slideshow of vacation photos Lena has to share, the medley of Christmas carols on the stereo, the proud announcement from Cecil that he's going to bake.

For a loose definition of "baking." He's going to pull a few pre-packaged trays out of boxes and stick them in the oven. Will's Oxford may be at least a century ahead of their own, and the packaging itself is biodegradable, but they haven't made any great leaps in basic mince-pie technology.

While they're cooking, Carlos curls up in a chair on one side of the Christmas tree with a Mary Malone biography, while Cecil and Rosa sit together on the other. Rosa brought out her sketchbook, Khoshekh floats over Cecil's shoulder, and they end up having another earnest conversation about the girl's virtual-pet exploits.

Carlos can only half-focus on the book when he keeps hearing things like "the way the muscles connect to the skeleton" and "depends on the layout of the internal organs."

"I find that when you're trying to get the anatomy of a creature correct, it helps to understand why it has that anatomy in the first place," explains Cecil. "If there aren't any bone-and-muscle diagrams on the website, which sounds like quite an oversight, you can always do research on similar animals from your own world and try to work it out backward from there. Would you say the Zafara is more of a mustelid or a viverrid?"

"I don't know what those words mean," stammers Rosa. She's warmed up to Cecil, but he can still be overwhelming sometimes. "Are they experimental theology words? The last thing we studied in theology class was the water cycle."

"Well, I don't know what the water cycle means, so it sounds like we're even," says Cecil reassuringly. "Carlos! Come here, we need your expert opinion on —"

"I'm not that kind of theologian, Cecil!" protests Carlos. "I study physics, not mammals or biology!"

Eventually Rosa retreats to her grandparents' ordinater, possibly to look up ferret skulls, while Cecil, who's been checking his watch every other minute, muffles a little squeal of excitement. "It's time!"

Funny, Carlos hasn't heard the timer go off....

Sure enough, a moment later Cecil's voice echoes out from the kitchen: "Carlos? Will you come help me, please?"

That isn't the happy tone of someone taking pride in their successful baking. Carlos puts down his book, scoops up Isaña, and follows his voice.

Cecil is crouching in front of the open oven, frowning at the trays on the racks inside. "I don't think they cooked? I don't know if your parents' oven is broken, or if I did something wrong...but it doesn't feel like it got hot at all."

Carlos sticks out his hand — yeah, that's room temperature — then looks at the display. The little light is off; the LCD screen shows only the time of day. "Looks like it hasn't been on. Which buttons did you press?"

"...Buttons?"

"Up here? The controls? Can you see the labels right now...?"

Slowly Cecil rises to his feet, looking wary. "Carlos...you told me, very clearly, that we don't have to do rituals with the appliances in this country. You said they just work on their own."

"Well, sure, but you still have to input the settings. It's not like they're telepathic."

An uncomfortable pause.

"You thought our appliances were telepathic, didn't you," says Carlos.

With an air of wounded pride, Cecil replies, "I am struggling to understand what else you could have meant."

It would be unfair of Carlos to laugh. This is his own fault, after all. As an experimental theologian, it was his responsibility to be precise, and he failed. "What I meant...what I should have said...is that appliances here still have operating procedures, but they're different, and lesser, than the, um, operating procedures you're used to. Here, let's pull the pies out, and I'll walk you through preheating."

 

-{,(((,">

 

They're handing around the successfully-heated snack pies, half the family parking themselves around the tree and the rest ducking into the room long enough to grab one, when Cecil relocates to the arm of the couch next to Carlos and taps the give me some input signal on his shoulder. In a carefully neutral voice, he says, "Look outside."

"Well, would you look at that," says Carlos, putting extra warmth into his tone. "Snow."

It's only flurries, not even sticking, but it's enough that Cecil's well-honed caution melts into excitement. "It's pretty," he breathes, then calls over his shoulder: "Khoshekh! Come out here and look! There's snow!"

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

The text, from a contact in Tamika Flynn's theology liaison team, is short and to the point. One of you come down here and talk to us. There's something up at the chapel.

Dammit, and today Sherie was planning to go to a spa.

Five stops from the chapel, Nirliq gets on the same bus as Sherie, and takes the seat next to her fellow theologian while her colobus daemon hops into the seat across the aisle. "I was hoping you'd be there already," she says in a low voice. "Didn't you get your car back from Kinlání?"

"Yes," says Sherie. What a fun day that had been, driving three hours either way to retrieve the vehicle her husband left in the city. "And then it got repossessed, because I couldn't keep up with the payments on my own."

"Oh. Sorry to hear that."

Sherie makes a noncommittal sound of acceptance.

"You know, Marcus Vansten might give us all free cars if we ask nicely enough," muses Nirliq. "Or if we hint that it would make us more likely to vote for him."

"First of all, we're still not registered voters in Night Vale, and second, what is Marcus Vansten running for? And since when?"

"Mayor. Since a couple days ago, when he threw his hat in the ring. I was picking up some things at the only non-Strex-owned bookstore left in town when the commotion started, so I caught most of the show — he literally built a ring and commissioned a hat and put on a whole display in the middle of the shopping district. There was a fountain. And a choir."

Well, if the man is rich enough to be throwing money away like that, he could certainly invest in a few vehicles. As a donation. On the other hand, Sherie would feel bad about pretending to think he'd be a good mayor...especially if the faceless old woman who secretly lives in her home caught wind of it and got jealous. "I'll think about it."

The bus turns onto their street...and right away she and Nirliq can see what the kids were calling about.

There's a yellow gyropter sitting in the driveway.

Not one of the ones commandeered by Tamika's army, either. Those are marked, usually in soot or ash, with the sigil of an open, staring eye. No, this is a pristine Strexcorp gyropter, matching the equally pristine Strexcorp official standing on their front steps.

There are two children sitting at the bus stop, reading. One raises her eyes from her book when Nirliq and Sherie get off, whispers "Shh. Esperá un momento," and goes back to turning the page.

Both theologians pause...and Sherie quietly notes that there are a handful of teenagers talking in the Big Rico's parking lot, and a couple more kids tossing a baseball back and forth on the sidewalk across the street. And that's just the ones in plain sight. Whatever happens here, they'll have backup.

"Okay, I'm here. Don't look around, don't look surprised," says a new voice, also in Spanish. Teenage and male, going by the rusty depth of it — even though its owner is nowhere in sight. "It's me, Agent L. Finally got my invisibility badge. Just to be clear, you guys didn't, like, invite a Strexcorp inspection of your workplace, right?"

"Not on your life," mutters Nirliq, folding her arms.

"Did they go inside?" adds Sherie, in her own Spanish (less idiomatic than Nirliq's, more accented). If Strex has done any kind of interference with their research....

"Nope. We would've broken our cover to stop them if they tried it. And I think they know that," says Agent L. "Do you, uh, do you want to go see what this guy wants?"

"I think we'd better do it, whether we want to or not," says Sherie. What she wouldn't give to have Carlos, Keith, or Henriette around right now.

Nirliq's colobus daemon climbs her arm and swings up to ride on her back, while Sherie's mongoose hangs over her shoulder, and they approach their front steps.

The visitor has a mongoose too, but golden-furred instead of ring-tailed, and sitting up on her hind legs at his side. The man himself is wearing a dark suit with a sunny yellow tie, and when they get close enough he turns and smiles with too many teeth. "Ah, some theologians! I have been knocking for twenty minutes now and not gotten any response. Were you doing field work, then?"

"We were on vacation," says Sherie. "We are, still, on vacation. We're only here because a pizza lover, very helpful, noticed you waiting around and called to ask if we forgot an appointment."

The Strex employee's smile falters; his too-dark eyes widen. "Do you mean to say that none of you were making use of this building today? What an inefficient use of resources."

"Well, we're here now," says Nirliq sternly. "And we'd love to hear what you're doing in our driveway."

Uh-oh, the smile's back. "I'm afraid that's not the right question."

Nirliq gives him a teeth-clenched smile of her own. "Well, it would be most efficient if you would hurry up and tell us the right question! Or, better yet, skip all the questions and get back to work."

"Oh, but this is my work!" says the Strex agent. "I'm a certified Strexcorp property inspector. And as of the opening of business hours this morning, this building you fine people are renting is Strexcorp property. So the question you should have asked is, what am I doing in our driveway."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

When Carlos's mother invites Cecil to look at photo albums from Carlos's childhood, Cecil gets so excited Carlos is afraid he's going to sprain something.

So Mamá gets out an album full of faded Polaroids, and she and Carlos sit on either side of Cecil while he flips through them, making a whole catalog of delighted noises at each different facet of Carlos's childhood. "I knew it! I just knew he'd be adorable."

Khoshekh is draped over Cecil's shoulder again, and through his eyes they see everything. Infant Carlos in one of Abuelita's hand-knit hats, Isaña a squirrel kit clinging reflexively to his onesie. Baby Carlos and baby Lena in matching rompers, their daemons both ducks like Papi's, tiny matching balls of brown-and-white fluff. Second-grade Carlos building a snowman, while toddler Mikey pats together a lump that's presumably a snowdaemon, although what species it was supposed to be is lost to the mists of time.

There's a whole sequence with little Carlos doing his best Serious Scholar Face at his Fisher-Price toy alethiometer, while Isaña sits on his shoulder as a pine marten. She's a polar bear in the set with fifth-grade Carlos helping tiny Azalea walk (carrying Azalea's own daemon on her back, as an unidentifiable lump of brown fur), and a zebra-tailed lizard with middle-school Carlos showing off a prize-winning theology fair project. And here at last is the family party for Carlos and Lena's settling, with the two of them grinning over a pair of cakes decorated with an armadillo and a fruit bat.

"She settled a week before he did," explains Mamá. "What was it like with you, cielito? Do you have siblings? When did you settle?"

"I'm afraid I was an only child," says Cecil. "As it happens, I settled quite late. Last in my class! But I suppose someone had to be." He turns the page. "Oh, Carlos! Is this your first chapel coat? You look stunning. Even with that tragically short haircut."

"Aha," says Mamá. "I did wonder why you showed up this year with longer hair than either of your sisters."

Carlos blushes, but doesn't deny it.

"And no, Carlos had his first chapel coat when...it must have been third grade, or fourth? The first year he went as an experimental theologian for Halloween." (Cecil actually moans at that little tidbit.) "He always seemed so sure of what he wanted to do. I thought he'd be one of the first in his class to settle...and then his own hermanita beat him to it! Of course it happens for everyone at their own time, but that didn't stop me from worrying."

"Wait, you were...concerned?" asks Carlos. "I didn't even notice."

"Oh, I had concerns about everything," his mother assures him. "It was different when Mikey and Azalea got to that age, but you were the firstborn! I worried when you hadn't settled, I worried when you had...."

Okay, now that's a little upsetting. Isaña, in Carlos's lap, frowns over the photo album at Mamá's daemon, on the far arm of the couch. "What was wrong with how I settled?"

"Nothing was wrong, tesoro mío," soothes the raccoon.

"But...?"

Woman and daemon share a look, then Mamá's daemon says, gently, "You settled as an armadillo, Carlos." He's speaking Spanish, but he doesn't use the Spanish term for Isaña's species; he uses the word the English term came from. Little armored one. "And so we thought, what could our baby have been through, that at fourteen years old his soul is so well-armored?"

"Oh," says Isaña. (Carlos rubs her ears.)

"But of course, it wasn't about how much they'd already been through, was it?" purrs Khoshekh. He and Cecil have been listening with quiet interest; his tail whips against the back of the couch. "It was about how much, even then, they were ready for."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Sherie tries to argue that this inspection should be rescheduled for when someone on the team with authority is back in town. All it gets her is unsubtle threats about locking them out of the building in the meantime, and maybe revoking their lease.

Nirliq says none of that is legal — apparently she's actually read the lease — and calls on the nearby officers of the Sheriff's secret police to back her up. The inspector counters that Strexcorp's highly-qualified legal team has been through all the town bylaws, it most assuredly is legal, and the Sheriff's secret police will abide by that and back down if they know what's good for them.

The police back down.

"I guess we should show the gentleman around," says Sherie at last. "Nirliq, how about if I do that, while you go upstairs and make sure everything is presentable?"

She cleaned up the main room downstairs herself the other day, so she knows all their most secret projects are safely packed up in boxes and drawers. Upstairs, with the ordinaters and all the biological material, she's less sure about.

"Good thinking. I'll do that." Nirliq flashes her shaky fake smile at the Strex agent once more. "The Li Huas always leave such messes after they've dissected things."

(Not true. Just because the Li Huas enjoy the sight of blood doesn't mean they would tolerate a non-sterile workspace, or risk the possibility of sample contamination. But this guy doesn't need to know that.)

So Nirliq disappears up the stairs, Sherie shows the inspector inside, and hopefully the invisible Agent L stays on her tail.

The man hums and nods all through the main room at the undamaged walls, the unbroken windows, the furniture in its original scuffed but serviceable condition. Sherie manages to keep him from going farther than the door of the laser room. After all, the humming anbaric equipment in there is the team's property, and its sensitivity is nearly as high as its cost. He wouldn't want to be liable for any damage to something that expensive, would he?

They move on through the rest of the first floor. A supply closet. The bloodstone circle room. The bathrooms, both with marks still on the doors from when a past team member pulled down the gender signs. (Sherie is briefly afraid the agent is going to mark them down for the damage. Instead, he praises the value of not segregating resources in an arbitrary way that might cause an easily-avoidable bottleneck.)

And then there's Carlos's office.

"That door has its own lock. And, I'm sorry, I don't have a key," says Sherie, trying to sound regretful about it. "You'll have to make another visit to look in there. After he comes back to town."

"Not a problem!" says the Strex agent, pulling a keyring out of his pocket. "As your new landlord, I have keys to all your locks."

The first one he tests doesn't fit the door. Neither do the next two. Sherie holds her breath. She has some idea of the projects and notes cluttering Carlos's office, and no clue how much of it is sitting out in plain sight.

The fourth key...clicks.

Grinning his too-wide grin, the inspector opens the door and takes a step across the threshold.

In the next second, something huge and blurred and weighty drops down from the ceiling and lands on top of him.

Sherie throws herself back against the far wall with a little scream.

The Strexcorp inspector doesn't cry out, but does a lot of thrashing, under the slurping bulk of — she can't even make out a shape, it's just a big grey lump, like a pile of mud —

And the golden mongoose daemon, which didn't get landed on, skitters backwards and takes off down the hall.

With a fwip a teenage boy appears at Sherie's side, both hands clutching a gun aimed at the ferocious mass of not-mud. "Ma'am! Should I fire?"

On instinct, Sherie points not at the mystery creature, but at the mongoose. "That! Shoot that!"

Agent L whips around and fires. His second shot goes straight through it, smashing it against the wall.

It doesn't disappear.

It's some kind of fake — it's giving off sparks, for goodness sake — and Sherie can't even go look closer right now, because the hungry blob in Carlos's office has just finished gulping. There's nothing left of the Strex inspector to be seen. Unless...unless those teeth sticking out of the side of its gelatinous grey flesh are his teeth.

The creature lumps forward like a giant slug, halfway into the hall. It gurgles like a clogged drain. It ripples —

— and spits out several microchips. They ping against the tiled floor like cherry pits.

"Agent! We heard gunfire. Status!" yells a young female voice from around the corner.

"One hostile, disabled!" calls Agent L. "One — uh — thing, I guess. Not sure about it!"

The muddy grey thing is gurgling again, its back humping up like a cat about to hack up a hairball. Sure enough, a second later it burps out a sodden mass of...fine copper wire?

"Nirliq!" calls Sherie, still plastered against the wall, her own real daemon a startled puff of fur. "Can you hear me?"

"Did the kid say no hostiles?" comes Nirliq's muffled voice.

"Something like that!" stammers Sherie. "Can you get us a spyglass down here?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

On the drive to the bowling alley, Carlos gets a text from Sherie. It's "not an emergency, and if it turns back into one we'll tell you, but check in soon anyway, okay?"

He will. Thanks to the bloodstone circle, he can even do it securely. But later. Right now the kids have been summoned together for an evening of Quality Grandparent Time, freeing up his generation — that's him and Cecil, Lena and Wes, and Azalea — to have corresponding Quality Adult Time.

Bowling was obviously Cecil's idea. The woman behind the snack counter raises her eyebrows at his enthusiasm, given that he's wearing his dark glasses again — and the protective insect-daemon casing hanging around his neck is opaque. Cecil just smiles past her skepticism and asks if she can recommend a menu item with lots and lots of flour.

"You know, I've had a great time with the kids, but I feel like I still don't know anything about the rest of you," he says, as they carry a mountain of soft pretzels (for Cecil) and a bowl of nachos (for everyone else) to Lane 3. "Tell me some things! For instance — Lena and Wes, how did you meet?"

Lena tells the story as they take turns rolling balls down the aisle. Cecil is an excellent interviewer; he asks meaningful follow-up questions, is fascinated with the answers, and takes care to phrase things in a nice generic way that makes it hard for too much weirdness to creep through. He keeps it up with Azalea, curious to know more about her life in New Amsterdam — although she starts giving answers like "no, people don't really burst into song in Central Park all the time, it's only once every couple of weeks." Cecil believes that one for a whole frame, until someone takes pity on him and sets him straight.

(All this — plus a round of reasonably-priced beers — and he's still bowled nothing but strikes and spares by the eighth frame. Carlos is glad they're not trying to seriously convince anyone he's legally blind. Even the secret police wouldn't pretend to believe a ruse this sloppy.)

"Of course, it doesn't matter how long I've been making it on my own," sighs Azalea, lining up her own ball and sending it down the polished boards. "I come back home, and right away I'm the baby again."

"Hey now," says Carlos. "We invited you to Quality Adult Time here and everything."

"But you didn't even look my way when you were discussing who was going to be the designated driver," points out Azalea. "Seriously, I'm almost thirty and you guys still don't really believe I'm old enough to have my license."

Carlos stammers, trying to remember if he really did that...while Cecil chuckles and says, "I know that feeling! When I got my learner's permit, my — um."

He stops. So does the conversation. Pins clatter in the distance.

"For some reason I thought you were an oldest child," remarks Lena, lifting her own bowling ball from the machine and balancing the weight in her hands.

"I...am. Strictly speaking," says Cecil. "At one time I had an older brother. And now I do not." As the rest of the group processes this, he adds, "Sorry! I've made this awkward now. I didn't mean to bring it up."

Lena recovers first. "Don't worry about it. And we're very sorry for your loss."

"Hey, you two haven't told us how you guys met yet," adds Wes. "How about it?"

"It's not very exciting," says Carlos. "My team got called to do a press conference to talk to the town about our research, and afterward Cecil came up and introduced himself, and said to call the station if we ever had news."

(Their next couple of meetings were a lot more interesting, but of course Carlos can't talk about the alethiometer here, and it's either that or start a story with "When one of my team members was kidnapped by the Sheriff's secret police....")

"Of course it's not exciting when you tell it like that," says Cecil, swatting him on the arm. "Allow me."

His version is a lot more absorbing. Certainly more dramatic. He includes the angels by Josie's side, and the agents from a vague yet menacing branch of the Magisterium lurking in back, and the suspense permeating the audience before Carlos even reached the stage. By the time he gets to "...and I fell in love instantly" (which makes Carlos blush just as hard in English as it does in Spanish), it's been five solid minutes since any of them looked at the pins.

 

-{,(((,">

 

When most of the family has retreated to their beds or to the Internet, Cecil sneaks his whittling knives and an extra block of wood out of his suitcase. Carlos finds an old tablecloth to catch the shavings, and the two of them set up a makeshift workshop on a desk in the currently-empty ordinater room.

It still isn't clear what (if anything) Cecil will be carving for Carlos's unsettled nephews, but obviously Rosa is getting a sculpture of one of her virtual pets. "We're not going to see my niece's daemon start trying out...Xaphara form any time soon, are we?" jokes Carlos, leaning on one elbow and watching Cecil score loose outlines on the faces of the wood.

"Zafara. With a Z and an F," corrects Cecil. "And of course he won't."

They haven't put the lights on; the only illumination is from the desktop ordinater, with a series of reference pictures open on the screen. Khoshekh's eyes are fixed on those, from his position curled around Isaña. Carlos would need to switch on a lamp if he was going to do some work of his own, or he'd give himself a headache from the eyestrain, but for this he doesn't mind the darkness.

"Neopets are sapient animals. Like the panserbjørne," continues Cecil. "Now, a Petpet, that's a different story. Some of them appear to be mechanical, and at least one is just a tiny snowman, so I'm not sure those would count...but I can't think of any reason why the rest wouldn't be fair game."

Carlos sighs. Of course he can't.

"Your family's nice," adds Cecil, keeping his tone carefully light.

"Yeah?" says Carlos. "You like them? I was hoping you'd like them."

"Your sister makes some of the exact same faces you do." Cecil begins paring off one of the corners of the wood. "Lena, I mean."

"You think so?" People say Carlos looks like his mother, and occasionally like Azalea, but he and Lena have different enough features that strangers have occasionally called them a "cute couple."

"It's the movement," explains Cecil. "Once you start talking, it's like the muscles underneath are set up the same way. And Azalea lights up just like you do when she's interested in something. Your dad...he hasn't said much, but his daemon looks around every once in a while to make sure everything's okay, like Isaña does when you don't want it to be obvious that you're casing the place. I know where you get that from now. I know where you got that cute laugh, too."

His mouth twists into a wry smile.

"I know why you have such a hard time noticing when you're chewing more loudly than necessary. Half your family does it."

Isaña rolls halfway up, ducking her head into the protection of her shell. Wrapped around her, Khoshekh purrs.

"I don't remember anything my brother said or did when I got my learner's permit." Cecil's hands are steady on the blade. His voice, not so much. "Your sister was talking, and all of a sudden I recognized the feeling, but it isn't — attached to anything. How is that possible, Carlos? If I can remember the feelings, shouldn't there be something there?"

"I'm not that kind of theologian either," says Carlos softly. "I'm sorry, Cecil. I don't know."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Sherie sends up a quick prayer to any sympathetic listener — the Hebrew God may not exist, but the angels have never ruled out the witches' deity Yambe-Akka, or that Unsmiling God who gets the occasional name-check from Tamika — that this works all right.

At few minutes later, she's relaxed, as "in the zone" as she's ever gotten...and there's a familiar mind poking at hers.

When invited, a translucent Carlos pops into existence in front of her, wearing a striped sweater, heavy corduroy pants, and thick socks with snowflakes on them. There's no armadillo daemon to be seen, but instead of being hard to read, his emotions are crystal clear: he's radiating warmth, comfort, and anticipatory excitement even under his...anxiety? No, concern. A lot of concern.

"It worked?" he exclaims. "It worked!"

Sure did, thinks Sherie happily. As long as we're connected, can you manage telepathy too?

Let's test it. Can you hear this?

Loud and clear. With two straight successes under her belt, Sherie stands up...right out of her own body. Let's walk and talk.

Whoa. Carlos follows her through the wall. When did you learn to do that?

Last week, maybe? But let me give you the bad news first, get it out of the way. Our lovely rented building here is under new management.

Carlos's face falls. No. Is that why we're not speaking out loud?

Yes, but only so the usual observers from the Sheriff's secret police can't pass anything on. We aren't bugged, at least not yet. A couple of bright young children with scrying powers swept the building, and there's a rotating team of them keeping watch over the place.

When all this is over, I am taking every single one of those kids on an all-expenses-paid trip to Six Flags Desert Springs, resolves Carlos as they head up the stairs. "Bad news first" implies you also have good news, right?

Right you are! Strexcorp has the right to send inspectors to make sure we're not destroying the building, but — and I did not know this — if you happen to have a pet, and the pet happens to devour someone on your property, then by Night Vale law nobody is liable. And if it's a workplace pet, then rented property in a business-zoned district is included.

Carlos frowns. Are you telling me we have a pet?

They walk through the (closed) door of the bio room. "He made it!" reports Sherie.

One of the Li Huas stays focused on her microscope, while the other looks up. Each has a wren daemon perched on her shoulder. "Hey, boss! You'll never guess whose DNA we're sequencing today."

And the blob squelches out from under the table, spots Carlos, and comes lumping excitedly over.

Comparing it to a slug really wasn't fair, Sherie reflects. Dust and dirt get lifted off of surfaces and stick to it as it goes by; it's more like a mass of living Play-Doh. And it can be more than just a formless blob. Right now it goes straight through a startled Carlos, backs up, and does a kind of confused spiral around him.

"Whoa!" Instinct makes Carlos stumble backward, though he steadies himself once he realizes he's standing in the blob, and peers down for a closer look. "What is — where did you —"

"You left your little sludge monsters untended for a week," the standing Li Hua informs him. "Looks like they got lonely, ate through your jars, and combined into a single large sludge monster with a slightly more sophisticated consciousness. That sludge monster expanded itself further by eating most of your desk — you need a new desk, by the way, and I sure hope you have backup copies of any paperwork you kept in it — and, just yesterday, added 'Strex-brand mechanical person' to the list of things it can demonstrably ingest."

The sludge monster in question is currently extending part of itself up toward Carlos to do some closer inspection of its own. At the end of the extension is a row of flat teeth sticking out of the bottom, and several tufts of hair sprouting from the top, making the whole thing look like a snake-long neck with a slightly doofy face at the end.

"This came out of my clocks?" says Carlos in wonder.

"That's what we just said," complains the Li Hua at the microscope. "Stop hitting the eggnog this early, Carlos, it's slowing you down."

Sherie clears her throat.

"We wouldn't say that if she was here," says the standing Li Hua. "But she's not even in the country right now, come on."

"Electrum-spyglass viewing confirms that it recognizes us, and likes us," adds Nirliq, as she and her daemon enter the room by the more conventional way. "And has about the same level of conscious thought as a dog."

"Oh, by the way, we should start calling the more-advanced electrum lenses Atal lenses," says Carlos. He's making a head-petting motion at the sludge monster, and it responds by bopping its "head" in excitement. "How about this creature? What are we calling it?"

"We couldn't decide," admits Sherie. "I wanted to call it Tock. Because it came out of the clocks. That's cute, right? And Nirliq liked the sound of Chip."

"Uh-huh? Why Chip?"

"Because it couldn't ingest every part of our Strex-sent inspector," explains Nirliq. "And one of the things it spat out was a series of microchips."

Feeling a flash of theological concern from Carlos, Sherie thinks at him, We have those in a sealed and well-spelled sample jar. We'll get them to someone who can make use of them as soon as we figure out a safe way to do the transportation.

Carlos doesn't even consolidate his approval into words, just tosses the raw feeling in her direction. Followed by, Can you keep everything secure for now? If you see a simple way to move our work to a non-compromised location, go for it, but if not, we can figure out detailed plans next week once we have all hands on deck.

Out loud, while pseudo-petting Tock-or-possibly-Chip, he says, "Maybe we should take a vote when everyone gets back. I can't stay much longer." Sorry, but Cecil thinks I'm going to hurt myself if I keep this up, he adds mind-to-mind. "Any other messages before I go?"

