Even in the shade, Carlos is sitting on too-warm sand. The hot rushing wind that blows through every so often doesn't help. He's stripped down to his shorts and is sitting on his folded lab coat – the fabric is white, which is scientifically the best color for not converting light energy into heat – and that makes it easier, a little.
"Cecil, I don't even remember how I got to Night Vale in the first place," he says into his phone. "But I promise I will find a way back. It’ll just take a couple of days."
He looks away from the hollow in the sand where the last door used to be. It's the most distinctive landmark he has, except for the distant mountain with its blinking light, in a vast, rolling plain of golden sameness. And it's still hard to pick out. The sides cast no shadows.
Carlos's light-blocking invention is the only thing that casts shadows here any more.
"A week, max."
He scans the horizon. At an imprecise estimate (he does have equipment to measure parallax, but it's all back at the lab, not available), it consists of four degrees of mountain, three hundred and fifty-six degrees of flatness under an endless sunny sky.
"Maybe a few weeks, I don't know."
He has a phone, with a diverse and useful set of apps. He has, not a full set of bloodstones, but a good pocket-size one (high-quality, dealer-certified, guaranteed not to cause plagues even if used on its own). He has a Svitz army knife, three band-aids, an assortment of rubber bands and paper clips, and a cough drop.
There's no night out here. Carlos decides when to sleep based on when he's too tired to keep walking. He plants his light-blocking invention in the sand, waits for the shaded area to cool off enough that he can lie down, then wraps his T-shirt over his eyes.
Calls from Cecil don't reach the desert, they conclude, after Cecil tries a dozen times and Carlos finds no missed messages. Radio waves from his native world don't get here either, though the Internet does. Once Cecil grasps the difference, he starts a new sideblog for uploading the audio of his broadcasts, and recruits Intern Jadza to co-moderate.
The posts aren't on a predictable schedule. Carlos does start worrying when the blog fails to update for forty-one hours and fifteen minutes. Did Cecil fail to broadcast for some reason? Is he okay? Why isn't he answering calls?
Four days in, sweat running down the back of his neck, Carlos takes out the Svitz army knife and systematically hacks off his shoulder-length curls.
There may be wifi in this endless desert, but there is no shampoo, and no air conditioning. A scientist is practical. He even gets an experiment out of the act: he leaves the shorn hair in a pile at the edge of the shade, moves a foot to the left, and times how long it takes for the light of the Smiling God to dissolve it into invisibility. (Three hours, twenty-eight minutes.)
He'll start growing it out again once he's home.
Carlos tries to call his fellow scientists, too. Unlike Cecil, they never get back to him.
Near the end of the month, Rochelle's number stops giving him their voicemail and starts announcing that it doesn't exist.
"Oh, Carlos," breathes Cecil, when he brings it up. "I thought – you were still with Dana and the others when the news came out – nobody told you?"
Carlos should have brought the rest of his team along, he thinks, when he ventured into the house that doesn't exist. Or he should have told them to hide if things went wrong, not to get themselves captured by waiting loyally at the door. Or he should have kept them from investigating the house at all – it wasn't even helpful to the war, in the end – they should have just gotten to a safety bunker and hidden. Or....
"I'm so sorry," says Cecil. "Are you okay? I would hold you in my arms if I could. Have you made any progress with finding a way home yet?"
Carlos looks at his circle of safety, not quite broad enough for him to lie down and stretch without the light of the Smiling God going right through his shoes. (He needs those shoes. He'd be burning his feet on the sun-soaked landscape every day without them.) He scans the vast empty brightness outside the edges of the shadow, the one he's been walking in search of...well, anything at all...for weeks now.
He runs a hand through what little is left of his hair. "I haven't found anything yet. But I'll be all right. If I need a hug, I'll ask for one from the giant masked warriors – you remember them, right? They've been so nice and supportive – you don't need to worry about me. I'll be fine."
People in the desert don't have any physical need for food or liquid. It's not like Carlos is going to starve.
Still, some rest-periods he finds himself staring longingly at that cough drop: not wanting to waste it, but missing the sensation of tasting things so much it hurts.
Maybe I won't be fine, thinks Carlos, the day he sees a painfully realistic image of his boyfriend lying dead in the sand. Maybe I'm starting to hallucinate. Maybe the symptoms of dehydration and starvation are slower to descend here, but have finally come for me after all.
He tries to tell himself it's a mirage. Then it starts getting larger as he approaches. So much for that theory.
If it's real after all, Carlos should turn around and walk away. He wants to walk away. He doesn't want to torment himself with the image of Cecil's body, still and bloodied and glass-translucent from the light.
But it's the first new thing he's seen in so very long.
When he gets within throwing distance of the body, he begins to understand. It isn't Cecil after all. The figure is someone else who happens to be neither tall nor short, neither thin nor fat, and with features very much like Cecil's would be if you carved his face into a frozen rictus smile and burned his eyes until only two dark, ash-dusted sockets remained.
He stops for the day, and fixes his big-umbrella-shaped invention in the sand at Kevin's side, so they're both completely in the shade.
Experiments have found that, deprived of the usual external cues for day/night periods, humans will settle into a sleep-wake cycle as long as forty-eight hours: thirty-six awake, twelve asleep. Carlos's experience, to the extent that his phone's clock is accurate, bears that out. Proportionally more time spent awake means more time to walk. More time to search.
One small problem: Cecil is still on a twenty-four-hour schedule. Carlos's slip-sliding, too-long "nights" mean he's not always awake when Cecil is available to answer calls. And "I was doing some very important science" isn't going to fly forever. Every time he says it, he can hear the strain weighing heavier in Cecil's response.
Well, if Carlos is going to stay here until Kevin wakes up, then he's not going to get any searching done no matter what. He'd better take advantage of that while he can.
He starts keeping a closer eye on his phone's clock, and makes the effort to haul his body and mind back onto Cecil's schedule.
A generic army of masked warriors taking care of Carlos turns into a cast of specific characters. He isn't a storyteller, and he isn't good at keeping lies straight, so he bases them on his lost teammates. Dave's alter ego is large and authoritative, protecting the others. Rochelle's is an astronomer, with unorthodox theories of economics. Also, a dog.
He would base them on people Cecil hasn't actually met, except that he can't seem to remember any of the people he knew before he came to Night Vale.
"I haven't had a chance to look for those doors recently," says Carlos, and it's true.
(Cecil has fixated on the idea of another old oak door as Carlos's ticket home. There are a lot of reasons why this is a useless non-starter of an idea, but Carlos is trying to be supportive and non-discouraging of his boyfriend's interest in science.)
"Because I've been trying to figure out a fascinating scientific mystery." Also true. "I'm a scientist. I need to discover/understand things. It's what I do!" Rock-solid truth there.
If you look at the emotional reality of the situation, it's like he's hardly lying at all.
"But...couldn’t you look for the door while you figure it out?" pleads Cecil.
Dammit, Carlos forgot to make his imaginary non-Kevin-related science experiments anything that would require him to stay in one place. "I'll look tomorrow, I promise," he says, and he can hear even from the silence that it's leaving Cecil disappointed. He tries to emphasize that he loves Cecil – that Cecil is the only person left who's truly important to him. He prays that it helps.
Kevin doesn't stir.
On the plus side, he doesn't start decomposing, either.
Carlos closes the man's eyelids, and takes a photo every non-evening. He doesn't want his eyes and his hopes to play tricks on him; he needs solid data. Images of Kevin won't be good for Cecil, and there's nothing else in the otherworld desert to photograph, so he also mocks up a graphic of an error message and sends that, with a description explaining that it's the scientifically fascinating cactus (he's not very creative, here) he's been doing all kinds of important experiments on.
As the non-days go on, the documentation shows that Kevin is getting neither more nor less translucent.
Eventually he breaks long enough to ask Cecil about healing spells.