"It was good to see you," offers Sherie. I'll pass on the word about the security. "Enjoy the rest of your vacation."

Nirliq is a little more practical. "You said the lenses are Atal lenses now? Why?"

Carlos flickers — then vanishes — but not before sending one more flash of emotion at Sherie, including enough excitement and yearning to make her head spin. "I'll be up in a moment," she tells the others —

— and drops back into her body with a gasp.

Her mongoose daemon pops up in her lap. "Our boss spent the last week in Will Parry's world?"

"That sure is what it felt like," says Sherie dizzily. "But maybe we better not say that part out loud. At least, not until he can come around and handle all the disbelief in person."

Chapter Text

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

The vast, flat expanse is so much more vast than Dana had anticipated.

A future Carlos told her that she would go, alone, to the base of the Clouded Mountain, so they have been approaching it ever since. She and her daemon take turns carrying each other. For a while Eustathias will ride on Dana's backpack in the form of some creature no larger than Dana's thumbnail, then she will switch into a sturdy pack animal and bear Dana onward.

(Every shape Eustathias tries is different, as they flex the limits of her current abilities. Currently she is a great plodding reptilian beast, blue and scaly, with Dana sitting in the midst of a thicket of ferns that are growing out of her spine.)

The ancient battlefield with the wrecks of strange war machines is far off to her left. The riverbed she once followed to an old oak door is long gone. The straightest line to their destination is through empty desert.

With no life, no landmarks, and the Mountain before them looking no larger, it feels as if Dana and Eustathias have always been walking.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

With the rush to flee Night Vale catching them by surprise, Cecil never had time to wrap any of his carvings. Carlos offers to help, which gives him an excuse to stay in the basement with Cecil and explain the new developments from Strex. Also, the fact that the team has a new pet omnivorous clock-sludge monster.

When he describes the discovery of a mechanical person accompanied by a mechanical pseudo-daemon, it piques Cecil's interest. "Oh, hey, that explains Daniel!"

"Daniel...your producer?" guesses Carlos. Cecil has mentioned the name a couple of times on-air.

"The same. He rattles and gives off sparks when he's mad, you know. During my last broadcast, he even started leaking this thick viscous...something. Didn't flow the right way to be blood. I couldn't see the color, but I thought maybe it was motor oil."

Carlos frowns. "To your vision, is he still as bright as an average human adult?"

"No. But a lot of the Strex imports to our little town are...dull. The Shawns, for instance — I mean NVCR's current sales team — who are all named Shawn — they don't seem to have much will of their own either, and I've never seen any of them giving off smoke when overloaded." Cecil pauses. "Also, Daniel's daemon is the only one with a little key in its back that you have to turn to make it go."

"Your producer's daemon has to be wound up, and it's only now that you think he might be some kind of robot?"

"Yes? My first guess was that he came from a world where they have internal daemons, and that someone had built him a really awkward fake to help him fit in."

"...Okay, now that you've said that, it's a perfectly reasonable guess."

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

And then, all at once, they are here.

Much as Dana has tried not to believe in it, the edge of the mountain is right above her. Its base sits high enough in the air that the whole radio station could probably fit underneath it without even breaking the tower. Its peak...she can't even see it through the clouds, though she can just make out the regular blinking of its red light.

Eustathias, on her shoulder as a button-sized crab, says, "Tell me if this form works."

She leaps into the air as a bumblebee, buzzes a short distance away to give herself space, then turns into a black-and-brown bird the size of a couch. With these powerful wings, the muscles rippling underneath, it looks like they could fly forever. Dana smiles. "Yes, that will do."

Eustathias bows her head, and Dana climbs onto her broad back.

"One moment," warns Dana before her daemon can take off, and looks around the desert.

She sees nothing and no one. But of course, that's just what she was told to expect.

"Carlos? I do not know if you can hear me. I do not know if you can see me. I do not know if the information I was given about our time and place nearly matching up was correct. But I hope that it is. And because of this hope, I will pass on the message I was given: Use all the bloodstones."

There. That's done. She hugs Eustathias's neck and shoulders, and Eustathias spreads her beautiful wings.

The mountain, perhaps aware of its dubious right to existence, doesn't sit quite right in three-dimensional space. Any one section of it — the vaults and crags of the folded rock, the whorls and columns of cloud — connects to the next in geometrically impossible ways. Dana and her daemon soar at what they can only hope is a safe distance.

As they go higher, the clouds become more than simply cloud.

The vapor is folded into structures, almost like architecture. "Terraces and columns," murmurs Dana. "Stairways and towers."

"These are beginning to look solid," adds Eustathias. "Even if they would not hold one of us, perhaps they would hold someone whose substance is less dense."

"The photogram I saw in the old house," realizes Dana. "I thought it was the front of a building. A close-up, not showing the corners or the scenery around it. But no, it must have been a section of —"

She screams.

Without warning they have plunged into a completely different sort of air — searing hot, sizzling with anbaric currents — the change, like diving through the surface of a pool, instant and submersive and unforgiving —

Both Dana and her daemon flail in pain and shock, all control lost. Dana topples from Eustathias's back, and they fall.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

It was probably too much to hope for that Carlos would get through the whole vacation without any trauma at all.

It starts on Monday evening, when the whole family has dinner plans at a restaurant nice enough to require dressing-up. For Cecil, that means a neutral-toned argyle sweater, a button-down whose pointy collar is only moderately ridiculous, a cravat, and his most normal pants. Dawn has put on a sheath dress that matches her jeweled lizard daemon. Mamá is wearing her good pearls.

Papi, Wes, and Carlos all get ties. And Carlos's tie is too damn tight.

He spends the whole drive fiddling with it, so much that he misses two of the things he had meant to point out to Cecil as they passed by. (His middle school, and the local non-fatal library.) When they're finally being escorted to their table, his mother notices by the light of the chandeliers and the soft lanterns how disheveled he's gotten. "Oh, tesoro, let me fix that for you."

"Mamá, don't," says Carlos, flinching away as her hands go to his neck.

She ignores his attempts to brush her off. "It'll only take a moment."

"It's fine, don't, stop fussing —"

She doesn't stop, and now it's really too tight, it's going to strangle him at this rate —

"I said, stop!" snaps Carlos, smacking her away.

It earns him a stricken look from Mamá, furtive glances from the rest of the family (half seated, half not), and a frown from Papi's shelduck daemon (not literally, since she has a beak, but when you grow up around a bird daemon you learn to recognize a frown when you see it). Papi himself waits until their server has shimmered off to get their water, then breaks his habitual silence to say, "Let your mamá fix your tie, son."

Carlos would love to! Trouble is, he's too caught up in re-loosening the thing, then in yanking it clean off, to deal with anything else right now.

"I think maybe Carlos isn't a tie person these days," says Lena gently as she settles into her chair. She's the psychiatrist; she has enough experience to know traumatic overload when she sees it.

"Ties are a symbol of the cisheteronormative power structure anyway," puts in Dawn, who Carlos dearly hopes has no experience with this kind of thing at all, and no clue what she's seeing. "If you make Uncle Carlos wear one when he doesn't want to, you're oppressing him by erasing his fashion sense."

Cecil cocks his head. "Carlos has a fashion sense? This is news to me."

It gets a few nervous giggles; the tension eases. Azalea comments that the no-tie look is all the rage in New Amsterdam these days, so if anything, Carlos is a trendsetter. Which leads her into a debate with Dawn about the fashion industry, and breaks the ice enough for other conversations around the table to move forward, while Cecil palms the crumpled tie out of Carlos's hand and makes it disappear.

Panic attack averted. Painful conversation dodged. So far, so good. But Carlos dearly wishes they had brought Khoshekh, because a little discreet cuddling under the table would go a long way for him right now.

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

It is dark when Dana wakes up; she is still in pain; and she cannot tell right away where her daemon is.

She is lying on a rough floor in a space of unknowable size. Every inch of her exposed skin still aches and stings, the way she's always imagined a sunburn must feel. At least she is not restrained. That's something, right?

"Dana?" whispers Eustathias. That's something else. Eustathias is with her. "Your pack is on your left, a few feet away. I believe everything is still inside."

Better and better. It sounds like they almost certainly have not been taken prisoner. "The first aid kit?" asks Dana, voice rasping.

"As likely to be safe as anything else. You'll have to check on your own, though. I'm sorry. I know it hurts to move, but you must."

Dana sits up, even that simple motion straining her abilities, and starts to feel around. There's a...no, that's a wall. Ah, there is her pack. "Can you be bioluminescent, at least? This will be easier if I have some light."

"I don't know, and I don't want to risk it. The transformation, I mean, not the light. Your phone in flashlight mode would be safe. You'd better find it."

"What are you right now?" asks Dana, baffled. Have they settled? Shouldn't she feel different, somehow, if that had happened? She does not feel any different. Not on the inside, anyway. "And where are you? And how did we come to be here?"

"When we hit that strange field, it was painful, and it felt like fire," begins Eustathias. "Once I had fallen out of it enough to recover my senses, I guessed that it might help to become a creature that had an affinity for fire. So I did. I became a phoenix, I think. Right away I was no longer suffering from injuries or pain, because I was a species that burns, not a species that is burned."

She's doing that long-winded narration again: recapping things Dana already knows, then including all kinds of irrelevant details before making it to the point. Since Dana is in a fair amount of pain, and has very few options for distraction, she lets her daemon ramble.

"Once I was healed, I became another large flying creature, a reptile this time, and swooped down as quickly as I could to catch you. It was a close call indeed! But you had been thrown backward far enough not to hit the base of the mountain, which of course floats high in the air, and past that I was able to catch you before you hit the ground itself, so you landed softly and did not break any bones."

Dana finds the first aid kit before the phone, pulling it out and setting it on the dark ground (rock? dirt?) beside her. Ah, and here's her phone. She switches to its brightest mode (her battery is still at 97%, no risk there), lighting up the long and narrow tunnel around her, and looks for topical burn creams. Here's a tube...here's another...wow, this kit certainly has a lot of them. Emmanuel must have had a hand in the packing.

"I thought we might have been detected by the mountain's defenses, so I cycled through several different forms with different kinds of vision. In one of these forms, I could see clearly where the air changed, growing hotter and — to my eyes — brighter. In another, I could see that there are very few Rusakov particles in the area. That was when I knew that we were not spotted by something sentient. The mountain's defenses were entirely automatic."

Everything else will be easier once her hands aren't sore, so Dana begins with her hands.

"Still, there was no guarantee that we had not triggered some kind of alert, which a sentient creature might choose to come out and investigate. We needed a place to hide. And since there is no cover anywhere for miles around, I realized our only option was to go underground."

"So we are underground now," says Dana, soothing the rough burns on her legs from the tops of her hiking boots to the hems of her khaki shorts. Her clothes all seem undamaged, which makes sense. Fabric doesn't sunburn. "In a tunnel that you...burrowed?"

"That is exactly where we are! Still directly below the Clouded Mountain, but so far undetected. And I have an excellent sense of direction in the burrowing form I am still holding. I believe I could navigate all the way back to the basalt fortress without ever looking at the surface."

"In any other world, I would not doubt it. But with the geographical loop around the Mountain, I don't think we should take the risk." Dana works the topical cream onto her eyelids, up to her hairline (some of her hair falls out to the touch), around the back of her neck. "And, again...where are you?"

"Right beside you," says Eustathias. "A moment ago, you touched me."

Ah.

The "wall" Dana touched is rough, stony, mottled grey-brown in color, dusty to the touch...but now that she looks closer, it has a strange regularity: a ridge every ten feet. That's no rock formation, or even the result of a burrowing creature with an instinct for precision. Rather, it's like the shell of Carlos Perfecto's daemon, on an impossibly grand scale: the armored hide of something built for desert.

Eustathias doesn't dare change form right now because the space she is occupying, many stories tall and thousands of feet long, would cave in on top of them.

"I don't seem to have eyes right now," adds Eustathias apologetically. "I do have a surfeit of teeth, though! If you think of any way to use that, let me know."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

The server who takes their drinks order, a young woman with a squirrel daemon, does a brief double-take when she hears from Carlos. She finishes writing everything down, then turns back to him and says, "Sir, if you are who I think you are...."

"Are any of us who we think we are?" puts in Cecil, half to himself. "How can we be sure?"

Carlos braces himself for the night to be ruined after all. For them to be hit with some variation on this is a God-fearing establishment, and we don't serve your kind here. Heavy Magisterium lobbying means it's still legal in the US to pull that kind of thing.

"...then I'd like to offer you the drink of your choice. On the house."

"I'm afraid I don't — what?" stammers Carlos. "Really? Because that's a remarkably generous offer. Almost...too good to be true."

He touches Cecil's arm under the table, and doesn't even have to finish tapping help me out before Cecil jumps in. "Don't be so modest, Carlos — she's a fan! And a well-deserved one, I'm sure. Are you an experimental theologian yourself, madam, or just an interested layperson?"

Turns out the server is a theologian-in-training: doing this job to put herself through evening classes to get her M.T., although it's in tropical meteorology, nothing to do with Rusakov physics. She's professional enough to say all this quickly before returning to the question of what free drink he wants, but excited enough to do a little skip as she wends her way back to the kitchen.

Carlos has spent the past year avoiding news about himself like the plague. He likes being able to get out of bed in the morning, and that's a lot easier when he hasn't been reading thousand-word screeds on how he's a liar and a hack who's obviously sold his soul to Satan. So this is the first he's heard of anyone going just as enthusiastically in the opposite direction.

He has fans.

(Hopefully not the kind of stupidly over-the-top fans who might, say, burst into tears on realizing they're looking at a statue of him. Because that would just get embarrassing.)

 

-{,(((,">

 

When the fan-turned-server comes to collect their mostly-empty plates, she offers them dessert. "Just the check, dear," says Mamá, in her accented English, and waves off Carlos's and Lena's attempts to pitch in.

"Are you sure?" asks the server. "We have an amazing new raspberry cheesecake. And several specials that are only available for the holiday season! The chocolate peppermint torte is a hit with everyone on the staff. You'll love it."

"Maybe some other time," says Lena's husband.

"I am so full," groans young Rosa.

"Of course you're full. Generous entrées we serve here. But if nobody's hungry enough to eat a whole dessert, you can split them," says the server hopefully. She's talking too fast. Not to mention, her squirrel daemon is alert and staring at the front door. "We'll bring out plates with two forks. Or three. Or four! However many you need!"

Azalea raises her eyebrows. "Carlos can probably sign something for you, if it'll make you feel better about us leaving."

"Actually," says Carlos, "let me take a look at that menu."

"Excellent!" says the server, with a slightly manic grin. She scurries around the table and offers him a laminated sheet with lots of glossy photograms of pies.

Carlos takes it, taps a photo, and nods for her to lean closer, like he wants advice. Under his breath, he says, "You're trying to keep us here. What's going on?"

The woman catches her breath. "Please don't be mad! It wasn't my fault — okay, maybe it sort of was, indirectly — I'm really sorry!"

"I'm not angry," says Carlos. He's on edge, especially from earlier, but he's not mad. Not yet, anyway. "Back up and give me some facts, okay? Is anybody here in danger? I mean of physical harm."

"No! Nothing like that."

"Are we being watched?"

"N-not in here."

"But outside...?"

"People with cameras. News people," stammers the server, wringing her hands. "Someone in the kitchen must have called them, or tweeted — I was just so excited you were here, I told everyone, I didn't think —"

"Is there any chance they'll start coming in?"

"One of them tried. The person at the desk didn't let them in. They don't even have reservations! I guess someone could try to run past us — it's not like we have bouncers — I'm so sorry, we don't get a lot of celebrity guests. But if you stay in here long enough, I'm sure they'll get bored and leave!"

"That's one plan," says Carlos. "Here's another. This place has a back entrance, right? For service, or shipping, something like that?"

"Yes! Yes, a couple of them."

"Great." Carlos hands her back the menu. "Bring us the check, and, while you're at it, take a look through the service doors and tell us whether anybody's thought to stake them out."

He turns to the family, feeling downright energized. He's got a goal now. A plan. A concrete threat, which he can channel all his nervous energy into dealing with. "All right! Who's ready to plan an escape?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

In the dark, under the ground, Dana curls up against her daemon's expansive side and thinks. She has composed a short text to Cecil summarizing her findings, but was forced to save it rather than sending. At this depth, her phone, for the first time of any time she's looked at it, is getting no reception.

She could try to project herself back home, to deliver the message in person. Or....

"I could project myself above the ground," says Dana out loud. "Without the help of that bloodstone circle, I'll be invisible, insubstantial. I can get the lay of the land, see if anyone has come looking for us...oh! Perhaps I could go into the Mountain that way! At least it will allow me to get past the physical defenses."

"They might have wards," says Eustathias. "Or other ways to block that kind of spying. I did not think to check for those."

Dana shakes her head. "I think...that is, it seems likely...that whatever form of astral projection I am doing here, it cannot be blocked. I was able to appear in the radio station, at a time before I became an intern and would have had permission. I was able to appear in Cecil's house before I was even born! And I have stepped unseen into Strexcorp facilities, when surely they have the resources to invest in the best defenses."

"All that sounds logical," admits her daemon. "I would say that it can't hurt to try...but we probably shouldn't tempt fate."

If projection involved both of them, Dana isn't sure she would risk it. But only her ghost would be leaving their little hideout, so the only harm Eustathias might face would be indirect. And they're going to be stuck down here for a while anyway, since Dana isn't up to walking yet.

Besides, even if she were in perfect health, she wouldn't want to retreat. They've come all this way. There must be something else to be done while they're here.

"It can, indeed, hurt to try," sighs Dana. "But try we must."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

It's snowing again: big fluttery Christmas-card flakes, leaving a dusting of white on the roads and the trees. Lena and her husband go get the cars while the rest of the family waits just inside the entrance to the loading dock. So far, so good.

Cecil is in long-distance four-eye, murmuring things under his breath in a language Carlos thinks might be Hebrew. He's still doing it when Wes comes back with the van, the one with the special adaptations to fit Lucas's oversize addax daemon. The children leave foot- and hoofprints in the powder as they head down the ramp, along with Azalea: "not because you're an honorary child, parajita," Mamá assures her, "but because your brother needs the rest of us right now."

As the van pulls away, Carlos sighs. "It's just reporters, Mamá. I'm glad you're here — I am! — but you don't need to...."

"I don't need to fuss," fills in his mother, standing defensively close to Papi's side. "I know! You were very clear. Just let me watch over you, and I will stay out of your way."

Carlos swallows. "I was going to say, you don't —"

"It is not just reporters," says Cecil darkly.

He's using the deep, somber tone of a radio pronouncement. All attention snaps to him: Carlos's, his parents', and the server's, from her post hovering anxiously a few feet down the corridor.

"One moment," Cecil tells the Ramirezes, and sweeps over to the young woman. "Thank you so much, again, for all your help," he says, clasping her hand and smiling first at her, then at her squirrel daemon. "We would all appreciate if you don't blog about this until January, when Carlos will be out of the country and none of these people can camp outside the place where he's staying. And please don't make any mention of the dashing but mysterious family friend! I am not a US national, and I understand that can make your government paranoid sometimes. Got all that? Wonderful. Go ahead and clear our table. Thank you!"

He shooes her away (Carlos is glad all over again that they left her an incredible tip), and pulls his gloves out of his pockets as he returns, the smile fading.

"Just to be clear: it is definitely not normal in the US for armed individuals to be secretly tailing you, right?"

Carlos jumps. "No. Who —"

"And there are no secret police hidden anywhere around here? Not even a couple blocks down...?"

"None. Although we can always call the non-secret police."

"Who have no authority to re-educate those reporters out front," Cecil reminds him. "So whatever happens, it will become news."

"...right."

"What is going on?" bursts out Mamá, before Cecil can open his mouth again. If Khoshekh were here, her raccoon daemon would be pouncing on him right now. "Who is following Carlos? How do you know about this?"

"I have...a certain level of foresight," says Cecil, with pitch-perfect reluctance. If Carlos hadn't known about the alethiometer, he would have completely believed his boyfriend was admitting an uncomfortable truth, instead of lying to cover a dangerous one. "But it's going to be okay, Señora. It will all be taken care of. Because they have made a dire mistake."

"What's that?"

"They have challenged a witch's son...when it is snowing."

He shoves his way out the into the swirling flurries. Carlos picks up Isaña and beckons for his parents to follow. They're too blindsided right now to fully trust Cecil, but they still trust him.

The door thumps shut behind them. No going back now. At least Lena has the other car waiting, and Cecil is brimming with confidence even as he hugs his coat tightly around himself. "Tell Lena to go three buildings that way," he says, gesturing down the road, "and find a place to park. We'll take the safe way around, and rendezvous with you there in a few minutes."

Mamá looks from him to Carlos. "Tesoro, are you sure...?"

Carlos shrugs Isaña under one arm and pulls his mother into a fervent hug with the other. "I'll be fine. I will."

"I would like this better," says Papi, "if some of your ángeles were here."

"Los ángeles are off fighting an important war for good," says Carlos solemnly. "Cecil is very talented at the thing he's planning. Without him, it might be dangerous...but I am not without him. So I will meet up with you very soon."

 

-{,(((,">

 

The Clouded Mountain (???).

Dana knows at once that she's inside the Mountain. The architecture has the same confused geometry, overlapping and infolded, defying the eye's attempt to wrench it into any normal perspective.

In part, it has the same aesthetic, too: all columns and arches, sturdy pillars and elegant carved swirls. But the material can't possibly be cloud, no matter how solid. Its glossy white surface shimmers with understated hues, as if the entire structure is carved from solid pearl. And as Dana watches, it glows...then fades...and glows again, not with the sharp precision of the blinking light on the peak, but soft and radiant, like breath.

The pearly construction, though, doesn't stand alone. It shows the clear signs of renovations. Walls that have been knocked down, new scaffolds put in place, doors boarded up and hallways redirected, all with sleek metal and sturdy brown stone. Anbaric equipment has been installed, perhaps a power supply or a new communications system.

Dana would not call the effect unpleasant, she thinks, as she walks down a hall of offices (each giving off muted conversation, or sounds that might be typing). The newer materials, though less ethereal, fit smoothly and easily alongside the old ones. And they come with their own variety of wrong-dimensional effect: where the pearl terraces are infolding, the brown stone walls are spiraling. As far as Dana can tell, the combined impossibilities are still structurally sound. Maybe even more so than before, given the way the two sets of material interlock and support each other.

If it weren't for the plethora of Strexcorp logos, orange triangles which give off a soft light of their own and make Dana's eyes hurt to look at them, she might even call it beautiful.

She walks through the walls of one of the offices...and is vividly reminded of the time she appeared in Cecil's booth and existence went weird, enough that she was able to speak into the microphone. There's a shockingly normal business setup here — a desk, file cabinets, a motivational poster of a sunrise with a caption in a script Dana can't read — but it's all only half-present. Sitting at the desk is a man in a dark suit, with jet-black eyes and an orange triangle pin on his lapel. He is silent and translucent. All of it is.

The rooms are packed closely together; a few short steps bring her to the next one over, and the next, and the next. Ordinary humans and not-so-ordinary ones, familiar daemons alternating with bizarre or missing daemons, Starbucks cups and staplers interspersed with items whose purpose Dana can't even guess. And every setup straddles that line between "here" and "not-here."

She drops to the next floor below, and finds more of the same. This whole complex must be riddled with not-quite-portals, connected to branch offices in countless other worlds. Can she find the one attached to Night Vale?

Should she find the one attached to Night Vale? Even if she can sabotage it somehow, surely it will barely be a blip on the radar in terms of their overall plans.

Dana sinks downward another level —

— and finds herself in a room with white-painted cinderblock walls and lots of bright fluorescent lights, daemonless black-eyed theologians in long white coats standing around various sets of humming anbaric equipment. In the middle of it all is a chair with trays of instruments on either side, and on the chair is a man, limp and sluggish as a Strex theologian adjusts a helmet of anbarodes over his skull.

The helmet covers his eyes, so Dana has no way to tell if this is another eyeless lookalike, or if this really is Cecil.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

Cecil scoops a handful of powder off the metal railing with one gloved hand, tosses it over Carlos and Isaña, and they're blanketed in the safety of the nothing-to-see-here spell. He may have learned it with sand, but since it's witch-lore, it must have been designed for snow. It works so well that he actually has to ask if they're still there.

With one hand cupped firmly against the side of Carlos's face, he promises to take care of this as quickly as possible, then lets go and does the same spell on himself.

Left alone, Carlos circles around the building and walks right past the short lineup of reporters, as well as a knot of hangers-on trying to figure out what the action is. They don't even notice the footprints he's leaving in the dwindling snow. He holds Isaña against his chest, tucked inside his coat, and walks unseen all the way to the car: parked three buildings down and across the street, just barely not blocking a fire hydrant, with Lena and their parents waiting inside.

The first time he knocks on the window, none of them respond. They're awake, alert, talking to each other just fine. The only thing they can't perceive is him.

Safety is nice, Carlos thinks as he pulls up his hood and draws the strings tight, but cold.

A few minutes later Lena realizes he's there and unlocks the door, stammering apologies, baffled that she didn't notice it was him right away. "No, that's a good thing, it proves I got here clean," insists Carlos, dropping into one of the middle seats. (Lena's up front, his parents together in the back.) "The two agents from the World Consistorial Court don't even know they missed me. Cecil's having a little chat with them — he'll be along soon."

"World Consistorial Court," echoes Lena. "Carlos, did you...did you actually see either of these agents?"

Carlos crosses his arms. "Didn't go looking. I've had to confront too many dangerous people as it is; I don't need to make it easy by walking right up to them. Unless there's something of theological interest involved!...which, in this case, there was not."

A worried silence.

"These people who have come after you before," says his mother after a moment. "Did it ever happen that...has one of them ever tried to...did somebody — choke you, quirquinchito?"

Carlos closes his eyes. "Last spring. Yes."

Nobody says anything else until the blurry figure of Cecil appears across the street, waiting for a break in the late-night traffic before jogging through the snow. He's hugging himself and actually stumbling with the cold, panting as he falls into the seat beside Carlos. "Thank you for waiting! I hope it wasn't too much trouble. We can go now."

"Lena, crank up the heat, would you?" says Carlos as the engine revs to life. "Cecil, honey, what happened?"

"I found the vehicle of the armed observers, who were hoping to corner you alone and encourage you to reconsider your lack of respect for the Magisterium," says Cecil. "We had a pleasant talk, in which I encouraged them to reconsider their lack of respect for you. Also, disabled their firearms. And stole their coffee."

Carlos takes Cecil's hand (now ungloved for some reason) and warms it between his own. "Well, they certainly won't be able to cope without coffee. That's just a theological fact."

"Exactly! And I will call the nearest witches' consul once I have a chance to look up their number, to urge them to be more on top of this kind of thing in the future, although, gosh, will anyone mind if the first thing I do is collapse into a hot bath and stay there for an hour?"

Nobody minds. They keep the conversation light as they make their way back to the house. And Carlos, sensing that his family has had more than enough alarm for one night, doesn't bring it to their attention when he notices what happened to Cecil's cravat.

It's not around his neck any more. It's folded up and pressed against his right thigh, held in place by the tie that gave Carlos so much trouble earlier, wrapped around in a couple of loops and knotted tight.

Either Cecil has decided that putting neckwear around random limbs is going to be his newest fashion venture, or the reason he was stumbling is because before those firearms were disabled, he got shot in the leg.

 

-{,(((,">

 

The Clouded Mountain (???).

Dana doesn't think, doesn't plan, just puts all her focus into being as corporeal as possible and shouts, "You let go of him!"

Everything that had been translucent snaps into full physicality. The limp man in the chair raises his head to look at her, gasps, then grabs something sharp off the tray beside him and in one swift motion stabs it into the torso of his attending theologian.

Dana can't take down any of maybe-Cecil's captors on her own, but she does what she can: rushing at the nearest theologian with her fist raised, drawing their attention and occupying their defenses. A full three of the team members just stand and stare, their black-eyed expressions blank, waiting for orders. With the help of Dana's distraction, maybe-Cecil manages to rip off his anbarodes and take out the rest. He's sloppy — either he's someone with slower reflexes than Cecil, or his earlier sluggishness wasn't all a bluff — but whatever he grabbed is deadly enough that he doesn't need to be precise.

At last he stops, leaning heavily against a sink while a body falls to the floor, nearly sliced in two through the torso. His pale-blue smock is spattered with blood; there's a trail of rusty footprints behind his bare feet. With one shaking hand he points at the three blank-faced theologians (the only ones still standing) and orders "Don't move!", then his face twists in disgust and he dry-heaves over the basin.

Not Cecil. His voice is different. And while Cecil could easily get his hair clipped military-short like this man, it would be hard to pull off bright-blue eyes.

Breathing hard, not-Cecil raises his head once more. "Gina," he croaks, gazing at Dana with a watery smile. "You found me."

Dana's heart shatters. "I'm sorry," she says, taking a few steps forward, going through the chair. "I'm not — I mean, I wasn't —"

"— you're not here," realizes not-Cecil. "I just — I blew the whole game on a frelling hallucination —"

"No!" cries Dana, running to him. "I may not be corporeal right now, but I promise, I am real! Please, tell me your name."

Not-Cecil slumps to the floor, leaning against the wall, still clinging to the handle of — it's some kind of knife, the blade slick with blood. With what appears to be all the energy he has left, he points it at her. "If you were my hallucination or the real Gina, you would know that."

Blades won't hurt her, but Dana holds up her hands anyway. "I'm not Gina. My name is Dana. And I, too, know someone who looks very much like you, but is not you. We're working together to find out how to stop Strexcorp. I can't do much right now, but if there are messages you want to send — if there is anything you can tell me about what these people are doing — I will make sure everything gets passed on to the right people. I promise you."

The man swallows. "It's — this," he says, giving the knife a little shake. "They made it. Cuts through anything. They say it should be able to cut right between worlds — no energy requirement at all — but it needs the right person. Thought I could learn to do it. I don't know why me. Wouldn't help them for all the tea on Ganymede. So they did — things — drugging — trying to make me cooperate. Make me want to cooperate." He chokes out a laugh. "Guess they'll drug the next one harder."

"The next one will fight too!" exclaims Dana. "Whoever it is, I am sure that they will!"

"Gina would have said that too," says not-Cecil faintly. He grips the edge of the sink and starts to pull himself back to his feet, no longer aiming the blade at her. "Dana — if you are real — security will be here soon. Will you watch for them? Tell me when they get close?"

Dana promises that she will. Then, on a hunch, she orders the blank-eyed theologians to push some heavy equipment against the door. Like automatons, they obey.

By the time she returns, not-Cecil has sliced up the chair, turned the anbarode helmet into confetti, carved most of the machines into useless chunks of plastic and silicon, and torn holes in the walls through which wires are sparking and pipes are spilling water. He's out-of-breath and grey in the face, swaying with every step, but has paced himself well enough that he's still going. When Dana tells him a group of armed people in Strex-brand hazmat suits are coming, he nods, stabs a cabinet, and lets his weight drag the knife down as he sinks to the floor.

Banging against the barricaded door. The sound of shouts. Something firing that sounds like, but also unlike, a gun.

"I'm so sorry," whispers Dana.

"Lewis," rasps not-Cecil.

"What?"

"When you tell your people. About this." He lifts the blade to his neck. "Tell them my name was Lewis."

Chapter Text

Central Narraganset.

Cecil spends a very long time in that bath.

Khoshekh spends much of the same time on the phone with the witches' consulate in Halifax: their primary liaison for the United States of New Denmark, as well as the eastern provinces of New France. (For Hispania Nova, Beringland, and the west half of New France, it's more convenient to deal with the consulate at Nakniq.) He holds the whole conversation in the language he used to speak with Josie, or maybe one of its relatives, and although Carlos has tried to learn a few phrases he doesn't recognize a word of this. All he knows is that it's getting increasingly shouty.

The kids, of course, have gone straight back to the Internet. As far as they know, tonight was nothing more than a cool adventure in sneaking around reporters. The rest of the adults fill in Wes and Azalea about the extra layer of danger they missed, while Carlos makes a break for the den and gets out his own laptop. No reason to let Cecil do all the work here.

It isn't long before his family is crowded awkwardly in the doorway. "Can we interrupt?" says Lena. Her fruit bat daemon hangs over her shoulder, eyes huge in the dimness (Carlos may have forgotten to turn on the lights).

Carlos's eyes flick between his credit card and the screen. "Just a second."

"Is this really a good time to be doing last-minute shopping?" asks Lena's husband.

Carlos sighs. "I'm buying distraction for the press. You're welcome."

He's booked a hotel room, he explains, for the remainder of his visit. Under his real name, so obviously he's not going near the place; it's just to give the press an obvious building to stake out. His family, while they don't have personal experience with Night Vale levels of secrecy and misdirection, have seen enough spy movies to wonder if this is complex enough to fool anyone. And maybe it's not! Which is why Carlos is booking another room, under the kind of alias he would use. Let people figure out the puzzle, feel clever and superior for outwitting him, and go stake out that building he's not going near.

Azalea folds her arms; the tocororo daemon on her shoulder cocks his head. "Carlos, are you booking a room for Lyra Belacqua?"

"Close! Will Parry." Carlos clicks the ordinater shut and gets up, daemon by his feet. "Tomorrow is Christmas Eve; they're not going to have enough staff on hand to keep tracking fainter and fainter leads. They'll never catch a completely randomized alias, which is what I'll use if I have to get a room I'm actually going to stay in."

"You are staying right here," says his mother. "No one is making you leave."

Lena puts a hand on her shoulder. "It might be dangerous for him if he's easy to find, Mamá."

"Especially if there are Magisterium people looking for him," adds Wes. "Who sound like they're armed."

"If you were in any immediate danger — if the kids were in immediate danger — I would already be gone," says Carlos firmly. "As for whether the Church will get their act together by tomorrow...that depends on how Cecil's call goes."

"The call went well," announces Khoshekh, flowing into the room.

Isaña trots over to greet him. "Hi, hon. What did you do?"

"Facilitated the spread of information," purrs Khoshekh, rubbing his face possessively against her shell. "The Magisterium forces who are currently trying to track you down — that is, the World Consistorial Court, the College of Bishops, and a fringe group who recently split off from the Society of the Work of the Holy Spirit because the mainstream group leaders don't want you dead enough — will all be fully occupied for the next several days. Various law enforcement groups, acting on tips from high-level sources at the consul, will be showing up on the doorsteps of several operations they would rather not have subject to legal attention."

"Ooh. I like it."

Mamá's raccoon daemon comes forward. "You have been a wonderful help," he says. "Is there a polite way to thank the witches for their part in this? Should we send them a card?"

"Witches have no use for material possessions," says Khoshekh. "A group of them are going to do flybys of this area, to underline for all viewers that Carlos has powerful allies, but they won't stop at the house; that would be too conspicuous. Perhaps, as they pass overhead, you could wave?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos comes out of his own shower to find Cecil on the unfolded sofa bed, entirely under the quilts. After tucking Isaña into the basket with Khoshekh, Carlos joins him.

Most of Cecil is wrapped in flannels and knits again, from a bobble hat to furry slippers. Carlos cups his bare face and pulls him in for a kiss. It's nice. He does it again.

"Mmm." Cecil wraps an arm around him. "Brave, clever, amorous Carlos...if you are rethinking your no sex in my parents' den condition, I should warn you that now that we are actually here, I find myself with surprisingly limited enthusiasm for anything that involves fewer than three layers of clothing."

"Valiant, protective, heroic Cecil, we are still on the same page there," murmurs Carlos. "I was hypothesizing that you'd still be up for kissing, but if there's some other way you'd rather have me show my appreciation for how incredible you were tonight, let me know."

"Ah," says Cecil. "In that case...let me confirm your hypothesis."

They make out for a bit in comfortable silence.

Carlos would happily do this all night...if he didn't still have questions. "Cecil...."

"Hm?"

"Now that we're alone...now that you don't have to worry about hiding witch-lore and Night Vale secrets, or about not scaring the rest of my family, or anything like that...I really need you to tell me...."

"I...yes." Cecil swallows. "I suppose you do. Go on."

"Did you get shot in the leg earlier?"

Cecil startles. "What? No!"

Oh, thank the —

"I got stabbed in the leg."

— never mind.

"Did some basic first aid in the field — all the blood was right there, it was easy to do the runes — then patched it up more permanently while I was in the bath," continues Cecil. "That poor cravat is ruined, and the pants will never be the same, but my leg will be right back to normal in a couple of days. And I managed not to leave any bloodstains around the bathroom! Still got those skills from my Field Medicine badge and my Sanitizing A Crime Scene badge."

Thank the Boy Scouts of Hispania Nova, apparently. "Have I told you that hospitals around here don't require you to staunch the bleeding on your own before they admit you?" asks Carlos faintly. "Because I didn't think that was something you would need to know, but...maybe it's something you need to know."

"Really! Huh. Seems like a messy policy, but I will keep it in mind."

Holding him in a loose snuggle, taking care not to jostle the knife wound, Carlos adds, "That wasn't what you were expecting me to ask about, though."

"...No," admits Cecil. "I — I thought you were going to ask about Steve."

Carlos's heart sinks. "So he's not okay."

"He is healthy. Lucid. Nobody has inserted any microchips into him. He is still a fit parent, by the same slim-but-undeniable margin as ever. By any of those very reasonable standards, he is perfectly fine."

"But...?"

Cecil takes a deep breath. "Well, I mean, he was...confused...about certain things when I spoke to him. But I was able to set him straight! And I'm sure he can re-learn all the technical knowledge in a year or two. And the hallucinations, or at least I assume they're hallucinations, are certainly distracting, but they're not having any serious impact on his quality of life. Which means that even if they never, ever go away, he could be worse, you know? I know you're going to worry, Carlos, but try to remember that he could be so much worse."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Sherie is back in the PTA loop, and, with it, back in the listing of people who get tapped to cook for each other's families when the need arises. She's at the top of the "we could use a home-cooked-meal" list on the 24th, which means she's the one who shows up outside Steve and Delphine's duplex around lunchtime with a foil-covered pan of gefilte fish and another with a spinach casserole.

(She got a great deal on this set of cast-aluminum pans at the secret-police auction.)

Her arms are full, so her mongoose daemon climbs up onto her shoulder and rings the bell. There's a muffled "Coming!" and a thump from inside, and a minute later Steve opens the door, with a desk lamp under his arm and a towel over one shoulder. There are heavy cardboard boxes from the move-in piled all over the front room.

"Sherie! You made it! You are a lifesaver," exclaims Steve, ushering her inside. "I haven't even figured out which box my cookware is in, and most of Del's was smashed last month by the faceless old woman who secretly lives in her home. By which I mean our home! I think Janice has been living on takeout, and that's no way to bring up a growing girl."

Once the lamp has been stashed on a free shelf and the pans are safely on the table, he pulls Sherie into a hug. An open, no-holds-barred bear hug. Apparently Steve is a hugger now.

"It's my pleasure to help," says Sherie, trying to be casual, like this is how Steve's been the whole time she's known him. "Are Del and the kids here? I brought a little something just for the girls."

Delphine is at work — her job, Steve explains, keeps her extremely busy — but the girls are upstairs, "playing DDR." Sherie can't envision how that would work until she sees it: Janice's daemon is emu-shaped, stomping on the arrows and racking up points with his three-toed feet, while Janice rides on his shoulders. Renée is doing the stepping and the jumping in the usual way; to keep things fair, her daemon is colobus-shaped and hanging on to her shoulders. Black braids and a brown ponytail bounce and whip to the rhythm.

Sherie waits until the song is over to interrupt. Janice has the higher score, leaving Renée grouchy: "I could do a lot better! I would be doing better if I didn't have this monkey on my back."

Janice looks almost hurt, but rallies and says, "Do you want to go a round without him? We can if you want."

Renée opens her mouth, thinks about it, then sets her jaw and stands up straighter. "No. I don't want to win by cheating. Let's just go again."

Steve does manage to get their attention before they can start another track. Enough that Sherie can present them with a decorated metal cookie tin...carved with protective runes, and full of the remains of the mechanical Strexcorp inspector.

The girls dutifully thank her for the "food." Then Janice says "See you next time at the chapel" and Renée says "Bye!" and they're back at the DDR.

"They're good kids. They don't mean to be rude," says Steve as they head back downstairs. "They're just awfully preoccupied these days, trying to stay in shape for...uh...for things! Secret things. Nothing big, or important, or dangerous, so you know what, forget I said anything. Hey, unrelated question: did you bring one of those spyglass doohickies along with you?"

"I did, yes." Sherie pulls one of the latest models out of her pocket. It has a home-brewed serial number and a tiny tracking device plastered to the inside, so in theory if it gets lost or stolen, it'll be easy to recover. "We're not supposed to let people outside the team use them, but I can look at something for you, if that would help."

Steve beams. "That would be great! You theologians are always great."

They end up standing on the front stoop, gazing up at the sky. (Turquoise, with ruddy dust clouds.) If there were any human-created devices up there — a plane, a gyropter, a weather balloon, a really low-hanging satellite — they would sparkle with gold through the Atal lenses, no matter how well-concealed they were from human vision. And in fact, Sherie does see a trio of Strexcorp gyropters flying low in the distance...but looking higher, looking straight up, all she finds is emptiness. "Nothing up there. You're clear."

"You're sure?" asks Steve. "Nothing at all? Not even, maybe, something...." He leans over her shoulder so their eyes are close to level, and traces a circle on the sky about fifty degrees from the horizon. "...right about there?"

"Nothing that shows up through these lenses. I give you my word as an experimental theologian."

"Huh." Steve leans back, hooking his thumbs in his pockets. He frowns at the empty patch of sky a moment longer, then, for the first time, seems to notice that he's still carrying around a towel. "I should get back to work! These boxes aren't going to unpack themselves — we got the cheap kind."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

Rosa is fascinated with the idea of seeing real witches flying overhead. She parks herself in the living room all morning, keeping busy with her sketchbook but looking out the window every few minutes, and even manages to rope her older siblings into holding a similar vigil in the ordinater room, which overlooks the back of the house.

Carlos takes the chair across from her, aiming to take another crack at this otherworldly physics book. Once again, he only gets through about a chapter — because that's when Mamá and Cecil enter the room with the Monopoly board. Apparently Cecil is eager to try out this exotic foreign version of Monopoly, without any of the familiar cards like "Valentine's Day earthquake destroys two of your properties."

The four of them are setting up the board when Dawn comes jogging downstairs. "They're here!"

Rosa jumps up. "Where? Out back?"

"Nope," says a new voice. Lucas, wonder of wonders, is right behind his sister, addax daemon daintily trotting down the steps beside him. "I mean, they are now, but they're going overhead this way." He traces an arc in the air overhead. "You'll see 'em out front in a minute."

Rosa is at the picture window in a heartbeat, her daemon perching on her shoulder as a sharp-eyed hawk.

Carlos follows, though he's not quite as frantic about it. These are witches, not meteors; they aren't going to streak across the sky and be gone in a flash. He's got time. Cecil follows with similar calm, leaning against Carlos's back and resting his head on Carlos's shoulder.

Sure enough, he's already waiting when the series of tiny silhouettes comes into view, crossing the sky at about the speed of a plane. And while their presence is comforting, they're too far away to be much of a sight in their own right. Specks of black against the clouds, that's all. You can barely tell the humans apart from the birds.

...Except for that one shape at the back of the group, which is the wrong shape to be either. Not to mention, much too big.

Cecil sucks in a sharp breath.

"Are they pulling something?" asks Rosa, squinting. "Is that a sleigh?"

"They're witches, not Santa," says Dawn. "I'm pretty sure conflating them is offensive."

"Yeah, and, it's obviously not a sleigh," puts in Lucas. "Looks more like a sailboat."

Khoshekh, who had been floating just above the pile of presents under the fake branches of the tree, springs instantly into the air and flies to the window beside Cecil.

A second later, he bolts for the front closet. "Somebody get the door for me!"

"Khoshekh!" barks Cecil after him, fingers tensing in a death grip on Carlos's arm. "I don't —"

He catches himself, switches out of English, and finishes yelling at his daemon in something like Muscovy.

The margay snaps a reply in kind as he dives into the closet, retrieves his cloak, and snuggles into it as fast as possible. Cecil says something — a question — no, a demand. Khoshekh fires back something just as urgent.

Lucas is standing closest to the door, looking between the two sides of the standoff. "Do I, uh. Do I open this? Or not?"

Cecil takes a shaky breath. "Do. Do it."

Once the doorknob is dealt with, Khoshekh crashes through the screen door all on his own, then shoots out like an arrow and soars: across the front yard, over the road, into the sky.

Another deep breath, then Cecil wrenches his gaze away from the chase and lets go of Carlos. "If we're still playing, I'm going to need to team up with someone," he says: contrite about the inconvenience, but not offering a word of explanation. "I can't read the cards right now."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

After a couple of long hours overseeing weapons drills in the sand wastes, Tamika and Rashi catch a rehabilitated yellow gyropter to one of Marcus Vansten's lesser estates.

It's the one he always forgets about because it's only the size of eighteen standard residential plots, so nobody with the authority to kick the Book Club out ever visits. Half their gyropters are parked in the hangar. The billiard room has been repurposed into a makeshift chapel. The biggest bedroom is outfitted with medical equipment and has a rotating set of older Scouts on standby, for those times when someone needs medical attention that can't be dealt with at Night Vale General anymore.

It's not that the hospital will force you to take Strexcorp-brand pharmaceuticals. It's just that those are now the default. And even if you are conscious and self-aware enough to opt out, it might turn out that, whoops, they have an unfortunate supply shortage of...everything else.

Tamika has a fresh bag of library books to hand out. Algebra texts for the seventh-grade study group in the parlor. Mystery novels for the Weird Scouts in the infirmary on duty. Young Adult dystopias for the Morrigan and Blood Pact scouts in the infirmary for treatment, injured in the explosions at yesterday's anti-Strex demonstration. Beat poetry for...well, for Steve Carlsberg, but the safest way to get it to him is to deliver it via Agent R.

She finds Renée in the billiard room, trying to connect something with the wires in a Strex microchip. "Just a sec," says Tovitthae, perched on her shoulder in the form of a hummingbird. "I think we're gonna...."

Sparks fly at the ends of the girl's fine metal tools, and the chip fizzes and pops.

"...never mind, it fried. Again."

Renée drops her tools and pulls off her safety goggles (custom-made, with lenses for all four of her eyes). "Hi, Tamika. I still can't get the data off these stupid things."

"We'll get you more test subjects," says Tamika. They've been prying these chips out of the Strexcorp gyropter pilots like raisins out of raisin bread. Plenty more where those came from. "Here. Books for your dad."

Renée accepts a sampling of poems by Amiri Baraka and Kirby Doyle with some distaste. "Technical stuff? He probably won't read it. But it's okay, Janice can borrow them even if he doesn't."

From what Tamika has heard, right now Carlsberg needs all the technical writing he can get his hands on. She's not going to quit delivering it. "Spending a lot of time with Agent J2 lately?"

"Yeah? My dad moved in with her mom, so we kinda have to."

Tamika tenses. "That's where you moved? I thought it was just to a new place. A non-Strex-owned place."

"Sure, it's that too...."

"Tamika!" calls a new voice. It's Janice herself, riding Tehom in the shape of a thestral, holding a stack of books. "I've got these. They're not overdue! Don't be mad at Renée, she didn't lose track of them, I borrowed them."

It's the latest couple of volumes in the Dark is Rising sequence, sent by Tamika in hopes that they would refresh Carlsberg's understanding of digital audio encoding. And due back at the library tomorrow. "Cutting it fine, but I can get these back in time," she decides, loading them up in the bookbag over Rashi's back. "Hey, J2, do you know if your mom's working tonight?"

"She has the evening shift on Tuesdays, so yes. She'll be out all through dinner, and won't get back until late. I can get you her whole schedule, if you want."

"Thanks, but not necessary. I need to talk to Carlsberg tonight, that's all. As you were, agent." Once Janice has left to get back to her own work, Tamika says under her breath to Renée, "How secure is the place?"

"Has all the same wiring the apartment did. I put it in myself," says Renée proudly. "Janice double-checked. She hasn't been learning about anbaric currents and everything as long as I have, but she's still pretty good. Oh, and I sweep for bugs all the time! Last check was this morning."

That's probably as much security as Tamika can ask for. "Well done. Now, those other books, give 'em here. Since I'm going that way anyway, I can do a personal delivery."

Renée is only too happy to hand them over. She doesn't seem suspicious about why. Neither does Janice, Tamika would bet.

Sure would be nice if they could get through this without either agent feeling hurt or betrayed. If it wasn't for Carlsberg's re-education, Tamika would probably take the risk of assuming he had a plan and not getting involved, just letting him roll with it.

But Carlsberg's head has been severely knocked around, and the timing is too damn convenient. Which means it's up to Tamika to go save the man from himself.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

Team Carlos-and-Dawn has the biplane token. Team Mamá-and-Lucas (either there is literally nobody else online at Lucas's MMO right now, or this is the first sign of the apocalypse) is the battleship. Team Rosa-and-Cecil wanted the hooded figure, but settled for the hat.

Monopoly with Mamá is always an adventure. She doesn't just trade properties, but throws in offers like "the next three times you land on my property are free" or "only if I get ten percent of all profits." The dice love Cecil; he and Rosa never stay in jail for more than one turn. And Carlos does little things to keep the game easy for Cecil to follow, like always reading out loud where they've landed and who owns it, and soon everyone is following his lead.

In spite of all this, Cecil's interest wanes as the game goes on. Carlos doesn't blame him. On top of his vision impairment dampening a lot of the fun, a game about aggressively buying up as much property as possible and trying to drive everyone else out of business has kind of lost its shine these days.

(Although Carlos does get a kick out of imagining Strexcorp being owned by a rich little cartoon man in a top hat and tails, complete with diamond-collared Persian cat daemon.)

He's so caught up in his own assumptions about Cecil's distraction that he doesn't think to ask if something else is wrong.

It's Rosa who finally notices. "Mr. Cecil? Is it part of your condition that your lips are blue?"

"A-are they?" stammers Cecil.

Carlos looks up from laying a plastic hotel on Park Place (10% share owned by Team Mamá-and-Lucas). Rosa's not kidding. "Cecil? Let me see your hand."

Cecil works one of them out from being hugged under his arm, and offers it to Carlos. It's icy to the touch.

"Your nails are blue too. Cecil, you're hypothermic — why didn't you say something?"

"Like what?" asks Cecil, blinking at him in dull confusion. "That I'm cold? But I — I'm always cold."

Everyone's looking at Cecil now, with the kids waiting for cues from the adults about whether they should panic or not. So Carlos takes extra care to keep his voice calm and steady as he hands out marching orders. "Dawn, can you run into the kitchen and put on the kettle? There are hot water bottles in the drawer underneath. Rosa, you know where the quilts are — go grab a few, okay? Mamá, do you have an anbaric blanket or anything lying around? Or could we turn up the thermostat a few degrees?"

"There's a space heater in the basement, under the stairs," says his mother. "We can bring it into the den and close the doors."

"I'll get the heater," says Lucas, and gets up without even having to be asked.

Cecil shivers and stumbles as Carlos helps him into the den. Rosa is right on their heels, carrying an armful of quilts half as big as she is. Lucas comes up a minute later with his antelope helping to bear the box with the space heater. It's all plugged in, and the Monopoly board is mostly reconstituted, by the time the kettle boils and Dawn arrives bearing bottled heat. Three of them.

"You have to put one under each arm, and one —" She blushes. "— between your legs. I went on a ski trip where they gave a talk about it."

"Fantastic," says Carlos, taking them off her hands (and on some level reflecting that, sure, he can be awkward about sex, but at least he's no longer young-teenage "embarrassed to reference the fact that your legs join to your body" awkward). "Thank you so much for remembering that. Thank you all, you make a great team. Cecil, did you catch that?"

He helps Cecil get the bottles into position, then wreathes the quilts around him until he's basically a knitted hillock with a cat-eared head sticking out of the top. With a heater running two feet away.

"This is...better," says Cecil cautiously. "Less cold. When does it stop being hypothermia?"

"Let's shoot for you not shivering," decides Carlos. That, at least, is something Cecil can reliably gauge on his own.

"Is this normal if you're from a desert?" asks Dawn. "Or is this because of what your daemon is doing?"

"I cannot be sure. My Khoshekh has never tried to float through the stratosphere before. Even when I'm at home." Cecil's words are coming slowly, but he's already using longer sentences, which has to be a good sign, right? "If it's all the same to you...I would rather not run a control test."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

A well-placed slingshot hit to the back of the head, and the secret police officer in the bushes out behind the Carlsbergs' new place is down for the count. He might be a sympathizer, but Tamika can't be sure, and she isn't taking any chances.

The invisibility ritual she got one of the Scouts to do before she left isn't going to last much longer...and someone's gonna notice her daemon pretty quick after it fades. (There's a reason people who settled as buffaloes don't get assigned to the secret police's espionage division.) She and Rashi hurry to the door.

A confused Carlsberg opens it. Under her breath, Tamika hisses, "Nobody here. But give us some space to get in, got it?"

"Huh. Nobody here," echoes Carlsberg. Just to be sure, he and his badger daemon step out, leaving the door wide open, and walk a generous circle on the patio. "Nope. Still nobody here. Must've been the wind." He follows Tamika back in...and looks directly at her. "It is so good to have you here! Our own town hero. Can I get you a drink? A snack?"

Stupid invisibility must be on the fritz. "You got any soda?" asks Tamika. "Also, I'm not a hero. Also, you have to get out of here."