After a brief, panicky exchange, Cecil realizes that Carlos isn't the one who's injured, and calms down enough to answer. "It depends," he says; Carlos can hear shuffling in the background as he rummages through their bookshelves. "Did you bring any silver with you? Or dried hazel? Is there anything in the vicinity that you can ferment?"
The fillings in Carlos's teeth aren't silver, he didn't bring any herbs, and there's nothing visibly growing for miles. Eventually Cecil decides their best bet is to go with a simple chant. He walks Carlos through it, saying each phrase and letting Carlos repeat it back.
Several non-days of regular chanting later, Kevin's body is getting more opaque every cycle.
Cecil also explains how, if you have one really good bloodstone, you can use it to etch a rough circle in the terrain. Kneeling in the center is almost as good as having a rudimentary full set to pray in.
Carlos would pray for the light to retreat – he knows bloodstone circles must be effective for that kind of self-defense, or Strexcorp wouldn't have tried to wipe them out – but he can't imagine he has enough skill or power to fight back the Smiling God singlehandedly.
Instead he pushes for things on a more manageable scale. For Kevin: healing. For Cecil: patience and understanding. For the spirits of his team members, and everyone else lost in the war against Strex: peace.
For himself: strength, stamina, the ability not to lose all hope, and the ability to finally beat this one damn level of Angry Birds he's been stuck on for a solid month now.
He's looking at Google Transit (Cannot triangulate your location, please set manually) when there's a huge, desperate gasp of air on the ground beside him.
"Hold still!" exclaims Carlos. He knows exactly what to say. He's been thinking for weeks about the first things he wished he'd been able to hear when he was in the same position, waking up in panic and confusion on a bowling alley floor. "Stay where you are. I'm a friend. You're in the middle of a desert, most of which is very dangerous, but you're safe, as long as you stay in the shade. Do you understand? If you can't talk yet, just nod."
Kevin nods. His eyes are huge and frightened, solid white visible all around the edges, the pupils pinpricks against the sudden onslaught of light.
"I don't think you have any major injuries," continues Carlos. "Can you tell me if anything hurts?"
"My...my eyes." Kevin touches his cheeks; his fingers come away flaked with dried blood. "And my cheeks. They're sore."
"That's not surprising. They were injured before. I think they're getting better, but let me know if they get worse. Do you think you can move?"
Slowly, Kevin sits up, taking in the sweep of empty, bright sand, the mountain in the distance. He pulls his feet away from the sharp edges of their circle of safety, flexes long-stiff muscles one by one, and gazes up at the bell of the light-blocking invention over their heads. "Is this your umbrella?"
"It's a lot more scientific than that," says Carlos firmly. "I'm a scientist. My name is Carlos."
"I am...Kevin. Kevin Serling. I remember that much," says Kevin. He pulls at a fold of his shirt, flinching at the spattered blood. "What happened? How long have I...?"
He looks at Carlos, really looks, for the first time. Gets another start. Looks away, cheeks flushed.
"You are really gorgeous," he mumbles.
Carlos smiles. "Thanks. My boyfriend thinks so too."
Kevin buries his face in his hands. "Oh my god."
It's awkward. But it's normal-human-interaction awkward. Scientifically speaking, this is much better than "I might chirpily try to strangle you with no apparent awareness that I'm doing it" awkward.
"I don't know a whole lot about how you got here," admits Carlos. "But if you tell me what you remember, I'll try to fill you in."
By the gauge of Wikipedia, Kevin's last clear memories are at least five years out-of-date. He wanders through the articles on missed developments in politics, fashion, television, economics. The smartphone itself is new to him; the last generation he remembers is flip-phones. He used to have an email address, but he doesn't remember the username, let alone the password.
Carlos decides not to throw him into Tumblr until he's stopped being intimidated by Facebook.
In between the culture reviews and the sleeping, they walk. As always, Carlos carries the light-blocking invention. He keeps the Svitz army knife in his pocket, but lets Kevin help by ferrying the rest of their things, from the phone to the bloodstone. Kevin gets good at reading while he walks.