"Really? Huh. Do I have time to finish baking? Because I have these scones in the oven...."

"No, I don't mean it like that. This isn't the gyropters with bombs are on their way here right now kind of having-to-go." Tamika follows the man into the kitchen and pours herself a glass of root beer. "What I mean is, you have to get out of this relationship. And it can't be suspicious, so you can't just vanish one night, you gotta make it look natural. Act like you got cold feet. Make up something that really annoys you, that you only figured out now you're living together. Stuff like that."

Carlsberg takes his time thinking about this. "Did one of the girls send you? Because me and Del, we really thought they were okay with this move. Them being okay with it was very important to us."

"They don't know I'm here. Renée probably doesn't even know why I'd be here. Not sure about Janice. If she knew, she'd keep it secret — this is her mom, after all." Tamika is starting to be able to see her hand holding the drink, to see the sturdy bulk of her daemon at her side. "And I'm willing to bet on Janice being safe no matter what, but you and your kid —"

"— are not in any danger. Not from Delphine," says Carlsberg cheerfully. "Oh, hey! Scones are done."

"I know you don't want to hear this," says Tamika. "I'm sure you think you love her and everything...."

"I don't think it. I don't have to think it." He pulls the trays of baked goods off the oven racks. The room fills with warmth, and the scent of oranges. "I know it. Now, I can't know whether she loves me, because I never developed the skill of seeing inside people's minds. Even now! But I do think it."

"Only because you don't know who she is. What she is."

"Sure I do." Carlsberg whisks out a plate, sweeps two scones onto it, and sets it on the island in the middle of the kitchen. "Have a seat. You've probably been on your feet all day, and some of that fighting librarians, am I right? You've earned a rest."

"If you knew the thing I'm thinking of, you wouldn't be this relaxed," counters Tamika. Unless he's really brainwashed, and this is all a setup. She doesn't take the seat.

With a sigh, the man leans against the counter. "Look, Tamika...I understand why you wouldn't trust me with some things right now," he says. "Because all of a sudden I'm re-learning circuit diagrams from scratch, and I keep seeing something in the sky that nobody else sees, and also, looking at lots of words makes me nervous? I get it. I don't trust me with a lot of things right now."

"You're not making a great case for yourself here, Carlsberg."

"But here's the thing: I knew about Del months ago. And past-me still thought we could make this work out. And if you don't even trust past-me, then could you at least trust Cecil? You would do that, right?"

"I do trust Palmero." Lot of things fall apart if Tamika can't do that. Starting with the laws of physics. "He owe you a favor, or something? I thought he didn't like you."

Carlsberg's eyes widen. For all that he's got lines around his mouth and a hairline receding up off his forehead, he looks almost childishly hurt. "What? No! Cecil is my best friend! And he was delighted to confirm that Delphine's division is espionage, not interrogation or re-education — that she has never been involved in any of the decisions to bring me in — and that whatever else they did inside my head, none of it was to change how I feel about her."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

It gets so toasty in the enclosed room that Carlos and his relatives shed their hats and sweaters. Cecil stops shaking with cold, but refuses to come out of the blankets, just in case.

(They know he's recovering nicely when he has the energy to get mortally offended that Carlos's team drew the "won second place in a beauty contest" chance card.)

As Team Carlos-and-Dawn is hitting a clear downswing, trying to negotiate paying Cecil-and-Rosa with a handwritten IOU so they don't have to start selling back hotels to cover the bill, Cecil finally says, "I'm going to need to get the door in a minute. Would somebody mind unwrapping me?"

With Rosa's and Carlos's help, he gets down to a single quilt, which he wears like a nine-patch cloak as Khoshekh — shivering, uncoordinated, fur stiff with frost — comes bumbling into his arms.

"Hold him against your bare skin! That'll warm him up fastest," advises Dawn when they get back into the den. Cecil pulls the half-frozen margay up under his sweater and turtleneck, and wraps his arms tightly over the lump.

"So what's the deal? Did you ever catch up?" asks Lucas. Maybe this is why he's spent so long away from his online games: he's figured out that interesting things happen around Cecil, and doesn't want to miss out.

Wordlessly, Cecil shakes his head. Carlos starts re-tucking blankets around him.

"Who were you chasing?" adds Rosa, hugging her own daemon close in a cuddly snow-leopard form.

"He doesn't have to tell us if he doesn't want to, pequeñita," chides Mamá. "It might be personal."

"It is," says Cecil softly. "But you have all been so unfailingly helpful...I think you have some right to know why. My mother's daemon was in that flight of witches. I have not seen him — or my mother herself — since I was quite young." He nods at Dawn. "About your age."

The kids make sympathetic noises. Mamá shoots a confused look at Carlos — who has implied to her that Cecil's mother was around much more recently. He shakes his head and mouths Later.

"He must have known I was here," continues Cecil, half to himself. "Even if he couldn't come to the house, he could have watched for Khoshekh...then he could have made a closer pass, or moved more slowly...he could have done so many things. I don't...I don't understand why he did not."

"Well, maybe it wasn't even him, you know?" says Dawn hopefully. "They were really far away. Probably miles. Maybe if you had gotten close enough, it would've turned out to be someone else's daemon all along."

Cecil snorts. "Not likely. How many other tualapi daemons do you know?"

Carlos doesn't recognize the species. From the looks of it, nobody in his family does either. "What's a tualapi?"

"Well, a bird, obviously." Shifting position under the blankets, Cecil strokes the bump under his sweater where Khoshekh's head must be. "Although for some reason you thought he looked like a sailboat."

Chapter Text

Central Narraganset.

Carlos splits the rest of his evening between keeping an eye on Cecil and getting some work done.

The otherworldly physics text is beginning to sit more easily in his head. He's picking up the outlines of three separate experiments he might be able to reverse-engineer in enough detail to replicate...or at least, send as proposals to CERN. (They have good equipment in Night Vale, but not confirm-the-existence-of-a-quark-gluon-plasma good.)

The whole family helps Cecil by keeping an eye out for the witches' evening flyby. It comes and goes with no sign of a tualapi silhouette. Cecil retreats to the basement for another astral-projection check-in with people in Night Vale, comes back somber, and spikes his ponche at dinner with rather more than the recommended amount of tequila.

...which turns out to be just enough to give him the courage to ask Lena for a quick primer on how memory and amnesia work. (At Carlos's suggestion. His sister is that kind of theologian.)

Papi and Mamá spend the evening at a substitute Christmas Eve service, held by the ex-Magisterium support group formed out of the broken ranks of the congregation Erika manifested in front of. The rest of the family is invited, but all politely decline. Lena and Wes were only C&E Christians as of Erika's visit anyway; Azalea, who has never been in a profession with official Magisterium observers, probably hasn't set foot in a church even to keep up appearances since high school; and Carlos, well, Carlos doesn't want to abandon Cecil or make another attempt to dress up.

He sets himself to doing the dishes while Cecil and Lena talk. They come into the kitchen just as he's finishing cleaning off the counter, with Lena promising hot chocolatl. "I'll even steal a couple of candy canes off the tree," she says, "if you promise not to tell the kids. Would you like one?"

"I would love one!" exclaims Cecil. He looks more at peace than he has in a while. "Carlos, did you know that personal facts, general facts, and emotions are stored in separate parts of the brain? And sensory stimuli are linked to recall? And sometimes people's minds suppress their own memories, without any external re-education at all?"

Carlos smiles. "Sounds like you're basically a psychiatrist now."

"I know, right!"

Once the milk is heating up and Lena has gone to the front room to perform the heist, Cecil's serenity does falter, and he shuffles over to Carlos with a worried expression. But it's only to ask, "Quick, before she gets back: what's a candy cane, and what do I do with it?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

And then, at last, it's Christmas morning. With comfort food, the Nutcracker Suite on the stereo, and presents for all.

There's a single un-decorated package sitting among the wrapping paper and ribbons: a delivery that Carlos had shipped to the house, and someone decided to stash under the tree. Part of his checklist of things to pick up for acquaintances in Night Vale, and ferry over the border. He slices open the packing tape and counts the inventory. All here.

When Khoshekh pokes his head over the side of the box to see, his fur stands on end. "Carlos! How many of these are there? Are you planning to become a dealer? I know the money's good, but I cannot say it's worth the risk!"

It gets them a few weird looks, so Carlos picks up one of the graphing calculators and shows it around. "Not weapons, not drugs. Still highly illegal, but I'm not dealing — it's a donation for the kids in the local Book Club. Because sometimes there's a math problem you need to tackle with more than a working knowledge of runes and a close reading of Johanna Sinisalo's Not Before Sundown."

He's also still getting the mechanical components Steve asked for, re-education be damned. Even if Steve himself is no longer sure what to do with them, either he or Tamika will find someone to pass them on to.

When Wes opens the box holding his carved wooden vervet, he's impressed. When Mamá opens the one with her raccoon, the kids realize there's a pattern here. Lucas puts aside his half-assembled NERF gun, Dawn puts down her new manga, and they both dig through the pile to find more boxes addressed From: Mr. Cecil. Soon they have their carvings (a life-size salamander for Dawn, a miniature addax for Lucas) delightedly in hand.

Rosa looks downright forlorn. Her father notices, and puts the carved vervet away. "We'll find you one from the same set when you're older, hon. Don't be in any rush to settle."

"It's not a set," protests Dawn. "They're hand-carved! Mr. Cecil put a bunch of in-progress shots on his tumblr."

And Azalea, looking for her own from the opposite side of the tree, adds, "Looks like this one has your name on it."

Rosa goes wide-eyed over her painstakingly-carved Zafara. While the rest of the family is impressed all over again, Carlos basks in Cecil's happiness, and picks the paper off the package he assumes has a wooden armadillo inside.

It's not a wooden anything. It's a notebook. A child-size notebook, bound with large blue plastic rings.

Cecil gave Carlos the Little Reporter's Book of Big-Boy Note Taking.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Sherie has explained that the Christmas tradition of her people involves movies and Cathay food, and Nirliq and the Li Huas take it to heart: Nirliq rents some local DVDs, while the Li Huas make stew. They refuse to identify the ingredients of said stew. "None of it is poisonous and none of the meat was sentient, and that's all you need to know," says one.

"We shot it all ourselves," adds the other proudly. "Saved you some money on groceries."

Sherie needs all the money-saving she can get, she thinks, relaxing on the couch in the team's larger rental house and watching the Spanish dub of Jaws. (Maybe it's just a translation issue, but she does not remember the shark being this...hot.) She could break her lease, move in with the rest of the group...although there's only one free room right now, the one vacated by Rayshawn, which would be tricky if her kids come back to town....

They're all breathless with suspense at one of the shark-chase scenes when someone at the front of the house fiddles with the lock.

Everybody jumps. The sludge monster is still at the chapel; any defense of the building is on them. Both Li Huas produce handguns out of nowhere and take positions where they can easily jump out and fire at whoever's trying to enter. Sherie and Nirliq make sure they're behind the Li Huas.

To their profound relief, it's just Quentin. An exhausted-looking Quentin, his mop of fluffy curls lopsided like he's been sleeping on it funny, his flying-squirrel daemon a lump in his shirt pocket. "Come on, you two, put those down. I've been driving all night, I'm too tired to attack right now even if I was evil."

"You weren't scheduled to come back until tomorrow night," says Sherie. "You should have called ahead."

"In retrospect...yeah, probably. It's just...I wasn't really...I came out to the family, okay? Not about the gay thing — they already knew that — about the 'when the angels say there's no god, I believe them' thing."

"The angels who don't exist," puts in Nirliq, with a sidelong glance at the front window.

"Right. Those. Point is...it didn't go well."

And now Sherie feels bad for scolding him. Even though he should have called. "I'm so sorry to hear that. Would you like to join us for lunch and movies?"

Quentin looks blearily through to the living room. "Uh...am I hallucinating from the sleep deprivation, or are you watching gay shark porn?"

Everyone follows his gaze. Sherie claps a hand over her mouth. Nirliq raises her eyebrows.

The Li Huas just shrug. "Apparently, yes."

"Good god, straight women are weird," says Quentin. (Nirliq clears her throat.) "Bi women too. Look, it's nice of you to offer...but I've gotta get some sleep. Catch up on the local dream broadcasts I've missed."

"Completely understandable," says Nirliq. "We'll save you some stew."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

When Cecil gets to the box holding Carlos's present for him, Carlos holds his breath. Partly because, while the theory behind it is sound, this is the first time it's been put to a practical test. And partly because, for once in Carlos's life, the theology isn't all that matters. Cecil also has to like it. To think it's...pretty.

Cecil unfolds the tissue paper and lifts the palm-sized disc out of the box by the ribbon attached to the frame. "What's this? A suncatcher? What's...oh. Oh!"

"Hey, that's beautiful," says Azalea, always the fan of handcrafted anything. "Where'd you get it?"

"I, um, sort of made it. My team helped," says Carlos. "You know we've been making a new kind of lens — the Dirac-Hall lens — have any of you read the literature on it? No? You should give it a look, it's really interesting...but, ah, the point is, we've been testing different variations on it, and some of the test subjects have broken in the process. So I asked if I could have some of the pieces, and glued them together."

"Khoshekh, come here," calls Cecil, and the margay floats over to hover across from him. "Look at this, okay? Now...close your eyes!"

They settle into four-eye. Cecil holds the suncatcher between himself and Carlos. Khoshekh purrs.

Of course, the lenses the team has been testing are more advanced than any of the ones they've written about. And they're all calculated (not to mention, laser-cut) to interact with Rusakov particles in slightly different ways. Which means this object does for Cecil's vision what a plain glass suncatcher does for visible light: catches and refracts the Rusakov radiation at different angles, so it glitters, dazzles, shines.

"I've never seen anything like it," breathes Cecil, spinning the disc in the air and watching it sparkle. "You did this? Experimental theology did this? It's beautiful."

"Art did that," corrects Azalea. And Carlos doesn't even argue, because it kind of is art, isn't it? He can be an artist sometimes, if he feels like it. He can make art if he wants.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

It's afternoon when Quentin resurfaces, the movie long over. The Li Huas are off doing goodness-knows-what, while Sherie and Nirliq are on their laptops, proofreading each other's current research papers. Granted, Sherie doesn't have the expertise to check the mechanics of an experiment on cross-world heliotrope radiation absorption spectra, but she can certainly flag a run-on sentence when she sees it.

Quentin microwaves a bowl of stew and settles on the end of the couch next to Nirliq's chair. His flying-squirrel daemon hops off his shoulder and soars over, to be caught by her red colobus. "What have I missed? Catch me up. I'll get back in the game as soon as I've had...is this dinner? I think it's dinner."

"Sure," says Nirliq. "But no pressure. You're still on break...and if you need help processing whatever happened, I'm sure Sherie can sit you down and say some comforting things."

"Oh, I'm hardly qualified," stammers Sherie. She's trying to be more understanding of...different romantic preferences, but it's hardly her area of expertise the way it is Quentin's. And, apparently, Nirliq's.

"Really? I would think you'd have more experience with religious intolerance than almost anyone on the team."

Oh, right. There's that. (Nirliq was never Christian either, but growing up with native Beringland traditions in Beringland itself is very different from growing up Hebrew in a country with as much Magisterium influence as the USND.)

"It's not a big deal," says Quentin. "I knew it was coming. In some ways it's nice to have it over with. And hey, why are you going easy all of a sudden? I was counting on you to say something like 'no more slacking for you, there's a war on'."

"I — but — pacing yourself is different from slacking," protests Nirliq. "Maybe whoever's running WZZZ can sit in front of a problem and keep steadily crunching numbers 24/7 until they get answers, but the rest of us need to take breaks. I do get that."

Quentin's flying squirrel pats Nirliq's colobus on his furry arm. "No offense meant. Are we bothering you? We can go bother Sherie, if you want."

Nirliq sighs. "There is actually something I've been hoping you can take a look at."

"Great! Lay it on me."

"It even makes a great demonstration of the importance of mental downtime," adds Nirliq, still a little defensive, as she moves windows around on her screen. "I had an idea for something completely different we could test on the modified Atal lenses, and the only reason I came up with it is because Carlos thought of something similar while trying to design a present for his boyfriend...."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

The gifts are long depleted — there's wrapping paper all over the place — when Cecil says, "Have you tested the book yet?"

Carlos frowns through a mouthful of gingerbread cookie. "Tested...?"

"To make sure it works for you. This was a formal gifting, so it should have transferred the connection, but testing is important, right? For confirmation."

Carlos swallows the gingerbread and picks up the Little Reporter's Book. He should have realized it was something more than a cute souvenir of Cecil's childhood. "I'll do it now. How do I start?"

(All of Carlos's other presents, for the record, were new pairs of eyeglasses. No doubt inspired by his various Facebook updates about the ones he's gotten damaged, destroyed, and/or lost in other universes.)

"Open to a page, and say something theological."

Carlos dutifully flips to the first page. "Mary Malone was most likely one of the greatest physicists in any world, ever."

Ink blossoms across the paper, tracing the words in clear, neat print.

"Never heard of her," says Lena's husband.

"Contributions of female experimental theologians are always minimized or erased from history," puts in Dawn.

"True, but our history is off the hook for this one," says Carlos, picking up Isaña and holding her so she can see. "Dr. Malone was from Will Parry's world. I don't know if they've solved sexism overall, but as far as I can tell, they're doing right by her."

Cecil is nodding impatiently. "Yes, yes, now say something theological that could make a chart."

Carlos obligingly looks around the room, and lists the classes of daemons in view. (Two birds, six mammals, one reptile, one unsettled.)

More ink appears below the first line of writing. It makes a bar graph. One unit of the "mammal" bar is even striped over, with a footnote saying *debatable (otherworldly).

For a moment Carlos finds himself reduced to squeaky wordless noises of excitement.

"What's it doing?" asks Lena, leaning over from the couch to see.

Carlos flips to a fresh page and holds it facing her. "The Standard Model of elementary particles includes paulions, bosons, and planckons. Paulions are subdivided into leptons and quarks. Leptons include anbarons, mu leptons, tau leptons...."

Wide-eyed, Lena takes the Little Reporter's Book out of his hands. Carlos keeps talking as she passes it on to her husband, then their parents, then Azalea, who tosses it back to the near side of the tree so the kids can take a look.

"...and planckons include, to the best of our knowledge, only Rusakov particles. Did it keep going?"

Sure enough, when Dawn hands the notebook back, there's a perfect diagram of the Standard Model. "It moved around, too," says Azalea. "When the list of quarks got too long for the section, everything rearranged so it fit. Cecil got you an automatic chart machine."

"Oh, but what are you going to do when it runs out of pages?" exclaims Mamá.

"It won't do that," says Cecil. "It has an infinite number of them."

"Cecil got you an infinite automatic chart machine," says Lena. "Good lord. If he was a woman I'd be telling you to marry him right now."

Cecil breaks into a nervous laugh. "A-ha. I don't really think that's...I mean, we haven't even tried living together yet...and we've only been dating for, Carlos, how long has it been? Your time?"

"Six months," says Carlos, and watches the latest page of the Little Reporter's Book. (Or should he start calling it the Little Theologian's Book?) A timeline pops into existence running down the left side, with the top notch marked 15 June and the bottom one 25 December. Waiting to be filled in with more detail, if necessary.

When Carlos thinks about the factors that make Cecil's subjective time different, an asterisk appears in mid-August, and a bracket extends to encompass a second timeline beside it. Subway (dates approx., ~2.3yrs), declares a caption.

It sparks off a flurry of thoughts and feelings in Carlos's mind, the most prominent being....

"I have got to put Dana's timeline in this thing."

"Dana?" echoes Mamá. "A friend of yours?"

"Something like that," says Carlos, already getting up. Friend, fellow unwitting figure in an apocalyptic prophecy, same difference. "She's in another world — disconnected from normal time — Cecil, have you heard from her lately?"

"Got a series of texts a couple of days ago!" calls Cecil after him as Carlos makes a break for the den, Isaña scurrying at his heels. "She's still walking toward the Clouded Mountain, no change there!"

"Great!" yells Carlos over his shoulder. "It's going on my chart!"

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

The radio in the chapel has switched itself on, and is playing the monologue from tonight's first Interim Voice of Night Vale. (Tristan Cortez, president of the Night Vale Green Market co-op-turned-Strexcorp-subsidiary, imploring shoppers to help them make up the losses from recent sabotage by Tamika Flynn's army.)

Nirliq, energized, shuts herself in the laser room. Sherie introduces Quentin to their new pet sludge monster, and distributes popsicles to the children playing hopscotch across the street.

Then the two of them roll up their sleeves and start on a fresh batch of the Asriel emulsion. Nirliq's upcoming bifocal lenses (there's an awful pun in here somewhere, Sherie just knows) are going to need it.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

There is (knock wood) only one more hurdle for Cecil and Carlos to clear during this vacation, and it arrives around noon on Boxing Day.

With some careful timing, Carlos arranges to be out for a drive with Cecil when Mike's family arrives. "You know you're doing great with the family so far, right?" he asks, in between showing Cecil the schools he went to as a kid, and the house he grew up in. "Even if you don't win over...certain people...by the end of this, it's not a problem. You've earned more than enough approval already."

"I will keep it in mind." Cecil scratches behind Khoshekh's ears. "Do you think...does your father like me? I know your mom does, but your dad, he hasn't really...talked to me. At all."

"No, no, that's just how Papi is," Carlos assures him. "He's never been much of a talker. Nothing to do with you."

Carlos's little brother's car is in the driveway when they get back, complete with the lush trailer hooked to the rear. Even the most generously adapted single vehicle wouldn't give Mike's family enough space to travel with his wife and her daemon: an okapi, one of the largest animals it's possible to settle as. (Outside of Night Vale, anyway. Cecil's mother's tualapi, if Carlos's sense of scale was right, is two or three times that size.)

Carlos's sister-in-law tends not to move around a lot in houses that aren't built for oversize daemons, and sure enough, he finds that May has set herself up in the living room, catching up with Lena and Wes. She gives him a frosty, perfunctory smile as he introduces her to Cecil.

"Is that Carlos I hear?" calls a friendlier voice from upstairs, and Carlos is thrilled to have the excuse to lead Cecil out of danger. Mike gets a start when he sees Cecil's eyes in person for the first time, and another at Khoshekh's legs...but recovers quickly, pushes his glasses up his nose, and offers a hand to shake. "You must be Cecil! My brother's talked a lot about you."

They're mid-handshake, Khoshekh touching noses with Mike's maned-wolf daemon, when the baby — or rather, the toddler — comes tottering out into the hall. He looks up at Cecil, squeals around his pacifier, and wobbles rapidly back to Grandma.

Cecil is starry-eyed. "She is adorable. Gosh, how do you keep up?"

"He," corrects Mike. "His name's Nate, and I can tell you one thing, it takes a lot of caffeine."

"...Uh-huh." Cecil looks between Mike and Nate, brow furrowed, then rests his hand on the small of Carlos's back and taps the request for help. "So...he's a boy? You're sure?"

"They're sure," says Carlos gently.

In the moment he says it, he's confident. In the next breath, he's remembering how everyone in Night Vale can look at a detached adult man's hand and think ah yes, obviously that's a little girl. And they're right. Is his baby nephew actually his trans baby niece? And only Cecil has any way of guessing it, because Nate is sixteen months old and doesn't even understand the concept of pronouns yet?

Mike doesn't have a chance to notice Carlos's hesitation, because that's when the twins barrel into view. "Hi, Uncle Carlos! Merry Christmas!" exclaims the straight-haired twin.

"Dad said we couldn't have the rest of our presents until you got back," adds the curly-haired twin.

"Well, that was very nice of him, not leaving us out," says Carlos. Sinking into a crouch so he doesn't tower over the boys, he adds, "This is Mr. Cecil. Your parents told you he would be here, right...?"

After a brief discussion of when it's good to keep secrets — the twins have been cautioned against hiding anything from their parents, but they understand that their uncle is famous, and have watched enough superhero movies to know how secret identities work — Carlos reveals that Cecil is his boyfriend. The curly-haired twin looks like he's not sure what to make of that, until the straight-haired twin stage-whispers, "It's because they're homosexuals."

"Ohhh."

"Your uncle said you were interested in five-headed dragons," puts in Cecil. "Is that still true? Because I happen to know one, and I have a bunch of photos...."

"Yeah!" exclaims the straight-haired twin, daemon bouncing on her paws as an excitable terrier puppy.

The curly-haired twin is more pragmatic. "Presents first, though, right?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

With gloved hands, Nirliq's colobus daemon fits the modified Atal lens into its setting. Quentin plugs a cord into his tablet and flips the power switch. Sherie watches, holding her breath.

The pile of circuits looks like the guts of a small, disemboweled robot. Pushed together, it would be about the size of Sherie's doubled fists; it could fit inside one of their Strex-provided Rusakov meters twice over. The lens itself is no bigger than a nickel. Nirliq's daemon has been doing a lot of the handling because he has the thinnest and deftest fingers.

"We're connected," whispers Quentin.

Sherie hugs her mongoose daemon under her arm. "Does that mean it's working?"

"How am I supposed to know that without any numbers? Hang on."

The window open on his screen is a command prompt: bare-bones, no graphics, just rows of text full of codes and shortcuts Sherie isn't familiar with. Right now the only line she recognizes is Connection attempt successful. Quentin taps out a mix of numbers, letters, and hyphens, and hits enter.

A number appears on the newest line. A high one, given the Rusakov concentration Sherie has normally observed in this area, but not outside the realm of possibility.

"We should be getting new realtime readings every five seconds," says Quentin. "Aha! There's another. What does the danger meter say? ...Oh, come on, hasn't one of you gotten the danger meter yet?"

Given that Nirliq has spent most of the day busy with lasers, Sherie takes it upon herself to go check the Gaillard Compass.

"I'll give you the bad news first," she says. "We're getting early indicators of another major dimensional-instability event. It looks like it's going to hit some time next week, and be bad. Real bad. I don't know if our handful of danger meters will give us enough coverage to keep on top of it."

"But the good news is that we just finished inventing the pocket Rusakov meter, right?" says Nirliq.

Sherie grins. "The good news is that we just finished inventing the pocket Rusakov meter."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

Early evening finds the adults relaxing in the living room, with hard cider and tequila-laced ponche to go around.

Everyone's imbibing except Mike (who has to drive later) and the toddler (who's conked out in Papi's lap). Even Dawn, testing the waters of what "hanging out with the grown-ups" feels like, has official parental permission to try a glass.

There aren't enough real couches and chairs to go around, so half of them are sitting on the carpet, including Cecil in front of Carlos's chair. He's melted against Carlos's legs a few drinks in, while Carlos is relaxed enough to play with his hair. They're not even getting dirty looks from May over it. Could she be softening toward them after all? (Especially after getting that lovely hand-carved okapi from Cecil?)

Dawn, cross-legged in front of Papi's armchair, ends up cutting into the relaxation. "So, Uncle Carlos, can we come visit you some time?"

"Um," says Carlos. "Visits might not be the best idea right now. Night Vale is even more dangerous than usual these days! We have the danger meter readings to prove it."

"Will it ever not be dangerous?" asks Mamá seriously.

"Probably not," admits Carlos. "But there are parts we're working on."

"Well, it doesn't sound so bad to me," says Dawn stubbornly.

Carlos's mouth actually falls open. "Where did you get that idea?"

"From you!" protests his niece. The jeweled-lizard daemon on her shoulder sits up straighter, nodding his head. "From everything you've said about it! Like how the cops aren't racist...how nobody's racist, except for that one guy who used to wear fake Skraeling headdresses and then died...nobody's sexist or homophobic, either...and the Magisterium doesn't get to harass you at all? Night Vale sounds great. Tell me one thing that's scary or oppressive about Night Vale."

Her parents and her grandmother, who have been privy to some of the details of Carlos's various Night Vale terrors, all start trying to talk her down at once. (Papi might even be joining in, if he hadn't fallen asleep too.)

Carlos, meanwhile, feels like his brain is spinning off in all directions at once. Where does he start?

Brush, tap, brush, brush, tap goes Cecil's hand against his leg.

And Carlos draws a complete blank on what to signal in reply. Dawn is fifteen, old enough to hear the truth and take a little responsibility for being more sensitive — but that doesn't mean Carlos has free rein to just unload his trauma backlog all over her — which is exactly what's going to happen, if he tries to answer while he's this scattered —

Cecil downs half his mug of spiked eggnog in one go, then says, loudly: "My tattoo is not ironic."

All eyes go to him.

"For those of you who have just arrived: it is a bar code. Here." Cecil turns to the side, so Mike and May can see as he touches the back of his neck through his current scarf (the multilayered, filmy-green one), then faces Dawn again. "A large corporation took over my workplace several months ago and placed them on all of us. Not...willingly. I had to be restrained."

It's the first time Carlos has heard that detail, though he certainly could have guessed. He splays one hand over Isaña's shell and leans forward to squeeze Cecil's shoulder.

"That can't possibly be legal," says Lena's husband after a moment. He and Lena are on the couch with Mamá, vervet and fruit-bat daemons sitting together by their feet. "You should sue."

"Oh, no, this kind of thing has been legal under local municipal codes for as long as I can remember," says Cecil. "But until recently, no employers were cruel enough to actually do it. With the obvious exception of Wal-Mart."

"God, I wish I didn't believe you," mutters Mike. (At the foot of May's chair, maned-wolf and okapi daemons cuddling around the side.) "But the last time I thought Carlos was exaggerating how dramatic his life is, I got shown up by a literal angel."

Carlos, for his part, pulls himself together enough to address his niece (now getting visibly hit with several days' worth of retroactive guilt at once). "All the perks you brought up are true," he says gently. "And Night Vale is the most theologically fascinating town in this world, and it's full of people I am proud to share a community with, and I love it dearly....but it is kind of a horrifying dystopia, okay? I'm not inviting any of you to visit until, at the very least, Cecil's evil employers have been overthrown. And in the meantime, it would help if you took up archery."

 

-{,(((,">

 

The conversation flows on.

So do the drinks.

That second one is probably part of why Cecil eventually announces, "There's somethin' else Carlos isn't telling you."

Carlos, who switched to non-alcoholic half an hour ago, gives his boyfriend a warning nudge with his leg. "Cecil...."

"No!" exclaims Cecil. "No, you are too modest. But I will brag about you if I want to. And your family should know." He gestures at Carlos with his (temporarily empty) mug, and addresses the group. "Carlos is a hero. He has saved the world. Literally all of the world. And given the way things are going, he will most likely end up doing it again."

There's a chorus of oooohs around the room.

"You're exaggerating," protests Carlos. "He is exaggerating!"

"But there's a story here, right?" prods Azalea. "You saved the town, or somethin'? C'mon, tell us a story."

Carlos squirms. "Um, no. It has actually been the literal world a couple times. But it's not like I saved it alone! I had help! There was this one time, I couldn't have done it without Cecil."

"Ooh," says Cecil. "The one with th' buzzing shadow things, right?"

"That's the one." Carlos tries to think of how to summarize for the family in small, non-technical words. "The, um, the bad guys blew this hole in the fabric of the world. And if it had been left open, all the Dust would've drained out."

"Wow," says Lena. She and her husband are leaning comfortably against each other by now, eyes half-lidded. "I've read that Lyra-and-Pan story. So — how'd you fix it? Or are the details gonna be too technical for us?"

"We reversed the polarity of the Rusakov particle flow," says Carlos, at the same time as Cecil says, "True love's kiss!"

"Oh, stop," groans May.

Cecil sits forward, elbows on his knees. "You got a problem?"

"Yes!" bursts out May. "Yes, I have a problem."

Mike gives his wife a cautioning look. "Honey...."

May ignores him. "A problem with you," she clarifies, eyes narrowed at Cecil. "Showing up at a family gathering. And, and people acting like you have some kind of right to be here, because of your...your sordid lust."

This actually gets a huff of amusement out of Cecil. "Just 'cause you think Carlos is hot without liking him as a person...."

May nearly chokes. "Excuse me?"

"Cecil!" hisses Carlos.

"It's not an accusation!" complains Cecil. "Not at all. People think you're hot all the time. It is theological fact."

It could have ended there. Defuse everything with a few laughs, gently sidestep the issue, and move the conversation back to safer waters.

But whatever force of will May has been using to hold all this back has snapped, and she's not going to be railroaded away from it that easily. "Theological fact is, your lifestyle is not normal," she snaps. "And don't you say I'm...blindly stuck on, on the official Church position. I have done research! Your relationships don't last, you get health problems, domestic violence, abuse — there are studies!"

"Magisterium-supervised studies," puts in Lena. "Obvious bias. Lots of research contradicts it. Big journals, all of 'em were just too scared to publish, until the Internet came along an' broke the ice."

"Or maybe the studies were wrong. Maybe you're biased." May shakes off Mike as he tries again to calm her down. "No! You are too! You're in denial — don't wanna face it — that there might be something wrong with your brother!"

Cecil shoots Carlos an alarmed look, and starts to tap give me some input against his calf. Gritting his teeth, Carlos closes one hand over Cecil's, shutting the plea down. "There is nothing wrong with me. Absolutely nothing. My sister-in-law is just having a hard time grasping the fact that I love you."

"You don't!" cries May. "Stop mocking real relationships by pretending you do!"

Okay, now Carlos is mad. There's a flurry of protest from the rest of his family, from Dawn decrying homophobia to Mamá insisting on how sweet they are together; he barely hears it over the blood pounding in his ears. How dare she. How dare she.

Isaña hops off the arm of the chair and slides down his leg to the carpet.

"Oh, look," she says, loudly and deliberately enough to get everyone's attention. "I seem to have fallen. Cecil?"

Cecil, still frightened and confused at the direction this argument has taken, looks hopefully down at her. "Yes?"

"Will you pick me up?"

Cecil catches his breath.

Lena, the only family member who knows what Carlos has been through, reacts first. "No," she snaps. "Don't say that. You've been drinking. Not thinking straight. Cecil, do not."

And Mamá's raccoon hops down from his own place on the couch, resting a paw on Isaña's shell. "You have nothing to prove, quirquinchito."

The rest of the room is at attention too, varying levels of tipsiness notwithstanding. Mike's maned-wolf daemon is on her feet; Lena's fruit bat and Azalea's tocororo have their wings poised, ready to spring into action. Carlos isn't sure when Papi woke up, but his shelduck daemon is standing too, feathers fluffed. It's all symbolic, since Cecil's daemon isn't here and none of them are going to pounce on Cecil himself, but the protective intent is clear.

Except — speaking of Cecil's daemon — there's a flurry of motion at the corner of Carlos's eye, and Khoshekh swirls into view beside him, head tilted in a wordless question.

Carlos offers a hand. The margay rubs his face possessively against it, then lands on the curved armrest and sits up smartly, letting Carlos skritch behind his ears and under his chin and whatever other patches of fur Khoshekh aims under his fingers.

"Whoamigod," blurts Dawn, the first to notice.

It kicks off a round of gasps across the room. None of them have much guard over their emotions right now — Carlos can pinpoint the exact order in which they spot what he and Khoshekh are doing.

"Everyone. Thank you for caring. But it's all right," he says, meeting his parents' eyes, then Lena's. "We stopped drinking forty minutes ago. We know exactly what we're saying. And we are not in danger from Cecil."

Slowly, hesitantly, his mother's daemon takes a few steps back.

At first Cecil doesn't move. "Dear Isaña," he says, a little breathless from the effects of his Khoshekh being petted. "Only if you're sure."

"We're sure," says Isaña. "I'm sure."

So Cecil cups both hands around either side of the little armadillo and lifts.

And oh, Carlos feels it, like someone just stuck a hook in his heart and yanked. His whole body jerks with the shock of it, fingers clawing through a tuft of Khoshekh's fur, lungs stuttering for air.

But it's not stomach-churning. He's not reeling, not horrified. The pain is clean — not twisted or sickening — hardly even bad, like the pain of being slammed in the kidneys or having your wrist broken — if anything, it's, god, it's like Cecil yanking on his hair in the middle of sex. Sharp and intense and yeah, it hurts — but not the kind of hurt where he needs it to stop.

He unclenches his fist. He breathes.

For a few seconds Cecil cradles Isaña close enough that she can nuzzle her face against his cheek. Carlos's whole world is swallowed up with the sensation — he barely remembers that there's anyone else in the room. He can feel Cecil's fingertips splayed across his shell...the heels of Cecil's hands catching his fur...Cecil's breath warm against his neck....

At last Cecil sets Carlos's soul back in his lap.

All the scorching intensity falls slowly, smoothly away, leaving him drained but smiling. Nothing's been torn out of him. He doesn't feel violated. They simply drift back to normality, light as a feather, Cecil gazing at them with heart-melting wonder.

Any study that says Carlos can't love this man to the bottom of his soul is empirically wrong.

Chapter Text

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

Dana and Eustathias are done with walking.

Eustathias swoops low across empty desert, carrying Dana between her shoulders. It doesn't look like she should be able to fly. She has no wings, only six legs and a tail; and she's massive, her back broad enough for Dana to sleep soundly with no fear of falling off; so it would make more sense for her to be unable to fly. Nevertheless, she is airborne, cruising just a few feet above the rocks and the scrub. Her thick sandy fur is striped in a way that should break up her silhouette for any wandering eyes.

Dana, for her part, is still recovering. She has taken her hair out of its braids and finger-combed through it, coming away with handfuls of loose curls. The above-ground light has revealed the new anbaric shock scars across her skin: a fernlike pattern of darkened, reddened lines, fractaling across her neck and chest and down one arm, with a matching one lacing across the opposite leg. Dark circles mark her eyes; some of her burns are fading more slowly than others.

Also, she is grimy and sweaty and could probably murder someone for a cold shower right about now. Not just anyone — not, for instance, her mother — but one of her more annoying classmates, probably. And one of those monstrous Strexcorp experimental theologians, definitely.

She has told Eustathias everything. The captive. The experiments. The death. The cleanup crew saying things like oh, great, another one and tell somebody in management to up the dosage next time.

They will return to the basalt fortress, where they will tell more people. The word will spread. People will know. Dana will ferry her messages and make her connections, until she has gathered enough of an army that they can storm the heart of Strexcorp and tear it down, stone by stone.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

The morning after being touched, Carlos can't yet pick up Isaña without getting dizzy from the feeling that his human feet are the ones being lifted off the ground. And he spends every moment hyper-aware of where Cecil is — not like he's developing psychic powers, more like his existing senses have been recalibrated to devote half their energy to tracking the position of Cecil's hands.

It's distracting. Disorienting. But still not bad. Carlos knows bad, and this isn't it.

Mike's family is long gone; Lena's is engaged in frantic last-minute packing; and Mamá co-opts Carlos to help her strip the sheets from the pull-out couch and get them down to the laundry. Carlos guesses right away that it's an excuse to check up on him. Sure enough, once they're alone, his mother's raccoon daemon sidles up next to Isaña.

"You're all right, tesoro mío?" he asks. "No delayed...reactions, after last night?"

"We're okay," says Isaña. "I'm not saying I could do it again any time soon...but I promise, we'll be fine."

"If you're sure."

"Did you know, there are a surprising number of people on record who have been able to consensually touch each other's daemons?" adds Isaña. Hopefully their mother won't ask when they found the time to do a bunch of research on this. "Mostly couples. Or people who have been through, um, extreme danger together. Or both! We can find some documentation on the case studies, if you're interested...."

"That won't be necessary," says the raccoon gently. "I believe you. It's...quite the feeling, isn't it?"

Carlos looks with a start at his mother over an armful of crumpled bedspread. Has she...?

"Only once," her daemon tells Isaña. "When your father was in the hospital, after the accident. You remember."

(As if Carlos could forget The Accident. He'd been sixteen, and most people do have clear memories of that age, no matter what Cecil thinks. A car crash, multiple surgeries, their grandparents flying in all the way from Upper California to take care of him and his siblings for the duration...Papi had pulled through in the end, but his chances were frighteningly narrow in those first few days.)

(...teenage Carlos made a lot of graphs tracking the specifics.)

"It was before they started allowing you children to visit. He was in more casts than you probably got to see. They had a basket for his daemon next to the bed, but after they woke up, she wanted to be closer. So your mother picked her up, and set her at his side. Then I climbed up, and...I sat with him too. For a little while."

Isaña is rapt. "You never said."

"It's hardly the kind of thing you can talk about," points out Mamá's daemon. "I think it may happen more often than anyone realizes."

They carry the bedding downstairs, passing the dining room, where Carlos gets a glimpse of Cecil sitting with Papi. Having a version of this same conversation, perhaps? Or maybe this is just the day Papi tells Cecil out loud that he approves.

The raccoon daemon chuckles as they descend. "Although...to be able to do it out of the blue, when neither of you are in a desperate situation, when you just want to show up your rude sister-in-law...! I don't think that is common at all."

"It wasn't just that!" protests Isaña. They won't claim to be so pure-hearted that it wasn't a factor, but..."She was also scaring Cecil."

Carlos hangs around the laundry room while his mother sets the dials, gazing absently at the bloodstone circle. When the washing machine starts rumbling, she comes to stand beside him, following his gaze.

"I won't ask you not to go back," she says. "Your beloved horrifying dystopia seems to need you."

Hands in his pockets, Carlos nods.

"But if you ever need to get away...and you aren't being chased by anyone competent enough that stopping by your family's homes would get you caught...you come straight here, understand? You can always come here. And so can Cecil."

 

-{,(((,">

 

When Lena and her family are finally about to hit the road, there's a lot of hugging and back-slapping (for the humans) and nose-touching (for the daemons) all around. Cecil hangs back at the edge of things, until Dawn breaks from the group and goes over to shake his hand. "It was really nice to meet you, Uncle Cecil."

Lucas is sullen about only calling Cecil that now, and not days ago when he brought it up. Young Rosa, meanwhile, is happy to go with it, giving Cecil a polite hug and a whispered thanks for everything. As she rejoins her parents, Lena says, "Rosa, hon...your daemon...."

(The unsettled daemon next to Rosa's feet is currently about Isaña's size, rusty orange, and generally reptilian. But he has the wrong gait for a modern lizard, and there's a distinctive double row of plates sticking up from his spine.)

"...is he, um, a stegosaurus?"

"No, Mom, I'm an Acko," says Rosa's daemon.

"It's a Tyrannian petpet," adds Rosa by way of explanation. "Hey, can you be any color? Could you be a Christmas Acko?"

"Oh, good idea," says her daemon, and flips colors. He's now bright green, wearing a tiny Santa hat, and the rows of plates have changed into two multicolored rows of Christmas-tree lights.

Lena looks helplessly at Cecil, then at Carlos, who shrugs. "You heard what they were just calling Cecil, right? Otherworldly daemons seem to run in his family."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

A trio of yellow Strexcorp gyropters flies over a field of trees. They're unmodified, unbranded, and completely refurbished from their unintended crashes a few weeks earlier. To the black-eyed security officers patrolling the borders of the field, there's no way to guess that this isn't a company-approved flyby, but a tween rebel spy mission.

The speaker in front of Tamika crackles. "Looks like normal trees to me," reports the Weird Scout piloting the gyropter to her left. "Not normal for the middle of a desert, but, you know, normal for other places."

"Last month, this was an imaginary corn field," points out Josh Craton (also known as Agent J1, of the experimental theology liaison team), the pilot at Tamika's side. "All dry, cracked, rocky ground, far as the eye can see. Normal trees don't grow that fast."

A crackle from the third gyropter, and Megan Wallaby, Agent M, taps out a verdict in Morse. TREES FROM ANOTHER WORLD. MUST HAVE COME HERE THROUGH A PORTAL. MUST BE WHAT THE DANGER METERS ARE SENSING.

"Can't be that simple," says J1. "The experimental theologians say the danger is still ahead of us, and the trees are already here. Maybe they were just a test of Strex's latest world-to-world transmission equipment. Or they could have been put here as cover for whatever they're sending in next."

"Or maybe the trees are gonna get dangerous," says Rashi. He fills the entire back seat of the gyropter, breath warm on the nape of Tamika's neck. (J1's daemon, trying to take up the smallest possible amount of the space left, is perched on one of his horns as a monarch butterfly.)

"Let's do a low pass and take some photos," decides Tamika. "Set up a meeting with the experimental theologians in a couple of days to let them know what we've found out. In the meantime, I'll put together a library infiltration team so we can pick up some books on dendrology."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Central Narraganset.

Cecil, Carlos, and Azalea catch the same train into the city, and end up together at Trimountaine International, hauling their baggage into one of the aerodock's glass-and-steel elevators to get up to the departures level. As it rises, they get their first sight of the other people in line.

And the extra security officers hanging around.

And the crowd of about a dozen people with cameras and microphones.

Must be some celebrity traveling today, thinks Carlos, inanely enough.

Luckily, Cecil is faster on his feet. "Carlos, let go of your suitcases," he says. "Isaña, you two have your ticket, right?"

"It's in our backpack," says Isaña from the floor.

"Good. You can go straight to security. Azalea, neither of us know Carlos, got it?" He pushes his dark glasses up his nose. "We're just a couple of ordinary civilians taking our baggage to be checked in. Take this suitcase, I'll get that one."

The two of them barely manage to get clear before the first reporter notices Carlos, and the press descends.

"Dr. Ramirez!" yells the voice behind one of the microphones being shoved in his face. "Why haven't you accepted any invitations from major religious thinkers to sit down and have a public debate?"

"Dr. Ramirez, what are your thoughts on the financial abuse allegations that came out about the College of Bishops yesterday?" demands another.

"Do you think it's appropriate for you to be taking a vacation over Christmas when you've done so much to destroy it?"

"Have you spoken with any angels lately?"

"Would you credit your recent professional advancement to angelic inspiration?"

"Are you ever going to criticize any religious institutions other than the Magisterium?"

"Why are you afraid to talk to the press?"

Carlos opens his mouth to say no comment, no comment, no comment.

"I don't have a lot of free time," he says. "An experimental theologian always keeps busy. And when I do have time to talk to the press, of course I don't talk to just anyone! You never know who's planning to turn around and pump everything into an article on Why Carlos Ramirez Is The Worst Heretic The World Has Ever Known.

"And why? Because I believe the theology I see evidence for, and can verify with tests and measurements, not the theology the Magisterium wants me to accept. That's it. People who don't like that want to turn it into something hateful, combative, joyless, nihilistic — but it isn't like that. Not at all!"

Somehow, nobody interrupts.

Maybe they're all being kept quiet by whatever force is keeping Carlos talking.

He talks about the joy of research, and the excitement of discovery. He talks about the sheer coolness factor in alternate worlds, how he's set foot in three of them and seen glimpses of many more. He tells the reporters how much it buoys him up to spend time with his family, how heartening it is to support and be supported by his loved ones.

Stepping behind the Ticketed Passengers Only Beyond This Point sign (enforced by several aerodock security agents), he tells them that he believes in the Republic of Heaven. With all due credit to Dr. Belacqua — who probably is the worst heretic this world has ever known, and would wear the title proudly.

"I cannot be sure how much of the truth other religions have access to," he says, folding up his coat and sending it through the x-ray machine after his backpack, then going right back to making expressive gestures with his hands. "The Magisterium did get the existence of angels right, after all. And not knowing is part of being an experimental theologian. But I do know a few things:

"We are free. We have this world, and it is wonderful. Possibility is manifest in every corner of the void of our reality! And our souls are our own — no gods can lay claim to them — no force has the right to separate us from them — death itself has no dominion!"

He gives the flashing cameras one last wave before he and Isaña turn and sail through the metal detector.

His boyfriend and his baby sister are already through. They keep to a short distance until they're safely around a corner, then Cecil says, in Spanish, "That was amazing."

"How long have you been rehearsing that one?" adds Azalea in the same language. (They're probably not the only Spanish-speakers in the aerodock, but anything that cuts off most potential eavesdroppers is a plus.)

"I haven't!" stammers Carlos. "I wasn't — I don't even know how — the words and the ideas were all me, I wasn't possessed or anything, but I didn't plan it! I just — couldn't stop talking."

"Of course you couldn't," exclaims Cecil. "That was un monólogo de diciembre."

Carlos's eyes widen. "You don't mean...that wasn't...."

"I do, and it was! Oh, Carlos, I'm so proud. You just spent a whole six and a half minutes being the substitute Voice of Night Vale."

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

Dana's ghost returns to awareness on the basalt fortress's platform.

Her body sits cross-legged in the center of the circle of angelic statues, each with a carved bloodstone for a face. Her daemon hovers in front of her, in the shape of something like a lavender rabbit with diaphanous dragonfly wings. "You were there. Lewis's hometown. I'm sure of it."

Dana shakes her head. "I saw no buildings. No signs of human habitation. I saw little white flowers, and felt a soft, warm breeze...." She's digressing; she pulls herself back on track. "I was in a meadow, Eustathias. Just a meadow."

They try again. Once, twice, three times. Dana sees many flowers, and finger-sized silver fish in a brook, and two moons hanging overhead in the daytime sky.

When she returns from the fifth visit, Eustathias cocks her furry head. "What if we have the timing wrong? We should try to send you to, not Lewis's home as it exists in our relative present, but his home shortly after he was taken."

They do.

Dana falls back into her body shaken, wide-eyed, the explosions still echoing in her ears. She saw great yellow ships hanging in the sky like bricks, saw the turrets of stone-and-silver buildings collapsing in on themselves, saw flames. So many flames.

She has always been too late to do anything for Lewis.

"But we can many things for Cecil. We will do things for Cecil," says Eustathias. "And maybe — if we are very lucky — maybe we are not too late to do something for Kevin."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Cecil has the alethiometer in his lap for much of the last leg of the flight home. Carlos leans on his shoulder and watches the needles spin. At one point Cecil flinches, but he's quick to reassure Carlos that it was just "the pressure change" of dropping back into Night Vale's psychic range.

"I'll need to stop by the station this evening and put some things in order," he adds. "Intern Maureen has been doing an admirable job of surviving our new management on her own, but I am sure she will be delighted about my return. Oh, and, apparently you need to get access to an ordinater with a more high-capacity power cord! And a very good surge protector."

The Night Vale customs agent confiscates all of Carlos's new books for review. He sends Cecil onward and sits around for the half hour it takes to process them. It's a headache, but nothing to worry too much about: he is positive none of them are on the local Forbidden Books list.

Sherie and Omero have brought the van to pick him up, so Carlos digs out his otherworldly presents for the two of them. For Sherie, a physics text, with a focus on portals. For Omero, the cellular biologist, a kit that lets you raise your own tiny organisms from freeze-dried eggs.

Omero turns over the box with interest, looking at the photo of the plastic aquarium, the company's cartoon mascots. "This world has aquatic primates?"

"No, the name's just marketing — they're common brine shrimp," says Carlos quickly. "Most of Will's world's biology seemed to match up with ours. I still wasn't sure I could risk bringing any alternate-world organisms back, but these come with a self-contained ecosystem, so you can restrict their influence on the local environment. And, look, it glows in the dark!"

 

-{,(((,">

 

They go straight to the chapel. Everyone except Köhler and Perle is back in town by now, and Carlos doesn't want to make the rest of the team wait for their presents.

Everyone sits around a hastily-cleared table in the main room: humans, daemons, and one sludge monster (now officially dubbed Tock; Carlos's vote was enough to give Sherie's idea majority approval). They have pizza — Big Rico's was purchased by Strexcorp a couple of days ago, but is still mandatory local eating. Any time someone finishes with a grease-stained napkin, they toss it to Tock, who happily gobbles it down.

"Oh, wow," says Henriette, after a few minutes of flipping through glossy diagrams of portal types neither she or Sherie recognizes. "I don't understand...most of this."

"They're more than a hundred years ahead of us. It's only natural," says Carlos. "We can work up to this! In some ways, we're actually more advanced than they were in this era. Listen to this: when they discovered mu leptons, they spent years calling them mu mesons."

"No!" breathes Sherie. "You're kidding." It even coaxes a smile out of Henriette, while Quentin, already taking the covering off his new anbaric flashlight to get at the futuristic power cell underneath, just cracks up.

"I already had a look through your book," adds Carlos to Nirliq. It's a journal on optics, complete with several studies on Atal lenses. "As far as I can tell, they haven't invented miniature Rusakov meters, electrum-based or otherwise. But I'm hoping that some of this data will give you a leg up in getting there...."

Nirliq looks at Sherie and Omero. "You didn't tell him?"

Sherie smiles. "We thought you ought to get your moment of glory."

It's glorious every time they reveal it to someone new — especially now that they've made the upgrade to full-blown mini Gaillard Compasses — and Carlos is the most visibly enthralled of all. He cradles their first pocket-size danger meter in his hands like a baby bird, while Nirliq explains that they have eight finished (and half a dozen more lenses ready to go), and Quentin pulls out his tablet to show off some of the accurate data they've collected.

"Only problem now is powering them while they're out in the field," finishes Quentin. "And getting the signals back here."

Omero, the only non-physicist in attendance, looks up from reading the instructions in his instant-brine-shrimp kit. His starling daemon is perched daintily on the box. "How did your old Strexcorp meters do it?"

Carlos grimaces. "Transmitted the signals via proprietary Strexcorp satellites, ran on the blood of the innocent."

"Oh."

"The danger meters use Hispania Nova government satellites, which are great except for all the outages." Quentin gestures at Carlos with a pizza crust. "NVCR's signal never gets blocked. Ask your boyfriend how they do it."

"I have been telling you, no," groans Henriette. She's the only team member so far who really seems worn-out, not energized, by the break. "Strex can pick up radio. No point tearing down all their meters if we just put up a new array they can tap into."

Nirliq crosses her arms. "Do you want both of us informed, or neither? You've seen the danger meter readings for the past few days. You know something big is coming. I don't want to go into that blind and deaf just to make sure Strex's hands are also tied."