"Cecil. Cecil, not now. I know, I know, it's been a while, but I...I'm babysitting a couple of the giant masked army's giant toddlers, and they're right there."
Kevin is hiding his face again. After Carlos hangs up, he stammers, "I'm sorry! I'd go in another room if there was one."
The Internet can fill Kevin in on the broader strokes of culture, but it doesn't have a whole lot on Desert Bluffs: the takeover, the reclamation, the reconstruction. Even the website of the newly-angel-owned Strexcorp doesn't have any details, just a warm, ethereal glow.
Cecil has mentioned it on the news a few times, and Carlos summarizes that information for Kevin as best he can. Kevin takes it all in quietly for a while. When Carlos makes his mostly-nightly phone calls home, he starts throwing in casual requests for more.
"I can only assume it's all going well. It's not something our listeners ask about much, so we've stopped doing updates on the show, but if Josie's tall non-existent friends were having trouble, I'm sure she would have mentioned it," says Cecil at last. "Why are you so interested, Carlos? If you're running out of things to study in that desert, I cannot say I'm surprised – there didn't seem to be much there when I visited, to my admittedly non-scientific eye – but surely you could ask for details about somewhere other than – ugh – Desert Bluffs."
"I'm not running out of anything! This place is full of great opportunities for my career as a scientist," exclaims Carlos, and ends up making up a whole story about the otherworldly lighthouse.
When he ends that call, Kevin is watching, chin resting on folded arms, eyes half-hooded. "You lie to him a lot."
No point in denying it. "I don't want him to be worried for me."
"And you don't want me to be worried about my hometown, right? How do I know anything you've said about it is true?"
"Scientifically speaking, you don't," says Carlos crossly. "You have no empirical way of confirming it. You just have to decide from other evidence whether you can trust me or not. And I saved your life! Doesn't that count for something?"
Kevin is visibly testy, but doesn't say it out loud.
The bloodstone is meaningless to Kevin at first. Maybe they weren't a thing in Desert Bluffs, even before Strex descended. Either he picks things up from Carlos or he's getting slips of memory back, because eventually Carlos starts to notice him holding it against his chest and whispering under his breath as they walk.
"Can I talk to your boyfriend?"
Carlos is trying to fall asleep, here. "No."
"What if I promise not to tell him anything? I just want to hear someone else's voice. I want to hear about Desert Bluffs from him directly."
Carlos pushes the phone deeper into the sleeve of his lab coat and lies on top of it. "Kevin. You tried to kill Cecil. You might not remember it, but I guarantee you he does. I don't even want him knowing you're here."
The next time Carlos wakes up, Kevin is gone.
And he managed to take the phone.
He didn't get far. Only made it about twenty feet into the light before collapsing. Muttering curses under his breath, Carlos uproots the protective equipment and makes the awkward, weighted jog after him.
The phone heals itself. Carlos isn't ashamed to admit he curls up in a little ball and cries with relief.
The tears are long dry in the hot air by the time Kevin wakes up. His wrists and ankles are securely lashed together behind his back, using his own pants and Cecil's favorite Scouting knot. (How did he survive this whole time wearing long pants anyway? Even in the shade, the mind boggles.)
Carlos is flat on his back in the sand, staring up into the dark curve of the light-blocking device. Trying to pretend it's the night sky. If he lets his vision drift long enough, he starts seeing mysterious lights, and can almost pretend he's out behind the Arby's.
He meets Kevin's eyes for a couple of seconds, long enough to say I know you're awake, then goes back to staring at the paltry manmade excuse for darkness.
At last Kevin breaks the silence. In a small, chastised voice, he says, "I just wanted to see if you were telling the truth about the light. To see if you were telling the truth about something."
"Well, I was."
"I don't want to abandon you," says Carlos at last. "But you can't take the phone. I can't risk anything that might sabotage my one link back to Cecil. If he stops hearing from me, it'll claw his heart out."
Kevin doesn't argue, doesn't fight, doesn't do anything that would encourage Carlos to give up and leave him behind. He does, after a while, say, "I don't even know if my family's alive."
After apologizing to Cecil for the missed call (and not telling him why it was missed), Carlos says, "I want to ask one more thing about Desert Bluffs. One small, specific thing. Can you look into what's happened to a couple of small, specific individuals who used to live there?"
"I suppose," says Cecil. "Who?"
Carlos looks to Kevin, who nods. Yes, he's still ready to know. "Evangeline and Jasper Serling."
Cecil sucks in a sharp breath. "Are they related to Kevin?"
"Why would you want to know anything about that monster?"
Carlos swallows. "He's, um. He's sort of here, and –"
"What do you mean, he's there? Is he there there? Is he anywhere near you?" Cecil's voice is rising by the second. "Carlos, listen to me. You have to get out of there, you have to –"
"His eyes are brown!"
That stops Cecil short.
"Also, he's tied up. For now. Just in case," adds Carlos. "But he's recovered from Strexcorp's treatment. I've done all the necessary research to make sure. Please, Cecil. Help me help him out."
Kevin starts to get braver about talking as the next few not-days wear on. Or maybe it's not bravery, maybe it's just desperate boredom from the way Carlos won't let him use the phone on his own.
"I think I'm remembering things," he says, one roughly-afternoon. "I think Strexcorp had scientists. They had coats like yours."
Without looking up from an article on the mapping of Andromeda, Carlos mutters, "They probably did terrible science."
Kevin hmms in understanding. "That would explain some of the things I think I remember."
"I managed to get in touch with the Desert Bluffs law enforcement," reports Cecil. "By the way, those people are weird. They gave me the real address of the station and let me walk to it, rather than locking me in the back of an unmarked van and driving in circles for a while before bringing me inside. The officer I spoke to wasn't even wearing a mask!"
"That's pretty strange, all right," says Carlos, humoring him. Mostly. "Did you find anything out?"
"Um, yes. Let me get my notes, here." Cecil hesitates. "Would you mind if I read them straight to Kevin?"
So Carlos unties Kevin's hands, gives him the phone, and sits at the opposite end of the light-blocking device's shadow.
He can't make out what Cecil says, only Kevin's half of the conversation. It sounds like it starts as the most awkward small talk in two worlds. At last, it gets serious. "Uh-huh?...She is? Oh, thank you, thank you so much! And...?"
"...oh. Oh, I see. No, don't...I know...thank you for telling me. Uh-huh. Uh-huh, yeah, he is."
He's promised not to give away Carlos's tower of lies about the two of them being okay out here, and he doesn't. He also promised to give the phone back to Carlos afterward, but instead he hangs up, blank-eyed, without giving Cecil and Carlos that chance for final I-love-yous. Carlos, seeing the look on his face, decides not to hold it against him.
"I'm a scientist," says Carlos, after two hours and eight minutes of trudging across the sand in utter silence.
Kevin doesn't answer.
"That means I study science," continues Carlos. "Not nursing. Or therapy. So...so whatever it is you heard...I don't have any professional background in dealing with it. Or helping you deal with it."
The reason they're walking right now is because he made a wild guess: that if he didn't get Kevin moving, and soon, it would become harder over time to convince him to get up at all. Carlos half expected it would be too late already, that Kevin would say something like no, you go, leave me here in the light.
"But I could try. I could listen. If you wanted."
Kevin still hasn't said anything at all. Therapeutically speaking, Carlos isn't sure if that's a good sign or a bad one.
"I don't have much else to offer, in this place and time." Carlos almost feels more helpless now than he did when he first realized he was trapped here. "You can borrow the bloodstone...you can play Bejeweled Blitz again...if you really want it, you can have my cough drop."
"Please," says Kevin, in a tight, strained voice, "stop talking."
Carlos stops talking.
Shortly after that, the ground starts rumbling beneath their feet.
Carlos nearly falls. They both nearly fall. The light-blocking device sways in his grip, and for a few terrible seconds he feels a sunbeam on his heel before Kevin grabs him and steadies him. Together they shove the pole of the device into the sand, sink to their knees, and hold the shaking canopy over their heads for dear life.