"We've been going back and forth on this all day," murmurs Sherie to Carlos. "Whenever we're in a secure location, anyway."

(The chapel isn't always secure. It just happens that the team has been slipped a few details about secret-police observation schedules, and the building is currently being staked out by one of the officers who doesn't approve of her new management. Sherie explained about the danger-meter readings on the drive over, while one of their jamming devices was on.)

Carlos slips some kind of notebook out of his pocket and flips to a blank page. The big blue plastic rings make it look like a child's toy, but as he listens to the ongoing debate, notes on the pros and cons of different strategies start blooming on the paper in small, precise letters. Magic non-writing tool. That'll be useful.

Sherie honestly doesn't know what strategy she would rather Carlos go with. "I just wish there was some way to use bloodstones for this," she mutters.

It's an offhand remark, one she might have forgotten a few seconds later, until Carlos says, "Who says there isn't?"

The others turn to him. "Isn't what?" asks Nirliq.

"We can send completely secure mental communications using bloodstone circles," explains Carlos. "Why couldn't we set them up to send an automated signal to our mapping software in the same way? We'd have no problem with coverage — there's a circle in every home, every business, in all the parks and public buildings — as long as we get enough people to agree, why can't we use all the bloodstones?"

Startled, hope-filled silence.

For a few seconds, anyway. "Okay, sure, that sounds great, but our ordinaters aren't configured to receive astral-projection transmissions," says Quentin. "They don't even pick up FM transmissions, and that equipment exists."

"Could we have the data beamed directly into someone's mind?" asks Nirliq.

"There is no way one person's brain can take that much input," says Sherie firmly. "Remember me passing out while tracking patterns in the cracks in reality during the condo crisis? Or Carlos blowing out his eardrums from helping to reverse the Lazy Day effect? We have to be smart about this."

"Agreed," says Carlos. "We'll just have to invent some way of getting the ordinaters to accept the data."

Henriette snorts. "Oh, is that all."

"We can do it!" protests Carlos. "Sure, it might not be easy. But it can't be any harder than programming an alethiometer and running it off a floppy disk! And Mary Malone figured out how to do that, so there is no reason, absolutely none, that we shouldn't be able to figure out this."

 

-{,(((,">

 

They end up exploding the surge protector on one of their ordinaters. Carlos arrives at Cecil's apartment late into the night, and falls into bed still smelling like smoke.

On the plus side, now he knows what they need a better one for.

(Also, Cecil greets him wearing a knee-length nightshirt...and nothing else. That's a plus too.)

 

-{,(((,">

 

"First off, welcome back!" announces the Voice on the radio. No more auxiliaries: this is the permanent one, finally returned to his rightful place. "Everything is fine. Nothing happening, if you know what I mean. You shouldn't know what I mean. If you do know, you should forget. I'm not going to mention anything, and you're not going to hear anything. And both of us will fail to remember...."

This particular radio sits on the back of Michael Sandero's pickup truck, in the base of Niton Canyon, where a group of Advanced Readers are working on target practice. Also in the truck is a stack of paper cups and a couple of jugs with drinks, to keep the kids refreshed in between rounds.

Tamika is pouring herself a cup of lemonade when there's some kind of commotion down at the end of the line, and half a dozen weapons get swung around and pointed not at their artificial targets, but at a figure Tamika is too far away to see clearly.

She downs the lemonade fast, puts a hefty stone in her slingshot, and she and Rashi approach.

Turns out to be the right move. After some muted, distant conversation, a four-year-old turns and waves her slingshot in the air. "Tamikaaaaa! The lady wants to talk to you!"

Tamika doesn't unload her weapon, but she doesn't hold it ready to fire, either, as the other kids step aside. The child's estimate of a lady is a little off: the unfamiliar person standing here, translucent enough that the moonlight falls through her and leaves no shadows on the sand, is only a few years older than Tamika herself. Even though she has the scars of a battle-experienced woman twice her age.

"They tell me I've found the Night Vale resistance," says the mysterious teenager, nodding to Tamika's compatriots. "They tell me that if I have information about Strexcorp's plans and operations, and would like this information to be used against it, you are the one to talk to."

"Sounds about right," says Tamika. "Tamika Flynn. Number one on Strexcorp's most-wanted list. And you are?"

"Dana Cardinal." The former intern offers a hand to shake. "Number one on Night Vale Community Radio's most lost-in-space-and-time. But at least, now, not quite as lost as I used to be."

 

-{,(((,">

 

A dark-haired woman in a threadbare Night Vale Community College hoodie greets Carlos and his team (Quentin and Sherie for technical reasons, a Li Hua in case they need to start shooting) at the front of the Earth Theology building. Her daemon is a black-and-white bird with a red crest on his head...or so Carlos thinks, until he gets a closer look at the animal's proportions. It's a raptor, sure, but not in the modern bird-of-prey sense. No, that is definitely a small, feathery dinosaur.

(Or, you know, a Petpet. Anything is possible.)

The façade of the building doesn't look promising. The brick is crumbling, there's moss growing up the sides of the walls, and Carlos counts at least three shattered windows. He crosses his fingers for the inside to be more inspiring.

"Good to see you," says the woman, scanning her ID and holding the door for them to wheel in their carefully-packed ordinater. "I hope you'll find our equipment up to your standards."

At first glance, the interior looks just as bad as the front. There's peeling plaster in all directions, dust all over the floor, exposed wiring in the ceiling where the panels have fallen out.

"Are we sure this place gets power at all?" asks Quentin. "It looks like it's about to fall down around us."

"No building gets power," says their liaison. "Everything is crumbling. The apocalypse has come and gone, and whatever else you think you see is an illusion spun from the last vestiges of civilization as it makes its final collapse back into dust."

"Oh dear," says Sherie.

"Great," mutters Li Hua.

"Sorry if this is a rude question," says Carlos, "but did President Sultan actually send you to meet us?"

I most certainly did not, snaps a telepathic "voice". Let go of the experimental theologians, Simone, and go feed your cans or something.

"Aww," says the woman with the raptor daemon — Simone Rigadeau, evidently. "Do I have to? I even found them a room with enough structural integrity that the floor won't collapse under their feet!"

The team backs out of the building with no small amount of relief, just in time to be met by Sarah Sultan's daemon. He's a cavy — a large rodent built like a rabbit, but with skinny, almost deerlike legs — wearing a bowtie in NVCC colors, and ferrying a matching tote bag which contains a smooth, fist-sized river rock.

That'll be the president herself. "Thank you for agreeing to work with us this closely," says Carlos, as she leads the team and their equipment into a far more modern-looking building, with active students working in the rooms and the most up-to-date sigils on the walls. "We couldn't appreciate it more."

I'm sure you could if you tried, says President Sultan. Start by convincing your boyfriend to quit blacklisting NVCC's press releases. I drew one caricature of him. One! And it was hilarious. It's hardly my fault the man has no sense of humor.

 

-{,(((,">

 

If Henriette didn't know this little Cathay restaurant had been bought out by Strexcorp, it would have taken her a while to spot the difference. The only obvious sign of its new ownership is the bar codes on the backs of the servers' necks.

Strexcorp publicist Zariya Thiébaut is waiting in one of the booths. Her dark-maned lion — a subspecies that never evolved in this world — fills the space beside her, using one saucer-sized back paw to scratch behind his ear.

She's kept sending Henriette chatty texts every week or so over the past few months. None of them nearly as defensive as That wasn't us. Mostly the kind of things you might send a casual research colleague, as if Henriette's going to start imagining they're buddies, as if at some point she might just forget that Thiébaut's company severs children.

Thiébaut thinks Henriette is a weak link. She thinks Henriette can be manipulated. Tricked. Used.

Well, it's long past time for Henriette to turn that around on her. Sure, a new Rusakov array will be a huge advantage for the team on the slim chance they can get it working, but even if they can, that's no reason to hang all their strategy-eggs on one basket. Or two baskets, counting whatever Tamika Flynn is doing. Three? Does Cecil have eggs of his own, unrelated to the experimental theologians or the Advanced Readers?

...The point is, they need all the baskets they can get.

(Henriette can do this. Sure, she does have some genuine vulnerabilities, but she'll just have to suppress them for a while. Besides, it's not like she's been drinking. She's had one drink, to settle her nerves. That's not drinking.)

Thiébaut smiles as Henriette takes the bench across from her, alpine marmot sliding into the normal-daemon-sized place under the seat. "There you are. I hope you don't mind that I already ordered, but I was beginning to think you weren't going to show."

"None of the clocks are real. You learn to live with it," says Henriette briskly, trying not to show how unnerved she is that Thiébaut's sweet-n-sour meat-and-vegetable dish contains rat meat. Which is still unambiguously rat-shaped. "But I didn't ask you down here to talk about punctuality."

"Indeed? Well, no matter which of Strexcorp's exciting corporate benefits you want to talk about, I am at your disposal."

"That's not really what I had in mind either." Henriette steeples her fingers on the tabletop. "Do you have a few minutes to tell me about a Smiling God?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

Sherie kneels in an NVCC bloodstone circle, a mini danger meter stationed between two of the stones. Not to brag, but if anyone on the team can attune them to interface with an ordinater, it's her.

In the next room, Quentin finishes hooking up the machine and powers it on, making sure to bypass the normal operating system. Instead it's supposed to boot from a flash drive, which they didn't so much program as hack together with magic (it came out as something that Perle, whose linguistic expertise apparently covers some basic programming skills, identified as a rune-based version of C++) and pray over.

Carlos has set up one of the team's own sets of bloodstones nearby, so he can interface with the ordinater while Sherie is working on the danger meter, and they can do astral-plane coordination. There's not much risk of being overheard — the college has its own security force, which, like the rest of it, is independent from anything Strex-owned — but it never hurts to keep in practice.

Running on the full faith and credit of the college's power grid, the ordinater hums to life.

Ten minutes later, nothing has exploded.

Ten minutes after that, Sherie is standing in front of the screen, watching a black screen with a short line of white digits in the corner. Every thirty seconds, the number blinks, and sometimes changes by a fraction of a decimal. The full-size Gaillard Compass they brought along, currently sitting on the table next to the monitor, calmly displays the same sets of digits.

"I can't believe we did it," she says faintly, one arm curled around her mongoose daemon. "I can't believe it's working."

Quentin pats Carlos on the shoulder. "You are some kind of mad genius, boss."

"We are all mad geniuses," Carlos assures him.

Sherie can't disagree. They're going to turn every building in town into a single, interconnected, minute-by-minute Rusakov monitoring array. This must be how the world's astronomers felt when the VLA was being set up. Or how Quentin and his fellow anbaromagnetic physicists reacted when INTERMAGNET came alive.

The number flickers once more. "Where's the data being saved?" asks Sherie. "How soon can we install our old mapping and analysis program on this...operating system, I guess, and start working with it?"

Carlos and Quentin look at each other. The expressions of wonder fade from both their faces.

Sherie frowns. It sounded pretty straightforward to her, but then, she only knows the barest details about how ordinaters work. (She still doesn't really understand what normal C++ is, let alone mystical runic C++.) "Is that going to be harder than I think it is?"

"Don't even know where to start," sighs Carlos.

"But we can totally figure it out," adds Quentin. "Something something your new hero something something alethiometer on a floppy disk, remember?"

"Right! All that."

The phone in Sherie's pocket buzzes with a text. It's one of the Book Club kids. "We're being summoned to a meeting with our small-but-dangerous friends," she tells her colleagues. "I bet we can ask them to put us in touch with a few Scouts with programming badges...."

"No, hang on," exclaims the mongoose in the crook of her elbow. "You know what we need to do?"

Carlos, and the armadillo at his feet, sit up straighter. "What?" asks Carlos.

And suddenly Sherie realizes what her daemon is getting at. "We need to convince them to let us borrow Agent M."

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

Carlos keeps an eye on the Gaillard Compass as Quentin turns the corner and takes a spin through the Raúl's parking lot. "The building is the center of things. I'm almost sure of it. FUs are spiking in that direction."

They put the danger meter on a cart and wheel it around back, just to be sure. Quentin's attention is drawn to the giant hole in the otherwise empty plot of grass. "Where did that come from? Or is it just another Night Vale mystery?"

"No, we were there for that one," says Carlos. "Earlier this year — wait, it's last year now — a portal opened underground. During a Boy Scout ceremony, in fact. We had just finished the prototype danger meters, so we knew it was coming, and managed to redirect events so that very few people fell through."

"That was how I got one of my favorite specimens," adds Li Hua with a fond sigh.

Today's danger zone is definitely inside the grocery store. Or rather, one of today's danger zones. Henriette is out with Nirliq and Omero, trying to pinpoint another suggested by the danger meter located near the House that Doesn't Exist. Some kids from the theology liaison team have been loaned one of their extra meters, and are using that one to keep tabs on a third, at the mysterious new orange grove out on John Peters' farm.

"Police!" calls Carlos as they get back around to the front of the building.

A manhole twenty feet away pops up, and a balaclava-clad head pokes out. "Need some help, Dr. Perfecto?"

"We need to clear out this building, and quarantine the area," says Carlos. "Not indefinitely, just until this danger has passed. Our instruments will tell us when. Is that something you can manage for us?"

The secret-police officer hunches their shoulders. "Well, um...."

"Please?" adds Quentin, with his sweetest smile. His flying-squirrel daemon bats her eyes. Isaña tries to do the same.

"Listen, it's not that I wouldn't love to," says the officer, fidgeting in place. "It's just...we've got guidelines, you know?"

Li Hua puts her hands on her hips. "Since when do you not have complete autonomy to lock down whatever buildings you want?"

"Since new management! We need direct orders from the top before we can take any action that might interfere with a Strexcorp product launch."

Carlos frowns. Then he whips a spyglass out of his pocket and strides through the building's sliding doors.

His eyes are dazzled by wall-to-wall orange juice.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Henriette and company have traced their own focal point of danger to the City Hall parking lot. Specifically, the area occupied by the Green Market. Specifically, the orange stall.

Looking through an electrum spyglass backs up the danger meter's readings. Rusakov particles are draining slowly but steadily into the oranges. Whether they're getting sucked into another world or just disappearing into the void, Henriette doesn't know, and she's not excited about finding out.

For about ten minutes, she, Nirliq, and Omero manage to warn customers away from the fruit, saying it's "for experimental theology reasons." That strategy gets shut down when Tristan Cortez, market president and current bearer of a Strex-employee bar code, confronts them. "You are scaring away customers!" he snaps, kangaroo-rat daemon nodding on his shoulder. "If you don't leave peacefully, I won't hesitate to bring in security!"

The theologians back off to regroup. "What next?" asks Henriette. "I am open to ideas."

"Recommend we petition City Hall," says Omero. "Call for a ban on oranges and orange by-products."

Of course. Their offices are right there. "Good. Good idea. Bet the Council could pull it off in a few hours if we give them the right motivation."

"And in the meantime, we should try to track who buys them," adds Nirliq. "Maybe we can warn them later. Or at the very least, monitor the side effects."

That's smart too. "I like it. Can you do that, while Omero and I do the other thing?"

So Nirliq gets out her tablet, improvises a quick spreadsheet, and plants herself by the orange stall to ask for names and phone numbers. Food preparation, to a lot of Night Vale citizens, is an exotic mystery; nobody's going to find it suspicious that their local theologians would be studying it.

Henriette and Omero, meanwhile, let themselves in through one of City Hall's windows. Omero's starling daemon flies easily through; Henriette has to carry Clotère. (The alpine marmot feels heavier than usual. Hopefully that just means they ate too much during the holidays. Or didn't get enough exercise. Or she's coming down with something.)

When they reach the Council chambers...the room is in chaos. Dozens of starlings — not the glossy blue-violet species of Omero's daemon, not daemons at all, just common black speckled birds — are flapping and squawking around the air, while a bunch of reporters hide under chairs, waiting for Leann Hart to dispatch them all with her axe. A handful go speeding toward Henriette and Omero — they duck — the birds zoom over their heads and swirl off down the hall, with frantic cheeps and cries.

A young woman with thick red-orange curly hair manages to crawl out, throwing herself into the hall. "Close the doors!" she hisses in Spanish. "Hurry up!"

Omero hauls the heavy door shut. "We're sorry," he says in kind. "We didn't mean to interrupt."

"You're not interrupting. The meeting's over," pants the escapee, leaning against the podium of a marble statue to catch her breath. On a closer look, she's even younger than Henriette thought at first glance. Might not be out of high school yet. The daemon by her side is a striking black-and-tan rabbit with bright, alert eyes. "Hope you didn't want the Council, because they're gone."

"Gone?" repeats Henriette. "What do you mean, gone?"

"Se fueron. No están. Huyeron." She even switches briefly to English, long enough to say, "They are gone."

"I know what the word means! Where have they gone? And why? You're a journalist, aren't you? Answer the key questions!"

"I'm not a journalist! I'm trying to survive an NVCR internship, but that's not the same thing." The intern gets to her feet, and flashes a radio station ID that names her as Maureen. "All I can tell you is that the Council has left town. They didn't give much of a reason why. If I had to guess, I'd say it was because they're miserable cowards. Anything else you want to interrogate me about before I go back to the station?"

Henriette massages her temples. "No. No, that's fine. I'm sure you have important work to do."

Maureen snorts in disapproval. "I wish. The next five things my boss has me doing all involve making gifsets of...well, of your boss."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos meets up with Cecil at the White Sand over his lunch break, more to do confidential communication than anything else. Cecil sits in the booth with his legs swung up over Carlos's lap, their daemons cuddling on the opposite bench, while Carlos kisses his temple and whispers in his ear: sweet nothings like "you have to warn people away from buying any oranges or orange by-products. We know for sure that Strexcorp is trying to come up with an energy-efficient way to travel between worlds — this is another one — and they're using us as guinea pigs. If it goes badly enough, we might have another buzzing-shadow plague on our hands. Or worse."

"Oh, Carlos," says Cecil with a giggle, before nuzzling his neck and whispering, "What should I say? The way things stand right now, I can't risk announcing flat-out that my bosses are doing immoral and dangerous tests on us! The daring rooftop escape gambit isn't going to work twice."

Carlos swallows a groan of despair. (They're supposed to be putting on a show of non-subversive romantic cuddling. Despair does not fit the image.) "I don't know. I don't know! Say that oranges aren't supposed to grow in the desert. Say I've put out an important theological alert against them. Make up whatever details you think sound most convincing."

"Mmm." Cecil runs his fingertips down the front of Carlos's shirt. "Dear Carlos, are you suggesting that I invent and falsely attribute quotations? Because I know we're trying to enable an anti-corporate uprising, but I do have journalistic ethics to uphold."

"I'm not saying you should do it in general," murmurs Carlos. "But if it's me...you have permission, okay? I mean, I trusted you to touch...I trusted you to pick up...god, Cecil, of course I trust you to put words in my mouth."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Sherie kneels in the bloodstone circle in the NVCC technical services building, and, at the same time, stands beside the ordinater. Every ten minutes or fifteen minutes, a new connection request lights up her mind. She verifies the validity and patches it through, reciting the address out loud. "127 Ouroboros Road."

Megan Wallaby types it in. With her daemon, Isidorus, in the form of a prehensile chimpanzee foot, they can enter text faster than most adults Sherie knows.

They've made appeals to the PTA and the local small-business owners' association, and are hoping for approvals for everywhere from the White Sand to City Hall. In the meantime, they got the go-ahead from Tamika to start with Book Club kids. To keep the data secure, so Strexcorp can't get it and use it to track down the homes of the resistance, the ordinater isn't Internet-connected; every card or cable that might let it pick up an anbaric signal outside itself has been removed or shut down. It stands alone.

In between entering the new data, Megan and her daemon work on programming. Not long after she first got her hands (or rather, her whole self) on the keyboard, she had it displaying a streamlined text-based interface, with a table of addresses, numbers, and searchable timestamps. By now it's a plain set of graphics: a pixelated black-and-white map of Night Vale's roads on the left, the latest readings (in a list long enough that it needs a scrollbar) on the right, and a set of graphical control buttons along the top.

Granted, the control buttons have labels from the mind of a second-grader, including MAKE SHINY and INZOOM and THING and OTHER THING. But Sherie can figure out what they do and have the technical terms put in later.

Megan raps on the desk with her knuckles to get Sherie's attention, then bounces on her wrist and points excitedly to the screen. It's not just black-and-white any more. There are pixel-y spots of gold all over the map.

"Oh, well done!" exclaims Sherie. "This is beautiful. Li Hua, we have color now!"

The attendant Li Hua paces in front of the window, occasionally peeking between the blinds at the quad outside. Her wren daemon is perched on the sill. "Sure, great, exciting. When do we get my work out of the chapel and set up safely over here, huh? I'm not just a pretty face with killer machine-gun aim. I have PCR cycles to run."

"I don't know. It's not my call. You'd have to ask Carlos."

Li Hua's daemon flies to her shoulder, and Li Hua herself comes over to the ordinater table...not to look at the screen, but to pick up Megan by the wrist. "I wonder if this kid has the standard DNA of an adult man? Or is this not a birth defect, and she really doesn't have the code for anything other than a detached hand?"

"Put her down!" orders Sherie. Poor Megan is flailing in the air, twisting in Li Hua's grip, fingers clawing helplessly at nothing.

"Relax, I'm not hurting her," says Li Hua. "Let me just take a skin scraping. A small one! She'll barely feel a thing."

If Sherie was physically present in the room she would make Li Hua let the poor child go. The geneticist may be a couple of decades younger and faster, but she's also short and skinny, while Sherie has a bit of weight to throw around. "We don't have parental permission. And you're scaring her. Tamika will never trust us again if we traumatize one of her agents. She might even come after you in person."

That gives Li Hua pause. "We don't have to tell her. What's the hand going to do, cry about it?"

"For one thing, Megan is fluent in Morse code. For another, even if she wasn't, I'd tell. Put her down."

With a sigh, Li Hua sets the writhing detached hand back on the desk. Megan immediately scrambles behind the monitor and grabs the cords, while Isidorus joins her, turns into some kind of bear or big-cat paw, and flashes her claws.

(Megan has a same-gender daemon. Sherie has no idea how anyone managed to determine this. She just goes with it.)

"I'm very sorry, honey," says Sherie in Spanish, dropping into a crouch so she's on a level with the girl. (The edge of the desk goes right through her astrally-projected collarbone.) "Li Hua gets carried away sometimes. She won't really hurt you. No one on the team will let her."

Megan shivers.

"You're doing a great job," continues Sherie, as soothingly as possible. "Do you want to take a break? While we wait for the next signal, do you want to play a game?"

The child's white-knuckled grip eases. Hopefully that means she's interested.

"Li Hua, put your tablet on the desk," says Sherie, "and show the girl how to open Bejeweled Blitz."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Adam Bayer, weekday shift manager at the Raúl's, pulls a spatially-impossible number of oranges out of his apron pocket and then vanishes before Carlos's eyes.

No buzzing shadow-being. No residue at all, according to the combined efforts of the danger meter, the electrum spyglasses, and human senses. There's nothing left for them to have any hope of restoring. He's just...gone.

 

-{,(((,">

 

When Henriette and Omero get back to the market, the woman who had been standing behind the orange cart is gone. There's a new one in her place — this one wearing a dark suit with a blood-red tie, bearing another Strex bar code on her neck, and accompanied by a "frog" daemon with plastic skin and an extremely obvious battery slot.

Nirliq and the Strexcorp bio-mechanical salesperson are engaged in a fresh argument. Nirliq contends that the original saleswoman was sucked into the void, undoubtedly an effect of contact with the oranges. The current salesperson argues that she merely took ill, and was sent home, very quickly, to avoid her contagion damaging everyone else's productivity.

Small mercies: Tristan, when he comes over to mediate, doesn't simply throw them out. "I've got her home number," he tells Nirliq, brimming with exasperation. "I'll call, she'll explain that she's off getting chicken soup and bed rest, and you'll be satisfied, right?"

"That might not work," says the smiling biomachine. "I'm afraid she's lost her voice."

Tristan frowns. "So...her daemon will have to pick up instead? I don't understand the issue."

The Strexcorp salesperson doesn't answer. She just keeps smiling. Her expression reminds Henriette of a video stream with Buffering.... splashed over a frozen image. Could she be running on programming developed for a daemonless universe, that didn't get updated before she was sent here instead? (It sure would explain how fake her own daemon looks.)

Omero fills in Nirliq about the Council leaving town, while Henriette watches Tristan make the call.

To her complete lack of surprise, nobody picks up.

"Oh, dear," says the biomachine pleasantly...then grips the wooden slats of the orange cart and tips it over.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos and Quentin do their best to get a record of everyone who leaves the Raúl's with oranges or orange juice. The former is a lot easier: most of the people who pick up oranges vanish before they reach the checkout line.

"Contact with inanimate objects doesn't do it. The orange juice cartons seem to act as an insulator," says Carlos to Köhler over the phone. He finally got a low-budget headset, so both hands can be free while he listens through headphones and talks into a cheap mic. "But once there's been contact with a human, they activate, and any objects touched after that can blink out of existence along with the person. Not enough evidence to tell if it's sentience they're responding to, or the fact that we're animate, or organic, or what."

"I will spread the word," says Köhler from the chapel. He's there partly to work on assembling new mini Rusakov meters, and partly to make the building look active. Don't want to give their observers any obvious clues that they're setting up important operations in a completely different location.

When a still-existing floor manager tells Carlos and Quentin they can't keep lurking on business property without buying anything, Carlos lets himself into the kitchen-equipment aisle and picks up a new set of tongs, then a six-pack of fire (the last one on the shelf) (there isn't much of anything on the shelf, half of it is orange juice). He uses the tongs to safely triple-bag some oranges of his very own.

"Keep tracking people," he tells Quentin. "I'm going to go test whether these things burn."

 

-{,(((,">

 

One of NVCC's engineering faculty dropped by to give the theologians a radio, just in time for Cecil's show. It sits on the desk next to monitor of their custom-programmed ordinater. (Herschel Wallaby came by to pick up Megan half an hour before Cecil's show started, so their monitoring program is permanently stuck in a Bejeweled-Blitz-based graphic scheme.)

Cecil reports on John Peters' product-launch speech, and how reporters in attendance disappeared after catching oranges tossed into the crowd. He delivers the news of the rapid, recent, unannounced exit of the City Council. He reveals that orange trees are not native to deserts, and that he just received an email from Carlos providing more detail.

There's something a little off about that email, Sherie thinks. All of them are in the middle of dealing with a town-wide threat; Carlos may be easily distracted when it comes to Cecil, but not so much that he'd take time to chatter about Neftlix offerings and weekend bowling plans while people are vanishing. Right?

But the quote does involve warning people that the orange products aren't natural. And that one line, no me especializo en botánica o dendrología, soy un teólogo experimental, estudio la teología, that's certainly something Carlos would say.

Cecil cuts to an ad break. Sherie sinks back into her body for a minute, taking the opportunity to pet her daemon's spine. Then she takes a deep breath and focuses on materializing in the chapel, to see if Keith has any updates.

 

-{,(((,">

 

In the struggle and the scramble at the Green Market, with rogue oranges tumbling and rolling across the asphalt, Henriette and her colleagues learn several important data points.

The oranges' dormant disappearing properties are not activated by any of the grass sprouting through cracks in the pavement. Or by the rogue starlings that have escaped from City Hall and, in their disorientation, decided to land on some of the fruits.

They are activated by hitting a living person. Even through that person's clothing.

Tristan Cortez manages to shout a few last words as he flickers out of existence, setting the rest of the former co-op into action. The short man at the imaginary corn stand produces a crossbow; the man with the tail who's been dealing in carrots draws a rifle; the bushy-browed woman selling jam out of the back of her truck throws some of her jars, which apparently explode on impact.

Biomachines, it turns out, activate the oranges too. Even after being knocked into them by several aggressive, deadly-to-humans projectiles.

People use empty crates, baskets, and cardboard boxes to herd the remaining non-vanished fruit into a confined space. "Now will you believe these things are dangerous?" demands Henriette, who has retreated to the hood of the van and dragged her marmot daemon up there with her. (Nirliq and her colobus are safe on one of the weathered stone plinths that are placed randomly around the parking lot, bearing faded inscriptions too weathered to read. Omero — who was closer to the onslaught than either of them — has ended up in a tiny clear spot of asphalt, oranges sitting dangerously near his feet on all sides.)

The jam-selling woman (whose daemon is a squirrel...with bright purple fur) frowns. "Of course they're dangerous. It's all over the news. Haven't you been listening?"

Henriette nearly starts tearing her hair out.

"Hang in there, Omero!" calls Nirliq. "Don't move. They're almost to you."

"Understood," says Omero briskly. He's balancing on one foot, wobbling a little, forehead sheened with sweat. The starling daemon on his shoulder is huddled down low.

"How did you not get hit?" adds Henriette shakily, as a woman with curling horns and a salamander daemon pushes oranges out of the way, clearing a safe path. A couple more moments and it'll be close enough for Omero to step into...hurry, please, hurry....

"Negative, ma'am," says Omero, voice tightly-controlled. "I kicked them out of the way."

The implications crash into Henriette's own self-control, which has been dangerously fragile for a long time now, and shatter it completely.

"No!" she yells, choking on a sob. She's going to lose another teammate — watch him die right in front of her — to a piece of goddamn produce. "Why did you — you idiot — why didn't you run?"

She hides her face in folded arms, shoulders heaving, and soaks the sleeves of her chapel coat with hysterical tears.

To hell with sobriety. She's going to do with a bottle what Fleur did last year with the Whispering Forest: crawl inside and never, ever come out.

There's a hand on her arm, a smaller one on her daemon's back. Nirliq's voice says her name. Says calm down.

"I will not calm down!" wails Henriette. "I am having a nervous breakdown! I have earned it!"

"Omero is not going to die!" shouts Nirliq. "At least, not today! At least, not from this! He has an artificial leg!"

The implications of that are almost too slippery for Henriette's panic-washed brain to cling on to — but her daemon sees something, and yanks on her attention, enough that she raises her head.

The soldier-turned-biologist is walking safely toward the van, leaning on the shoulders of a heavy zucchini merchant. Well, not exactly walking. It's really hopping. His left pant leg hangs empty from the knee down, flapping in the breeze.

Henriette cries a little more, with relief now, as Omero sits against the hood of the van next to her and apologizes for not being clearer. He hadn't known during the kicking if it was sealing his doom or not, and after his prosthetic flickered out of existence but left the rest of him behind, it took most of his concentration to keep from falling over.

All the void-y oranges finally get swept into a heap, with crates piled over and around them. Safer than they were. Still not safe, even on a Night Vale scale....

Nirliq, meanwhile, tries to convince the remaining Green Market members to renounce their association with Strexcorp. It doesn't go well. "Strexcorp has extremely high quality standards," explains the man with the crossbow. "This is obviously the fault of choosing a business partner who didn't measure up."

"Ooh, that John Peters — you know, the local small-business owner with the orange grove," grumbles the man with the tail. "Sure hope Strexcorp drops that fellow from their lineup."

When Nirliq rejoins Henriette and Omero, her mouth is set in a thin, hard line. "I need the van," she says flatly. "You two can stay here and keep an eye on things or you can get in, but one way or another, I'm driving back to the House that Doesn't Exist."

 

-{,(((,">

 

"Uh-huh. Uh-huh, that is great to hear. People at the Raúl's have stopped buying too," says Carlos into his headset. "The bad news is, I haven't found a way to remove the danger. Burn them to ash, and the ash will still make people disappear. As I found out after, completely by accident, spilling some of this ash on a Strexcorp store manager. In, also by accident, small yet precise increments that grew increasingly larger, so the data suggests that it's safe in quantities of less than three grams, but —"

Then he says, "Yeah, the juice is from John Peters — I know, the farmer — too. It's on all the logos, J.P.'s OJ, where the O in OJ is a bright cartoonish sun with —"

Then, "Wait, what?"

And then, "What do you mean, you knocked on the door?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

"Dear listeners...John Peters just came to visit," says Cecil, in a hushed, urgent voice. Like he's talking under his breath to someone beside him, or on the other end of a telephone line, rather than into a microphone that clearly plays his words in every room and every hall of the NVCR building.

In one of these rooms, a blonde woman with a duck daemon and too-sharp teeth listens. She is close to the studio; she could run to it in thirty seconds, if she wanted to help.

Cecil takes a deep breath. "I should talk with him. Maybe this is a good time for us to go to the wea— No!" He's not whispering any more. "Wait — stop — John? John — no!"

The blonde does not run. She does not leave the room at all. She leans back in her chair and smiles her too-sharp smile, as a soft jazzy piano forecast comes on.

"You don't know what you've done, do you?"

Lauren Mallard looks up with a start. She recovers quickly when she realizes she is looking at a person in an intern T-shirt. "You must be Maureen's replacement! I hope you aren't as bad-tempered as she was. Gosh, this place sure does act fast when an intern dies. Criminal lack of efficiency in so many areas, but when it comes to this...."

"I am not Maureen's replacement," says Dana. "I am former Intern, Dana Cardinal. You think your oranges banish people into the void? They do not. They send people to another place. My place."

Horror dawns in Lauren's eyes, only partly masked by her pasted-on smile.

"Maureen is with me," continues Dana, her confidence soaring at the proof that this was not, in fact, Strexcorp's plan all along. "Everyone who has vanished from Night Vale is with me. Most of them are safe. Some of them...well, some of them were your people. They aren't doing so well."

(She doesn't mention that they're gathering in the same world as Strex's interdimensional HQ. As far as she's concerned, the company doesn't need to know that.)

There's a whack and a thump from down the hall, in the direction of the studio. Dana smiles, remembering everything Maureen has told her about the last month here at home. "If you have also sent Cecil to join us, wonderful! Then I'll be able to keep a closer eye on him...and you, oh dear, I'm afraid, you'll lose track of him. Again. For good."

A muscle in Lauren's cheek twitches. She grips something under the desk that Dana can't see, and chants under her breath.

Without warning everything gets bright, brighter, brightest —

 

-{,(((,">

 

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

Maureen is sitting cross-legged against the stone wall when Dana returns to consciousness. "How'd it go?" she asks, warily hopeful. Her keen-eyed rabbit daemon sits up at her side.

"It turns out certain Strex officials have the ability to boot my projection out of their offices," says Dana. Eustathias sits in her lap as something like a snake, long and blue-scaled and cool to the touch. "But up until that happened, it was very satisfying. What have I missed?"

It's a strange and refreshing feeling, the idea that she might have missed something by not being here.

"Lots of fighting over rooms," says Maureen with a shrug. "One of the PTA moms, apparently she's got Advanced Reader kids, almost punched this guy from the Green Market. And we've got a guy in a Raúl's apron who used to be an Eagle Scout, and who says he can get the plumbing working. So that could be promising. Because, no offense? You really need a shower."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

The latest mental connection tapping against Sherie's isn't one of the kids. It's Cecil. Good to hear from you, she thinks. I was listening to the show, and I was worried.

Cecil's mental "voice" is hushed, dark and velvety. Never underestimate the efficacy of simply clocking someone over the head. Um, how do we do this? Carlos didn't say.

You're at the station, right? Give me the address, and then follow my lead.

A few minutes later, and with the help of some hunt-and-peck typing from Sherie's mongoose daemon's tiny paws (it turns out he doesn't have to stay in range of her body as long as he sticks close to her ghost), the NVCR bloodstone circle is feeding them data from the station's danger meter. They don't have many meters downtown yet, so this helps fill out an important gap in the Rusakov-level data. As usual, the station is more intense than anywhere in town.

After closing off the link with Cecil, Sherie has her daemon switch over to the Fatality Units view. (All the markings turn from cartoon sapphires into cartoon rubies.) Levels all over town continue to plummet back toward the local average, as the Strexcorp recall clears the deadly oranges and orange by-products from their retail outlets...and their subsidiaries' break room fridges.

The numbers are still pretty high at NVCR. Hopefully that just means the recall hasn't hit the station's break room yet.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Nirliq calls Sherie, who calls Steve, who calls someone else on the PTA, and pretty soon the van is heading toward the house of a family willing to loan them crutches. (Their football-playing teenager had one of his legs vaporized by the Shape in Mission Grove Park last year.)

Henriette is staring aimlessly out the window, eyes sore from crying, when her phone beeps. It's a text from Thiébaut:

Strexcorp makes several lines of high-quality prosthetic limbs for all species, body types, and limb configurations. Would your colleague like a complimentary prototype to test for us? This offer does not constitute any admission of culpability in his recent unfortunate accident.

For a couple seconds Henriette is baffled — the Strex supervisor at the Green Market disappeared before Omero's leg did; how did this piece of information get back to them? — except, oh, right, they own the secret police.

"Was that to us?" asks Omero from the passenger seat. "The deal's still on, right?"

"The crutches are still okay," says Henriette hoarsely. "But Strexcorp is officially ready to bribe you with a new leg. No mention of whether it'll be bugged, drugged, both, or worse."

She catches Omero's grimace in the mirror. "I'll take my chances with the VA administration."

 

-{,(((,">

 

"I know I talked about dinner plans on-air, but could we change again?" asks Cecil over the phone. (Earnestly, apologetically, as if the plans he'd been talking about hadn't been 90% his own invention.) "I just have a sudden hankering for grabbing some fast food and stopping by the range for half an hour. How does that sound?"

"I can't," says Carlos. He's sitting on the front steps of the larger rental house, Isaña by his feet, watching the stars. "I'm really sorry, Cecil, I need to cancel tonight. It's been a stressful day, some things have come up with the team, and I can't just disappear on them right now." He hesitates. "...Bad choice of words."

"No, I understand," says Cecil reluctantly.

"Do you, um, do you still want to sleep over? I can text you when things settle down."

Cecil would. They trade I-love-yous and goodbyes, then Carlos pockets the phone and ventures back inside.

Omero and Quentin are in the living room, working with an ordinater and a folder full of medical documentation, trying to figure out if Omero can get a new prosthetic made and fitted at a treatment center in Kinlání or Black Hill instead of going all the way back to the States. (Quentin is doing the translation between English and Spanish. Omero handles the translation between English and medical jargon.)

Nirliq is going through Henriette's room. Perle is in the hallway outside, reading a book while sitting sentry over the bottles Nirliq has unearthed so far. (The book is her Christmas present from Will's world: a phonological history of how the Internet shaped and changed its English over more than a century.)

Henriette herself is at the kitchen table, staring listlessly into a mug of tea, with Köhler keeping an eye on her.

Carlos nods to the elder theologian. "I'll take it from here."

He sits across from Henriette. He leans on his elbows.

"An experimental theologian is usually fine," he says.

Henriette doesn't meet his eyes. "You should give my responsibilities to Nirliq. She's been more on top of...well, everything...than I have for a while now."

"She was my first choice too," admits Carlos. Nirliq may still be a grad student, but she's been consistently quick-thinking, brave, and coolly coordinated under pressure, all of which is more important in the middle of a war than a Ph.D.

"So what happens now? Do I...leave the project? Leave town?"

"Is there any way to keep Night Vale from killing you by inches if you stay?" asks Carlos softly. "Bear in mind that no one around here has ever heard of Alcoholics Anonymous; that all the doctors who could prescribe things like anti-anxiety meds are currently in the pocket of Strexcorp Pharmaceuticals; and that all the local therapists are cats."

"Mmhmm. I am," says Henriette. "I'm also bearing in mind that if I try to talk honestly with any US professionals about why I'm an emotional wreck who self-medicates with alcohol for her various fears, trauma symptoms, and bouts of existential despair, they'll start prescribing me anti-psychotics and throw me in a psych ward."

...now that she mentions it, yeah, Carlos can see that being a problem. "So, ideally, you would move somewhere with an active AA chapter, non-evil medications available if necessary, and someone with Night Vale experience so you can have honest conversations about it."

"Sounds about right. Any ideas?"

Actually, Carlos does. A lot of the survivors of the Night Vale team aren't great candidates for various reasons, from "didn't know Henriette that well in the first place" to "currently busy with taking care of a baby/managing a massive post-religious support movement/being a tree."

But then there's Adriana. Henriette's own former grad student. Currently working with machines that just might be the most theologically interesting manmade constructs in the world.

"Is that offer CERN made you still open...?"

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

CERN is delighted to hear from Henriette. Her flight is scheduled to leave in three weeks. In the meantime, she's agreed to stick to office work, and pay regular visits to a highly-recommended local cat.

Nirliq accepts the corresponding offer to take a supervising role in Team Night Vale. The Harvard grant committee won't be thrilled about it — the whole team used to be made up of their schools' faculty and students, and now both of Carlos's seconds-in-command are from foreign places, Köhler from Heidelberg and Nirliq from Princeton — but they aren't going to override decisions about how to run a project that comes up with a new groundbreaking paper or invention every other month.

Carlos runs her through the basics of their budget, and a few other things, at the chapel. Then they go on a field trip out to the scrub lands, partly to check up on how that mysterious old oak door is doing, partly so they can talk unobserved and not worry about either misinterpreting the other's doublespeak.

"I'm really honored that you're trusting me with this," says Nirliq as they sit in the bed of the truck. Their colobus and armadillo daemons are in the shade underneath, aiming a danger meter at the door and watching the readings hover in place. "Especially since there are a few ideas I've been meaning to bring up with you."

"Go ahead."

"They're not strictly ethical. And by 'strictly' I mean 'when it comes to Strexcorp'. Nobody else gets screwed over, I promise."

"Sounds good to me."

Nirliq takes a swig of her ice water. "First of all: I'd like to try to convince the grant committee that your boyfriend is incorporated as a local bureau de change. We wouldn't mention that he's your boyfriend, obviously. Would sound too much like a conflict of interest."

Carlos frowns. "Cecil isn't getting paid in Spanish dollars anymore. And even if he was, he wouldn't have enough on hand to change for our entire team's budget in US dollars."

"So we only exchange as much money as he can afford to. And we take it in Strex scrip."

"...effectively giving Cecil his salary in real money again," realizes Carlos. "That is...that would be great. For him. And for me. But how is that not defrauding the grant committee? We'd have to make them think they're buying real currency, when in fact it's not worth the paper it's printed on. We might as well be buying Monopoly money."

"Monopoly money! That's a good one," says Nirliq. "The difference being that this monopoly...or at least, this wannabe monopoly...owns our chapel."

OH.

"Now, I don't know exactly how much Cecil makes," continues the accountant-turned-optical-physicist, looking remarkably calm for someone laying out a plan so devious. "And I'm not going to push you to tell me. But I have seen the exact rent for our research space, and I know what area of town Cecil's one-bedroom apartment is in, and I can tell you this: there is no way he's making more than we can spend."

"You're brilliant. Approved. Go for it." Carlos does know how much Cecil makes — they talked about salaries back when they decided to move in together, before NVCR's new management shredded their plans — and Nirliq is right. Which means the plans are un-shredded. In its eagerness to sabotage them in as many ways as possible, Strexcorp has tripped over its own feet.

It gets a smile out of her. Not a cunning, wily smirk, just a pleased-yet-professional smile. "I knew you'd like that one."

"And you said you had more? Because if they're all this good, I won't be able to approve them fast enough."

"I have one other proposal right now," admits Nirliq. "After we've smuggled all our essential equipment and research to safer spaces...the college, and whatever others we can arrange...I'd like to burn the chapel down for the insurance money."

Carlos stares.

"That's a figure of speech, of course."

Oh, good.

"Concrete doesn't burn very well. We'd have to come up with some other, materially-appropriate method of destruction. The important thing is that it's thorough enough to convince Strexcorp we've had a massive setback, from which we may never recover. And then we prove them right by renting a much smaller and cheaper Strex-owned space, and doing absolutely nothing of interest there."

"I can't believe you're serious," says Carlos faintly. He knows the stereotypes, but he's never known someone with a primate daemon to take "dangerously clever and ruthlessly underhanded" and embrace it quite this hard.

Nirliq is businesslike as ever. "If it's completely off the table, just let me know."

Carlos massages his temples. "I can't believe I'll think about it."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Omero's insurance flat-out refuses to replace his leg for at least another six months. They're set up to cover the cost of a new one every 3-5 years based on standard wear-and-tear as evaluated by a specialist; they don't have any provisions for "unexpected dematerialization by citrus."

So he's leaving too. Carlos refuses to employ anyone who can't hit a minimum running speed when necessary. Not after the way they lost Brad.

Nirliq has the bright idea to send some of their biological samples along with him. They're trying to quietly shuffle their research away to safer places; why limit themselves to Night Vale when they can use this as an excuse to hand off the dragon feathers, Whispering Forest leaves, and the bodies of the Things Under The Carpet to Harvard itself?

Which leads to Carlos having long arguments on the phone with a sequence of private shipping companies, all of whom will transport biological material if properly packed, but refuse to enter the greater Night Vale area. "I'm sorry, sir, I don't make the policies," says a patient FedEx representative. "The place is cursed, and we won't go near it, and that's all there is to it."

Carlos is trying to talk his way up to a manager, so he can try to win them over by offering (a) more money and (b) the sworn protection of the Girl Scouts, when Cecil's warm and comforting tones on the office radio are interrupted. "Excuse me," says Carlos to the FedEx rep. "I'm going to have to call you back."

Cecil has been joined in the booth by his program director. Chirpy, smiling, company-loyal, occasionally-sadistic Lauren Mallard. And they're in the booth in the middle of a broadcast, so Cecil can't leave. He's cornered.

As if that weren't bad enough already, Lauren starts talking about Carlos.

"It sure was a good thing he was looking into our oranges, or we could have harmed a lot of people on our way to making a ton of money! So very much money," she purrs. "He’s a good theologian you have there. What’s his name again?"

"Carlos!" calls Quentin, thumping on the office door.

Carlos winces. "Can it wait?"

"It really can't! We've got this visitor, and...just come and see, all right?"

 

-{,(((,">

 

The visitor — an exact duplicate of Carlos, albeit in a different outfit, and with a lot more sweat — sits obediently in the chair the team directs him to, hands in the air. All together, the theologians (everyone except Henriette and Köhler, who are currently off managing the data at NVCC) are aiming two Atal spyglasses, one danger meter, and three firearms in his direction. He takes it in stride.

"We frisked him. No weapons," reports Omero.

"And he sure does look like you," adds Sherie, watching the visitor through a spyglass. "Earnest. Curious. Not evil."

"I'm really sorry to freak everybody out like this," says the döppelganger Carlos. "I swear, I'm not an imposter, a biomachine, a Sandstorm double, anything like that. Strex still can't make a fake this convincing. I'm just your Carlos from the future, okay?" Nodding to the real Carlos, he adds, "Don't get too excited about that — it's only two days in the future, so it's not like we've made any significant breakthroughs since I was you."

Carlos folds his arms. "You're saying I'm going to time-travel, and that's not a breakthrough?"

"It's not like it was under control!" protests not-Carlos. "I just...hit a deer." He turns to Quentin. "Sorry in advance about your car."

"A deer," echoes Quentin.

"It's Strex's next big thing. They try to make deer who can do controlled travel between dimensions. Instead, they end up releasing a line of deer who do uncontrolled travel of all kinds — time, relative dimension, and space. Last I knew Strex was recalling them, but not before one of them jumped out in front of the car while I was driving, and next thing you know I'm two days in my own past. On the other end of a conversation that is, I have to say, much less stressful the second time around."

"Then you won't mind us doing a few tests," says Nirliq. "Examine your DNA. Observe you in the Rusakov isolation chamber."

"Walk me past a magnet and see if it sticks. The works," says possibly-fake-Carlos. "I'd be happy to help."

"The past Carlos can safely pick me up," adds the associated possibly-fake-Isaña.

"Not helpful," says one of the Li Huas. "Both of me can hold both of my daemons. And one of us is a double."

"If he's that kind of double, he'll only share memories with the original Carlos up to the point when he was created," adds the other. "If he's really from the future, he'll have these memories now. Carlos! Think of a number, and commit it to memory for the next two days."

Carlos thinks of a number.

"Planck's constant," says not-Carlos.

"Lucky guess," says Carlos, and tries again.

"The speed of light. Pi. Oh god, I'm such a nerd," sighs possibly-future-Carlos. "Twelve and a half. Blue is not a number. Neither is Finland. This is the point where I started seriously considering I might be telling the truth."

"You're getting all of this right so far," admits Carlos, slipping a hand into his chapel coat pocket to touch the Little Theologian's Book. If he's really going to have to recite that list from memory in two days, he should have it written down.

It's still unnerving. The consequences if they get tricked into accepting a false version of him could be monumental. But at the same time, he remembers that flash of hope he had during the Sandstorm, all the ideas for things they could accomplish with two of him, before he realized these particular doubles were murderous sociopaths. Wouldn't it be great to see that hope realized?

Not to mention, those were only the ideas he had before he got a boyfriend. A boyfriend with a significantly higher sex drive than his own...not that it's been an issue, Cecil has no trouble taking care of his own excess libido, but still....

"And this is the point where past-me starts planning experiments," says future-Carlos. "Speaking as the version of me who has already done them: 2x is greater than y."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos sends Cecil a couple of texts, generic couple-y things about dinner plans, so Cecil will know Lauren's threats haven't already been carried out. Then he waits in the hall for Cecil, so he's the first thing Cecil sees on getting to the apartment that evening.

"Oh, my precious Carlos," breathes Cecil, dropping his tote bag with a thunk (Carlos winces; that thing has the alethiometer in it) and throwing his arms around Carlos's shoulders. "I was worried. I...who's using my shower?"

"According to all our tests: a friend," says Carlos, holding him close. "Although before I tell you why I brought him over here, would you mind double-checking to see if he's telling the truth? For various reasons, I really do not want to give you false hope about this."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Two whirlwind days later, Carlos puts on the outfit his future self was wearing, gets into Quentin's car (it's halfway to the scrap heap already, so Quentin agrees to trade it for the team's hybrid and let them sacrifice it to the cause), and drives.

A flash of white comes out of nowhere on the entrance ramp to Route 800. On instinct Carlos yelps and swerves, too late — he front-ends the albino deer, faceplants into the suddenly-deployed airbag, slams the brakes, and careens blindly to a stop fifty feet off the shoulder.

The front end of the car, when Carlos has pulled himself together enough to look, is a crumpled mess. Something under the hood is steaming. Looks like one of the tires blew out when he drove it over a rock. Carlos's heart is going a mile a minute, but this vehicle is going nowhere.

On the plus side, the sky has changed color, and the sun is in a completely different place.

He collapses into the back seat with Isaña for a few minutes to catch his breath. "We're here. I mean, we're now. Probably. Assuming I'm still in the same time loop as the version of me who assured me the time loop was stable."

"This is so disorienting," says Isaña. "I do not know how Dana does it."

 

-{,(((,">

 

All signs point to temporal stability. Carlos lets the team run him through the tests that seemed so urgent at the time. Past-Carlos does end up picking up his Isaña, just to be sure — and he doesn't even blink. It feels exactly as uneventful as touching her himself.

By the time they get to the part of the loop where they're driving over to Cecil's place, Carlos is extremely...distracted...with anticipation. He remembers being a little distracted the first time around, but this time he knows what's coming. (In a manner of speaking.)

Not to mention, for the first time in years, he can feel confident that nothing tragic or catastrophic will happen in the next forty-two hours. It's bizarre. It's great. He might as well enjoy it.

"Okay, so there actually are a couple bits of future knowledge I need to pass on to you," he tells his past self.

"Go ahead," says past-Carlos.

"First: you should suck it up and tell Cecil you don't like the ear thing, already."

"...um."

"I know. You're afraid he won't take it well. He's going to take it fine, and by the time you're me you'll still feel kinda stupid that you didn't mention it months ago. Next: you should be waiting in front of the door when he comes home. He's been tense ever since Lauren invaded the show, so the sooner he can give you a hug, the better...."

Past-Carlos doesn't make any promises. He's still holding out for alethiometer confirmation, which is only fair. Carlos doesn't pester him[self] about it, just follows his barely-younger self into Cecil's place and makes a break for the shower. With a minor detour to grab a tight T-shirt and a pair of slim-fit furry pants, from the drawer in Cecil's wardrobe that holds Carlos's spare clothes.

It's only when he's actually under the spray that something occurs to him. "Hey, Isaña...do we know if Cecil's no-observation-during-sex deal with the Sheriff's secret police is still in effect under Strexcorp's administration?"

"Uh," says the daemon by his feet. "We have not asked."

"Not that they probably got much even if they were listening, given the music I remember us being about to put on...."

Carlos trails off. Isaña finishes the thought: "I guess that's probably why we put on the music, huh."

They switch off the water not long after they hear Cecil come in, and Carlos towels them off while listening to Cecil's muffled conversation with past-Carlos. The one where past-Carlos explains that readings indicate something portal-related happening at the studio the day after tomorrow, and he should bring over some equipment to study it.

"The day after tomorrow is the mayoral debate," says Cecil on the other side of the wall. "You're probably picking up on the spatial reconstruction we'll have to do in order to fit Hiram McDaniels in the building."

"That sounds fascinating," says past-Carlos earnestly.

Carlos pulls on his clothes, runs some product and a comb through his hair, and listens intently for his moment. He remembers looking like his entrance was effortless, and it takes effort to pull that off.

"Well, I still don't want you coming over," insists Cecil. "I don't know if you heard the whole show earlier, but...."

"...but Lauren Mallard thinks I'm great," fills in past-Carlos. "She'll be so excited to see me in person! Doing experiments...still being alive...unaffected by the danger that's going to be all over Route 800. I'm sure she'll be worried at first, thinking I might have been lost in the chaos. I'd like to reassure her."

"Dear Carlos," murmurs Cecil. "Have you had a vision? Or do you know someone who has?"