Long after the rumbling stops, they're both still hanging on. The sand is searing, burning against Carlos's bare knees. His arms are interlinked with Kevin's, head practically resting on Kevin's shoulder, and it feels so much like working with Cecil (to appease the plumbing, to survive Arbor Day, to stand strong in the face of whatever other deadly challenge Night Vale might be throwing at them that week) and yet so achingly different.
"My nephew died," says Kevin softly.
"I'm sorry," says Carlos. "Kevin, I...I'm really sorry."
"He was five. The last time I saw him. The last time I remember." Disjointed details spill out of Kevin in shaky breaths. "He loved dinosaurs. Favorite thing. His mom and I took him to ride the ankylosaurus at the petting zoo. And he loved that show. The cartoon, with the fighting monsters. Kids collect them. Some of them look like dinosaurs."
"Days of Our Lives?"
"That's the one! We'd get him the figures. He couldn't watch the episodes live. He had these seizures. Bad ones. Could start if there was a fight with a lot of bright lights. Or a flashy commercial. I had to record them. Edit them down." Kevin gulps, shivers; Carlos lets go of the scientific equipment and tries to transition into just hugging him. "Only ever did it for two dozen episodes. He watched them over and over. I should've done more. I should've...."
"It's okay. It'll be okay," murmurs Carlos, rubbing Kevin's back. If Kevin was half as attentive with his nephew as Cecil is with Janice..."You did so much. You took good care of him."
"Strexcorp said they would fix him," chokes Kevin. "I remember. Last thing I remember. Said they had medication. Deals with epilepsy. Said Jasper could have it if I cooperated."
"And they were lying?"
Kevin shakes his head against Carlos's shoulder. "Nope. No, it worked – treated the seizures – but there were side effects, they didn't tell me, they sold it without ever saying....Arrhythmia. Heart failure. He was ten!"
He dissolves into noisy sobs. Other than the rumbling, it's probably the loudest sound this desert has heard since the light wiped everything out.
Carlos can't remember if he himself has any nephews or nieces. (Or children, he thinks, but puts that aside as too monumental to contemplate for now.)
He wonders how far he would have gone, if one of their brains was shorting out and every day was a precarious balancing act to keep it from frying completely. He can only imagine how far Cecil would go, if Janice had any conditions that were likely to be fatal no matter how much you reconfigured the world to accommodate them.
When he calls Cecil that pseudo-evening, Cecil reveals that someone from Carlos's old life showed up in town earlier that day. Someone from a university where Carlos used to work, before Night Vale, before the point when his memories fade into undifferentiated grey. He listens to Cecil recount the events, the parts he'll catch when today's broadcast comes online and the parts he won't, with mystified fascination.
He asks for Dr. Kayali's number, but can't bring himself to call it. Not yet.
"I'm overdue for some sleep. Are you okay to take a turn watching?"
Kevin seems more stable now that he's had a solid eight hours. His eyes are red-rimmed, his voice cautious, but he's not on the verge of breaking down anymore. "You've been up this whole time?"
"We shouldn't both be asleep at once," says Carlos. "In case that mysterious rumbling starts again. We don't want the protective equipment to fall over before someone can wake up and stabilize it. And if it turns out to be something dangerous, one of us should be awake and waiting to fight it off."
"I understand not wanting the umbrella to fall over," says Kevin, stretching. "But not the last part. Why would it be dangerous?"
Carlos frowns. "Why wouldn't it? Do you have some idea what it is?"
"You don't know?"
When Carlos's face stays blank, Kevin helps himself to the phone and swipes deftly through a series of app screens. Wordlessly, he hands it back.
"I thought you'd seen," says Kevin apologetically. "While you had me tied up. Or afterward. I would have been happy about it, but...things happened."
"I don't want to sleep any more," says Carlos. "Are you okay to walk for a while?"