Carlos swings open the bathroom door and leans seductively against the frame. "Not exactly," he says. "It just so happens that the chaos involves short-range time travel."

Cecil's mouth falls open.

Past-Carlos looks a little stunned himself. "Whoa," he says. "I am going to have to remember that look."

"You will," says Carlos, before grinning at Cecil. "Hi, honey."

Cecil turns his head from one Carlos to the other, then gathers himself and says, with great solemnity, "I have died and gone to heaven."

"Theological fallacy," say both Carloses reflexively. The earlier one nods for his future self to finish the thought, so Carlos does: "You don't go to the Republic of Heaven. You build it wherever you are."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Two heavenly days later, Carlos shakes hands with his past self one last time, sends him off to close the time loop, then gathers a couple of team members (Sherie to help analyze whatever portal activity happens, and Omero to say one last goodbye to Hiram) and heads to the NVCR studio.

The booth is at least ten times its normal size, with at least seven extra microphones: five for Hiram, one for the Faceless Old Woman, and one for Marcus Vansten. Carlos doesn't have time to trade passive-aggressive smiles with Lauren; there is way too much genuine research to be done on how the hell this even happened.

Cecil makes them sit down and stop moving around once it's time for the show to start. But the room is big enough that they can actually sit in it, which is pretty cool.

Sherie nods along with all the Faceless Old Woman's points. Omero looks swayed by a lot of Hiram's (mostly the ones from his gold and violet heads). Nobody responds to Vansten, because Vansten doesn't say a whole lot. He seems bored by the whole thing, like it's a waste of his time to expect him to think about the needs of the community when he's already guaranteed the election by virtue of being able to pay for it. Or maybe he's just offended that somebody made him get dressed for this.

After the first couple of call-in questions, Carlos has a sneaking suspicion the fancy pigeon daemon on his shoulder has literally fallen asleep.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Then comes the Call.

In both the capital-lettered and non-capital-lettered sense of the word.

After giving the latest warning from the Mayor's office about the deer, Cecil switches back to the debate. "Next caller, you're on the air. Who is this?"

"Oi, this is V— this is Erika," says a female-sounding voice over the speakers. "With a K, right? I'm an angel."

Carlos's heart skips several beats. Are they back? Are the angels back in the game? Do they know where Josie is? Can they reveal if she's okay?

"Let me stop you right there, Erika — angels aren't real," says Cecil. Only a sudden tension in his shoulders reveals that he's not as blasé as he sounds. "But go ahead with your question."

"This question is just for Marcus Vansten," says Erika.

"I'm not crying," says Vansten.

He's...definitely started crying. Choked up. Big tears rolling down his cheeks. The extravagantly-feathered pigeon on his shoulder shakes with emotion.

"Um, listeners at home, Marcus is hunched over, head turned away from his microphone...and in tears," says Cecil. He's a good reporter, on-the-ball about relaying the facts, even while his tone is caring, worried. "Perhaps he has been chosen by the angels? Who, and for legal purposes I want to emphasize this again, are not real. But people who are chosen for special tasks by angels often cannot stop weeping when they talk about angels."

"'M fine," sniffles Vansten. "Ask the question."

Crying looks awful on him. It also looks familiar. Because, Carlos remembers, he's seen Vansten tear up before — when writing the team a check for their most hideously-expensive equipment — specifically, when filling out the line marked Purpose.

Apparently the angels haven't been as far out of the game as he thought.

"Marcus," says Erika. "If called upon by angels to serve a great good — a great calling — a great War — basically, somethin' that's a big deal, yeah? — would you serve?"

"Marcus...?" asks Cecil gently.

"Hang on," chokes Marcus. "I'm fine. I — I'm fine."

"You are needed, Marcus," intones the Erika on the phone. "Like, right now. Are you in, or what?"

Carlos is in motion before he has time to think about it, grabbing the camera they brought — the one fitted with Atal lenses — and switching it on.

Which is how he gets the entire vivid spectacle of a human ascending to angeldom on tape.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Steve tries to call in. Apparently Cecil no longer trusts his friend to put the necessary amount of deception and doublespeak in their public conversations, because he shouts Steve down with a fervor Carlos has never heard before and declares the Q&A period over.

After the two still-corporeal candidates give their final statements, he apologizes for the technical difficulties, cuts to the weather, and pulls off his headphones with gasp of relief. "What a show this has been!" he exclaims. "Guests disappearing from known existence, herds of deer with deep psychological issues surrounding the building — and what is that humming?"

Meanwhile, Sherie turns to Carlos and mutters under her breath, "Couldn't you have warned us about any of this?"

"I'm not mysteriously-knowledgeable future-Carlos anymore!" hisses Carlos. "I'm back to being present-Carlos! Believe me, if I'd had any idea things would get this exciting right after past-me left, I would have made him stay longer."

"Daniel?" calls Cecil in the direction of the control room. "Is the noise coming from something in there?"

Carlos, meanwhile, switches to a pocket-size danger meter (this one not attuned to any bloodstone circles, just plugged into his tablet) and waves it around. "Local level of FUs is still steady. It's not from a dangerous portal."

"What about a non-dangerous portal?" asks Omero.

"Yes, that's certainly a possibility...."

He's still focused on the numerical output on his screen until Isaña yanks on his attention. "Carlos! Look up."

A large, swirling black vortex is forming against the studio wall.

"Oh my," says Cecil. "I...I have seen a vortex like that before. And I do not like it. Carlos? Can experimental theology tell us anything about it? Maybe how to make it go away?"

"We don't know yet," says Carlos. "But we're taking as many readings as we can."

Sherie, with her own instruments, adds, "I might be able to close it? Ideally we'd have multiple bloodstone-circle users working together...but if it's just the one portal, and it's only a little one...."

"Your human senses cannot hope to comprehend this!" screeches Hiram's violet head.

"My violet head's right," adds the gold head. "Let me take a closer look. This is called taking initiative, by the way. It's the sort of thing you look for in a mayor."

He sticks the head in question right up close to the portal, eyeballs it for a minute, then leans through.

Even knowing the thing is about as safe as portals get, Carlos jumps.

A moment later, Hiram's gold head pulls back out...holding a humanoid figure in his mouth.

And it's Cecil.

Or at least, someone very like Cecil. Not nearly as identical as Carlos and Carlos-from-two-days-away. Hiram spits the stranger to the ground: this almost-Cecil with the short, jet-black hair, wearing expensive wingtips and a blood-spattered white button-down, whose arms (both of which show dramatic purple bruising) are wrapped tightly around something that looks like a pillow-sized lump of tan fur. Who hasn't made any effort to cover the bar code on the back of his neck.

"Oof!" squeaks the stranger. His voice isn't like Cecil's at all. He pulls himself up onto his knees, catches his breath, and smiles up at Hiram. "Thanks for the lift, friend!"

Carlos's stomach turns. That's Cecil's face — Carlos knows every curve and plane of it by heart — in every detail except for one. Where Cecil's eyes are cloudy-white over once-purple irises, this man's eyes aren't there. At all.

If the sight is disturbing for Carlos, it must be so much more horrific for Cecil. "Who is this?" he demands, voice shaking with anger. "Why is he covered in blood? And where are his eyes?"

"I'm Kevin!" chirps the man. He adjusts the puff in his arms — so that all of a sudden Carlos can see it has a face, with a sharp little beak and mammalian ears and huge duck-eyes. Now that he knows which way its body is oriented, he can pick out a set of limbs, too: not arms or legs, exactly, just little nubs of paws sticking out of the fur. "And this is my daemon, Bedamim!"

"That is not a daemon," snarls Cecil.

"Is too," says Kevin pleasantly. "Who are you?"

A bored female voice answers him from somewhere around the ceiling. "That's Cecil. His daemon is off napping somewhere. And I am the Faceless Old Woman who secretly lives in your home...well, most homes. Not yours specifically. I've never seen you before."

Kevin is unperturbed. "It's nice to meet you!" He sets Bedamim on the ground, ruffles the top of her (more or less) head, and gets to his feet. "And how about the rest of — oh! Carlos!"

Carlos nearly drops his danger meter.

"Yes, that is definitely you, but you look different," adds Kevin thoughtfully. "You're all scruffy again. How long has it been, for you, since I saw you last?"

"I've never seen you before in my life," stammers Carlos. (Out of the corner of his eye, he notices the RECORDING sign is lit up again. How long has that been back on?)

"Which doesn't mean he hasn't seen you," points out the Faceless Old Woman.

"No, he certainly saw me." Kevin rocks back and forth on his patent-leather heels. "We had the most productive conversation! Could this be the past? Somehow? What day is this? Oh, and am I in Night Vale? We were trying to get to Night Vale."

"This is Night Vale," says Hiram's blue head, then recites the date, the year, and the time, down to the second.

"Ah! That is certainly the past," says Kevin brightly. "I'm not sure how that would have happened, but of course, with Strexcorp, all things are possible...."

"Did you hit a deer?" blurts Carlos.

"Hm...? Oh, right! This is the day with the deer project!" exclaims Kevin. "That could have been it. And I do remember hitting...something."

He reaches back into the vortex, and pulls the something out.

Every human in the room recoils.

"Is this a deer?" asks Kevin, all innocence.

It's part of a deer. Specifically, part of the head, plus a slice of neck. Kevin is holding it up by the remaining horn. A chunk of the skull and half the face have been sliced off — with surgical precision, as evidenced by the perfectly-clean cuts in the bone — which is the only clean thing about it, since the rest of it is dripping, ragged muscle and sinew hanging loosely from the joints, blood and viscera streaked all over — one good shake and what's left of its brain might come loose —

Hiram's grey head slithers over to take a closer look. "You hit a deer, all right," he says glumly. "Are you going to eat that?"

"Do you want it? It's all yours!"

When the grey head opens its razor-edged beak, Kevin tosses the deer-head in. Hiram gulps it down, antler and all.

"This is so exciting," continues Kevin. "I know the deer project ultimately didn't turn out the way Strexcorp had hoped — why, if I have the time right, the gyropters they're dispatching to remove the deer will be arriving any minute now! You might want to stay inside for a while and put on some loud music to drown out the machines and the screams — but, gosh, I'm glad that I got to meet you. Especially you, Cecil! Although...I've met you before too, haven't I? Before I got Bedamim? It would have been in a portal a lot like this one."

Cecil looks like he doesn't know whether he wants to lunge at Kevin and go for his throat, or sprint in the other direction and try to claw his way through the wall.

"Isn't it cool how we look exactly like each other? I think we must be connected, somehow." Kevin sighs happily. "I have to go, but I'm sure we'll meet again! Maybe your daemon will even be there, so he can finally meet mine! I bet they would be just adorable together."

He picks up Bedamim, boops her little beak — she doesn't seem to talk, just burbles in delight — and steps back into the vortex, giving them all a friendly wave before reaching up and...pinching?...at something out of sight. As he backs away, the portal begins to close.

"He seemed nice," drones the grey head.

The gold head, meanwhile, arcs over to Cecil's chair. "Cecil? You...you all right, there, buddy?"

Cecil is trembling in place. "I...can't...um...."

Carlos is pretty shaky too, but he puts down the danger meter — without, miraculously, dropping it — and goes to him. Cecil spins in his chair, wraps his arms around Carlos's waist, and presses his face helplessly against Carlos's stomach.

"Cecil, it...it's going to be okay," says the Faceless Old Woman. It's the kindest, most caring thing Carlos has ever heard from her, so he isn't surprised when she adds, "Actually, that’s a lie. In general, it’s not going to be okay."

"I CAN SEE HOW THAT MAN MIGHT BE TERRIFYING TO A SMALL DEFENSELESS SACK OF BONES AND MEAT!" roars Hiram's green head. "BUT HE IS GONE NOW!"

Cecil swallows. "He was...."

(He was exactly what Cecil would look like, if Cecil gave up. Or maybe if Cecil went too far, and Strex decided they couldn't afford to keep playing at being harmless. They would carve out his eyes, replace his daemon, and rewrite his brain until he thanked them for it.)

"Cecil, we all get frightened and freeze in the face of unbearable terror," says the Faceless Old Woman. "Especially if that face is our own face. Or at least, that's what I assume. I wouldn't know from experience."

"I...you're right," says Cecil shakily. "Thank you both."

He pulls it together enough to finish out the show, although he doesn't let go of Carlos until after the ON AIR sign goes dark.

 

-{,(((,">

 

The experimental theologians stay at the station until Cecil is ready to leave. Omero gets samples of the time-traveling-deer blood, Sherie makes sure the portal activity is really over, and Carlos stays with Cecil.

"How short is 'short-range' time travel?" asks Cecil as they step out into the cool desert night. A few steps into the parking lot, and Khoshekh appears too, almost materializing out of a shadow to float alongside them. "And can the events within a short-range time loop be changed?"

"I don't know, and I don't know," admits Carlos. "The only data point I have is mine, which was only a couple of days, and in which I tried not to change anything. For reasons of not wanting to accidentally shred the fabric of the universe as much as for personal reasons."

"Well, then for at least the next week, I do not want you leaving my sight," says Cecil darkly. "Either my own or Khoshekh's. Perhaps we cannot prevent you from encountering a recent-past version of that Kevin who just spoke to us, but I will not let him get anywhere near you."

Chapter Text

Night Vale.

"But enough about me," says Sherie, after giving the abridged (and Strex-observation-censored) version of the last few days' adventures. "What's going on with you? How have you been?"

"Oh, you know, fine," says Susannah on the other end of the phone, with teenage dismissiveness. Which is at least a change from the hurt and frustration she's had in every weekly call up to this point. Maybe this is progress. "Same old, same old."

Seth, conference-calling on the same line, is less evasive. "You should tell her."

Sherie's Mom-radar lights up. "Tell me what?"

"Nothing!"

"Do you want her to find out from you, or from Dad?"

"I...."

"Honey, what is it?" asks Sherie. "Whatever it is, I won't judge."

"Yeah, you will," says her daughter.

"All right. I will. But I'll do my best to keep it to myself."

Susannah sighs. "Look, the important thing is that I did not actually get arrested."

(Okay, she was right: Sherie is judging.)

"So I was hanging out at this club with some people from school. One of the ones that's, like, designed for high school kids, so there's no drinking or anything. And for a while it was great! But then Austin Kimbell started getting up close to Danielle Frick, and being all handsy, even when she kept telling him to back off. She was doing the thing where you laugh and act like it's no big deal, because you don't want to be too confrontational, you know? And he was doing the thing where guys act like that means you don't actually want them to knock it off."

"I'm familiar," says Sherie, then grabs the teachable moment while it's here: "Seth, hon, always remember that if a young lady tells you to stop doing something, it doesn't mean she's playing hard to get, it means you stop."

"I know, Mom."

"So asked Danielle if she really wanted him to quit it, and when she said yeah, I got between them and told Austin to back down," continues Susannah. "His daemon is this big muscly dog with giant teeth, and she got right up in Zeph's face, while he was all 'lighten up, baby, no girl dresses like that unless she wants the attention' — so I poked him in the chest and told him that no one wears a shirt this flammable unless they want to be set on fire."

"Oh, Su," breathes Sherie. "You didn't."

"Of course I didn't — as I told the cops," says her daughter. "There were lots of people who heard what I said, so you can see how the timing would be suspicious, but I didn't have a lighter or anything. What were they going to do, arrest me on charges of magically creating fire with my bare hands?"

Sherie massages her forehead. "Can you at least tell me he wasn't hurt too badly!"

"Only first-degree burns! If I could hypothetically summon fire, I wouldn't aim it at a person until I'd practiced enough to have that much finesse. Down by the lake, so I could douse any hypothetical mistakes before they got out of control. A Girl Scout is responsible. It's the ninth thing a Girl Scout is."

"And you are an excellent Girl Scout, sweetie," says Sherie fervently.

She manages to get through the rest of the call without saying the other thing she's thinking, which is, You need to come back to Night Vale. No sooner has she hung up, though, than a bored voice from behind a light fixture says, "That girl needs to come back to Night Vale."

Sherie leans back in her armchair. "Spying on private family matters isn't very mayoral."

"Unlike my one remaining opponent, I take an interest in the lives of citizens," says the Faceless Old Woman primly. "Do you disapprove of what your daughter is becoming?"

"No. I mean, it scares me, sure. But I think it's amazing."

"And do you expect Milford to have the resources to support her through it?"

"Good lord, no." Sherie knows she isn't obligated to justify herself to her uninvited houseguest, but for some reason she elaborates. "Susannah turns eighteen in just a few months. There's no point in going through all the fuss of a custody battle with her father now. By the time we finished, she'd be legally empowered to move wherever she wants anyway."

"Huh," says the Faceless Old Woman. "Can I rub your back?"

"What?"

"I want to count your vertebrae. I'm doing a study on the efficacy of redistribution of bone," explains the disembodied voice. "Also, I'd like to condition you to be less self-conscious about your body around me, so you'll tell me what your scars are. All of which will be easier to do if you let me give you a backrub. It'll be completely free, unlike a spa visit. I care about saving my constituents money, you see." She pauses. "Or lizards. Whichever the spa charges in."

It's still an unsettling request. But Sherie doesn't want to repeat her back-strain injury of a few months ago, and the spa is expensive (not to mention, it's hard to make change for an iguana). Used to be Sam would do this for her, but, well.

"All right," she says. "Let me know how many vertebrae you come up with."

 

-{,(((,">

 

"Carlos! Hi, buddy! Boy, have I missed you!"

Carlos has been warned that Steve Carlsberg is a hugger now. He's still not prepared for Steve's enthusiasm to lift him an inch off the ground. "Uh...hi, Steve. Nice to see you too."

"And this is Janice! Sorry to say her mom couldn't make it, but I was happy to bring her over. Have you met?"

Yes. Quite a few times. In secret locations chosen at the last minute by the theology liaison team. But those aren't relevant to today's test. "That's what we're trying to find out. Hi, Janice."

The ten-year-old, riding her daemon in the form of a jet-black pony, shakes his hand. She's a cute kid with the mask off. Purple glasses, freckles on tan skin, hair plaited into a single dark braid down her back. "Hi again, Señor Carlos."

Sherie props open the Rusakov isolation chamber with a chair, and Janice's daemon walks right up to the door before shifting into a series of progressively smaller forms, lowering his rider to the ground. It's obviously a process they have down to an art: her knees settle on the floor, she slides off his back, and with sure arms and weak-but-nimble legs she swings herself into the bloodstone circle and crosses her legs while he leaps into her lap as a marble-furred cat. All in the same amount of time it would have taken Carlos to sit.

Steve's badger daemon, meanwhile, greets Khoshekh, the half of Cecil currently on Carlos-watching duty. "Do not try to snuggle me, or you will regret it," warns the margay, floating after Carlos as he heads for the bloodstone circle room.

(Steve follows too. Awkward.)

"You can't come in with us, hon," says Isaña to Khoshekh at the door. "Don't want anything contaminating the test."

"It's okay!" adds Steve's badger. "You get to stay with us!"

Khoshekh makes the world's most despairing hurt-cat face. Carlos blows him a kiss before shutting the door.

He's back in the main room soon anyway — or rather, his ghost is — astral-projecting using the stones, leaving his body on its knees in the circle. Janice, with the astral dexterity of an expert twice her age, likewise hops out of her body. Her ghost hovers in the air like she's sitting on an invisible surface, hands on her knees, face about a head lower than eye level with Carlos.

It sends a pang of loss through Carlos as it reminds him of Josie. This was how she looked sitting crosswise on her cloud-pine cane, either just because she felt like floating that day, or because her leg was bothering her too much to walk.

Did I do something wrong? thinks Janice at him.

"No, that wasn't about you," Carlos assures her. "Just remembering someone. You're doing fine."

The kid smiles, relieved. She's definitely the one Carlos "met" on the lazy day. Sweet, a little shy, not as lonely as she used to be, confident in her own abilities. Also: glittery, like frost in the sun. Carlos remembers thinking this sense of sparkle was related to age and gender, but maybe it's specific to her. A mark of supernatural ability? (She's one of the kids with foresight, right?) Or something else?

Well, it's outside the purview of their experiments, so Carlos gives Sherie a thumbs-up, then settles back into his body and rejoins the group in person.

Khoshekh and Steve are at the side of the room, arguing in hushed voices, while Sherie ushers Janice out of the circle. "Thank you for coming in again. We got all our data last time, so this is all we needed."

"Now go away," adds Khoshekh. "Not you, Janice! You seem nice. I'm talking to Steve."

"Just one darn minute," snaps Steve. "Khoshekh, you stay right there. Janice, come over here for a second, okay?"

Janice and her daemon trot obligingly over. Steve directs them so they're standing/floating face to face, then steps back and acts like he's working on a film shoot: moving around to look for the best angle, making a frame around them with thumbs and index fingers, closing one eye and holding up a hand to block out first Janice, then Khoshekh.

"There's still nothing here," says Khoshekh tiredly. "Stop making yourself look like even more of an idiot than usual."

With a sudden burst of intensity, Janice says, "You stop being mean to Steve."

Khoshekh opens his mouth...then whuffs in disgruntlement and says, "Fine. For now."

He pulls his legs up under him like a house cat sitting in a loaf on a cushion, and sulks. But he does stop, which honestly makes Carlos wonder if Janice has some kind of obedience-compelling power on top of the possible foresight.

"Can none of you see it?" exclaims Steve. "Not even a tiny bit?"

"I'm a little lost here," says Carlos, with a worried glance at Sherie. "See what?"

"The arrows? The dotted lines?"

Head-shakes all around.

"They're really faint this close to the ground," presses Steve. "Like...steam, or some of the creatures we're not supposed to call angels, or glass that is smudged in some places, so all you can see is the smudges. Also, you have to turn your head just right? But they are there! Connecting all of us! And there are so many more than normal between Khoshekh and Janice...there's even a circle...it must mean something. It must!"

Steve's mention of angels makes Carlos stop and look. Really look. He remembers the first time he saw Erikas in person: it wasn't until they spoke that he had any idea they were there, and when he finally caught the distortions and flickers that outlined a pair of tall humanoid forms, Erika mentioned that their shape was determined by what he expected to see.

So he picks up Isaña, and he comes right up to the near side of the little tableau, and he scours the space between Khoshekh and Janice-and-her-daemon for arrows and/or dotted lines.

Nothing.

Of course there's nothing. Steve got his brain scrambled by Strexcorp and walked away with permanent visual distortions. That's all this is. "I don't see them," says Carlos, treading lightly, not sure of the contours of this strange and emotional new attachment Steve has. "But it doesn't have to mean anything, Steve. Things with no intrinsic meaning happen all the time. It's a huge part of experimental theology."

(He's fudging terms a little there. Experimental theology says that everything has meaning — the meaning of glorifying God, and, by implicit extension, Magisterium doctrine. The understanding that sometimes things are random and arbitrary is really more the purview of science. He misses Mary's world all over again.)

"Are there any other tests you can do?" asks Janice. "Just in case? Maybe it would make Steve feel better."

"We can't do tests on children for no reason," says Sherie gently. "Especially when we don't have your mother's permission. Unless...Steve, is your relationship with Delphine at the point where you can sign legal forms for each other's daughters?"

"...No."

But Steve looks so heartbroken. And Carlos is supposed to be his friend, here. "Listen, what if we just took some photograms, and maybe a cheek swab? We can give you the relevant permission forms, and if you get Delphine to sign them and send them back, then we do...you know, theology...with the material."

Both Steve and Janice like the idea. The girl returns to the isolation chamber for the photos, first with her and her daemon (mimicking Khoshekh's margay form, though he keeps this world's standard leg arrangement) alone, then them and Khoshekh together.

While Carlos and Isaña are behind the tripod, Steve sidles up to them. "For the record, I realize that you are humoring me?" he says, in a voice he probably thinks sounds quieter than it does. "And I want you to know? I really do appreciate it."

 

-{,(((,">

 

There's a practice knife fight going on in the middle of Marcus Vansten's twelfth most extravagant stateroom, and a couple of kids shooting darts at one of the life-size paintings on the walls (they make excellent target practice). Tamika is one of the Book Club members on the lounge next to the fireplace, putting her feet up and reading A House-Boat on the Styx while she waits for the fight to be over so she can spar with the victor.

All of this action grinds to a halt when the room is filled with a brilliant black light. It outshines the chandeliers; it illuminates every detail on the gilded molding.

And a grouchy angelic voice says, "All of you kids, quit messing up my stuff."

Tamika knows which Erika this is right away. For one thing, she was listening to the debate. For another, along with the glowing golden wings extending from his shoulder blades, the angel has a majestic fluffy ruff of feathers arcing over his shoulders and around the back of his head, blocking out all his peripheral vision. This is the former Marcus Vansten, sharing a single corporeal form with his Jacobin-pigeon daemon.

(To the relief of everyone in the room, there's a similar extra-feathers thing going on between his legs. Angels don't wear clothes, not like Vansten ever did anyway, but ain't nobody need to see that.)

"You don't need your stuff any more," says Tamika. "You didn't even need any of this when you were a human."

"Do too," says Erika wittily. "Get your feet off that table! Oh, uh, and be not afraid or whatever. You can use this space if you want, I guess, but get your feet down. I need that table."

"Been putting my feet up on this table, any time I feel like it, for more than a month now. You never noticed."

"A month?" echoes Erika. "I only ascended last night! How long have you been doing this?"

Tamika gets to her feet and stalks toward him, making a point of stepping over the bone table rather than walking around it. She closes the book for the moment, but keeps it on hand, just in case she needs a weapon. Erika is at least ten feet tall and she's five foot one — so what? Just means she's the only one who won't have to duck if she wants to walk around in half the rooms of this house.

"We are the beating heart of Night Vale," she says. "We are the breathing lungs. We are the chanting lips. We will defend Night Vale with the help of everything it has to give. Some people don't have much, so we won't take that unless we got no other choice, but you? You got more than anybody needs in ten lifetimes, and we claim the right to use it for as long as we are the only defenders this town has. You want our feet off your tables, Erika? Then you go round up your people and take some of this fight off of our hands!"

She hadn't realized quite how mad she was about this until she started yelling.

Even Erika looks a little intimidated. "Whoa, cool off, kid," he says, looking nervously between Tamika's face and Rashi's sturdy horns. "Again: just ascended last night, do not really know how this angel thing works, and usually when that happens I pay someone to figure it out for me, but this is out of my price range. Which basically proves that I do, in fact, need all my money and then some."

"That is not what it proves."

"Uh, yeah it is. Stop reading all those books and go make a few billion dollars of your own, then you'll understand how money works. Point is: the angel who Called me did not bother to leave their address or a callback number. I don't know where they are."

That...is actually a reasonable problem, and not Vansten's own fault. Tamika scales down her anger accordingly.

"And also? The rest of the angels hit the road once they figured the town was laced with Strex-made gadgets that were basically us-detectors. I am pretty sure they're not gonna just waltz back into town and let themselves get picked off."

"Those gadgets aren't around any more," says Tami