Exhaustion takes him down eventually. Another bout of rumbling, louder than the last one, wakes him up. Kevin is already holding the light-blocking device as still as he can.
They trade off walking and sleeping and keeping watch and counting the miles.
The blinking red light on the distant mountain becomes their guiding star. Especially when Kevin notices that the light stops blinking a minute before the rumbling starts. It's a solid scientific observation. Carlos is so proud.
"Is he...holding up, all right, do you think?" asks Cecil. "Are Doug and Alicia and everyone looking out for him?"
Carlos double-checks on Kevin (still peacefully passed out), and lowers his voice to answer. "We're all keeping an eye on him, yeah. I think he's doing okay? As well as can be expected? I study science, not...."
"...psychiatry or grief counseling. I know," says Cecil. "Carlos, I...I can't imagine what he's going through, and I understand why you would have to pay extra attention to him for a while. But if you could put in some time looking for a door home anyway...it might be good for both of you, you know? There are a lot of people recovering from...well, from Strexcorp, in Desert Bluffs. He could have professional support."
This is Carlos's big chance. He has an opening to tell Cecil everything. To say that he has been looking, almost nonstop, and he didn't want Cecil to get discouraged by knowing about the bleak bright emptiness around him. For the first time, he can finish it with but things are different now.
On the other hand, if he gets Cecil's hopes up for a lead that comes to nothing....
"I'll look for a door soon," he says. And if this doesn't work, then...then I'll tell you everything. "Cecil...I love you a lot, okay?"
"O-okay?" Cecil sounds anxious. It seems like there's nothing Carlos can say that will really make him happy, these days. "I love you too...did something happen?"
"Scientifically speaking, things are always happening. Lots of them," says Carlos. He would go into detail, but there's a steady ruby light visible just under the edge of the umb– of the protective equipment. "I have to go. The rumbling's about to start again. I'll call you back tomorrow."
Cecil has tracked down the number of Evangeline Serling. She'd like to hear from her brother, he says. Carlos saves the digits.
They get half a mile off track thanks to Kevin staring at the number rather than the navigation.
"I don't want to talk to her like this," he says, as they re-orient. "I want to be there for her. She shouldn't have to talk about Jasper when she can't cry on my shoulder if she needs to. When I can't cry on hers."
"I don't blame you," says Carlos.
After they've been course-correcting for a while, Kevin says, "I still don't like the way you lie to Cecil...but I understand it, I think."
Eight of Cecil's broadcasts and a fuzzy number of staggered wake/sleep periods later, a darkish something becomes visible in the unchanging plane of light-drenched sand.
Carlos uses the Svitz army knife to slice the cough drop in half, and he and Kevin celebrate by treating themselves to the pieces.
Three low brick walls shield the staircase as it plunges underground. The sign over the entrance is in Russian, but Carlos has gotten pretty good with Cyrillic script by now.
He holds the protective equipment to shade the stairs while Kevin holds the wrought-iron railing and descends. "Safe!" he calls from the shadowy underground. "Are we taking the umbrella with us?"
"I think we should leave the advanced scientific equipment here!" calls Carlos, already thumbing through his contacts one-handed. "In case someone else comes by and needs it! I can always build more once we get back."
He gets Cecil's voicemail. It'll have to do.
"Hi, Cecil? I might not be able to call again for a few days. Not because of science this time. Because I'm about to go into a tunnel. I have so much to tell you...also not about science...and I'm looking forward to it, I really am, more than I've looked forward to anything in a long time. Especially since...if this works...I'll be able to hold your hands when I do. I love you more than anything. In any world."
When he hangs up, the screen automatically flips back to Google Transit.
Head southwiddershins on empty desert: 0 miles, it says. Take Desert Hellscape Station toward Void Crossing via Night Vale Center: 3 days, µ¾ minutes.
Carlos folds up the light-blocking device as he works his way down the stairs, into a space lit by fluorescents that seems impossibly dim. He abandons it at the base of the staircase and joins Kevin on the subway platform, just as the earth around them starts to rumble with the force of a train coming in.